Monday, October 01, 2018

Bourbon Barrel-Aged Wine -- Does the Wood Make it Good?


Fall, finally! Cooler nights, bigger foods, darker drinks.

Once the weather starts to turn away from heat, I tend to turn my sights back towards both bigger red wines and brown liquors. Outside of Derby, bourbon’s largely a winter drink for me. Red wine’s year round, of course, but my red rack’s generally filled with lighter stuff during the summertime.

What happens, though, when a winemaker decides to put wine and bourbon together?


Over the last four or five years, I’ve seen a few wines marketed as “bourbon barrel aged” popping up. Many red wines are barrel-aged. What’s the difference with aging wine in a bourbon barrel?

Barrel aging is an important stage in the life cycle of many wines, both red and white. When a wine spends time in a barrel, the juice seeps into the wood, extracting chemical compounds that mix with and change the flavor of the wine within. For white wines like Chardonnay, the “oaky” flavor often comes from contact with wood in barrels. For reds, barrel aging adds a depth of flavor and boosts the tannin level.

Reading the description of many wines – you’ll see wines aged in French, American, or Hungarian oak most commonly. The interior of these casks are usually “toasted” to some degree. The more toasting, the stronger the oaky flavor. Bourbon barrels, taller and thinner than most wine casks, as well as more heavily toasted, could potentially add a boatload of flavor. Even after being used, a barrel can still impart distinct flavors to whatever’s stored inside it.

Finding old bourbon barrels sounds like a difficult step, but, according to the legal rules governing distillation in the U.S., Bourbon can only be aged in a new cask. After that, the barrels have long been sold to distillers making whiskeys and other spirits – and sometimes beer makers. The recent “Bourbon Boom” has, naturally, added a great number of additional barrels to the market, and some winemakers have jumped at the opportunity to ride that particular wave of popularity.

I recently had the chance to try two bourbon barrel aged wines: 1000 Stories 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel and 1000 Stories 2016 Gold Rush Red (both $16-20). The former is a blend of Zinfandel from Lodi and Paso Robles, with a touch of Petit Sirah juice sourced from Lake County. The latter is a field blend largely of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel.

The winemaker, Bob Blue, states that it was rare to see wine aged in French Oak when he started learning his craft, and most American oak barrels were used for whiskey. Over the years, using these barrels has become more commonplace – and now Blue uses used bourbon barrels as a flavoring method.

In any case, both wines start out in standard American and French Oak barrels before being racked into used white oak Bourbon barrels. After a period of months, the wine is finished in older (some apparently 13 years old) Bourbon barrels.

Both these wines can use a little taming. The Zinfandel clocks in at 15.7% ABV, while the Gold Rush comes in at around 15%. If you pop and pour, you’re going to get a snootful of alcohol before you really get to any of the flavors. I’d suggest, at the very least, you either decant thoroughly or let it have at least half-an-hour’s worth of air after you crack it.

In both cases, the toasted vanilla and crème brulee flavors that are common in bourbon do find their way into the wine. The nose of the Zin has a bit of that smokiness in the background, on top of dark fruit and some fairly interesting notes of spice like nutmeg. On the palate, this is a big, honking glass of vanilla, spice, smoke, and considerable alcohol. Once it opens up, plum and sage flavors pop their heads out of the mix and the alcohol recedes a bit. The finish is long, dry, and smoky – the various oak instillings lending pepper and a tooth-staining level of tannin.

The Gold Rush red is more straightforward. It’s a big ol’ bomb of intense dark fruits, especially plums and dark cherries. There’s a spicy, leathery backbone to this wine – along with a long, tannic finish. I found it to be much more straightforward than the Zin. Either wine would be workable with some sort of barbecued meat, big cheeses, or dark chocolate.

To be honest, though – I don’t see how much of a difference, other than a slightly sharper oak flavor, that the bourbon barrels actually make with this wine over standard barrel aging. It’s an interesting marketing idea, especially if you’re interested in conversation with whiskey aficionados or Kentucky fans. But keep an eye on the price. These wines both seem a little more pricey than they should be, considering the competition. See what you think.


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Curious Case of Carmenere


Carmenere, a red Chilean grape beginning to pop up on more and more good wine lists, has had a long road to broad public knowledge – and a lot of folks, including me, have been confused about it for a long time.
 
No, not Carmen's hair...Carmenere!
Point of fact, the very first time I wrote about Carmenere 12 years ago, I wrote that it was “basically a regional version of merlot” – which is completely and utterly incorrect. Carmenere is very much its own grape. Why the confusion?

Carmenere’s origin story begins in Bordeaux, France. Bordeaux reds are typically blends of five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Prior to the 1860’s, there was a “sixth varietal” used in the blend – Carmenere. The name comes from the French “carmin” – referring to the dark red color the vine leaves turn in the fall.

The Phylloxera epidemic in the 1860’s wiped out practically all the Carmenere vines in Europe. (It’s still basically extinct on the Continent.) When wine production picked back up again, Bordeaux went forth with five varietals. Just prior to the epidemic, however, cuttings from Carmenere were sent to Chile, where the cuttings flourished.

Only trouble – Carmenere vines look a lot like Merlot, so for much of the 1900’s, much of the Carmenere was unwittingly blended with Merlot, giving Chilean merlot a distinctive character. Once they got everything sorted out, Carmenere reared its head as a stand-alone varietal. Currently, Carmenere has become Chile’s “national grape” – thriving outside Bordeaux much as Malbec does in Argentina.

What to expect from a Carmenere if you happen to run across one? Rather than tasting like a Merlot, I find Carmenere be closer to its cousins Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. There are usually some dark cherry, berry, and spice flavors, often accompanied by a smoky, graphite type undertone. The tannins tend not to be as powerful as Cab Sauv, and there’s often an underlying earthy flavor, hearkening back to its French roots. They also usually clock in at 12-13% alcohol, so they’re a little subtler.

Another nice thing about Carmenere – and many Chilean wines – is that they’re relatively inexpensive. I’ve noticed that with sub-$10 Carmenere, the winemakers tend to go with a jammy, fruity style since so many people expect it to taste like a merlot. Spend just a couple of bucks more – like the $12-18 range, and you’ll have much better luck. Here are a few that I’ve had the chance to try recently:


Errazuriz “MAX” 2016 Carmenere Reserva ($16) – The “Max” refers to the winery’s founder, rather than some sort of nod to the potentially big, brutish nature of the wine. This nod would be misleading. While this is certainly a full-flavored wine, it’s not harsh or hot in any way. The notes that come through are smooth cherry and plum, backed with a very nice smokiness that would carom nicely off anything with black pepper.

Case in point, we tried this wine alongside a steak and pepper quesadilla that the SPinC whipped up for dinner, and it was honestly one of the better pairings I’ve had in awhile. Certainly can recommend this one.

Cono Sur “Bicicleta” 2016 Carmenere – The least expensive of the wines, retailing at $13 (and on sale for $10!), this one was a little rougher around the edges. Composed of 85% Carmenere and 15% “Other,” which I assume is largely Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine from the Valle Central packs a little more oomph. The fruits are bigger and plummier, with some brambly blackberry thrown in. There’s also a real smokiness to this wine when it’s first opened.

That smokiness could be a real benefit if you’re popping and pouring alongside anything grilled or smoked. I can easily imagine this alongside some smoked brisket or turkey. It would be an excellent value for a barbecue if you want something for your red wine loving friends. Once the weather cools, it would pair nicely with a big stew.

Finally, a bottle of Dos Almas 2015 Carmenere Reserva made its way to the door of Vine HQ. Dos Almas hails from Chile, but it’s owned by Zonin, an Italian family winery collective. Presented with other countries’ terroir, winemakers have an opportunity to test their techniques on new varietals and soil. This particular international collaboration (Dos Almas translates as “Two Spirits” in reflection) is a success.

The Italian sensibility comes through in this wine from the Colchuaga region. Among the flavors of blueberry and cherry, there’s a rustic tannic backbone throughout, echoing a Barbera or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Rich without being overly heavy, there’s a hint of flint and some coffee and vanilla lingering at the end.

While I would imagine beef or lamb would be obvious pairings, I turned some of our week’s farmshare yield and some leftover Mike’s Magic Marinara into an eggplant parmesan. The slight bitterness of the eggplant and the sweetness of the sauce played off the wine’s depth quite nicely. For $15, it’s a nice, flexible dinner wine that opens up nicely.

Two other quick notes about Carmenere. First, “Reserva” on the label doesn’t have any legal significance – it just typically means it’s been crafted with a little more care. Second, serving it slightly below room temperature improves Carmenere’s balance, I find. Enjoy!


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Libations for your Labor Day Cookout/Picnic/Barbecue


We find ourselves at the end of another summer, marked by Labor Day – declared a national holiday in 1894, and declared by the retail industry as the second largest day of sales of the year – topped only by Black Friday.

In between alternately honoring the hardworking men and women of this country and attempting to unclench our collective fists at the ever-expanding grift (SPACE FORCE, bitches!) of our not-so-hardworking Glorious Leader, many of us will be indulging in another Labor Day tradition: outdoor dining.

The traditional accompaniment to most backyard barbecues large and small is, of course, beer of some sort – but why neglect your vinous desires? There’s no best wine for a cookout – that’s all contingent on the menu, the company, and just how much of the stuff you need. Regardless, keep three simple rules in mind when you’re shopping and you’ll be fine:

Rule #1 – Your wine is a side dish. Outside of lifestyle commercials on HGTV or Food Network, few of us are going to be driving through idyllic scenery to a secluded location lit by fairy lights where our top chef friends are preparing four-course meals. More of us will be slapping at mosquitoes while aggressively picnic shelter hunting. Don’t go high-end. Your mind’s going to be on socializing, so simple wine that tastes good enough is best.

Rule #2 – Follow the features. If you’re tasked with bringing wine, try to find out what’s going to be served as a main course. Don’t worry about pairing something with Auntie Alice’s special guacamole with peas. What’s the main course? Burgers? Brats? Grilled cauliflower? Paella? Is this a more buttoned-up affair, or are you going to a backyard boozefest? Ask around and base your purchase along those lines.

Rule #3 – Chill EVERYTHING. One of the saddest sights you’ll see at any outdoor party are an array of bottles of red, slowly cooking into vinegar atop an outdoor bar. People instinctively chill white wine and rosé, but our usual habit is to leave reds at room temperature. If you’re outside, “room temperature” quickly becomes “an 85º mouthful of tannin.” Just no.

Re-useable chilling sleeves ($10-15) work like a charm here. Alternatively, when you pack your cooler, bury the beer and white wine in ice and just lay the reds on top – or just chill everything together. If anyone complains about drinking cold red, just tell them to leave their glass in the sun for two minutes.

What kind of wine to serve, though? Let’s consider where you might find yourself this Labor Day:

Scenario #1: Picnic in the Park

I’m still a big fan of loading up a basket or cooler, heading to a park with my nearest and dearest, spreading out a blanket, and going low-stress. With no grill to hover over, you’ll probably have cold salads, charcuterie, and cheese mixing with the slight tang of SPF 30.

What to get: chilling sleeves to start – but slap those sleeves on bottles of light, fruity white wines that taste summery. I like Vinho Verde from Portugal for this purpose – they’re slightly effervescent, acidic, and crisp. Alternatively, Sauvignon Blanc (maybe a white Bordeaux) or Pinot Grigio make good choices here. For reds, Pinot Noir or a Dolcetto from Italy.

Scenario #2: That Foodie Couple You Know

OK, so maybe you did get an invite to that fairy-light picnic. Your hosts probably gave you specific instructions on some kind of side to bring, because they’ve got something special to wheel out that will undoubtedly be delicious and have an ingredient list the length of your arm. Chances are, this isn’t going to be a huge gathering (after all, free-range pheasant and squid ink pasta can be hard to locate) – so how to be classy without breaking the bank?

What to get: My secret weapon at a time like this is good ol’ Chardonnay -- preferably unoaked or lightly oaked. Almost all white wines from Burgundy in France are Chardonnay, and they pair nicely with almost any food. California Chardonnay – if you skip the oak and butter bombs that were once all the rage – also works well. If you’re a fan of red wine, go with something light, flexible, and low in tannin: Beaujolais, relatively inexpensive Pinot Noir, Spanish Garnacha, or Italian Valpolicella. You can’t go wrong with dry rosé, either. Remember to chill before you go.

Scenario #3: Brats and Burgers

The traditional cookout/barbecue/all your rowdy friends event. Chances are, nobody’s going to much care what’s in the ol’ Solo cup, so long as the drink keeps flowing.

What to Get: First off, keep it simple. For a red – if the main is straight grilled meat, go California cabernet or merlot. If there’s something sauced like pulled pork or ribs, red Zinfandel. If brats are on the menu, there’s few things that go better than a slightly sweet Riesling. Germans have gone that route for centuries.

Also, consider quantity over quality. Don’t be afraid to bring box wine. Don’t go for the super-cheap stuff like Vella, but for $15-20, you can get a perfectly decent 3 liters of red, white, or rosé. I’m a fan of Folonari Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, La Vielle Ferme White and Rosé, and Vina Borgia Garnacha. Pop the box in the fridge the night before and keep the wine drinkers happy.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Tom of Finland – a Wine for Pride


Touko Laaksonen was born in 1920. He studied advertising, served in the Finnish army during WWII, and began drawing strongly masculine figures during the 1950’s. In 1957, he submitted his work to an American magazine called Physique Pictorial under the pseudonym “Tom.” The editor of the magazine added the now famous place-based tagline.

Tom of Finland, now one of the best known homoerotic artists in history, was born.

Sixty years later, the foundation he helped establish in 1984 has released Tom of Finland 2016 OUTstanding Red in celebration of Pride Month.

Tom of Finland’s artwork created the visual template for several gay subcultures. The biker look, with its attendant leathers, featured as prominently as the models’ anatomy in many of his images. He had a particular fascination, especially early in his fame, with soldiers (particularly German ones) in and out of uniform. (Do a Google Image search for "Tom of Finland" for examples -- but remember the results will be NSFW.) A biopic about Tom of Finland’s life was released to positive reviews in 2017. 

The wine, which retails for $25/bottle in certain markets, yields a portion of the proceeds directly to the Tom of Finland Foundation, which “promotes human rights and sexual expression through art.”

The wine itself is a Petit Sirah-dominant blend. About half the remaining blend is Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, with a tad of Merlot to round out the cuvee. The fruit is sourced from the Lodi and Sierra Foothills regions of California.

For a wine with a robust combination of grapes like that, I found it to be remarkably well-balanced. The Petit Sirah gives it a strong blueberry and blackberry backbone alongside the pepperiness you’d expect from Zinfandel. The pepper doesn’t overwhelm, though, allowing the cassis of the Cabernet to carry through. The fruit-to-tannin balance of this wine can’t be understated. The finish is blueberry, cocoa, and a little bit of leather, the last of which would have undoubtedly pleased Mr. Laaksonen.

Overall, I thought this was a very easy-drinking wine which would work either on its own or with food. Tom himself would undoubtedly have expected a degree of hedonism with wine carrying his name, and one could certainly use this muscular tipple for pleasant purposes.

The wine can be purchased from http://tomoffinlandwines.com/



Saturday, June 09, 2018

Bubbles to Beat the Brunch Backlash


I casually peruse food articles, as you might guess. One emerging set of hot takes seems to revolve around brunch. Specifically, that brunch sucks.

It’s all the same – just dressed up eggs and bacon, they say. Starchy home fries lead to long afternoon naps, crushing the productivity we’re supposed to be chasing in this crazy, overly plugged-in world of ours. Anthony Bourdain, in his initial New Yorker article that eventually became Kitchen Confidential, said chefs hate brunch. (May all your steaks be rare on the other side, Tony…rest in calm and light…)

I don’t subscribe to that point of view, myself. I’m still personally a big brunch fan, although I’m not a huge fan of what many brunches have *become* -- waiting for hours in line for quickly prepared slot machine meals from some new, trendy locale. Bottomless mimosas amped with triple sec and double vodka bloody mary bars to accelerate the food coma.

No, what I enjoy about brunch is the pace. Late enough timeframe for sleeping in, slowly letting consciousness return from whatever you might have been up to the night before. And a little hair of the dog – but not too much. I prefer having a brunch that refreshes – so I tend to stay away from, the heavy, greasy food -- and along with that, I stay away from the mixed drinks. They tend to go down too quickly, so I stick to relatively low-alcohol sparkling wine.

Some of the more popular brunch sparklers tend to be Italian. For most people, there will be two basic schools of thought about noontime bubbles, Moscato and Prosecco.

Moscato, born in the Piedmont region, is a sweet, fruity wine made from the Muscat grape. Easy to drink, Moscato is the fastest-growing style of wine in the United States, driven in part by a great deal of love from the hip-hop community. Moscato like this one are slightly fizzy – a style called “frizzante” in Italian.

The Moscato I sampled was the Castello del Poggio Moscato. Starting with a floral nose of honey, pineapple, and blossoms, my note after taking my first sip reads, “This is like eating a peach.” After a mite more reflection for detail, I thought it’s an initially weighty wine. Peaches and honey are the primary flavors, cut through by a slight effervescence. The finish is surprisingly light, ending with a lingering flavor of honeycrisp apple. At 7% ABV, this would make it a natural brunch pairing, especially with something like a salad with some fruits. If you were interested in having it with something later in the day, spicy foods would be tamed by the residual sugar. $13.

As for Prosecco, this is a much more “traditional” sparkling wine, full in its carbonation. For a long time, Prosecco was both the name of the grape and the region from which the wine hailed. In 2009, to avoid confusion, the name of the grape was changed to “Glera.” Prosecco is carbonated in tanks – a technique called the Charmat method – rather than in the bottle like Champagne and many other sparkling wines. Prosecco tends to be fairly dry, and is a solid accompaniment for many types of foods. If you’re thinking a heavier menu for your brunch, Prosecco will be a good choice to cut through the fat and starch.

I gave a go to the Zonin “1821” Prosecco – A straightforward glass of refreshing bubbles. This Prosecco is on the dry-but-fruity side. I found it had a gentle, blossomy nose of apples and pineapples. Green apple and lemon flavors on the palate are balanced with the lasting, tight bubbles and a zippy acidity. The finish is fruity, with more of those pineapples lingering at the end. As I mentioned, the bubbles will let this wine line up against almost anything you’d order, from brunch salads and soups to greasy hangover relief food. It also works well at the end of a meal, if you’re into the dessert thing. $13.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Naked Vine Double Barrel – Veneto cool for Summer’s heat


Ah, Venice. Starting spot for the first European trip the Sweet Partner in Crime and I took together a decade ago. We have many lovely memories of Venice itself, but we didn’t get a chance, that time, to leave the confines of the city to head for the hills of Treviso, where wine grapes grow plentifully.

The eastern portion of the Veneto DOC region, named for its proximity to Venice, is best known for production of white grapes, particularly Glera, which is the primary grape in Prosecco, as well as numerous others. The western, warmer portion of the region, towards the city of Verona produces largely red grapes, including Corvina – the primary grape in both the light-styled red Valpolicella and the tannic, raisinated Amarone.

It’s to the eastern portion that we turn our eyes for the last set of tasties that the Wine Fairy graciously brought to our door to spawn some Italian reminiscences. We had the chance to try a couple of whites from Gran Passione, a producer in the Veneto, both of which retail for around $13.

Gran Passione Prosecco DOC – Prosecco, the ubiquitously tasty Italian sparkler, continues its rise in US popularity, thanks to the help of many friendly neighborhood bartenders working this wine into various craft cocktails that have caught on with Millennials. In Italy, however, these warm-weather creations are served as traditional aperitifs. This particular Prosecco, which is dry and full of peach and green apple fruit, makes a lovely drink on its own. I had this alongside a lovely mushroom quiche the Sweet Partner in Crime whipped up on Memorial Day and it was an excellent pairing. However, I thought it really shone as the base of an Aperol Spritz – over ice, pour two shots of Gran Passione with a shot of Aperol (a reddish bitter liqueur) and a splash of club soda. Stir gently and squeeze in a lime wedge. Enjoy summer.
 
Brunch from the Sweet Partner in Crime -- with Gran Passione Prosecco
Gran Passione 2017 Veneto Bianco – The other sample was a crisp white – a blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Garganega – the latter of which is the primary grape in an Italian wine called Soave. This crisp, acidic blend, has a floral aroma backed with a hint of baking spice. The main flavor reminded me of lemon crème. Fuller bodied than many Italian whites, this is a bold enough white to handle multiple food duties – from summer salads with strawberries and goat cheese to roasted chicken to salmon with a lighter sauce. Nicely versatile and quite a decent value.




Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Alphabet Soup Project: P is for Pinot Noir


When I started filling this space with words, the cultural touchstone for wine was a 2004 indie-film-that-blew-up called Sideways. The events of the film surround a wine tasting bachelor trip through Santa Barbara County’s Pinot Noir country. Sideways hasn’t held up as a film terribly well, but the movie had a large economic impact.

According to a 2017 NPR report, since the release of the film, US production of Pinot Noir has increased by 170%, while total grape production has only increased by 7-8%. (Merlot’s sales also took a significant hit for awhile, due to a main character’s disdain for “fcking merlot.”)

I enjoy few red varietals more than Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir, by nature, yields a light-bodied wine with delicate yet full aromatics. The flavors most associated with pinot are cherries, berries, backed with smokiness. Pinot is not usually terribly tannic, and it’s fairly acidic, which makes it a perfect food wine, pairing with anything from salmon to duck to big stews like beef bourguignon. Pinot also takes on many characteristics of the soil, so terroir is a major factor in the wine’s flavor.

Pinot Noir is a tricky grape to grow, which can make it pricey. Pinot vines grow best in cool climates, have low yields, and a thin skin, which can make it susceptible to damage from quick temperature changes, mildew, fungus, and sunburn. All these factors pop up on the pricetag, sending many vino-newbies to the next aisle.

Many winemakers blend Pinot Noir with less expensive juice to stretch their supply at the expense of quality. For the sake of this column, I tried to stick to wines made from 100% Pinot Noir.
 
France’s Burgundy region is the world’s best known locale for Pinot Noir. If you see a red wine from Burgundy (“Bourgogne” to the locals…), it’s going to be 100% Pinot Noir. Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs are consistently considered some of the finest wines in the world and many are built for long aging and super complex flavors.

That’s not our consideration here. The wine I chose, Louis Jadot 2015 Bourgogne, will give you the general idea of what Pinot Noir from that part of the world tastes like, at the sacrifice of some complexity. One common difference between Pinots from France and elsewhere in the world is an earthy undertone – the “Old World Funk.” This wine has just a hint of that earthiness to go with its berry and smoke flavors. This would be best considered a “starter Burgundy,” and you can snag this for $15-17, so you might get your bearings on the region with this one.

If you flew due west from Burgundy, you’ll eventually land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home to some of my favorite wines. The richer, fruitier California Pinots traditionally lead the market for domestic Pinot Noir, but I think Oregon provides better value and flavor for my Pinot dollar. Oregon pinots tend towards a sultry fruitiness and smokiness.

I’ve written about Locations Wines previously. Winemaker Dave Phinney tries to create wines that he feels reflect the basic characteristics of a region. His Oregon Pinot Noir sources grapes from across the Willamette Valley. I certainly thought it was a decent reflection of the basic flavors of Oregon Pinot – but with the volume turned up. The cherry, smoke, and tannin involved here were all much more pronounced than I find in many Oregon wines, which tend to be somewhat subtler. Still, at $18, a decent value, and a decent regional intro.

Finally, New Zealand, known for many years as a Sauvignon Blanc hotspot, has been filling its barrels with Pinot since the mid 1990’s. You might sense a theme, but the EnZedd growing regions’ map coordinates are a mirror in south latitudes what you’ll find Oregon and France’s growing areas in the northern hemisphere. New Zealand pinots tend to be some of the lighter-styled versions, drawing accolades for fruity complexity.

The inexpensive one I tried was Oyster Bay 2015 Marlborough Pinot Noir ($13-15). I found it to be much lighter than the other two. The initial flavors are light and fruity, with the smokiness comes out after a little bit of time. Cherry, raspberry, and cola are the main flavors. The finish is lightly fruity. Quire delicate, and honestly, I didn’t think it was all that interesting. It’s better with a light type of food pairing, like trout with veggies.

Two final thoughts. First, as a rule, plan to spend $20+ on a bottle of Pinot Noir. There’s a big leap in quality right around that price point. Second, since Pinot has such complex flavors, decant the wine at least a half hour before drinking to let the complexity open up. Or, at the very least, dump the bottle into a pitcher and pour it back, which is my usual “speed decanting” method.

Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Two Up from Umbria -- Trebbiano Spoletino & Sagrantino Passito


As many of you know, I have a real passion for autochthonal wines.

(“Psst…Mike…what the hell’s an autochthonal wine?”)

OK, fine. I don’t get to break that term out in everyday conversation. “Autochthonal wine” is just a fancy way to say “wine made from grapes indigenous to the region.” In a place like Italy, where there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of indigenous grape varietals dotting the hills and valleys, new taste experiences exist around every corner.

Such is the case for a couple of wines I had the chance to try from the Italian region of Umbria. Umbria is in central Italy. If you’re looking at the “boot” of Italy, Umbria is squarely mid-calf, dead center. Umbria is best known for white wines, specifically wines from the subregion of Orvieto, made largely from blends of the Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes.

The wines I tried recently, however, are single varietal offerings. The first, which sounds to a certain extent similar to the wines Umbria’s best known for, is the Perticaia 2015 Trebbiano Spoletino DOC. Trebbiano Spoletino is not the same as Orvieto’s traditional Trebbiano, which tends to yield middle-of-the-road whites if not treated with real care. Instead, Trebbiano Spoletino, with its later harvest and high acidity, tends to create wines of more weight and complexity.

That was certainly the case here. Not knowing what to expect, having never experienced a wine from this particular grape, I looked to the description. The notes said that it was, at once, full-bodied and a good accompaniment for fish, seafood, and white meat, or on its own as an aperitif. “Aperitif” and “full-bodied” don’t usually go together in my mind.

I can say with all honesty that I’ve never had a wine quite like this one before. The description above certainly resonates. The nose is quite floral – apple blossoms and green apples make up a lot of the fragrance. The body is quite full – apples again, along with some tropical notes like mangoes. But then the wine’s flavor takes a turn. There’s a fairly strong underlying lemon flavor, and the finish turns quite tart, backed with a crisp flinty snap.

In short, imagine a Viognier taking a Muscadet for a long, romantic Italian holiday. The resulting vinous child would taste like this Trebbiano Spoletino. If you can find a bottle of it (retail is around $23), I recommend giving it a try for the unique experience.

The other bottle, or half-bottle to be more precise, was the Antonelli 2010 Montefalco Sagrantino Passito. You might recall that I’ve written about the Sagrantino grape previously – I deemed it “The Italian Heavy Hitter,” since it was one of the most powerful, tooth-stainingly tannic reds that ever galloped past my gums. This is the red wine that was too much for the Sweet Partner in Crime, even when I tried to sneak it past her as something else.

No – the difference here lies in the last word in the wine’s name, “Passito.” Passito is Italian for “raisin,” which describes part of the winemaking process. There’s a style of wine known around the world as “straw wine,” where grapes are placed on large straw mats to dry in the sun. The resulting semi-dried grapes – you know, raisins – are then pressed. The juice, which is highly concentrated, typically yields a sweet, thick product. This process is not unique to Umbria. Vin Santo and Recioto are other well-known sweet Italian “straw wines.” I’ve never been a fan of either of those varieties. The raisin flavor is a bit too much for me.

I approached the Sagrantino version with a little bit of an initial side-eye, knowing it was going to be sweet, bracing for dark raisins. I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe because the tannin level in the initial grapes is high enough to overwhelm that part of the flavor profile – there’s really not much of a raisin-ish flavor. Instead, what swirled in my glass reminded me of a cordial.

The nose is surprisingly rich, with cherries and blackberries coming to the front. This wine is thick and rich on the palate. Plenty of Bing cherry weight gets backed with a big tannic undertone. The finish hits with cherry, espresso, and a real smoky dryness at the back of my tongue, balancing out the residual sweetness on the front. A fascinating experience, especially after the wine got some air. The flavor that emerged, especially on the finish, was of chocolate-covered cherries. Not surprisingly, alongside dark chocolate, it was quite good.

Sagrantino Montefalco is not inexpensive to start with. The raisinating winemaking process boosts the price even more. This bottle retails for $40. I don’t think this wine is for everyone – but if you’re in the mood to sip a red dessert wine alongside some dark, strong chocolates, you might consider snagging a bottle for a special occasion.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Naked Vine One-Hitter: UK, Bourbon, Zinfandel, and 1000 Stories

Ashley is unhappy today.

With Kentucky bounced unceremoniously by Kansas State from the NCAA Tournament last night, many UK fans are likely looking for some liquid salve to soothe some disappointment. A bottle happened across my tasting table that might fit the bill.

I recently had the chance to try 1000 Stories 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel ($16-20) -- a blend of Zinfandel from Lodi and Paso Robles, with a touch of Petit Sirah juice sourced from Lake County. The winemaker, Bob Blue, states that it was rare to see wine aged in French Oak when he started learning his craft, and most American oak barrels were used for whiskey. Over the years, using these barrels has become more commonplace – and now Blue uses used bourbon barrels as a flavoring method.

Barrel aging is an important stage in the life cycle of many wines, both red and white. When a wine spends time in a barrel, the liquid seeps into the wood, extracting chemical compounds that mix with and change the flavor of the wine within. For white wines like Chardonnay, the “oaky” flavor often comes from contact with wood in barrels. For reds, barrel aging adds a depth of flavor and boosts the tannin level.

In any case, this particular wine starts out in standard American and French Oak barrels before being racked into used white oak Bourbon barrels. After a period of months, the wine is finished in older (some apparently 13 years old) Bourbon barrels. Finding old bourbon barrels sounds like a difficult step, but, according to the legal rules governing distillation in the U.S., Bourbon barrels can only be used once to make whiskey. After that, the barrels have long been sold to distillers making whiskeys and other spirits, winemakers, and others. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an important step. Even after being used once, the barrel can still impart some distinct flavors to whatever’s stored inside it.

In this case, the toasted vanilla and crème brulee flavors that are common in bourbon do find their way into this glass of Zinfandel. Those toasty flavors are needed to balance the alcohol. At 15.7% ABV, this is a wine that needs a little taming. I’d suggest, at the very least, you either decant thoroughly or let it have at least half-an-hour’s worth of air after you crack it.

The nose of this wine has a bit of that smokiness in the background, on top of dark fruit and some fairly interesting notes of spice like nutmeg. On the palate, this is a big, honking glass of vanilla, spice, smoke, and considerable alcohol. Once it opens up, plum and sage flavors pop their heads out of the mix and the alcohol recedes a bit. The finish is long, dry, and smoky – the various oak instillings lending pepper and a tooth-staining level of tannin. Honestly, though – I don’t see how much of a difference, other than a sharper oak flavor, that the bourbon barrels actually make with this wine over standard barrel aging. It’s an interesting marketing idea, especially if you’re interested in conversation with whiskey aficionados or unhappy Kentucky fans.

If you like your Zinfandel smoky with big fruits, this would probably be a good choice for you. I’d recommend it next to a plate of meat, preferably grilled. Ribs or rich stews would be solid pairings here, as would really dark chocolate.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Big Smooth Wines

Sam "Big Smooth" Perkins -- who has nothing to do with this wine.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been noticing more and more wines showing up both at Big Wine Store and in restaurants from the Lodi appellation in California. Lodi, which most non-Cali residents recognize from the Creedence Clearwater Revival tune, is just south of Sacramento and almost due east of the Bay Area.

Long-known as an agricultural center, Lodi’s place in the California wine world was mass production of fairly cheap juice. Over the last ten or so years, the lure of wine tourism has caused many local winemakers to up their respective games. Some major winemakers, in this case Sebastiani and Sons, have started creating wines from Lodi fruit.

This year saw the entrance into the market of Big Smooth wines. Big Smooth, with its tagline of “Think Big, Sip Smooth,” features the grape varietals that this section of the San Joaquin Valley is best known for – Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

The bottle designs are pretty simple, as you can see, and the labels have a velour finish, which is supposed to accentuate the smoothness, I guess. They do feel different, so beware – you may end up absently fondling a bottle at some point.

Big Smooth 2015 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon – If you imagine the lean, earthy lines of a Bordeaux and then consider what the polar opposite would be in the Cabernet would – this would probably be a pretty good approximation. There’s little here to the imagination on this Cabernet, which starts out strong and just stays with you.

Big Smooth’s nose is rich with blackberry and baking spices. The first sip yields a full mouthfeel. I found lots of blackberries, currants, alongside rich coffee and chocolate notes on the body. The best part of the experience for me was its lasting finish that holds onto that chocolate essence for a good long while.

I cracked this 14.5% ABV Cab with a surf and turf that I put together after the Sweet Partner in Crime had a hair appointment. I thought it went delightfully well with the steak. As one might expect, it ran over the scallops just a bit – but it worked well enough as a side, even if the SPinC thought it was a bit too much for her.


Big Smooth 2015 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel – Now, if you’ve paid attention around the store here long enough, you’ve probably heard me mention the notion of an “Old Vine” wine before. There is truth to the notion that older vines tend to produce better quality fruit, albeit at much lower quantity. However, there is no standard definition for what constitutes “Old Vine” – other than what an individual winemaker says it is.

In this case, Big Smooth doesn’t reveal the ages of its vines, but I can tell you  that it’s a big ol’ quaff. Clocking in at 15.5% alcohol, you’re not exactly searching for subtlety when pulling the cork on this big boy. Big jammy flavors of plum, black cherries and vanilla come at you full force. There’s plenty of tannin from its year in largely American oak barrels, but that tannic flavor is stretched out and smoky, which keeps the overall flavor a little more restrained than it could be. It boasts a long finish that’s surprisingly soft for a Zin this big. With a big plate of BBQ, I think it would be a good enough pairing, and it went reasonably well with chocolate. For someone who likes this big, bold style, it would be a fair enough drink.

In general, however, for my palate, these wines weren’t the best match. I thought their fruit forward natures were a bit too fruity, verging on grapey. A decade ago, this probably would have been dead in my wheelhouse, but I’ve trended away from these over the years. That said, I know plenty of folks who would pull the cork and glug these down, delighting in the big sensations of it.

Big Smooth wines retail for around $16-18.




Saturday, February 24, 2018

Levels and Levels – Chianti Three Ways


Ah, Chianti.

Lovely Sangiovese-based blend from Tuscany, how do I love thee? As you all know, here around Vine HQ, we love our food, and there are few better food wines anywhere than those that come out of the Chianti region.

Now, as you might have guessed from the first paragraph, Chianti is the name of a place, not a grape. Italian wines are generally named after the locale where the grapes for the wine are grown, with a few exceptions.

There are rough quality delineations among Chianti, roughly mirroring the price points. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in the region. At least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese. 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 flipside of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is typically higher quality wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region.

If you see “Chianti Riserva,” that 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.

There is also the recent addition of “Chianti Gran Selezione” into the lexicon, which is supposed to reflect the highest quality. The minimum alcohol level is slightly higher – 13% compared to 12.5% for riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months minimum. These wines tend to run towards the very expensive end of the spectrum. When I’ve had the opportunity to try them, I’ve not thought that they were quite worth the extra shekels.

In any case, I went on a Chianti kick last week after I received a bottle for sampling. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I did a side-by-side-by-side tasting with three different levels of Chianti. The contestants:


DaVinci 2015 Chanti ($11)
Fattoria Rodano 2015 Chianti Classico ($17)
Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva ($28)

The DaVinci was light-bodied, with that cherry covered chalkiness that I mentioned before. It’s fairly high in acid and makes a very straightforward table wine.

The Rodano Chianti Classico was actually the fullest, most concentrated wine of the three. Full and round, I found plums and cherries on the palate, which was softer and not quite as sharp. I thought it tasted like a “concentrated” version of the DaVinci flavorwise. The finish was more tannic, with coffee and chocolate flavors alongside the chalk.

The di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva was  the most “serious” of the wines – much more complex than the other two, with a smokier, silkier flavor. While the chalkiness was present, it was largely in the background, not detracting from the cherry and blackberry flavors that were dominant. While the body was lighter styled than the other Chianti Classico, the finish was longer and fruitier to go with its wisp of smoke.

I don’t generally care for Chianti on its own. It’s not usually my choice for a wine just to pop and pour. Of these three, the Rodano was probably the best for a “drink
alone” wine. But Chianti is made for food, and we tried the three over the space of a couple of nights.

First, with a pan-roasted salmon with tomatoes and fennel, the best of the three wines turned out to be the least expensive. The higher acid level in the straight Chianti cut through the fattiness of the fish easily, while still retaining its character. The Chianti Classico was too concentrated. It didn’t play well with the flavors, running over them instead. The Chianti Classico Riserva was fine, but you could tell that it needed more substantial fare.

We got that fare the next night, when I got out my meat tenderizer and pummeled some round steaks into submission to make my semi-famous Brasciole. The Chianti Classico got heavy and dark alongside this pairing – turning into something akin to an inexpensive syrah. The regular Chianti was good, but the real champ was the di Albola. Its flavors snaked around the beef and garlic, yet had enough of an acid backbone to stand up to the long-simmered red sauce. A real winner.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Wine Headache Hazard

No one can work with wine without tipping back too much from time to time. The morning after. The headache, the nausea, and the sun, as Nicholas Klar once wrote, "is like God's flashlight." Nobody to blame but yourself.

But what if the pain isn't your fault? What if you only had a glass or two and your head feels like Zeus on Athena’s birthday? At a wine tasting I led, two different people shared versions of, "I like wine -- but I can't drink it. If I even sip the stuff, I get a massive headache." Is there a code we can crack to avoid this malady?

One explanation I hear often: "It's the sulfites in the wine! Red wine has all these sulfites in the U.S. I've gone to [insert European country of your choice here] and the wine doesn't have sulfites in it, so I can drink it just fine. And I can drink white wine until the cows come home, but red wines just lay me out." I do enjoy Italian whites, so I sampled Palazzone 2015 “Terre Vineate” Orvieto Classico Superiore. ($13-15) This wine has a nose of flowers and licorice. It's medium bodied with some soft citrusy flavors and a little bit of oak. It has a very easy finish. Tasty to drink on its own, but with shellfish or a light fish dish, it's very nice.

After a little digging into the sulfite question, I discovered there is such a thing as a sulfite allergy. So, find unsulfited wines and you're fine, right? Well, not exactly. Sulfite allergies are  pretty rare. People with sulfite allergies generally can't eat dried fruit and the like, and if their allergies kick in, they tend to end up with breathing problems, not headaches.

Still, if you want to avoid sulfites, stick to whites, right? Wrong. White wines almost always have more sulfites than red wines. Sulfites are preservatives. Whites, in general, need more protection from spoilage as the wine gets older. Red wine has a natural preservative built in to the mix: tannin, which comes from the skins of grapes as well as from barrel aging. Wines built to age well are usually tannic, so…maybe tannin is our headache culprit.

For a low tannin wine example, think something along the lines of DuBoeuf 2015 Brouilly Beaujolais ($15-17). Gamay grapes, from which Beaujolais is made, are naturally low in tannin. This wine sports a fairly strong nose of cherries and blackberries. There's plenty of cherry and cola flavors balanced nicely with a solid acidity. Nice crisp finish, too. It cuts nicely through spices, like in the Thai beef noodle soup I made to go with it.

Drinking tannic beverages – drinks like red wine, black tea, and coffee -- can cause a release of serotonin in the brain, and studies have shown that high levels of serotonin can trigger a migraine. However, wine's not the only source of tannin in one’s diet, and no one I know has ever complained of a coffee or chocolate headache.

A third possibility is histamines. Histamines occur in many fermented foods and high exposure levels can trigger an allergic reaction brought on by a lack of a certain enzyme in the bloodstream. This reaction can cause headaches, skin flushing, or runny nose. The levels of histamines in red wines are between 20-200% higher than in whites. Spanish reds are often lower in histamines, so I tried the Martin Codax 2014 "Ergo" Rioja Tempranillo. ($13-15) The nose contains dark fruit and spices, almost like cherry cobbler. The wine's lighter than it smells. Some nice berry flavors and well-balanced light tannins lead to a finish which is easy and somewhat dry.

Histamines seem a somewhat more likely culprit for the headaches, although there hasn't been conclusive research on the effects of low vs. high histamine wines. Even so, if a person is susceptible to the reaction, there are natural defenses against histamines. Compounds exist in tea, especially black or oolong tea, which suppress the histamine response. Drinking a cup of strong tea before consuming red wine might help, as could taking an aspirin before drinking. An antihistamine might also stop the headache if the headache has already kicked in, but you might be in for a very short night if you pop a Benadryl after a couple of glasses of wine.

If you are one of those unfortunate souls who thinks they suffer from "red wine headaches," there's a simple (potentially painful) test. Drink half a glass of red wine on an empty stomach. If the wine is truly the cause of your headache, you'll get one within 15 minutes. Otherwise, it's not the wine itself that buried a hatchet in your forehead.

More likely, your fear of headaches likely stems from a good old fashioned hangover. The sheer amount of wine, and the memory of the pain the next morning, probably has more to do with it. B-12, Gatorade, ginger ale, and a sub from Penn Station the next morning are better bets, in that case.



Saturday, December 23, 2017

Getting the Crew Back Together for the Holidays

Pictured: Us.
A couple of nights ago, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I hosted a lovely little shindig for a reunion of the Tennessee Alley Drinking Club. Two of the charter members, Christine the Pie Queen and her husband Jeff, of Jeff’s Dinner Club fame, have unfortunately departed the ‘hood – heading to Washington State where they now boast a big ol’ mountain in what amounts to their backyard.

The holidays are a time for reunions, and we were blessed with the opportunity to spend some quality time with our little gaggle of friends, reminisce and share about what’s happening in our various worlds, and to do what we do best – polish off large quantities of vino while we work our way through a good meal.

The SPinC and I fired up the sous vide machine and did a couple of London Broils at various levels of doneness – cooked to perfection and seared off on the grill, a potato and mushroom soup, an arugula salad with candied walnuts and poached pears, a bunch of roasted root vegetables, and a rich spice cake with cinnamon ice cream from Graeter’s.

Fortuitously, our friends at Colangelo had also sent along a couple of quality, meat-friendly reds to sample. In the spirit of many of our other tasting adventures through the years, we took the opportunity to do a side-by-side of these two wines. The quickly quaffed competitors with our delicious repast:



Caroso 2010 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva ($22)
Charles Krug 2014 Napa Valley Merlot ($25)

I took a look at the Caroso a few months ago in this space. As I noted then, I usually think of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo as a tasty and flavorful but light table wine. Inexpensive versions of it are standards here in Vine land. The Riserva, aged for two years in barrique and six months in bottle before release, is a different animal altogether.

This wine’s a bigger, more fruit-forward entry. Black currant and blackberry flavors come strongly at first sip. The nose has a fair amount of spice and vanilla and the finish is fruity with a considerable roughness of tannin.

Neither Napa wines nor domestic Merlot get a lot of run around here in general, for one reason or another. I’ve tried so many one-note Merlot over the years that I tend to skip it in favor of Merlot-dominant Bordeaux if I’m in that kind of mood. This Merlot from Krug might cause me to do a little reconsideration of that corner of the wine store.

The Krug Merlot is actually a blend – but any domestic wine with more than 75% of one varietal can be labeled as that varietal. The Krug is 82% Merlot, with the rest made up of Bordeaux elements Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Plums and raspberries were the order of the day flavorwise, and the tannins – holding in the background – are nicely balanced. The finish is lasting, with a nice back-and-forth between cherry and graphite.

We opened these up for the assembled at the table to try with the various courses. Alas, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to take copious notes. The general consensus, however, held that the Krug was the superior wine in balance and general flavor. While I liked both of them well enough, I found myself drifting back to the Krug, which paired better with most everything we had on the table, although I thought the Montepulciano was a good match with the soup, which did have a bit of an Italian flair. The SPinC thought the Caroso was too jammy for her tastes. At the end of the day, the Krug won by unanimous consent.

But the real star of the evening was the conversation and the reconnection with our friends, who spoiled us from across the alley for many years. The spirit of the season found itself in full effect around our table, and we have many happy memories (as well as a number of other empty bottles!) to sustain us in the new year! Many thanks to Jeff, Christine, Marlane, Phoenix, Ken, and – always – the Sweet Partner in Crime for the lovely evening.




Friday, December 01, 2017

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Le Focaie -- A Tuscan Coastal Surprise

When the Sweet Partner in Crime and I made our last jaunt to Sonoma, we made our home base Bodega Bay, right on the Pacific. From Bodega, we tooled around to a number of wineries close to the coast.

We loved the California coastal wines. The climate by the Pacific is considerably cooler than in the rest of Sonoma County, partly because of elevation and the various microclimates there. The resulting "mountain fruit" wines were more subtle and less fruit-forward -- and we ran into many more cool weather grapes like Pinot Noir than the Zinfandels and Cabernets grown elsewhere in Sonoma. We liked those wines a great deal.

When I was offered the chance to try to Le Focaie 2016 Maremma Toscana, and I read a little about the wine, my palate perked right up. "Focaie" translates from Italian as "Flint" -- a reference to the mineral rich soil found in the coastal area of Maremma. The producers, Rocca di Montemassi, grow grapes not far from the ocean, where the Sangiovese grapes catch the sea breezes. I was thinking, "Hey, flinty and coastal. Sign me up!"

When the time came for me to crack this wine -- I thought that a roasted chicken dish with lemon and bread would be a good match. I have to admit that I did not see this wine's flavors coming. Instead of a Chianti-ish Sangiovese, with its attendant light cherry flavors, what I found was something considerably more muscular. There's cherry flavor there, but it's quite deep -- backed with an aroma of smoked meats as well as some darker fruits. "Rustic" would be an apt description of this wine. The finish is fruity and smoky -- it reminded me a little of a pinotage, to be honest.

My chicken idea turned out to be a little on the light side for this wine. It really calls for some bigger flavors -- some big red sauced pasta, or something like osso bucco would be better alongside.

Now, this said -- if you're looking for a big Italian red that's a little rough around the edges, you could do a lot worse than this, and at $15 -- it's could be a great winter dinner wine. Keep it on your radar.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Revisiting Australia with Hope Estate

Australian wine played a major role in the early days of my wine education. I was in graduate school, invited to one of my first “grownup” parties. The party was hosted by the boyfriend of one of my classmates, a debonair business sort who hailed from Sydney. He’d bought the local wine store out of Jacob’s Creek and Penfolds, it seemed. I was a beer guy at the time, but was always willing to drink for free learn about new drinks.

After that, Shiraz from Australia became one of my “have a bottle lying around” reds – largely because it was decent, inexpensive, and easy to drink. The Sweet Partner in Crime (who also has an Australian wine history thanks to her stint as a server at Outback back in the day…) and I went through our courtship consuming copious quantities of Rosemount Estates’ Grenache-Shiraz.

But times change and palates change. Most of the Australian wine available in my price range for many years was relatively uninteresting – big jammy reds, semi-sweet Rieslings, and steel tank one-note Chardonnay were always available. A friend of mine in the wine business referred to the inexpensive Australian juice as “Pop-Tart Wine” – because every flavor basically tasted the same. There were some higher quality Australian reds to sample, but many of them were out of our price range at that point. As my wine education took my palate to different areas of the world, Australian wine largely dropped off my radar.

Until recently, that is. My recent dispatches about the wine shortages brought about by climate change in North America and Europe prompted me to start looking below the equator for better wine values. Fortuitously, the wine fairy dropped off a package of wines from Hope Estates in Australia’s Hunter Valley, in New South Wales near Sydney.

Hope Estate, founded by Michael Hope in 1992, started as a single vineyard, but has expanded to an entertainment complex which includes a brewery, a café, and a 20,000 seat amphitheater – if you’re ever in the neighborhood. A four pack of Hope Estates wines got me rethinking the lack of Australian wine in my portfolio, as they were all quite good and sit at a nice price point:

Hope Estates 2016 Wollombi Block Semillon – I don’t know when the last time was that I tried a straight Australian Semillon. Must be a decade, at least. Semillion’s a native grape of France, where it’s usually blended into white Bordeaux or noble rotted to make Sauternes, the most expensive (and for good reason) dessert wine in the world. In Australia, though, Semillon is grown as a primary white varietal. If this wine’s any indication, I’ll need to work this into the rotation somewhere. This version’s a crisp, minerally white full of lemons and limes. Lots of minerals on the palate, which has a nice weight and a little honeyed sweetness. Most wines this acidic feel much lighter. Pretty floral nose, too. $14.

Hope Estates 2015 Hunter Valley Chardonnay – As I mentioned, for me, Australian Chardonnay always seemed uncomplicated and forgettable. Some winemakers seem to have taken up the challenge of improving these wines. This estate grown Chardonnay is aged in French oak with extended time on the lees to add to the mouthfeel. It has a very fruity nose -- bananas and pears, which leads to a full flavored body with a nice creaminess. The flavor yields plenty of pears and peaches, transitioning to a well-balanced oakiness. The finish is lasting, fairly crisp, and with a nice little smokiness. A nicely put together wine. Good value at $14.

Hope Estates 2014 “The Ripper” Shiraz – The first of two Shiraz bottlings in this set. Don’t be frightened by the name of this wine – “Ripper” is an Australian slang term for “Great.” Honestly, I feel like that’s a pretty solid interpretation of this particular bottle. Full of Oz-Shiraz red fruit-forwardness on the nose and palate, the Ripper pulls back into a nicely balanced middle of spice, licorice, plums, and leather. Not the fruit bomb you might expect from an Australian Shiraz, the finish on this is long and fruity, but with a solid tannic backbone. A particularly strong value at $18.

Hope Estates 2014 Basalt Block Shiraz – The “Basalt Block” is a parcel of land in the Broken Back mountain range with deep, volcanic soil, which lends an earthy characteristic to this wine not found in the Ripper. This one has a lovely nose of coffee and plums that transitions into a deeper, smokier fruit on the palate. Blackberry, graphite, and smoke entwine on a firm tannic base. The finish tickles on for quite a good length of time, with smoke and dark fruit alternating. Fans of Rhone Valley-style blends will really enjoy this wine. Again, $14.