Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mike's Manic Nirvana -- Cincinnati International Wine Festival

Love is in the stars - love's heaven sent
Brush your lips and mine - taste my good intent
Lay it on real close, inside my crazy arms
Come on feel your Daddy's love, I won't do you no harm
-Robert Plant, "Nirvana"

Let me set the scene for you:

One of the big ballrooms in the Duke Energy Center -- packed full of booths. In each booth, a winery, wine distributor, or some other gustatorily-related company. All here to show their wares to the "trade."

The "trade" is basically anyone with an interest in wine -- restaurateurs, wine shop owners, wine distributors, waiters & waitresses, and one bald wine blogger.

There were a few other wine writers in attendance. I ran into Michelle Lentz from My Wine Education (who, along with her husband, was Twittering the event from their dueling iPhones...) and Mark Fisher of "Uncorked" in the Dayton Daily News. (I joked that there were too many of us -- that it could rupture the space-time continuum...yes, I'm a geek...)

In any case, the way this little event works -- I paid my $15, got my glass, my wristband, and my nametag, and headed in. I then spent the next three hours wandering from booth to booth, sampling wines.

Now, there were 135 vendors -- pouring 600+ wines during the three hours. I had to commit what in my life is a cardinal sin...

I dumped a whole lot of wine.

Even with my superhuman constitution, there's no way that I could try THAT many wines without collapsing quickly in a heap...even pacing myself. So, I sipped, sniffed, swirled...and spit. And spit again. And dumped. And found myself apologizing to the winemakers for dumping their wine. At least, apologizing to the ones who were pouring good wine and were friendly to me.

(My heart goes out to the pourers and winemakers who were giving their tasting spiels. I don't know how they were able to give the same information over and over again and keep smiles on their faces. I know it would have driven me bonkers.)

All in all, I tried about 100 wines, give or take. Even despite my best efforts, I figured that I still swallowed about half a tablespoon of wine per taste. 50 tablespoons = a little over 3 cups = about a bottle of wine. Not bad for $15, and I got to keep my tasting glass. It was enough that I was pretty wiped out by the end -- and my teeth were a fantastic shade of black by the end. It was all worth it.

I recognized a lot of the wines being poured -- many of which I've written about here. I tried to focus on wines that I either didn't know or didn't remember. So, the Naked Vine's picks from this little event?

Within Vine Range ($15 and under):
Maryhill Winery -- My best all-around discovery in the under $15 range. This family-owned winery from Washington State cranks out solid, delicious wines that won't break the bank. Of special note were their 2007 "Winemakers Red" -- a luscious Bordeaux-ish blend with incredible flavor and balance, and their 2007 Sangiovese Rose, a fruity-but-dry treat of a wine that would go with just anything from a hot summer patio to a meal of fish or pasta.

Yarraman 2006 "Hay Burner" Chardonnay -- The "Robert Whale Selections" table had a number of interesting Aussie and New Zealand wines. Their Australian Chardonnay, the first that I tried at their table, was as interesting as any. Very crisp and clean styled. Plenty of peach and melon with a nice oak backbone to make it interesting. Would be fabulous with pork chops or creamy pastas...especially at $9.

McNab Ridge Winery -- Full disclosure. They were my last stop of the day, but their wines were interesting and flavorful enough to cut through the layers of tannin and fatigue building up on my tongue. I thoroughly enjoyed their 2008 Columbard and their 2006 "ZinZilla" Zinfandel. My favorite was their 2006 Petit Sirah, which I decided was the perfect wine to end my day at the tasting, or most other days. Great fruit and muscular without being overwhelming, especially at around $14.

Graffigna 2008 Pinot Grigio -- A pinot grigio from Argentina? Heck, why not? I'm used to pinot grigio being a good sluggable wine, but this onr carried a little extra weight. A fuller mouth than most pinot grigio, along with a notably stronger floral nose. Solid fruit on the palate with a crisp, fruity finish. A winner at $12-14.

Primarius 2006 Pinot Noir -- A fascinating Oregon pinot. Most pinot noirs at this price range tend to be extremely fruity and concentrated instead of subtle. This one's an exception. This wine was the most delicate of all that I tried at the tasting. Smoky and smooth on the palate, with raspberry and pepper on the tongue and a lasting, smoky finish, I was duly impressed that this was a $13 bottle. Food would likely overpower this wine, but for soft light and good conversation, top notch.

Slightly out of Vine Range($20-50):

Giornata Wines -- One of the best conversations I had during the tasting was with Brian Terrizzi, the winemaker. He was recently featured in Gourmet in an article about the spread of Italian varietals in California. He said that he eats Italian food "3 or 4 times a week" and he wanted to make wines that would pair well. From what I tasted, he succeeded. They do a delicious Sangiovese, but their il Campo, was an especially wonderful wine. Great fruit, balanced tannin, and a perfect accompaniment for a hearty Tuscan homecooked meal. Heck, even with pepperoni pizza. These were between $20-28, and I'd snag a case in a heartbeat if I could.

Helix 2005 Columbia Valley Merlot -- I've become a sucker for Columbia Valley wines, can you tell? The cooler climate in that area produces wines with fuller, more complex fruit flavors. In my opinion, it allows for big, fruity wines like merlot to gain some weight and some additionally intricate flavors. This merlot shocked me with its depth, but more importantly with the level of tannin. This was one of the drier merlots that I've ever tasted, but that was a good thing. It could stand up to steak as well as any cabernet. Big, chewy tannins balanced with plum and blackberry favors. Scrumptious. $22.

Fortress Vineyards 2007 "Finale" -- Fortress was sharing a table with Epiphany Cellars. Epiphany makes some wonderful wines in the $30-40 range (their "Revelation Red" was an absolute rockstar, to borrow a line from my pal Alfonse...), but the Fortress wines jumped out at me for being a little bit different. They had a Sauvignon Blanc that tasted a great deal like a good white Bordeaux, but their Finale absolutely blew me away. It's a dessert wine made from 100% Semillon. Made in the same style as a Sauternes, with many of the same flavor characteristics. Thick and rich, with flavors of honey and licorice, exceptionally well balanced. One of the best dessert wines I've ever tasted. At $30, a tenth the price of Chateau d'Yquem.

Way out of Vine Range ($50+):

Rutherford Grove 2005 Estate Reserve Howell Mountain -- An absolutely fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, and it should be at $65 a bottle. From a small vineyard planted in a tough-to-harvest location on top of Rutherford Mountain in Napa, this wine has one of the most deliciously fragrant noses I've had. Wonderful balance of fruit and vanilla, and a finish that lingered lusciously.

Domenico Clerico 2005 "Arte" -- A nebbiolo that's similar in structure to a Barolo or Barbaresco, but a little more approachable. Dark, big, and bulky -- this was a wine to be treated with considerable respect. This was one of the few wines this powerful and tannic that I could actually imagine having on its own now...or 5-6 years from now. But I can only imagine what this would have been with a braised veal shoulder or some such. A symphony of flavor. $55.

Best in Show:
Huneeus Vintners 2005 "Faust" Cabernet Sauvignon -- Maybe it was the name that piqued by devilish curiosity. Maybe it was the powerful black cherry, fresh tobacco, and blackberry flavors that cut through everything else that I'd tasted up to that point. Maybe it was the tannins, strong but without taking away from the fruit and the finish that seemed to go on for days. Whatever deal was struck by these winemakers, they put together an absolutely delicious cabernet -- likely in my personal Top 10 of that varietal all time. Probably will set you back around $55, but considering that "high end" Napa cabernet sauvignons are selling for literally hundreds of dollars a bottle, run with this as a splurge and hold on to your soul.

By the end, I was exhausted, my palate and the rest of me was tired, but I was pleased. I was pretty intimidated when I walked into the place, but I felt like I held my own among the wine cognoscenti. Can't wait for next year. I could get used to this...

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