Monday, March 26, 2012

Shannon Ridge – Not baaaaad…

The good folks at Balzac recently gave me the opportunity to give the wines of Shannon Ridge a run. Shannon Ridge is in Lake County, California – a region rapidly gaining in notoriety and availability. I’m always interested when samples arrive, but I was especially intrigued by this line from the accompanying press release:

“Shannon Ridge’s vineyards are certified sustainable, and are known for their woolly compost machines – a flock of 1,000 sheep, complete with shepherds and a team of highly trained sheepdogs. The sheep do an excellent job of canopy management and leaf removal, and pick the vineyard clean after harvest. They also manage the cover crop in the spring and work hard to reduce fire danger in the surrounding hills the remainder of the year.”

Sheep are cool (and tasty!). I was already a fan before I cracked a bottle. It turns out that you can order parts of their “mowing system” for your own consumption. They direct-ship any cut of lamb you’d like. (see for more info) Additionally, the Shannons have reserved the unused land on their ranch as a wilderness area. They also planned their vineyards so as not to interfere with eagle nesting areas and animal migration trails. Good on ‘em.

They produce a broad range of wines on their ridge, both white and red. I was sent four bottles to try. The suggested retail on these wines is $19 with the exception of the Sauvignon Blanc. That one’s $16. How were they? Overall, I was pretty pleased with them, as you’ll see below:
The lineup...and then some.

Shannon Ridge 2010 Sauvignon Blanc – As you may have noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc kick thanks to the New Year’s feast. It was nice to get domestic for a change. The Shannon Ridge was pleasant enough. I got apples and lemons off the nose. The first taste had a bit of an acidic bite amongst the apple and citrus flavors and I thought it had a slightly  alcoholic aftertaste. It finishes dry and lemony. It was a decent wine for the price point. Didn’t blow me away, but it’s of good quality.

Shannon Ridge 2009 Merlot – My notes on this wine read like copy from a 70’s Schlitz beer ad: “Easy drinking, smooth, not too heavy.” Don’t be put off by the description. The “easy drinking” part is the only similarity with the aforementioned swill. This wine was the only one not entirely sourced from Lake County. They pulled some grapes from Mendocino (one of my favorite California regions!) to blend with the Lake County fruit. The result was a pretty classic California merlot – lots of up-front blackberry and plum, a tannin that gradually builds as you work your way through the glass, and a balanced, silky finish. (And I don’t know anyone who could legitimately describe Schlitz as “silky.”) I gave this one a big thumbs up. As a side note, this wine reminded me that I need to start buying good “f’n merlot” again.

Shannon Ridge 2010 Chardonnay – I always open California chards with a little bit of trepidation. The unoaked ones can be uninteresting, and the oaked ones can be like sucking on a Kingsford briquette. Thankfully, this was neither. This chardonnay was another nicely balanced wine. Lots of pineapple and apple on both the nose and body. There’s oak here, but it’s at a quiet undertone level, balanced with a little bit of malolactic creaminess. The finish is a little firmer on the oak side with some sustained fruit. I think this could be an excellent, flexible food wine selection as grilling season comes on.

Shannon Ridge 2009 Zinfandel – This wine brought back some wonderful memories. During our first trip to Sonoma, the SPinC and I fell in love with Zinfandel -- the varietal that made us go “Hey, we need to learn more about this wine stuff.” We lived on Zins for a while, then moved away to less in-your-face varietals. We reminisced about the start of our mutual addiction over this classic NoCal Zin. Word of caution – if you try this one, it needs a considerable amount of air to open. Once it’s good and aerated you’ll find, in the SPinC’s words, “Fruit, fruit, fruit – vanilla, vanilla, vanilla…” As with the other Shannon Ridge selections, this a good balance of blueberry, vanilla and tannin with a finish that gets grippier as the evening wears on. We opened this one with roasted boneless pork chops in a mushroom sauce with some baked sweet potato “fries” and it was a wonderful complement. Like most big ol’ Zins, it was divine with end-of-evening chocolate. Another solid choice.

Shannon Ridge also does a petit sirah and a zinfandel-based blend they call “Wrangler Red.” They also have a slightly more expensive line of single vineyard wines. For a “nice bottle” evening, I’d certainly recommend the latter three.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Naked Vine One-Hitter...Terrapin Cellars

One of the great perks of this gig is receiving samples. Wine at the door always brightens the day. Wine showing up unexpectedly really brightens the day. I'm not sure exactly where this particular bottle came from. I have my suspicions, but I'm sure not complaining...

Terrapin Cellars 2010 Oregon Pinot Gris

Oregon has become rightfully well known for Pinot Noir. I've had a number of Gewurztraminers and Rieslings from Oregon, but I was interested to learn that the "other" Pinot -- Pinot Gris -- is actually the second-most planted grape in the state. A number of winemakers recently decided to start carving out a niche for Oregon Pinot Gris. The wineries in this marketing group have vowed to stop making comparisons to Italy or Alsace, focusing on the uniqueness of their own terroir. I'm personally very interested to see where this marketing effort goes.

I'm even more interested after trying this offering from Terrapin Cellars. My first thought was, alas, "Alsace." The pleasant aromas of melon and lemon made me immediately think of an Alsatian wine. The flavor was quite different. Yes, the high acidity and minerality were certainly there, but there was a creaminess to balance those characteristics that's often lacking in Alsatian wines. Pineapple and melon were the strongest flavors I picked up. The finish is fruity, gentle, and lasting. We had this wine with a pretty tough pairing grilled orange roughy alongside asparagus sauteed with ginger. Most wines shrink from asparagus. This one most certainly did not. If it can handle asparagus, it can handle just about anything you'd have a white with.

Simply put, this wine's a winner, especially at a $14 price point. I'll extend an apology to the folks at Terrapin for drawing the Alsace comparison, but for any of the readers who are fans of that style of wine -- you'll probably dig these Oregon offerings. You'll also save a few shekels in the process. 

Whomever sent this along, many thanks. It's a keeper.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Alphabet Soup Project – “J” is for “Jumilla”

I like climate-based cooking. Lighter dishes and salads in spring, cold soups and garden-laced goodness in summer, grilling in autumn, soups and stews in winter – you get the idea. The wacky weather we’ve had has occasionally left me flatfooted. I find it hard to plan a menu when the temperature’s swinging 40 degrees from day to day, paired with the occasional severe thunderstorm. (And no frickin’ snow.)

Unpredictability requires flexibility, which means I have a perfect excuse to open some Spanish reds. I’ve always thought they were great food wines. They’re usually big enough to handle chops and steaks, but they have enough subtlety to go with roasted or spiced chicken and some vegetarian dishes.

Unfortunately, some Spanish winemakers have become victims of their own success – especially in Rioja, the best known of the regions. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good wines from Rioja, but many winemakers have gone the route of California Zinfandels (and many cabernets) in the 90’s and early oughts – high oak, in-your-face extracted flavors with monstrously high levels of alcohol. There’s nothing wrong with wines like that if you’re grilling ribs, but they’re not really for sipping and can overload a lot of foods. Luckily for us, there are plenty of Spanish reds out there which aren’t replications of those kind of fruit bombs. My choice for this stretch of menus is Jumilla.  

Jumilla (pronounced who-MEE-yuh) is a fairly mountainous region in the southeast corner of Spain, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Weatherwise, Jumilla can be a blast furnace. The constant winds from the sea do nothing to cool things down. The average high temperature in the summer months is north of 90 degrees (over 110 is not uncommon) with sharply cooler nights and almost no rainfall. This climatic arrangement is a little slice of heaven for wine grapes.

Red wine is Jumilla’s calling card.  Jumilla reds are largely made from the Monastrell grape. Never heard of Monastrell? It’s known more widely as Mourvedre – a grape widely grown in France, especially in the Rhone valley. Also, as in the Rhone, Monastrell is sometimes blended with Garnacha (Grenache). Left to its own devices, Monastrell produces powerfully fruity, tannic, peppery wines, reminiscent of Zinfandel – especially since the alcohol content is usually north of 15%.

Where Jumilla differs from the cinder block-like subtlety of Zinfandel is in how well it pairs with food. Wines this strong aren’t normally considered flexible food wines, but a skilled winemaker can cool some of the harsh, hot edge Monastrell can bring to the table. The basic Naked Vine pairing rule certainly holds in Jumilla – people make wine to go with food they regularly eat. Jumilla is in the Murcia region of Spain, known as the “fruit and vegetable garden of Europe.” Thirteen percent of all vegetables grown in Europe come from Murcia. Pork and chicken are very common meats, and the proximity to the Mediterranean allows for a fair amount of fish. Paellas and stews are extremely common, as are salads and a number of gouda-ish cheeses. With a potential tapas menu that broad, a one-note wine wouldn’t work well.

Speaking of paella – I was in the mood to cobble one together after the Sweet Partner in Crime had a particularly stressful several days. The one I managed to put together, I have to say, was perhaps the best I’ve ever made – featuring chorizo, chicken thighs, and bay scallops spiced, baked and simmered to perfection. I poured the Bodegas Juan Gil 2008 Jumilla ($15) alongside. I was concerned at first sniff. The first taste held a lot of oak and tannins that immediately parched the back of my throat. That sharpness faded quickly, thankfully, leaving a punch-packing but nicely-balanced mix of blackberry, chocolate, and pepper. As a side note, this wine starts much like a Beaujolais – with carbonic maceration (adding yeast to whole clusters of grapes), but the flavor isn’t in the same neighborhood. I was afraid such a big wine would demolish the subtle flavors in the paella, but my worries faded quickly. As muscular as this wine was, it was about as lovely a pairing as I could have imagined for a cool evening.

The next night, we cracked a couple of others:

Bodegas Juan Gil “Wrongo Dongo” 2010 Jumilla ($9) – This is the Juan Gil “second label” wine. They’ve changed the label recently – from a confused-looking man to a geometric pattern that reminds me of a Roach t-shirt iron-on. At first sniff, I would have mistaken it for a cabernet. The wine holds a pronounced note of vanilla on the nose along with some leather and mild fruit. My first sips were intensely tannic, but like its slightly more expensive cousin, it eases back a bit into cherries and leather. The finish is more tannic than the other Juan Gil, also.

Bodegas Luzon 2008 Altos de la Luzon Jumilla ($14) – Although this wine starts you with a Wrongo Dongo-esque vanilla blast, it’s a much more subtle wine all in all. The vanilla is underlain with some floral scents (lavender?) and blackberry. The tannins are much tamer – so much tamer, in fact, the fruit ends up overwhelming the tannin a bit initially. Like the others, it balances out after a little bit of air. As for which is the better wine, it depends on your taste – if you like drier, stronger wines, the Wrongo Dongo is for you. If you want more fruit, go with the Luzon.

That night, we made a scrumptious veal, mushroom, and artichoke stew. The Altos was the better choice here. Its subtlety meshed with the flavors more easily. The Wrongo Dongo was a little overly assertive, so it masked the delicacy of the stew’s flavors.

The following night, we had the remainder of these two wines (it’s true -- we didn’t finish either bottle) with chicken breasts braised in a dried fruit and olive sauce with some saffron rice. The Altos, after a day open, had lost much of its complexity. It wasn’t great on its own and was nondescript with the food. The Wrongo Dongo held onto much of its character (since it was a simpler wine to begin with) and was much tastier with the assembled plate.

Summing up -- Jumilla – it’s wine for people who like big reds but have a varied food palate. I think these are some of the most flexible “big reds” you’ll encounter. Definitely worth a try.