Monday, July 23, 2012

Get Right Back Where We Started From

I have the good fortune to do a fair number of sample reviews in this space. After I finished my recent review of the wines from Biltmore Estates, Lisa at Folsom & Associates and I got into a discussion about grilling. She offered me the opportunity to sample a couple of Zinfandels from Ravenswood and I accepted. (Shocking, I know. I also received some Big House wines from them, but that’s for another column.)

Cracking these wines brought us a little reminiscence. Zinfandel was the grape that started us down the road towards the household’s oenological addiction. About seven years ago, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I took our first vacation to wine country -- Sonoma, specifically. We’d become wine drinkers at this point, but our house wines were generally Meridian Chardonnay and whatever Rosemount Garden Shiraz blend was on sale at the time.

This way lies madness...and tastiness!
We made our way towards our B&B in Healdsburg – a pretty cushy place called the Grape Leaf Inn. We got there in time for their “evening wine tasting” in the building’s cellar. The cellar was designed as a “speakeasy.” Seriously – the stairs down were hidden by a bookcase. (An architectural feature that I’ve always wanted for The Cave, but it just isn’t practical.) Anyway, we headed downstairs, bellied up to the bar, and our tastress Amy poured us a couple of glasses of Dark Horse Zinfandel. I was skeptical. All I knew about Zin at the time was the cotton-candy-in-a-glass. A little swirl, a little sip…Boom.

This huge, fruity monster of deliciousness changed me forever. I hadn’t encountered anything like it. Our normal Shiraz was a big, fruity creation – but there wasn’t a lot of structure. This was alcoholic, muscular, and in-your-face with dark fruit flavors, tannins, chocolate, and all sorts of other yummies. It practically screamed, “THIS is why you have a palate.”

The descent into oenological addiction.
Over the next couple of years, Zinfandel became a mild obsession for the SPinC and I. We loved the stuff. It went so well with anything grilled and was just dynamite with our evening chocolate. When we got back from California, we cast about for some Zins we could keep around as everyday wines. The one we settled on? Ravenswood.

As Zinfandel’s popularity rose across the country, the flavor profile of everyday Zins began to change, much as California Chardonnays did with “oaky & buttery” at the turn of the millennium. Zinfandels were big wines as it was – but it seemed like there was a race on between many of the major producers to make the biggest, baddest, highest-alcohol juice possible. I remember seeing Zins that were upwards of 17% alcohol. This change, coupled with our exploration of wines with a little more subtlety, caused us to drift away from Zin for a while. I was looking forward to sampling our old friend Ravenswood to see if things might have mellowed out a bit. Besides, everyone needs a big-ass wine from time to time, especially if that wine brings back happy memories.

Ravenswood makes several levels of Zin. Their “Vintner’s Blend” series comes from grapes from across California. They make “County” wines from some of the major Zin-growing regions of the state, as well as some single vineyard and limited release wines. We received two bottles – the Ravenswood 2010 Vintner’s Blend Old Vine Zinfandel and the Ravenswood 2009 Lodi Zinfandel. The Vintner’s blend retails for around $10. The Lodi around $13.

(One quick note about the term “Old Vine.” There's no real guideline for what constitutes an actual "old" grapevine. The general rule of thumb is "older than 45 years." Winemakers usually turn to Potter Stewart for direction -- they know it when they taste it. Since there's nothing cast in stone, the term can be applied somewhat loosely for marketing reasons.)

On tasting, I was relieved to discover the fruit bomb-iness that I’d come to associate with most California Zins had been dialed back a little bit, apparently. Don’t get me wrong, these are both pretty beefy wines, but the alcohol content is a much more manageable 13-15%. There’s a nice flavor contrast between those two. The Vintner’s Blend seems designed more of a crowd-pleaser. There are big cherry and blueberry scents and flavors, but the tannins are relatively mild and the finish is lingering and somewhat soft initially.

The Lodi had a little more character.” It needed some vigorous swirling, because straight from the bottle, it was very tannic and tight. Once it opened, there’s distinct vanilla on the nose. The flavor has the same backbone of dark fruit, but it’s spicier and adds plums. The tannins gripped firmly and lingered much longer than the Vintner’s. We split on these. I preferred the Lodi. The SPinC, the Vintner’s. In short, if more tannin is your thing, go with the “County” wines.

With food, Zinfandel cries out for MEAT, and the classic pairing is a slab of messy barbecue ribs. Alas, the SPinC and I are on a bit of a diet, so ribs weren’t an option. We settled for a couple of nice spice-rubbed steaks, some foil-pack beets from our garden, and some garlic-sauteed red potatoes. Alongside the meal, the Vintner’s was better as general all-around table wine. However, the Lodi was simply exceptional next to the beets and the potatoes. It seemed like it played along in a more friendly fashion with the beets’ sweetness. With chicken or ribs slathered in barbecue sauce or a sweet rub, the Lodi would probably be a solid bet.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Biltmore Estates

 “I never thought this would happen to me. I am an administrator at a small Midwestern college and I was on my way to a conference in Asheville, North Carolina…”

No, you’re not reading the start of my letter to Penthouse Forum. There are no scantily-clad medical students with heaving bosoms whose car overheated, stranded on the side of I-75. There were no offers for me to “accompany them on their Grand Rounds” once I got them into the college van and escorted them to safety.

The trip to and from was uneventful. When I returned home, however, there was a mysterious package waiting for me. I was expecting one set of wine samples (the ones from Pepperwood Grove, which I’ve posted about already) – but a second set of samples showed up unannounced. I long ago learned not to look a gift horse in the (bottle) mouth.

These wine samples turned out to be from the Biltmore Estate Winery. For those of you unfamiliar, the Biltmore Estate is an enormous chateau-style house built in the late 1800’s by George Washington Vanderbilt II. It’s still owned by the Vanderbilt family today. The Biltmore Estate Winery was a dairy farm until the early 1970’s. It is currently the most-visited winery in the United States with over a million visitors annually.

So, why is this of note? The Biltmore Estate and its associated winery are in…Asheville, NC. We just missed each other. I could have saved them some shipping charges, although I don’t think the Vanderbilts are hurting for cash these days.
Like ships passing in the night...

 Anyway, the Biltmore winery itself grows about 250 tons of grapes a year. On site, they grow Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. They sell about 140,000 cases of wine per year. One ton of grapes yields about 60 cases of wine. Since the estate’s grapes can only provide a little over 10% of that yield, grapes get sourced from other growing regions – largely in northern California.

In the mysterious Biltmore box was one each of the red and white from the Biltmore’s “Century Collection.” These wines, which retail for $13-16, were first bottled in 1999 as tasting-room only offerings. The Biltmore’s winemaker, Bernard DeLille, said that he was trying to create a wine that would allow a wine drinker to “re-live their Biltmore experience at home by simply opening a bottle and pouring a glass. As the wines grew in popularily, they expanded production and began making them available through retail outlets.

Biltmore (NV) Century Century Red Wine – This red, sourced from three locations in California, is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Zindfandel. The Sweet Partner in Crime swirled this and exclaimed, “Vanilla!” For sure. The first whiff is powerful vanilla, followed by a bunch of dark fruit. Blackberries and cherries, predominantly. This is a wine that really improves with decanting as, straight from the bottle, the finish is clipped and the flavors don’t last long. With some air, the flavors brighten a bit. It’s a “firm” wine, but the finish stayed quick, even after decanting. The fruit flavors are quite nice while they’re there and the tannins are mellow. We had this alongside a grilled flank steak, some sautéed mushrooms, and a salad. The vinaigrette wasn’t the best match with the wine, but the crystallized ginger we’d thrown in the salad was wonderful with it. The steak and mushrooms were tasty enough matches. A decent enough bottle for an everyday quaffer.

Biltmore (NV) Century White Wine – Ninety-eight percent of the juice in this wine comes from Mendocino and Monterey. Two percent is actually from North Carolina. It’s a blend of some very aromatic grapes – Gewurztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Riesling, and Symphony (which is a cross between Muscat and White Grenache). The nose is peppery and peachy. I thought it smelled very much like a Gewürztraminer from the Pacific Northwest. The major flavors are ripe pineapple with some cloves and cinnamon underneath. It turned out lighter than I expected. I thought it would be a bit more palate-coating considering the residual sugar level. The finish is peppery with a good deal of sweetness, as the residual sugar finally shows up. Again, a very solid wine – flavors like a Gewurz, but milder and not quite as heavy. If you were trying to introduce the notion that “not all sweet wine is bad” to a friend, this wouldn’t be a bad start. Conversely, if you wanted to start moving an “I only like sweet wine” person towards the light, this would laos be a good starting point. Foodwise, we had this alongside a Thai-style chicken, shrimp and rice soup since gewürztraminer goes so well with those flavors. This one was no exception.

This was my first time with Biltmore wines. I can only hope I have the same good fortune after my upcoming trip to Oregon…aforementioned medical students optional.