Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- Geyser Peak

Here’s another pair of California summer whites, this time from Geyser Peak. The winery dates back to some of the original Sonoma growers in the 1880’s. The name refers to a mountain overlooking the Geyserville vineyards where the morning clouds would crash against the summit and plume towards the sky.

The winery produces a Chardonnay, a Merlot, and a Cabernet Sauvignon in addition to the pair of lighter whites I was sent to sample for consumption as the mercury rises. (And if the mercury's going to stay where it is right now, I'm not going to complain!)

Geyser Peak 2012 California Pinot Grigio – This wine is instructive on the American laws on wine naming. For a wine to be labeled as a particular varietal – meaning it says “chardonnay” or “zinfandel” – the wine must be comprised of at least 75% of a particular grape. The remaining 25% can be used at a winemaker’s discretion. Thus, a “Pinot Grigio” might have up to a quarter of its total volume made up of other grapes. Lest you think that’s some sort of cheating, adding a touch of a secondary grape variety or two can markedly improve a wine’s complexity and flavor. In some areas of France and Italy, one can be hard-pressed to find a wine that isn’t a blend.

In this case, Geyser Peak blends some gewürztraminer into their Pinot Grigio to produce a more aromatic character. I thought it brought out some interesting scents in the bouquet, which to me  smelled of sliced apples and apple blossoms. The body has initial flavors of apple and melon alongside a mineral character which I expect comes from the gewürztraminer. The finish quickly went from melon to a lingering flavor of tart grapefruit. I picked up a bitterness at the end which the Sweet Partner in Crime did not. She liked this wine quite a bit, while I was somewhat lukewarm on it. $14.

Geyser Peak 2012 Sauvignon Blanc – No need for varietal-based discussion here. This white is 100% sauvignon blanc. The nose is heavy with flowers and tropical fruit. I thought it was fairly light bodied for a California sauvignon blanc, which can sometimes trend towards the sticky. There’s also a minerality here reminiscent of some white Bordeaux that is usually lacking in many domestic sauvignon blancs. The ripe, tropical flavors on the nose are in full effect on the body along with some melon, which fades gradually into a lingering fruity finish. I appreciated that this wine had a very good balance. We ended up pleasantly polishing the bottle off on its own, but I’d think this would be good with Thai food or a salad that had a dressing with a little zing. It retails for $10-12.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Naked Vine One-Hitter -- La Grêle Rosé

I'm a sucker for a good story. Especially if the story involves good neighbors and wine.

It's July 2012 in Provence, France. A freak, vicious hailstorm blows up over the vineyards of Chateau de Roquefort, a winery dating from the 1700's which produces "Corail" -- a longtime favorite here in the world of the Naked Vine. In seven minutes, their entire 2012 crop is more or less destroyed. There would be no 2012 vintage of this wine, or many of their other selections.

Enter a collection of 37 vignerons from around the province and beyond, each of which contributed some of their own harvest to the winemakers at Roquefort so that they would not have to miss a vintage. The folks at Roquefort got to work on a  rosé thanks to the generosity of their friends.

The result was Chateau de Roquefort's "La Grêle" 2012 Rosé -- a true regional partnership borne from compassion and friendship. The story in and of itself warranted a tasting in my eyes.

One of the truly interesting notes about this wine is that it's a first of its kind in France. As we've discussed previously, French wine law is extensive and very specific -- especially when it comes to the naming of wines. Under normal circumstances, a wine can only be produced from grapes grown within a particular area. With La Grêle (French for "the hail"), however, the grapes came from multiple growing regions. Thus, rather than a "Cotes du Provence" as you'd usually see, this is an "IGP Méditerranée-- which translates roughly as "frickin' mishmash that we don't have a real name for."

How is it? Pretty darned tasty. If you like Provence rosé (and if you don't, dear god why not, you silly person!), then you'll find this to be right in line with many of those. Substantial in flavor without being overly heavy, full of peaches and raspberries, and very clean. I thought it held its own against just about any pink wine I've tasted this year. Well worth the $16 pricetag, and easily spotted on your local wine store's shelf because of the distinctive label, adorned with the names of the "With a Little Help From My Friends" crew of winemakers.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Italian Heavy Hitter – Sagrantino di Montefalco

“It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness…”
 – E.M. Forster, “Howard’s End”
“I’m feeling vulgar. Pour...”
 – Mike Rosenberg, “The Naked Vine”

Last year, I did a story on 20 Mondi, a project by graphic designer and journalist Michael Loos in which he visited all twenty Italian wine growing regions, focusing on autochthonal grapes. “Autochthonal” is the term for grapes indigenous to a particular region. There are over 600 indigenous grape varietals in Italy. Many are being grown in increasingly smaller quantities, replaced by more commonly demanded varieties.
Montefalco, Umbria -- surrounded by Sagrantino vineyards

Such was the case with the Sagrantino di Montefalco grape from the province of Umbria. Loos describes Umbria as the “green heart of Italy,” as it is the only land locked province. Cultivation of Sagrantino in Umbria can be traced to the town of Montefalco in 1549, although vineyards in that area date back as far as 1088. The name of the grape comes from the Latin “sacer,” meaning “sacred” – referring to the concentrated raisin wine produced by monks in this area both for religious rituals. A “regular” version of this wine was consumed in quantity during religious feasts and festivals like Easter and Christmas.

Umbria is known traditionally for white wines. A combination of demand for those whites and the relative low yields of Sagrantino vines pushed much of the native red varietal out of the local vineyards during the 1960’s and 70’s, almost wiping it out completely. In 1979, a few wine producers sought a “classified status” for Sagrantino, which allowed broader cultivation. The status was granted in 1992. From that time, the acreage of Sagrantino vineyards has quadrupled.

If you’re in the “I drink red wine because it’s good for my health” camp, you’ve found your wine. Sagrantino’s claim to fame is that it has the highest concentration of polyphenols of any grape varietal in the world. Polyphenols are the chemical compounds found in red wine (sometimes called resveratrol) that help the body protect itself from cellular damage.

I also discovered that Sagrantino may be the most tooth-staining grape varietal. When I brushed my teeth the night after drinking the first bottle, I spit almost-black. My teeth looked like I’d been at a long red wine tasting. (And yes, I brushed again.)

Speaking of tasting, these are frickin’ enormous wines. I considered Barolo and Barbaresco to be the “big Italians” until I tried Amarone – the super-concentrated wine made from partially dried grapes in Valpolicella. Move over, bambini. Sagrantino are inky black in color, highly tannic, and very high in alcohol. One of the samples clocked in at 15.5%. So if you’re trying them – decant, decant, decant! (And assign a designated driver if you’re not at home.) Get the wine into a decanter a minimum of 90 minutes before you start your meal. Honestly, I’d open it at lunch to serve it with dinner.

Sagrantino is not an inexpensive wine. Most of them run between $25-50 for a standard sized bottle. (Like Amarone, it’s often available in half-bottles.)

When I drink wines like this, I generally try to cook up some Italian recipes that I think should pair nicely. I worry less about the tasting notes than I do the overall experience with this sort of wine. For the sake of comparison, here’s what the winemakers say about this set of samples:

Arnaldo Caprai 2007 "Collepiano" Sagrantino di Montefalco ($50)
Aromatically sensational. Intense, with notes of mature fruit and hints of spice and aromas of vanilla transcended from the barriques. On the palate the wine is potent, soft and velvety, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Perticaia 2007 Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG ($47)
Spicy nose with a scent of cinnamon that doesn’t overpower the aroma of red fruit and black cherry. A very full and persistent wine with an agreeable touch of rustic bitterness.

Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino DOCG ($37)
Complex, elegant and intense nose with notes of red fruits, red citrus, ripe plums, herbs and leather. An immense wine balanced by fresh acidity and a spicy finish.

The first meal I made for these wines was lamb shoulder braised in a fresh-sage and rosemary tomato sauce over penne, with the Perticaia alongside. The “middle” wine’s considerable strength allowed it to harmonize beautifully with the rich flavors in that lamb dish. The description above for the wine’s flavor above is apt, but alongside the strong herbs and savory richness of the sauce & ultra-tender meat – the fruit flavors hidden beneath that tannic blanket start to emerge and balance. A hedonistically good pairing.

With a day off for the 4th of July, I put together one of my famous eggplant parmesans – one of the SPinC’s faves. Eggplant parm needs a tannic accompaniment. The Collepiano (selected by the Wizard of Covington) went into the decanter as I was making my sauce. A couple of hours later, the parmesan was ready, the wine was poured, and…we puckered. I can’t remember ever tasting a wine this tannic. Any fruit there was lost beneath a layer of asphalt. The finish was almost an unearthly level of dry.

“I just can’t do it,” said the Sweet Partner in Crime, switching to a glass of Montepulciano d’Abbruzo. I got through a glass of it and switched over to the Montepulciano myself. I put the wine back in the bottle, stoppered it, and gave it a try a few other times over the following weekend, hoping that it would develop some flavor structure. It never did. I figure either this wine was more man than I am, or we might have accidentally received a flawed bottle -- as it did develop a slightly vinegary aftertaste.

However, I wasn’t going to let a $50 dollar bottle of wine go down the drain. I’d always wanted to make a traditional Risotto al Barolo, but I don’t have the budget to blow Barolo money on a cooking wine. Sagrantino has a similar flavor profile, so Risotto al Sagrantino it is!  Umbria produces almost half of the black truffles in Italy, so I splashed a little truffle oil on the risotto before serving it with our third wine, the Scacciadiavoli. The risotto turned out fifty kinds of awesome, if I do say so myself. The Scacciadiavoli (Italian for "Devil hunters") was considerably better than the Collepiano, in that it actually had some plum and cherry fruit amidst the tannic tar.
The heavy tannins cut through the creaminess, helped by the wine already cooked in to the risotto. I thought it was a really good match. The SPinC, possibly still scarred from the Collepiano, had a small glass and returned to her Montepulciano. “It’s too much,” she said of the wine’s tannin.

For my fans of big, powerful Italian wines (Uncle Alan, I’m looking at you!), a Sagrantino di Montefalco is going to be a nice change of pace. With rich, meaty dishes – especially when there’s a chill in the air – it’s a good choice for a special occasion. I’d definitely do it again with that lamb dish I made. However, if you like your wines on the less intense side, you’ll find lighter reds that will fit the bill better.

(Many thanks to Paul Yanon of Colangelo PR for the Sagrantino samples.)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Still Naked, Still Peppy -- The Return of Pepi Wines

Summertime sippers. Got to have them.

A pair of samples from Pepi Wines showed up not long ago. Astute readers of the Vine may remember that I wrote a review on Pepi’s 2011 vintage last year. I’m certainly not one to shy away from repeat performances. You know……quality control purposes.

Pepi, taglined as “A True California Original,” makes whites only. They do a chardonnay, a pinot grigio, a sauvignon blanc, and a blend of chenin blanc & viognier. The grapes for these wines are sourced from all over California – largely from cool-climate areas in the state. According to their trade info, Pepi was one of the first wines in California to be bottled with a Stelvin closure, better known as a quality screwcap. (I am a long-time unabashed fan of Stelvined-up wines, as many of you know.) 

Pepi wines generally retail for right around $10. I had a bottle each of the pinot grigio and the sauvignon blanc. How'd they fare?

Pepi 2012 Pinot Grigio – As with many California pinot grigios, this bottle makes a very pleasant summertime picnic selection. I found the Pepi to have a more pronounced bouquet than many inexpensive pinot grigios. The nose is full of apple blossoms and lemons. On the palate, it was more full-bodied than I expected. It’s almost a little “glyceriney” on the tongue, but I didn’t find that necessarily to be a bad thing. The flavor is crisp and lemony, although the tartness does turn slightly sour towards the lingering finish. It’s easy to sip on its own, but I would prefer it with food. It would be good with almost any light meal, especially if were seeking a wine pairing for a vinaigrette-dressed salad that has a little bit of fruit in it. Pepi recommends a Cajun-flavored shrimp, fish, corn and sausage skillet, which I could certainly see working.

Pepi 2012 Sauvignon Blanc – The Sweet Partner in Crime and I were putting together a dinner of steamed mussels with chorizo and white beans. The recipe we were pulling from suggested a “fruity, California sauvignon blanc.” How convenient that we had the second bottle of Pepi for pairing purposes. This is a much more balanced wine than the price point implies. The nose is full of pineapple and green apple. The body is fruity and citrusy, and the acidity never really becomes sharp – even through the lingering, citrusy finish. Alongside the mussels, the wine was a champ. I thought it handled the savory, spicy, and herbal flavors without getting rolled. We agreed this is a nice, flexible “keep around for your summertime needs” bottle.

Bottom line – after peeking back at my review from last year, Pepi has done a good job keeping these wines consistent from vintage to vintage. If you’ve tried them in the past and liked them, you won’t find any surprises. If you haven’t tried them, I’d recommend the sauvignon blanc for a tenner. 

(Thanks to Stacey at Balzac for the samples.)

Monday, July 08, 2013

A Med Spread for Summertime

“Every culture makes wine to go with what they’re eating.”
Naked Vine Wine Pairing Rule #1.
I have a slightly more difficult time pairing wines in summer. I’m not a huge fan of massive, tannic wines when it’s hot, and I don’t have a lot of patience for watery pinot grigio. I drink a lot of rosé, as we’ve long established, and I do like to have options. At times like this, I turn my sights to places where folks have dealt with blistering summers for centuries – the Mediterranean.

Thanks to the good folks at Bourgeois Family Selections, the wine fairy delivered an array of interesting, affordable Mediterranean yumminess for our consumption here at Vine HQ. 

Bodegas Latúe 2012 Airén White Wine – The first of the two biodynamic wines from the Bodegas Latúe
wine collective in the province of Toledo in Spain. Their wines are all certified organic – by both Spanish and American standards. Their white is made from the Airén grape, which is one of the more common Spanish white grapes. Airen once represented almost 30% of all grapes grown in Spain, but because of its lower yields, some wineries are replacing it with higher-yield grapes. The wine has a pale straw color that yields a peach blossomy nose. I braced myself ready for an acid ball on pouring. It certainly is acidic, but there’s a generous amount of peach flavor to go alongside. After the wine gets some air, the finish goes from a somewhat bitter lemon-rind flavor to a softer citrus like an almost-ripe nectarine. I thought it would go well with fish tacos and southwestern rice, and I was certainly not disappointed. $10.

Bodegas Latúe 2012 Tempranillo – Latúe also makes a Tempranillo in a similarly organic fashion. This one has a fairly fragrant nose of cherries and cranberries. The body is on the lighter side, but there’s enough tannin to make it feel substantial, which is a real plus as a summer wine. I thought there was a nice balance of fruit and tannin, even if it is, as a whole, a bit lean. The finish is where the tannins really make an appearance, drying out the palate or standing ready to cut through the fat of a steak. Despite the relatively light body, it worked nicely with a thick grilled, marinated flank steak. I’d snag it again, especially at $10.

Domaine de Ballade 2012 Cotes de Gascogne – This wine is very refreshing blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Columbard from the region of Gascony in southwest France. All in all, I’ve discovered that Gascony really produces some of the most consistently refreshing summer wines. This bottle is no exception. The nose is full of lemon and wet stones. The medium-light body holds a grapefruity blend of mineral and acidity that finishes with a nice snap. A super wine for a warm day on the porch, at a picnic, or at the beach. It also turned out to be a really nice pairing choice for seafood. We had this with seared scallops with a grapefruit, fennel, and cucumber salad. Harmonious. Around $11-12.

Clos Teddi 2011 Patrimonio Vermentinu – I admit to my surprise when I saw this wine was French. I’d always associated the Vermentino grape with Italy, specifically with Sardinia, where it makes a crisp, flavorful white wine. In France, the grape is known as “Vermentinu” and – like in Italy – is primarily grown on an island. This time, the island is Corsica. Patrimonio, which I initially thought was a nod to the grape’s Italian ancestry, turns out to eb the Corsican wine region. The site of the winery was a Greek settlement in 800 BC. The winery itself is named for Thethis, one of the Greek goddesses of the sea and mother of Achilles. How about the wine? Really nice. Smooth and minerally. The nose is another good demonstration of “wet stone,” mirrored in the mineral on the palate. There are rich apple and orange flavors on the body, with a nice pepperiness throughout. Simply put, this is a just a very tasty wine. It’s a bit more expensive at around $27, but if you’re looking for a nice bottle to share among friends, it’s a solid call.

Elicio 2011 Cotes du Ventoux Blanc – Some nights, I land on an unexpectedly strong wine match. On a hot, June evening, we needed something refreshing on its own that could still go with some herb-broiled trout and fresh green beans in a honey mustard vinaigrette dressing with almonds. That’s a challenging pairing with loads of flavors shooting off in different directions. I needed something somewhat substantial so it wouldn’t get trampled and still added something to the meal. This $12 bottle rose to the occasion. It’s a pleasant sipper, also 100% Vermentino, full of flavors of papaya and citrus with a load of minerals. The finish is fruity and crisp and overall – it’s quite tasty. Alongside the dinner, it was balanced and inoffensive. Honestly, that’s exactly what I wanted. I’d pick this up again.