Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- Geyser Peak Redux

When we checked in with Geyser Peak back in the summer, they were rolling out some new packaging, logos, and such to bring their California heritage to the forefront. Now, as winter party season rolls around, Geyser Peak is adding Pinot Noir to their stable of wines, which currently includes Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Geyser Peak’s selections are what I would term “walking around wines” – wines that you might have at a party when you’re walking around, chatting with folks, and not really thinking too much about what’s in your glass at the time. In general, these are wines with basic varietal character, not too much complexity, and straightforward flavors. They’d also make decent tables wines, in my experience.

Initial thoughts about the new Geyser Peak 2012 Pinot Noir? In my judgment, it’s just OK. The nose hasfairly strong cherry and wood aromas. After even a couple of sips, it tasted a little disjointed, like the flavors sort of careen around your palate without a lot of focus. There are some rich raspberry and cocoa flavors, but that’s about it. There’s almost a “hitch” in the wine’s flavor as it goes towards the finish. There’s a little smokiness at the end, but it almost tastes a little artificial – like Liquid Smoke flavoring. It’s definitely drinkable, but it’s certainly not going to make anyone shake their head and go “Yes! This reminds me of a fine Burgundy. Get me another bottle of this immediately!”

The Geyser Peak 2012 Sauvignon Blanc was a little better. It seemed a little different from the bottle I sampled back in July. There are some lime, floral, and melon scents on the nose and the palate is an acidic blend of grapefruit and more of that melon flavor. The crisp finish winds up a little bit on the grassy side, so if you like a New Zealandish style of Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll probably not be disappointed with this one. The finish on the bottle from the summer seemed more fruity to me than the acidic zip of this one.

For some reason, I had in my head that both these bottles retailed for around $8, which would have made them very solid wines for that price. Going back over the promo materials, I saw that the Sauvignon Blanc retails for $10-12. Certainly a reasonable value. The pinot noir is a $15-17 bottle, which I honestly feel is about five bucks too expensive. You can find better pinot noir at that price point. Think of it as Geyser Peak working out the kinks in the process. I would expect the 2013 to be better.

Are You Ready for Party Season?

(Reposting, since I've had a few requests for this...)

The stretch from Hallow’een to New Year’s is often the most heavily-packed time on most folks’ social calendars. Makes good sense, after all – weather’s getting colder, so we tend to gather in groups with libations in hand to have the occasional dinner party, watch some sports, gather with friends, and basically try to stockpile enough levity to get us through the bone-chilling days before Spring comes back ‘round again.

Whether you’re hanging with your friendly neighborhood ghosts and goblins, gathering for a girls’ or boys’ night, or just finding some excuse to be social, you’re going to need some wine, now aren’t you? Based on some recent samplings I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on, here are a few suggestions for different occasions you might consider without breaking the bank.


Still one of my favorite meals of the day, no matter what time of year. For brunch, you want something low-alcohol and festive. By festive, I often mean “something with bubbles.” One of my favorite brunch wines is Prosecco, and I’d put forward the Zardetto Prosecco Brut Treviso DOC as a possibility. Flavorwise, it’s on the peachy end of the scale along with a nice mineral character. Good firmness on the bubbles, too. I think it would be really in its element either as an aperitif, alongside a fruit and creamy cheese plate, or with a cheesy omelette or some crepes. Also, if you're a fan of bubbly as part of a cocktail -- like the prosecco and pear nectar drink above, it would work nicely as a mixer.  At $14, it’s a very solid value.

Your tailgate may not be this fancy.
“Deer lawrd, man – you’re bringing wine to a tailgate?” Well, hells yes, I am. Admittedly, you’re going to be just fine with an armload of beer and bratwurst – but meat or meat substitute cooked over flame goes splendidly with wine as well. Take a tip from the Germans here – they know their sausages. Besides beer, Germans drink a ton of Riesling. The Clean Slate 2012 Riesling Mosel for $11 is a workable choice here. There is some sweetness here, but it’s in the “honeycrisp apple” family of sweet. Alongside the orange and peach flavors in the body is a fair amount of the mineral implied by its moniker. It finishes sweet and a tad acidic. Overall, it’s really pleasant to drink and I think you could have this with any kind of sausage.

But perhaps you don’t want to be seen drinking white wine before a football game. I get that. No worries, comrades. Grab a bottle of Ravenswood 2011 "Napa Valley" Old Vine Zinfandel before heading to the parking lot. Ravenswood is a consistently solid bottle of red that goes very, very well with anything that you can drag or let stand across or near flame – whether it’s steak, burgers, chicken, pulled pork, barbecue ribs – even a quinoa burger if you’re into that sort of thing. Plunk your $14 down and enjoy.

The Casual Shindig

Here are a few wines that you really don’t have to think about very much. They’re simple, uncomplicated, and you can pour away without worrying about anything other than which bedroom your left your coat in when you got there.

For a flexible white, consider the Pepi 2012 Sauvignon Blanc for a tenner. Many inexpensive sauvignon blancs end up being tightly wound acid balls that work better at poolside than in the middle of autumn. This bottle is much balanced and friendly 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. An easy pop and pour.

On the red side of things, especially if there’s some food around, I’d really recommend the Tin Roof Cellars 2010 Merlot – also at $10. The 2010 is a clear upgrade over the 2009 I reviewed last year, which wasn’t a favorite. This year, they’ve added a little bit of cabernet sauvignon and syrah to the petit sirah already in the blend. The result was a merlot with considerable structure and a much better fruit/tannin balance than last year’s. You get some coffee and cocoa flavors to take the edge off what had been a fairly “fruit-bomby” offering. From a value perspective, it’s drinking well beyond its price point and it’s flexible enough to serve as a worthy table red for almost any occasion.

If you’re hosting a party and you need some wine to have around in bulk, I’d suggest the Naked Grape Pinot Noir in a 3-liter box. Let’s be honest – this is a $20 box of wine.  It’s not going to blow you away as a pinot noir if you’re looking for smoky and sultry. It’s very straightforward and fruity – largely cherry and blueberry – but those fruit flavors linger all the way through a fairly soft finish with just a smidge of tannin. It’s a $20 box pinot noir – I wasn’t expecting big, complex flavors when I tried it. What I didn’t expect was just how dangerously drinkable it turned out to be. It’s relatively low in alcohol and easy to knock back – easy enough, in fact, that we powered through the box more quickly than almost any box wine I can remember. If you want to class it up a bit, pour it out into a carafe. Your peeps will think you’ve got style.

Dinner Party

Assuming most of you aren’t doing the whole white tablecloth thing, here are a couple of laid-back choices for your dining pleasure. For a red, I would consider at $13, the Poggio Anima 2010 “Asmodeus” Nero d’Avola. Asmodeus, as any owner of the original Dungeons and Dragons “Monster Manual” can tell you, is the Lord of Hell. I doubt the terroir for this wine is quite that intense, largely because brimstone is not part of this wine’s big, bright flavor. My first impression was of blackberry and cherry on the nose and palate. It’s medium-to-full body, but it’s not as “sticky” as a similarly bouqueted Shiraz would be. Instead, the finish leans out, turning first to a nice tannic dryness and then into that mineral character that many Italian wines possess.

In the pink wine family, look for Mulderbosch 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé. My initial note for this wine says, “a rosé of substance.” I found plenty of strawberry and peach on both the nose and palate along with just a hint of sweetness. It finishes long and fruity, with just a little acidic zing. I thought it made a quality table rosé. With a hearty and flavorful meal (think Thanksgiving dinner), this $11 number from the coastal growing region of South Africa was very pleasant to have in the glass alongside.

Finally, for a white, I give you the $10 Le Drunk Rooster 2011 Chardonnay. After a little air opens it up, a considerable amount of oak starts to emerge. I’m not talking Meridian Chardonnay levels of oak – more like a Mersault from Burgundy (although it’s not creamy like a Mersault). It’s got a tart, green apple character on the palate with a lasting oaky finish. Even as light-bodied as it is, the backbone allows it to stand up firmly next to some pretty hearty fare. We poured this with a chicken and Italian sausage casserole, and it worked just fine.

Party on, folks!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Naked Vine One Hitter -- Pomino!

Say it with me. "Po-MEE-no." Doesn't that sound fun?

What's Pomino? It's a small wine region tucked away in the northeast corner of Tuscany, near the town of Rufina. In 1855, local winemakers, led by the Frescobaldi family, introduced some French grapes -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay alongside the indigenous regional grapes. In a stroke of good fortune for this particular microclimate, these grapes were able to thrive.

The wine fairy (with some help from the folks at Colangelo PR) recently  brought me a bottle of the Marchesi de Frescobaldi Castello di Pomino 2012 Chardonnay. I was intrigued. I've consumed my weight in Tuscany's scrumptious reds, but I'm completely unfamiliar with Chardonnay from there. The Italian whites I'm most familiar with are pinot grigio and the "V" family -- Verdicchio, Vernacchia, and Vermentino. I've sampled others, like Falanghina and Gavi, but if I've had an Italian chardonnay in the past, it didn't make much of an impression.

The Frescobaldi Pomino Chardonnay changed that a bit. This is an interesting departure from those aforementioned Italian whites. The wines I mentioned at the top are all largely lean and acidic. This Chardonnay is certainly a lean-styled wine, but it's much richer than most of its local grape brethren. The nose is a mineral-laden combination of apple and melon, which leads to a somewhat creamy, easy apple flavor. The finish is soft, slightly tart, and slightly minerally. It's very gentle and rich.

The real test of an Italian wine is being paired with food, of course. We had this alongside a penne pasta in a goat cheese marinara with some bits of capicola "bacon" tossed in. I've gotta say, it was a particularly pleasant pairing. I would imagine it would be an extremely food-flexible option if you're thinking about holiday wine.

The Pomino Chardonnay retails for around $18. Frescobaldi also produces a "Pomino Bianco," a blend of chardonnay and the aforementioned pinot blanc, which I would imagine would be very much along these same lines as this wine flavorwise. If you'd like an Italian change of pace, give it a swing.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Naked Vine Triple Play -- More from Mondavi

There are few quality wine stores anywhere in the States you can walk into without bumping into a few Mondavi labels. Mondavi’s wines run the gamut from very expensive to downright cheap. The package that showed up at Vine HQ not long ago contained three bottles from their “Napa Valley” series. This slate of wines generally clock in between $20-50 and are from selected sites within that appellation. This series includes a fumé blanc (aka sauvignon blanc, the wine that put Mondavi on the map), chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and merlot.

One of the benefits of being a wine reviewer is that, if you hang around long enough, you’ll start getting some repeat wines along the way. It turns out that I’ve actually reviewed previous vintages of all three of these wines. Larger wineries generally work differently than smaller ones when it comes to wine flavors and quality. Smaller wineries have to play the hand that’s dealt them, as they have to make the best wine they can with what grows in either their own vineyard or from grapes they can get their hands on. Larger wineries tend to find a “signature” flavor for their wines, then assemble a blend of grapes from their estates and elsewhere to keep that flavor consistent from year to year. I don’t expect a great deal of variation from year to year with wines from big producers like Mondavi, so I was very interested to see how wines from a “major” winery might vary from year to year.

Robert Mondavi 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay – I read over the review of the 2010 I did last year, and I can say that the winemakers of the Napa Valley series didn’t stand pat. Where last year’s chardonnay was full of big fruit and big oak, the 2011 is considerably more subtle. This year’s entry has a nose of pear and oak, which is followed by flavors of pear and apple. There’s a creaminess there that didn’t exist in last year’s model, and the oak has been dialed back considerably. It’s still an oaky California chardonnay, but it’s not quite as charcoally and has some nice subtlety on the finish. I’d call it an improvement. $19.

Robert Mondavi 2012 Napa Valley-Carneros Pinot Noir – In contrast, this vintage of the Napa Valley pinot noir was very similar to the previous review. For this bottle, I’d have written almost exactly the same thing that I wrote for the 2010: “There’s lots of vanilla on the nose, followed by big flavors of plums, cherries, and smoke. The finish is firm, lasting, and smoky…If you like your pinot on the bolder side, it’s a pretty solid choice.” The Sweet Partner in Crime thought that it was a merlot when I first poured it. She thought it was decent, but unspectacular. Like her, I tend to prefer my pinot a bit more subtle, especially with a $26 price tag. It paired well with some chicken breasts roasted with white wine and tarragon alongside an earthy apricot and toasted almond couscous. 

Robert Mondavi 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – It was the end of another busy stretch for the SPinC and I. We wanted to kick back with a nice, easy dinner. We settled on a couple of grilled filets, some buttered carrots with fresh parsley, and a simple, fresh salad. We wanted a nice bottle of wine alongside, and this Mondavi turned out to be a perfect accompaniment for the occasion. I don’t say that because it’s a challenging, complex wine with flavors running every which way that would strike me as fascinating and unique. No, what we hoped for was a wine that was good -- a wine of quality and elegance that would accompany a simple yet well-prepared meal.  We found a winner. There’s a nice blackberry and red fruit core to the wine balanced by mellow tannins, and a finish that lingers softly. As with the chardonnay, this is a marked improvement over the 2010. The blend is similar with around 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with small parts Cabernet Franc and Merlot, but they went back to the more traditional Petit Verdot as a blending grape instead of last year’s addition of Syrah. When you pop into your local wine store with your $28-ish, you can feel comfortable here knowing that you’re getting a quality product that will please most wine-knowledgeable folks at your table.  

(Many thanks to the good folks at Folsom + Associates for the samples.)

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Xtremely Drinkable -- XYZin

"You know it's serious medicine if it's got an X or a Z in the name." -- Bill Maher
The downhill run to Thanksgiving means that we need to start planning our holiday meals -- and the wine that necessarily goes alongside. Zinfandel is a popular choice for Thanksgiving and other holiday meals. Big and hearty, Zins are great choices if you know you're going to have a tableful of red wine lovers.

Our Friends of the Vine at Folsom and Associates sent along a sample of the XYZin 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel -- an interestingly monikered California concoction. This Zinfandel is a blend of old vine grapes from Sonoma, Lake, and Solano counties in Northern California. Largely Zinfandel, there's a little Carignane, Alicante, and Petit Sirah mixed in for good measure.

I like to think about the term "Old Vine" the way that many U.S. wineries use "Reserve." In countries like Spain and Italy, there's a legal standard for what you can call a "Reserve" wine -- usually relating to time in barrel. In the States, "Reserve" usually means "the better wine from a particular winery," and there's no standard.  

Along those lines, there's no real guideline for what constitutes an actual "old" grapevine. The general rule of thumb is "older than 45 years. Since grapes from older vines in a vineyard tend to be the more flavorful, an "old vine" Zinfandel from a particular winemaker will likely be better than their "regular" Zinfandel -- but it isn't a very reliable measuring stick when you're comparing wines from different wineries.

As with most Zinfandels, this is a pretty big, honkin' wine. The nose is full of vanilla and blueberries. There's a lot of cherry and blueberry flavor along with some nice pepperiness, especially right after tasting it. There's tannin here, but I'd certainly slant it towards the fruitier end of the spectrum.

This is one of the quickest finishing Zinfandels I've ever tasted. The flavor goes FRUIT-fruit-fruit...and then quickly drops away almost to nothing, even after it gets some air. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but if you're looking for loads of rich, lingering fruit on the palate, this may not be your wine.

To properly judge this wine as a potential piece of the holiday table, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I put together a Thanksgivingish meal: roasted turkey breast cutlets with a sweet potato and gold potato gratin. (And they were both awfully tasty, let me tell you!) That's where this wine belongs -- on a table next to a meal like that one. While the quick dissipation of the wine's flavor may be a little disappointing on its own -- as a table wine, it actually plays to an advantage.

Thanksgiving meals tend to have dishes with flavor profiles flying in all directions, so the best wine match is one that can go well with food, but that largely stays out of the way. With the XYZin, the strong burst of fruit says, "Hey, I'm drinking hearty wine here!" but then doesn't conflict with any of the other flavors in the meal. At a Thanksgiving meal, most folks aren't playing with wine pairings anyway -- they just want a good glass of red if that's their thing, and this one would generally make a positive impression.

XYZin retails for around $12.