Sunday, September 28, 2014

Freshly Independent -- The Wine of Moldova

Let’s play “Name that country:”

A)    Approximately 25% of the population works in the wine industry.
B)    Its citizens consume the most alcohol per capita in the world.
C)    Is preparing to send much more of its wine to the United States.

Your answer? Moldova – the Eastern European nation of three million people wedged between Romania and the Ukraine, currently preparing to make a much bigger splash in the American wine scene.

Moldovan wine, needless to say, is hardly a household bottle. Moldova does sit on some of the best agricultural land in Europe, and they’ve made wine there since the 1400’s. Vineyards cover more land in Moldova than in any country in the world. About 7% of Moldova’s surface area is under vine. (To put that in perspective, imagine removing all freeways, cities, and In-and-Out Burgers from California and Oregon and planting grapes as far as the eye can see.)

While some indigenous Moldovan grapes are still raised, the bulk of their wine production is of grapes brought in from France, Italy, and Romania after WWII – cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, et al.

In the early 1900’s, Moldova had the largest grape-growing area in the Russian Empire – but the vineyards suffered during the two World Wars. The Soviet Union restored the wine-growing regions during the 40’s and 50’s. By the 1960’s, wine production had returned to pre-WWII levels.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, wine production became one of Moldova’s major economic drivers, accounting for 7.5% of the value of all exports. In 2013, however, Moldova declared that it was planning to join the European Union. Almost immediately, Vladmir Putin declared a ban on imports of Moldovan wine, of which it was the largest importer in the world.

Moldova clearly needs somewhere to sell its existing and future stocks of wine, and it has turned its sights to the West. With a handy assist from Secretary of State John Kerry, the Moldovan state publicity arm is launching its first campaign to promote their wines in the United States.

I was able to dip my toe into the Moldovan wine pool when Tiffany at Colangelo sent me a couple of bottles of Moldova’s big export. I received one bottle of red and one bottle of white. How were they?

We started with the white – the Albastrele 2013 Pinot Grigio. This 100% pinot grigio started off with peach blossoms and a little apple on the nose. I thought it had solid weight for a pinot grigio, and it was well-balanced enough that it doesn’t feel artificially heavy. The palate had some nicely rounded flavors of pear, apple, and a little bit of baking spice. The finish was quite nice – lasting and gentle, starting a tad tart but never developing into anything overly acidic. I thought this was a very nicely designed white with much more complexity than I’d expect from most wines that say “pinot grigio” on the label. A quick spin around the Internet yields some listed prices from $11-13, which is an absolute steal for a wine of this quality. High marks for this bottle.

The bottle of red – the Lion-Gri 2011 Saperavi Dry Red Wine – surprised me a couple of times. Saperavi is the grape varietal, native to Moldova’s sister country across the Black Sea, Georgia. When I saw the wine was only 12% alcohol, I expected to decant something that resembled Beaujolais. Turns out, “Saperavi” translates from Georgian as “paint” or “dye,” and I was a bit shocked when from the bottle poured squid ink! This is one of the “heaviest light wines” I’ve tried. The nose is heavy with dark fruit. The mouthfeel of this wine is fascinating. Everything hits at once: big cherry and plum fruits, strong upfront tannins, and plenty of acidity. It comes in strong like a young tannic cabernet, but then eases down into a gentle finish that isn’t overly strong. The second surprise was the price point. It retails for around $10, which is a ridiculously good price. Plus, I dig "Style & Quality" as a tagline. 

One of Moldova’s best known food items is called mămăligă, (meh-MEHL-eg-uh) a cornmeal porridge also well-known in Romania. Mămăligă is similar to a large polenta cake. On our recent trip to Sonoma, I enjoyed a roasted vegetable ragout on polenta at the Willow Wood Market Café. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I hoped to emulate this meal, which was as close as we were going to get to making mămăligă. We did our best copy job, using roasted eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and a green pepper for our ragout and cracked the Lion-Gri alongside. The big initial tannin meshed really well with the roasted eggplant and the acidity coupled well with the tomatoes. I’d also suggest giving the bottle a little bit of a chill before serving.

In the interest of improving international relations with a country very interested in aligning itself with our allies in the E.U., I think we all have a responsibility to support their economy. Based on the quality of these two inexpensive bottles, I think your diplomatic efforts will be well worth it.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter – Up on the Rúfina

Good ol’ Chianti. You’ve got $15 in your pocket and you’re looking for a good table wine to go with a nice dinner you’re planning – and you know you can amble through la sezione italiana and come up with a decent bottle. If you’ve got a little more scratch to spend, though -- Chianti doesn’t stop with plain old table wine.

Thanks to Juliana at Colangelo PR, the wine fairy dropped off a bottle of Frescobaldi Nipozzano Vecchie Viti 2011 Chianti Rúfina, which was just released in the U.S. and is one of my first experiences in the deeper end of the Tuscan wine pool.

As I’ve covered before, Chianti is not a grape. Italian wines are usually named for the region from which the grapes are grown. Chianti is a large region in central Tuscany which encompasses parts of several Tuscan sub-provinces. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in this region. Speaking of those grapes, at least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese to fall into the Chianti category. The balance of the wine is usually a blend of other Italian indigenous varietals, along with the occasional addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Chianti tend to be relatively lighter-bodied, full of cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, and with a mineral character that feels a little “chalky” to me.

You might see “Chianti Classico” on a bottle if you’re looking. “Classico” has nothing to do with being a “classic” wine. The term refers to the area in the heart of the Chianti region bordered by Florence on the north and Siena on the south. This was the “original” area of Chianti which produces arguably some of the best wine. Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The complement of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region. 

Chianti. Know it. Love it. Live it.

However, there are a few areas outside the Classico region known for making excellent Chianti. In some cases, some of the best. One of those areas is Rúfina – a small area that juts north from Classico into the province surrounding Florence. Rúfina, home to some of the highest-altitude vineyards in Tuscany, is one of the eight sub-zones of the Chianti region which is, like Classico, allowed to affix its name to a wine label as a quality designation.

Because of its altitude, Rúfina has a cooler climate than much of the surrounding area. In my experience, cool climate wines have more complexity and are less fruit-forward than wines made in higher temperature growing regions. If you’ve been keeping up with my recent travels, you know I’m a big fan of cooler weather wines – but most of my knowledge in that area comes from domestically produced grapes. I was curious how this translated to Italian wines.

I can report with confidence that I’m a fan of Rúfina’s cool-climate Chianti. The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti I sampled is made from the oldest vineyards surrounding the Nipozzano Castle in the heart of the Chianti Rufina wine-growing areas. These vineyards are around 1000 feet above sea level, where most vineyards in Chianti average around 600 feet.

Chianti’s never struck me as a particularly fragrant wine, but the Vecchie Viti displayed a difference almost immediately. Although light, the nose smells like strawberry ice cream if it could sprout blossoms. It’s quite pretty. The flavor is medium-bodied with some of the typical Chianti flavors – cherry, cola, coffee, and chalk – and they’re exceptionally well integrated. This harmony continues through the finish, rather than the mouth-puckering acidity and chalky aftertaste of many Chianti. I’ve never considered Chianti a wine that I’d just open and drink on its own – it usually needs food to shine – but this one was very pleasant.

Just the same, Chianti is best known as a food wine. While any night can be a special occasion, the quality and subtlety of this wine would be best with a meal into which you’re trying to introduce some atmosphere. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I decided to try this wine alongside one of her famous homemade pizzas (roasted tomatoes, roast chicken, capers, garlic). Just as an experiment, we also opened a bottle of perfectly decent table wine –the Zonin 2012 Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo – which retails for $12 for a 1.5 liter. The difference in flavors, as the SPinC put it so eloquently, was “like the difference between a Vera Wang gown and a Nordstrom’s knockoff.”

That said, it was the end of a long week – and we were enjoying this pizza while spawled on the couch. While the Rúfina was excellent, the setting really didn’t do the best job of highlighting how good the wine actually was.

I’d recommend opening it for a sit down meal you’ve constructed to engage your senses. I see low light, some music in the background, a little romance in the air, and an Italian meal that’s got red sauce in it somewhere. This is a wine for a “special occasion” alongside someone you’re trying to impress – whether you’ve been with the person for weeks or decades. It’s going to improve whatever you might have on the table. Whether you end up on the table with your intended is an exercise left to the reader.

The Nipozzano Vecchie Viti retails for right around $30, along the lines of what you’d pay for a really good pinot noir. If you’re thinking in those terms, it’s a good value. Spend the few extra shekels to give this one a try.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Bodega Bay Bookend and another Sonoma Snowball

You might remember the Naked Vine’s May trip to California, where the Sweet Partner in Crime and I plopped ourselves down in the town of Sonoma, tooled around a bunch, and tried some delicious wine thanks to the Naked Vine Snowball Technique, which I described thusly:

How does this work? Start at the place where you’re staying. These people live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back, and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want…expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop -- whatever floats your cork. You’ll end up with at least a couple of recommendations. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you feel like you make a connection, then repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. These people live there. They know things. They’ll mention a couple of other places. Those places will mention other places. Patterns form in the recommendations. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.

We decided to head back out west again just before school started – this time using the Sonoma Coast as our base of operations, since we’d not done much exploration of that area of this wonderful wine region. The evening drive through the fog from SFO to the town of Bodega Bay was a bit harrowing, but all's well that ends well! We got checked in to the Bodega Bay Lodge (which I recommend once you get used to the foghorn in the bay going off every 30 seconds) and got ready for our new tour of the county.
(c) the San Francisco Chronicle

The Sonoma Coast AVA (AVA = “American Viticultural Area” – the designation for a subregion within a growing areas), as you can see, is a fairly large portion of Sonoma County. Most of the vineyards in this AVA are at much higher altitude than the rest of the county You might remember, during my writeup of the last Sonoma trip, that I discovered a preference for “mountain fruit” vs. “valley fruit” wines. Mountain fruit grapes from the generally cooler, breezier climates like the Sonoma coastal region create wines that are less fruit-forward and more subtle in flavor. 

These areas favor cool weather grapes such as pinot noir, rather than the Cabernet and Zin that you’d find just a few miles inland as the crow flies. The climate also gives an interesting twist to the Chardonnay and Syrah some growers are producing. The region also produces some absolutely fabulous rosé.   Many of these wines also tend to be somewhat more expensive, as the grapes are more difficult to grow and harvest. It’s easy to burn through a lot of coin ordering stuff if you’re not careful.


We started the snowball in Bodega Bay at a wine and gift shop called Gourmet Au Bay. Their trademark is their “wine surfing” samples, in which you get three pours on a surfboart. After a couple of tastes and a discussion about what we liked, we talked to the manager, Sissy, to see what she might recommend. Out came the highlighter and the map of Sonoma County, and we were off. 
Just getting under way. Two down, one to go.
(Snowball forming on map...)

With the narrow, twisty roads of this part of Sonoma County, we didn’t hit as many wineries as we could have – but I was pleased with our finds. Here were some of our favorites:

Iron Horse Vineyards – The gorgeousness that is the Iron Horse property is right on the border of the Sonoma Coast and Russian River AVA’s, so I’m including it. If you remember, Iron Horse was the tasting experience which started The Naked Vine down its path of oenological debauchery. Nine years had passed since we were last there, and they seem to have done pretty well for themselves in the interim. Unlike nine years ago, when they were crafting incredible cabernets (one of which, “Benchmark,” was the celebratory bottle when the Sweet Partner in Crime made full professor), they only make wine from estate fruit now. This means that they grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – much of which goes into the sparkling wines for which they’re well known. We were fans of the Ocean Reserve Blanc de Blancs ($45), a sparkling wine that has an attachment to the National Geographic Ocean Initiative. Their pinot noirs were exceptional, but quite pricey. The $70 pricetag on the Russian River Pinot Noir was steep, but it’s a great wine. (

Our return to the scene of the crime...Iron Horse.
Lynmar Estate – I’ve talked before about my notion of “wood theory” – in that there’s generally an inverse relationship between the amount of burnished wood in a tasting room and the quality of the wine. Lynmar is an exception to the theory, as their tasting room and surrounding gardens (which include a rosemary shrub taller than I am!) are lovely places to linger. The wine, as well, is lovely to linger over. Their focus is pinot noir and chardonnay, although they’ve begun cranking out some cool-climate Syrah. We really enjoyed their spread. I thought their Russian River pinot noir at $40 was exceptional, especially for the price. Lynmar also was where we discovered that a lot of these wineries are producing some pinot noir for the express purpose of creating rosé, like the good folks in Provence. Lynmar’s rosé was top notch. Their Quail Hill chardonnay, while hardly a bargain at $55, is simply luscious. (

Red Car Wine – Red Car won the “most interesting tasting room” prize from us on this trip, with its funky collection of memorabilia and a vibe that stops on the playful side of hipster. Red Car focuses almost exclusively on production from high-altitude, cold-climate vineyards, which produces very bright, clean, flavorful wine at relatively low alcohol levels. For instance, I don’t see a lot of Syrah under 13.5% alcohol, and Red Car’s Estate ($50) clocked in at 13.3% with gorgeous layers of plum, earth, and chocolate. Their Chardonnay ($35) could have fooled me into thinking it was a white Burgundy along the lines of the clean but oaky Meursault. Their pinots, which start around $40, also have a bit of that lean Burgundian earth and smokiness – and fruits that are very clean and striking. Highly recommended. (
Red Car's tasting room. Good fun.

Taft Street Wines – “Garagistes since 1979” is their proud announcement. Garagistes were winemakers inBordeaux who operated outside the strict French guidelines for wine production, often making their wines in garages rather than on chateaux. The American iteration, which moved from a garage in Berkeley to an old apple processing plant in Sebastapol, was the best overall value of any of our stops. Their estate pinot is under $35, and I took a shine to their Alexander Valley Merlot, which at $20 was the best QPR I found on the trip. Fruity and lush with a really nice cocoa backbone, it’s worth stocking up on. They also produced some of the few sauvignon blancs we tried on the trip -- a steal at $18. (

Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards – Joseph Phelps is a very accomplished Napa winemaker. He’s produced three cabernets -- his “Insignia” label -- that earned 100 points from Robert Parker, including his 2002, which was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator. In 2007, Phelps opened a winery in the Sonoma Coast region for the grapes grown in his new Freestone Vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA. The $55 Freestone Vineyards pinot noir was a delicate, wonderfully balanced offering – full of fruit and smoke. We also discovered Phelps’ “second label” wine – Fog Dog – which were perfectly decent pinot noir and chardonnay, although at the price point, there were better wines in the county. We also had the opportunity to try the 2006 vintage of the “Insignia” which would retail for $240 – making it the second-most expensive wine I’ve ever tried. Needless to say, it was a pretty damned good wine. (  I’ll be writing more about Phelps in the future, so stay tuned.

Fort Ross Vineyard – Fort Ross was the one Sonoma Coast tasting room we visited that was actually on the coast – about a 35 minute drive from Bodega Bay up the windy Pacific Coast Highway up through Jenner (where you absolutely must stop and get a sandwich and a beverage at Café Aquatica) and then up into the mountain fog to the beautiful tasting room, where you can watch the sun burn away the clouds as you sip on some excellent pinot noir and chardonnay. My favorite selection of theirs, however, was a grape I’d not seen anywhere else in the region: Pinotage, the national grape of South Africa – the native country of owners Lester and Linda Schwartz. I like South African pinotage just fine, but it’s usually a rough wine that calls for a big slab of meat from the braai. Planted in these coastal altitudes, the Fort Ross pinotage ($48) yields a rounder, smoother – yet still muscular – glass that features blackberry flavors and a really nice earthiness. Their pinot noir ($42-70) and rosé ($24) were also top notch. (

Fort Ross Vineyard -- Nice view, eh?

Fog Crest Vineyard – Our last stop was a lovely one, here at one of Sonoma’s newest tasting rooms. It’s so new (it just opened this year) that it’s not on the touring maps – and we only learned about it from our friends at Gourmet Au Bay. We were very glad that we made the turn up the driveway and planted ourselves on their lovely terrace overlooking the vineyard for our final tasting of the trip as we headed out of town. The view was a little reminiscent of Iron Horse – so yet another bookend. We really enjoyed the Estate Chardonnay ($39), chock full of crème brulee and spice and their full-flavored Estate pinot noir ($55) with its smoky layers that would be good to stash for a couple of years. The wine that made the biggest impression on me, however, was their Rosé ($21), Rich and fruity for a dry rosé, it’s clearly lovingly crafted. I pulled the trigger on a case for home, since one can never have too much good dry rosé around. (

Saying farewells to Sonoma at Fog Crest.
If you’re over in that neck of the woods, I'd also recommend driving around Bayshore Drive in Bodega to get some oysters at Fisherman’s Cove (, get dinner at Terrapin Creek Café (; and snag brunch at Willow Wood Café in Graton (


Monday, September 01, 2014

Naked Vine Triple Italian -- Three for September's Start

Pinot grigio usually isn’t my speed.

While I’ve come to enjoy Italian whites more and more (I feel pretty safe with almost any varietal starting with “V”) – the light white workhorse grape of Italy doesn’t usually catch my fancy. Simply put, most of the Italian versions I try lean towards the flavor of lemon water. It’s not that these are bad wines, they’re usually just uninteresting, especially at the inexpensive end of the wine pool. That said, if you’re going to be sitting by a pool or relaxing outside on a warm day, they’re usually thirst-quenching critters.

When I got the offer from Dana at Wagstaff of three Italian “whites to beat the heat,” I accepted, of course, but I went into this tasting experience wine with, shall we say, no delusions of grandeur. I had three bottles in the shipment – two pinot grigio and one white blend. Here’s how they stacked up.

Stemmari (NV) Pinot Grigio – This Sicilian offering turned out not to be half-bad. It’s not a complex wine by any stretch, mind you. It’s not going to make you think much, but you’ll be pretty comfortable while you’re thinking of other things. It’s certainly light, but some depth develops there after a couple of sips. Happily, there wasn’t the typical watery finish here – I found it to be rather crisp and tart. The flavors run to the lime and peach. It’s also a pretty good food wine. I made seared scallops and didn’t feel like making a Chablis run that day, so I popped this instead. It worked better than I expected. For around $10 in the summertime, it’s a solid sipper.

Cliffhanger Vineyards 2013 Trentino Pinot Grigio – Traveling back to the Italian mainland, Trentino is the province in the Dolomite mountains where this wine hails from. The wine’s name is drawn because, well, the grapes are largely grown on the faces of the steep granite hills of the region. The bouquet reminded me of lemon cake. It tastes initially like it has some residual sugar, although there’s nothing about that in the wine notes. The body is fuller than I expected, almost chardonnay-ish in weight. The flavor is largely citrus fruit, more of that lemon-cakey flavor, and peaches. The finish, at least at the first few sips, tasted more astringent than crisp. It doesn’t really have that pinot grigio “snap” and almost tastes like there’s a little oak there. It wasn’t at the top of my list for this sort of sipper. Retails for about $13.

Stemmari 2012 “Dalila” White Wine – Back to Sicily for the execution of an interesting idea. The backbone of this wine is 80% Grillo, an autochthonal grape from Sicily. Grillo is a white grape that thrives in the Sicilian heat. It yields a high-alcohol white that is rarely used as a single varietal, since the wines tend to be even less flavorful than pinot grigio. Most Grillo actually ends up in the production of Marsala, the Italian fortified wine. So, someone at Stemmari got the idea to blend in about 20% Viognier for bulk and bouquet. At first try, the added Viognier contributes its characteristic peach blossom scent, but the body is much more reminiscent in style to a pinot grigio. The flavor is primarily citrus, with some honey and vanilla adding a little bit of interest. The finish is quite crisp and fairly abrupt, with just a little flavor of orange peel at the very end. It’s refreshing enough for a hot day, and I liked it more than a generic pinot grigio. Still, at $14, I could probably find an adequate summer sipper for a few dollars less, like the initial pinot grigio from this set.