Thursday, May 04, 2017

Locations Wine -- Blends that Break the Rules

What’s in a name?

When it comes to wine, nomenclature can mean a great deal – depending on which country’s soil you’re standing upon…or, more accurately, which country’s terroir you’re about to start slugging on.

As we’ve discussed in this space, especially among European wines, the name on the bottle typically refers to the region from which the wine is created. There are no grapes named “Bordeaux” or “Rioja.” Whether a wine drinker knows the exact grape or blend of grapes in a bottle, he or she can be reasonably confident of a wine’s style based on its locale of origin. French Burgundy, made from Pinot Noir, will necessarily have a different flavor than the Grenache/Syrah blends of the Rhone Valley.

These general naming conventions, blends of regional grapes, flavors and styles have been reasonably consistent (and often enforced by local and state food-related law) for decades or even centuries.

Enter Dave Phinney. Phinney, the winemaker who burst onto the scene in the late 90’s with “The Prisoner” – a Zinfandel-heavy field blend from California which put his Orin Swift Cellars on the map – has, over the last few years, built up a following around a set of blends he’s named Locations Wine.

(Side note: In case you’re wondering about who “Orin Swift” is, Orin is his father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name.)

With Locations, Phinney and his team attempt to distill the essence of a country’s wines across its terroir – blending grapes from various wine growing regions to build a reflection of a “national” wine. Locations produces wines from Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, and Corsica. On the domestic side, they produce blends from Oregon, Washington, California, and most recently, Texas.

So, for example, the California wine is a blend from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and the Sierra Foothills – four regions with very distinct differences in terroir and grape type production. Juice from those regions rarely gets tossed in together. As for the European cuvées, many would consider such blending high heresy. Furthermore, the wines are non-vintage, which allows Phinney to blend wines from multiple years into the final mix. Each release is numbered. This year’s is “4.”

All but the Corsican wine are adorned with the formerly ubiquitous white oval stickers that used to adorn most cars in Europe before the advent of the European Union. (The Corsican wine is labeled with a silhouette of a wicked looking shepherd’s knife.) You’ve seen these labels before:

Locations Wine: France, Italy, Spain

I had the opportunity to try three of the blends at a “virtual tasting” with Phinney. He said that the general style of Locations is targeted towards the U.S. market. The idea, he said, was to give people an entry point to European wines; to try to turn people on to wines from countries they might not have tried before. He said that he knows that what he’s doing breaks a lot of traditional rules, so he spent a great deal of time putting together his blends. “I needed them to be beyond reproach.”

Locations sent three samples – their offerings from Italy, France, and Spain. One commonality across all three reflects Phinney’s comment about aiming these wines at American palates. All three have what I would consider New World sensibilities. I found them all to have, in general, bigger mouthfeels and more fruit-forward than most wines I’ve tried from the counterpart country. The French wine, for instance, lacked the “funk” that many Old World wines sport. I certainly don’t mean that as a defect – just know going in that you shouldn’t expect a Cotes-du-Rhone or Chianti.

Italy – The Italian entry is a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia in the South and Barbera from the Piedmont in the North. Thick dark fruits on the nose – plums and blueberries. The nose feels as if it’s going to be attached to a wine of considerable weight, but the palate is surprisingly limber. Some nice spicy notes there, too. There’s a hint of that Italian chalkiness hanging around on the finish, backed by dark fruits and smoky tannins. This was my favorite of the three. Dynamite with a red-sauced pasta.

France – The French version is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and “various Bordeaux varietals” (meaning some mix of, Cabernets, Merlot, et al.) from the Rhone, Roussillon, and Bordeaux. It had a fairly thick nose of strawberries and cotton candy with some floral notes. The palate is a nicely balanced mix of strawberries, raspberries, and earth. It’s fairly tannic, with a dry, lasting finish. It really calls for some kind of roasted meat, if you’re going to pair it up.

Spain – Labeled with an “E” for “España,” which I’ll sheepishly admit threw me for a hot second, this blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Cariñena is sourced from regions all across Spain: the Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero. The nose is full of dark fruit and licorice, backed up with menthol and mint. The tannins harden gradually after a few sips into a slate-smoke finish. There’s light tarry flavor of coffee over dark plums. I had it with paella, and it was a tad big, but still a very nice complement. The fruit on this wine faded quickly – even stoppered, I found there was little fruit the next day, leaving largely a tannic, graphite flavor which wasn’t my favorite.

The Locations series retails for around $20. I think it’s an interesting take – and I admit interest in checking in on some of the other blends. (I mean…Texas? I can be convinced, but…)

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