Sunday, November 26, 2017

Revisiting Australia with Hope Estate

Australian wine played a major role in the early days of my wine education. I was in graduate school, invited to one of my first “grownup” parties. The party was hosted by the boyfriend of one of my classmates, a debonair business sort who hailed from Sydney. He’d bought the local wine store out of Jacob’s Creek and Penfolds, it seemed. I was a beer guy at the time, but was always willing to drink for free learn about new drinks.

After that, Shiraz from Australia became one of my “have a bottle lying around” reds – largely because it was decent, inexpensive, and easy to drink. The Sweet Partner in Crime (who also has an Australian wine history thanks to her stint as a server at Outback back in the day…) and I went through our courtship consuming copious quantities of Rosemount Estates’ Grenache-Shiraz.

But times change and palates change. Most of the Australian wine available in my price range for many years was relatively uninteresting – big jammy reds, semi-sweet Rieslings, and steel tank one-note Chardonnay were always available. A friend of mine in the wine business referred to the inexpensive Australian juice as “Pop-Tart Wine” – because every flavor basically tasted the same. There were some higher quality Australian reds to sample, but many of them were out of our price range at that point. As my wine education took my palate to different areas of the world, Australian wine largely dropped off my radar.

Until recently, that is. My recent dispatches about the wine shortages brought about by climate change in North America and Europe prompted me to start looking below the equator for better wine values. Fortuitously, the wine fairy dropped off a package of wines from Hope Estates in Australia’s Hunter Valley, in New South Wales near Sydney.

Hope Estate, founded by Michael Hope in 1992, started as a single vineyard, but has expanded to an entertainment complex which includes a brewery, a café, and a 20,000 seat amphitheater – if you’re ever in the neighborhood. A four pack of Hope Estates wines got me rethinking the lack of Australian wine in my portfolio, as they were all quite good and sit at a nice price point:

Hope Estates 2016 Wollombi Block Semillon – I don’t know when the last time was that I tried a straight Australian Semillon. Must be a decade, at least. Semillion’s a native grape of France, where it’s usually blended into white Bordeaux or noble rotted to make Sauternes, the most expensive (and for good reason) dessert wine in the world. In Australia, though, Semillon is grown as a primary white varietal. If this wine’s any indication, I’ll need to work this into the rotation somewhere. This version’s a crisp, minerally white full of lemons and limes. Lots of minerals on the palate, which has a nice weight and a little honeyed sweetness. Most wines this acidic feel much lighter. Pretty floral nose, too. $14.

Hope Estates 2015 Hunter Valley Chardonnay – As I mentioned, for me, Australian Chardonnay always seemed uncomplicated and forgettable. Some winemakers seem to have taken up the challenge of improving these wines. This estate grown Chardonnay is aged in French oak with extended time on the lees to add to the mouthfeel. It has a very fruity nose -- bananas and pears, which leads to a full flavored body with a nice creaminess. The flavor yields plenty of pears and peaches, transitioning to a well-balanced oakiness. The finish is lasting, fairly crisp, and with a nice little smokiness. A nicely put together wine. Good value at $14.

Hope Estates 2014 “The Ripper” Shiraz – The first of two Shiraz bottlings in this set. Don’t be frightened by the name of this wine – “Ripper” is an Australian slang term for “Great.” Honestly, I feel like that’s a pretty solid interpretation of this particular bottle. Full of Oz-Shiraz red fruit-forwardness on the nose and palate, the Ripper pulls back into a nicely balanced middle of spice, licorice, plums, and leather. Not the fruit bomb you might expect from an Australian Shiraz, the finish on this is long and fruity, but with a solid tannic backbone. A particularly strong value at $18.

Hope Estates 2014 Basalt Block Shiraz – The “Basalt Block” is a parcel of land in the Broken Back mountain range with deep, volcanic soil, which lends an earthy characteristic to this wine not found in the Ripper. This one has a lovely nose of coffee and plums that transitions into a deeper, smokier fruit on the palate. Blackberry, graphite, and smoke entwine on a firm tannic base. The finish tickles on for quite a good length of time, with smoke and dark fruit alternating. Fans of Rhone Valley-style blends will really enjoy this wine. Again, $14.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Naked Vine’s 4 B’s of Holiday Wine Buying

Congratulations, you social animal, you! You scored an invite to a holiday party. People like you…they really like you! I mean, that is, as long as you walk in the door with a bottle or two.

Sometimes a host or hostess will make your job easy. They might say, “Here’s what we’re having for dinner, so can you bring X, Y, and Z?” Chances are, though, you’re going to be on your own in the wine store, and, lucky for you, the Vine’s your trusty wingman.

Over the years, I’ve been asked to lug in a lot of wine. Unless something in particular gets specified, I’ve learned through experience that you can make holiday partygoers oenologically happy about 90% of the time with wine from one of four categories, and you shouldn’t have to spend more than $15 on a bottle. Think of them as our “Four B’s” of holiday wine buying: 
  1. Bubbles
  2. Blush
  3. Beaujolais
  4. Big

First off, Bubbles. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Sparkling wine’s going to be a good choice for any number of reasons. A quick aside – you might notice that I didn’t say “Champagne.” While northerners may call all carbonated beverages “Pop,” not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Only wine from the specific region of France is Champagne. And, unless your friends are a lot swankier than mine, you’re not going to need to drop the kind of coin on actual grower Champagne for most occasions.

I have two go-to sparklers for parties. First is Prosecco, a sparkling wine made largely from the Glera grape made in the Prosecco region of Italy. Prosecco tends to taste of lemons and pears and has a fairly high level of carbonation. Prosecco has had a popularity boom over the last few years -- it globally outsold Champagne for the first time in 2013.

Next is Cava – Spain’s national sparkling wine. Made largely from the grapes Macabeau, Xarel-lo, and Parelleda, Cava’s flavors run towards the peach and pear with more and more of a toasty finish, similar to what you’ll find in Champagne.

Which to get? I prefer Prosecco with antipasti and light appetizers, while Cava is a traditional accompaniment for any sort of tapas or spread of various sorts of food. Also, most of the Prosecco and Cava you’ll find will be labeled either “Brut” or “Extra Dry.” Believe it or not, Extra Dry is sweeter than Brut. With food, I generally prefer Extra Dry. On its own, refresh with Brut.

Our second B, Blush, refers to the wine I’ve championed in this space for a decade – dry rosé. Now, I love the stuff no matter where it’s from. For my money, it’s the most flexible of the still wines, and the stigma of looking like you’re carrying white zinfandel into a party has largely gone by the wayside.

Rosé is made all over the world. French rosé, especially rosé from Provence, tends to be lighter-bodied, delicate, and acidic. Spanish and South American rosé tend to be somewhat bigger and fruitier. Italy generates what might be called “red wine drinker’s rosé.” Many of those rosato are full and rich, and could pass as light red wines. American rosé is steadily improving and is made in a variety of styles – depending on the wine region. Warmer climates, like central California, will produce fruitier wines, while cooler or higher altitude regions like Oregon offer wines which are more delicate. Choose according to your preferences.

Third, to make up for my Champagne slight, I’ll tip my hat to one of my favorite party reds, Beaujolais, the wine with something for everyone. Beaujolais, a French wine made from the Gamay grape, is a red that I find is best served slightly chilled. Beaujolais is another super-flexible food wine, pairing nicely with everything from salmon to steak. I think it’s the perfect wine for a Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s very enjoyable on its own.

The $15 price-range Beaujolais you’ll see most often is “Beaujolais-Villages” – meaning the grapes were grown anywhere within that particular region. You’ll likely get flavors of red berries, cherries, and cola therein. If you want to splurge, there are ten municipalities within Beaujolais which make more complex versions of the wine. These wines will cost $20-30 and will have the name of the town (like “Fleurie,” “Morgon,” or “Julienas”) on the label.

Also, don’t get suckered by Beaujolais Nouveau, the “early release” Beaujolais. In the States, the Beaujolais Nouveau release is little more than a marketing ploy. The wine’s of lower quality than other Beaujolais, and it’ll cost you more. Skip it.

Finally, when in doubt, go BIG. There will always be rosy-cheeked folks at a party who want super-fruity, high-alcohol red wine. Indulge them with a California Zinfandel. While there are many expensive California Zins that are rich, complex wines – we’re at a party (or maybe a barbecue) here, so we don’t want complicated and expensive. Zins are typically big and jammy. You won’t be hurting for flavor here. They’re the best wine pairing for ribs that you’ll come across.

I recently had Zinzilla, the “California Monster Zin” from McNab Ridge with a Groot-like creature on the label. While not for the faint of heart, it is well-balanced for a $12 wine that could easily have lurched into plonk territory. You can find this wine, and others with “Zimmilarly” fun names at wine stores everywhere.

Hope this helps you get your party on this holiday season. Cheers!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Montes & Kaiken...and a bit on climate

Let’s talk for a second about climate change. The planet is warming. One immediate impact is going to be on terroir. 

Tour any winemaking region, and a grower will tell you about the particular “microclimates” in certain valleys that make the grapes grow just so. A growing season’s weather largely determines the success of an individual season’s harvest.

While some regions are doing well, many of the major grape growing regions have been smacked simultaneously with some climate-driven calamities. Wildfires in California chewing through vineyards, huge hailstorms in France, abnormally hot weather in Italy and Spain – all these things are combining to produce, on average, one of the worst yielding harvests in memory across the Northern hemisphere.

The result? Well, aside from many boutique wineries shuttering permanently and vineyards that may take decades to recover from the damage – the immediate impact likely will be a steady increase in the price you’ll pay at the store for your vino, especially from regions in our half of the planet.

So, what to do? Well, grit our teeth and bear it, mostly, but it doesn't hurt to peek into some other regions to get the best bang for your wine buck. And our friends South of parallel zero will be happy to fill the need.

I recently had the chance to sample four bottles from Montes, a major Chilean wine producer. Montes began producing wine in 1987, and their Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon was, according to their website, the first “premium” wine to be exported from Chile. They followed that with Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot – then began producing an “Icon” series of higher-end wines as well as some more affordable options. Eventually, the Montes operation expanded across the Andes into neighboring Argentina, where they began producing wines under the “Kaiken” label (“Kaiken” is a wild goose, native to the area, often seen flying over the Andes…)

Here were my thoughts about these reds and whites:

Kaiken 2016 Terroir Series Torrontes – The nose on this wine is striking and powerfully floral. Peach blossoms practically explode from the glass here, reminiscent of many Viognier. My first taste impressions of this medium-bodied white reminded me a lot of a Dreamsicle, if you dial the sweetness way back. The finish, however, is quite dry and slightly alkaline, which for me detracted a bit from the wine’s overall balance on the palate. I liked it well enough, but it would be better with the right food pairing, like sushi – even grocery store sushi – with which it worked nicely. Around $15.

Montes Alpha 2014 Colchagua Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – The tech notes for this wine include the statement “Recommend decanting for 30 minutes.” In all honesty, I was surprised to see this on a Chilean cab, many of which – especially in our regular price range – tend to be more of the “pop and pour” variety. This bottle, however, definitely needs to breathe a bit. And I’d recommend full-on decanting, rather than just opening the bottle. Even after an hour, this wine was extremely tight – I got little but tannin and a little dark fruit to go with the steak I’d made. The fruit was still emerging after a day or two – plums and blackberries with a fair amount of lingering pepper on the finish, to go with some pretty robust coffee and leather. A “beef and chocolate” wine, certainly. Around $20-23.

Montes 2017 Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc – If you’re a fan of citrusy, grassy Sauvignon Blanc, this is going to be a good choice for you. Fragrant nose of grapefruit and lemon leads into a crisp, acidic body of lemons and melons. Finish is tart, with a streak of minerality to go along with a lemon custard aftertaste. A very refreshing, lighter bodied Sauvignon Blanc that would pair nicely with harvest salads and the like. Let the wine’s acidity cut through heavier cheeses and fruits. $15-17.

Kaiken 2014 “Ultra” Malbec – The ol’ Argentinean champ, Malbec, is going to be a great alternative if you’re trying to find some richer flavors. This “Ultra” line from Kaiken is the complement to the “Icon” line from Montes which I mentioned earlier – these being wines of some complexity and depth. With this Malbec, I found raspberry and cherry on the fragrant nose. The mouthfeel is big bodied at first sip and lives up to the “Ultra” name. It’s quite tarry and mouth coating. The flavor runs to berries and dark, chewy tannins that lead to a leather and charcoal run at the end. It’s a big honkin’ wine — maybe too big for sipping solo – but with something that has a little fat, like a good chop or ribeye, alongside, it’s a quality choice. $18-21.