Friday, March 23, 2018

Naked Vine One-Hitter: UK, Bourbon, Zinfandel, and 1000 Stories

Ashley is unhappy today.

With Kentucky bounced unceremoniously by Kansas State from the NCAA Tournament last night, many UK fans are likely looking for some liquid salve to soothe some disappointment. A bottle happened across my tasting table that might fit the bill.

I recently had the chance to try 1000 Stories 2016 California Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel ($16-20) -- a blend of Zinfandel from Lodi and Paso Robles, with a touch of Petit Sirah juice sourced from Lake County. The winemaker, Bob Blue, states that it was rare to see wine aged in French Oak when he started learning his craft, and most American oak barrels were used for whiskey. Over the years, using these barrels has become more commonplace – and now Blue uses used bourbon barrels as a flavoring method.

Barrel aging is an important stage in the life cycle of many wines, both red and white. When a wine spends time in a barrel, the liquid seeps into the wood, extracting chemical compounds that mix with and change the flavor of the wine within. For white wines like Chardonnay, the “oaky” flavor often comes from contact with wood in barrels. For reds, barrel aging adds a depth of flavor and boosts the tannin level.

In any case, this particular wine starts out in standard American and French Oak barrels before being racked into used white oak Bourbon barrels. After a period of months, the wine is finished in older (some apparently 13 years old) Bourbon barrels. Finding old bourbon barrels sounds like a difficult step, but, according to the legal rules governing distillation in the U.S., Bourbon barrels can only be used once to make whiskey. After that, the barrels have long been sold to distillers making whiskeys and other spirits, winemakers, and others. That doesn’t mean this isn’t an important step. Even after being used once, the barrel can still impart some distinct flavors to whatever’s stored inside it.

In this case, the toasted vanilla and crème brulee flavors that are common in bourbon do find their way into this glass of Zinfandel. Those toasty flavors are needed to balance the alcohol. At 15.7% ABV, this is a wine that needs a little taming. I’d suggest, at the very least, you either decant thoroughly or let it have at least half-an-hour’s worth of air after you crack it.

The nose of this wine has a bit of that smokiness in the background, on top of dark fruit and some fairly interesting notes of spice like nutmeg. On the palate, this is a big, honking glass of vanilla, spice, smoke, and considerable alcohol. Once it opens up, plum and sage flavors pop their heads out of the mix and the alcohol recedes a bit. The finish is long, dry, and smoky – the various oak instillings lending pepper and a tooth-staining level of tannin. Honestly, though – I don’t see how much of a difference, other than a sharper oak flavor, that the bourbon barrels actually make with this wine over standard barrel aging. It’s an interesting marketing idea, especially if you’re interested in conversation with whiskey aficionados or unhappy Kentucky fans.

If you like your Zinfandel smoky with big fruits, this would probably be a good choice for you. I’d recommend it next to a plate of meat, preferably grilled. Ribs or rich stews would be solid pairings here, as would really dark chocolate.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Big Smooth Wines

Sam "Big Smooth" Perkins -- who has nothing to do with this wine.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been noticing more and more wines showing up both at Big Wine Store and in restaurants from the Lodi appellation in California. Lodi, which most non-Cali residents recognize from the Creedence Clearwater Revival tune, is just south of Sacramento and almost due east of the Bay Area.

Long-known as an agricultural center, Lodi’s place in the California wine world was mass production of fairly cheap juice. Over the last ten or so years, the lure of wine tourism has caused many local winemakers to up their respective games. Some major winemakers, in this case Sebastiani and Sons, have started creating wines from Lodi fruit.

This year saw the entrance into the market of Big Smooth wines. Big Smooth, with its tagline of “Think Big, Sip Smooth,” features the grape varietals that this section of the San Joaquin Valley is best known for – Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

The bottle designs are pretty simple, as you can see, and the labels have a velour finish, which is supposed to accentuate the smoothness, I guess. They do feel different, so beware – you may end up absently fondling a bottle at some point.

Big Smooth 2015 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon – If you imagine the lean, earthy lines of a Bordeaux and then consider what the polar opposite would be in the Cabernet would – this would probably be a pretty good approximation. There’s little here to the imagination on this Cabernet, which starts out strong and just stays with you.

Big Smooth’s nose is rich with blackberry and baking spices. The first sip yields a full mouthfeel. I found lots of blackberries, currants, alongside rich coffee and chocolate notes on the body. The best part of the experience for me was its lasting finish that holds onto that chocolate essence for a good long while.

I cracked this 14.5% ABV Cab with a surf and turf that I put together after the Sweet Partner in Crime had a hair appointment. I thought it went delightfully well with the steak. As one might expect, it ran over the scallops just a bit – but it worked well enough as a side, even if the SPinC thought it was a bit too much for her.

Big Smooth 2015 Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel – Now, if you’ve paid attention around the store here long enough, you’ve probably heard me mention the notion of an “Old Vine” wine before. There is truth to the notion that older vines tend to produce better quality fruit, albeit at much lower quantity. However, there is no standard definition for what constitutes “Old Vine” – other than what an individual winemaker says it is.

In this case, Big Smooth doesn’t reveal the ages of its vines, but I can tell you  that it’s a big ol’ quaff. Clocking in at 15.5% alcohol, you’re not exactly searching for subtlety when pulling the cork on this big boy. Big jammy flavors of plum, black cherries and vanilla come at you full force. There’s plenty of tannin from its year in largely American oak barrels, but that tannic flavor is stretched out and smoky, which keeps the overall flavor a little more restrained than it could be. It boasts a long finish that’s surprisingly soft for a Zin this big. With a big plate of BBQ, I think it would be a good enough pairing, and it went reasonably well with chocolate. For someone who likes this big, bold style, it would be a fair enough drink.

In general, however, for my palate, these wines weren’t the best match. I thought their fruit forward natures were a bit too fruity, verging on grapey. A decade ago, this probably would have been dead in my wheelhouse, but I’ve trended away from these over the years. That said, I know plenty of folks who would pull the cork and glug these down, delighting in the big sensations of it.

Big Smooth wines retail for around $16-18.