A quick cautionary tale about jumping to a conclusion about a new wine.
Once in a while we will buy several low cost bottles from our local Trader Joe’s. Rosés, a french wine and maybe a Chilean red or something to round out the home inventory. This specific bottle is a 2014 California Pinot Noir from Monterey County.
We don’t know the producer as it is under TJ’s private label. The price was under $6 so not a great risk of grocery money. It didn’t get long for us to notice a strong smokiness in the wine that really got in the way in any fruit flavors that would been present. This was not a smoky barrel flavor but something else and not a good something else.
Being aware of any number of wildfires burning in wine country over the last few years, including 2018, I thought I would consult our friends at wikipedia about any 2014 wildfires in Monterey County.
Here’s what I found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soberanes_Fire
What does this have to do with this Pinot Noir? Smoke particles can become of part of the grapes as they approach ripeness in the vineyards even if they are many miles from the fire source. It’s the timing that makes a difference. The October 2017 fires near Santa Rosa took place after most of the grapes had been picked and being fermented. If the fires are early enough, they won’t have an impact. The 2014 fires started in late July and weren’t controlled until early October – during the harvest time for Pinot Noir.
So, knowing this, we decided to try different foods to find something that would work with this wine. The savior in this case was regular potato chips but any flavored chips might work as would some really smoky BBQ.
So why are we bringing this up? The long term forecast calls for bigger fires burning any time of the year so this is only one example of a tainted harvest. So, as wine lovers, we need to be aware of the growing conditions here in California where “vintage” isn’t as variable as it has been in France where bad weather such as rains and hail are affecting grapes somewhere each year. So maybe a 2014 Monterey County may not be such a great wine except at $6 when Pinots normally sell for much much more.
But it’s also a chance to make lemonade out of lemons. What foods go with a flawed wine? More generally, who decides what’s a flawed wine? Smoke taints have their fans as do brett and cork taint wines. Staying informed and being aware of a vintage in a specific region may be unusual for Californians but this is normal for the Europeans.
So don’t avoid a mystery wine if the price is right. If it sings to you, great. If not, maybe it’s a teachable moment in our wine education that can lead us to a better understanding of what’s in our glass today. Tomorrow is a different day and a different wine.
Yes, it’s time to taste this year’s offerings of Beaujolais Nouveau. We had to wait until the much-celebrated release on the second Thursday of November to get ours, and the day blew right past us. But got some we did. And we’ve drunk it. And we’re going back to get some more because it should still be available all the way through the holiday season.
Beaujolais Nouveau is literally new Beaujolais, Beaujolais being a place name in the Burgundy region of France. It’s made from the gamay grape, and when it’s made to be aged, such as in Beaujolais Villages, it can be a glorious thing. But the Nouveau is made from grapes that were just picked earlier this fall. Granted, the big release is mostly a marketing thing. But it’s still fun.
We know a lot of wine people who love deriding the tutti-frutti, almost soda pop, nature of Beaujolais Nouveau. And, yet, we’ve always enjoyed it. It’s one of the few wines that work with sweet potatoes (even with, ick, marshmallows). We could never understand why some folks just didn’t like it.
Then it hit us a couple years ago. We make wine at home, so we taste new wine at all stages of fermentation and aging. So new wine is perfectly normal for us.
We started with a bottle of 2018 Domaine Depeuble Beaujolais Nouveau, which was a Kermit Lynch import. It had the traditional tutti fruity character. In fact, it was a good cocktail wine that didn’t need food to be enjoyed. Not only that, it should go well with the range of sweet-herbal-rich-salty foods that land on the average holiday table. Modest 12.5 percent alcohol won’t flatten you like the tryptophan in the typical turkey meal.
We also sampled the current George Deboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau in both the red and a new rosé for 2018. The red was slightly more restrained than in previous years. Still very fruity but slightly reduced acidity. The rosé resembled the red in the aroma but the flavors were similar to a summertime beverage – bright and cleansing without the tutti-frutti.
Of course, these are wines to be enjoyed right now. The nouveau will lose its balance within a few months and the rosé shouldn’t be expected to last into the spring. However, it may be worth picking up a few bottles for the casual winter meals and save the bigger reds for the rib roasts and mignons.
This is a redo of one of our fave posts. From April 2013 – A look at variety specific glassware.
We love Riedel glassware. The stuff is gorgeous. It’s light and beautifully crafted. It just feels elegant sipping wine from it.
However, we’ve always been rather skeptical about their claim that their variety-specific glasses actually make a significant difference in the flavor of each different wine. So we decided to test the glassware and found out one rather interesting thing, but overall? To quote one of our fave TV shows, Myth busted.
The tasting came about because we were generously included in a special unveiling of the Malbec glass, put on by Argentinian winery Graffigna. Both of the malbecs they served, the Centenario Reserve and the Grand Reserve, were amazing, dry and lush. We couldn’t help but lust after a good steak from the Pampas while drinking them. The wine was served in the new glass, alongside a Burgundy glass and a cabernet sauvignon glass.
The idea, we were told by Riedel’s Regional Sales Manager Melissa Hawkins, is that the shape of the bowl and the opening of the glass direct the wine to the part of your tongue that tastes the wine’s best attributes. In fact, we started with water, and while Anne didn’t think the water tasted all that different or was that much more refreshing out of the Burgundy glass, there were others who did.
Then, of course, we had the tasting with the wine, itself, and sure enough, everyone began remarking on how the malbec really did taste better in the malbec glass. Hmmmm. Well, we wanted to see if we could replicate the results at home, and one of the publicists (whose name we do not want to drop so she doesn’t get into trouble) kindly gave us a Burgundy and a cabernet glass to take with the malbec glasses they’d already given us.
Why were we so skeptical in the first place? Truth be told, we had tried a similar test a few years ago when we found some variety-specific glasses (not Riedel) on sale at World Market. After all, some of our friends had raved about how the wine really did taste different. But something just wasn’t adding up. We certainly didn’t notice any great difference in the wine we tasted in the different glasses we had.
Now, we suspect there may be someone out there reading this and thinking, “Well, obviously, they don’t have very sophisticated palates.” And we say, go put some clothes on, Mr. or Ms. Emperor. Let’s start with the basic mechanics of the bowl shape and opening directing the wine to your tongue. We checked in with Anne’s cousin, Jim Mason, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, and while fluid dynamics aren’t his specialty, he knows and understands them. His thought? The whole bowl shape and opening thing doesn’t make sense simply because you can’t control the opening of your mouth each time you drink. In addition, Anne can’t figure out how something is going to direct a fluid to the perfect place on your tongue when everyone’s tongue is a different size – can you say Gene Simmons?
But what the heck, we tested it with the actual Riedel crystal. We used the three wines the glasses were made for. Okay, we used California pinot noirs for the Burgundy glass, but that’s what was available. Michael did the tasting and they were all blind. He could see which glass was which – kind of hard to not notice that. But we did two of the tests in a darkened room so that the lighter color of the pinot noir wouldn’t give it away. We used several different brands of wine, including the Graffigna Centenaro, all of which are widely available.
The first test was several flights, with a different wine in each glass, randomly assigned. The idea was that Michael should have been able to tell the variety each time he got a glass with its matching variety in it. Essentially, did the right glassware make the wine pop? There was only one flight out of six where he was able to guess each variety correctly, and none of them were in the correct glass.
We tried again, this time, making sure that at least one of the glasses held the correct variety, and we invited some friends of ours, Dale LaCasella and Jim Vitale, to try it with us. Again, the theory was if the “right” glass made a difference, they’d be able to find the wine that was in the correct glass because it would taste the best. Not even close. Michael, Dale and Jim did get a taste of each wine in its correct glass as a test flight, so they’d know what they were looking for. Didn’t help. They could neither guess the variety and the wine they liked the best was seldom in the correct glass.
Finally, as Anne’s wonderful daughter pointed out, there should be a test with all the same wine in each flight, making the glass the only variable. Here is where it got interesting. There was one glass that did stand out, but interestingly, it didn’t matter what wine was in it. And when we went over our notes, time and time again (not every time, but at least 75 percent of the time), the wine tasted best in this glass – no matter which wine it was. It was the Burgundy glass, which features a wide, round bowl and a relatively narrow opening.
We think we know why. It’s because smell is such an important part of taste. The round, wide bowl creates a larger surface area of wine exposed to oxygen, which then picks up the aromatic elements in the wine. But because the opening is comparatively small, the aromatics are more or less trapped in the bowl as opposed to being dispersed through the air, and you can get more of them into your nose, which then enhances what your tongue receives.
So why did everyone at the tasting, including Michael, all get so excited and swear that the malbec tasted best in the malbec glass? Simple crowd dynamics. First, we were told it would. Then as the tasting went on, someone agreed out loud, then someone else, and so forth and so on, so eventually even Anne was buying into it. No one was lying or faking it. They’d just bought into what everyone else was saying because that’s what we humans do when we’re in a group.
As for buying Riedel, as we said, we love the stuff, but there are some serious downsides to it. First up, it is insanely fragile. You look at these glasses wrong and they break. In fact, the cabernet glass that we used in our tasting broke before we could get a picture of it. Secondly, it is very expensive. We did find a pair of the stemless glasses for almost $30 at Target – that’s $15 a glass. For something that breaks very easily. Burgundy glasses on the site run as much as $125 a glass. Not in our budget. But if it’s in yours, there’s no reason not to buy it. It is lovely stuff. You just don’t need a different glass for each variety of wine.
One of the cool things about having done a wine blog for some time is that we get invited to some pretty awesome events and trade tastings. The Lodi in Los Angeles event late last winter was one such event featuring Lodi wines. There was a grand tasting for the public that evening. But we got in with the trade (which also means we got in for free).
Located at the northern end of the San Joaquin Valley and south of Sacramento, the Lodi region is right at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They are best known for their old vines zinfandel (and, indeed, we tasted one from 102-year-old vines, which is really old). However, they’ve been growing a lot of Spanish and Italian varieties. Actually, they grow all manner of varieties up there, as we found out last November at the Wine Bloggers Conference, including a couple even Michael hadn’t heard of. That’s saying something.
We ended up tasting over 30 wines that afternoon (and doing a lot of spitting). We seldom do more than 20 at a go because, after a while, one’s palate just gets too fatigued. But these were great wines and there were plenty of nibblies to go along with them.
There’s no way in heck we can list all the wines we tasted. But we did run into several women winemakers that we hope to catch up with in the next few months. We may consider catching up with John Gash at Prie Winery. Not only did he have the 102-year-old zin vines, he poured some carignane from 118-year-old vines. Michael wrote about the zin: Nice fruit, but no jam. Good acids, making a tasty sipper and excellent food wine. The carignane (a red wine) had some cedar on the nose, red fruit and cedar in the flavor, with nice acidity and a long finish.
So while old vine zinfandel from Lodi is justly lauded, there’s a lot of very interesting and very tasty stuff coming out of the region.
What do you do when you get an invitation to a grand tasting of wines from France’s Bordeaux region? What we did – we leaped at the chance. Being a blog, we got in for free, but that only made it sweeter.
The tasting was put on by the Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, basically, their winemakers’ marketing cooperative. You’d think Bordeaux pretty much sells itself, but it doesn’t entirely. Aside from the few premiers crus (the really, really expensive and legendary wines like Chateau Margaux), there are a lot of lesser-known wineries in the area. Not to mention that since wine in Europe is named by where it comes from, a lot of people here in the States don’t necessarily realize that Graves and St. Emilion, among others, are part of Bordeaux.
The region is in the southwest of France, not far from the Pyrannees and the English Channel. The growing days are warm and the nights fairly cool. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape variety most commonly associated with the region, but merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot are the other grapes that generally make up the blends produced in the area. Oh, and sauvignon blanc and semillion for the whites – and, yes, there are some glorious whites made there, too.
The funny thing is, Michael noted that the wines all pretty much tasted alike. This is not to say they weren’t fabulous. They were utterly delicious. Some were more fabulous than the others, but they were all terrific, and rich, and lush, and subtle, and everything you expect from a good Bordeaux.
The big takeaway is that it’s hard to go wrong when you see Bordeaux on the bottle. Or St. Emillion, or Graves, or Pomerol, or St. Julien, or Medoc, or Haut-Medoc, or… You get the picture.
One other caveat, however, these wines are made to go with food. Drinking them in isolation, they will taste good, but a little flat. Pair the reds with a nice bit of dried sausage or a bit of meat, and they spring to life in your mouth.
You can check out the individual wineries and chateaux here. It’s the English version of the site. Oh, and forget about what you’ve heard about snobby French people. Those are the Parisians. The people in Bordeaux are very nice, and back in 1990, when Anne visited on a tour, when they heard she was from California, several actually said, “California? They make good wine there.” Which we do. But so do the nice people in Bordeaux.
What a great opportunity! While we were at the Wine Bloggers Conference last fall, we were part of a group that got to go to dinner at Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery. We got off the bus and were handed a glass of their signature dryé rosé, and, even better, ran across their winemaker Lindsey Haughton.
What deep frustration when we realized our photos didn’t come out. We blame our lousy mobile phones and the utterly delicious rosé. Sometimes you just have to go with what you’ve got.
“You’re not supposed to have a favorite child,” Haughton said about the rosé we were all sipping. “But that’s my favorite child.”
It was a rosé made from pinot noir grapes (clone 828, if you care about that sort of thing). Haughton said that shortly after she joined the winery, rosé, particularly dry rosé, was becoming popular. As happens when something gets popular, there was a lot of rosé out there that was off dry – Haughton called it Kool-Aid. Most of the rest of us call it white zinfandel.
That being said, Anne couldn’t resist asking if Haughton thought it would be possible to make a good, dry rosé from zinfandel grapes.
“Absolutely,” Haughton said.
Making the dry rosé
Haughton explained that she uses both of the most common processes to make her rosé. About 30 percent of hers is made by saignée, or bleeding off some of the juice from grapes being used to make regular red pinot noir. The other 70 percent is made from grapes that are picked and pressed right away, or dedicated to the rosé.
“A lot of it is just familiarity with the vineyards,” she said about which grapes go to the dedicated part of the rosé and which she bleeds from.
She likes using dedicated grapes rather than all saignée because she likes what gets extracted when the grapes are pressed.
“It’s got a lot more of the character of the skins,” she said. She does not like ultra-pale rosés that look more like the almost orange wines from Provence, France. “I want my rosé to look like rosé. I just feel like California should stop trying to mimic it. We’re not French. It should be a California wine.”
As in more fruit-driven than the dryer European style.
Of course, Haughton also puts out some very lovely pinot noirs and the dinner was quite tasty. But if they have to have a favorite child, we’re glad it’s the rosé. That was really good.
When we were invited to do a tasting of New Zealand wines and interview with winemaker Peter Jackson, we were expecting to be part of a much larger group. Instead, it was just the two of us, Jackson and his publicist at a bar in Downtown Los Angeles.
By the way, this Peter Jackson is not the film director. He’s pretty good-natured about sharing his name.
“I grew up in Australia,” where, he added, there was a menswear company known as Peter Jackson. “I’ve just been cursed my whole life.”
When it comes to New Zealand wines, most people immediately think of sauvignon blanc, and there’s a good reason for that. The variety accounts for around 80 percent of all grapes grown in New Zealand, although Jackson added that there is a growing demand for pinot gris and pinot noir, as well as chardonnay. Almost all of the grape growing is done in the state of Marlborough, which is at the southern tip of the island country.
Jackson, himself, grew up in Queensland, Australia, went to school in France, then ended up working for Crowded House and Catalina Sounds, which are two labels produced by the company.
What makes New Zealand wines distinctive
What makes a New Zealand sauv blanc so distinctive, according to Jackson, in the bright acidity and citrus.
“There’s a raciness and freshness that’s pretty hard to replicate,” he said. “You know you’ve got a wine that’s packed with flavor.”
Jackson recommends Asian noodles, fresh seafood, salads, and salty cheeses.
“There’s nothing better than fresh mussels,” he said. “It will hold up well with delicate white meat.”
We tasted the 2016 Crowded House sauvignon blanc, and Michael noted cut grass and some gooseberry on the nose. It had a dry finish and citrus flavors, minerals and acids. The 2017 Catalina Sounds sauv blanc had a more delicate nose and a quieter profile. There was, of course, citrus and some gooseberry, too.
Jackson said that pinot noir is getting to be an up and coming grape in New Zealand. It hadn’t done well until recently.
“They were planting the wrong clones,” Jackson said.
But nowadays, growers seem to have found the right clones, and are planting it more on the hillsides. Jackson makes his with native ferments.
“I can’t remember the last time I used yeast on a red,” he said.
We tried two Catalina Sounds pinot noirs. Michael noted that the 2015 was a slightly savory wine, with dry red and black fruit. The 2016 was very similar, but with a hint of spice.
Jackson said that he’s become very fond of his adopted country, where the people are quite humble and friendly.
“It’s absolutely one thing I love about New Zealand,” he said. “We realize that we’re all in it together. What’s good for you is going to be good for me.”
So, if you can’t find Crowded House or Catalina Sounds at your local wine store, try looking for a New Zealand wine, in general. They’re pretty tasty.
We met Leslie Sisneros at the 2016 Family Winemakers of California Grand Tasting (in the interests of full disclosure, we got into this paid event for free in the hopes that we’d get around to writing something about it or the presenting winemakers sooner than we did). Then we saw her again at this year’s Family Winemaker’s event and thought why not run this post from last year again?
Leslie Sisneros, of Murder Ridge Winery, has been making wine for over 20 years, but actually fell into making pinot noir.
“It wasn’t my choice,” she explained. “Because I started out at Kendall Jackson and I was assigned the variety. Actually, zin’s pretty hard, too. I guess it’s good when you start out with the hardest wine to make. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I just took it in stride.”
Pinot noir is a notoriously finicky grape and can be very hard to make well.
“There’s all kinds of different pinots,” Sisneros said. “It can go from the lowest priced ones to the premium ones. You’re looking for something that’s fruity and not overly tannic.”
But when you hear people wax eloquent about pinot noir, you’ll often hear them going on about the clone of the grape.
“There’s more people who talk about pinot in terms of clones than any other variety,” Sisneros said. Many grape varieties have their own specific clones, but it’s more of an issue with pinot noir. “It really does make a difference in what clones you plant and where you plant them. It determines the winemaker’s fingerprint.”
She explained that cloning is sort of like taking the natural process of evolution the next few steps further.
“In nature, everything generally mutates so the strongest survive,” Sisneros said. “What the people do is they’ll select a particular plant or several plants in a vineyard. They’ll take a bud culture and they will keep making it genetically the same and it will take generations and generations.”
She said that after individual clone, the other thing that really makes a difference in a pinot noir is where it’s grown.
“You can certainly tell a Russian River pinot noir,” she said. “To me, they’re like night and day. Mendocino pinot is more delicate. Russian River is dark and moody.”
Murder Ridge Winery is in Mendocino County, in a largely wilderness area known as Mendocino Ridge. The winery gets its name from the infamous murder of Joseph Cooper in 1911. Sisneros partnered with wine grower Steve Alden to form the label after having worked with his grapes for several other wineries for whom she’s worked as a consulting winemaker.
Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with tables of wine bloggers. Add a bunch of winery owners, marketing folk, and the occasional winemaker. How many wines can you pour for said wine bloggers in less than an hour? Not too many. But that’s okay because, for us, it turned out to be a good introduction to the El Dorado Wine Country.
It’s basically speed dating for wine at November’s Wine Bloggers Conference. You get about six to eight wine bloggers at a table and the winery person comes around with a bottle or two and has about five to ten minutes to try to be heard over everyone else.
Anne fired questions at whomever was pouring because that’s what Anne does, while Michael took tasting notes because that’s what Michael does. Alas, we only have so many hands, so pictures didn’t get taken.
We tasted wines from four different wineries. However, we’re going to (hopefully) feature one of them sometime later this year, so we’ll focus on the other three.
El Dorado County is just east of Sacramento. Most of the wineries are located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is the heart of California gold country, so it’s a pretty scenic and interesting area, in general.
Some of the Wines from El Dorado Wine Country
The first folks to visit our table were Lexi and Justin Boeger of Boeger Winery. They’re a brother and sister, with Justin being the winemaker, and their father, who started the enterprise, is the vineyard manager. According to Lexi, their grandfather had a vineyard in Napa, but their father went to El Dorado to start his.
“He just would get interested in unusual stuff,” Lexi said.
Interesting? Oh, yeah. We tasted the 2014 Migliori blend, which was made up of 62 % refosco grapes, 19 % aglianico, and 19% charbono. Michael tasted some light oak, cherry, and red berry. We both really liked the blend.
Next, Eric Hays, owner and winemaker at Chateau Davell, poured his 2014 Marguerite blend made up of 67% syrah and 33% grenache.
“To me, it’s more about the natural process,” he told us.
Michael noted that the wine had a rather light color for something with as much syrah in it as this one did. He also caught some good acidity and decent tannins.
Leanne Davis is the co-owner and vineyard manager for Via Romano Vineyards. Not surprisingly, she and her winemaker husband focus on Italian varieties. Like many of the winemakers we talked to, they want to stay a small boutique winery.
“I don’t want to make twenty-five thousand cases,” Davis told us.
We tried the Papa Roman Red, which is a Super Tuscan-style blend of 38% sangiovese, 38% cabernet sauvignon, 12% cabernet franc, and 12% merlot. Michael liked the “grippy” tannins and also the black fruit and the hint of dirt. It was very drinkable, but still very young.
And that’s a quick look at what was a very quick event.