Sunday, April 30, 2006

Wines of the World Tasting

For the April meeting of his Wine Club, Arnaud wanted to tour the world with wines from not very well known wine regions. That evening, we tasted wines from places as different as Canada, Israel, Portugal, Lebanon, Greece, and Hungary, and made some exciting discoveries!

We started with Canada. Our first wine was a Okanagan Valley Sauvignon Blanc from Jackson-Triggs Vintners. The Okanagan Valley is British Columbia's oldest and main grape-producing region. It lies east of the Cascade Mountain at the same latitude as the northern German and French vineyards, but thanks to dry and sunny conditions, it is not considered viticulturally a cool climate region. The Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate vineyards are situated in the south Okanagan Valley on moderately sloping terraces above Osoyoos Lake. The lake has a beneficial cooling effect that tempers daytime high temperatures during summer.

The 2003 Jackson-Triggs Proprietors' Reserve Sauvignon Blanc Okanagan Estate was one of the discovery of the evening. It had a light straw color and an appealing nose of citrus and lemon blossom. On the palate it was dry and crisp with a refreshing mouthfeel and an interesting brown sugar finish. This wine ended up being everybody's favorite.

We moved to Israel with our next wine, a Chardonnay from Barkan Wine Cellars. Barkan Wine Cellars is one of the leading wine producers in Israel. With its new ultra-modern winery, it is enjoying an increasing popularity in its country as well as abroad.

The 2002 Barkan Reserve Chardonnay had a bright straw color and an intensely aromatic nose. The palate was soft with dairy and mineral flavors but I was somewhat disappointed by the short finish. Nevertheless, most of the guests enjoyed the wine for its minerality and aromatic character.

Our first red wine was from the Douro region of Portugal. Douro is maybe the world's most difficult wine region. Vineyards are planted on harsh and rugged mountains that rise up from the Douro River. There is almost no soil on these mountains and vines grow on hard shist and slate stones that retain little water and provide few nutrients. Temperature variations are often extreme. Protected from the humid Atlantic winds by four mountain ranges, the Douro enjoys hot, dry summers and very cold winters. Since the 18th century, the main product of the region is Port, but recently the quintas have been producing an increasing amount of high quality table wine.

The 1999 Casa Ferreirinha Vinha Grande Douro is a blend of the typical varietals that are used in Port. It had a dark color with black fruits and cocoa powder on the nose. On the palate, it was medium bodied with fine grain tannins and a well-balanced acidity on the finish. Many guests were not convinced by the wine although I personally liked it.

With our second red, the iconic Chateau Musar, we moved to Lebanon. Founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, Chateau Musar is located in an 18th Century castle in Ghazir, just fifteen miles north of Beirut. The vineyards lie 30 miles east of Ghazir in the Bekaa Valley. Chateau Musar is the winery's premium wine. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Each varietal is fermented separately in concrete vats and aged up to 24 months in French oak barriques. Then the final blend is made and the wine is bottled and stored in the Chateau's cellars until its release after about 5 years.

The 1995 Chateau Musar had a dark brick color and a gamey nose with notes of Provençal herbs. On the palate, it was medium-bodied and spicy with a long finish. The style of the wine was unusual and old-fashioned and many guests didn't like it.

Then we moved to Greece with a Xynomavro from the Alpha Estate. The Alpha Estate is situated in the heart of the Amyndeon region in the far north west of Greece, towards the border of Albania. Xynomavro, which means sour black, is the principal red varietal of the region. It is a grape that produces wines with high level of tannins and acidity.

The 2003 Alpha Estate Xynomavro Unfiltered is a blend of Xynomavro, Syrah and Merlot. It had a deep purple color with aromas of cherry and vanilla on the nose. It was soft on the palate with a light finish.

The first of our two dessert wines was a Tokaj Aszú from Hungary. Aszú is the Magyar word for noble rot. The wine was created in the seventeenth century in the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, perhaps by accident: an harvest been delayed because of war.

The shrivelled, raisiny, botrytis-infected berries are carefully picked by hand and put in puttonyos, traditional wooden vessels holding 20 liters. Then, a certain amount of the rich aszú paste (the more puttonyos, the sweeter and richer the wine) is added to a base wine, made the previous year from unaffected grapes. Furmint is the dominant varietal of the Tokaj region. Its thin skin makes it particularly susceptible to botrytis. Its name comes from the French word froment, or wheat for the wheat-yellow color of the wine it produces.

The 1999 Royal Tokaji Red Label Aszú 5 Puttonyos had a stunning bright apricot color and a vivid fruity nose. On the palate, the wine was fresh and lively, not sirupy at all. The mouthfeel was amazingly rich and light at the same time. I checked the alcohol content: only 11%! The wine was absolutely delicious with dried apricots.

Our last wine took us back to the Douro region. To end this enlightening world tour, Arnaud had selected a Late Bottled Vintage Port from Quinta do Noval. Founded in 1715, Quinta do Noval is famous for its Nacional Vintage Port made from grapes grown on a small 2.5 hectare parcel of ungrafted vines.

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) port is the product of a single year's harvest even in lesser years that are not declared vintage year. LBV port is generally smoother and lighter-bodied than vintage port. It is aged longer in barrel to mature more quickly but doesn't usually age in bottle. It is intended to be ready to drink upon release.

The 1999 Quinta do Noval Late Bottled Vintage Port was thick, sweet, warm and smooth on the palate with rich chocolate flavors, but it seemed very alcoholic after the Tokaj (19.5%). Nevertheless, the wine was excellent with bits of the bittersweet chocolate that Arnaud had brought. And what a wonderful way to end one of the first sunny evening of the season! We had stayed all the time outdoors, tasting the wines in the warm evening sun, comfortably seated on the lawn of our friendly hosts Benoit and Anne.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A five star rating for a tasting chart

Recently, rating notes have generated a flurry of attention in the blogosphere. First, in a post called The Art of the Wine Review, Tom Wark at Fermentation expresses his admiration for the reviews of wine merchant Kermit Lynch:

“The wine is described well.” he says about one of the reviews, “I have a connection to the wine through culture and art, I have context, I clearly understand the individuality of the wine and I'm entertained just by reading the review. Oh, and I want to buy it.”

But then, in The Total Fantasy of Wine Ratings, Mark Fisher at Wine Sediments questions the validity of wine ratings and tasting notes:

“With a wine of that production level [200,000 cases],” he wonders, “it's a damn sure bet that no matter how much blending Falesco does, there is not ONE SINGLE DROP of wine in the two-millionth bottle that comes off the production line that has much of ANYTHING in common in terms of vineyard site, clonal selection, picking time, etc. to the FIRST bottle that came off that production line, and which, for the sake of argument, was the bottle reviewed by the Wine Spectator. So why in the world would we give any credence whatsoever to what the wine's score was in the Wine Spectator, or Parker, or Decanter, or (shudder) even Wine Sediments?”

Furthermore, in Do Ratings Rate?, Eric Asimov at The Pour shares his mixed feelings about ratings:

“First of all, they can be valuable to consumers” he says, “For $100 a bottle, or $40, or even $20, people want to increase the odds that they are going to like what they pay for, and that's why ratings are useful.” But then he adds: “Tasting notes are among the least useful of all consumer aids. They offer the illusion of description, but really tell you very little about a wine.”

I also have mixed feelings about wine ratings and tasting notes. Tasting notes are very personal and have therefore far less significance to other people. I have also noticed substantial bottle to bottle variations: some wines that I had greatly enjoyed one day had disappointed me later with another bottle. On the other hand, tasting notes and ratings can be really helpful when you don't know the wine. Some tasting notes just compel you to buy it.

Now, while browsing the Tulip Hill Winery website, I recently discovered a tasting chart that, I think, is great at assessing wine quality and style. For instance, here is the tasting chart for the 2001 Tulip Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley:

In addition to the chart, the winery also provides the following tasting notes: “A big wine, with dense blackberry, licorice and tobacco aromas, adding damp earth and violets to produce a rich yet delicate nose. Complex flavors of dark cherry, raspberry, cigar box, and dried fennel blend nicely with the toasty oak. Velvety tannins give exquisite texture and body, and a finish which borders on endless.”

So which do you think is more instructive? I would love to see these charts on shelf takers and also on restaurant wine lists. Isn't pairing a wine with food highly dependent on whether this wine is sweet, dry, acid and/or tannic?

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Last tasting in Carmel Valley: the wines of Joullian Vineyards

Perched at 1400 feet in elevation in the Cochagua Valley, the 40 acres Joullian estate vineyard is planted with high density-spaced vines on a rocky loam soil. The most planted variety is Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Zinfandel — Dick Sias, cofounder of Joullian Vineyards, is considered the father of Zinfandel in Carmel Valley —, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sémillon, Syrah, Primitivo, and a patch of Italian field blend made of Aleatico, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane, and Grenache.

The winery is too remote to be visited but Joullian has a tasting room conveniently located in Carmel Valley Village, not very far from the Bernardus tasting room.

Tasting notes:

2004 Joullian Chardonnay Monterey County: sourced from Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco vineyards. Ripe fruit aromas on the nose, buttery on the palate.

2004 Joullian Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard: sourced from Talbott Vineyards' great Sleepy Hollow vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Straw color, intense nose, complex and well-balanced on the palate, long finish, the best wine of the tasting.

2004 Joullian Chardonnay RogerRose Vineyard: from the Arroyo Seco appellation. Citrus aromas on the nose, crisp on the palate, finish not as lengthy.

Joullian Cépage Retro Rouge Carmel Valley: Non vintage. Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Syrah from the Carmel Valley appellation, Sweet candy nose, spicy Zin flavors on the palate, simple and easy.

2003 Joullian Family Reserve Merlot Carmel Valley: From the Joullian estate in Carmel Valley. Spicy nose, dry and somewhat tannic on the palate but lacks mid-palate concentration.

2002 Joullian Cabernet Sauvignon Carmel Valley: From the Joullian estate in Carmel Valley. Similar style as the Merlot. Also a bit hollow on mid-palate.

2003 Joullian Sias Cuvee Zinfandel Carmel Valley: From the Joullian estate in Carmel Valley, blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Aleatico, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane & Grenache. Intense fruity nose, a bit sweet with a lot of flavors on the palate, best red wine of the tasting.

2004 Joullian Zinfandel Rosé Carmel Valley: From the Joullian estate in Carmel Valley, blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Aleatico, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane & Grenache. Nice salmon color but really too sweet for my taste.

Well, after all these wines, we enjoyed a delicious and hearty meal at the nearby Café Rustica, before hitting the road and going back to the bay area.

Previous wines tasted in Carmel Valley:
• Talbott Vineyards
• Pelerin Wines
• Bernardus Winery

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

More from Carmel Valley: the wines of Bernardus Winery

On the second day of our trip to Carmel Valley, we visited the Bernardus tasting room.

Bernardus Pon is the owner of Bernardus Lodge & Winery. Born and raised in Holland, he moved to Carmel Valley with his wife Ingrid in the early nineties and bought a small winery there. Believing that the place could potentially make World class Bordeaux-style red wines, he created Marinus, a blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Marinus is the winery's flagship wine with grapes coming from the Marinus Vineyard in the Carmel Valley appellation.

We actually had seen the Marinus vineyard earlier that day, as we were waiting for the tasting room to open. It was almost hidden among rolling hills, coast live oak woodlands, and horse ranches, at the end of a narrow and winding road in the remote and secluded Cachagua Valley. Todd Kenyon, who was born and raised on a adjoining ranch, manages the vineyard. He plants the vines with an average density three times what is typical in California and severely restricts irrigation during the growing season. Therefore, the vines are forced to perform under drought conditions and put all their energy into fruit development. They have smaller berries with more concentrated flavors.

Tasting notes:

2004 Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc Monterey County: 35 % is cool fermented in stainless steel tanks for freshness. Blended with 1% Sémillon. Pale yellow color, aromatic nose of citrus. On the palate, fresh, crisp and grassy. Great Summer wine.

2004 Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc Griva Vineyard: The Griva vineyard is located in a cool, windswept area of the Arroyo Seco appellation. Pale yellow color, citrus nose, more spices on the palate.

2003 Bernardus Chardonnay Monterey County: Light straw color, crisp, fresh, fruity style.

2001 Bernardus Chardonnay Griva Vineyard: Golden color, more intense nose, buttery and nutty on the palate.

2004 Bernardus Pinot Noir Monterey County: Purple color, sweet nose, fresh and peppery on the palate.

2001 Bernardus Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard: From the Santa Maria Valley appellation. Light ruby color, shy nose, some acidity on the palate, mature.

2003 Bernardus Pinot Noir Rosella's Vineyard: From the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Aromatic nose of cherry and vanilla. Rich flavors on the palate, intense finish.

2001 Bernardus Marinus Carmel Valley: Dark purple color, nice nose of blackcurrant, young and fruit-forward on the palate with some acidity on the finish.

1996 Bernardus Marinus Carmel Valley: The nose of a mature Bordeaux. Elegant and well balanced. Excellent.

1999 Bernardus Marinus Carmel Valley: In September 1999, just before the harvest, a devastating fire burned acres of local trees, and for sure, this wine is smoky!

Previously tasted:

• Talbott Vineyards

• Pelerin Wines

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

WBW #20: Cour-Cheverny, King Francis the First and Tintin

What is the relationship between Cour-Cheverny, an obscure appellation in the Loire Valley, Francis the First, France's first Renaissance monarch, and Tintin, the Belgian young reporter? You'll see, it's easy!

From the city of Blois in the Loire Valley, if you drive 15 km southeast, you'll find the Château de Cheverny. The castle is famous for being Hergé's model for Moulinsart, the ancestral home of Captain Haddock.

The castle is in the town of Cour-Cheverny, which gave its name to the Cour-Cheverny appellation, an appellation that was created for wines made exclusively from the Romorantin varietal. In fact, Cour-Cheverny is the only appellation in the world that uses Romorantin. According to legend, this rare Burgundian grape was brought by King Francis the First to the region on his way back from Italy in 1519.

Philippe Tessier is one of the few producers that grow Romorantin today. Its Cour-Cheverny cuvée Les Sables is made from old vines planted on light, sandy soil. To keep it bright and fresh, it is fermented in large neutral barrels and does not go through malolactic fermentation. The 2004 Cour-Cheverny Domaine Philippe Tessier Les Sables has a bright straw color and a fresh nose of lemon and grapefruit. On the palate, it is mineral with a snappy acidity balanced by mild nutty flavors. The finish is crisp and citrussy.

I will not claim that Romorantin is as noble a grape as its neighbor Chenin Blanc, but what a refreshing alternative to these far too often boring white wines that you find in the same price range. So let's not forget this unique varietal!

Today was April's Wine Blogging Wednesday and the theme proposed by Bill at Wine for Newbies was single-varietal white wines, but no Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. He has already posted a first roundup. Check it here.

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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Barrel Tasting at Pelerin Wines

After tasting the wines of Talbott Vineyards, my friend and I took the scenic Los Laureles Grade and then Highway 68 to Salinas. We had an appointment with Chris Weiddemann, owner and winemaker of Pelerin Wines, in one of Salinas's industrial parks where he currently shares a space with another winery. We had really enjoyed his 2003 Pelerin Pinot Noir Rosella's Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands and we were eager to try some of his new wines.

The name Pelerin means pilgrim in French and reflects Chris' ultimate quest for balanced and complex wines. While working for other wineries, Chris was able to forge relationships with some of the best grape growers in Monterey County and purchase grapes from Rosella Vineyard and Paraiso Vineyards, both in the Santa Lucia Highlands, and more recently, from Mesa del Sol Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco appellation. His first vintage was released in 2002.

Rosella Vineyard is a 50 acres east-southeast facing vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Thanks to the soil made of gravelly loam, and the cool climate (foggy mornings, sunny mid-days, windy afternoons), it is a place where Pinot Noir is thriving. The vineyard is owned by Gary Franscioni, also co-owner of the close by Garys' Vineyard, who named it after his wife Rosella.

Paraiso Vineyards is a 400-acre property located at the southern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. The land is owned by the Paraiso Vineyards winery, which sells part of its production to other wine producers.

Mesa del Sol Vineyard is a small organically farmed vineyard located in the Arroyo Seco river canyon, south of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. The site is warmer than in the Santa Lucia Highlands and a great place to grow heat-loving varietals such as Syrah, Primitivo and Sangiovese.

Chris is doing well and has plans to grow and move to a new facility at Paraiso Vineyards where he works part-time. He is also very happy with his Rhone-style wines, the quality of the grapes he gets from the Mesa del Sol Vineyard, and plans to make some Roussanne and Viognier in the near future.

Tasting notes:

2005 Pelerin Rosé (from barrel): fresh and very fruity

2005 Pelerin Pinot Noir Rosella's Vineyard (from barrel): a lot of structure, complex aromas, very promising

2005 Pelerin Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands (from barrel): tasty but a lighter version of the Rosella's Vineyard

2005 Pelerin Syrah/Viognier blend (from barrel): powerful flavors of mint and pepper.

2005 Pelerin Syrah Monterey County (from barrel): very fruity, nice to drink already

2005 Pelerin Syrah Mesa del Sol Vineyard (from barrel): has tannins, structure, and complexity, my favorite with the Pinot Noir Rosella's Vineyard.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The wines of Talbott Vineyards

Talbott Vineyards was the first tasting room that I visited during my 2-day trip to Carmel Valley.

The story of Talbott Vineyards begins in 1950 when Robert Talbott Sr., his wife Audrey, and his son Robb moved to Carmel, California where they started a tie company. Eventually, the Talbotts became leaders in the luxury tie business as well as increasingly passionate about wines. In 1982, Robert Talbott and his son Robb founded Robert Talbott Vineyards and started planting Chardonnay on the 24-acre Diamond T Estate vineyard near their home in Carmel Valley, 8 miles from Carmel Bay.

The Diamond T Estate vineyard is planted with tightly spaced Chardonnay vines in almost soilless conditions of shale and granite on a 1,200 foot mountaintop. Due to challenging growing conditions, crop yields are extremely small and maritime influence as well as elevation leads to an extended growing season.

In 1994, the Talbotts bought the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard in the middle of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, along the western edge of the Salinas Valley. This hilly, 450-acre vineyard has a gravelly loam soil with a high percentage of gravel and rocks. It is a cool growing site with a predominately east-northeast exposure. Sleepy Hollow is planted in both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It also contains 12 acres of newer Syrah plantings.

Talbott is a family winery with both Robb and his wife Cynthia Talbott directly involved with winery management and operations. Many of their wines are named after family members.

Tasting notes:

2004 Kali Hart Vineyard Chardonnay: named after Robb and Cynthia's youngest daughter, Kali Hart. Made from purchased grapes grown in Monterey County. 80% is aged in neutral French oak, the rest in stainless steel. Light yellow color and a fruity nose of green apples. On the palate, lively acidity and a great freshness.

2004 Logan Chardonnay: named after Robb and Cynthia's son, Robert Logan. Produced from Talbott's Sleepy Hollow Estate Vineyard, it is 85% barrel fermented and aged in neutral French oak for 10 months. Creamy nose, ripe flavors of pear and pineapple on the palate, and a fat mouthfeel.

2002 Talbott Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard: Produced from older vines from the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. 100% barrel fermented in French Oak and aged on the yeast lees. Smoky nose, full-bodied on the palate with stone fruit flavors, well-balanced with some nice acidity on the finish.

2002 Talbott Chardonnay Cuvée Cynthia: Same as the Talbott Chardonnay but bottled without fining nor filtration. Butterscotch and apple flavors, rounder on the palate, many more acidity on the finish.

2001 Talbott Chardonnay Diamond-T Estate: From the Diamond-T vineyard. Deep golden color. Intense nose of pineapple, creamy flavors of baked flan on the palate, long finish.

2002 Talbott Chardonnay Cuvée Audrey: named for Audrey Talbott, Robb Talbott's mother. Also from the Diamond-T vineyard but bottled without fining nor filtration. Deep golden color, intense nose of tropical fruits, has many more acidity and a longer finish.

2001 Logan Pinot Noir: From the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. Medium-bodied and soft on the palate. Easy to drink but seems to become oxidized after some time in the glass.

2000 Case Pinot Noir: named after Robb and Cynthia's oldest daughter, Sarah Case. From the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. Aged in French oak. Nose of vanilla and red fruit. On the palate, smoky, earthy with a lengthy finish. Very tasty.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

A trip to Carmel Valley

Who has heard of the Carmel Valley appellation? Until two weeks ago, I believed that this narrow valley that takes you deep into the lush forests of the Santa Lucia Mountains, was just a picture-perfect setting for elegant weddings and anniversary celebrations. It is actually one of the oldest American Viticultural Area in California (colored in light pink on the map).

Few vineyards can be spotted from the road that follows the Carmel river and takes you to Carmel Valley Village, about 12 miles from the mouth of the valley. Although the size of the appellation is over 19,000 acres, less than 300 acres is under vine. The rest is a pastoral scenery of oak woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral. The primary grape growing area follows the Carmel River as well as the adjacent Cachagua Valley (an Indian derivative of the French cacher and Spanish agua that means hidden springs). With some parts of the valley enjoying more than 300 sunny days a year, it is warmer than the close by Santa Lucia Highlands appellation and is suitable for growing Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Because most of the wineries are in the upper part of the valley and can be difficult to reach, they have conveniently located their tasting rooms within a few steps of one another in the center of Carmel Valley Village. During my recent 2-day stay in the area, I was able to taste the wines of Talbott Vineyards, Bernardus Winery, Joullian Winery, and Pelerin Wines in Salinas.

Coming next: tasting the wines of Talbott Vineyards.

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