Friday, December 24, 2010

If you like Rioja, you should try Navarra

Not long ago, I received a set of wine samples from Navarra that was sent by Balzac Communications as an introduction to the Navarra Wine Region.

Navarra lies north of the Rioja region and south of the area's main city, Pamplona. The region used to belong to the kingdom of Navarre in late 10th century-early 11th century, a kingdom powerful enough to have halted the southward expansion of the Franks and the northward expansion of the Muslims.

To the north, near the French border, the terrain is very mountainous, but south of Pamplona is Navarre's agricultural area. The land is flatter with a continental Mediterranean influence (long, dry summers and cold winters).

The Navarra appellation includes five sub-regions: Baja Montaña in Eastern Navarre bordering Aragon, Tierra Estella in Western Navarre bordering the Basque Coutry and La Rioja, Valdizarbe in Central Navarre, Ribera Alta south of Valdizarbe, and Ribera Baja in Southern Navarre bordering La Rioja.

Navarra Wine Map

The region used to be famous for its rosado (rosé) wines from Garnacha, a grape overwhelmingly dominant in the 1980' (90% of the plantings at the time). But recently, many Navarra winemakers have modernized their equipment as well as their planting, harvesting and production methods. Grenache is now less than 40% of plantings, with Tempranillo close behind and there is an increase use of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

The first sample was the 2009 Inurrieta Orchídea. Bodega Inurrieta owns 230 hectares of vineyards in the Ribera Alta sub-region, 57 km (35 miles) south of Pamplona. Although it's a new estate founded in 1999, the area's winemaking traditions date back to the 1st century BC during the Roman rule. Plantings include Garnacha, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Graciano, and Sauvignon Blanc.

The wine is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and this is the only white produced at the winery. It exhibits a light yellow color and an aromatic nose of citrus, peach and white flower. On the palate, it is crip, more fruity than grassy, with a light finish. Try it with Trucha a la Navarra, a Navarra Style Trout.

We also tasted the 2006 Otazu Crianza, a blend of 35% Tempranillo, 35% Merlot, and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Located between the Sierra del Perdón mountain range and the Sierra de Echauri, just 8 km from Pamplona, the Señorío de Otazu winery is Spain's northernmost vineyard for red wines. The microclimate is predominantly Atlantic with rainy winters and sunny summers. The estate grows four grape varieties: Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for red wines and Chardonnay for whites.

The wine has a dark color and a nose of spices and herbs. The palate is round, medium-bodied and quite tasty. Try it with Pochas with Paprika, an other specialty from Navarra with fresh local white beans.

Our last sample was the 2007 Chivite Expresión Varietal Tempranillo. Founded in 1647, Bodegas Julián Chivite is one of the oldest wine producing dynasties in Spain. Currently the bodega owns almost 500 hectares of vineyards and is run by the eleventh generation. In Navarra, the Chivite estate vineyards are located at Cintruénigo in Navarra Ribera Baja, at nearby Corella not far from the border with Rioja Baja, and at Marcilla in Navarra Ribera Alta. Plantings are predominantly Tempranillo and Garnacha with some amount of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Muscat à Petit Grains.

The Chivite Tempranillo has a dark purple/violet color and an aromatic nose of moka and black cherry. On the palate, the wine is still young with mineral notes and a nutty finish. Try it with an another dish from Navarra: Pollo Chilindron, a chicken stew that uses red bell peppers, a common ingredient in that part of the country.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Should we trust wine experts?

Listen to the latest Freakonomics Radio podcast called Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? and learn how easily wine experts can be tricked.

I think my favorite part is when wine writer Robin Goldstein explains how he created a fake restaurant in Milan and a fake wine list full of very expensive wines and nonetheless won an Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator.

Have fun and enjoy the news that you don't need to break your piggy bank to appreciate a good wine as more and more studies show that the most expensive wines are not always the ones that taste better.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Comparative wine and Riedel wine glass tasting

I recently had the chance to be invited to a comparative wine and Riedel glass tastings and I was really glad I came: the tasting, conducted by Maximilian Riedel himself, was much more informative than I thought.

Maximilian Riedel is currently the CEO of the US branch of Riedel Glas, the Austrian glassmaker company that introduced the concept of varietal specific wine glasses. He also regularly hosts tasting events to demonstrate how the shape of the glass can influence the way we perceive wine. According to Riedel, a wine can display different characteristics — good or bad — when served in glasses of different sizes and shapes.

Riedel wine glass tasting with Maximilian Riedel

In order to illustrate that concept, four wines were paired with four varietal glasses from the Riedel Vinum XL series, one of Riedel's most recent lines specifically designed for young new world wines.

Riedel tasting setup

We started with a 2009 Giesen Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough that we tasted in a Vinum XL Riesling Grand Cru glass. The wine had a light yellow color with green reflections and a fresh and fruity nose of grapefruit and gooseberry. On the palate, it was crisp and mineral with a good finish. After having enjoyed the wine in the Riesling glass, we were asked to pour some of it into a small plastic cup. The difference was remarkable. In the plastic cup, the wine had no nose at all and tasted mostly acidic. It is actually easy to understand why: in a small V-shaped cup, there is no room to swirl the wine and bring out the aromas. Moreover, the V-shape is the wrong shape to concentrate the aromas towards the nose (much of what we taste really comes through our nose).

Then we moved to our second wine, a 2008 Talbott Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard that we tasted in a Vinum XL Montrachet glass. The wine was deep golden with a nose of apple, pear, and nut. On the palate, it was rich and creamy with notes of caramel. The glass bowl was large and round, which helped temper the alcohol in the wine. It also directed the flow of wine to cover a large area in the mouth, thus enhancing the richness and acidy of the wine. Then we tried the Chardonnay in the Riesling glass. The wine seemed more unbalanced, drier, and not as crisp. The reason is that the Riesling glass, designed for unoaked acidic wines like dry Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, is much too narrow to allow the creamy aromas to expand towards the nose and in the mouth.

Our third wine was a 2008 Kali-Hart Vineyard Pinot Noir that we tasted in a Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass, a glass with a large tulip-shaped bowl that flares out slightly at the top. The wine had a deep ruby color and a nose of raspberry, dried fruits and raisins. On the palate, it was full-bodied and jammy. When we were asked to try the wine in the Chardonnay glass, we noticed that the wine seemed less fruity and more tannic. In fact, the wine flow reaching the tongue was less focused and much less of these fruity aromas were reaching our tongue.

Our last wine was the 2007 Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley that we tasted in the oversized Vinum Xl Cabernet glass. The wine was dark with a nose of sweet blackberry, cocoa, and vanilla. On the palate, it was full-bodied, young, and oaky. When we switched to the Pinot Noir glass, the wine appeared more tannic, maybe because of the flared top, and in the Chardonnay glass, the opening was too wide and the wine aromas were partly lost.

At the end of the event, we each received a Vinum Xl wine tasting glass set so that we can continue to play at home. There are so many combinations that we haven't tried yet. What about a Sauvignon Blanc in the Chardonnay glass or a Pinot Noir in the Cabernet glass? I'm also suspecting that the Vinum Xl Cabernet glass might be too big for a Bordeaux.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

What we drank for Thanksgiving

In November, it's funny how so many newspapers publish the requisite Thanksgiving wine column, in order to help us find the ideal wine that can work with turkey, stuffing, gravy, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and pies, thanks to a list of smart pairing tips.

What should we drink with this turkey?

For my part, I think it's quite easy to decide what to drink for Thanksgiving: just open a good bottle and enjoy it with your family and friends.

We started the evening with a bottle of 2008 Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Riesling that our friend Christophe had brought. Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates was founded by San Francisco based attorney Jess Jackson in 1982. It is one of the few remaining family wine businesses of this size in the country. Since 1982, the winery has acquired many vineyards and it is now totally estate-based, maintaining 11,000 acres of vines. It also owns 17 additional brands, including La Crema, Pepi, Camelot, Cardinale and Cambria. As of 2010 Kendall-Jackson was the top-selling U.S. brand for wines over $15 a bottle.

The wines under the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve label come from cool vineyards in coastal regions including Monterey County, Lake County, Mendocino County, Santa Barbara County, and Sonoma County. They are all managed by the Kendall-Jackson viticultural team. The Riesling is a blend of 83% Riesling, 12% Gewürztraminer, 2% Muscat Canelli, 2% Chardonnay, and 1% Viognier. According to the winemaking notes, “87% of the Riesling comes from Monterey County where the growing season is long and cool adding apricot, almond and honeysuckle flavors. The Gewürztraminer adds orange blossom and spice. Muscat Canelli brings tangerine and mango tones. Chardonnay adds tropical lushness to the palate. Viognier for hints of floral on the nose”.

The wine had a fragrant nose of pear, apple and stone fruit and was moderately sweet on the palate with enough acidity to keep it clean and fresh. It was good with the smoked salmon and a natural accompaniment to our Sweet Potato Casserole (that we made with yams).

After the Riesling we opened a 1999 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. This was a gift from Christophe and his wife Virginie and I was waiting for a good occasion to share the bottle with them. Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is a second growth Bordeaux in the Saint-Julien appellation. The estate sits between the village of Beychevelle and the Gironde estuary, farming 50 hectares of vineyard. The soil is characterized by well drained gravel and large stones up to 2.5 inches in diameter, which gave the estate its name (Beaucaillou means beautiful stones). The vines are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. Grapes are harvested and sorted manually. The Grand Vin is aged 18 and 20 months in 50-80% new oak.

The wine had a distinctive nose of spices, blackcurrants, and berries. On the palate, it was medium-bodied, well-balanced with smooth tannins and more elegance in the finish than power. I enjoyed it a lot and thought it worked perfectly well with the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the casseroles, the cranberry sauce, the pies, and my friends and family.

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