Allegrini Estate Stewards of Tradition and Innovation

Recently we visited the  Allegrini estate in the commune of Fumane, located in the heart of Valpolicella.  The Valpolicella  Classico region is in northeastern Italy, east of Lake Garda and northwest of Verona with the Lessini Mountains to the north.   Being a closet Valpolicella fan, to say that I was in my element would be a huge understatement.  One could easily debate the merits of old world wine versus new world wines but one central idea that cannot be debated at least not seriously:  the type of wines they make in the special and unique hills of Valpolicella Classico can't be made anywhere else in the world.  

Massimo Bernardi

Massimo Bernardi

Our guide for our visit was Sales Manager Massimo Bernardi.  A graduate student of economics and a reformed entrepreneur, Massimo's warmth and his ardor for his vocation were energizing.  He affirmed our measurement by stating, " I'm a very lucky man because I've chosen my job.  Working in the wine world without passion and enthusiasm for me is impossible".  He escorted us as we toured the cellars, the drying facility and Villa Della Torre. 

 

The Allegrini operation is sizable.  One gets the feeling as you tour the three different sites where their operations are carried out, that they are bursting at the seams.  Look carefully though and you can see that this family owned business has very thoughtful and deliberate caretakers at the helm.  The Allegrini's own all 247 acres of the vineyards they farm so that they can control the quality of the grapes.  All of their vineyards are up in the hills.  These hillside locations, at between a 800 to 1,600 foot elevation provide good drainage, proper sunlight and wind for good healthy grapes.  Allegrini produces about 83,333 cases of wine. 

Traditional Pergola Veronese After Pruning

Traditional Pergola Veronese After Pruning

They produce  a  Recioto della Valpolicella Classico D.O.C.G. wine that is named in honor of the founder Giovanni  Allegrini and three D.O.C. wines, Soave, Valpolicella Classico and Amarone della Valpolicella Classico.  Departing from traditional blends in order to make another tier of complex and refined wines they make three single vineyard I.G.T. Veronese wines, Palazzo Della Torre, La Grola and La Poja.  The three latter wines may not have the pedigree that is inferred by the D.O.C. designation on their labels, but the wines are excellent examples of the type of quality and purity that can be coaxed out of grapes grown in the Veronese hills.   Allegrini is a benchmark producer of Amarone, a wine made from dried grapes that are fermented until there is no residual sugar left.  Amarone is a big wine, often over 15 % abv but when well made it can show incredible elegance and charm. 

French oak barriques in the Orignal Cellar

French oak barriques in the Orignal Cellar

Our tour began in the original cellar and it's here where we learned that the Allegrini familly has played an important role in Veronese wine culture since the sixteenth century.   The cellar has some of the original wood vessels that are still being used for blending the wines.  We noticed  lots of new french barriques also, a sign of a departure from traditional cask ageing in large wooden vessels ( botte ).            

 Contemporary winemaking and viticulture was spearheaded by Giovanni Allegrini.   He challenged conventional farming and chose to purchase and cultivate single vineyard "cru wines" (a vineyard that produces a high quality wine) from unfarmed plots on hillsides and pioneered increased vine density in the vineyard and guyot training to replace the pergola veronese training which is still very prominent in the Valpolicella zone.  When Giovanni  passed away in 1983 his three children Walter, Marilisa and Franco took over the company.  Giovanni's eldest son Walter passed on in 2003 and now the company is run by Franco who heads the winemaking operations and Marilisa who is responsible for sales and marketing.  Recently Allegrini switched  importers and now the brand is handled in the U.S. market exclusively by E. & J. Gallo Winery. 

Slavonian Oak Botti

Slavonian Oak Botti

Upon completing our tour of the cellar and bottling room we took a short drive to Centro Terre di Fumane, their drying facility.  Terre di Fumane is an association of eight wineries of which Franco Allegrini  is the president.  The facility was the first of its kind and was built in 1990.  Fifteen hundred years of drying history have lead to this innovative operation.  Specially selected grape bunches of  Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Oseleta are dried at this facility and used in the production of Allegrini's  Amarone, Recioto and Palazzo della Torre wines.  One would think the appassimento process (drying of the grapes) would be the easiest part of winemaking, however it's actually one of the most delicate phases of the operation.  During appassimento, 100 to 120 days, the grapes lose 40 to 50 percent of their weight.  Many of Amarones' most noteworthy producers place their grapes for drying on wooden trays or bamboo racks in open air lofts.  While this may be more romantic it's not very practical if your goal is to have a botrytis-free grape at the end of the drying process.  Some winemakers consider a little botrytis fungus beneficial to the finished wine but  at Allegrini  humidity and botrytis are the enemy.  At Terre di Fumane the grapes are laid out in plastic bins which are easy to wash and sanitize.  The building is equipped with an elaborate ventilation system that helps to prevent botrytis development during the critical first few days of the drying regimen.  At its core this cutting-edge mentality is a hallmark of the Allegrini business model.  They respect the past, what those that have come before them have done and they are constantly striving to preserve historically important parts of the wine culture in Veneto, yet they're unafraid to break new ground and use science and technology to increase their odds of making better wines.

Fantastic Fireplace

Fantastic Fireplace

 Twenty-five years ago Valpolicella producers were hard pressed to sell the 1.5 million bottles of Amarone that were made annually.  That's no longer the case.  Consumer thirst for big flavored, fruit forward wines has spurned a turnaround in the zone.  When I asked Massimo why does it seem like there is so much more ripasso styled wine in the marketplace these days?  He replied, " Because we have increased the production of Amarone.  We need the skins of  Amarone to make it.  Think about this number.  Amarone production eight years ago was four million bottles and today it is sixteen million bottles.  This is very dangerous".  I didn't ask Massimo a follow up question but my hunch is that he's concerned that this rapid expansion in Valpolicella  could have some unintended consequences.  One needn't feel uneasy about the prospect of overproduction because  an association consisting of twelve historical Amarone Families was recently formed to protect the tradition, production standards, quality, and pricing of Amarone.  Marilisa Allegrini serves as the current president of Amarone Families.  The Amarone families distinctive hologram on a bottle of Amarone is the mark of an authentic,  high quality wine.

Villa Della Torre

Villa Della Torre

We left the drying facility and drove over to Villa della Torre.  Della Torre is a surname and the villas first owner was Giulio della Torre.  Construction was finished around 1560.  The Allegrini's are the 27th owners of the residence which they purchased in 2008.  The Palazzo Della Torre vineyard, planted in 1968  surrounds the villa.  The villa structure is centered around a courtyard with a fountain as its focal point.  From here if you head in the direction of the village you'll discover fish ponds and a beautiful lawn area that is used for concerts in the summer.  The villa has a bell tower, a mystery cave, chapel, state of the art kitchen and some incredible gargoyle adorned fireplaces.  To learn more about Villa Della Torre's history or to book a visit click this link. http://www.villadellatorre.it/en/index.php  

We concluded our visit with a tasting of some of the estates current releases.

2013 Valpolicella Classico  -   65% Covina Veronese, 30% Rondinella and 5% Molinara  -   This wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks and spends two months in bottle before it's released.  Crafted in the traditional style delightful aromas of red cherries and violets jump out of the glass.  In the mouth you receive more red cherries and a very pleasing juiciness, complimented by some firm acidity and freshness.  Medium bodied with a hint of pepper spice on the finish this Valpolicella is charming and would pair well with salumi and cheeses, soups, tomato sauced pastas and grilled chicken.   12.9% abv $13 - $15   

2011 Palazzo della Torre Veronese I.G.T.   -  70% Corvina Veronese, 25% Rondinella and 5% Sangiovese  -  Allegrini's Pallazzo della Torre is a tribute to what wine insiders refer to  as a 'Baby Amarone' or a ripasso styled wine.  The vineyards for this wine surround the villa.  In crafting the wine they use the whole bunch of the dried grapes (30% of the blend), not just the pomace or skins as you would for a typical ripasso wine.  It's a subtle but important distinction in the winemaking process, as I believe this one step is what gives the wine its extraordinary richness, complexity and depth of flavors.  The remaining 70% of wine is made from fresh grapes.  The wine spends about 18 months in first and second use barriques and seven months in  bottle before release.  A deep ruby color with aromas of black cherries and black plum, baking spice and that characteristic dried raisin character ( from the appassimento process) are followed with more of the same on the palate.  Medium bodied the wine is held together with soft round tannins and just the right amount of oak.  This wine pairs well with charcuterie, lasagna and a variety of richer flavored pasta dishes.  Try it with grilled or roasted meats.  We tasted the 2011 which is not on the market yet, but the 2010 which has the same flavor profile is currently available.  A textbook example of ripasso styled wine I always have a vintage or two of Palazzo della Torre in my wine stash.  You should too.  Even though ready to drink upon offer, a testament to how well it's made is that it ages extremely well.  At such a reasonable price point one could easily justify buying a case and drinking it over a number of years to see what pleasure it brings with bottle age.  13.8% abv 20,833 cases produced $16 - $18    

2011 La Grola Veronese I.G. T.   -  80% Corvina Veronese, 10% Oseleta and 10% Syrah  -  The La Grola vineyard was first planted in 1979 and the Syrah planting was the first of its kind in the region.   The vines are guyot vertical-trellis trained as well, revolutionary thinking for that time period.  Perched on a picturesque hilltop site with southeastern exposure in the town of Sant'Ambrogio,  at about 984 ft elevation, La Grola's 74 acre plot is densely planted to approximately  1700 vines per acre.  Long considered a top cru Massimo offered, " La Grola I think because I live here, is the most beautiful vineyard in all of Valpolicella".  The wine is made entirely from fresh grapes and is probably one of the best examples of the character of Corvina.  In the glass showing aromas of lavender, roses, red cherry  and raspberry  the wine turns more angular in its focus, on the palate.  Definitely in its infancy there's good concentration,  but it's a more brooding style, full bodied with rich cherry notes,  hints of cocoa and anise, very good acids and a medium length elegant finish.  It's  fresh and clean and I'm convinced it would have shown even better with more time in the glass.  The wine spends 16 months in barrique and 10 months in bottle.  At the table La Grola calls for grilled meats.  Try it with grilled sausages and portabella mushrooms or a beef stew.  13.7% abv 20,833 cases produced $30 - $34

2009 Amarone Classico  -  80% Corvina Veronese, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta  -  Hand harvested grape bunches are collected from various hillside sites throughout Valpolicella Classico for their Amarone.  The grape bunches are dried for three to four months and then pressed and fermented in January.  The wine spends about 18 months in a combination of new and second passage oak.  The most striking feature of this wine is its impeccable balance.  Quite amazing when you consider its 15.8% alcohol content.  Refined for over four years before release the nose displays black cherry, clove, chocolate,fig and spice.  Not at all a hammer the wine is seamlessly structured, showing great depth of fruit with ideal acidity and well integrated tannins and wood flavors.  Staying in character with the other wines in the portfolio it still exhibits freshness on its long velvety finish.  Allegrini's Amarone is a perennial top award winner in many well established wine publications and with good reason.  It's providing so much drinking pleasure already I can't help but wonder how many bottles will be put aside for aging by consumers.  If you have never tried an Amarone this would be an excellent introduction to the power, richness and complex flavors that it can offer.  Drinkable enough to have on its own; it's that good, you should try it with a plate of dried nuts and Gorgonzola.  Charcoal grilled steaks and richly seasoned beef stews would be good pairings too.  You can find Amarone style wines in discount stores priced around $15.  Avoid them like the plague.  They are what their price suggests, cheap nockoffs.  The higher labor cost in the production of Amarone makes it a more costly wine.  Prices for good Amarone start around $30 and can escalate to over $300 a bottle for certain noted producers, but here's where Allegrini excels.  Their Amarone has a broad market presence and at $65 to $75 the pedigree and price to quality ratio of their wine is unquestionable.  10,416 cases produced

2010 Giovanni Allegrini Recioto Valpolicella Classico  -  80% Corvina Veronese, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta  -  The grape bunches are dried until they have lost about half of their original weight.  Then the grapes are destemmed,  crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks for 25 days with a daily pump over regimen.  The fermentation stops naturally leaving a residual sugar of 118 g/l.  The wine spends 14 months in french oak barriques.  This dessert wine is available in a 500ml format bottle.  It's dark purple in color with an intense black cherry jam and baking spice nose.  It's sweet but not cloying exhibiting good zip and acidity on the palate, ending with a long satisfying finish.  A great way to end a meal this wine can be easily enjoyed on its own, but if you must, try it with your favorite chocolate torte or biscotti.  $54 - $62 500ml

Heartfelt thanks to Lael Hazan on twitter @educatedpalate and Flavia Antonini with Allegrini Hospitality who helped coordinate our visit.  And to Massimo Bernardi, hai ragione il mio amico, "with wine you are always a friend". 

 If you're ever near Verona, we highly recommend you set aside some time to visit Villa Della Torre.  It's a first-class experience. 

Cheers!

 

 

 

The Rural Beauty of Field Stone Winery & Vineyard

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Since its inception  Field Stone Winery has been completely family owned and operated.  Wallace Johnson purchased the property in southern Alexander Valley , 750 acres in 1958 and named it Redwood Ranch.  When he purchased the property Alexander Valley was best known for grazing, fruit, fodder crops and prunes.  Yes , prunes were the top commercial agricultural crop for the area up until the early seventies.  In fact Healdsburg the hub of the area was once known as the "The Buckle of the Prune Belt".  Even when you travel through the valley today you can still see vestiges of old prune orchards  dotting the landscape.  

In the late 1960's Robert Young and other prune farmers in the area started experimenting with grape growing as it seemed it might turn out to be more profitable.  Fast forward to the present and wine grapes are now the number one cash crop in Alexander Valley.  

Wally's original intent was to use the ranch to raise cattle and plant vineyards to be used as a testing ground for his mechanical grape harvesting machine.  Ironically the Statens no longer use Wally's patented harvester,  but the neighboring ranchers at Rio Largo use a French-made mechanical harvester to harvest their grapes which they sell to Jordan, Kendall-Jackson and Girard Winery in Napa Valley.  Wally was very serious about his cattle and at one time he spent $100,000 to purchase a prized bull only to have it die a couple of years later.  

Wally graduated with honors from Cal Tech as a mechanical engineer.  Judging from the number of patents he held as a inventor, his business  and political achievements,  it's hard to imagine he had any time to sleep.  He served two terms as the last Republican Mayor of Berkeley California  from 1963 to 1971.  Wally thought long term and during his tenure as mayor  he fought Bay Area Rapid Transit board members and engineers over their plans to build the tracks in Berkeley between the stations above ground.  He believed that erecting elevated  tracks straight through the middle of town would spur a racial and ethnic divide in effect creating a right and wrong side of the tracks mentality.  In the end he prevailed convincing his political opponents and the tax payers to support a ballot initiative to increase taxes to cover the additional expense of having the tracks buried underground.  Wally also owned a successful business, Upright Scaffolding Inc., that built quality portable  aluminum scaffolding systems and one the first mechanical grape harvesters.  When you visit the winery you can see how he used his engineering knowledge to construct one of the first underground wineries since prohibition.  Wally passed away in 1979 a few years after his wineries construction had been completed.  

After Wally's death the ranch passed into the hands of his four children.  Of the four heirs his daughter Katrina and her husband John Staten were  the only ones that wanted to take on the responsibility of running the winery.  The property was divided up with the other three children receiving larger portions of the property while the Statens kept fifty acres and the winery.  The other three kids shortly sold their portion of the property to the Reed Family.  Today the Reeds farm about 350 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes.  

John Staten having spent some time on a sheep ranch in Texas was familiar with farm life, so when he found himself suddenly thrust with the responsibility of running a ranch, vineyards and a winery he embraced the opportunity.  Having earned a B.A. in history and philosophy from Stanford University he pursued studies in Theology, attending Princeton and The University of Chicago.  He applied his Ph. D. in Theology, spreading the word if you will, by heading  religion departments at several  colleges in Northern California.  John displayed keen insight or perhaps even better vision, because who would have believed that the driver of a lime colored Datsun 240Z that could be seen zipping by his property along Highway 128 with great frequency during the harvest was none other than "the dean of American Winemakers" Andre Tchelistcheff.   Andre had retired from Beaulieu Vineyards  in 1973, but still worked as a consulting enologist for numerous wineries in Napa and Sonoma County.   John wisely cultivated a relationship with Andre who served as his senior enologist and advisor for over ten years.   Today John is still pretty hands on and can be seen at the winery about three days a week.  John's son Ben came on board in 1990 and is the Vineyard and General Manager.  The winemaker for Field Stone is Patrick Murray.  

Thirty-eight acres of the ranch are planted.  They grow one white grape variety Viognier, and the rest are red varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Sangiovese and Syrah.  The Statens farm the land sustainably with minimal use of pesticides.  They are certified members of the  California Sustainable Winegrowing Program.   www.sustainablewinegrowing.org.  The ranch is 70% dry farmed on a good year.  They use manure from their neighbors, pomace from the previous vintages and lots of cover crops of wild onions and flowers to nourish the soils.  They have several owl boxes on the property but they have never really had a problem with birds trying to raid the grapes.  Another bonus for being at the southern end of the valley is they have not had to invest in any frost protection devices.  As you travel further up valley you'll notice vineyards with the fans and overhead sprinklers that are used to combat frost during the crucial periods of bud break. 

While walking the property with Josh Cortopassi our affable docent we learned that the front porch of the old farmhouse on the property was used as a setting for the famed Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler ads from the eighties. 

Field Stone's flagship wine is a Reserve Petite Sirah and the property  has a seven acre plot of 120 year old  vines that form a horseshoe around the farmhouse.  To put 120 year old vines in perspective most grape growers pull up established vineyards and replant usually before the vines reach their thirtieth birthday.  The reason being as vines age they produce less fruit.  Seeing the value of the old vineyard ( a survivor from the past) through a different prism the Statens have chosen to take what the old vines give them and look past the economic drawbacks of farming this plot.  The gnarled head trained vineyard yields grapes that produce a wine of intense blue, black opaque color.  Black cherries and blue fruits explode out of the glass, with some cocoa  and lavender in the background.  Full bodied in the mouth and tannic but the fruit is so deep and intense that the tannins feel ample, not overpowering.  The wine finishes with good length and persistence.  The 2012 example will invariably age well if you can manage not to drink it in its beautiful youth.  850 cases $38

The 2012 Vineyard Select Pinot Noir Russian River is Field Stone's second release of Pinot Noir.  Most farmers have learned that Alexander Valley is too warm to grow quality Pinot Noir and the family is smart enough to not go against the trend.  They source the grapes for this wine from the Russian River Valley at Hopkin's River Ranch, right off of Eastside Road in Healdsburg.  Why Pinot?  Because it's popular and they happen to have Patrick Murray as their winemaker and he's been working with Pinot for over ten years.  It speaks to the good nature and spirit of the family to support Pat by allowing him to use barrel space at the winery to follow his passion.  His own label is called Paro and he crafts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Sonoma County.    http://www.parowine.com/ourstory  This Pinot Noir  exhibits aromas of raspberries and red cherries, cinnamon and spice with a hint of forest floor.  Showing a fine balance of fruit acids and oak tannins this one will delight you with elegance not brawn.  392 cases $30

The  2012 Convivio is a red blend composed of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Sangiovese.   Convivio is less fruit driven than many of the other offerings.  The wine displays aromas of black fruit , tobacco, pencil shavings and earth, with medium body and length on the finish.  It's fifteen dollars at the winery but if you shop around you can find it for ten bucks at retail.  John is an ordained Presbyterian minister and he put his beliefs to work with this affordable wine.  The family donates a portion of the proceeds to Clinica Alianza, a non-profit medical center that serves farm workers, and everyone from newborns to elderly in Sonoma County.  620 cases $15

There are roughly 1,800 bearing acres of Sangiovese planted in California.  Contrast that to over 80,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted and one can see it's an uphill battle in the marketplace for Sangiovese.  Aged in American Oak Field Stone's 2012 Sangiovese starts with a cranberry, red cherry, lavender and tobacco leaf nose.  On the palate more red fruit, lively acidity and modest tannins.  You wouldn't mistake it for a good Chianti Classico but why should you.  It's distinctly Californian and as Sangiovese should be, would be suitable for a wide variety of foods.  483 cases $27

The 2012 Marion's Block Syrah is aged in American and new Hungarian Oak for 16 months.  Floral aromas of lavender and violets, accompany , framboise, boysenberry and black plums with hints of black licorice and spice in the background.   With beautiful texture on the palate the wine is delightfully lush and savory, full bodied carrying a long satisfying finish.  392 cases $27

Alexander Valley happens to be a great area to cultivate Merlot and Field Stone's vineyard block on the north side of the property is no exception.  At one time the owners  of  Chateau Ausone in Bordeaux's St-Emilion region were interested in purchasing the property so they could make a Bordeaux styled wine in California.  Andre Tchelistcheff acted as a duel broker for Ausone and Field Stone, but no deal was ever made.  What did come out of the courtship: the Statens were able to secure some French clonal selections for their vineyard.  Their 2012 Merlot is aged in French-coopered American oak  barrels for nineteen months but only 30% of the barrels are new.   The nose shows black cherries,  currants and tobacco.  On the palate you'll get a good grip of chewy tannins, oak and a hint of leather.  Very good now but several more months in the bottle should help it become more integrated.  490 cases $25

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is the workhorse wine for the Field Stone lineup with production at 1,680 cases.  The budwood for the  vineyards is comprised of two Bordeaux clones:  three clones from Napa Valley, BV1(Beaulieu) , Martha's Vineyard (Heitz) and Niebaum respectively.  Aged in 70% French and 30% American Oak the aromas open with black berries and black currants, while the oak influence is firm and in check.  This is more of a traditional Cabernet, old school if you will at 13.5% alcohol.  Its charm is its typicity and its balance in texture and flavors, not the flash and power that we have come to expect from Cabernet made in the "other valley".  On the palate one senses a little red fruit coming forth accompanied by hints of tobacco and pencil shavings.  It's full bodied and bold and would be the perfect accompaniment to a steak cooked on an open grill.  Just what the founder Wally had in mind.  $32

The 2012 Staten Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was raised for 20 months in French Oak (40% new).  It was a bit closed when I tasted it showing black fruit and black currants, firm tannins and a rich mouth feel.  More concentrated than their other Cabernet it shows great promise.  494 cases  $45  

Field Stone also makes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose of Petite Sirah, Viognier, a Vintage Port and a Late Harvest Viognier.  Their Chardonnay was sold out but the other white wines and Rose that I tasted were true to type and exhibited attractive fruit forward, clean flavors.  

If you're ever touring Sonoma County Field Stone Winery is well worth the visit.  Don't expect to find restaurants or convenience stores on their section of Highway 128, but they do have picnic tables just outside the winery's front door.  Stop in, taste their wonderful wines and  stock up on some newly found favorites.  Before you leave enjoy a relaxing  lunch under the oaks and take in the beautiful rural vistas of the surrounding ranches of Alexander Valley.

If you would like to learn more about Field Stone Winery & Vineyard follow the link below.

Fieldstone Winery

10 Soaves You Should Try

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There I was in one of my favorite wine stores doing my usual thing, looking at all the different labels and reminding myself to make certain that 25% of my purchases have to be of wines I've never tried before.  It's a good way to keep your mind open to new discoveries and expand your knowledge of wine.  Lately I've been on a Bordeaux buying binge as there are an astounding number of good quality wines from the 2009 and  2010 vintage on the market. 

That's when I spied it, stacked on the floor at the end of the shelves in the far left corner at the back of the store.  Momentarily I reflected on standard grocery store marketing 101.  Remember how the staples that everyone buys, eggs dairy and meats are typically located at the back of the store.  Conventional wisdom being that when you come in to get those items you have to pass by all the slower moving items to do your shopping.  Ironically small retail wine shops rarely use that ploy and are more apt to use loss leader programs to get more eyeballs in their store.  Many retailers bait the consumer by prominently displaying the most well known wine brands at the front of the store and the lesser known producers, which are more of a hand sell toward the back of the store.  One of the great things about wine is that at any moment it can take you back to another place in time.  When I saw the Pieropan Soave in its distinctive elongated bottle shape that is the calling card of aromatic white wines, I instantly took a trip down memory lane to my earlier wine drinking days.  Of course back then Soave was more likely to be found  in a magnum format and with a screwcap.

 You see Soave has had and still suffers from a reputation, well deserved in many cases of being a thin, watery, undistinguishable, innocuous white wine from Italy.  After World War II Soave not unlike Lambrusco and Chianti captivated the U.S. wine consumer.  A combination of returning GI 's having been exposed to European wines and  broad based and successful advertising campaigns by the likes of Bolla and Folonari pushed Soave sales in the U. S. past those of Italy's most famous red wine Chianti. 

The problem was the original grape growing zone , which was primarily east and north of the town of Soave did not possess the  acreage to support all of the demand for the wine.  In steps the politicians who simply rezoned and expanded the original zone to include the flatter fertile  plains to the south towards the Adige river ,where you could now by law grow grapes to make Soave.  The end result was the Soave brand was diluted and its name sullied for two generations as growers took full advantage of the fertile plains and over cropped to get the maximum tonnage of grapes.  A market flooded with cheap plonk, the emergence of super brand Santa Margherita's Pinot Grigio and all its knock offs,  and it's easy to see why Soave can't get any love lately. 

My running  joke with wine merchants was " I'm putting together a Soave tasting, please show me what you have".  The puzzled looks I got from them was priceless.  With perseverance I was able to put together a good panel of wines, both entry level and single vineyard styles.  There has been a big push lately by the Soave Consorzio  www.ilsoave.com to reacquaint consumers with Soave.  It seems the Consorzio still has lots of work to do as I didn't find any wine shops in the San Francisco bay area that stocked more than one producer, if any of Soave.  When I did find a few selections they were typically the wineries entry level wines.  This time we had to cast a wider net to get a good representative group of wines and we ordered several of the wines for this tasting from New York and Southern California.  The weather was mild and all of the wines had a good journey and were allowed to rest in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks before we sampled them.

Our rediscovery of Soave conveniently coincided with the Soave Consorzio's Soave Master Class which was conducted at Verbena in San Francisco with Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein and Giovanni Ponchia.  The first flight of ten wines were tasted blind  and the final six wines were paired with some wonderfully creative and delicious dishes.  The execution and pacing for the class was on point and the background stories told by Giovanni and Evan helped acuminate my knowledge of the Soave region and its wines.  Big thanks to the Consorzio, Evan and his group, Giovanni, and the staff at Verbena for hosting this amazingly enriching event.  

What is Soave?  Soave is the name of a town, a wine, and a vineyard region  in north eastern Italy, in the Veneto region, roughly twelve miles east of Verona.  The original Soave Classico zone, whose producers we focused on for this tasting, is centered around Monte Foscarino which is due north of the towns of Soave and Monteforte d'Apone.  The hills outside the Soave Classico zone have been given the name " Colli Scaligeri" in reference to a family of Nobles who were at one time Lords of Verona.  The grand landmark for the town of Soave sitting above it in the hills is its medieval castle.  Erected in the tenth century it's on our bucket list of places to visit.  The Soave region covers over 16,000 acres and is divided into three areas, Soave DOC, Soave Classico DOC, and Soave Colli Scaligeri DOC.  The volcanic soils of the region, rich in iron, with dark basalt, tufa and calcareous clays contribute to the distinctive terroir of Soave.   The recipe for Soave DOC and Soave Classico DOC is a minimum of 70% Garganega  (gar-Gah-neh gah), up to 30% can be Trebbiano di Soave and/or Chardonnay and a 5% maximum of local varieties. The latter having stricter rules on yields and minimum ageing. The minimum alcohol requirement is 11% for Soave and  11.5% for Soave Classico.   There is also a Soave Superiore DOCG designation which calls for a higher minimum alcohol content of 12% and excludes Chardonnay entirely from the blend.  Superiore wines are made only from grapes grown in the hills of Classico and Colli Scaligeri.  Stricter maximum yields 70 hl/hectare, guyot only training 4,00vines per/hectare, and a minimum twelve month ageing regimen before release onto the market help make Superiore wines a rare find.  It seem the growers haven't caught up with the regulations yet.  There aren't any red wines made in the Soave wine region but there is some Soave Spumante DOC  and Recioto di Soave DOCG produced in the area. 

What's a DOC, IGT, DOP or DOCG?  These are all acronyms for Italian wine law hierarchy.  Italian wine laws always seem to be in a state of flux.  Recently in an attempt to keep all the members of the European Union on the same footing the EU took control of agriculture in Italy.   All future changes now go through Brussels.  With this new wrinkle I think it's fair to say that the only thing that won't change with Italian wine laws is the continued changing of the laws.  An example of the changing laws:  it is now permitted for bottlers of Soave Classico to use stelvin closures (screwcaps).  In the past if you made a Soave Classico wine but chose to use a stelvin closure instead of a cork you had to declassify your wine to the lower level Soave DOC.  That rule has been amended and now producers can use screwcap closures without  having to yoke their wine to a lower classification.  That said, if you practice summarily dismissing  any bottles of Soave as inferior because they don't have a cork closure; you could be missing out on some wonderful wines.  Also Pinot Bianco and Trebbiano di Toscana previously allowed have been banned for use in Soave blends because of their perceived  inferiority.  For the sake of brevity we've  given you a general overview of the wine laws for Soave wines.   For those feeling compelled to geek out on Italian wine laws check out  http://italianwinecentral.com/tag/laws/.  Regular folks that just want to be able to find good quality representations of Soave,  listen to our podcast and you'll be armed with enough information to find the quality producers.

The Soave marketing gurus are still trying to pinpoint what consumers want  in an Italian white wine, which leaves the producers of shall we say of "Real Soave"  in a quandary.   Eighty-five percent of the Soave you see on the market is of industrial quality and is  produced at a cooperative.  That's not to say that  cooperatives can't produce good quality wines, but on a scale of one million cases per year, odds are the quality does get compromised.  The other fifteen percent of the market is composed of traditional and maverick Soave winemakers.  Both insist on low yields in the vineyard in an effort to get more flavorful  wines.  The traditionalist stay with the Garganega/Trebbiano blends while the new wave group sometimes  include Chardonnay in the blend .  Many producers try to cover all the bases, so it's not unusual to find cantine that offer three tiers of wine.  The first level being their entry level wine that typically sees a short period of ageing and no wood contact.  Dismissing these entry level wines in some cases would be a mistake as the quality bar is quite high with several noteworthy producers.  The second and third levels  can be a mix of single vineyard designation wines, with none or some wood ageing or full on heavily influenced winemaking efforts that involve barrel fermenting, generous amounts of Chardonnay, extended lees contact with battonage and longer bottle ageing before release onto the market.

What does Soave taste like and what style should you try first?  Our tasting clearly showed that there is a good case to be made for many of the styles you'll see in the marketplace.  In the glass it displays a straw-golden color which a lot of producers like to show off by bottling with clear glass.  Soave is not a wine with a high aromatic profile.  Blending other grapes with Garganega can add texture, body and complexity to the wine but usually at the cost of blunting the delicate aromas of the finished product.  The aromas won't jump out of the glass and bust you in the nose like the more aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Rieslings will.  With Soave its more about nuance of aroma, minerality and  crisp acidity.  If you're looking for the purist expression of Soave try a wine by a traditional producer that uses only Garganega grapes grown in the Classico region and eschews wood contact.  In these wines you'll find straw colors,  intriguing minerality (think wet stones and earth) accompanied by aromas and  flavors of white flowers, green and yellow apples, pear, white  peach, honeydew melon, stone fruits, yellow citrus and lime with a crisp finish and mouthwatering acidity.  If you would like to try Soaves with fuller body, more depth of flavors and complexity on the palate try some of the producers we highlight in the podcast.  Although these type of wines weren't made traditionally in Soave their new wave flair and quality cannot be overlooked.  Most Soaves clock in around 12.5 % alcohol by volume which makes them easy to drink and suitable as aperitifs or accompaniments  with appetizers first courses and a variety of main dishes.  From delicate flavored Brie, Chevre,  and Mozzarella to more assertive Asiago, Beemster or Taleggio Soave pairs nicely with many cheeses.  It great with Sushi, and for that matter anything that comes out of the water.  It's a seafood lovers wine.  Chicken, pork and veal pair well with richer styles of Soave as do pastas with butter and cream sauces.  With Soave it's best to pick producer first vintage second.  Find a producers style you enjoy and there's a good chance you'll be pleased with the results from year to year.

The good  thing about Garganega is that it grows in loose clusters with sparse berries which helps with mold and rot resistance and affords  growers the option to leave the grapes on the vines well into October to get more complexity.   The bad thing is, Garganega is a late ripener  and inclement weather can be a bigger factor on quality than with earlier developing varieties.  2013 and 2014 were years that witnessed  a number of hail events impacting yields for many growers in the Soave area.  We'll have to wait and see what comes to market before we can make any quality judgments  though.   The vast majority of Soave currently on the market is from the 2012 vintage.  In general they seem generous and delicious having more tang and zip than the more fruit forward 2011's.

 How much does it cost?  Good Soave retails in the twelve to eighteen dollar range.  More ambitious efforts and single vineyard designated wines can typically start around nineteen and can reach into the low thirty dollar range.  That said the quality to price ratio is ridiculously favorable to consumers that takes a liking to good quality Soave.  This is what happens when you have producers working diligently and succeeding at making a good wine, but not getting the recognition in the market place yet.

There's boat loads of Soave swill in the marketplace, how do you find the good stuff?  If you're willing to search around and ask your favorite retailer to bring some quality producers into their program you will be rewarded with very good wines that speak well and clearly of the Soave Classico zone.  In general the phrase Soave Classico on a wine label is an indicator of a good quality wine.  The adjective Classico denotes that the grapes used to make the wine are from the original historic production zone and are considered to represent the best growing conditions for wines of this type.   Another indicator of quality is  the symbol  of the Vignaioli Indipendenti on the capsule of the bottle.  Members  must ensure that Soave is their main product and can't buy grapes or wine except for extreme winemaking needs.  Members of this small group of producers adhere to managing the entire production process from grape growing to bottling.  The principle mission of the Vignaioli del Soave Association is to give Soave wine back its dignity in the eyes of the consumer by being transparent and providing information.

 We hope you enjoy the podcast and learn a little too.  Tell us what you think about the wines of Soave and if you make a new discovery don't keep it a secret: let us know.  Bill and I thank you all for listening and until next time - Cheers!




How to Drink Like a Pro - Slow Wine San Francisco

One of the best ways to sharpen your palate and to learn and experience new wines is to attend a wine  tasting.  Having numerous producers at the same venue gives one the opportunity to economically contrast and compare regions and wines.  That said here are a few suggestions  you may want to follow to help yourself and others more fully enjoy the experience of a large format wine tasting.   

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Tips to Drink Like a Pro

  • Get a good rest the night before.  You'll want to be at your sharpest
  • Stay hydrated and  drink lots of water before during and after the tasting
  • Wear dark clothes.  You might not spill red wine but others may
  • Once you have received your sample pour be mindful of others that may be behind you waiting to be served.  Questions are good, but if you have an inordinate amount of them to ask, simply make room for others as you converse.
  • Taste and spit.. very few people look cool spitting, but you'll remember more.
  • Have a good meal shortly before the tasting.  Consuming alcohol on an empty stomach is not a good idea.
  • Have a game plan of producers you want to visit before you arrive and stick to your plan.  If you finish your list and you still have time you can wander around at that point.
  • Respect others and don't wear perfumes or colognes.

Tre Bicchieri San Francisco is an annual best of Italian wine events that we try to attend every year.   Slow Wine San Francisco also showcased only Italian wine and presented a challenge.

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This year's Slow Wine tasting was held at the Terra Gallery on Harrison Street at the base of the Bay Bridge.  It was a great setting and location.  The above referenced challenge relates to the fact that we were unable to get a list of the wines that would be poured beforehand.  We received  the list of producers when we arrived and trying to put together a plan for tasting at the last minute  proved time consuming and confusing.  We usually put together a firm list of producers' wines we intend to try before we arrive so that we can use our time wisely.  For tastings of this size (there were over fifty-five producers) failing to plan is the same as planning to fail.  We arrived on time after a satisfying lunch at Henry's Hunan Restaurant in the Financial district.  The smoked ham with green beans and the Kung Pao chicken really hit the spot.  

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The Slow Wine event wines are judged using a standard of which we were unfamiliar.  No one hundred point scale here.  The standards of quality for Slow Wine are keyed to a different criterion.  Their snail symbol is awarded to a winery that they particularly like for the way it interprets Slow Food Values ( sensory perceptions, territory, environment, identity) and offers good value for the money.  The bottle symbol is awarded to wineries whose bottles presented excellent average quality at their tastings. Finally, the coin symbol is awarded to wineries whose bottles are a  good value for the money.    

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We typically arrive early for events, so as to get a good jump on tasting before the event becomes crowded.  We were not the only ones that followed this strategy, for there was already a short line when we arrived.  Within the first hour of the tasting the place was packed, reminiscent of ZAP tastings from years gone by.  As a result we were not able to taste as many wines as we would normally.  We always try the white and sparkling wines first and follow those with the red wines.  As a result, we did not taste many reds, as the event was too crowded to navigate from table to table without lots of effort.  The wines we did get the opportunity to taste, as a group, were very good to excellent.  There was a good representation of wines from up and down the Italian peninsula, although  there weren't any wines from Aosta  or Liguria. This is understandable as these regions produce so little wine anyway.  It was surprising not to see any wines from Lombardy, especially since their signature sparkling wine Franciacorta has been receiving more recognition lately.  Wines from the southern regions of Calabria, Campania, Molise and Sardinia were not represented this year.  Several of the Cantine  at Slow Wine were currently seeking a distributor, so some of the wines we recommend may be challenging to find in the states.   Many of the producers were quick to tell of their embrace of organic cultivation methods, which they believed would preserve the health of their soils.  It became clear as we worked the room that most of the wines were made by small biodynamic and organic producers.   Listed below in two categories and in alphabetical order are our recommendations and approximate prices for the wines. 

Outstanding:

seeking representation

seeking representation

$32

$16

$50

seeking representation

        $65

$40

$35

$75

$40

$!9

N/A

$29

$23

N/A

$44

$25

$50

$21

N/A

 

 

$30

N/A

N/A

$50

N/A

$16

N/A

N/A

$15

 

 

 

 

     

                                                                          

 

What's in Your Wine?

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When you pour yourself a glass of wine have you ever wondered what's in it.  Hey it's just fermented grape juice right.  Living in food centric Northern California with its booming culture of sustainability and organic farming, we decided to look a little further into what may or may not be in the wines we buy and share with our families and friends.  To gain more insight into this subject we conducted an interview with Kevin Byrne, COO of Beverage Grades.

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Beverage Grades has a unique business model that to us appears to be a great tool for savvy wine buyers.    Beverage Grades operates an independent, high-tech commercial chemistry lab, which tests for components such as sugar content, caloric value, and the amount of vitamins present. They also test for substances like pesticides, antioxidants, even trace elements such as lead and arsenic. The BeverageGrades™ lab operates without influence from alcoholic beverage companies. They purchase the beverages themselves from liquor stores, test them, and let the data speak for itself.   They aim to lab test thousands of wines, beers and spirits so that consumers are empowered to make smarter choices when purchasing alcoholic beverages.

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We enjoyed our candid interview with Kevin and hope it didn't get too geeky.  We covered a variety of topics and feel it's fair to say anyone who is concerned about health and wellness, ingredient labeling and the purity of the wines they consume will find the conversation enlightening.

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Thank you Kevin and thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in.  We appreciate you all.  Please tell a wine loving friend about us.

Cheers!

Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association Trade Tasting: San Francisco 2013

View of Anderson Valley from Lazy Creek Vineyards - Photo Courtesy Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association

View of Anderson Valley from Lazy Creek Vineyards - Photo Courtesy Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association

On November 20th we were offered the opportunity to attend the first showing of Anderson Valley wines at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center.  The event was hosted by the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association (AVWA).  Founded in 1983 the AVWA is a non-profit group whose mission is to promote the grapes and wines of the Anderson Valley AVA.  www.avwines.com

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Anderson Valley seems remote because it is remote.  As the crow flies Anderson Valley is roughly two and a half hours north of San Francisco and once you exit the 101 freeway in Cloverdale onto state route 128 get ready for the beautiful bucolic scenery.  You won't see any billboards, strip malls, seven elevens or fast food chains until you get back to Highway 101 or when you reach Fort Bragg off the coast on Highway 1.  The twenty-eight mile serpentine roadway running from Cloverdale to Booneville is a motorcycle and sports car enthusiast dream.  The town of Booneville, population 1,035 is located in the center of the valley.  Booneville is the hub of Anderson Valley and is where most of the activity and population rest.  In the past the main source of commerce for the valley was logging, but that industry has all but vanished.  The valley's main industries are now all centered around agriculture ( apples, beer, wine and marijuana ).  As of the 2010 census the total vineyard bearing acres in Anderson Valley was 2,244 with Pinot Noir at 1,453 acres being roughly 65% of that total.  Consider for a little perspective that Napa County has eighteen times as much area under vine with 43,500 vineyard bearing acres.  In Anderson Valley Chardonnay planted is at  500 acres and Gewurztraminer accounts for 85 acres.  As one could surmise Pinot Noir plantings are on the rise and interestingly Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer are two varietals that are on the decline in Anderson Valley.  The valley is ten miles from the Pacific Ocean and is about a half to one and a half miles wide and fifteen miles long.  At 30 degrees latitude it's one of the coolest places to grow grapes in California with an average annual temperature of about 53 degrees fahrenheit. 

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We'd like to thank Janis MacDonald who serves as the Executive Director for the AVWA and Meg Murray for inviting us to this wonderful event and for their warm and ingratiating welcome when we arrived.  AVWA also host the International Alsace Varietal Festival in February and the Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival in May. 

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A majority of the wineries on hand produce wine in the hundreds not thousands of cases making these wines more challenging to find.  You won't come across them at a big discounter in the market place.  Several producers only offer their products via a mailing list which means you'll have to sign up and wait for an opening before you can buy their wines.  Also due to its remoteness some vintners source their grapes from within Anderson Valley but have their winemaking facilities set up in more urban areas.

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The tasting was from 11 am to 3 pm, which provided plenty of time for us to taste and chat with the twenty-nine producers that were there.  The overall feel of the gathering was relaxed, casual and informative.  Many of the principals representing the wineries were the winemakers themselves.  It was refreshing to not get the standard verbal rote one hears at larger well established tasting from winery representatives.  Most producers were very engaging and seemed genuinely interested in telling the story of their businesses and their wines.

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It's always a bit of a double edged sword to generalize about a regions wines but here goes.  Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from the 2011 vintage exhibit bright red fruits ( cranberries, cherries, raspberries and  plums ), medium bodied weight, with a strong emphasis on aromatics and energy.  This profile can be accented or dwarfed by the actions of the winemaker i.e. less or more time in oak barrels.  All in all we found the wines to be very approachable and easy to drink.  One would have to look back to the 1982 and 1983 vintages to find a harvest on the north coast of California as challenging for grape growers and winemakers.

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  In Anderson Valley the spring was cool and wet which delayed the growing cycle for the vines.  Spring was followed by a cool summer.  As harvest approached in October the first of a series of rainstorms came.  When grapes get wet they tend to attract mold and rot.  Moldy and rotten grapes are not the best material for making good wines.  Growers  that picked before the rains may not have gotten the extra sugar in their grapes to produce richer bodied wines but they probably slept pretty well once the rains started, knowing that their grapes were safely fermenting in the winery cellars. 


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Some vintners waited for the weather to clear in late October and were rewarded, while others did not fare so well.  2011 was a vintage from a weather standpoint that most vintners would like to forget.  Being a Sonoma County resident and having lived through the 2011 summer that never was I brought my own prejudices to the tasting.  The words of a noted wine retailer " I'm not buying any 2011 Pinot Noir.  I'm waiting for the 2012's" haunted my every swirl of the wine glass.  Fortunately my nose triumphed over my prejudgments and I was able to enjoy tasting some very fine examples of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.

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There were a number of wines we did not try because we were already familiar with them so they are not on our listing.  Most noteworthy of those are La Crema Winery, Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger Cellars.  Listed below in three categories and alphabetical order are our recommendations.

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Outstanding

Very Good

Good

Don't be disappointed if you can't find some of the wines we recommended, but make sure you catch the next wave of releases from the new vintage (2012) which will start coming on line this spring.  If Anderson Valley winemakers  can offer wines this charming and approachable from the 2011 harvest the 2012 wines ought to be something we should all be looking forward to enjoying as well.  After meeting most of the presenters at the event we got the impression that the Anderson Valley growers and winemakers were a close-knit group as they help each other in business matters  and spend time together as friends  outside of work.   Here's a few people we met at the show that made a lasting impression on us.

  • Most energetic and passionate - John Grant  winemaker - Couloir Wines
  • Most informative - Mila Handley winemaker - Handley Cellars
  • Most down to earth - Fred Buonanno Tractor Butt/ Owner Philo Ridge Vineyards
  • Most charming and engaging - Ann Fashauer - Witching Stick Wines

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

                                   

7 Holiday Wine Suggestions

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Hard to believe it’s Thanksgiving again.  The change in the seasons, holiday get togethers with family and friends, playoff baseball and football games give us many opportunities to share some of our favorite foods and wines.  The variety of foods that can be found on holiday dinner tables are numerous.  The taste sensations can range from, sweet to sour, savory to umami and salty.  Trying to find one wine that pairs well with your families honey glazed ham or smoked turkey, your sisters cornbread stuffing, Uncle Jim’s stuffed mushrooms and Grandma’s pumpkin pie would be a fools errand.  The key to making a good impression with respect to wine choices is diversity.  You’ll have a better chance of success by offering several bottles with a wide range of flavor profiles.  Just open up a few of your favorites and some of our suggested bottles, place them all on the table and let your guests pick which wines they want.


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Our first suggestion a 2012 Moscato D’ Asti “Bricco Quaglia by La Spinetta is an excellent way to welcome your guest to your home.  This Moscato is the real deal and not some quickly rushed to the market mass produced bottom shelf pretender.  La Spinetta is most famous for their Barolo and Barbaresco but those wines are way too serious for most holiday gatherings.  100% Moscato at 5.5% ABV the “Bricco Quaglia” has an intoxicating aroma of green apples, apricot and white peaches.  On the palate it’s slightly sweet with a good balance of acidity and a delicate sparkle.  Priced between $18 - $22 you’ll want to stock several bottles in the fridge because we guarantee this wine will be a runaway favorite.


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The 2012 Conundrum is a proprietary blend of California white wine.  This wine is from the house of Wagner Family Wines, makers of the iconic brand Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon.  A bottle of their Cabernet will set you back $130, but for about $20 to $24 you can buy into all of their excellent winemaking expertise and bring a bottle to the table that everyone will offer a comment on.  The website www.wagnerfamilywine.com tells us the wine is made up of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat Canelli and Viognier, although they don’t tell you the percentage of each varietal.  The Wagners have farmed in Napa Valley since 1906 and they source the grapes for this wine from Napa, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Tulare counties.  If we had to use one word to describe this wine it would be “exotic”.  The Conundrum name is appropriate as it is a truly unique wine.  Honey baked apples, musk melon, peaches and vanilla spice on the nose followed by more of the same on the palate.  The wine has a thick and rich mouth feel with good acidity for balance.  Try not to open this one up before dinner is served because it just might disappear before the turkey is carved. 


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The 2012 Philo Ridge Vineyards Gewurztraminer from Ferrington Vineyards Anderson Valley is a 100% vegan wine.  Not everyone is a carnivore: now you’ve got all the bases covered.  You’d be surprised how many wines can’t meet the vegan designation.  Philo Ridge is 5.5 miles up an all weather dirt/ rock road, two miles off the electrical grid and it’s 100% solar powered.  If you find yourself in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley you don’t need a four wheel drive vehicle to taste their wines though, they have a tasting room right on highway 128 in Boonville.  At 0.049 g/l of residual sugar (that’s dry) and 14.1 % ABV this Gewurztraminer will amaze your guest with its strong floral aromatics and its rich full bodied texture.  It’s packed with flavors of stone fruits, lemon, lychee and spice.  The pescatorians in your group would enjoy this Gewurztraminer with seared scallops or broiled salmon.  Philo Ridge’s Gewurztraminer will most likely be the most polarizing wine at the table.  Watching your friends and family debate over the best pairing combinations and the merits and shortcoming of the wines will be a lot more fun than bringing religion or politics to the table.  Fred Buonanno aka Tractor Butt owns the winery with his wife Heather and they only produced 195 cases of this wine so it will require more diligence to track down, but it’s well worth the hunt.  $15 to $19


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If you’ve listened to some of our pod casts you know that Bill’s wife is a huge Pinot Noir fan.  Obviously Bill gets to try lots of Pinot Noir and this is one of his favorites.  Pinot Noir is right at home on your holiday dinner table because its naturally high acidity matches well with most holiday fare.  We discovered this wine several years ago.  The first vintage we tried was 2009 and I believe that may have been the inaugural vintage for the Cazar label.  The 2012 Cazar Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is a declassified/ second label for Chasseur.  Bill Hunter is the winemaking savante and owner of Chasseur wines.  A declassified wine is a wine that does not meet the prescribed standards of the first or top wines of a producer.  For example in Bordeaux France, Chateau Latour’s second label is Les Forts de Latour.  A current vintage of  Château Latour will cost you about $1600 and the Les Forts de Latour cost about $250.  Is the Latour six times better than the Les Forts de Latour?  Not hardly, but at these elevated price levels, scarcity, marketing and prestige enter into the equation.  Chasseur is best known for their Pinot Noirs from the “true” Sonoma Coast areas around Freestone, Occidental and Sebastopol, but they also make some wonderful Chardonnays.  Chasseur Pinots retail around $60 a bottle and the Cazar Pinot Noir retails at  $20 to $23.  The 2012 Cazar Pinot represents a chance for you to show a little insider knowledge and offer your guest a fantastic bottle of wine at the same time.  Displaying a beautiful medium ruby hue Cazar’s Pinot on the nose exhibits a red fruit profile of pomegranate, cranberry, cherry and earth notes.  On the palate you’ll notice raspberry, black cherry, spice, cola and that hallmark of structure and silky texture that you find in all of Bill Hunter’s wines.  From the blockbuster 2012 vintage in California, a farmers delight, don’t miss out on this one.

 

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The 2012 Meiomi Pinot Noir pronounced “may-oh-mee” is another wine from the Wagner family.  This is a tri- appellation Pinot Noir with grapes sourced from Monterey, Santa Barbara and Sonoma counties.  It’s deep garnet color is complimented with a very forward rich and ripe fruit nose.  In the mouth, candied cherries, black cherry cola, vanilla and lots of oak,  Not a shy Pinot Noir: this one’s more of a hammer and a crowd pleaser amongst those that like big fruit forward Pinots.  At $18 to $22 a bottle it is a great value.

 


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La Bastide Saint Dominique’s 2010 Cotes Du Rhone Villages is composed of 50% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15% Mouvedre and 15% Carignan.  The estate was founded in 1976 and the winemaker Eric Bonnet is in the process of converting their vineyard holdings to organic farming.  This wine features a red fruit aroma of cherries, plum and kirsch.  On the palate those flavors are accompanied by some pepper, sage, licorice and earth notes.  At 14.5% ABV this is a full bodied wine with just the right amount of fruit, rusticity and tannin to compliment a variety of fall season dishes.

 

 


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Our last recommendation is the Yalumba Muscat Museum Reserve.  This is a late harvest wine whose fermentation is arrested by fortification with neutral grape spirits.  The Aussies affectionately call these types of wines stickies.  You’ll want to hold this wine in reserve and not put it on the table with the other wines.  After the table has been cleared most of your guest are by now in sensory overload and are trying to digest all the different types and amounts of food and beverages.  Once the cakes, pies and other desserts make their way to the table that’s when you break out the Yalumba Muscat.  Remember it’s a fortified wine and it clocks in at 18% ABV,  so a little goes a long way.  This is a wine for sipping and savoring.  In the glass it features a deep amber color that runs clear at the edge.  The nose shows over-ripe raisins, burnt sugar, caramel, dark molasses, with a hint of Vick’s Formula 44.  It’s very sweet but has great acids that hold the balance beautifully.  The finish last forever and it’s lip smacking good.  It’s packaged in half bottles and cost $17 to $20.  Make sure the cooks and the dish washing crew get a glass before the rest of your guest.  It’s a nice gesture and a great way to say thanks for all their hard work.


We hope you find our seven wine suggestions for the upcoming holiday season helpful.  Listen to our pod cast to get more insight and learn about a few more wines we recommend.  Cheers!

 

Tortured Wine - Tips to Avoid Heat Damage

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Most wine once purchased is consumed within 24 hours.  Once you’re walking out of the retail store with your wine treasures in hand what’s the best way to protect your investment until you consume it?  What are some signs that your wine may be heat damaged?  What does heat damaged wine look and taste like?  In this pod cast we’ll answer these questions and offer some tips on how to take care of your wines so that they can show their best when you’re ready to enjoy them.  

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Unless you’re a big time collector or wine investor who will be storing wines for many years you don’t have to obsess over wine storage.  Treasury Wine Estate recently dumped 33 million dollars worth of wine (1/2 million cases) that was past its prime.  Clearly they will sell no wine past its prime.  Jokes aside it’s important to remember that all wines have a shelf life unlike distilled spirits that can last indefinitely because of the high amounts of alcohol they contain.  The minute most wines leave the producers care they can become subjected to less than ideal transport and storage conditions.  Unless you’re in the unique position to buy directly from the winery there isn’t much you can do to ensure that your wine is treated properly before your buy it, but there are steps you can take to care for your wine once it’s in your possession.  Becca offers a fine article if you want to geek out on the damaging effects of heat exposure on wine.   

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We decided to conduct an experiment in an effort to show what could happen to your wine if it is exposed to extreme temperature variations and high heat for an extended period of time.  Our test subjects were two bottles of 2011 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County.  You can purchase this wine at Costco for around $13.  Martini’s Cabernet represents an excellent value and is true to type displaying black fruit, cassis, a deft use of oak, vanilla, spice and round smooth tannins.  Conventional wisdom maintains that if you expose your wines to temperatures over 80 degrees for any period of time the wine will be ruined.  For this experiment we left one bottle in the confines of my wine closet where the temperature is fairly constant and rarely exceeds 66 to 68 degrees, not the ideal conditions for wine but more than adequate for short term storage ( 1 to 5 years ) of wines suitable for extended aging.  The other bottle we placed in the trunk of my daily commuter a BMW 2002.  This car does not get the garage treatment at home or at the office so the wine was subjected to the best and worst of conditions that Northern California had to offer at the beginning of our summer.  The bottle went into the trunk on 4/28/13 and was removed three months later on 7/27/13.  While we had a relatively mild summer this year it’s fair to speculate that the temperature fluctuations that the bottle in the car trunk was exposed to were extreme.  Diurnal temperature swings of forty degrees or more are the norm in Sonoma County and these swings were certainly magnified by the trunk space.  As the surrounding air warms, the wine and the air in the bottle warms up and expands.  The Achilles heal in the container is the cork.  The cork gets pushed upwards or the wine/ air seep up through the gap between the cork and the glass.  The excessive expansion and contraction of the wine/air draws air through the cork and hastens oxidation.  Our trunk bottle clearly showed the visual effects of heat damage with a protruding or pushed cork.  Miraculously the tin foil was able to keep the bottle from popping its cork.  We removed the tortured Cabernet and allowed it to rest in a cool dark place for several months before we opened both wines to do a side by side comparison.  Check out the pod cast to find out how our tortured bottle of wine faired.

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Here are seven tips to ensure that your wine purchases show their best side.

  • Don’t store your wines in the kitchen above the stove, on top of the refrigerator or near windows.  Wines should be stored in a cool, dark, vibration free area.
  • Don’t store your wines in the refrigerator for long periods of time/ three or more weeks.    It dulls the flavors.
  • Treat your wines just like you would treat your recently purchased perishable groceries.  While transporting keep them in the air conditioned passenger seat not the trunk.  If you’re traveling all day and making several stops take a cooler with ice packs to protect your wine from heat damage and cover them so they are not exposed to direct sunlight.  Wine is packaged in dark bottles to protect it from the light.  The suns ultra violet rays are bad for your eyes and they can also shorten the life of your wine.  Consider making your wine stop the last stop of the day to minimize the wines exposure to elevated temperatures.
  • Don’t buy wines that show a pushed cork or seepage on the capsule.
  • Do allow your wine time to settle and recuperate when you receive wine that has traveled a long distance over several days.  Sometimes wines that have just been bottled or have been shipped recently can seem out of balance and exhibit muted flavors (bottle shock/ bottle sickness).  Your wine will show better if it’s allowed to rest in a dark cool place for a couple of week.
  • Do store wines that have natural corks on their sides.  Ask a clerk at any retailer for an extra wine box and make sure you get a box with the inserts in place.  Turn that box on its side and you have a perfect short term storage vessel for your wine.
  • Be happy if the retailer you’re purchasing from says they won’t ship your wine during the hot season.  It’s safer to ship wines in the spring and fall.

We hope you enjoy the pod cast.  Cheers!

Guest Post - Let’s Look At Lebanon and Two of Its Vineyards


Tip of that Hat to Carlo Pandian for this excellent post on wine from Lebanon!  More about Carlo at the end of the post.


Due to its history of conflict over the last few decades, the reputation of the Lebanon might not necessarily be associated with wine production. But look at little closer and those seeking out something different for their vinous consumption might be pleasantly surprised. This country enjoys international repute for its fine bottles, so read further if you’re on the lookout for some glorious reds that are steeped in tradition but could well offer something extra…

 

 

If you are already familiar with Lebanese wines, one name that might spring to the mind and the lips is Chateau Musar. Its international reputation precedes it, having made its mark on the UK wine scene way back in 1979 when the renowned wine expert Michael Broadbenet named it the discovery of the Bristol Wine Fair. Established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, his sons have continued to run the estate, adopting natural, minimal intervention wine making practices to ensure vintages of world class quality but still stand out as being completely unique and complex. According to Anna Von Bertele, wine specialists at Roberson Wine, “natural winemakers essentially try to do things as simply and, er, naturally as possible, minimising the use of chemicals and artificial yeasts (or artificial anythings for that matter) and intervening in the wine making process only when absolutely necessary”. Using those blends of those traditional French varieties mentioned earlier, they also have their hand in another form of tradition, producing white wines made from those indigenous varieties, Obaideh (a relative of the ever-popular Chardonnay) and Merwah (this one is related to Semillon).

But what about other Lebanese producers that we really should have heard of?  One such name is Chateau Kefraya, the second largest producer in the Lebanon. Again, these the 300 acres of vineyards sit in the Beqaa Valley and this winery is probably best known for its flagship wine, Comte de M, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Mouvedre. If you’re new to Lebanese wines, Chateau Kefraya is an ideal place to start your journey – its prices are a lot more attractive than its fellow aforementioned neighbour. This is probably due to not being quite so much under the influence of extreme international demand, but being no less enticing because of this.
 
Conditions in the country have been challenging to say the least. But what has been carved out of the conflict are unusual wines of the utmost quality and complexity. Ones that any self-respecting wine lover needs to seek out and experience.


About Carlo:  Carlo Pandian is a wine enthusiast that loves tastings the products of wineries from all over the world. He shares tips and tasting notes from Lebanon with the community of Vino101. Connect with him on Twitter @carlopandian. 

Pleasant Surprise - 2010 Fontanafredda Barbera

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How do you decide what wine to pair with your meals?  Do you pick the wine then decide what food to have with it, the reverse, or neither?  I’ve always viewed wine as a compliment to the food on the table and as such a wine should make the dining experience more pleasurable.  How one arrives at the endpoint is irrelevant.  Eat and drink what you like.

What to open up?  We had the salad prepared, the pasta was almost ready.  We’re snacking on some toasted seeded sourdough bread that’s been brushed with olive oil and garlic.  It’s time to select a wine to go with the meal.  We’re having Pappardelle pasta with a light tomato sauce so we don’t need a full bodied wine which would overpower the flavors of the dish.  Usually our default wine to go with tomato based pastas is Valpolicella.  Most Valpolicellas are light to medium bodied and clock in around 12.5 alcohol by volume.  The only Valpolicellas we had on hand were of the Ripasso and Amarone style (way too serious for our weekday fair ).  Check out our podcast on Valpolicella to learn more about these wonderful wines.  To our delight we discovered a bottle of  2010 Briccotondo Fontanafredda Barbera that we had somehow previously overlooked.

Fontanafredda was established in 1858 and its current owners are Luca Baffigo, Oscar Farinetti and Eataly.  They make a full line of  wines from the southern Piemonte region. The wine is 100% Barbera and is aged partly in new Allier oak barrels and partly in Slavonian oak casks for around five months.  Displaying a medium ruby color, finished with a real cork the nose exhibits violets, red fruits, earth, mushrooms, leather and licorice.  On the palate you’ll notice red plums, cherries and smooth tannins combined with a zippy acidity.  The finish is of medium length, crisp and clean.  I believe this Barbera is aimed at the international wine market and the Biccotondo seems to always hit the right marks from vintage to vintage.  This not a showy wine ( lavishly oaked ) and at about $10 to $13  a bottle one shouldn’t expect it to be so.  Briccotondo Barbera represents a solid bargain and delivers a wine with generous fruit, good balance, remarkably easy to drink and that – I would recommend this wine to my friends factor.

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Very food friendly you’ll find it pairs well with burgers, soups, salumi, cheeses, tomato based pastas, sausages and pizza.