Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Big House Cardinal Zin, Beastly Old Vine Edition

With summer continuing, I remain on the lookout for wines to barbecue with. In my mind, a barbecue wine is cheap, easy to drink, and perfect for sharing with friends. It can also serve as a "3rd bottle" for those nights when you're entertaining and the good times last into the evening. Notice how I didn't mention barebecued food pairings, that's because I tend to think of barbecue wines or outdoor wines as ones you don't have to worry about pairing with any particular food. Over the course of this wonderful summer I have had the chance to sample and review multiple wines I'd put in the barbecue wine category, a few of which are listed right here:
1. 2009 M. Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone "Belleruche"
2. 2009 Santa Carolina Reserva Carmenere
3. 2010 Stepping Stone Corallina Rosé
4. 2010 Muralhas de Moncao Rosé
5. 2009 Bodega Tamari Torrontes

In May I even did a "barbecue wine showdown" pitting the 2009 The Usual Suspects cabernet and the 2009 Pueblo del Sol tannat.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I opened another Big House Wines selection, the 2009 Cardinal Zin Beastly Old Vine. At a suggested retail of around $10 and an actual retail price closer to $7, this meets at least one of the criteria for barbecue wines. Tasting and evaluating it will determine if it's another winner for the summer, and perhaps one to stock up on as we head towards Labor Day.

The 2009 Cardinal Zin is actually a blend, like most Big House red wines. This year, winemaker Georgetta Dane blended 80% zinfandel, 10% mourvedre, 8% carignane, and 2% petite sirah. The zinfandel comes from old vines, something like 40+ years old.

(img src: http://www.bighousewines.com)
Nice packaging! I like the "Cardinal" on there, he looks so thirsty! But so are we, so that means it's time to talk about this Cardinal Zin.

It pours a fairly nondescript purple/red, so basically it looks like red wine. There's no electric violet hue like in some 2009 Beaujolais, nor an entrancing rusty burgundy that I experience in grenache sometimes. Just red wine. With that said, remember this is a potential barbecue wine, so my expectations are simple.

How does it smell? Zinny with a touch of the earthy mourvedre, if you ask me. "Zinny" is candied raisin, plum, black pepper, and a bit of sweet cherry. Some vanilla oak makes an appearance, a bit too heavy for my taste though. The ripe plum and cherry create a good richness and depth, so in a way the 2009 Cardinal Zin coats your palate. I wasn't really happy about the candied raisin, but then again that is a flavor I have found in other old vine zinfandels. For a $10 (or $7) zinfandel-blend, the nose offers good complexity and enough intensity to still be discernible by a slightly dulled olfactory sense. The kind that you get after spending a day grilling and drinking those other two bottles of wine with your friends.

Onward to how the wine tastes. What pleased me the most was the black pepper, prickling the edges of my tongue after a few seconds and restraining the sweet fruit flavors. Yes, I know there's carignane in there, along with mourvedre. I really can't tell though, unless the carignane was letting in the red licorice and candied cherry flavors, and the mourvedre gave the wine it's tannin and earthy flavors right on the fininsh. As for the petite sirah, maybe it was added for color or just to fill out the tanks, I have no clue because I don't think I tasted it at all. Then again my palate might not be sensitive or trained enough.

So, does the 2009 Big House Cardinal Zin Beastly Old Vines make the cut as a barbecue wine? Yes, it does. I gave it a B- and for $7, a BUY recommendation. This isn't something to break out for special occasions or a wine to age in your cellar. It's a good choice for a mid-week pasta dish with red sauce, a weekend barbecue back-up bottle, or that third bottle to open after a fun day with your friends.

This wine was a media sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Saturday, August 27, 2011

2007 Elizabeth Spencer "The Guardian" Cabernet Sauvignon. A Stunner.

I've struggled with what words use for this blog post for about two weeks now. Conveying the impact of a sublime wine experience is difficult, something only the best wine scribes can effectively accomplish. Luckily we live in an age where such scribes are out there on the internet and in print, thus easy to find and read. If you're at this blog I fear you've mis-navigated. Before you leave however, read on to find out about the best red wine I have tasted so far this year.

Although it's not the best way to start the a new pargraph, I admit I'm left at a loss for the appropriate words to convey how much the 2007 Elizabeth Spencer cabernet impressed me, satisfied me, and touched the happy place deep within each wine geek's soul. It's not often I can freely write about how amazing a wine is, there are constraints to most of the blog posts I write, be they self-imposed or comprised of externalities.

In June I was happily tweeting on a glorious day. Bacchus was smiling, Becky was visiting, and I believe there was delicious wine or some great craft beer open and being enjoyed. Out of the blue, a winery I'd been following tweeted at me that I was their Follower of the Month or some such thing. At first, being the jaded, skeptical, even cynical (no, not really) blogger that I am, the word "scam" popped into my head. I even sent a Twitter DM asking if they were for real. Lucky for me, they weren't kidding.

Elizabeth Spencer Wines, based in Rutherford in Napa Valley. I had heard the name talked about by some wine-collecting friends but never tasted their wines before. A producer of some very good repute, by all accounts. The winery makes a lot of different wines, all in small lots. Cabernet sauvignon and franc, syrah, pinot noir, merlot, grenache, petite sirah, chardonnay, chenin and sauvignon blancs, and a rose of pinot. For a smaller winery, this is one of the most impressive lineups I have ever seen.

Allison at the winery was kind enough to send down my prize, a bottle of their 2007 E x S "The Guardian" cabernet sauvignon. She very smartly packed it in a two bottle shipper and enclosed an ice pack. Little touches like that let me know a winery has smart and caring people working there.

As you can see from the bottle shot, there's also that neat little bit about ten barrels being made. Or, a few hundred cases total production for this cabernet. My intent was to stick the bottle in my cellar and forget about it for a few years, but alas that wasn't to be. I was sent samples of some other very exclusive wines including the 2009 Seghesio Costiera pinot noir, and decided to open them at one big tasting with some wine-loving friends from work. This would give them a chance to taste true upper-tier wines, examples they might not otherwise get to taste.

Before those wine-loving friends of mine arrived though, I felt the weight of responsibility upon my shoulders to ensure that each of the four wines was in fact ready for my friends to taste and enjoy. Therefore I pre-tasted all of them and took notes. While one was cooked in transit and will be written up after I get another sample bottle, the remaining three were out of this world. The Seghesio has already been written up, the Hedges Red Mountain will be up soon too.

2007 is considered a great vintage in Napa Valley by the critics, from Wine Spectator to Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast. The growing season was superb, a small crop and ideal ripening conditions led to a huge collection of wonderful wines. The 2007 E x S "The Guardian" is no exception.

Pouring a deep, dense garnet, almost no light shines through this cabernet sauvignon. Despite (or in spite of) the nearly four years of bottle age, all the signs point to a still-young wine. The color is marvelous, hinting at what might be something truly delicious waiting to be experienced.

After a few whiffs my notes consisted of: "Dark chocolate ran full speed into a wall of old leather sitting in a vat of plummy reduction sauce! I love the cassis, dark chocolate, and tobacco secondary aromas, can't get enough of those. There's even a touch of bretty funk, and green pepper playing in a dust storm here. WOW!"

Impressive, no? The only changes I made to the above notes were to correct the punctuation. What you see is the verbatim olfactory experience that I had that afternoon.

At first sip the E x S cabernet is intense, full of muscular tannin and a wall of earth, but once you ascend that, there's a beautiful tapestry of ripe fruit flavors. Cassis, blackberry, and cherries are all supported by the continuing undercurrent of firm tannin. This wine is amazing.  The way it is so bold and strong before giving way to a rich, velvety smooth mid-palate is a testament to quality fruit and a talented winemaker. I loved how deep or thick the wine felt as I swirled it around, and the finish was magnificent. Lots of ripe fruit and dark chocolate that tapered off with such supreme elegance. In a way, sensual is perhaps the best descriptor I can think of because you want to know every facet of this cabernet and you want to experience every flavor, nuance, and texture you can.

The 2007 E x S "The Guardian" cabernet sauvignon is the best red wine I have had so far this year. Tasting it reminded me of just how amazing the cabernet grown in Napa Valley is. Drinking this cab reminded me of why I drink wine, in a never-ending quest to find more of these moments. Moments that enrich my life, create a sense of perspective, and add texture to me as a person.

If you're looking for a bottle, visit the Elizabeth Spencer Wines website. It's suggested retail price is $60. However, if you want to purchase some of this outstanding wine, use the code "beausbarrelroom" and receive 10% off your purchase, as a thank you from Elizabeth Spencer Winery!

This wine was a gift from the winery, I received no compensation for this post.

Beau Carufel

Friday, August 26, 2011

2009 Stoneleigh Marlborough Pinot Noir

Back in June, we had "Sauvginon Blanc Day" and I tasted the 2010 Stoneleigh from Marlborough, which unfortunately had been attacked by the acid monster, leaving not much in it's wake. Still, Stoneleigh is a terrific producer and I have had previous wines from them that were very good.

Enter the 2009 Stoneleigh Marlborough pinot noir, a deliciously tart and spicy example of a New Zealand pinot noir, made in a style that's really starting to make waves over here in the States. New Zealand pinot noirs differ from California and Oregon by having a combination of higher acid and lighter-weight fruit. In a lot of the better made wines, the acid fairly pops on your tongue, and that coupled with flavors like rhubarb, baking spice, and ripe red cherry can create wonderfully complex wines.

This New Zealand pinot noir pours a nice pale ruby color, creating an air of understated elegance. That seems appropriate considering the subject, itself a grape that can manifest as understated, elegant wine..But only in the best case scenario. The notes below should help us understand whether the Stoneleigh falls into that category or not.

Aromatically the 2009 Stoneleigh pinot has a good undertone of earth mixed with sour red cherries and a hint of green stems. I also detected a very interesting secondary aroma, ripe wild raspberry, the little tart ones you find in a forest for a few weeks out of each year. Popping them into your mouth immediately elicits a sigh of pleasure and a wide smile.

Per my usual routine, an hour of open time was allotted to this pinot noir in order to let it breathe a bit and (hopefully) gain some complexity. The image I like to use when explaining why a wine needs breathing time is that of a flower. Imagine a flower that's closed up, you're not going to see or smell anything beautiful. Now when that flower opens up, we can revel in it's beauty, aromatically and visually. Add in the taste component and substitute wine for flower to get my point.

With that in mind, the Stoneleigh pinot noir had a light, delicate mouthfeel. The acidity of the pinot noir grape was there, but it was more subtle than I expected. Perhaps this can be attributed to the neutral French Oak regimen used by the winemaker. Flavors of raspberry and strawberry mixed with silky smooth tannin to create a wonderful sense of balance. Baking spices tried gamely to hold up the finish, and they almost succeeded, almost.

The biggest knock on this 2009 Stoneleigh was the relative lack of finish, it's like the wine just disappeared off a cliff while I was enjoying the strawberry and cherry flavors. A touch of baking spice cried out desperately to be saved but was dragged down and out before it had a chance to make any impact. Interestingly I didn't detect a lot of heat from the 14.0% alcohol, something very pleasing.

The 2009 Stoneleigh pinot noir is good wine, not great, but quite nice. At around $15, you get a pinot that's balanced and food friendly. Try pairing it with duck or veal, and lamb would work too. Pizza works with almost any red wine, this is a darn good pizza wine to share with friend. Like the 2010 Stoneleigh sauvignon blanc, this is a wine that does bat above it's price level. I gave it a B+ and a BUY recommendation. Well worth the $15 to get a sense of what New Zealand pinot noir is doing these days.

This was a media sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

2010 Stepping Stone White Rocks! (It does!)

After tasting the 2010 Stepping Stone Riesling, 2010 Stepping Stone Sauvignon Musque, and 2010 Stepping Stone Corallina Rosé, I feel like I'm getting to know the Stepping Stone wines a bit more. Granted, I wasn't a fan of the sauvignon blanc but I loved the riesling and rosé. Their combination of high quality and great price are proof positive that Cornerstone Napa Winery is doing it right with their second label.

For this, the 2010 Stepping Stone White Rocks!, we're exploring a blend of chardonnay and muscat, two grapes that can stand on their own quite well. When blended, I honestly have no clue what to expect here. Chardonnay runs the gamut from dry and steely to lush and oaked beyond all recognition, whereas muscat often becomes a sweet, light, perfumed wine that is surprisingly versatile. To blend them is certainly an exercise in daring, the risk here that I'll be tasting a washed out, overly sweet, flabby glass of liquid nastiness.

Then again I know the Cornerstone Cellars and Stepping Stone wines fairly well, so I have some faith that this will be an intellectually stimulating exercise at the very least. Or simply, this wine shouldn't suck.

As a mission statement for the Rocks! wines, the Cornerstone website says this: "Inspired by the blends of southern France, each vintage of Rocks! is a new creation weaving the characteristics of each vintage by interlacing the personalities of each variety selected. The style of our Rocks! wines will flow with the vintage as our goal is not to replicate a certain taste profile, but to make the most interesting wines possible each vintage."

(img src:http://www.cornerstonecellarblog.com/

A nice golden straw color appears in my glass as if by magic, but it's really just me pouring a "taste". All in the name of research of course. As usual, this wine (and all other white wines) get to sit out and warm up a few degrees before I review it. The White Rocks! coloration reminds me of sauvignon blanc that's been aged in oak barrels. It's not dark yellow like a chardonnay or sweet riesling, yet there is more here than with a translucent pinot grigio.

The bouquet can best be described as a mish-mash of stone fruit, summer flowers, wet rocks, and green apples. Ripe peach and nectarine comprise the two most prominent aromas, but the light flower scents helped to balance out the sweetness of the fruit. There's a nice mineral element too, I kept imaging wet limestone or wet chalk. Again something to contrast the ripe peach/nectarine that seemed to dominate. And yes the green apples were awesome, cleaning up the entire bouquet and wrapping it in a neat package for me to ponder. It's obvious that the team at Cornerstone paid attention to detail when blending this white wine.

So how does it taste? Great! Clean fruit flavors and vibrant acidity make the 2010 White Rocks! a very enjoyable, refreshing wine. Think of a chardonnay stripped of the oak and malolactic fermentation, all apple and nectarines. That wine would have a certain lightness yet retain a nice sense of depth. Add in that muscat and there's a richness through the palate, part sweet and part soft, taming some of that acidity while allowing a nice balance to be struck. I guess I should point out something that did disappoint, though it's nitpicky. On the front-palate this wine does struggle a bit with it's identity. I got the sense that the juicy (in a lip smacking way) acid wanted to come first but the sweet muscat fruit flavors weren't letting that happen. Still, that's about all I could find wrong.

Cornerstone's 2010 Stepping Stone White Rocks! would pair well with a fresh summer salad of baby lettuce, spinach, candied cherries and crumbled feta. You could also work with a grilled, herb-marinated chicken dish to create a traditional southern California summer dinner.

At $15 suggested retail price, it's a QPR home run and for those of you looking for white wines that remain light and dry, yet come with a bit of sweet fruit, this is your wine! I give a B and a STRONG BUY recommendation. Check out the Cornerstone website for where to purchase this delicious wine.

This wine was a media sample generously provided by the winery.

Beau Carufel

Monday, August 22, 2011

2010 Napa Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, A New Release.

You can definitely tell it's summertime in Wine Blogger Land, most of us are getting lots of sauvignon blanc samples. In this blog I'm going to feature the 2010 Napa Cellars sauvignon blanc from you guessed it, Napa Valley. The Napa Cellars brand is relatively new, I believe I tasted this label's selections at the Family Winemakers tasting in March of this year. That being said, the 2010 sauvignon blanc was released in June so it probably wasn't part of the lineup.

The fruit is sourced from some of the warmer regions of Napa Valley, those being Rutherford, Calistoga, and St. Helena. As such, we can infer that the 2010 Napa Cellars will be a richer, riper style when compared to an offering from New Zealand or France. This blogger still isn't sure if he likes the Napa Valley expression as much as that of Sancerre or even Marlborough. Still, to continue to offer wines that you, gentle reader, might be interested in, I happily accepted this sample.

Right away the nose is filled with tropical fruit, freshly cut grass, and just a hint of lime juice. I smelled loads of passion fruit and guava nectar with a hint of pineapple. A veritable "fruit salad" if you will. While some professional (read: paid) critics decry that way of describing wines, if a wine smells like tropical fruit, I'm gonna post it.

The fruit salad aroma set isn't a bad thing, I think winemaker Joe Shirley did a good job balancing those sweeter fruit aromas with the grass and lime notes that temper any tendency towards over-ripeness. He strove for balance and very nearly achieved it.

As usual, I let the Napa Cellars sauvignon blanc warm up a bit before I tasted. I found it to be typically Californian, lots of sweet tropical fruit balanced out by a drying acidity. There was a fun theme of grapefruit and guava at play with just a bit of something like orange blossom too, which I found fascinating. Despite being fermented in 100% stainless steel, there's a familiar rich body that I associate with Napa Valley grown fruit.

That "Napa fatness" lent itself to a bit of a sloppy finish, with the wine seemingly confused as to what it should do. On one hand I wanted a clean, crisp finish befitting the varietal, yet the Napa Cellars sauvignon blanc seemed to get flabby on the mid palate before just vanishing. The flab I attribute to the 14.3% alcohol, and my familiar refrain is "that's too much!!!".

On a hot summer day, eating lighter foods, the last thing I want is a sauvignon blanc with as much alcohol as a Napa Valley cabernet or (nowadays) a Cotes du Rhone. That right there is my biggest gripe with the 2010 Napa Cellars sauvignon blanc. It did shine with the nicely balanced tropical fruit and citrus elements but just fell apart on the finish, perhaps because of that high alcohol creating too much flabby weight. I suppose that's just how I experience a lot of Napa Valley sauvignon blanc. This is a solid wine, a B- and a BUY recommendation if you're into the more "full-bodied" style. If not, I don't think you will enjoy this wine, that's just how it goes. At around $15 the 2010 Napa Cellars sauvignon blanc is very affordable and the QPR is solid, if unremarkable.

This wine was sent as a media sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Quick and Dirty Recap of the 2011 #PinotSmackdown

Where were you last night? If you're a wine lover, specifically a pinot noir lover, you should have been drinking the stuff! Last night, Thursday August 18th, marked the second annual "Pinot Smackdown". This unique event, started by infamous wine bloggers Ed Thralls and Joe Herrig, is a massive online tasting of pinot noir from around the world. The goal, to find a winner among the world's pinot regions, by popular acclaim, instead of having some critic appoint a region as the best in the world. Cause we all know that critics suck, right?

I'll repost the official details right here, so that you can see what you missed. *Evil laugh*
#PinotSmackdown is an all-day global celebration of the world's most expressive wine grape combined with a knock-down, drag-out cage fight between YOUR FAVORITE Pinot-producing regions!

TIME: 24 hours in order to give everyone time to share a glass when it makes sense in their time zone.

This event is FREE and all you need to participate is wine and Twitter, Facebook or your favorite social channel. Everyone is encouraged to invite wine lovers to your location and make the Twitter stream of #PinotSmackdown tweets visible to attendees. We like to use Tweetdeck, TweetChat.com or Twitterfall.com to display all the tweets with the hashtag "#PinotSmackdown"
Here's the twist!... who makes the best Pinot you've ever tasted? To vote via your tweets simply add another 2-character hashtag after #PinotSmackdown and we'll count the votes so that region gets bragging rights for the night!
Voting region hashtags:
#OR - Oregon
#CA - California
#WA - Washington
#NY - New York
#46 - U.S. The "Other 46," outside of the Big Four
#FR - France
#IT - Italy
#DE - Germany (Deutschland)
#EU - Europe, beyond France, Germany, Italy
#CN - Canada
#NZ - New Zealand
#CH - Chile
#AR - Argentina
#AU - Australia
#SA - South Africa
#WD - World, as in none previously listed
For example, if you are drinking a Pinot from a region in California, simply tag the end of your tweets with: #PinotSmackdown #CA

Very simple, I agree, but incredibly fun and a great way to get some people together for a night of wine and discussion.

About two weeks before the event, Ed reached out to myself and a handful of other wine bloggers with a trifecta of pinot noir samples from the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley AVA's. Those were:
2009 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Freestone Hills - $40 SRP
2009 Windsor Sonoma Russian River Valley - $30 SRP
2010 Windsor Vineyards Pinot Noir, Sonoma County - $28 SRP
These were all wines from the Vintage Wine Estates portfolio. As a disclaimer, Ed works for them and they were a huge backer for the Pinot Smackdown.

In addition to those California (specifically, Sonoma County) pinot noirs, I opened a 2007 Kramer Vineyards Cardiac Hill pinot from Oregon to throw some contrasting style into the mix. The Kramers were hosting an event at The Friendly Vine in Forest Grove, Oregon. Apparently (according to Becky Kramer at least), the event was a real hit.

With those four pinot noirs, I was ready to go. While I could have also opened other pinots, including some great stuff from Burgundy and New Zealand, I wanted to keep it somewhat under control. I mean, I didn't want to get absolutely hammered while tasting and tweeting. Drunken tweeting, while fun, can be dangerous.

Here are the tasting notes on the four pinots I sampled last night:

2010 Windsor Vineyards Sonoma County pinot noir: Bright acid but disjointed and unbalanced. Very young and it shows. Needs time to settle down. Ripe, sweet strawberry fights with baking spices and surprisingly thick tannin. Cranberries try to come play but are smacked around and leave in tears. Perhaps a few years in the bottle will settle this wine out, perhaps not. Hardly any finish, just disappears from my palate. Tastes cobbled together, which it was. 14.5% abv.

2009 Windsor Sonoma Russian River valley pinot noir: Soft, ripe, rich, and brimming with the flavors that American oak barrels impart. This is one of those pinots that stand up well on their own due to the sheer ripeness of the fruit. Like a strawberry fruit roll-up. That's how ripe and oaky this Russian River Valley pinot is. Imagine eating vanilla-buttered raspberry/strawberry toast. If you really dig fruiter, softer pinot noir, I bet you'd love this.. 14.5% abv.

2009 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Freestone Hill pinot noir: Here we go, bright acid, restrained berry fruits, and silky tannin. Each of those three elements are in balance, creating a very nice, smooth, light mouthfeel. I liked the wild strawberry tartness mixed with a bit of raspberry puree. Both of those added depth to the mid-palate. A warm, happy baking spice flavor brought a smile to my face. While this pinot did see oak barrel aging via American oak, the effect here is merely to add dimension versus squashing the acid like in the other two California wines. 14.3% abv.

2007 Kramer Vineyards Cardiac Hill Yamhill-Carlton pinot noir: Compared to the first three, this is in another part of the pinot spectrum. Earth and sour cherry show through, supported by fresh cranberry and a bit of peppery spice. Here and there, cigar-box and a hint of plum skin make tiny impressions across the mid-palate. The '07 Kramer Vineyard had a lightness to it that reminded me of a Côte de Beaune. The tannins were nicely integrated and firm enough to give this pinot noir structure and balance. A wholly different expression of the grape but one that's perhaps focused more on terroir and less on using oak and other techniques to create a wine. 12.8% abv.

What was my favorite? I picked the 2009 Freestone Hill from Sonoma Coast Vineyards last night as the "winner". The balance was impressive and no part (flavor, tannin, acid) of this wine felt muted. The winemaker used a deft touch to express the terroir of this particular vineyard. Sure, it's $40 a bottle, but that's right about the price you start to get excellent pinot noir. The reason I preferred this (on August 18, 2011) to the Kramer Cardiac Hill pinot noir was that it spoke to me more last night. It's that simple.

Enough about me, what about the rest of the world, busily tasting and tweeting away to support their favorite region! The winner, by a relative hair, was New Zealand! I was surprised! Last night (due to the time difference) I didn't notice much if any "#NZ" tweets from the "#pinotsmackdown" but apparently when us Yanks were asleep, the Kiwis were tweeting up a storm. Congratulations to them! Now let's get the exchange rate fixed and some more pinot from New Zealand into the USA, I want to taste it! In second place, Oregon, no surprise there. Perhaps the king of domestic pinot noir producing states (sorry, California), I saw a multitude of tweets in support of their pinot noirs. California brought up third place, a respectable showing and only a few votes behind Oregon.

Ed posted a great recap of the 2011 Pinot Smackdown on his blog, go read it and you'll see the amazing reach that this event has. He breaks down the numbers to show how this is a global event and impressions that were generated across all the social media platforms is truly amazing. We gotta give it up to Ed and Joe Herrig for promoting and steering this event along. Nicely done, gentlemen.

The wines featured here were provided free of charge for the Pinot Smackdown tasting event.

Beau Carufel

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Port Wine Primer

File this under the category "useful". Ever been curious about Port wine? To the beginning wine drinker, Ports can be very confusing. There's a lot of misinformation being peddled by ignorant "wine people" that causes a lot of you to hesitate before ordering or buying a Port.

If you study this ‘Port 101’ from Fladgate Partnership winemaker David Guimaraens, you'll get a good foundation of knowledge to help your initial foray into these fascinating wines. As always, tasting is of course mandatory! Also, ask questions! I can't stress that enough, especially about wines like Portos.

What is Port?  Port is a fortified wine produced from grapes grown exclusively in Portugal’s Douro region.  Port was created in the 1700’s so the British would have wine to drink while at war with the French. As wines spoiled during the voyage to England, they were fortified to improve shelf-life. (Factoid: A wine is “fortified” by adding a neutral grape spirit to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine.)

Port Grapes:  Port can be made with 48 different grape varieties but five are considered the best and most widely used: Touriga National, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão.  Vineyards are cultivated on steep terraced slopes along the Douro River, arduous and costly work. 

Grape Stomping:  Grapes are hand-harvested, and in order to quickly extract colors and flavors without getting harsh tannins from the pits, the finest producers opt for the traditional way of crushing grapes by human foot treading in shallow stone tanks called lagares

Port Styles:  Simply put, Port can be divided into two main styles:  Ruby and Tawny.  Most Ports are blended wines from various years with the aim of producing a consistent house style (much like Champagne).

Ruby Ports:  Dark purple in color with rich fruity and spicy overtones, and a sweet character.  Bottles marked “Ruby Reserve” offer more complexity than a basic Ruby as they are aged longer before bottling and are generally higher quality blends.  

Vintage Ports:  Vintage Ports are the highest quality Ruby Ports from one single year. A Port producer will ‘declare’ a vintage in exceptional harvests.  Vintage Ports can be consumed young, but will develop in the bottle for decades, with powerful fruit flavors and tannins mellowing with age. Vintage Ports need to be decanted as they develop sediment in the bottle.  (Factoid: 2009 is the 4th vintage declaration of this decade, a rarity over the past three centuries.)

Tawny Ports: Aged in large oak casks, Tawny Ports are amber in color with flavors of toffee, dried fruits and nuts.  Ready to drink when bottled, Tawny Ports don’t need to be decanted.  More complex Tawny Ports have an indication of age on the bottle, e.g. 10, 20, 30 or 40-year old Tawny.  Their mellow, nutty, character comes from contact with air during long maturation in oak casks. (Factoid: Tawny Ports are delicious chilled served with or without ice.)

Late-Bottled Vintage (LBV):  LBV Ports spend between four to six years in oak prior to bottling.  The wines combine the mellow flavors of a Tawny Port while retaining the potent fruitiness of a Ruby Port. They do not need to be decanted. 

Port Pairings:  Ports can be enjoyed on their own at the end of the meal but are also an excellent dessert pairings. Ruby Ports are delicious with blue cheeses like Stilton or Roquefort and rich chocolate desserts. Tawny Ports are best accompanied with caramel and toffee desserts like crème brûlée or apple crumble.

I confess that the original press release that I copied into this blog did contain Port recommendations from Taylor's and Fonseca, two well-respected Port houses. I can certainly recommend Ports from each one. In fact one of my favorite Ports of all time is Taylor's 1985. The recommendations were deleted so as to remove any apperance of bias.

Tomorrow night at 5pm pst, I'll be participating in a live, virtual tasting of a new Port from Croft. It's unlike any I've tasted before, a rosé style Port made by extracting fresh, fruity flavors and a subtle, delicate pink color from the grapes. The result: a vibrant, lighter Port.

Follow along using the Twitter hashtags "#TGTaste" and "#CroftPink" as I (and other wine bloggers around the country) open and taste this interesting development in Port wines. I think it'll be fascinating to watch the bloggers react to Croft Pink.

Beau Carufel

Sunday, August 14, 2011

2009 Seghesio "Costiera" Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Just when I think I am jumping off the California pinot noir bandwagon in favor of Oregon's, I get a sample from the awesome folks at Seghesio to taste, and it turns out to be one of the best pinots I've tasted so far in 2011. Their Wine Spectator 93 point rated "Costiera" pinot noir was sent down in June and rested in my wine fridge for a while. I don't want to say I was saving it, but I was. The occasion: a group of wine loving friends I work with came by to explore wine and food pairings with me.

Having spent about a decade in the wine business now (geez, time flies!), I remain a big, big fan of Seghesio and in particular their zinfandels. Those zinfandels are consistently some of the best examples you can buy, period. Plus they're relatively inexpensive to boot. I confess to not knowing that Seghesio made pinot noir though, and after seeing some tweets about the 93 point score from Wine Spectator, I was intrigued.

Like most bloggers, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with wine scores. I realize their utility, serving as a quick point of reference to that weekend wine drinker seeking something they trust to be tasty. Yet I still lament the inherent sterility of a point score, how it reduces the magic of a great wine down to a number on a scale. Granted, I do use my own scale based on letter grades, but I feel that allows for a less firm actual score, hopefully allowing my tasting notes to convey how I feel, or more importantly, how the wine makes me feel.

Seghesio's website gives a good account of their family story and history, going back to 1895. It's safe to say that they are one of the true old guard of Sonoma. Equally important, I have it on good authority that Pete Seghesio is one of the nicest guys around. Next time I am up in Sonoma County, I'm going to stop in and hang out for a while. If they're pouring their zinfandels, it might be impossible for me to leave!

My good friend Grace aka cellarmistress has tried this wine and suggested I give it lots of time to breathe, so I ended up opening the '09 Costiera two hours before I tasted it. Right before all my friends arrived, I was able to go through this Seghesio, the 2007 Elizabeth Spencer The Guardian cabernet, and the 2008 Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain. The other two red wines will be featured in upcoming blog posts, and they're knockouts so stay tuned!

The first thing I noticed about the Seghesio pinot was the color, a dark burgundy. Had I not known the vintage, this would have helped to tell me what a young wine I was about to drink. Pinot noir's color changes as it ages, getting progressively lighter and more burnt-brick or dark-salmon as the years pass.

To the bouquet, and the 2009 Costiera pinot has quite the impressive array of scents at work. Rushing up out of the glass was a lot of baking spice and sour cherry at first, followed by wild strawberry and dark soil. Falling under the "barely perceptible yet still there" category, whiffs of Crimini mushroom and a green, stemmy quality seemed to weave in and out among the larger, riper primary flavors. While this 2009 Seghesio pinot is definitely high in alcohol at 14.7%, there's not much heat at all, just a little tickle right at the end. Take that alcohol down to about 14.2% and I think we'd have a stunner of a wine. Still, don't let that small issue detract from an impressively balanced, fascinating bouquet.

Woohoo! Now I get to taste the wine.

True to the Russian River Valley style, this pinot has a light acidity that melts into a ripe, rich red cherry note as it progresses through the mid-palate. Before the red fruits can get too ripe and sweet though, flavors of earth and herbs provide exceptional balance. I also liked how there was some very silky tannin, whenever I taste that I realize the wine does have some life in it and can perhaps age for as long as ten years. What impressed me most about this Seghesio pinot noir was the balance between the ripe cherries and the acidity, supported by the beautifully expressive earth and herbal notes. It was like drinking something silky smooth but light and airy at the same time. There wasn't much in the way of oak influence here either, despite the wine spending 12 months in 100% French Oak barrels. For those of you who don't like the oak monster, this is a big win.

As of now this 2009 Seghesio Costiera pinot noir is the best California pinot I've tasted this year, and it might be the best pinot noir I've tasted this year, period.

Seghesio's offering from the Russian River Valley one of my highest grades for a pinot noir this year, an A- and STRONG BUY recommendation. At the Seghesio website it's listed for $43 but you can also find it on wine-searcher for as low as $38. Well worth the investment and if you're looking for a pinot to sit down for a few years, one that will reward your patience, this 2009 Seghesio Costiera will do that in spades. I know I need to buy a few more bottles before it's all gone.

This wine was provided as a media sample by the winery.

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Drink Wine with Dinner Day...

At first, I thought, "no shit, of course you drink wine with dinner".

Then I realized that my attitude is the result of my upbringing, my passion, and my education. Many people out there, probably about 220 million of them, do not in fact drink wine with dinner very often. Sure, wine is a natural and even essential part of a meal in France, Italy, Spain, and indeed all over the world. Perhaps our misguided societal approach to alcohol has kept us the "Coca-cola nation", but change could still happen.

Enter Rosina Wilson, a veteran wine wine writer and educator. Despite this summer's assault of "______ Day" promotions, we get another one. "Drink Wine With Dinner Day". So in the interests of spreading the word, of hopefully working to get just one or two people to switch to a good bottle (notice, I didn't say pricey) of wine for dinner instead of that two liter bottle of Coke, I (re)post the following press release:

Wine Writer Rosina Wilson Announces August 15, 2011 as “Drink Wine with Dinner” Day
Specific day selected to pay tribute to Julia Child

August 9, 2011 (San Francisco, CA) – Veteran wine writer and educator Rosina Wilson announces a new holiday ~ “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day ~ to celebrate the pleasures of wine with food. August 15 has been selected as this new holiday in recognition of what would have been Julia Child’s 99th birthday.

“For decades, Julia Child showed America how natural and enjoyable it is to drink wine with dinner,” says Rosina. “And I’ve always considered Julia my mentor, as well as my inspiration for embarking on a culinary career. What better reasons could there be for creating a day of joy and feasting ~ in Julia’s honor, and on her birthday!”

“Until now,” Rosina remarks, “there has been no official celebration to bring wine to the table. “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day will unite like-minded people throughout the world who love wine, love food, and love how much each can enhance the other.”

For those who want to take part in “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day, Rosina assures that “it doesn’t matter *what* you plan, as long as it involves wine, food, and people. It can be an upscale dinner at a restaurant or winery, with a different wine for each course. Or it can be a down-home backyard barbecue with friends, and a favorite value-priced bottle or two.”

Rosina is using the immense power of the Internet to establish “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day worldwide. On her blog, and on Social Media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, Rosina has invited restaurants, wineries, and individuals around the globe to create their own meals and tastings ~ then notify her, and also notify *their* personal and Social Media contacts.

Rosina then re-posts the information ~ including scheduled events, menus, and recipes ~ that she receives from her online followers and her “IRL” (in real life) friends and colleagues.

“Each of us is spreading the word about “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day in our own way, with a big ripple effect,” Rosina comments. “I like to think of it as a semi-planned, semi-spontaneous, international ‘flash mob’ of food and wine lovers, springing up on August 15th and celebrating “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day in dozens, hundreds, or thousands of locales around the planet.”

“Being of Italian heritage,” she continues, “I would love to see America embrace the sheer love of wine, and the custom of enjoying it daily at mealtime. This is the norm in much of Europe, and in many ‘New World’ wine-growing areas.”

But in the United States, Rosina notes, “wine still needs to be more widely accepted.” She views “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day as “a great opportunity not only to enjoy a special meal with special people, but also to help strip away the ‘intimidation factor’ that has kept so many people away from wine.”

“After all,” she continues, “every one of our 50 states now produces wine. Mainstream America deserves to know the pleasures of wine with dinner. And it’s finally time for us to catch up with the rest of the world!”

“I view “Drink Wine With Dinner Day” as a true win-win,” Rosina concludes. “It benefits the consumer; it benefits the wine, food, and restaurant industries; and I’d venture to say that it also benefits the greater good.”

Rosina invites *everyone* ~ culinary professionals and amateurs alike ~ to take part in “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day on or around August 15th ~ “the more, literally, the merrier.” To publicize *your* plans, simply email Rosina ~ at RosinaWilson.com@gmail.com ~ with details about your event or menu. Please include wine-friendly recipes where appropriate. (Rosina will of course credit you fully.) Then tell your own contacts about your plans, and invite them to create “Drink Wine With Dinner” Day events of their own, and to email Rosina with the details. Thank you!

Beau Carufel

Monday, August 8, 2011

Tasting Georges DuBoeuf Beaujoalis Selections and Burgers

On Tuesday July 26th, I participated in a wonderful tasting of Beaujolais wine from Georges Duboeuf, paired with different kinds of burgers. This was a "Twitter Taste Live", hosted by the fine folks at WineTwits, with wine bloggers from around the country sent packages containing three different Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais wines, recipes for burgers, fact sheets, and other supplies. Our title being "Burgers With a Side of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais". The idea being to host a tasting of the Georges Duboeuf wines and cook up a spread of burgers to highlight how well the wine and burgers pair together. Very nice summer tie-in and more evidence of the Georges Duboeuf firm trying to move past l'affaire Duboeuf of 2003/2004.

In addition to the Twitter participants, there was one location where a chef (Bob Waggoner aka Chef Bob) was cooking up the burger recipes for audience members, and a representative from Georges Duboeuf was on hand to discuss the wines and answer questions from both the Twitter and live audiences.

When I got the email invite, I was really excited to participate. Often I've watched from afar as my fellow wine bloggers get great wines to taste and tweet about. Unfortunately some of them do a crappy job of writing up the wines and tasting experiences, but that's a bit tangential to this blog.

Back to the point, I was sent the package of three bottles of 2009 vintage Beaujolais, from Beaujolais-Villages, Julienas Chateau des Capitans, and Brouilly. All were from Georges Duboeuf and were priced at $9.99, $17.99, and $13.99 respectively. The three recipes to pair with these wines were for angus burgers, grilled portabella burgers, and turkey burger sliders.

I went a different route. Instead of dropping some coin on all the food needed for the three recipes, and considering that only a handful of my friends made it over, I made two "burgers". One, using the frozen Kobe beef patties from Trader Joe's and the other using some albacore tuna steaks.

With the beef burger, I decided on swiss cheese and bacon, along with the usual lettuce and tomatoes. Instead of slathering on the catsup and mustard though, I made a garlic sun-dried tomato mayonaise and used that. The reactions ranged from "mmsogoodmmmmm" to "holy $*@! you nailed it!" and even a "let me eat in peace!". Our little group's consensus was that the Brouilly paired best with this burger because it had enough acid and fruit to help with the richness of the beef and cheese while handling the bacon and rich mayo with it's streak of fine-grained tannin.

That's not to say the other wines weren't also good pairings but I felt the Beaujolais-Villages was too soft and fruity, too round to deal with the complex textures in the food. It had lots of ripe fruit and some good clean acid, but remained linear and fairly simple. On the other hand, the Julienas was an excellent wine but I felt it was too young and needed more time in a decanter or even a few years to fully integrate the tannin and fruit together.

Next up was the albacore-steak burger, which I chose to make in two versions, with bacon and without bacon. The cheese was a sharp cheddar, and I did use the garlic mayo spread that I had made previously. Here is where the Beaujolais-Villages shined with it's ripe fruit and minerality playing well off the sharp cheddar and clean tuna flavors. To me the bacon was a nice savory dimension, however, my friends thought it was a bit distracting. I can see their point of view and next time plan to try the tuna steak with a different preparation.

All in all I think the tasting was a success, I enjoyed following along with the WineTwits streaming audio and video, they did a superb job of hosting this event. I liked how the moderator kept the crowd engaged but also moving along from wine to wine. Chef Bob is entertaining, outgoing, and loves to engage his audience. Plus his food looked delicious.

(img src: http://winescore.com)
2009 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages:
Bright purple, and I mean really bright, glistening purple. Simplistic but for less than $10, what did you expect? I enjoyed the ripe black fruits, this was all voilets, plum skin, and blackberry to me on the nose. Those came through on the palate too, bringing a dumptruck of fresh acidity and wet river rock. Silky smooth tannins and a solid if average-length finish. Not too bad at all and a wine to quaff on a Wednesday night with burgers or a pizza. I'd still pick the 2009 Joseph Drouhin Morgon or 2009 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages at around $10 though.

2009 Georges Duboeuf Brouilly:
What a smashingly fun wine! Is "smashingly" even a word? Who cares, this is a cost effective Beaujolais that expresses fantastic sense of place. As I kept shoving my nose into the glass, I picked up things like crushed violet petals and the smell of a wet gravel driveway. There was some fruit here, more of that plum and even something like ripe blackberries. The acidity was perceptible even on the bouquet, it made my mouth water and beg to taste the wine. The '09 Duboeuf Brouilly was my favorite wine of the night, a bright burst of acid and that savory, spicy blackberry/plum/violet melange working together with firm tannin. In a word, delicious! At a suggested retail of $13 and available for around $10, I'd buy six bottles to have on hand through the summer and into autumn.

(img src: http://wine-searcher.com)
2009 Georges Duboeuf Julienas Chateau des Capitans:
The most expensive Beaujolais of the night, though not a terribly expensive example of a Cru level Beaujolais by any means. All the fruit is from the Julienas AOC and the Chateau des Capitans sub-region where the wine sees some time in oak barrels before bottling. Of the three wines I tasted for the "Burgers With a Side of Beaujolais", this had the most potential to gain complexity with some bottle age. On the 26th, it was young and racy, lots of acid and firm tannin enveloping cinnamon toast, black currants, sour cherry, and boysenberry. One day after opening, the acid started to balance with the fruit and this Beaujolais got even better. It paired well with the Kobe burger and at a suggested retail of $17.99, is a nice pick for mid-week or casual weekend sipping with your friends. Home made pizzas or even something as simple as meatloaf would be a fun pairing.

I think this tasting went a long way to dispelling the myth that Beaujolais wines aren't good quality and that the only juice from that area is Beaujolais Nouveau. 2009 is considered one of the best years of late by some critics, others see it as creatings overripe wines that aren't historically what the best of Beaujolais has produced.

My take: These wines are great quality at unbeatable prices and offer us wine lovers something new and relatively different to explore. Sure they might be more fruit-forward and less inclined to drying acidity than before, but who cares? In 2009, the terroir produced these low alcohol, delicious examples of gamay noir and they're all worth a shot.

I want to thank the people at WineTwits for inviting me to taste and tweet. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, this is why I kept using the "#GDandBurgers" hashtag. I apologize if I flooded your tweet-streams! you can follow WineTwits and hang out in their next live tasting, I hope to see you there!

Beau Carufel

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

2010 Stepping Stone Corallina Rosé

Continuing with my tastings of the Stepping Stone wines by Cornerstone Cellars, I sampled the 2010 Stepping Stone Corallina rosé recently and found it to be absolutely delightful. Out of the six samples Cornerstone Cellars sent to me, I've reviewed the 2010 Stepping Stone sauvignon blanc and 2010 Stepping Stone riesling so far. With two more wines to taste (after this rosé), I should be done with the lineup in about a week or so.

Admittedly I'm a bit of a rosé junkie, the Domaine Tempier from Bandol is of course my benchmark for top quality examples. When the 2010 Stepping Stone Corallina showed up and I saw it was 100% syrah from Napa Valley, I may or may not have gotten just a touch excited to taste it. Being the patient chap that I am though, I allowed the wine to rest up a bit in my wine fridge before finally giving it a try.

(img src: http://fabocwinechick.wordpress.com) 

The 2010 Corallina is gorgeous wine with a beautiful salmon color, a copperish-pink that captures the eye from any angle. It's clear all the way through, resembling some of the French rosé's I've had this year, and I feel is atypical of rosé wine from California.

Aromatically this is all sweet summer melon, fresh berries, a twist of lemon, and bits of floral perfume. The Stepping Stone Corallina has a nice depth, giving the perception of a multi-layered wine, one that you can sink into, discovering new aromas with each sniff of your wine glass. Did I mention I'm a bit of a rosé junkie yet? There's a certain delicate nature to rosé, or at least to the best ones, and finding that special quality in the 2010 Corallina was a wonderful revelation.

Finally! I get to taste this rosé that's been teasing me for the past hour while it slowly came closer to room temperature. Clean, pure acidity with elements of melon, green herbs, summer strawberry and cherry all start strong and turn into a medium-bodied, smooth tasting experience. A spell in oak barrels helped add some richness, preventing the wine from being too one dimensional. I kept thinking "great structure, impressive for a California rosé!".

Stepping Stone's Corallina is complex, with the flavors all in balance yet popping up at different times, creating a sense of adventure when you find a new one. A great seam of acidity keeps things light but not necessarily delicate, this is rosé of syrah after all. Rather, the acid creates a nice sense of body without being overly harsh or astringent. I'm impressed.

Am I fan? YES! This is highly recommended rosé to go out and buy right now. The suggested retail is $18, a really nice price on a very high quality rosé. With a chill on it, you want to break out the spicy hummus and pita chips for a great afternoon out on the deck or patio. To purchase, visit the Cornerstone Cellars website.

This wine was a media sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Monday, August 1, 2011

M. Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone "Belleruche"

According to Michel Chapoutier, one of the most difficult tasks of a vineyardist is to make serious, high-quality wines that remain good values. In the 2009 Belleruche Blanc, he accomplishes just that. This was a sample sent to me a few weeks ago by the good folks at Terlato, owners of one of the more impressive wine portfolios in the business.

Michel Chapoutier is both winemaker and negotiant in the Rhone region of France. After inheriting his family's winery, he set about to change everything starting. The changes began back in 1989 and haven't stopped since. From biodynamic farming to modern equipment, Michel turned a languishing yet famous Rhone winery into a critically acclaimed, world famous label. During my research for this blog I learned that Chapoutier now owns vineyards in every major Rhone appellation, something no other producer has accomplished.

The 2009 M. Chapoutier Cotes du Rhone Belleruche Blanc is a blend, as are most Rhone wines. This vintage is a blend of 60% grenache blanc, 20% clairette, and 20% bourboulenc. Those aren't varietals seen in the United States much, outside Randall Graham's plantings of course, but in France they're all integral components of white wine from the Rhone Valley.

(img src:http://www.terlatowines.com/wines

The 2009 Belleruche is a wine geek's wine. With that blend of grapes and the relative scarcity of white Cotes du Rhone wines here in Southern California, it's something I was beyond excited to get. I've tasted some of the M. Chapoutier wines in the psat, during my previous life in wine retail, and always found them to be delicious, expressive, and well made. It goes without saying that I hope to sample more of the Chapoutier wines in the future.

I pulled the bottle from the fridge about an hour before tasting it. Pulled the cork, set it on the counter-top to gently warm up. While a lot of white wines (we can safely say "most white wines") are made to be consumed at low temperatures, I find that by allowing the wine to warm up slightly will do a lot to help me evaluate the balance, acid levels, and fruit profiles.

When I first smelled the 2009 Belleruche Blanc, I was struck by the beautiful golden apple and jasmine aromas. There was something else present too, an exotic fruit that was like a kiwi and pineapple smashed together, to make a kiwiapple. Secondary aromas included a touch of herb and a dash of wet rock, all things that I enjoy finding in white wines.

Tasting this Cotes du Rhone white wine is also a fun experience. It's rich and coats your palate, but also retains lots of acidity. I liked the apple and green herb flavors, a nice fat dollop of stone fruit was thrown in for good measure. There was a bit of an oily richness lending some body and allowing this wine to stand up to food, it would make a great foil to grilled fish or blackened chicken. One of the things that impressed me the most had to be the finish, very elegant and drawn out. The richness that held up the mid-palate carried over into the finish and helped ease my palate into the next sip.

In case you couldn't tell, I throughly enjoyed the 2009 Chaptoutier Belleruche. As I work to move beyond rating wines, I can say this is a highly recommended white wine, one of the more interesting wines I've tasted lately. Plenty of friendliness to play well with enough intrigue to make a wine geek happy. At a suggested retail of only $12.99 and a production of 20,000 cases, there's a lot to go around. Pick up a few bottles and give it a go next time you grill up some chicken breast.

This was a media sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel