Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

As 2011 draws to a close, the inexorable march of time once again comes to the forefront of our consciousness. Since the beginning of the week, the wine blogosphere has been awash with posts highlighting "Top 10" lists, year-end wrap ups, and Champagne-education posts. Forgive me, but this won't be one of those.

I choose to look forward in 2012, to a job here in Oregon managing a tasting room, new wines on my radar, and a shift in the tone and direction of my wine blog. I also am setting some goals, both personal and professional, that I will endeavor to accomplish next year. Looking forward, I feel excited and invigorated about the prospects for next year and chronicling it will be very satisfying.

Since the internet wine scene is evolving quickly, so must wine bloggers. As more consumers start to read wine blogs and actively seek out blogs for information, what they read becomes far more important than whom they read. Therefore, the weight of integrity and transparency is upon all of us who call ourselves wine bloggers. Associated with those responsibilities is the need for better writing, and at the very least the use of spelling and grammar checks by most of us. You know who you are.

Part of the change in tone of my wine blog will seem strange to longtime readers, but I hope new readers will find it refreshing, and longtime readers will enjoy what I have to say. Since a large part of my posts are wine reviews, I won't change that focus very much. However, the majority of my wine reviews will not include grades anymore. If I like a wine, I'll recommend it and tell you why I like the wine. On the other hand, if I don't like a wine, I'll be precise as to why I don't like it and obviously will not recommend buying that bottle. In other words, I'll be a stricter critic of the wines I review, while striving to maintain at least a polite tone. What remains to be seen is how the marketing and public relations professionals adapt to that, if they do at all.

The shift in direction of my blog is a goal I've wanted to bring to fruition for a while, to shift away from almost 100% wine review posts to more focus on living in wine country, the people I meet, and finally, living the wine lifestyle. No, I am not writing a book on that, because there are certainly enough crappy books on wine out there already. The shift I'm talking about will be confined solely to my blog posts, and I hope you enjoy them as much as you enjoy my wine reviews.

Beau's Barrel Room wouldn't have survived in 2011 without you, my readers. I want to thank you all so much for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, whether we agree or disagree, I value your thoughts so much. With each post I try to become a better writer, a more engaging host, and a more adept communicator in the hopes that you will keep reading and enjoying my words.

To many of you, I suspect we'll get to share a bottle at some point this year, which only serves to heighten my anticipation for 2012. To others, I hope we finally meet in real life for the first time, because I would love to shake your hand and learn more about your own personal wine journey. To everyone, I offer my humblest Thank You for being a part of my life in wine.

Beau Carufel

Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Wine, A Cautionary Tale

This Christmas, I brought wine to the Kramer household. For Thanksgiving and now Christmas, I  revel in the opportunity to serve bottles I wouldn't normally open, bottles that are suitable for the occasion. It's not that the Kramers don't have enough wine, but that I seek a somewhat perverse satisfaction in presenting wines to them and gauging my palate based off their reactions. As much as I preach "trust your palate", often I am just as guilty of second guessing myself as the next person.

This is the lineup, a set of wines that represent some of my favorite regions around the world. The four are:
2008 A Tribute to Grace Grenache from the Santa Barbara Highlands AVA.
2008 Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon from the Walla Wall Valley AVA.
2006 Robert Groffier Burgundy from the Passetoutgrains AOC
1999 Chateau Simard Saint-Emilion AOC

Each of these had been acquired over the past year or two via the internet or local wine shops. The prices ranged from around $20 all the way up to $100. With the exception of the grenache, I had not tasted any of these wines before, but have had other examples from either the producer or region.

First though, some sparkling wine from the Willamette Valley. This Elk Cove beauty was picked up by Kim Kramer a few days ago when we went tasting up and down the Willamette. The base wine was made in 1999 and bottled in 2000. In 2010 it was first disgorged, and when it's gone, it's gone. To my knowledge, Elk Cove hasn't made any more vintages of sparkling wine since.

How is it? In a word: wonderful. Although it's not as yeasty or doughy as a lot of Champagnes, it retains a bright crispness and layers of apple, pear, lemon zest, and a hint of apricot. Despite sitting on the lees for a decade, there isn't a lot of creamy weight to the wine, something both Kim and I found very interesting. The bubbles are small and uplifting, just like in a real Champagne, providing excellent mouthfeel. For about $30, this is one of the tastier domestic sparkling wines I've had in 2011. Only 200 cases were made, so it's best to purchase some now before it's all gone.

Moving on to the wines we had with the meal:

2008 A Tribute to Grace Grenache Santa Barbara Highlands: Already on my list of top wines I tasted in 2011, this grenache didn't disappoint. Sourced from vineyards over 2,500 feet high, the wine is the color of fresh-pressed strawberry juice. It's moderately opaque too, indicating it's unfined and unfiltered. The nose is redolent of raspberry sorbet, rose petal, wild strawberry, and black peppercorn. Initially there's a burst of acidity layered with raspberry, that recedes quickly into cracked pepper that sweeps the insides of your palate. Strawberries, wild and a touch green, bring the mid-palate through to a sour-cherry laden finish. All the ripeness is tempered by the acidity, balancing this wine out perfectly. My only regret is that this was my last bottle of the 2008.

2008 Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley: I bought some bottles of this in the Fall, intent on aging them for many years, but I also reasoned that a bottle of wine that routinely goes for $100 should be pretty awesome right now. This is one of Washington's cult wineries, and the cabernet is routinely awarded huge scores from the print rags. 2008's Leonetti cab is a blend of 77% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, 4% carmenere, 3% malbec. I decanted this for several hours, reasoning that despite it's youth, a decanter would help bring out some great flavors. I was wrong. Aromatically pleasing with notes of tobacco, cassis, tar, and black fruits built anticipating for an equally complex palate presence. Sadly, this wine was flat out boring to drink. Lots of sloppy black fruit up front, a somewhat hollow mid-palate, as if the wine evaporated, and a finish so oaky that it felt like someone dragged a vanilla-soaked cedar plank across the back of my tongue. If this is something that gets high scores, it's a mystery as to how. I'll probably age the other bottle I have for a few years but this is a lesson: don't always believe the hype.

1999 Chateau Simard Saint-Emilion: I paid $20 for this wine at San Diego Wine Company back during the summer, so I had appropriate expectations. However, there was an undercurrent of excitement that I cannot deny feeling, since most of my Bordeaux are far younger and not yet ready to drink. The chateau dates back to the 17th century, and the current ownership ages their wines for around 10 years before releasing them.  According to my research, this is 70% merlot and 30% cabernet franc.  It opened up nicely in the glass, with an earthy, cherry and bittersweet chocolate nose that also had some spices and a whiff of brettanomyces. Some call that terroir, others a flaw, but it wasn't horribly overwhelming to me. On the palate I picked up the cabernt franc's tannin structure, framing a cherry/leather/herbal/raspberry flavor profile. It had very nice mouthfeel and I suspect it could even age longer, perhaps till 2015 or so. I'm pleased with this purchase.

2006 Robert Groffier Bourgogne Passetoutgrains: I should have figured an '06 could be over the hill. Passetoutgrains from Burgundy contain pinot noir and gamay and are usually meant to be consumed within two years of production. I took a gamble, read on to find out how I got burned. The volatile acidity was powerful, almost smothering an undercurrent of cherry-soaked minerality and some barnyard funk. Beyond the VA issues, a dollop of ripe red cherry sat squarely in the mid palate, bounded by a little bit of (good) acidity. More of the barnyard came through, but compared to the VA problems it wasn't bad at all. A somewhat clean finish was laden with chalky minerality and sour cherry notes. Unimpressive wine and at $26, also overpriced. It went down the drain.

Strictly speaking, I went 1 for 4, batting a whopping .250 on Christmas Day. That's not exactly where I want to be. I still struggle to wrap my head around the Ch. Simard because it was interesting wine, just a little boring. Good Bordeaux has a certain palate presence, one that Bordeaux lovers immediately know. While this Saint-Emilion was good, it could have been more smile-inducing. While I would buy the it again, I wouldn't pay over $25 for it.

The Leonetti does confound me as well, it's just so atypical of what I expect from a high-scoring Washington wine. I know my palate is different than Paul Gregutt's, as well as all those who criticized me on Twitter for not loving the wine, giving it enough aging time, or other "helpful" advice. On the day I tasted it, the 2008 Leonetti cabernet was not very interesting wine. Winemakers can do a lot with heavy extraction techniques and oak barrels, as well as acid addition and tannin manipulation. What they cannot do is create a wine with soul, one that touches your palate.

I could wax poetic about the A Tribute to Grace, but what's the point? You can't find it anywhere and as far as I know, the last magnum was snapped up a couple of days ago. Don't ask me how I know that, of course. Luckily the 2009 is available and you should buy as much as you can. One of the best wines I tasted in 2011.

The Passetoutgrains was shit, plain and simple. It didn't hurt my feelings for Burgundy though, just reminded me that even self-important wine bloggers occasionally get burned.

With that, I wish you all a Happy New Year, see you in 2012! Let's drink some great wine together!

Beau Carufel

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Two Shepherds' Wines Part Two: Tasting New Releases

Two Shepherds wines are a creation of William Allen, publisher of the Simple Hedonisms wine blog, among other things. In the first part of this two-part blog series, I interviewed William via email to get inside the bottle, so to speak. He explained his motivation, goals, and told us about the great support he got from friends and winemakers around California. For this second blog entry, I am posting my tasting notes on each of the wines I purchased from William.

2010 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc Saarloos Vineyard: Nose of Asian spice, kiwi fruit, limestone, lemon zest, and pear. At room temperature I detected a little heat from the alcohol but it's not too distracting. Good intensity and a complex set of flavors create an expressive, vibrant bouquet. The palate opens with a burst of lively acid that gives way to a balanced mid-palate of ruby grapefruit, tangerine, limestone, and peppery spice. Great flavor integration that will only get better with time had me thinking this wine will last 5-7 years. More heat comes through on the finish but it's something that will go away when this grenache blanc is chilled. This is an impressive effort, well worth the $24 per bottle. I would suggest pairings of grilled chicken, fish & chips, and even pasta with cream sauce. 13.9% abv.

2010 Two Shepherds Viognier Russian River Valley: Beautiful nose of apricot blossom, yellow peach, and a touch of sweet cream. I was impressed with the aromas because they weren't too overly sweet, instead being in perfect harmony. The mouthfeel is rich and beautifully smooth, yet with some focused acidity to create a nice framework for the grapefruit, pear, yellow peach, and wet river rock. A lingering finish with hints of pine sap and grapefruit tapers off gently after almost 20 seconds. This is one to buy a full case of, it will get better and better with each passing year. As someone who frequently finds California viogniers too sweet and lacking structure, the Two Shepherds is a shift away from that, to a Condrieu-style expression. Pair with chicken tetrazzini, Indian cuisine, or even a simple chicken salad. $21. 13.78% abv.

2010 Two Shepherds MRV Saralee's Vineyard: A white Rhone-style blend of 47% marsanne, 47% roussanne, and 6% viognier. The bouquet is all mint leaf, sea air, hints of peach, and star fruit. Secondary aromas of golden apple and asian pear create a lively sensory experience. Impressive for such a young wine, I think this could pass for a white Cotes du Rhone in a blind tasting. The palate is composed of nicely integrated mint leaf, apple, English toffee, and pear notes. I really enjoyed the mineral character, which gave this white blend a round texture without being flabby. The flavors combine to build a nice crescendo before slowly tapering off to an elegant finish. Out of the three Two Shepherds white wines, this screams at me that it needs food. Pair with lobster or herbed chicken, a cheese plate, or grilled whitefish. $24 per bottle. 14.2% abv.

2010 Two Shepherds GSM California: A blend of 50% grenache, 25% syrah, and 25% mourvedre. The grenache and syrah are from Sonoma County and the mourvedre is from Alameda County. After being open for a few minutes, aromas of raspberry, strawberry, dried herb, and cola waft out of your glass. This is young but showing nice integration even at this point. Secondary aromas of cracked pepper and good minerality build an impressive background to support the red fruit. Upon tasting, you will notice the acid in this GSM is young and a touch raw, but is also the type to hold this wine together for several years. Right now it needs food, cheese and meat especially. Spicy raspberry and wild strawberry, cracked black peppercorn, tobacco, and just a touch of oak that ends the beautifully tapering finish. Although the palate is a bit disjointed, you get the sense of a dominant syrah right now, that's something that will evolve out. That said, the spice and pepper notes carry this wine beautifully. I'm going to be buying more. 13.8% abv. $32 per bottle.

Now before you accuse me of bias and all manner of unsavory things (most of which are probably true), I will state that these wines aren't perfect. That's a double edged sword though, because to be too perfect would rob William's wines of their garagiste-winemaker charm. If each of these wines was flawless, they would be a little less interesting. It's critical to keep in mind that these are Two Shepherds inaugural releases, and they all need some time to settle down.

My biggest gripe ($5 to the person who already guessed it!) is the relatively high alcohol on the Grenache Bland and the MRV. If I were to nitpick, I would also suggest that some of the more angular acidic edges could be refined, but that would be more to please the critics than my own palate. Bring on the angles, and just say no to flabby, boring white wine. The same goes for the Two Shepherds GSM, which will evolve beautifully over the next few years. I must note that it isn't quite available yet for the general public, but you'd best email William about any quantity you may desire, and email quickly.

After tasting through this lineup, I was pleased that they were all so good. My tasting partners agreed, and while they had some suggestions for improvements as well, our unanimous sentiment was that they were all very drinkable, high quality. For that, I raise a glass to William Allen and his Two Shepherds wines. It's great when a wine blogger starts making wine, and even better when the wines are delicious!

Two Shepherds on Facebook
Two Shepherds on Twitter
Two Shepherds on the web

Beau Carufel

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Two Shepherds' Wine Part One: Interview With the Winemaker

This is the first blog of a two-part series introducing a new California wine producer. William Allen, a friend and fellow wine blogger, recently released wines under his Two Shepherds label for the first time. These wines express his passion for Rhone varieties as well as his belief that wine should be interesting, unique, and accessible. I support William and the Two Shepherds wines so I sent him ten questions, hoping to gain some insight into his motivations, goals, and dreams. William was kind enough to respond and I am posting his answers verbatim for you to read.

In the next blog installment, I will be tasting and sharing my thoughts on his three current white wines as well as an un-released red Rhone blend (hint: it's great!). For now, pour a glass of your favorite wine and get inside the bottle with Two Shepherds Vineyards.

1. What got you into Rhone varietals?

"As my palate progressed away from over extracted New World styles, to wines that were more subtle and nuanced, I fell in love with Rhones. Rhone wines and blends offer complexity more succinctly. Rhone varietals sing when blended, and each variety offers more unique contribution, then say, Bordeaux varietals. They also tend to be less tinkered with by wine producers. Rhone lovers are passionate about their wines and this category."

2. Why make your own wine?

"I have been a garagiste wine & beer maker for over ten years. Making wine in very small lots has its limits to what you can do. I really wanted to start making blends, which meant producing at least a barrel of each varietal. It turns out even that was too limited for the tools I wanted. I also wanted to put my money where my (wine writing) mouth was: after many years of tasting and writing, I felt I could bring wines to the world that would be enjoyable, and unique."

3. Biggest challenge in making these wines?

"Working with varietals I haven’t before, so not knowing how they are doing during each phase, and projecting how they would taste in the future, and if they would achieve the stylistic goal I clearly had in mind for each. Using techniques like broad scale use of native yeast. Triangulating the many inputs from other winemakers into the many decisions I had to make.
Ask 10 wine makers the same question, and you’ll get 7 answers back."

4. Did you model your wines on any particular producer or more of a regional style?

"It’s a combination of Old World focus, and wines that were epiphanies for me, like Kinero Grenache Blanc, that stylistically I loved. Certainly Tablas Creek blazes a bright trail for me. Successful small winemakers, in my opinion, make wines to their own palate and passion. I have been preaching about balanced, modest, distinct wines and rampaging against Parker-esque extracted styles for years. By sourcing varietals from cool climates, like the Russian River Valley, I was determined to make wines that were properly ripened, but lower in alcohol and higher in acidity."

5. Future plans for the label? Burgundy or Bordeaux varieties perhaps?

"The goal right now is Rhones, but never say never. Artistically I love to play, and its easy to chase shiny objects, but the marketer in me knows the importance of focus. That said, I will always be on the lookout for interesting varietals and vinification techniques. This year for example, I did two ‘orange wine’ projects, one from an obscure white, that could end up as a wine club offering. Two Shepherds is focused on bringing consumers interesting & unique wines."

6. Is there one thing you're most proud of with the current releases?

"That stylistically they expressed what I wanted, and have been so widely received by some very picky people, like the girl & the fig, the Bay area’s most Rhone focused cult restaurant, and Mike Jordan, a very picky wine buyer for K&L Wines, one of San Francisco’s best wine shops. I adore Grenache and I think the Grenache Blanc and Grenache based GSM are wonderful. I’d gladly drink every bottle if they didn’t sell, but they are flying off the shelves and I have already had to limit sales. Luckily, we boosted 2011 production from 175 cases, to ~500."

7. Why the name Two Shepherds?

"We struggled on the name for a long time, it actually delayed our launch by months. So many great names were taken, and wanted something that captured our old world philosophy. Our friends at Cartograph finally gave us the idea, commenting I was a shepherd for the local wine industry with my networking. It also fit my view of myself as a writer, trying to help and guide consumers on the voyage of wine exploration. The other Shepherd, or Shepherdess is Michelle my girlfriend, to whose creative talent we owe much of the design credit, as well as our brilliant label designer Nick McNeil at Agency Orange. Her last name is Berger, which is French for Shepherd. We ran the idea past a few people, and its been a big hit."

8. Any winemakers in particular whom helped you?

"Very many, including some coaching by none other than Randall Grahm. Anthony Yount in Paso Robles, of Denner & his own label Kinero. Alan Baker of Cartograph, the Sheldons. Many of my good friends offered advice. Direct supervision and consulting came from Darek Trowbridge (Old World Winery) and Kevin Hamel (Preston, many others) both known for the minimalist intervention focus. Jon Philips of Inspiration Vineyards, where we presently vinify at, was a huge asset during blending, bottling, and this tricky 2011 harvest."

9. What's the best bottle of wine you've ever tasted?

"That’s pretty tough one for someone who tastes a ridiculous amount of wine each year, wearing my blogger hat. The Sheldon 2009 Graciano comes first to mind."

10. Is there one thing in particular you want people to know about the Two Shepherds wines?

"More about our wine philosophy overall, than us. I want consumers to always be open minded, try new things, and push their palate. I hate when I hear things like “I don’t drink white wine” (try my Rhone winter white MRV blend), or "I hate chardonnay" (ever tried French?). I can’t stand that consumers have been trained to think that all red wine must be dark, or all whites clear. That’s like saying all cheese should come in single wrapped slices. The world produces hundreds of great varietals, and unique wines are finally coming into vogue. Open up, live a little, and try them."

We now have a more complete picture of the Two Shepherds label, and I will reiterate how cool it is to see a blogger put his money where his mouth is. Read the next blog post, Two Shepherds' Wines Part Two: Tasting New Releases, to see my tasting notes on the current releases.

To purchase the Two Shepherds wines, visit the website or email them direct. If you're in the Bay Area or don't mind having the wines shipped, K&L Wine Merchants also carries the Two Shepherds label. Tomorrow I will post the second part of my Two Shepherds blog series discusses each wine in more detail, along with tasting notes and some food pairings.

Two Shepherds on Facebook
Two Shepherds on Twitter
Two Shepherds on the web

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hedges Family Estate, Red Mountain's Guardian

Hedges Family Estate. Do you know this producer, of Red Mountain, Washington? They've made a lot of waves lately for their adamant refusal to accept or deal with scores. Indeed, Hedges Family Estates first came to my attention through their vociferous opposal to assigning numerical scores to wines. Billing themselves as "The Guardians of Red Mountain", Hedges has been up on the mountain producing wine since the late 1980's. When you consider the relative modernity of Washington's wine production, the Hedges family might be called among the pioneers of Red Mountain.

The Hedges story is wonderful, full of romance, determination, dedication, love, respect, and more. The natural skeptic in me goes "this is too good to be true", but on some level, this is the story we all want to believe. It is the story of romance through a wine glass, a truly powerful concept that wine lovers all over the world can connect with. Romance and wine go hand in hand, and at the very least, when you read the Hedges website, you cannot help but get caught up in the aura of a family attempting to create a world class, important authentic, winery here in the Pacific Northwest.

During some discussions via Facebook, I was asked if I'd like to sample any of the Hedges wines. Wanting to see if they made wine that could stand up to the "no score" mantra, I eagerly accepted. A few weeks later, a bottle of their 2009 Hedges CMS Sauvignon Blanc and a 2008 Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain red wine were dropped off by my awesome UPS guy. After resting for about five weeks, I eagerly opened each to taste it and take some notes.

2009 Hedges CMS Sauvignon Blanc: A white blend, 77% sauvignon blanc, 20% chardonnay, and 3% marsanne,all from the Columbia Valley. This white blend saw no oak, with each wine fermented entirely in stainless steel. Pours a nice greenish-golden straw color with surprising vibrancy. The resulting blend is very interesting, with notes of perfume, green apple, pear, honeycomb, and melon. I thought the bouquet to be somewhat disjointed and too linear though, with aromatics battling each other for supremacy. On the palate the sauvignon blanc provides a steely acid and citrus note, the other grapes providing some pear, white peach, and floral elements. Just like the bouquet, the palate presence was clunky and the flavor transition could have been smoother. Still, for about $14, this is a very intersting, fun wine to drink and I recommend picking up a bottle or two. I plan on buying some to try pairing with roasted chicken or sushi. 13.5% abv, 10,400 cases produced.

2008 Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain: Each year this red blend is made up predominantly of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The 2008 is 36% cabernet sauvignon, 33% merlot, 14% syrah, 11% cabernet franc, 6% malbec. Let me just state that for $25 it is very hard to find a wine this good. It pours an inky dark purple into the glass. The different varietals present form a bouquet of dark chocolate, graphite, tar, blackberry and cherry, and cigar box. I felt as if each whiff contained some new aroma. I expected a tannic monster, based on the blend, color, and age, yet this is a very smooth wine. Yes, the tannin is presenet but it's well integrated and not dominating. The acidity present does a great job holding the ripe core of black and red fruit in check. I liked the mid-palate tar and tobacco notes that transitioned into a dark chocolate streak right through the finish. Overall, a very impressive wine at a suitably impressive price.

Out of respect for what the Hedges family is trying to do with their anti-score position, I am not going to rate these wines. I will give them each a STRONG BUY recommendation and suggest you pick up multiple bottles of each to enjoy as we move into 2012.

You can connect with Hedges on Facebook and their Twitter account. To order these wines, visit the Hedges website or your local retailer.

The wines were sent as media samples from Hedges Family Estate.

Beau Carufel

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!


I want to wish all my family, friends, readers, followers, and everyone I chat with a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Your presence in my life serves to inspire, challenge, and strengthen my journey along this path. Thank you all, and may your holiday season be filled with great people, food, and wine. I will be toasting you from beautiful Oregon wine country. Cheers!


Friday, December 23, 2011

Occupy Syrah Day, Building Awareness For an Under-Appreciated Grape

December 7th is an auspicious day, on it we Americans remember Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sneak attack on America that plunged us into World War II. This day is one for rememberance and hopefully, one for looking toward the future as a time when perhaps we won't be fighting each other anymore.

Fast forward 70 years later, and December 7th was the first ever "Occupy Syrah Day", founded in part by Bill from Cuvee Corner Wine Blog and Shawn from A Wandering Wino. Riffing off the "Occupy Wall Street" theme may not have been popular with some people, but they're party-poopers and not worthy of our time. The point here was to build awareness, through social media, for a grape that here in the United States at least, has a bad rap.

Syrah, once destined to be the "next big thing" according to such prestigious publications as Wine Spectator, never has lived up to those prognostications. Pinot noir came along and kicked over the proverbial sand castle, relegating a grape made famous in the Rhone Valley to something whispered about by wine geeks and pumped out as commercial grade plonk by the Australians. Luckily, the past several years has seen a resurgence, led domestically by outstanding examples in Washington and California. Overseas, Chile and France have come on strong (France..again) while Australia has languished in a sea of  cheap shiraz. Unfortunate, but things are finally starting to change in the land of the Kangaroo, as the two selections I was sent will attest to.

2006 James David Cellars Syrah Central Coast: Medium-dark purple in the glass. Right away, aromas of campfire and bacon fat followed by earth, black pepper, and blackberry/blueberry. This is a big, bruiser of a syrah with tons of pepper on the front palate, leading into a core of dark fruit flavors and oak through the mid palate. The finish brings more crushed pepper and a firm dollop of oak as the this syrah winds down. It's clear that the 55 months spent in oak barrels are influencing the wine. The spices come back on the finish too, it's like swallowing a teaspoon of ground peppercorns. Nothing subtle about this syrah, it means business. Best paired with very full-flavored foods. 15.7% abv. $NA.

2008 Wakefield Estate Shiraz Clare Valley: Pours a dark red-purple in the glass. On the nose, a touch of brettanomyces leads into a bouquet of bacon fat, blackberry, smoked meat, blueberry, and vanilla oak. The palate profile consists of ripe black cherry, blackberry, eucalyptus menthol, tobacco, some peppery spice, and more vanilla oak. I like the tannic structure and in particular, the nice finish. This would be a pretty tasty summertime barbecue wine to serve with all manner of charred red meat. $15 is a good price for a shiraz that has a bit more complexity than we expect from that price point. 14.7% abv.

2008 Plantagenet Shiraz Mt. Barker: Pours a very dark red in the glass. Aromas of smoked meat, campfire, red berries, white pepper, herb, and a touch of heat form a pleasing bouquet. Dried basil and thyme, red cherry, menthol, subtle oak notes, and a bit of tannin create an excellent suite of flavor and texture on the palate. I am very surprised at how good this shiraz is, perhaps $20 is the entry for quality Australian shiraz. The balance is something unexpected and the wood doesn't clobber you over the head, despite it enclosing the wine for 20 months. No need to cellar this wine any longer, it's drinking extremely well right now. 14.2% abv. $20.

Participating in the #OccupySyrah day was a lot of fun. While some people lack a sense of humor and were not enthusiastic about the name, I feel it was a lighthearted stab at a topic which we all are aware of. Bill and Shawn did a good job spreading the word and I was pleased to see multiple PR and marketing groups send samples out for bloggers to sample and share. In a small but important way, that was indicative of the power of social media.

For my part, I'm going to keep drinking syrah, be it domestic or imported. I love the complexity that's possible with a well-made syrah, where you truly can feel the power, restrained. In 2012, I hope more wine lovers take the time to explore syrah and share it with their friends.

The wines featured here were media samples.

Beau Carufel

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Exploring Port Wines For the Holidays

As the leaves change color in the vineyards, the temperature drops and the air takes on a crisp, snappy feel, we know it's fall. Like it or not, the holidays are upon us, surely to contain excess food and drink, office parties, over-shopping, wine club shipments, and ballooning credit card balances. Each of these events carries with it a certain amount of stress upon we humans, sometimes the stress is good and sometimes it's bad. I'm writing this blog post to share what I consider a nice remedy to that holiday-induced stress.

Port wine, something of a favorite tipple in my household. Many people (myself included) consume Port year-round, so let's pat ourselves on the back for a moment. "The Holidays" provide a perfect excuse to explore Port, to drink more Port, and to share our affinity with our friends and even..just maybe..our family.

And so it goes, I was sent three bottles of Port, the real kind (hint: from Portugal) to sample. Another bottle of "port" comes from California, and I should call it port-style wine, a truer description. That bottle was contributed by my good friend Dan of Wine is Serious Business fame. As a quick shout-out, Dan and Chas do one of the most entertaining, authentic video wine blogs out there, period.

I was sent bottles of Fonseca Bin 27, Taylor Fladgate LBV 2005, and Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Tawny to taste. The California Port-style wine was a bottle of Terra d'Oro Zinfandel Port. The first three are wines made from well established producers in Portugal, and very easy to find on retailers shelves. The Terra d'Oro is available through the winery website and it looks like they can ship most places.

Before I get into the tasting notes on each of these fortified wines, let's go through a very brief Port primer, to better understand what I'll be talking about. Hopefully after the primer, you'll be able to place these wines into proper context.

Port can be made with 48 (WOW) different grape varieties but five are considered the best and most widely used: Touriga National, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinta Cão. The Douro river is considered the source of the best Port grapes.

Port wines 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. Ruby ports are often dark purple in color with rich fruity and spicy overtones, and a sweet character. Tawny Ports are amber in color with flavors of toffee, dried fruits and nuts. More complex (and expensive) Tawny Ports have an indication of age on the bottle: 10, 20, even 40-year old Tawny. Late Bottled Vintage, or LBV Ports spend between four to six years in oak prior to bottling, softening the acid and tannin which then allows them to be consumed at a younger age. They combine the mellow flavors of a Tawny Port while retaining the fruitiness of a Ruby.

Terra d'Oro Zinfandel Port NV: Right away I was picking up zinfandel notes. Plum, black pepper, raisin, and cherry preserve all waft out of the glass. The unmistakable scent of alcohol was there too, something I tend to pick up in all but the oldest, most expensive vintage Ports. On the palate the Terra d'Oro is smooth and rich, with a sweet, candied nut flavor to go with the grapey component. For about $12 per 375ml bottle, it's a really good deal. I think my friend Chas made a great point when he said it's close to a regular zinfandel bottling, lighter than a typical syrupy Port.

Fonseca Bin No. 27 Porto: Next up is a ruby Port, the real deal. Fonseca has been making Port wines for a long time and this is their entry-level bottling. True to it's nature, the nose has cherry preserve, brandy, hints of dark chocolate and earth. I think for a $15-$20 bottle of Port, this is very approachable. I tasted more of the sweet cherry, oak, dark chocolate, and earth along with a little bit of acidity that helped liven up the wine. It wasn't my favorite of the tasting and is more for people who do like sweeter wines. This is a good introduction to Port wines and is equally at home on its own or with a chocolate sampler.

Taylor Fladgate Late Bottle Vintage 2005 Porto: This LBV smelled great to me, lots of nutty aromas mixed with oak, red and black fruit, and some spice mix going on too. One thing about Late Bottled Vintage Port that I always enjoy is the way that a lot of what I smell carries over onto the palate. The Taylor Fladgate LBV tastes a lot like it smells with regards to the oak and spices mixed with berry flavors. My initial taste was of oak and fruit and that quickly gave way to a tannin and woodsy mid-palate, ending with a bit of heat from the alcohol. When you do drink Ports though, it's important to remember that they're higher in alcohol and you probably will feel both the burn of the ethanol, and if you're not careful, the effects too. That is one of the reasons Port is not served in the same quantities as unfortified wine. At around $24, it's a great value that I highly recommend.

Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Tawny Porto: The final Port was this 20 year old Tawny, meaning that the average age of the wine inside is 20 years, not that it was made 20 years ago. There could be equal parts 30 year and 10 year Ports, respectively. When Port starts to age, it truly turns into a magnificent beverage. The bouquet is lovely, with whiffs of cherry and toasted nuts, warm oak, and hints of cigar box. Warm and rich on the palate, there's a subtle earth note along with a beautiful mix of toasted almond and cherry preserves. I love the balance and integration of the flavors, there's no sense of a beginning or end to each specific aroma, everything seamlessly flows together. At $35-40 a bottle it's a bit pricier but also showcases what makes Port wine so excellent.

Hopefully you've now got an idea of the different styles of Port and what makes it so delicious. The Center for Wine Origins is working to promote awareness that real Port only comes from Portugal, and that is a message this blog supports. January 27th, 2012 is Port Day,and there will be tastings all over the country. If you're on Twitter, you can use the hashtag "#PortDay" to connect with other wine lovers taking part. If you've ever been curious about Port wines, this is a day to use to your advantage.

The Port wines in this blog were all media samples.

Beau Carufel

Monday, December 19, 2011

Napa Valley Film Festival Wine Tasting

The inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival  was in November of this year, starting on November 9 and ending Sunday, November 13. Despite being called a "film festival", there is a lot more going on than just watching movies and mingling with famous and semi-famous people. The Festival weekend is packed with concerts, sponsor events, meetings, food/wine demonstrations, and more.

Obviously wine is an integral part of the Festival, and this year the people at TasteLive, CellarPass, and the NVFF teamed up to bring a group of 12 bloggers "to" the event. The 12 of us selected were sent a very expensive (and in most cases, very good) selection of wines from all over the Napa Valley to taste and tweet about using the TasteLive platform. During these live tastings, which coincided with the Napa Valley Film Festival, representatives from each winery would come to a booth or table and discuss the wines with Alan Kropf, the Chief Mutineer behind Mutineer Magazine. These chats were streamed live to us bloggers, and we tweeted thoughts, questions, and general chit chat about each wine.

The events and their paired wines are listed below, along with tasting notes and my thoughts:

Thursday, November 10: Opening Night Gala.
Winery: Robert Mondavi Winery

2009 Robert Mondavi Reserve Fume Blanc To Kalon: Sauvignon blanc aged in oak, 25% new. Previous experience with the non-reserve bottling of the Mondavi Fume Blanc have been disappointing. This was a very pleasant surprise though. I liked the bright citrus and apple aromas tinged with a hint of oak. There's a nice sense of depth to the bouquet. Upon tasting, the oak treatment is evident, as is the dash of semillon added for texture and aromatics. I liked the weighty feel of this wine, and it had a pleasing depth of stone fruit, green apple, and a hint of lychee. Solid minerality for a Napa wine, and at a real-world price of about $30, it's a nice alternative to chardonnay. B+. BUY recommendation.

2008 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: On the opposite side of the spectrum, I've had some amazing cabernets from Robert Mondavi. This was not one of them. I found this cabernet aromatically interesting, with notes of blackberry, cocoa, black dusty earth, and black currant. Unfortunately that beautiful bouquet dies on the palate, where all that's left is firm tannin, dust, bittersweet chocolate, and a hollow finish. While this could just be a function of the lack of age, I tasted a friend on this one and he came to a similar conclusion. How this scored a 93 points from Wine Spectator is beyond me. How the other bloggers salivated over this overpriced cabernet is also beyond me. At $135, it's just not worth the money. B. PASS.

Friday, November 11: Noon: MountainView Hotel, Calistoga.
Wineries: Merryvale Vineyards, Tedeschi Family Winery, Mumm Napa

Mumm Napa Brut Reserve Rosé NV: A blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, this was a great way to start the morning off. The pink hue is beautiful in the glass, and the bubbles flow upwards in beautiful pearl chains. The bouquet is a nice mix of tart raspberry, bread dough, and Granny Smith apple. I enjoyed the mouthfeel immensely, a lot of the raspberry flavors gave way to a dry, yeasty note on the mid-palate. The finish was clean and precise, hints of apple and pear trailed off gently. It's not cheap at $36, but it's also very high quality sparkling wine and worth buying for the upcoming New Year's Eve celebrations. B+, STRONG BUY recommendation.

Merryvale Winery 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Merryvale's 2007 cab is 99% cabernet sauvignon and 1% cabernet franc. What that cabernet franc adds, in such a small quantity, is beyond me. This wine spent 19 months in French oak barrels, the breakdown being 70% new, 30% used oak. I like Merryvale as a consistent producer but they've never wowed me. This 2007 echoes that theme. It's a beautiful ruby-brick pour with thin, well spaced legs. 14.5% alcohol by volume is normal for Napa cabernets. Aromatically it's a nice mix of currant, oak, mint leaf, black cherry, and a touch of dried herb. The palate opens with a black cherry and currant mix before transitioning into a tannic mid-palate of earth and campfire smoke. The finish is good, a smooth tapering effect ending with a minty dark chocolate thing. It's good wine, nothing more, nothing less. Expensive at $65, but available at $45 and then it becomes a solid value. B+.

Tedeschi Family Winery 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: I'm somewhat in the minority among most of my California cabernet-loving friends, but I really enjoy the 2005's. The best wines of this vintage take an "old school" approach, revealing bouquets of black cherry, leather, olive, and dried herb. This 2005 Tedeschi is hitting its stride right now, drinking beautifully. There's touch of oak yet it's very nicely integrated and gives the wine a nice tannic structure from the mid-palate back. Those firm tannin and lively acid hark back to the great Napa cabernets of the 70's and 80's, wines which are drinking beautifully right now.  Along with the ripe fruit and leathery flavors, a touch of baking chocolate comes out. The finish is dried herb and a little fleur du sel, very interesting. At $58, I feel it's fairly priced wine. A-, BUY recommendation.

Friday, November 11: 3:30pm: St. Helena Pavilion, Carnegie Building.
Wineries: Ramian, Clif Family Winery, Raymond Vineyards

Savour St. Helena 2008 Ramian Canard Merlot: Conceived as an offering from the Savour St. Helena tasting room, this merlot was made by Brian Graham of Ramian Winery. It pours a dark ruby, indicating a still-young wine. The aromatic palette was straightforward with oak, dark chocolate, ripe red cherry, and a touch of spiced vanilla. Some bloggers went crazy for this wine but I felt it lacked some structure. Merlot can be a beautiful wine, equal parts rich, velvety fruit and firm, embracing texture. While this merlot is good, it's definitely not worth $45 a bottle. B. PASS recommendation.

Clif Family Winery 2008 Kit's Killer Cab Napa Valley: Yes, this is the same family that makes those energy bars, powders, pastes, and whatnot. They got into wine a few years back (2004) and make a nice variety of reds and whites. If you're in St. Helena, you can visit Velo Vino and check out the Clif Family Winery selection. This 2008 red blend is primarily cabernet sauvignon with the balance of 8% merlot, 8% malbec, and 6% cabernet franc. The final blend spent 18 months in French oak barrels. The bouquet is impressive, at once fruit-forward - think blackberry, cherry, currant notes - and yet restrained by a peppery, earthy streak. The tannin is firm throughout, building a structurally sound wine across the palate. More of the ripe fruit balanced by oak, earth, and a touch of leathery character. At around $38, it's a steal. B+, STRONG BUY.

Raymond Vineyards 2008 Reserve Selection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: According to the tech sheet, this 08 Raymond is 85% cabernet sauvignon, 12% merlot, and 3% petite sirah. Raymond Vineyards is widely distributed and somewhat of a generic, supermarket type brand. Or at least, it was, now a new owner and complete renovation has (hopefully) steered this winery onto a different track. I looked forward to tasting this cabernet in the hopes that it showed a glimpse of what is to come. In the glass it's a bright ruby-purple, a color indicative of youth. A straightforward bouquet of black cherry, cassis, plum, and toasty oak. On the palate, more of the ripe fruit elements woven throughout with some oak and a fine grained tannin. I picked up some heat too, and found that this is 15% alcohol by volume. The 2008 Raymond is drinkable but also falls into the "just another overpriced/oaked/alcoholic Napa cab"category. B. PASS recommendation. $35 SRP.

Saturday, November 12: Noon: Yountville Wine Pavilion, V Marketplace.
Wineries: Chiarello Family Vineyards, Jessup Cellars, John Anthony Vineyards

John Anthony Vineyards 2010 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc: From another relatively small producer, we bloggers were sent a sauvignon blanc and a cabernet to sample for the NVFF. My own sauvignon blanc preferences lie with Sancerre and Bordeaux blanc, but California is perfectly capable of producing delightful examples too. The 2010 John Anthony version pours a pale straw into the glass. Aromatically it's powerful, with notes of tropical fruit, lemon, pineapple, and limestone. On the palate, a lively acid bolt cuts through the massive weight of 15.3% alcohol, rendering this one almost palatable. Problem is, this doesn't feel like sauvignon blanc, rather, un-wooded, hot-vintage chardonnay/semillon blends. It's the kind of texture I expect from a crappy Australian white wine, not a Napa Valley sauvignon blanc. C+, PASS recommendation. $20 SRP.

John Anthony Vineyards 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: I was gun shy after that sauvignon blanc, but this cabernet sauvignon impressed me. While it's still young, as evidenced by the clear ruby-purple it pours, there is a lot to be hopeful for. I liked the aromas of wood smoke, leather, ripe blackberry and cherry, as well as the dusty earth. The bouquet was very well balanced with each flavor complementing the next. This '07 had a nice palate presence too, with lots of ripe berry fruit up front that segued into the firm tannin, leather, and dust notes I was hoping to find. Again the balance was impeccable and this is a great example of a lush, rich, layered Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. It hits the price point fairly and is worth seeking out. A-, STRONG BUY recommendation. $56 via the winery, as low as $45 on

Jessup Cellars 2009 Juel Napa Valley Estate Grown: Another red blend from Napa Valley, this time from the talented hands of Rob Lloyd, winemaker at Jessup Cellars. This one is 52% merlot, 28% cabernet franc, 13% cabernet sauvignon, 5% petite sirah and then 1% petit verdot. While this 2009, bottled in August, isn't released yet, I suggest you get in line. This wine is fantastic, full of black cherry, smoke, ripe berries, dusty earth, and in a nicely integrated if somewhat strong package. Given 10-15 years, this wine will sing. Right now it's bold and dark, I picked up the green herbal note of the cabernet franc right away, along with a dose of tea-soaked leather, chocolate, and ripe blackberries. The finish was long and lingering, like taking a ride down a dusty dirt road full of spices, vanilla, and firm tannin. As the 2009 Jessup Juel ages, those flavors will continue to integrate into a delicious package. A-BUY recommendation. $90 suggested retail.

Chiarello Family Vineyards 2008 Roux Old Vine Petite Sirah: I am still in the awkward phase of my relationship with petite sirah and it feels like middle school. I like it, I want to get to know petite sirah better, but I am shy and unsure of myself. Do I shake it's hand? Furtive glances have confirmed it's interest in me, I think. Maybe this '08 Chiarello Family Vineyards example will be my first kiss. It's pouring a dark garnet, opaque purple juice, into my glass. As my buddy Chas says, this is purple drank! Beautifully intense aromas of plum skin, cracked peppercorn, dark, loamy soil, and mint. I was worried that this petite sirah would be all tannin, but it's got so much dense ripe fruit and rich, layered texture that it balances the intense tannins extremely well. I'd love this Chiarello wine with something meaty, a t-bone steak. B+, STRONG BUY. $46 suggested retail price.

Saturday, November 12: 4:00pm: Oxbow Napa Wine Pavillion, Napa.
Wineries: Swanson Vineyards & Winery, Saintsbury, Pine Ridge Winery

Swanson Vineyards & Winery 2009 Napa Valley Pinot Grigio: The series of tastings so far have had two other white wines, the rest being reds. I was pleased to see Swanson throw in their 2009 pinot grigio. In my opinion, if you're gonna drink California pinot grigio, this one is the best out there. The 2009 comes in at 13.6% abv, not at all bad. It's fermented dry and sees no oak or malo-lactic fermentation, rendering this as pure as you can get. I was impressed with the bouquet, think lime peel, summer flowers, white peach, and a little melon. On the palate the texture comes from vibrant acidity, flowing along the lines of citrus and floral notes. The melon picks up on the mid-palate, continuing through the finish, lending some weight to a nice, clean closing. B+, STRONG BUY recommendation. $21 suggested retail but I found it as low as $15.

Saintsbury 2009 Lee Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir: I hear a lot of people knocking Carneros pinot, saying that it cannot express the grape properly. I think in this case, Saintsbury proves them wrong. This pinot spent ten months in French oak with only 29% of the wine in new barrels. I like the color, it's a clear ruby that reflects the light very nicely. In what I would term a traditional Careneros pinot noir bouquet, I detected strawberry, cola, raspberry, baking spices, and just a hint of oak. This procession of aromas carried over very nicely on the palate, ending with a burst of red fruit and tobacco that I thoroughly enjoyed. 2009 has been heralded as a standout year for California pinot noir and this is no exception. The price point is about what I'd expect to pay. A-, BUY recommendation.- $45

Swanson Vineyards & Winery 2007 Oakville Merlot: I'm not even sure it's worth putting up this review, the winery has just released their 2008 vintage Oakville merlot. However, someone took the time to ship me a bottle so I may as well share my thoughts. I have always been a fan of Swanson wines and this is no exception. It's got all the things you want in a merlot, namely ripeness AND structure, and none of that overly-ripe fruit taste that so many poorly made California merlots have. Aromatically it's all plum, blackberry,  red cherry, and oak. The oak isn't overwhelming though, and on the palate it contributes a balancing effect versus the firm tannin. Everything is nicely integrated, from the blackberry and cherry notes, the oak, a touch of dusty earth, and the fine-grained tannin keeping it all together. A wonderful wine and at a real world price of $26, one excellent deal. B+, STRONG BUY recommendation. Suggested retail price: $38

Pine Ridge Winery 2007 Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon: Seventeen wines into this series of tastings, we hit the end, with a cabernet-based blend from the iconic Stag's Leap district. Pine Ridge has been around for a while and consistently makes excellent, if expensive wines. The 2007 is a blend of cabernet, merlot, petite verdot, and malbec. It's a wine to sit on for a long, long time. I think 15+ years isn't out of the question. The aromas rushing out of the glass are gorgeous, cassis, plum, blackberry, sour cherry, spicy oak, and textbook dry earth. Each taste seems to bring a new flavor, be it ripe berries, subtle oak notes, earth, old baseball glove, or even a hint of eucalyptus.This is a marvelous wine that will only get better with time. It's not cheap, with a suggested retail of $80, but a little digging will find it for $50 or less. A-, STRONG BUY recommendation.

I was happy to get the invite and participate in this series of tastings, we got to try some average wines but also some fantastic bottles that I would gladly purchase at my local wine store. Tasting along with eleven other bloggers was a good experience too, because being able to see what others taste in a wine can only help your own palate develop. While I wasn't ecstatic over seemingly every bottle we were sent, I think that out of the small sampling we tasted, it's clear that Napa Valley continues to produce outstanding wines every single year.

These wines were blogger samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Navarra Wine Adventure, Day Three: Bodegas San Martin, Otazu, And More

I pick up the travels of the #Navarra5 returning to the beautiful Palacio Guendulain in Pamplona after another great day of tasting wines, eating food, and getting cultured. Day three was a smashing success in my book, leaving me further impressed with the wines and perhaps more so, the people. I admire the passion for creating world class wines as well as the willingness to take risks in that pursuit.

As much as I've tried to write about day three of this incredible journey, the words just don't seem to want to appear tonight. Sleep beckons and the bed in my room is so comfortable that I would not mind a day spent there, with plenty of Champagne of course. This scribe must take a mental break for a night, and I'll pick up the tale in the morrow.

Reflecting upon today's itinerary makes me realize how much I'd love for my real job to be traveling the world, bringing eager wine drinkers stories from afar. Not schlepping cheap plonk at Trader Joe's. Come to think of it, I said the exact same thing about Day Two! Since I can't go out and travel the wine regions of the world..yet..I suggest anyone reading this try as many wines from around the world as you can. Throw away preconceived notions you might have about a particular grape or region and just taste wine.

We return to this blog entry more than a day after the events of Wednesday, when I've had time to sit and think about the experience, reliving some moments in particular. The day saw us visiting a Templar church, Puente la Reina along the Pilgrim's Way of St. James, Bodegas San MartinOtazu, and the best food and wine pairing I've had all year. That evening, a visit to one of Pamplona's famous fish restaurants (La Runa Sideria) was in order, further stuffing the #Navarra5 with amazing cuisine.

Starting the day off right, with a visit to the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, a 900+ year old Romanesque hermitage. Think about that for a moment..For all the self-congratulating we do here in the United States about how amazing we are for having a 230+ year old democracy, that church was ancient before this country was even a glimmer in Mr. Hancock's eye. Being able to walk those stones was a humbling, extraordinary experience.

The group's next stop was Puente la Reina, a town along the Way of St. James that ends in Compostela. Here we were exposed to more ancient churches and took a walk down to the famous bridge itself.

After a time spent at the church and Puente la Reina, we re-boarded the wine shuttle for our first stop, a co-op called Bodegas San Martin. I'd tasted their Senorio de Unx label in previous Navarra wine tastings. Those bottles would be priced around $15 here in the U.S. Like Malon de Echaide, Bodegas San Martin also makes a lower end label, called Ilagres. Beyond the Senorio de Unx, at about $25-$30 is the Alma de Unx, a truly outstanding wine despite it's ugly label.

At Bodegas San Martin I discovered a couple of wines that I'm positive would be very successful here. The co-op started in 1914 and now consists of 175 growers making anywhere between three and five million liters of wine a year. The vineyards are all at elevations of 400-800 meters above sea level, in mountainous chalky and gravel based soils. Some areas with more clay based soils are planted too, though the vines there are younger. Currently, distributors in Phoenix and Connecticut bring in the wines, though that may change soon as more progressive distributors bring in wines from Navarra.

Here are some notable wines I tasted at Bodegas San Martin:

2010 Flor de Unx Vino de la Tierra: A rosado with a bit of carbonation and some residual sugar, I think this wine would crush it in American markets. It's 100% grenache and brimming with aromas of strawberry, raspberry and rose petal. It's got sweet red fruit across the palate, a hint of bubbles, and just a touch of acid to keep things in line. At $12-$14, it's a bit pricey compared to cheap Moscato de Asti or Lambrusco but the quality is so much higher than a lot of those wines that I feel this is a smart buy for those who like a little sweet and a little bubbly.

2005 Reserva de Unx: 100% tempranillo, aged 15 months in American and French oak. The nose is all smokey meat, spices, and dry soil. On the palate it's smooth with integrated tannin, red cherry, dust notes, cracked pepper and sun dried tomato. If you love tannic, full-bodied red wine, this would be right up your alley. My ideal pairing is a medium-rare steak fresh off the grill with a teaspoon of garlic butter on top. Put this tempranillo against a similarly priced Rioja example and the Reserva de Unx would shine for it's lack of heavy oak and more balanced character. The vines are around 25 years old and show a nice maturity in the fruit characteristics.

2006 Alma De Unx: 100% grenache, aged for nine months in Navarra oak. The nose is full of bright red fruit, mountain herbs, pepper, and a touch of oak. On the palate I picked up more of the herbal note with a streak of minerality racing along the palate. Further along, a complex mix of pepper, cherry, and very firm tannin enhanced the texture. If the bottle and label are changed I think this wine could be a commercial success here in the United States. It comes in around $30 a bottle and is the most expensive wine Bodegas San Martin makes. The price point illustrates something important about wine from Navarra, that you get extremely good quality wine without an exorbitant price tag. That theme repeated itself throughout my stay in the region.

From this co-op the #Navarra5 then went to the next winery, called Señorio de Otazu. We met Javier Banales and he proceeded to wow us with some incredible bottles of wine, equal to some of the best of ours here in the U.S. After that, we dined on a sumptuous lunch, one I chronicled in a separate blog entry because the food and wine pairing was just that good. I urge you to take a moment and read that other blog, that meal is a memory I will cherish for a long time. Incidentally, if you're looking for Otazu wines, check out New Age Imports.

Otazu is relatively new, restarted in it's current location in 1990. Today they produce around 350,000 bottles, on 115 hectares of land. The vineyards are unique, they are the northernmost in Spain and close to France, which plays a role in influencing the style Otazu makes. Javier told us that the winemaking philosophy stresses balance over extraction, and the committment to quality includes a program of controlling as many of the variables as possible. I liked the oak program at Otazu, where each barrel is used for about four years and each red wine vintage sees between 20% and 30% new French oak.

Here are some highlights from Señorio de Otazu:
2009 Otazu Chardonnay: An unoaked, Chablis-style chardonnay. No malolactic fermation takes place, leaving a nose bursting of green apple, Bartlett pear, and lemon zest. At 14% alcohol, there is some weight to the palate, but the malic acid does a great job of showcasing apple, pear, and wet river-stone minerality. The finish draws out in a very linear fashion, but that's a good thing. I would love this wine with Dungeness crab, grilled scallops, or any number of chicken dishes. For around $15, the quality is very hard to beat.
2006 Otazu Altar: A blend, 85% cabernet sauvignon and 15% tempranillo that pours inky purple in the glass. The nose is gorgeous, full of dried herb, leather, bittersweet chocolate, and black cherry. The Altar spends 18 months in French oak barrels, and the total production run is about 7,000 bottles. On the palate this is an elegant, full-bodied red. Loads of dark fruit, cedar, stunning minerality, and impeccable tannic structure create an outstanding bottle of wine. While at about $50+ it's not cheap, it's also a showcase for what the terroir of Navarra is capable of.
2005 Otazu Vitral: 700 bottles of this were made, a blend of 95% cabernet sauvignon and 5% tempranillo. Javier suggested that future vintages would not include any tempranillo at all, because the cabernet vines were finally producing the quality fruit that is needed to make this wine. The nose is full of licorice, dark earth, chocolate, ripe black cherry and blackberry, along with a whiff of smoked meat. This wine is one you could stand side by side with the best of the world and it would hold it's own. I judged this to be one of the top three wines of the entire trip. At $150+ it isn't cheap, nor should it be. Ideally a filet mignon would accompany the Vitral, with the rich meaty flavor of the steak balancing the firm tannin of the wine.

I fell asleep in the wine-shuttle as we returned to Pamplona, the combination of awesome food and incredible wine just did me in. I think each lunch we had in Navarra lasted between two and three hours, something we Americans are not used to. Upon our return to the hotel, the group was somewhat dismayed to find that we only had a few minutes to get ready for dinner. More food, if you can believe it, was built into the agenda. Our destination was a seafood restaurant called La Runa Sideria (The Rune Ciderhouse) that is also home to great casks of cider. Seafood and cider aren't what I immediately think of as a pairing but I was determined to try this out.

As we all sat around the table ordering plates of freshly caught fish, I went to a cask and drew off some of the Navarran cider. It was bone dry and had only the fainest hint of apple flavor, as well as being practically flat. While not everyone liked it, this seemed an important ritual for us and I happily partook. The #Navarra5 did of course drink wine, but I didn't have my notes with me so I cannot recall what they are. I'll end with some more shots of our delicious dinner, before we climbed back into some taxis and made our way "home".

Our fearless guide Michael Matilla of Argos Wine Consulting is seen drawing off some of the cider at La Runa. He loved this stuff! The picture was my attempt at an action shot, I feel my little Canon Powershot just wasn't up to the task..Or maybe it was me, after a long day.
Some kind of fish, freshly caught that morning, and now prepared into a delicious meal for us. Paired with a chardonnay, it was perfect. I'm glad we did seafood tonight because trying to consume more beef would have possibly been disastrous.
Another fish, also of unknown provenance, but also quite delicious. Often the "fresh fish" we get here is multiple days old, but not the fish at La Runa, or so we were told.

Each day kept getting better with new wineries and experiences. Seeing ancient bridges and churches reminded me of how old this land is. Tomorrow, day four, the group is going to another winery and an excavated ancient Roman winery. That got me thinking; people have been making wine in Navarra for two thousand years, isn't it about time we here in the United States caught on? If this area wasn't suited for wine production and didn't know how to make good wines, they'd have stopped by now.

Beau Carufel