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Archive for the ‘Wine Picks’ Category

I have a friend who looks for the organic label every time he shops—not just for produce, but for all consumables. He lives in Portland, for the love of tiny houses and mushroom foraging—of course he buys organic! But when it comes to wine and this same friend sees the word organic anywhere on the bottle, he firmly takes a pass. “I find that whenever a wine person in the store or restaurant adds to their suggestion that it’s organic, I immediately think, ‘I don’t want it,’” he recently told me. “Organic is important to me in every food product I eat. If it’s available organic, I assume it will be better. But with wine, I assume it will be worse. It’s like a criteria I don’t want applied to wine for some reason. Like it screws it up. Am I alone?”

He is not. Quite a few wine experts complain that certified organic wine can veer a little to closely toward, well . . . vinegar. The problem seems to be this: producers of wine made from organically grown grapes can’t actually label their wine organic unless they bypass the use of sulfur dioxide in their production process. The omission of SO2 makes preventing spoilage a tricky business, and it sometimes necessitates storing the wine in a stainless-steel tank without letting it breathe. As a result, wine made this way either has a high potential of spoiling (vinegar) and getting a bacterial infection that could lead to odors of sauerkraut or paint thinner or the stainless steel storage process that prevents spoilage keeps the wine “closed” and lacking in depth.

For this reason, truly organic wines are quite distinct from wine made from certified organically grown grapes but not labeled organic. The latter simply means that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides were used in the vineyard. More and more wines fall into this category these days, thanks to a mix of market demand and eco-consious vineyard management. Health concerns are much less of a factor, since the fermentation process seems to do away with any chemical residue in a wine that would otherwise result from the use of pesticides in the vineyard. And while the omission of SO2 makes organic wine the healthier choice for those allergic to SO2, for the rest of us the difference is negligible.

With all that said, here are a few quick and dirty tips for drinking organic:

Understand the difference. There’s wine that’s 1) made from organically grown grapes and organically produced,  2) just made from organically grown grapes, and 3) neither. If the environment is the big factor in your purchasing decision, there’s really no difference between No. 1 and No. 2. If the deciding factor is your health, all three are fair game.

Be prepared to pay more. Just as organically grown produce costs more, so does wine produced from organically grown grapes. Blame the added labor involved, and the cost of certification.

And, if you do go for full-fledged organic . . . 

Consider going directly to the source. Since organic wines can be more vulnerable to spoilage during bottling and shipping, the optimal way to experience these wines would be straight from the barrel. If you live near a wine region, look for opportunities to barrel-taste or bottle your own.

Choose typically robust and higher-alcohol varietals over lighter, more delicate wines. Big reds like Zinfandel are likely to fare better without the SO2 than something like Sauvignon Blanc.

Drink it soon. The omission of SO2 does not set the stage for graceful aging. The best strategy is to pick a wine that typically does age well (again, think big reds like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) and consume it soon after purchase.

 

The options for drinking wine made from organically grown grapes are plentiful—and if you’re still a skeptic, one great place to start would be Robert Sinskey Vineyards. Sinskey winemaker Jeff Virnig started down the path of organic farming back in the early 1990s, moving to enhance vineyard fertility through composting, green manuring, and cover cropping. By 2001, all of Sinskey’s vineyards were certified organic.

Sinskey is probably best known for its much-loved Carneros Pinot Noirs, but this rosé is my personal favorite. I’ve also heard good things about this Pey Marin dry Riesling, made from organic grapes grown here in coastal Marin County, and friends rave about this Alexander Valley winery, whose vineyards are also 100 percent organic. For the PDX dwellers among you, consider following the musings of my favorite Portland wine correspondent, who often covers organic and sustainable viticulture practices.

 

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As I sit down to write this post, the pressure’s on to make it a good one—given that it comes after a month-long blogging hiatus and will be one of my last, at least for a while…. Luckily I’ve got some good material to work with: notes on over a dozen Chardonnays, which we uncorked and tasted blind over the weekend.

Peter did a preliminary tasting of all the wines, proclaiming 10 to be worth a second pass. The thing that I found most notable about our results was that we both picked the same wine as our favorite. And, in a sea of Chards ranging in price from $13 to $48, it was the least expensive.

The winner: the 2009 L de Lyeth Sonoma County Chardonnay (the Sonoma County designation just means that the wine was made from grapes grown in different areas of the county, rather than just the Russian River Valley, say, or just the Sonoma Coast). It was more vegetal than fruity on the nose, with notes of straw and caramel. This unusual wine was delicately prickly on the palate and had a long and pleasant finish.

Runner-ups in the 2009 vintage included Kendall-Jackson’s Avant California Chardonnay ($14, medium-bodied and smooth, with a nice aroma of tropical fruit) and Clos du Bois’ Russian River Chardonnay ($18, lemon on the nose, lots more citrus on the palate, and great balance). In the 2008 vintage we liked Kendall-Jackson’s Grand Reserve Monterey/Santa Barbara Chardonnay ($20, a figgy aroma and notable residual sugar), Cambria Estate Winery’s Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay ($22, nicely balanced, with a bouquet of straw and a rough-silk mouthfeel); Mantanzas Creek’s Sonoma Chardonnay ($29, banana on the nose, light and smooth); and Waterstone’s Carneros Chardonnay ($18, grapefruit aroma, light and creamy).

Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve has moved on to the 2009 vintage, but given its impressive 2008 showing, the new vintage is well worth a try. And if you do try it, consider drinking a toast to Jess Jackson, the California wine industry giant who passed away on April 21st.

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Believing in the mystical significance of the number 47 was practically a graduation requirement at the college I attended. So when I brought a bottle of 2008 47 Friends Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($18) to share with some college friends on a recent Saturday night, I was pretty sure the label alone would favorably predispose them to the wine.

Yet another college friend had tipped me off to the 47 Friends label—she had seen them on Facebook and knew instantly that there had to be a connection. Sure enough, 47 Friends is the “little sister” winery—read less-expensive wines and a Millennial-friendly Web presence—to Ancient Oak Cellars, a Santa Rosa winery owned by Pomona grads Melissa and Ken Moholt-Siebert.

But back to Saturday. We all enjoyed the 2008 Pinot; not terribly Pinot-y and the aroma was somewhat muted, but it had nice red fruit on the palate and made for extremely smooth drinking. And Peter—who never says this—said it seemed worth the price.

Still, our favorite 47 Friends so far are the blends — simple red and white table wines that sell for $10 a piece. On Tuesday we opened the red, which Peter guessed was bulk Merlot. It’s actually a Cabernet Sauvignon blend with some Zinfandel and Syrah in the mix—all of which make for a ripe wine brimming with blackberry and other dark fruits.

Remember that I spent four years of writing a column about $10-and-under wines, and based on that experience, cheap California reds make me nervous. That’s why this one was such a pleasant surprise: mellow, moderate alcohol content (13.8 percent), and versatile enough to pair with a wide variety of foods.

Thursday we opened the white blend, and Peter was redeemed when he immediately pegged it as Sauvignon Blanc (it’s got a bit of un-oaked Chardonnay as well). It had a strong, really nice aroma of melon and freshly cut grass, and it was light, tingly, and delicate on the palate.

Pairs perfectly with an early spring heat wave.

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Spring finally seemed to have sprung today, but after enduring the wettest winter ever, I’m not counting my chickens. So while I did put a bottle of red in the fridge (gasp!) late this afternoon, around the time that our house began to sweat, I’m still not quite ready to start drinking white.

The solution? What this between-seasons moment calls for is really a lovely “medium red”—a Pinot, maybe a red blend or Merlot—anything that satisfies without feeling too much like a warm blanket. Here’s a roundup of some we’ve recently enjoyed, listed from north to south, inland to coastal, U.S. to Italy. Salute!

2007 Waterstone Napa Valley Merlot, $18. The pungent berry bouquet and tannic mouthfeel of this Merlot screamed Napa to me—in a good way. We also liked its not-very-Napa price tag.

2009 La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, $24. Lots going on in this offering from the land of lusted-after Pinots: an aroma of dense dark fruit, sweet smoke and spice, and a bit of cedar. It tasted of black cherry, with gamey notes and a little Chinese spice.

2009 La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir, $24. We wondered briefly if La Crema’s winemaker felt that these two 2009 Pinots were rushed to market a bit early. . . . Great potential was the dominant takeaway with this one, but we liked its dark fruit aroma, rough-silk mouthfeel, and pleasant finish. Not particularly Pinot-y.

2007 Intelligent Design Central Coast Cuvee, $38. I got lots of earth and oak on the nose of this Rhône-grape blend from Wesley Ashley Wines—and must admit that I missed some of what captivated Thomas of The Blog Wine Cellar last summer. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed his review and agree that it’s a wine worth trying. Velvety on the palate, with a long strong finish

2007 Lucente Tuscan Red Blend, $30. This simple blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cab earned its Super Tuscan stripes with a jammy aroma, smooth mouthfeel, and very nice, long finish. Our favorite wine merchant calls it “nicely made”—and he doesn’t dish out the compliments easily.

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Last Saturday we enjoyed a lovely Rhône red at Le Garage in Sausalito. A crowd pleaser for sure, but selecting the 2007 Vacqueyras Clefs des Murailles Rhône was no easy task—what with 10 of us around the table, ordering entrées that ranged from lamb daube and rainbow trout to New York strip steak and mushroom risotto.

Peter did the picking; here are the key points he kept in mind as he perused Le Garage’s extensive wine list.

Price. Bottles on the list ranged from $24 to $155, so at $42, the Clefs des Murailles was a relative bargain. One of our favorite wine merchants is selling it for $17.99.

Versatile varietal. Pinot Noir is a popular group dinner choice, but a southern Rhône red often does the job just as well: medium-bodied, full of fruit, not-too-high alcohol, easy to drink. The dominant grapes in southern Rhône red blends are usually Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. The rules governing the Vacqueyras appellation (see next tip) dictate that at least half the grapes in this region’s red wine are Grenache.

Controlled appellation. Many countries, including the U.S., Italy, Portugal, and Spain, have a labeling system based on France’s appellation contrôlée. France’s system, however, is by far the most, well, controlling. A governing body in Paris dictates everything about a particular region’s oenological output, from percentage of grape varieties used to exact winemaking techniques.

Critics charge that these constraints limit creativity and innovation in winemaking, but they do help take the guesswork out of picking a wine from a list of unfamiliars. If you know and trust wines from a French region listed, you can usually consider them a safe bet. The same holds true for Spanish and Portuguese wines, while Italy’s DOC system has not been perceived as a good indicator of quality. And there isn’t even a pretense that our own, distinctly American AVA system has anything to do with quality—it’s mainly concerned with truth in advertising regarding where the grapes in a particular wine are grown.

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A bad cold kept me from attending last Saturday’s 20th annual Zinfandel Festival Grand Tasting, presented by ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers) in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. Luckily my overqualified envoy was happy to taste some 50 California Zins, and he’s provided this list of six that stood out:

2007 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Rockpile Zinfandel, $33

2007 Guglielmo Private Reserve Estate Santa Clara Valley Zinfandel, $22

2008 Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, $38

2008 MoniClaire Estate Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, $23.99

2008 Ravenswood Barricia Vineyard Sonoma Valley Zinfandel, $35 

2007 Scott Harvey Vineyard 1869 Amador County Zinfandel, $45 

If you’d like to try one of these wines but aren’t sure which to choose, here’s a cheat sheet—borrowed from my 2009 article on California Zinfandel—on Zins in three of the regions represented above:

Amador County
Old vines are especially abundant in the Fiddletown AVA of Amador County—an area hotter than its surrounding regions [in the Sierra Foothills], where Zinfandel accounts for three-quarters of all grapes grown. … Sierra Foothills Zinfandels may occasionally get a bad rap for a lack of finesse—blame the high alcohol that results from the region’s blazing heat. But the best examples can actually boast deep, intoxicating aromas, clean flavors, and plenty of fruit on the palate.

Dry Creek Valley
It’s generally thought that the wines made from Zinfandel grown above the fog line in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley are the best examples of the varietal you can find—in California if not in the world. In an irony that speaks to Zinfandel’s status as a truly “populist” grape, much of that Dry Creek Zinfandel acreage was originally planted with the intent to cultivate it as bulk wine. Hot days, cool nights, and fine craftsmanship have all allowed the wine those grapes produced to escape that humble fate. … Spicy, berry-filled Zin…

Rockpile
The Rockpile AVA adjacent to Dry Creek is also making a name for itself with interesting Zins that are lush and intense.

My article didn’t mention Zinfandels from the Sonoma or Santa Clara Valleys specifically, but you can read more about the Gundlachs, Bundschus, and Guglielmos—and their families’ long histories with California winemaking—here and here.

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A couple of weeks ago I brought a bottle of 2008 Gramercy Cellars Columbia Valley Tempranillo to a book club meeting. I’d been curious to try the wines of this Washington state–based outfit dubbed Best New Winery, 2010, by Food and Wine magazine, and while we all liked the Tempranillo quite a bit, our comments about it were less interesting than our various opinions on how best to smell it.

Elizabeth had just been to an informational wine and cheese tasting where she’d been advised to do big swirls with her hand sealing the top of the glass and then sniff. Heather, on the other hand, brought up a notion many wine experts agree with: that little sniffs (like a dog) are better than one big snort for really getting the full bouquet.

In the week that followed that meeting, I tried out these dueling techniques on both another Gramercy wine, the 2008 Walla Walla Syrah, and on a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend from Napa’s Melka Wines. And I discovered that little sniffs just don’t work a bit for me—I think it’s a personal thing, everybody’s different—but I did get different aromas when I sniffed a swirled-while-covered glass of the Syrah (tar!) versus an uncovered one (lots of blackberry). This technique paid off most with the Melka, however. I loved this wine in large part because of a deeply floral bouquet that my hand-covered swirl seem to release—but that made little sense, since Cabs have a distinctive aroma that’s rarely if ever floral. I was validated when Peter, who is the olfactory equivalent of a supertaster, tried the wine and gushed about it—adding, ‘Can you believe how floral it is??’

The nose knows…

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