Sunday, July 6, 2014

TASTINGS: Summer Values Found

Lazy, hazy, crazy daze envelops summer. These are long days, when it seems hard to get going early and surprisingly difficult to say a warm 'good nite'. In between we dine al fresco more often, have lighter meals and seem to make more plans to enjoy the out of doors.  This then was a prefect time to join our tasting group recently as we sat down and explored great international wine values for our warmer weather.

Kono, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2013; widely available(ours via Trader Joe's) offers a bright Kiwi style with screwcap, and it's all there: hints of lemon grass, gooseberry, wet grass, a whisper of stone fruit, lime peel and tart, bracing acidity. It lingers on the palate, offering a wet but tart and refreshing finish. Bring on the cerviche'.

Domaine du Dragon, Côtes de Provence Rose', 2013; an offering of all the usual Mediterranean suspects: Cinsault, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache grapes. Here is a delicious, light, pale salmon hue offering a nose of white strawberry, white cherry, rosewater notes, the brightness with good acidity and a little tannin crosses the palate to grab the upper lip, but leaves you thirsty for more. Here there are lingering flavors of white strawberries, Rainer cherries and rosehip that refreshes while offering a good pairing for many of our picnic items.
Commanderie de la Bargemone, Coteaux D'Aix En Provence Rose' 2013; a similar mix of sourced fruit, but one whiff and it becomes a rose' of distinction with its fresh nose of perfumed summer fruits and wet flowers. Its pale salmon hue is a clue to delicious white cherry and floral notes that are round in the mouth and linger for what seems to be an extraordinary amount of time to savor this fine summer wine.

Spainish Monastrell(Mourvedre)
 Yaso, Toro, Castilla y Leon, 2012, Tempranillo offers an opaque plue hue, and a nose of generous black fruits, licorice and pepper spice. On the palate there's notes of boysenberry, black plum, prune, tea, cola and earth spice. Complex enough to be very interesting and quite pleasant with its moderate length on the palate.  Pair this luscious import with some grillin' to do some chillin' with this found Spanish selection.

All of these selections are widely distributed and will set you back less than one(1) Jack$on. In fact, they are in the sub-15 range, and that makes them an easy addition to a lazy picnic blanket or a sizzlin' barbeque table. Summer seems to take things less seriously, as we sit back sippin' and listen' to our favorite baseball painting vocal pictures in the background.  We gather with friends and family to savor and to share.  Along the way, we have a great opportunity to delight in the find of summer values found.


ps. If you would like to see more of our seasonal wine reviews please send a comment.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ITALY; Springs Eternal

Spring to the Market
Self-indulgent to a point, one of the important things about wine is the opportunity to be self-exploratory in the physical sensations and unique properties that a fine glass offers us. On a recent food & wine tour of northern and central Italy, continual reminders of the delightfully integral relationship between these joys of life were presented to us on a daily basis.  The fruitful bounty of this sun blessed landscape, the rich woodlands, and the generous sea produced marvels making each day a special occasion; a delicious reminder of what springs eternal.

A crisp Arneis and a grapey Barbera from Alba; Lombardy's delightful Franciacorta Rose' from producer, Cola; tart, food-friendly Dolchetto from Dogliani; a thick skinned Grechetto from Umbria's Torgiano DOC; and bright Verdicchio from Jesi of the region le Marche were all wonderful palate discoveries that enhanced each of the meals that accompanied them.  Regional wine tastings with agricultural entrepreneur Lungaroti of Umbria and then Poliziano of Montepulciano with its award winning, mouth-watering Rosso di Montepulciano (2012) only confirmed the joie de vivre that beautiful springtime Italy can offer. Regional wine events such as Asti's, Vinissage, a wine showcase of organic, bio-dynamic and natural products afford springtime visitors here a unique occasion to taste a broad range of emerging Italian wines in a single public location. Should you care to explore the surroundings by foot or auto, there's the serendipitous scattering of outdoor/indoor individual producer tastings during the fun annual weekend event known as WineStreet with numerous locations around the Piemonte area.

It is the delicious regional food, too, as much as anything that reflects so positively on springtime in these rich, undulating hills. Here products from the woodlands: pig and fungal(mushroom & truffel) populations are introduced in countless ways to enhance many types of dishes. Year round produce of fertile valleys festively decorate rural farmstands and the many colorful city markets. Fresh, unpasteurized dairy products, yogurts and fresh cheeses enhance the farm to table movement that seems always to be alive in Italy. Ultimately, there are marvelous plating's of delicate pastas with truffel, funghi, panceta, sausage or wild boar, a baseline to crescendo of second courses displaying the freshest sea foods, poultry and savory woodland rabbit(and my favorite, veal).
Whimsical New Age slow food plating with foam essence: Il Postale
Here in these diverse regions there is found the evolution of traditional Italian cooking as well as the advance guard of the new age gourmands, like Marco Bistarelli of Il Postale outside Perugia. There are the high standards regulated upon traditional regional winemaking, as well as the consistency of excellence created in the sustainable winegrowing of Verona's Aldrighetti family. In our recent tasting, their Adlrighetti Lorenzo e CristoForo Valpolicella offered bright, fresh aromas of dried red fruits that carried a food-friendly song throughout the generous and lengthy finish.

Vinissage exhibitors offer broad quality selections
Each day of our tour of these regions, Piemonte to Umbria to le Marche, offered the rich excitement not only of new regional discoveries, but also of seeing familiar things anew.  Wines here are an essential part of the balanced meal, and we rarely found ourselves spending any more than 13 Euro for a quaff-able bottle, even in a restaurant.  Sunshine filled these many days of discovery, and around every corner we delighted in what Italy today offers the food and wine visitor.  Here, the celebration of the land and of its life springs eternal.

Grazie mille, and salute!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

WINE STUDY: Sangiovese, Please!

Lazio's Tarquina_Tomb of the Leopard fresco
It's the 'Blood of Jove', and has been around so long that it has developed in its native land numerous successful clones(14).  Having long history in this land of wine, you might expect that its development is shrouded in some mystery, having evolved from varieties Calabrese Montenuovo, an ancient parent, and Ciliegiolo(disputed) which is rooted to Italian as 'cherry'.  Throughout the centuries, it has traveled from its home, with only a very few pronounced successes.  This thick skinned, high tannin red grape of robust natural acid, also tends to be quite finicky in its flourishing vineyard site selections.  And yet, when comparing the localities where it does do well, it offers a unique sense of place, of terrior. In Tuscany it has found a home, and Sangiovese is its name.

Tuscany alone has 33 DOC's, 9 DOCG's, defined and regulated production areas, and most of them dedicated for zones of Sangiovese production.  Little grown outside Italy, this iconic varietal only represents about 10% of all plantings within its native Italy. Although the grape is recommended in as many as 53 provinces, Sangiovese has been identified in 259 DOC's across Italy, but it is in Tuscany where it shines brightest. That being said, the varietal over its long history has produced relatively few notable wines, squandered its place on the wine globe with straw-wrapped (fiascos)bottles, damaging its pedigree perception. and in the past seemed only to draw attention to itself via scandal. Reform was instituted in new national regulations 1963, and overhauled in 1992 to comply with the expanding EU requirements.

Even within Tuscany there are style and regulatory variations. Fruit forward to rustic in style, Tuscan Sangiovese can be lighter if blended with permitted a sub-zones white grapes(Malvasia and Trebbiano), or hearty if blended with domineering Cabernet Sauvignon. It can be oak driven if a Chianti Superiore, which has a minimum aging of 9 months with a minimum alcohol of 12%, or have a fruit-driven style if labeled simply Chianti, which has minimums of 3 month aging and 11.5% alcohol. It can be confusing, but such distinctions offer a broad compositional canvas for regional Sangiovese.

Regulations differ region to region, consortium to consortium, perhaps because of the historical power of the unified growers & producers.  As an example, Chianti Classico, the original administrative dictated zone, requires minimum 80% Sangiovese, and blending varieties are restricted(prohibits white varieties). Historically blended with Colorino or Mammolo, some contemporary producers have blended non-native, international varieties, such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, creating blends outside what was allowed, and thereby creating the IGT's of 'Super Tuscan' fame.

In the south of the region, Vino Nobile Montepulciano DOCG is made with the Prugnolo Gentile clone; a wine which is minimum 70% Sangiovese, with components of Canaiolo Nero and Mammolo.  South of Sienna, Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, is restrictively vinted from the Sangiovese Grosso clone, and has longer minimum aging requirements than any other Sangiovese production zone. Reflected by growing price points & awards, within the last generation or two, the blood of Jove, has had a regional quality revolution, spawning many estates crowning achievement after a successful vintage.  A congestion of vowels, the names of great producers lumber across the palate; Marchesi Antinori, Castello di Fonterutoli, and Fattoria di Felsina. And, there are more and more traditionalists finding their way to advancing quality and consistency every day.

Soon I will embark on a personal discovery of the regional and sub-regional terrior driven Sangiovese clones of central Italy.  Our exploration will take us from the land of Nebbiolo to the ancestral land of Verdicchio, traversing Tuscany and Umbria on the way. Future posts will provide personal insights from this newly certified Wine Educator into our immersed  wine study where we will commonly have the opportunity to say, "Sangiovese, please"!
Salute! And thanks for coming along to raise a glass or two!!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

BRAMBLES: Small in a BIG Way

No, it is not what you may be thinking!  This is not about Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and intoxication.  In Greek mythology he was named Dionysus, the last god admitted into Mt. Olympus, as he was the god of merriment, the grape harvest and ecstasy.  As an important figure in historically important cultures, this god represents what some may propose as one of the important traits of being human.  Years ago, 2005 to be precise, I started a long journey to reach a much coveted goal, becoming a Certified Wine Educator.  Throughout, Bacchus was there as a reminder of what patience, dedication, and the intoxication of success can bring.  I realize that this was a single humanist dream, a small thing really, that impacted me over the many purposeful years in a very big way.
PIGEAGE: punching down the cap of fruit solids
Domestic wine production, too, is about small things that have big impact.  The trade publication, Wine & Vines recently noted that three-quarters of all U.S. wineries sell less than 5,000 cases per year. Even as the volume of the industry is dominated by a handful of multi-brand behemoths, it is the small producers that continue to offer so much passion and dedication into everything that they tastefully do. Dedicated to preserving the broad diversity of such California wines, Family Winemakers of California, founded in 1991, supports over 550 members, 90% of whom produce less than 10,000 cases annually! Thousands of industry and wine loving participants gather each year to enjoy the merriment of this dedicated craft during their wonderful tasting events; the next FWC celebration will be August in San Mateo to launch yet another years' grape harvest.

On a more intimate and local level, tasting venues like the wonderful Family Wineries Cooperative of Dry Creek Valley, or hip & sip LOCALS of Geyserville( with 9 local brands ) offer concept destinations that showcase the high quality wines produced by some of the North Coast's best small producers. Wine producers who go it alone try to create destinations where they can build those important relationships with commonly ecstatic consumers. Grower-producer and negociant wines can be made on their modest production sites or at a community cellar: think custom crush. While exploring Sonoma County, some of our favorites are the consistent quality of Christopher Creek, the passion of John at Viszlay Vineyards and the enthusiastic craziness tastily found at Mercury Wine in Geyserville.
What can these small producers do to have an impact in the internationally crowded domestic wine marketplace? Industry experts typically recommend advertising in regional publications and localized direct mail strategies, combined with internet advertising for a broad based marketing plan.  But, not everyone of these small guys has the necessary financial ability to mount such a sustained effort. A tasting room and direct to consumer(DTC) retailing are generally reliable and profitable, and need to be combined with those ever present wine clubs to generate the significant cash flow on which so much depends.  Ultimately, direct relationships with your 'brand ambassadors' are vital, reflected by numbers that indicate industry DTC sales increased Feb '13 to Feb'14 by 7% to a record value of more than $1,598 million(Wines&Vines).

For consumers there is an ocean of wine across price-points in the domestic marketplace, and naturally, small producers look for creative ways to get their products into the mouths of a thirsty public. In recent years there has been terrific growth in 'flash marketing' retail web sites. The sustained shake out has left a handful of players, notably: Wine Woot, Wines Til Sold Out, Last Call Wines, InVino, Cinderalla Wines & Lot 18, to compete in getting discounted wines directly to a growing consumer base. Having improved selections, streamlined direct shipping and discounts ranging from 21-53%, these virtual retailers are giving the small producer another important vehicle to get their wines in the hands of consumers.
For me, this journal has always been about my journey, the musings of an aspiring Wine Educator.  Writing gave me an opportunity to creatively display all the world wine details I was consuming, and a chance to explore below the pedestrian surface of global viticulture and the wine industry. Recently, the Society advised that I had passed all segments of the testing requirements, and awarded me a CWE lapel pin and a long sought after certificate.  It felt like the end of a quest, the Holy Grail as it were. But, I have only now come to realize that it is the beginning of a professional commitment to continue to explore & share the fascinating world of wine.  My reflections will continue to post here, but with a renewed purpose to uncover quality, value and the truth that is wine.

In support of the next wine chapter, I have launched a professional consultancy, Your Wine Guy, and support it with a web site:  Ultimately, we have closed a foundation chapter, and moved further into the wonder that is a world of wine.  A small step really, but it is expected to effect me in a big way. Maybe it really is about Bacchus, for the gods are a happy crew!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

ITALY: Foothills of the Alps

Monferrato Barbera vineyards
Everyday, it is the mystery of wine that has always drawn me in.  A planned Spring holiday touring Italy has me drawn into the wines of the northern region of Piemonte, that highway of Hannibal and the realm of the regal House of Savoy.  It would be hard to deny that this was a proud and strategic landscape, surrounded by mountains on three sides that give birth to the fertile Po Valley. It declares itself nobly, Piemonte, sitting at the foothills of the mountains(Alps).  Notably, the large region is ancestral home to one of the world's great vitis vinifera varieties, Nebbiolo.  This journal, however, reviewed that ethereal grape back in 2011, so I decided to explore the region's widely popular indigenous everyday varieties, dark-skinned Dolchetto and Barbera.

Piemonte is home to more defined and regulated growing regions, called DOC's, than any other Italian region(more than 40).  The classification system of Denominazione di Origine Controllata was introduced in 1963, and in theory identifies wines at a higher quality designations to conform with the French AOC laws, which subsequently were adopted by the EU.  Further sub-classifications of Classico, Superiore and Riserva present more stringent qualifications for viticulture and production. At the top of the rankings sit the limited wines designated as of  'Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin' or DOCG, from specific designated areas and having not only passed strict analyses, but also tasting requirements.
Vineyards of Langhe hills

Due to the fact that tannic Nebbiolo wines traditionally take so long to be drinkable, it is said that widely planted Barbera, with over 50,000 acres planted and Dolcetto(little sweet one) are the everyday wines. Juicy, savory Barbera(Roberto Ferraris, Ettore Germano, Vietti are favorite producers) with its opaque skins, offers a grape that is high in acid strength, with remarkably low concentrations of bitter tannin.  As a vinified product it can give the ripe impression of being tart, yet fruit forward; waves of dried red and black fruits with herbaceous notes. Ever evolving Barbera, where typically large Slovenian oak or chestnut barrels were used limitedly, produced friendly wines with oak nuance not a big part of it's ripe, approachable personality. Today, quality producers who integrate smaller, new oak barrels in longer production schedules are offering structured wines of stronger oak flavors and firmer tannin, producing an everyday wine that is actually capable of aging.

Grown in the broad swath of rolling hills of Asti and Alessandria provinces, tart Barbera d'Asti DOCG dominates here in soils of clay, silt, sand and limestone.  From its ancestral origins, Barbera del Monferrato DOC is today grown in a broad zone covering over 200 nearby communes. When upgraded with even more restrictive production requirements, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore DOCG, represents some of the best examples of this regions most popular varietal. Heading southwest, even fuller bodied (+value priced) Barbera d'Alba DOC grows along the warmer south-facing hillsides that are inching closer to prestigious Barolo.
Barbera at harvest

Early ripening, Dolcetto has been described as 'grapey' or fruit-forward, thus questioning its aging potential. Curiously, this fruity, low-acid varietal is naturally high in tannin, leaving an impression of bitter cherry in the mouth.  The easily grown varietal has found its place in less prestigious vineyard locations here, grown in soils of calcareous clay and limestone. Combined with its slightly lower minimum alcohol and aging DOC requirements, this varietal historically too has seen little or no oak.  Fortunately, contemporary producers are beginning to experiment to the betterment of this much loved native varietal. In southern Cuneo province, Dogliani DOCG(Luigi Einaudi, a consistent quality producer) with its calcareous or siliceous clay soils has long been thought to be the varietals ancestral home. Here it can evolve, with a longer minimum 12 month aging requirement and higher minimum alcohol levels to attain Superiore status.

In Dolcetto d'Alba DOC(Mirafiore, Giuseppe Cortese, Francesco Rinaldi) food-friendly bitter cherry values can consistently be found for under $25. Typically, these are easy drinking wines produced from 100% Dolcetto.  Throughout the region, wines of higher minimum alcohol would be qualified for Superiore status, an increasing evidence of the producers challenge to master the little sweet one. Grown in the clay, tufa and limestone soils of Alessandria province to the east, Dolcetto di Ovada wines must be of Superiore status to qualify for its DOCG status. Beyond, sitting on the hills between these preferred Dolcetto zones is Diano d'Alba DOCG, consistently producing some of the varietals best examples.
Vineyard dominated Piemonte hills

Under the broad Langhe DOC appellation that covers Cuneo province, the DOC's roll off of the tongue with names like Canavese, Gabiano, and Valsusa. These high standard everyday wines contribute to the Piemonte volume, giving it today more quality wines than any other Italian region.  Natives have often known these and many other everyday values above the simple Vino di  Tavola designation in the cafes and osterias of Piedmont.  The food-friendly regional wines of Dolcetto and Barbera can here enhance the sweet life, the dolce vita, as patrons sit to converse and watch the late hours of the day pass. Even as their mystery unfolds in each glass, perhaps the greatest mystery is why so many American wine lovers have yet to discover them!


P.S. Society of Wine Educators results for our submitted Presentation Skills Demonstration have not yet been released, but are anticipated shortly.  Hopefully, we'll soon have another reason to celebrate la dolce vita!