Friday, October 30, 2009

Disappointment in a can

We could not be more excited about wine in cans. Putting wine in cans is great for convenience, for the environment, and for quality. We've talked about wine in cans before, but to briefly re-cap, cans come in more appropriate sizes, and are lighter and easier to carry than glass bottles. They do not require a cork screw, and there is no cork to possibly affect the wine's taste. And they are easy to smuggle into movie theaters.

Consumers tend to view new packaging types with suspicion, assuming that only inferior wine would be placed in a bag-in-box, TetraPak, or can. It is important to prove such customers wrong by having very good wine in these new packages. If a skeptical consumer musters up the courage to try a canned wine, and the product disappoints, they are unlikely to try wine in a can again.

When we learned of  Barokes' Australian wines in cans, we eagerly requested samples. We received four wines: a Chardonnay, a Shiraz, and  two sparklers. Unfortunately, we did not like any of the wines. Both whites, the Chardonnay and the blanc de blanc sparkler, tasted flat and oxidized. The Shiraz was simple and sweet, and the residual sugar in the wine grew so cloying that we were unable to finish the 250-mL can. The red sparkler, mysteriously called blanc de noirs, was particularly disappointing because we have very much enjoyed sparkling Shiraz in the past. This wine (a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot) had good bubbles and ample tannin but lacked the fruit to match.

We hope Barokes reconsiders their strategy and improves the quality of the wines in their lineup. Meanwhile, keep a lookout for Wild Pelican canned wines, and please let us know if you see or hear of any others.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Beverage Testing Institute Top 100 Values

The Beverage Testing Institute has issued a decree listing the top 100 values in wine. Well, we wish they had. Instead they posted a link with further links to values in each of several categories, presumably adding up to 100 wines.

We have certainly disagreed with the BTI in the past, but this is nevertheless a good resource for anyone looking for recommendations for inexpensive wines. We appreciate that they note producers that use organic grapes or practice sustainable methods.

Are you familiar with any of the wines on the BTI list(s)? Do you agree with their assessments? Your comments are welcome as always.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Catching up--3 winners

Harvest continues despite early rains. We have had a few days without grapes, but dealing with all the young wines in tanks has kept us as busy as ever. And more grapes are on the horizon.

But we never forget our duty to you, our dear readers, and we have three wines to recommend. No prizes for guessing that two of them are from Chile.

First off is the non-Chilean. We wrote about the 2005 Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley Merlot Bench Vineyards earlier. We loved this wine even if we were somewhat surprised. Dry Creek Valley is one of our favorite wine-growing regions, but we associate it with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Rhone varieties more than with Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot. But we loved this wine both for being a great Merlot and a great Dry Creek Valley wine. We really thought it embodied the spiciness, black olive and almost dusty character of our favorite Dry Creek wines. We recently tasted the 2006, thanks to Pedroncelli, and it is every bit as good as the 2005. We look forward to trying more of the Pedroncelli line-up.

Next up, a usual suspect, the 2007 Chono Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva, from Chile's Maipo Valley. We have enjoyed this wine before, but it was one of the many we scooped up on a recent visit to Santa Rosa's Bottle Barn. This wine is fabulous. It may not blow a $100 Napa Cabernet out of the water, but it is made in a different and very delicious style. And as producers of such expensive wines, we have some serious questions for the winemakers about how they were able to make this wine so tasty and so inexpensive. We hope they visit the US soon and that we can garner an audience. The wine retails for $12, but we picked it up at Bottle Barn for $9 (and it was the most expensive wine we bought there). It is a steal at either price.

Finally, the Cucao Pedro Ximenez, from Chile's Elqui Valley. Yowza! Okay, this blew us away, but it may be something of a Jaded Palate selection. In other words, if you are looking to taste a white beyond Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc., this is the wine for you. Pedro Ximenez is best known (and perhaps only known) for producing the black, syrupy-sweet wines from Sherry that have probably been sitting in a decanter at your grandparents' house for years. This wine is as far from that model as can be conceived. It is a crisp and dry, and refreshing on the palate. It is very aromatic--not so much as a Muscat but about as much as an intense Sauvignon Blanc without being so, ahem, assertive. A whole lot of fun for the $7 we paid at Bottle Barn (the wine retails for just over $9, and is still worth it).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chile has arrived

We have repeatedly touted the lineup of Chilean wines from North Berkeley Imports, and here we go again. These wines are delicious at any price, and most of them are under $10. This is a Wines for the People dream come true.

But it’s not only North Berkeley bringing in the good stuff from down south. We recently enjoyed a Cono Sur Viognier (2008, Colchagua Valley, Chile) that blew us away after setting us back a mere $6.99. The wine is a hallmark Viognier, exuding floral and honeysuckle aromas. It is a crisp, delicious quaffer that might be even a little too expressive, but you certainly know you are drinking Viognier. We look forward to trying the rest of the Cono Sur lineup and will share our thoughts with you.

Chile has been sending us good wine at very good prices for a long time, from producers such as Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, and Cousino-Macul (this latter has a remarkably different style). These wines offer good value and they have competed well in the marketplace. But this new wave of Chilean wines is much more exciting, bringing higher quality at prices so low they are hard to believe.

It is also hard to believe that anyone is still buying Napa Valley wines when these alternatives are available. Napa produces spectacular wines, but at prices that make them no bargains. Sauvignon Blanc is among the less expensive wines from Napa, and we love many of them, including Mason (about $15), Gamble Family ($28), Cliff Lede ($22) and Honig ($16). But none of these wines are better or more exciting than the Quintay Clava Sauvignon Blanc, for example, which retails for a mere $9.

Wines Til Sold Out just offered a Hartwell Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Stag’s Leap District at 70% off, which brought the price down from $136 to $43. We have not had that particular wine, but really? $136 is laughable and even $43 ridiculous given the quality of Chilean wines at less than one-quarter of the discounted price.

Napa may well have higher farming and labor costs than Chile, but for the most part the higher price of Napa wines simply reflects Napa’s cachet. The new wave of Chilean wines shows that Chile is just as deserving of the same cachet. And Napa? Speaking as producers of Napa wine, we as a group must find a way to deliver the quality we are famous for at much more reasonable prices.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Northern California 2009 Vintage and Harvest

The 2009 harvest is near enough to completion that we can give a preliminary report on the quality of the wines that will hit the shelves over the next few years.

The key factor for 2009 is the big rainstorm that hit California around October 13. Until then, the growing season had been nearly perfect, and much like 2002, with no sustained spells of unseasonable weather from April through September. As in 2008, we had a few days over 100F in mid-May. This year, that interfered with the set in many varieties, principally Cabernet Sauvignon, reducing yield, but otherwise had no impact. More on yield later.

Grapes brought in before the storm--and that is close to all of them--benefited from all that great weather and will provide winemakers with the quality they need to make great wines. The storm has passed now and the ground is beginning to dry out. Mountaintop vineyards that remain unpicked may be done for this year, as they got hammered by the rain. But most vineyards are likely to recover, and mildew pressure is low despite the humidity.

Chances are good, therefore, that wines made from the later-ripening Cabernet-family of grapes will be fine despite the storm, but we will have to wait to know for sure. In the meantime, you can look forward to delicious 2009 whites and non-Cabernet reds such as Pinot noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, and so many others.

Washington State
We are big fans of the wines from eastern Washington, so we were sad to learn that the area was hit by a hard frost on October 10. As with our storm, winemakers claim (and hope!) that the grapes still on the vine will not be affected, but we find it hard to believe. It is mostly Cabernet that is still out there. Yet another reason to try Washington Syrah!

Smoke Taint
Hundreds of wildfires raged across California in summer 2008. Where fires burned near vineyards, the fruit often took up compounds that led to unpleasant flavors in the wines. These flavors, referred to generally as "smoke taint," range from a pleasant smokiness that might have come from a toasted barrel to the not unpleasant but overpowering smell of a campfire, to the downright nasty smell of a stale ashtray. Not every wine was affected, and even wines made from different parcels of an affected vineyard could have very different levels of taint. Still, we advise readers to buy 2008 Pinot noir from Sonoma and Mendocino counties only after tasting the wines for themselves.

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Australian experience with wildfires and smoke taint indicates that vines may store the compounds for release into the grapes in the following season. That is, grapes could have smoke taint even though there were no fires nearby this year. Fortunately that did not happen. The Pinots from areas affected last year are free of smoke taint this year.

Yield and the Economy
We mentioned above that hot weather in May reduced yield in Cabernet Sauvignon. This seemed terrible at first, given that the 2008 Cabernet crop was also light (in 2008 due to late frosts). However, it may have been for the best. The economic meltdown has put many wineries out of business and made it difficult for other wineries to access cash. In what looks to be a great year for quality, many grapes are going unpicked for want of buyers. Napa Cabernet, which has averaged more than $4,500/ton for the last several years, is now offered for barely $1,000 with no takers. Very sad for the growers, and for consumers, who will face consecutive years of little Cabernet, albeit of high quality.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Another harvest update and a tasty Sangiovese

We have been picking and processing madly trying to beat the rains that began falling yesterday. This morning it is pouring, and the storm could spell the end of harvest even though many grapes remain unpicked.

Here's a short note on another tasty North Berkeley selection to tide you over.

We recommend the 2006 Villa Ritina Sangiovese di Toscana ($15.75) for its complexity. This wine never stops changing in the glass, and it is pleasantly different with each sip. It first came across as an ultra-modern, super-ripe wine with a sweet fruit streak resembling cassis or blackberry syrup. Gradually the Sangiovese character began to emerge, with hints of cherries and leather.

Happy sipping!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Palate Cleanser

As winemakers, we face a problem that you may not share: carryover effects when tasting a lot of wines. In blending trials this can be particularly acute, as the wines we try to choose among differ very slightly from one another. Tannins accumulate with each wine, making the actual tannin impact of the following wine that much harder to judge. Something to cleanse the palate that does not also affect it would be a huge boon for us.

And it might be for you, as well. This may be a bit of a stretch, but if you are planning a tasting of numerous wines, or if you want to be able to enjoy a Pinot Noir after having coconut creme pie, a good palate cleanser would be just the thing. And you might find it useful beyond wine, as well.

Winemakers do use palate cleansers, of course. Plain water is the most common. Sometimes a dilute solution of pectin is used (pectin can help sweep up tannins). Bland crackers are, alas, also common. Until recently, our favorite palate cleanser has been sparkling water. We love it, first of all, but we also believe that the carbonation helps purge tannins and other sensory-impacting compounds.

Photo by SanTásti
Recently we learned about SanTásti, a beverage formulated by winemakers to use as a palate cleanser. We requested and were graciously sent samples. We devised a fiendishly devilish series of tests for the drink, and we are now ready to report on Round 1.

We feasted on delicious homemade char siu bao (pork buns), not the most wine-friendly fare. We sipped a Barokes Chardonnay, IN A CAN! (But that's another story.) Notes will follow. We also had a Napa Cabernet.

We tried each wine to get a baseline, and we also tried the SanTásti, which tasted remarkably like sparkling water. It differs mostly in having a slightly more viscous mouthfeel. There is a tiny amount of sugar in SanTásti (a whole bottle has a mere 10 calories), but we did not detect any sweetness.

In our trial, we started with pork bun->SanTásti->Cabernet. The Cabernet tasted as it did before the meal, and was unaffected by the sweetness of the pork bun. Next we tried pork bun->SanTásti->Chardonnay, again finding the wine unaffected by the intense flavoring of the pork bun. We ended the trial with pork bun->Chardonnay (with no SanTásti in between) ->SanTásti->Cabernet->SanTásti->Chardonnay. No surprises though we did think the Cabernet tasted a little bit dilute after the SanTásti. We speculate that the viscosity had a mouth-coating effect that kept us from tasting the tannin in the wine. In other words, the SanTásti seemed to work too well.

We are intrigued by this product and we look forward to testing it further. We have every intention of using SanTásti in our professional capacities. Stay tuned for further reports and for our thoughts on the Barokes wines in cans.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Even more North Berkeley delights

Herewith thoughts on four more offerings available through North Berkeley Wines/North Berkeley Imports. We absolutely loved two of the wines. We cannot say we loved the other two, but we were very happy to try the wines. These are all honestly--sincerely, even--made wines of distinctive character not necessarily intended to appeal to everyone. But enough rambling, onto the wines.

First up, the 2008 Quintay Clava Sauvignon Blanc, which retails for $8.95. Wow. This wine is absolutely unbelievable. Priced as a quaffer, the wine is almost too complex for so humble a role. The wine commands attention as it reveals layers of flavor from the classic lime to intense raspberry and strawberry on the finish. If this sounds atypical for a Sauvignon blanc, that should not deter you from trying the wine, which we found utterly fascinating.

After the Quintay Clava, we were disappointed by the 2008 Viña Litoral “Ventolera” Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley ($14.25). This wine was almost too extreme an example of cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc. This was for us the first miss in North Berkeley's stunning Chilean portfolio. It's a question of style. This wine is austere and lean. It is pleasant enough to sip, but we prefer the more fruity and generous style of, for instance, the Quintay Clava, which has the further advantage of selling for a mere $8.95. 

Quai de la ville de Mâcon (France) (photo from this page. License information below.) 

Another white, the 2007 Domaine Perraud Mâcon-Villages ($15.25) is a showstopper. This offers the complexity and interest of $50+ California Chardonnay. We finished this bottle much earlier than we expected to (did it have a leak?). We simply could not resist another taste. A delicious wine at any price, and an absolute steal at the price. Our recommendation to a friend read thus: "Had this the other night. Unbelievable. If you need a good burg around, check this out. We were about to call it a good 'house Burgundy', but we really think it stands up to the big boys, and it's only the low price that makes us think of it in the 'house' category". 

Finally, the 2006 Domaine de Moulin Gaillac Vieilles Vignes Rouge ($18.50). If you are looking for something unusual, this wine will fit the bill. It is a world away from any super-ripe New World wine. Made from the Fer Servadou grape indigenous to Gaillac, we found this wine to be hard and closed up. The Mollydooker Shake opened it up a little bit, but it was only after sitting half-full for a day that the wine started to reveal some of its fruit. North Berkeley recommends pairing this wine with rustic fair such as cassoulet, and we think that suggestion is spot on. A richly flavored dish is just the thing to match the earthy, intense and, well rustic character of this wine. Even still, this is not for the faint of heart.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Cruz Andina Malbec 2006

We have just enjoyed an incredible wine.

We have been fans of Argentine Malbec since the 80s, when we enjoyed Trapiche by the caseload for less than $60 (for the whole case). Malbec is a Bordeaux variety but it is a minor blending component in Bordeaux itself and among copycats in California. Argentina has justly claimed Malbec as its own, much as Australia has with Shiraz and Chile with Carmenere (and, once upon a time, California with Zinfandel).

This particular Malbec, the Cruz Andina 2006 Lujan de Cuyo Mendoza, is unlike any other Malbec we have had. The wine commands attention with intense aromas of black fruit and judicious oak. It is rich and savory on the palate and has a long, spicy finish. We know expensive Napa Cabernet, and this wine could easily pass for one costing well north of $50. It retails for a mere $20.

Part of the mystery of this wine is explained by the fact that Alvaro Espinoza is the winemaker. Espinoza also has a hand in many of the wines from Chile we have enjoyed so much of late, such as Chono and Alto Sol. Cruz Andina is a project of Augustin Huneeus, who produces the high-QPR Veramonte wines from Chile as well as the much more expensive Quintessa, in Napa Valley.

We are very happy to see this new venture offer so much at so reasonable a price, and we look forward to future vintages.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Zaca Mesa Roussanne 2006

Many years ago, in the predawn before we entered the wine industry, we visited the Santa Barbara area for the first time. A good friend and loyal reader of this blog had been invited by the Frass Canyon Winery--oops, we mean, Fess Parker--on a special trip to learn more about that winery's use of IBM for their Information Systems needs, and he was kind enough to invite us along. It was a very interesting journey to say the least.

But now is not the time for tales of Fess Parker and his attendant Charlie's Angels. On that trip we visited a few wineries, and Zaca Mesa stands out as the most memorable. We were traveling with two dogs, and Zaca Mesa, who at the time had their own dogs, Zach and Macy, warmly welcomed our own beasts. We should say coolly welcomed, since it was about a billion degrees at the time of our visit, and the winery had a lovely stream for us to enjoy. (At another, less dog-friendly winery, our dogs took shelter in the shade underneath our car, and it took all our cajoling and pleading to get them out when it was time to leave.) Kudos to Zaca Mesa.

We have not kept up with their wines, but that fond memory was sufficient for us to recommend a visit to Zaca Mesa, when friends also traveling with a dog asked for recommendations in the area. They enjoyed their visit and brought us a bottle of the 2006 Roussanne to thank us.

A lovely gesture, if completely unnecessary. But, wow, the wine is fabulous. It has the classic Roussanne elements of beeswax, citrus rind, and herbs, and it is full-bodied enough, if not very oaky, to satisfy any Chardonnay enthusiast. This is very pleasant to sip, but it is close to being a vin de meditation, by which we mean a wine so complex and interesting that it commands all attention. Not quite, but there is a great deal going on here.

The retail price is $25, putting it at the high end of what we like to recommend here. Wine-Searcher shows it widely available for a more palatable $20. If you don't know Roussanne, this will be an exciting new white wine for you. If you do, it is a very good example of what the grape is capable of.
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