Saturday, July 14, 2018

Domaine du Verger

This is neat.  For years we've been waiting for French ciders to reappear in this market and now they're here under the brand name Domaine du Verger.  While the brand names of the past are long gone from memory, the taste of fine French cider is unforgettable.  Hard cider is a far cry from non-alcoholic cider.  In some ways it's similar to a fruity beer but yet not really.  It's most like Champagne but of course, it's not really like Champagne at all.  It is truly its own category.

Domaine du Verger comes in two types.  The Brut is refreshingly light and dry while the Rose is light and a little off-dry.  Rose?  Yes, this one is made from Baya Marisa apples that share the red flesh we remember from the neighborhood crabapple tree, so if you're making cider this one naturally comes out pink!

The ciders we're talking about here come from a co-op called Val de Rance which was begun in 1983 in Brittany, France.  They have been growing and modernizing since then to the point where they now utilize one thousand acres of orchards owned by three hundred growers to produce up to fifteen thousand tons of apples.

All of the apples grown in Brittany are considered to be bittersweet in character.  They are supplemented with bitter apples from Normandy, the appellation best known for cider.  For both ciders produced, the mix is 90% Brittany and 10% Normandy with no other juice of any kind added.

The cider making process is pretty simple and forthright.  The apples are picked, cleaned, crushed, and fermented before CO2 is added for bubbles.  The actual bottles used for these ciders are corked and caged Champagne bottles.  For the Brut version the fermentation time is two months; for the sweeter Rose version it's just five weeks.  Because the fermentation is shorter the Rose ends up being just 2.5% alcohol as compared to the 5% Brut version.

The Brut cider is a pale straw color, light in body, and has aromas of golden apples, peach, and apricot.  On the palate the wine is refreshing.  The rose is a little sweeter with a bit more body and moderately tart with no sourness or bitterness.  The simple flavor profile for the rose includes strawberry, white grape, and pomegranate.  The wine finishes sweet.  No additional sugar is added in the making of either wine.

These ciders are perfect as apertifs, with brunch, mild cheeses, and with summer!  They should be consumed within a year of purchase.

Please join us next Thursday the 19th at 5pm when Cherie Rubio joins us for a tasting of California wines.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Silk & Spice

Silk & Spice is a Portuguese red blend marketed by Sogrape Evaton USA, a wine company that now represents eighteen labels in America, most of which are Portuguese in origin.  Historically Sogrape is perhaps best known for bringing us Mateus Rose, a cultural touchstone on college campuses fifty years ago which was really much better than we gave it credit for at the time.

According to the back label "Silk & Spice" is a metaphor for the wine's smooth juiciness which they claim must ascertain its origins in the indigenous grapes of Portugal.  While I can't exactly validate that pitch, I can appreciate the inference.  The wine is a Touriga Nacional blend that goes through a malolactic fermentation followed by six months in American oak which can kind of account for its description.  I can also report that after tasting it out here the wine has sold very well.  It is noticeably less dry than the Aveleda wines tasted here on Thursday.

Silk & Spice, again according to the back label, honors the brave Portuguese seamen of the fifteenth century who ventured into the unknown to discover new seagoing trade routes to the east, returning with silk from China and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper) from the Spice Islands.  The front label, by the way, is a fifteenth century map of the Bay of Bengal, complete with distortions reflecting what the explorers didn't know at the time.

Actually the very idea of labeling a Portuguese product with a map of the Indian Ocean is a little confusing and after hearing more than a few comments on the unusual wine label, I decided to bone up on my fifteenth century history.  Here's what I learned:

Portugal reached the Spice Islands, now the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, in 1512.  A year later in 1513 they reached China.  Spain and Portugal were on the vanguard of ocean seafaring back then with the English, Dutch and others decades behind them.  That alone may justify the label.  They're proud.

Here are a few significant dates: In 1498 Vasco da Gama was the first to round the African Cape and make it to India.  Christopher Columbus was sponsored by Portugal to go exploring in 1492 and ended up somewhere.  I forget what he discovered.  Then in 1522 Magellan circumnavigated the globe.  Unfortunately he didn't personally make it all the way around but he still deserves the credit.

How did Portugal achieve its early seafaring success?  They created the Caravel sailing ships which were smaller, lighter, and better handling than those that were the standard of the time.  How did they do that?  They copied the fishing boats of the time!  Honestly!  Leave it to the working guys to show up the brainiacs!

So was this the beginning of international trade and maybe, globalization?  Not hardly.  Evidence exists of an international spice trade going back to 3,000 BC.  North African Arabs were usually the beneficiaries of the spices then.  Unfortunately, the current religious conflicts between the Muslims and Christians in Indonesia have their origins in the period we're discussing here.

If we have now shed enough light on our made up wine label controversy then let's conclude by saying Silk & Spice shows best on the dinner table with pork chops, beef stew, stroganoff, lasagna, and barbecue. 

Cherie Rubio offers us a tasting of California wines this Thursday after 5pm and Jean Arnold shows us his Oregon wines on Saturday starting at 1pm.  Please join us for these.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Portuguese Preview

This Thursday at 5pm Rose Adams of Aveleda of Portugal leads us in a tasting of four new wines in her portfolio.  Last year Aveleda bought wineries in the Alentejano DOC in southeastern Portugal and in the northern Douro DOC, the finest wine venue in the country.  Those wines are just now making an appearance in our marketplace.  Aveleda, itself, is located in the Minho DOC in the northwestern corner of the country, home to the great seafood wines Vinho Verde and Alvarinho.  Here's a preview of next Thursday's tasting.

The 2017 Assobio Branco is a fresh and aromatic, straw-colored, light dry steel barrel-aged white with citric and tropical fruit flavors.  The indigenous grapes are handpicked from high altitude vineyards in Douro and lend themselves to lighter fare like salads, seafood or tapas.  Assobio means "whistle" and refers to the sound the wind makes through these high altitude north facing vineyards.

The 2016 Esperao Reserva is sourced from select vineyards of indigenous grape varieties in Alentejano.  Vinification includes cold settling with skin maceration in stainless steel tanks before ageing on the lees in new oak barrels.  Yellow fruits, minerality, toast and spices dominate the palate in this fresh aromatic white.  The flavors are long and balanced within a creamy structure.

The 2016 Assobio Red is sourced from the same high altitude vineyards as the companion white listed above.  These indigenous grape varieties produce a fresh versatile summer food-friendly light red wine.  Touriga Nacional is the primary grape in the blend and it is handpicked before a temperature controlled pre-fermentation cold soak followed by pressing and fermentation.  Aging is done in both steel and oak barrels.

The 2014 Esperao Reserve Red is the flagship wine of this Alentejo winery and features handpicked Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and a couple indigenous varieties resulting in a rich ripe spicy, red fruit wine with a subtle oak presence.  Each grape type is fermented separately in temperature controlled steel tanks before a malolactic fermentation which is then followed by a year of oak barrel ageing.  The wine is textured, dense and full-bodied with structured tannins making it a candidate for ageing in the cellar.

Categorically Portuguese wines need to be considered in their own right.  Too often they fall into the "other" category or are seen as "value wines" when actually they should be seen as wonderful dinner wines suitable for a number of occasions.  Rose Adams, by the way, is someone I have known in the trade for at least twenty-five years so please join us for the tasting and expect an education in the process!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Creaminess, Richness and Sur-Lie Ageing

You ever wonder how your California Chardonnay gets that rich and creamy mouthfeel that you love so much?  Not all Chardonnays, especially the imports, have it.  So why is that?

Well, the short answer and this is way too obvious, is that it's a stylistic choice that California wine makers have concluded the American public likes.  Rightfully.  But there's more...there are degrees of creaminess, some are even evident in the imports.  Moreover there are other white wine types besides Chardonnay that have the same creaminess so just like the wine, the plot here thickens a bit.

But before we go too far down this road lets also acknowledge that some white wines purposely do not have the creaminess we're talking about and that too is a stylistic decision.  If a wine maker wants to showcase a white grape type's essential flavor purity then the creaminess would just obscure what he's after.  Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio come to mind here.

So let's segue now to what I learned from in a post entitled "Sur-Lie Ageing."

Sur-lie ageing is the up-to-six-week period post-fermentation when the young wine is left in a tank with a layer of yeast solids covering the bottom.  The grape solids have long been removed and the yeast at this point is stressed out from having run out of sugars to convert into alcohol.  It is but a shadow of its original volatile self.  This is also the point where in most cases the white wine should be racked because several unfortunate sulfur-related conditions could ensue if care is not taken.  Nutrients have to be added, the temperature has to be controlled, and the lees have to be stirred daily.

So what's happening here?  Yeast cells are filled with liquid protein that become freed when the cell dies (autolysis) and that protein has an unctuous quality that softens and rounds off the hard tannic and acidic edges that a wine naturally has.  If the wine is properly stirred daily the protein becomes suspended in the wine bringing out complementary flavors and aromas of honey, nuts (hazelnut & almond), toast, and spice.  Moreover the now creamy complexity integrates the fruit, oak, tannins, and acidity into a unified whole.  Additionally sur-lie ageing has a reductive capacity which protects the wine from oxidation in its early stages and even promotes stabilization before bottling.

Sur-lie ageing doesn't have to be a six week long process, by the way.  The wine should be tasted daily and stopped when the wine maker thinks it is time.

So while we started this post talking about California Chardonnay, the wine we really wanted to promote was the 2015 Vidal-Fleury Cotes du Rhone Blanc which is a wonderful example of a French Viognier blend.  From the back label - "The ageing sur lies gives the wine its aromas and roundness."

This Thursday at 5pm Stefan Germain leads us in a tasting of Jacy Marteau Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, St. Emiliano Piedmont Italian Barbera, Little Canyon Ardeche Red Blend, and Chateau St. Seurin Red Bordeaux.  Please join us for the event.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Stolpman Vineyards & Ballard Canyon

Stolpman Vineyards is attorney Thomas Stolpman's thirty year project in the Ballard Canyon AVA (American Viticultural Area) which lies entirely within the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA which, in turn, lies entirely within the Central Coast AVA.  Stolpman purchased his vineyard land in 1990, planted in '92 and hit his stride in the early 2000's with the addition of two key colleagues, wine maker Sashi Moorman and vineyard manager Ruben Solarzano.

Stolpman Vineyards is a two hundred twenty acre tract with one hundred fifty three of them in sustainably farmed vines.  Ninety three acres are in Syrah with the rest primarily in Sangiovese, Roussanne, Grenache and Marsanne.  Stolpman wines are 90% estate-sourced.

The Ballard Canyon lies to the east of the Santa Rita Hills (AVA) which serve as a buffer to blunt the stronger Pacific winds.  To the east lies the considerably warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA and just to the north lies the Los Olivos District AVA.  Ballard Canyon is a long and narrow, north-south expanse that many recognize as the best AVA in Santa Ynez Valley.

Ballard Canyon prides itself as the only "Syrah-focused" wine appellation in the country with half of all five hundred sixty-one vineyard acres in the canyon planted in that one grape.  Stolpman chose his property for the limestone soils and the drainage they provide and the cool climate featuring the diurnal temperature shifts that are conducive to making rich wines with balanced sugars and acids.

At this writing we plan to taste the Stolpman La Cuadrilla red blend at this week's Thursday tasting.  Cuadrilla means "people of the block" and refers to the talents of those select vineyard workers who have applied their talents all year long in that vineyard.  Those workers earn an end-of-year bonus based on the sales of the wine.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Dave Phinney & Agustin Huneeus

There are some really smart people in the wine business.  Dave Phinney created The Prisoner field-blended red wine in 1998 just before high end red blends became the rage.  Shortly thereafter he created his line of Orin Swift wines which grew in sales to the point where in 2010 he could sell it and pocket a handsome profit which he subsequently reinvested in new wine projects.

Agustin Huneeus is now comfortably retired after one of the greatest of twentieth century wine careers.  Concha y Toro, Seagrams, Franciscan, Veramonte, and  Quintessa are just a few of the Huneeus touchstones over the past sixty years and all turned golden from his touch.  King Midas in the flesh, you might say!

Phinney is currently marketing his Locations wines which are sourced from Argentina, Italy, Spain, California, Oregon, and Washington.  He also owns a couple hundred acres in vineyards in southern France from which he makes his D66 Grenache-based red wine.  He also owns five hundred acres in Napa and Alexander Valley and still being a young man, Phinney is reportedly immersed in grand planning for future wine projects.

Recently a representative from the Huneeus organization stopped by the store to offer tastes of some of the current wines they're offering including Flowers Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Benton-Lane Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  The Oregon wines were good at the twenty dollar suggested retail range and the Flowers were exceptional, especially the Chardonnay, but prohibitive around here at $50+.  Agustin Jr. is now running the day to day operations with guidance from the esteemed old man.

There are now about fifteen wines in distribution here in the Atlanta market that Dave Phinney had a hand in creating.  When he sold Orin Swift in 2010 there were five labels in the deal.  Now at the Orin Swift website sixteen wines are being marketed by Constellation, the current owner.  The Prisoner Wine Company is now owned by Gallo and ten labels are marketed on line.  In the Atlanta marketplace, perhaps ten labels from the two companies are in distribution in total along with the Locations and D66.

So here's the reason for the post: When Dave Phinney sold the Prisoner line in 2010, he sold it neither to Gallo nor Constellation.  He sold it to Augustin Huneeus who paid a whopping forty million dollars for the five labels in the line as it existed at that time.  Phinney was a contractor who owned neither vineyards nor wineries.  The forty million dollars was for just five wine labels!  Phinney had built his sales of The Prisoner and the rest of the Orin Swift line up to 85,000 cases in ten years' time.  Huneeus doubled those sales by 2016 and then sold it to Constellation for 285 million dollars.

The Huneeus representative related this narrative to me.  Now tell me these guys aren't smart! 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


If you've been following this blog for any length of time you know how I feel about consolidation in the wine business.  Actually if you just read the last paragraph of the last post where I lamented about everyone in Napa making the same "international style" of Cabernet Sauvignon, you know where I'm going with this.  How can you enjoy tasting wines when they all taste the same?

On top of that, the fact that the small estate wineries continually get locked out of distribution because of the monopolization of those channels by the factory farms, well, it just compounds the unfairness of it all for consumers who appreciate the art of distinctive wine making.

One of the favorite movie scenes in our kid-infested household was the "let the boys play the game" scene from Remember The Titans.  The implication there was that there was officially-sanctioned wrongdoing on the field.  Of course it's not the same situation here in the wine industry and I'm not asking for an official to intervene.  I just want the scales adjusted and balanced a bit and perhaps a voice be given to the farmers.  Dream on, I guess.

Anyway, here's what I've learned recently about consolidation.  The difference between some of the mega-players in the game has to do with whether they are privately held or corporately owned.  So Gallo and other extra-large family-owned wine companies have actually owned and farmed vineyards over generations while in contrast, Constellation and other even-more-removed-from-the-farm corporations are in the business purely for return on investment.

According to one local industry professional, passion in wine production is innate and the investors in Napa Cabernet who are not natives to Napa viticulture and wine making simply don't have it.

In concrete terms (and this is a generalization) family-owned mega-wine companies that purchase small wineries include the assets (vineyards, winery, etc.) in the transaction and intend to utilize them going forward.  The large corporate entities with an investment in the wine industry just buy the brand name and fill the bottles with what they deem to be appropriate.  Either way the mass marketers play it safe and don't take chances with wine styles that may not appeal to everyone.  And that bothers me.

This Thursday evening between 5 and 7pm, we will be tasting prominent Napa Cabernets here at the store.  Our examples that evening will include both estate bottlings and contract productions.