Saturday, August 30, 2014

Santa Maria Valley

This coming Friday between 5 and 8pm Scott Beauchamp of Eagle Rock Distributing will be pouring the wines of J. Wilkes Winery here at the store.  These are very impressive new wines to the Atlanta market that bowled me over a couple weeks ago when I tasted them.  One week ago something similar happened when we opened a 2008 Bianchi Winery Pinot Noir here.  The assembled group for that event collectively gushed with the first sip from that deep bowl of spiced mixed fruit.  Now thinking back, I remember a Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir that was, frankly, the best wine I tasted at a hotel ballroom trade show several years ago.  The common ingredient in all of these?  The source of the fruit, Santa Maria Valley, California.

Now, I'm no babe in the woods here with regard to either the California wine industry or the Pinot Noir grape.  With thirty-five years in the business, I have made my mind up as to who produces good wine and who, shall we say, makes what the public wants.  That sounds a little unfair but as a recovering francophile when it comes to Pinot Noir, I've got to admit California can turn out a pretty good product.

That Kenneth Volk wine from several years past was maybe the best California Pinot I have ever tasted, but it also came with a fifty dollar price tag and that may be pushing my value limit.  The Bianchi was one that select customers had been telling me was good before I finally broke down and tried it.  The 2008 vintage had just been closed-out by the distributor so the next day I ordered the last five cases they had!  The J. Wilkes wines number three; Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir; and I believe I actually preferred the whites to the Pinot but all three were exemplary and as good as any comparable wines in this little store.  To show you I'm human, the J. Wilkes label features a hand-drawn leaf on it that so entranced me it may have been part of the wine's appeal for me!

So is there magic in Santa Maria Valley?  Well yes, Virginia, there is.  It's called the transverse valley that runs east-west funneling cool maritime winds from the Pacific Ocean into the valley.  The Santa Maria Valley AVA is at the very northernmost part of Santa Barbara County including a little bit of San Luis Obispo and the E-W trough enables a longer cooler growing season there than anywhere else in southern California.  On the Winkler Scale or "heat summation method", Santa Maria Valley is a Region I (out of five) which is the coolest average grape growing region there is!  The valley also features the well-drained sandy, clayey loam soil grapevines love along with foothill vineyards at 200-800 foot elevations.  With a terroir like that Santa Maria Valley vineyards produce grapes which show great color and aromatics, lively complex fruit, and balanced acid.

Santa Maria Valley was first planted in grapes under Spanish rule in the 1830s.  In the 1960s it was discovered by commercial wine grape growers like the Miller family who in 2001 established the J. Wilkes Winery.  While there are thirty wineries in Santa Maria Valley, there are growers like the Millers who sell to the Bianchis and Volks and market their own production under several labels.  Please join us Friday for the tasting because, if you think about it, if they planted their vineyards in the 1960's and have been selling their grapes to others for decades, wouldn't they know just where to go for the fruit they want for their own label?

Hey you reading this thing, become a follower here so I'll feel important!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chenin Blanc

Man, I'm really bottom feeding now.  Chenin Blanc.  What could be more ordinary than that!

Being a prolific grapevine, Chenin Blanc often ends up as overproduced bulk wine in most new (and old) world venues.  It's claim to fame in the standard white wine blend is the acidity it contributes to the finished product.  With no special winemaking treatment, the wine itself is left quite bland with no distinction, no footprint reflecting a beneficial vintage or terroir.

This kind of Chenin Blanc thrives in the Central Valley of California and ends up in jugs named after classic European white wines.  Lodi is a California wine appellation that used to produce just that kind of wine thirty years ago but has now evolved into a fine producer of Chenin Blanc.  In general, Lodi has become the Languedoc of California with 20% of all varietal wines being sourced from there and not just as estate bottled Lodi brands.  Prestigious wineries from Napa and elsewhere source premium Chenin from Lodi for their proprietary blends.

South Africa's claim to fame in white wine has always been Chenin Blanc or Steen as it is called there.  Steen may go back to the 1600s in South Africa and is today the most widely planted grape in the country representing 20% of all plantings there.  South African Chenin Blanc vineyard acreage is twice as large as that of France.  While South African Chenin Blanc shares the common dry and off-dry styles with California, South African Chenin is usually superior to the California example.   

In its finest expression found in Vouvray of the Loire Valley in northern France, Chenin Blanc may be made dry, off-dry, sweet, very sweet, and even sparkling.  In cooler climates like Loire its sweet fruit predominates along with its acidity and full body and most Vouvrays show it all in an off-dry style.  Ampelographers have determined that Chenin Blanc originated in the Loire Valley but not in Vouvray but rather two doors down in Anjou.  Today Anjou stands as the finest example of the dry style of Chenin Blanc.  If Vouvray shows a profile of floral honey, nuts, ginger, and fig; the Anjou would be quince and apple.

So why are we writing about Chenin Blanc here today?  Well because it was to be our feature for the Thursday Wine 101 class here at the store.  That had to be changed when I was presented with a package deal on New Zealand wines which had to take precedence.  Since I had already done this research, well, you know...

Three final points though before ending this thing:

1.  The late-harvest Chenin Blancs of Vouvray are among the finest dessert wines in the world and a must-taste for aficianados with pockets deep enough to afford them.

2.  I started out by disparaging Chenin Blanc as a bulk wine blending grape and that, you now know, is misleading.  The redemption for Chenin Blanc, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, lies in its raison d'etre in the terroir of Vouvray.  Pinot Noir achieves its noble bonafides in Burgundy; Chenin Blanc, likewise in Vouvray

3.  This from a New York Times article: Vouvray's style versatility is possible because its acidity acts for wine structure like a fashion models bones make her frame the ideal structure for modeling different dresses.  (Or something like that.)

This Thursday at the 7pm Wine 101 class we will be tasting four from Lawson's Dry Hills of New Zealand and two Italian sweet reds.  On Friday David Rimmer of Lynda Allison Cellar Selection will be offering up examples of his newly arrived French wines and then next Friday Scott Beauchamp of Eagle Rocks offers us tastes of several new high end California varietals.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Back in 1976 I didn't know squat about wine.  I don't even want to mention brand names that I thought were good back then.  But I remember a certain charm that I felt the more unpretentious California country wines had and that's what I got in touch with a couple weeks ago when one of my vendors brought by an open bottle of Clayhouse Adobe Red.  That charm, by the way, wasn't always positive, critically speaking.  Some of those field blends back in the day were unstructured, muddy, and flabby but others had some structure and character, albeit rough, but because of my modest financial means, they worked just fine for my purposes.  The Adobe Red we tasted here this weekend was a little lighter than the seventies wines I recall but tasted like a thoughtful, finer update of what came before.

Clayhouse markets a dozen wines sorted between three quality levels.  At their website the Estate Series is priced in the $20-40 range; the Vineyard Series and Adobe Series are both advertised at $15/btl.  The Estate wines are sourced from specific locations in their Paso Robles Red Cedar Vineyard.  The Vineyard wines also come from Red Cedar but utilize varying blends for a consistent year to year flavor profile.  The Adobes are made from grapes purchased from Central Coast grape growers.  On Friday we tasted the 2011 Vineyard Malbec (95% Malbec, 5% Petite Sirah), the 2012 Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petite Verdot, with 3% Malbec/Merlot), and the 2011 Adobe Red which is a blend primarily of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon along with four other types.

Paso Robles is the largest AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the Central Coast, itself the largest AVA in California.  Twice enlarged to about 617,000 acres today, Paso Robles hosts two hundred wineries with 32,000 acres currently in vines.  Forty different grape varieties are grown there.  Two factors always seem to exist in the history of any wine production region: The first vines were planted by monks, in this case the Franciscan Friars of the Ascension in 1790, and the climate features the diurnal shift of warm days and cool nights which always optimizes fruit quality.

On March 4, 2013 we wrote about Paso Robles and the ideal vineyard soil the region can now claim from a turbulent geological history over epochs of dramatic change.  The net result is a soil that is rich in minerals with enviable drainage from its constituent fissile shale and degraded granite, volcanic rock, and marine sedimentation.  According to one Paso Robles vintner, "This soil naturally restricts yields while promoting firm structure and pure fruit expression in wine."  For a guy who waxes romantic about field blend reds from decades ago, what more could you want?

This coming Thursday at the 7pm Wine 101 class, we'll tackle Chenin Blanc and white blends along with sweeter red wines.  On Friday, it's David Hobbs of Prime Wine & Spirits with a showing of California wines and on the 5th of September, Scott Beauchamp of Eagle Rock joins us for more of their great Europeans.  Please join us.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Casas Del Bosque and the Casablanca Valley

Established in 1993, "The Houses of the Forest" winery was the project of Juan Cuneo Solari, son of Italian immigrants to Chile.  The 232 hectare estate lies in the Casablanca Valley seventy miles northwest of the capital, Santiago, and a mere thirty minutes from Valparaiso, one of the major Pacific ports of the country.  On that property the Solari family grows Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc and more recently, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  The cool and dry Casablanca Valley, itself, has been largely developed as a wine appellation only since the 1990s.

The Chilean wine industry really began in the late nineteenth century in the warmer Central Valley of Chile where Bosque sources their Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere grapes.  If the entire length of the ribbon of a country that Chile is is sixteen thousand kilometers, the wine industry is the four thousand kilometer belt that begins a third of the way down.  Until recent times the appellation system of Chile was viewed vertically north to south.  Expansion is now moving eastward and westward.  Proprietors of eastern foothill vineyards are recognizing the value of the winds from the Andes and the ocean breezes in the west are causing wine professionals in the coastal flatlands to reassess that value for wine quality.

On January 31st of 2013 we blogged about Augustin Huneeus, one of the contemporary wine giants of our time.  In 1960 he bought a struggling jug wine company and following just a few insightful improvements he developed Concha y Toro into the top wine company of Chile.  Today it is one of the top ten wineries worldwide. This week we brought in Bosque's Maipo Valley Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, a worthy descendent of what Huneeus started fifty years ago.  Like all Bosque wines the superior Cabernet grapes are hand-harvested for quality following the long hot Mediterranean climate growing season.  Between the climate, alluvial soils, and Andes breezes the Cabernet exhibits structure, concentrated flavors of black currant and raspberry, and firm tannins.

Along with the Cabernet we also brought in the Casablanca Valley Gran Reserva Sauvignon Blanc which, as good as the Cabernet is, the Sauvignon Blanc is even better.  For as much acclaim as Loire Valley and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs get, Bosque may have the best of all.  We have already said here that the primary characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc are citrus fruit flavors, minerality, grassiness, and the floral dimension.  Along with its piercing lemon and pear fruit flavors, Bosque adds an indelible herbal accent.  This example of my favorite white varietal may be the best I have tasted and it also has that attractive Chilean pricing.

History has always been a love here at the blogspot and what we have attempted in this post is to show how considerably things can change in a relatively short amount of time.  New global investment money continues to flow into Chile making the wine industry a player worldwide.  If there is a drawback to the industry, it is the scarcity of rainfall there.  Drip irrigation from wells serves to minimally alleviate the dearth of rainfall and if the wines end up with exceptionally concentrated flavors from water-stressed vines, well, that isn't necessarily the worst situation.

Join us on Thursday at 7pm for the Wine 101 class as we taste the Bosque wines along with others of like quality and if you can't make it Thursday, come by after 5pm on Friday as we repeat the same tasting for that crowd.  We actually have a perfect storm of high quality wines coming together for those two events.  Please join us.

On Friday the 29th David Hobbes of Prime Wines joins us for a tasting of new Greek Wines.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Discount Racks, Closeout Lists, Noble Wines, and Adiaphora

(thoughts at large about disjointed stuff that's somehow connected in my understanding of things)

I have now concluded that my discount racks are clearly not a gamble for my more adventurous shoppers.  I can say that after tasting a dozen or so wines from over there with little in the way of disappointment in any of them.  The reds that end up there are usually little known Europeans that are always better than comparably priced domestic wines.  The whites are older vintages that may be losing their fruit and just need to be drunk.  The 20% that is taken off those purchases at the register makes the whites a fair deal and the reds a ridiculous deal for anyone who dares to venture there.  Also, like any other wine in the place, if you hold it up and ask me, I will always tell the truth as to the quality if I can.

Recently two of my vendors presented me with lists of closeout wines.  I trust both of these fellows to shoot straight with me on such things because of our a long working history.  As it turns out both of these guys weren't so proud of what was being offered on their respective lists, but for different reasons.  After I noticed his discounts didn't add up to much, one vendor admitted his list was a pretender.  Often such lists sneak in regularly priced wines under the guise of being a deal.  This list was entirely just a dollar or so off regular prices so I bought a few niche bottles but let the rest go.

The other vendor always has a serious list but the quality is often suspect.  Most retailers see red flags and stay away from such lists because no one wants to get hung with bad wines.  But I learned something from this fellow.  He told me that one reason for the number of clunkers on the list is because salesmen like himself often don't even look at the list because of questions of quality and the number of clunkers on the list just increases as a result of that neglect.  The "minefield" that results can be navigated to reach some real bargains, but the prevailing wisdom says, "Don't go there."

Adiaphora is a term in Christian theology for things that are not essential to the faith or "matters of indifference".   Religions are known for contructing walls for conformity to ideas and behaviors promoted by the faith.  Adiaphora recognizes that some of these walls just aren't that important and perhaps may be ignored.  So when I got into the wine business back in the late seventies, the prevailing construct held that there were noble wine grapes capable of making superior wines and then there were all of the others (adiaphora) which, in the right conditions, may make good wine but never up to the level of the noble types.

Now it seems like the whole "noble wine" construct is adiaphora as shown by the great wines made in specific venues using otherwise pedestrian grapes.  Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley.  Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough.  Malbec in Argentina.  Merlot and Syrah in Washington State.  And on down the line.  Pinot Noir was seen as noble back in the day but what really is the difference between Pinot in Burgundy and Chenin in Loire when both are ordinary everywhere else?

Join us this Thursday the 14th for a tasting of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at 7pm here at the store and then at the weekly event on Friday at 5pm Dave Klepinger presents the California wines of Aviary Vineyards and Bread & Butter.  On the 29th of the month David Hobbes returns with a tasting of Greek wines.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


It's always a dilemma when that thing you love so much is priced beyond what is reasonable for you to pay.  Der Scharffe Maxx is an amazing Swiss cheese that unfortunately has no pricing wiggle room and must be a $25/lb retail, any way you slice it (so to speak).  Bergenuss Swiss, on the other hand, is the new alternative on the cheese scene and it excites me to no end.  I can accept $25 and even $30/lb cheeses but it sure is nice to find comparable quality like Bergenuss for just $20/lb.

Berggenuss (literally-mountain treat) is a recent creation of Franz Renggli of Oberberg Mountain Dairy in the village of Entlebuch, Switzerland.  The dairy is an organic operation in Entlebuch which is itself an ecologically protected environment under the aegis of UNESCO.  The cheese is a raw cow milk creation sourced from fifteen dairies around the village located at 2,700 feet altitude and  cheesemakers will always credit the high altitude vegetation for their resultant unique cheese flavors.

Berggenuss is a nine pound wheel measuring ten inches across and three inches deep with defined corners as if punched out of a mold disk-style.  It has an orangish-tan colored naturally thin rind with a semi-hard light golden yellow paste interior puntuated with just a few random holes and cassein crystals.  Berggenuss also has a beautiful Alpine label with green trees in front of white mountains and lots of blue sky behind them.  This is just the second time I have ordered Berggenuss but as soon as I unwrapped it that label let me know this purchase was going to be just fine.

So what excites me so about this cheese?  Well I mentioned Der Scharffe Maxx at the beginning and that is a cheese I have flippantly called "the best cheese I have ever sold".  This one is very similar to Maxx.  They are both heat treated (but not pasteurized), smear-ripened, high altitude cheeses.  What does that mean?  In short, they stink.  Not a lot, just enough to whet your appetite with grand expectations of things to come, like when you near an old favorite haunt and smell the memories of long ago.

To be more precise, these aromatic cheeses are slightly spicy, slightly sharp, and slightly barnyardy with more specific aromas of aged beef, grass, toasted walnuts, and garlic.  Am I communicating now?  It's complexity I'm talking about here.  And the best part is that the cheese taste is still mellow, even silky, with all of the attributes listed above in contained quarters and not running wild, although I have read that if aged further than the normal six months, the cheese flavors are much more pronounced.

I would pair a light red wine like Barbera or Pinot Noir with Berggenuss although complexity in food flavors always opens new avenues for exploration.   Maybe the safest bet would be a rich malty ale!

On Thursday at 7pm at our weekly class we'll take a look at Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the noble grapes of Burgundy, France.  On Friday the 15th, David Klepinger of Northeast Sales joins us for a tasting of new Califonia wines in the marketplace.  Please join us for those tastings.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Dozen White Wines, Part I

In a ten day span beginning last Thursday July 31st, we will have tasted a dozen white wines here at the store between our Thursday night class and the Friday weekly event.  That's a lot of tasting.  Let's sort them out by grape type, starting with the really light dry ones.

Masciarelli Trebbiano d'Abruzzo

The prolific Trebbiano vine is not especially obscure, it's just not really well known by name. In France it is called Ugni Blanc and is primarily distilled into brandy.  In other venues it is really just filler in a given region's standard white blend, consequently when tastes change and another variety rises in popularity, Trebbiano often is the vine to be uprooted in favor of the newest fave.

The name Trebbiano comes from the root, trebula, which means cottage, leading one to believe the vineyards in earlier times were a "cottage" industry, which would explain why there are a hundred different names across Europe for Trebbiano.  Also if you think of Italians the way I do, that so many of them seem so similar, fully a third of Italian white wines share common DNA with Trebbiano.  In short, Trebbiano is a blue collar grape that has its best example in Umbrian Orvieto but also does quite well in Abruzzo.

Domaine de la Vinconniere Muscadet

The grape type here is Melon de Bourgogne and like Trebbiano it's a volume producer.  Muscadet is sourced from four districts just south of Nantes at the Loire River estuary fifty-five miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean in northern France.  It is the largest volume wine from the vast Loire region.  Muscadet is an acidic white wine made from grapes grown in chalky soils which are not harvested until fully ripe and even then don't yield a very flavorful wine.  The wine is a minerally apple/citrus slightly salinated shellfish wine which acquires some creaminess from its "sur lie" winemaking process.

Nardone Falanghina and Greco

Falanghina and Greco are related grapes from ancient origins.  Both of these light dry whites show their best in the Mediterranean climate of coastal Campania, Italy.  Falanghina features citrus blossom aromas and apple/pear on the palate with notes of spicy minerality.  Greco (Greek) is somewhat darker in color with peach and green foliage aromas.  Very similar in flavor to Falanghina, Greco is the later maturing grape making it slightly rounder in body and flavor in the mouth.  Both wines are originally Greek in origin and, of course, love seafood.

Terra d'Alter Alvarinho

Alvarinho is the Portuguese version of Albarino, arguably the finest white wine of Spain.  This light dry white is also seafood wine like those above but this time its more substantial body pairs better with the seafood soups and stews of the region.  Like Muscadet, Alvarinho is acidic with clean rich ripe fruit flavors which may include peach, apricot, lemon, lychee, passion fruit, and orange blossom and zest. Styles and consequent complexity vary widely with this wine.  It may be made in steel tanks with carbon dioxide for a light slightly bubbly style or in oak for a heavier style.

Please join us on Thursday at 7pm for our Wine 101 class on Argentine wines.  Then come back on Friday after 5pm for Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock as he presents Falanghina and Greco amongst other new Italians in the Atlanta market.  On Friday August 8th Dave Klepinger of Noreast Sales presents new California wines for our consideration.

If you like what we're doing here, become a follower of this blog and get a free cookie next time you come into the store!

A Dozen White Wines, Part II

Il Falchetto Arneis

Arneis means "little rascal" and the grape earns its moniker due to its agricultural difficulties in the vineyard.  The wine flavor profile is peaches, pears, and apricots, with almonds and hazelnuts.  It is a crisp and floral, perfumy medium-bodied dry white wine.  Arneis hails from the Piedmont, the finest wine production region of Italy, lying in the northeastern corner of the country.  Since Nebbiolo is the crown jewel of the region, Arneis has historically been forced into a supporting role there.  At times it has been blended into the great wine to lighten that massive red and at other times it has been planted in those vineyards just for the purpose of attracting birds to the larger Arneis grapes and away from the Nebbiolo.

Castelo di Papa Godello

Sourced from Galicia in northwestern Spain, the Godello grape is a versatile and neutrally flavored grape like others on the list but in this case more comparable to Chardonnay, making oak aging an appropriate option.  Godello is fresh clean and minerally with apricot and other ripe and savoury stonefruit flavors.  It has a soft inviting texture in the mouth.  Godello is the same grape as Verdelho and is very popular at this time under either name.  Our "Papa" version saw no time in oak making it yet another exemplary seafood accompaniment.

Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad

This sparkling cava is 67% Macabeo and 33% Parellada sourced from Penedes outside of Barcelona.  The sparkling wine giant, Frexienet now owns Segura Viudas and Heredad is the "tete de cuvee" from this 11th century estate.  The wine is a gold-tinged color with aromas of light smoke and toasty biscuit. Flavors include honey, apple, citrus, dried fruit,and flower petals.  Minerality and yeast permeate the heavy (for a cava) body of the wine.  The wine finishes with noticeable pepper.

Heredad is a full-flavored fruit bomb that complements creamy pasta and roast chicken.

Riondo Soave
Ventisquero Queulat Sauvignon Blanc
Le Lapin and Deep Sea California Chardonnay

We have written about Prosecco, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay so many times here already, I think we can move on.

Gougenheim Torrontes

Torrontes is a neat story even if its Argentine pedigree has now been disproven.  Once thought to be indigenous, through DNA spadework we now know it has descended from the Mission variety crossed with Muscat of Alexandria.  Torrontes is becoming increasingly popular worldwide but is still, by default, Argentina's own since it is planted nowhere else.

Torrontes is as perfumy as any wine on the market and is most reminicent of Muscat and Gewurztraminer. In the nose the floral character of the wine abounds with roses, jasmine, and geraniums.  The color is light yellow with green and golden hues.  On the palate the wine is an unabashed honeyed fruit salad with, once again, peaches and apricots predominating.  It's good acidity and smooth texture make it a natural for Asian cuisine.

There are three varieties of Torrontes in Argentina with Torrontes Riojana being the preferred type.  Gougenheim gets theirs from high altitude vineyards in Mendoza.

Il Falchetto Tenuta Del Fant Moscato d'Asti 

Moscato, the oldest wine grape of Piedmont, is sourced from a thirty mile area in Montferrat in the province of Asti in the cool northwestern part of Piedmont.  The grape gets its name from the earthy "musky" aromas which accompany its floral and fruity bouquet.  Its flavor profile is peaches and apricots (yet again) along with the fresh grape juice flavors that come with a 5.5% alcohol wine.  While Moscato may be made in a dry style, historically the current sweet style has always been popular.  The pronounced bubbly "frizzante" style has been popular since the nineteenth century and is accomplished today using pressurized steel fermentation tanks.  Incredibly, Moscato sales continue to grow by 10-15% annually and the wine is both served with dessert and as a sweet cocktail.

Please join us for a tasting of three differently styled Torrontes on Thursday evening at the 7pm class and then join us on Friday after 5pm for the Falanghina and Greco experience.