Monday, September 29, 2014

The Washington State Wine Country

Three domestic Cabernet Sauvignons, priced in the $15 to $25 range, all produced by large corporate interests, and because I bought a few cases of each, they all recently found their way to the tasting table here at the store.  The happy ending is that all showed well with our assembled tasters and I have no complaints other than the usual beef about vacuous winery websites that are so circumscribed by the aforementioned corporate interests that they actually never tell you anything interesting about the wines. Oh well, I'm just a frustrated muckraker who wants to know stuff that's only of interest to me anyway.

The least expensive of the three Cabs was Skyfall from Columbia Valley, Washington and they actually had the best website, albeit within the proscribed boundaries mentioned above.  Skyfall is owned by Precept Brands based in Seattle, Washington and Precept is one of the largest wine companies in the world.  Their portfolio is multinational but the lion's share comes from Washington State.  Seattle, of course, is on the rainy west coast so it has nothing to do with Washington's real fine wine country, sort of like the way Seattle's star corporate citizen, Starbucks, has nothing to do with the growing of coffee beans.

The Washington State wine country includes 13 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that seem to cover half of the state's map but the area we are concerned about is a twenty percent vertical rectangle that is along the southern border of the map and just east of the middle of the state.  That area is the Columbia Valley and it encompasses all twelve of the other AVAs and actually descends well into Oregon but that's another post.   The 2012 Skyfall is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 5% Syrah all drawn from AVAs within that rectangle; 42% Wahluka Slope, 27% Horse Heaven Hills, 26% Columbia Valley, and 5% Yakima Valley. 

So why does the wine country look like this?  Like other places it has to do with the placement of mountains and rivers.  In this case the vertical ridge to the west of the wine country is called the Cascade Mountains and the convergence of four rivers; the Yakima, Snake, Columbia, and Walla Walla;  lies right in the middle of my imaginary rectangle.  The Cascade Mountains serve to block the rains from the west creating a dry continental climate to the east.  The rivers then moderate valley temperatures and provide the irrigation waters necessary for the vineyards.

At the end of the Ice Age the Missoula Floods deposited gravels, sands, silt, loess, and volcanic dust in the future wine valley.  Today the soil is a sandy loam over basalt, the result of the breakdown of lava.  Washington State has two readily apparent advantages over California.  At their latitude they have two more hours of daylight to ripen grapes and that sandy soil is fortunately the one type that the Phylloxera bug can not stand.  One negative though is the winter freezes that are, as one might expect, quite a bit worse than California's.

This Friday at the weekly store event (5-8pm) we are tasting Cabernet Sauvignons from several locations in the West with the hope of finding wines that uniquely reflect a place of origin.  The consolidation of wineries under banners like Precept has often resulted in wines that are circumscribed to what is believed to be the popular style.  Please join us for the tasting and let's all try to discern difference!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Barbers 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar

Well this is interesting.  Barbers is a brand that has been unfamiliar to me for the past twenty-five years or so that I have been in this business...and I'm an English Cheddar fan!  Caerphilly and Wensleydale have been my go-to faves through the years because of that incredible sour edge they have which, by the way, is probably also why they don't sell so well here.  Barbers, which I just tasted for the first time less than an hour ago, is more moderate in the sour department and more mainstream in general than the others mentioned above.  It's aged two years too so it crumbles just right for aficionados of that sort of thing.

Barbers today is a sixth generation family business that was started back in 1833.  If my adding machine is to be trusted, that makes it a hundred eighty-one years old!  What makes that number even more remarkable is that Barbers is the only English Cheddar maker today that still makes cheese using the traditional starter cultures dating back to 1833!  Everyone else went to pre-packaged dry starter kits in the 1980s.  For this reason the European Union has granted them PDO (protected designation of origin) status for "West Country Farmhouse Cheddars" and to ensure that the original cheddar starter cultures are preserved, Barbers built a laboratory on their property to protect them from their obviously threatened extinction.

So why is this so important?  The friendly bacteria strains that originated in the milk of the region a couple of centuries ago were recognized by cheesemakers of that time to be the most important flavoring ingredient a cheese would get.  Dairymen would trade the strains they had with others in the hopes of creating cheese that had a deep, complex, and unique flavor.  Over time and with the help of technology the best strains were isolated and are now the private preserve of the Barbers who now may legitimately claim to market the Cheddar with the most historically traditional character.

The Barber extended family runs Maryland Farm in Ditcheat, Somerdale England, the same venue where they started in 1833.  Today it is a large modern mechanized operation thirteen miles from the village of Cheddar.  Their milk comes from their own 2,000 Holstein Fresian cows fed on their 2,500 acre farmland and from neighboring dairies.  While the operation is very modern, it is still very traditional.  The milk is pasteurized but no growth hormones or antibiotics are given to the cows.  Cheesemakers make hands-on decisions about adjustments in processes from season to season and batch to batch.  Cheddaring, the process of cutting and turning the curds, is also done by hand allowing the experienced cheesemaker to feel the curds in order to make any procedural adjustments at that time.

The Barbers 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar is the flagship cheese of the company.  It is creamy and sharp with savory and sweet notes.  Some reviewers get hints of caramel and toffee and nuts and fruit.  It also has the calcium lactate crystals for crunchiness.  Food pairings would include fresh apples and pears and rye bread.  The cheese would also pair with English cider and any of a number of ales, porters, and stouts. 

This Friday the 26th of September between 5 and 8pm, David Rimmer of Lynda Allison Cellar Selections presents new Italian wines from his incredible portfolio.  If you like Italians, don't miss this one.  I also wouldn't mind if you became a follower of this here blog!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc seems to be one of those grapes that yields several different wines depending on the winemaker and vineyard terroir.  In the Loire Valley where it has its finest expression, the wine is noticeably lighter than Cabernet Sauvignon, paler in color, and profiles as floral with pepper, tobacco, raspberry, cassis, violets and dark spices.  Jancis Robinson says basically, Cabernet Sauvignon has it all over Cabernet Franc, especially with body, tannin, alcohol, and color.  That said, she prefers Cabernet Franc for its acidity, finesse, silky texture, and "pencil shavings" aroma.

While those Loire Valley Cabernet Franc charmers are all of that and more, in America we are inundated with our west coast versions of European wines.  My take on domestic Cabernet Franc would be that it's every bit the equal of Cabernet Sauvignon if not moreso with a masculine profile of ripe dark fruits, spices, and the old "violets and tar".  These are wines for roasted red meats.  While I have not tasted Cabernet Franc on a scale comparable to Cabernet Sauvignon, what I have tasted has come from northern California and Washington State, so Syrah may be in there too.

Bob Reynolds is my sales representative for the Atlanta distributor who has just purchased the rights to sell the Durigutti wines of Argentina.  I have sold the Durigutti Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon for years and have them in the store at this time.  I love them for their own dark fruit profiles so I was quite surprised when I asked Bob for his take on the Cabernet Franc which he was trying to place here now.  After a thoughtful pause, he said, "fruity".  We'll taste the wine this weekend at the Friday evening event and see what kind of descriptors others come up with.  The Cab Franc, by the way, is what Bob settled for after I kept turning down the $50 and $100 Duriguttis he raved about and insisted I needed.

I suppose we shouldn't leave this subject without a mention of Bordeaux.  Every one of the five red grapes of Bordeaux is blended with at least some of the others and Cabernet Franc is ranked as the third most important grape there after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Fifty years ago Cab Franc plantings equalled Cabernet Sauvignon but they declined over the years as much due to Merlot's emergent popularity as anything.  Now Cab Franc is on the upswing again, especially in Pomerol and St. Emilion on the right bank where it's called "Bouchet".  Cab Franc makes up 50% of many of those estate blends and profiles with blackberry, plums, cassis, herbs and spices.  These examples pair well with all lighter red meats and poultry as well as vegetarian fare.

Meritage is the name we have given to American Bordeaux blends with Napa as its epicenter and it's in those wines that I have had most of my exposure to Cabernet Franc.  Considering the distance between Bordeaux and the Loire Valley in France and between Napa and Washington State here, it's at least interesting that the grapes are most often blended in the southern locale and offered up as varietals to the north in both cases.  It's too much of a generalization I suppose, but because Cabernet Franc is an earlier ripening, cooler climate grape, that may shed some light on the reason for this post.  Bob did sell me a case of the Durigutti Cabernet Franc and Mendoza, Argentina is nothing if not a high altitude, cool climate venue so maybe the Friday night opening of Durigutti Cabernet Franc will be...memorable!

Please join us for the event and at least think about becoming a follower here so I don't end up on the streets begging for spare change; or stop in the store, say you read the blog, and have a free peach cider on me (while supplies last)!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New Zealand Pinot Noir

For some reason I have been ignoring New Zealand Pinots at this little store in exurbanish Atlanta.  I stock plenty of Oregon and California Pinots because that's what the public wants and I stock a few French guys because that's what I want but the New Zealanders kind of fall between the cracks here.  Oh yeah, that's right, they don't sell as well as the others.  I knew there was a reason.  But they should do better because, frankly, they are better than our domestics which I guess just means I'll have to try harder!

Last week we got in Lawson's Dry Hills 2011 Pinot and I loved it for its earthiness but admittedly it's not for everyone because of that very quality.  This week it's the 2012 Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot that passed over our threshhold and after a little bit of internet research, I'm dying to taste it.  Most critics love everything from Villa Maria which is saying a lot because they market an extensive line of wines!  We'll be cracking that one open next Friday at the weekly event.

Both Lawson's and Villa Maria come from Marlborough which is the prime location for winemaking in New Zealand.  What I learned from my research though is that Marlborough is most prime for Sauvignon Blanc, the signature wine of New Zealand.  For Pinot, Marlborough is just one of five appellations that are optimal for the ever so finicky Pinot grape. That said, Marlborough has the most acreage devoted to Pinot Noir.

There are ten wine appellations in New Zealand.  Pinot does best in cool climates and New Zealand is the wine producing country furthest to the south in that southern hemisphere so, of the two New Zealand islands, it's the southern one that has the most and best Pinot Noir.  On the northern island in the bottom western corner lie Martinborough and Wairapa, two of that island's best Pinot producing venues.  At the top of the southern island lie Nelson and Marlborough, to the eastern and western sides respectively, and at the southernmost end of the island lies Central Otago.  So those are the five premier Pinot appellations of New Zealand.

In the next installment we'll further unpack the dirt on New Zealand Pinot Noir and why it is being called the best value worldwide in Pinot Noir and what makes it the only real competition for Burgundy!

Join us for the tasting here next Friday between 5 and 8pm when we'll open that Villa Maria along with a slew of others!  And for gosh sakes, if you love pinot, become a follower of the darn blog!

New Zealand Pinot Noir, Part 2

"God made Cabernet Sauvignon.  The devil made Pinot Noir." - Andre Tschelistcheff

Mr. Tschelistcheff is an A-lister amongst the giants of the American wine industry so what could possibly irk him so about Pinot Noir to evoke that kind of a pronouncement?  Could it be that the darn grape seems to fail to produce anything worthwhile ninety percent of the time?  Actually, in my humble opinion, the percentage should be much higher than that!

In the previous installment we mentioned the cool climate mandatory for the grape's success.  Now lets look at soil.  New Zealand is located on a techtonic fault line in the Pacific Ocean which obviously means the islands were created by volcanic activity.  The soil is a mix of sandstone (Greywhacke, locally) and schist which is a degraded minerally rock that was once clay and mud.  That mix results in a free draining alluvial soil that is common in most vineyard valleys with variations on the many hillsides in New Zealand. 

Martinborough, Waipara, Marlborough, Nelson, and Central Otago are the five major Pinot regions.  They mainly share the same soil and topography but while the maritime climate is common to nine of the ten wine appellations, Central Otago's large wine valley is surrounded by barrier hills giving it a continental climate.  Central Otago is also the place where New Zealand Pinot reaches its lush quality zenith.

Pinot Noir at its best is approachable, refined, and contemplative.  As my mentor Jim Sanders always maintained, Pinot Noir is the only wine that actually improves in the glass.  New Zealand Pinot Noir is fruit-driven, intense, and expressive.  It has old world elegance and structure but because the grapes are left on the vine longer for new world tastes, the wine is rounder and lower in acidity than Burgundy.  Texturally, it seems to be more Syrah-like with the earthiness we spoke of earlier being part and parcel of the product.  But because all New Zealand Pinot Noir is entirely stainless steel-produced, the fruit becomes especially intensified.

So why is good Pinot Noir so difficult to produce?  Aside from the terroir attributes listed above, the grape, itself, is handicapped.  Pinot grapes are small, thin-skinned berries that normally produce a light-in-body, light-in-color, light-in-flavor wine due essentially to the lack of pigment in the skins.  Red wines get their flavor from the skins.  Moreover, this kind of grape is prone to fungal infections, rot, and downy mildew in warmer climates, which by the way, also explains why prices are so high for Pinot.

Please join us Friday the 19th between 5 and 8pm, when we taste 2012 Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir along with a number of other great companion wines.  And become a follower here so I don't end up a greeter at Walmart!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Collio DOC

"Colli" are hills in Italy and in this case they are the hillsides around the town of Gorizea in the very northeasternmost wine appellation, Friuli-Venezia Giulia.  The Collio or Collio Goriziano DOC is a crescent-shaped 1,500 hectare vineyard expanse that hugs the Slovenian border about in the middle of that side of the eastern Italian land border.  To the north are the Italian Alps with Austria not far beyond them and to the south lies the Adriatic Sea.  Italy has owned this territory since the end of World War I in 1918.

The region has an ethnically rich populous composed of Latin, German, and Slavic cultures supported by an economy largely driven by farming, both grapes and vegetables, along with chemical, paper,and textile industries as part of the mix.  Cultural features and resorts are, of course, di rigueur there as in most any part of Italy.  If the region has one component which it can set out as its calling card though, it would be the wine industry which produces aromatically complex whites displaying a purity of fruit superior by most anyone's standards.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia received its DOC in 1968 and became known for Tocai Friulano, a fruity dry white which still reigns among the best of the region but now shares its status with a couple other DOCG wines and nine other DOCs within the Friuli borders.  Like everywhere else, the native grape varieties have ceded vineyard space to the commercially viable international varieties.  Collio is the fourth largest DOC in Friuli with vineyards located entirely on hillsides and it is this ideally unique terroir, particularly the climate and soil, that enables the delightful wines described above to come into fruition.

The alluvial soil of the region is called ponca and it's made up of calcareous marl, flysch sandstone, and microelements including fossils from its seabed origins fifty million years ago.  The climate is Mediterranean but uniquely so with the Alps providing both a barrier against the cold northern winds and allowing the warm moist air currents from the Adriatic Sea to become trapped there making  Collio one of the wettest of wine production regions.  Because we're talking about hillside vineyards though, much of the cloud cover and precipitation lies below the vineyards which, along with the warm sea breezes, serves to reduce any fungal damage to the vines.  The diurnal effect of drastic day/night temperature shifts also works in this terroir to intensify grape phenolics.  

Last night we tasted one of my favorite whites, Attems Pinot Grigio, an IGT out of Venezia Giulia.  The current vintage is 2013 and while the Attems estate is located in Collio and the label used to wear that appellation, it is now imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners and the Michael Mondavi Family of Napa, California.  As these things go, now the vineyard sourcing has been expanded with the resultant flavor profile being less intensified and somewhat more commercialized.  That said, the wine is still plenty good and the assembled tasting crowd received it well.  The Attems profiled with flavors of apricot and honeydew melon in a lean and clean format that would definitely lend itself to seafood of all stripes.