Archive for the ‘Weekly Wine Review’ Category

The Ghost of Martin Ray

martinCourtney Benham tripped over some dusty boxes, and the ghost of an old winemaker slipped out.

It happened one day about 20 years ago, in a dusty warehouse in San Jose. The winemaker was Martin Ray, long since gone but once known as “the father of California fine wine.” He’d left behind some 1500 cases of library wines, some dating back 40 years, and boxes of press clippings, winery brochures, and price lists.

Courtney, who had grown up working in his father’s winery in the Sacramento Delta,  couldn’t let the past disappear all over again. He set out to reinvent Martin Ray Winery, and started by tasting and analyzing the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir he’d unearthed.

Courtney discovered that the keys to the Martin Ray style were two things — hillside or mountain-grown fruit, and “intuitive winemaking”, or knowing when to intervene and when to let the wine alone to create itself.

Judging from the two wines I tripped over, Martin’s ghost is surely resting easy in his grave. First I tasted Martin Ray Napa Valley Merlot 2009, and I said, “Holy Cow!” (or something like that). This is a big, balls-y, lush, seductive Merlot, and I’m guessing the mountain fruit has a lot to do with that. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

To Oak or Not To Oak… A Chardonnay Wine Review


Montes modern facility in Chile

“I love this warmth and richness.”

“I hate this heavy oak.”

Or how about…

“I love this snappy grapefruit.”

“I hate how this acid turns my mouth inside out.”

Both these examples of diametrically opposed taste buds are classic examples of why we can’t all enjoy the same white wines. Oak is oak, acid is acid, and never the twain shall meet. And these are not made up comments: they are actual conversations between me and my husband while tasting white wine.

“A-Ha!” you say. Does this indicate irreparable marital discord? I don’t think so. I hope not.

But what it comes down to is this: white wines represent a very wide array of styles and winemaking techniques, from super-dry, flinty and acidic wines such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Austrian Gruner Veltliner, to oaky, soft, even flabby Chardonnays (classic California style). In my vast (or pretty vast) experience of conducting and participating in wine tastings, people’s palates go either one way or the other: they either love New Zealand whites or they hate them, and they either love oak-y Chards or hate them.

But let’s make a big wine wish: What if we could find a white that would bridge the gap; that would be like the Nobel Peace Prize of the wine world and unite the warring factions? Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

How Mountains Make Wine: Finca Decero

deceroOnce upon a time there was a remote patch of soil in the shadow of some mighty snow-capped mountains. The soil grew only scrub and rocks, and was teased all day long by the “remolinos,” little whirlwinds that kicked up the dusty soil.

A young man with Switzerland and Napa in his ancestry came over the snow-capped mountains and found the patch of soil. He must have been visited by a strong vision, because he decided to dig down into the soil and plant vines that he hoped would someday grow wonderful, rich, ripe red grapes…

So that’s enough of the fable format. Rather than wearing it way too thin, I’ll just jump right to 2011 and the Finca Decero estates in the once-remote Agrelo region of Mendoza, Argentina. It really was created “from scratch” (the meaning of Decero) and includes the Remolinos Vineyard, which is planted to several red grape varieties. This being Mendoza, Malbec is king, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot also get some space.

We know the soil can produce some wonderful reds: Finca Decero’s wines have received huge ratings ever since their inaugural vintages (the Malbec earned 92 points from the Wine Advocate, the highest score ever given a Malbec). So what’s so special about this land? Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

I Love What It’s NOT: Lava Cap Petite Sirah Reserve El Dorado 2005

lava capPetite Sirah is a tricky wine. It can seduce you with its richness and voluptuous flavors, while it’s hitting you upside the head with over-the-top tannins and alcohol. Not that that’s a bad thing…

In case you’re not very familiar with the grape, here’s some background. Petite Sirah used to be very widely planted in California. It was bottled as a varietal and used as a blending grape when a wimpier wine needed some body and color. But then Merlot became all the rage. Growers couldn’t wait to rip out Petite Sirah and plant Merlot in its place. Let’s not mention that Merlot became overplanted just in time for Pinot Noir to become the sexy red grape, and push out all that Merlot acreage…

But back at the ranch, some California winemakers were still producing Petite Sirah. It’s by nature a big, fleshy, tannic wine, and it fit with the trend to heavier, higher-alcohol wines. Petite Sirah producers didn’t pull any punches: they let their wines climb to 15%+ alcohol, with a stain-your-teeth, knock-you-on-your-butt character. Petite Sirah became the Big Bruiser of California Reds.

That’s what I was expecting when I tasted Lava Cap Petite Sirah Granite Hill 2005. I knew it came from the Sierra Nevada Foothill region, and the El Dorado appellation. This area is known for big Zins, so I was expecting a ball-buster. But I got something much better… Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Welcome to the Other World of Wine: Ruta 22 Malbec

pataginiaIf you head south to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then keep heading south through Pampas grasslands, alongside towering Andes mountains, through forests and beside remote lakes, you’ll finally get to Neuquen, Patagonia. This distant valley is so far away from all the civilized, corporate, congested wine places like Burgundy and Napa Valley that you would think you’re in another world. And you are: that’s what the owners of Ruta 22 call this place. It’s not part of the Old World of wine, although they have French winemakers. And it’s not part of the New World of wine, although they grow intense, fruity New World style wine. It’s truly the Other World of wine.

Patagonia and the Neuquen Valley are a study in extremes. The topography is difficult, and the climate more so. There’s a huge “diurnal temperature shift,” or difference between day and night-time temperatures — like 35 degrees Fahrenheit. This produces structure and acid in the fruit. There’s very little rainfall, which stresses the grapevines and creates more intense aromas and flavors; and almost constant winds that challenge the vines but keep them relatively free of pests so that chemicals aren’t necessary. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

The Rise of the American Negociant: Cameron Hughes Lot 190

ch“Negociant” isn’t an American word. At least, it didn’t used to be. Wine negociants were guys like Georges Dubouef and Jorge Ordonez — men with European accents who I imagined wearing berets and pencil-thin mustaches. Back in the day it was accepted in the American wine market that fellows like Georges and Jorge (Wow! That’s the same name in two different languages!), would scour the French/Spanish countryside, finding wonderful lots of wine from small, independent producers and labeling them under their own name. These negociants chose their wine well and developed a reputation for quality — for always putting good value in their bottles. American wine drinkers became loyal followers.

But we didn’t have the same kind of creature Stateside until the Great Recession made the bottom fall out of the wine market, leaving a huge bubble — maybe even an ocean! — of surplus wine. And I don’t mean Central Valley, hot-climate, destined-for-a-5-liter-box wine. There was a big giant surplus in the premium to ultra-premium category. Napa and Sonoma wineries that had sold their Cabs in the $50 and up range saw finished cases stacking up in their warehouses, from not just one but two or more unsold (or under-sold) vintages. And let’s not even talk about all that juice in barrels that had nowhere to go…

Most high-end wineries were reluctant to start discounting their wine, because they didn’t want to devalue a brand whose prestige they’d worked many years to develop. But they needed some cash-flow, damn it! So what’s a winery to do? Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Three Thieves Steal Reality TV

thievesI said in yesterday’s post that TV “Wars” are all the rage. The only fad that can top it, is Reality TV.

There are reality TV shows about all sorts of crazy stuff. They run the gamut from bizarre to downright creepy, following characters such as spoiled rich kids, spoiled rich adults, truckers driving very big trucks on very icy roads, people who dwell in swamps, and spoiled rich celebrities.

Personally, I couldn’t care less what any of these people do. But Scripps Network and the Cooking Channel have finally stumbled on a story idea that’s really interesting to me. There is a group of three guys who bottle wine under the Three Thieves label; Joel Gott, Charles Bieler, and Roger Scommegna. Gott is a Napa Valley native (fifth generation Napa, in fact) who has his own eponymous label (fancy word for “named after him”) and has thrown in with the other guys for the Three Thieves project. They chose that name because they “steal” premium surplus wine and bottle it to sell at crazy low prices.

What Joel, Charles and Roger are doing is taking very good advantage of the current oversupply of premium wine. They can buy surplus wine and sell it for a fraction the price it would normally command, so they set out to find great juice from around the wine world.thief

Amador Zinfandel was their first project, and it got great ratings. They moved on to California Cabernet, and hit the jackpot again. Their next project was Argentine Malbec, and that’s what I’m reviewing today.

I have a special interest in Argentine wines, because I lived in Buenos Aires for two years. I’ve traveled the country, and know that it’s an amazingly diverse place (not unlike the USA), and has been making good red wine for centuries. Argentina is red wine country, because they eat beef, beef, bread, and beef. Vegans would starve there…

But Malbec  is Argentina’s special gift to the wine world. While the grape originated in France, it has virtually disappeared there. It has thrived in the Andes foothills of Argentina’s Mendoza region, where vineyards at high altitudes get intense sunlight to ripen grapes and cool temperatures to develop acid and structure. Malbec has indeed become Argentina’s signature grape.

So in honor of the Cooking Channel’s broadcast of the Three Thieves show, I uncorked a bottle of The Show 2009 Malbec. The  Three Thieves had set out to make an “iconic” Malbec, and the grapes they chose for this wine come from two Mendoza vineyards, both at over 3000 feet elevation.

I think the flavor profile is right on: this wine is no tooty fruity, easy-drinking red. It has substance and character, and needs a little more time to show what it can do. The nose shows tart berries like cranberries, with a little gaminess and floral aromatics. The palate at first showed just tart fruits such as red currant, rhubarb and cranberry. But there’s a deep, dark element too, with a hint of tar, cedar spice and tannin on the finish.

Then I did my “kicker”: I smelled the empty glass. This is a really revealing exercise: the empty glass shows the true essence of a wine. And this one showed rich mocha.

So fast-forward to the next day, when I poured a glass of The Show Malbec with Thai Chicken. The fruit had ripened and softened, and matched well even with the sweet/spicy coconut milk sauce. It was really fun…

I’d suggest you look for the next showing of the Cooking Channel Three Thieves show, grab a bottle of The Show Malbec (or whatever Show wine you can find), kick back and enjoy. Cheers!

  • Share/Bookmark

Announcing the Pizza Wine Wars!

pizzaFake wars seem to be hot these days. If you turn on your TV, you  can see Bridal Wars (about bitchy brides), Parking Wars (about bitchy parking meter attendants), and even Cupcake Wars (about… cupcakes). I’m not kidding: you can apparently make a war out of anything.

If you’ve seen any of these shows, you know they’re all based on the premise that you can generate hysterically overwrought competitive fervor by pitting one boring thing against another, and offering a cash prize to the winner.

My War is anything but boring. Its mission is to find the World’s Greatest Wine To Drink With Pizza. That’s a tall order, since there are many, many worthy candidates out there, and it’ll take a lot of drinking to choose the winner. But I’m up for the challenge. Put me in, coach!

I already have one worthy candidate, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. You can click here to read the entire post about Garnacha de Fuego, but let me just say that it’s a kick-ass Spanish red that was born to marry pizza, or for that matter, any red sauce dish.

Last night I found another contender. I had a Hawaiian pizza in front of me (ham and pineapple, a relic of my college days) and popped (or rather, unscrewed) a new Australian Cabernet. I usually like Aussie Cab — lots of punch for the buck. This one is called Woop Woop Cabernet woopSauvignon 2009, and it’s made by a group of  seemingly crazy Aussies in the McLaren Vale district. At least they seem crazy, because on their website they say stuff like, “Do ya reckon he went all the way to Bullamakanka? Cut it out. He wouldn’t have gotten within a cooee of Woop Woop.” Huh?

Gotta love those Aussies.  Woop Woop is apparently an Australian expression similar to our BFE (do I need to explain?), so they say their wines are “Out there from Out There.” This Cab’s grapes are sourced from remote vineyards in South Australia, including McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek. Both sites feature topography that creates a substantial cooling influence, producing very good acid in the fruit.

So that’s why this works so well with pizza! The bright acid in this wine hits the natural acid in the tomato sauce and the whole thing ignites the fruit in the wine. It caught me by surprise, because the nose is pretty restrained, showing just tart red currant and cranberry. But the fruit on the palate is rich and intense, suggesting black raspberry, dark cherries and blackberry. When I sipped the Woop Woop with my pizza’s sweet pineapple and smoky ham, I thought I was in heaven.

Woop Woop Cabernet weighs in at 15% alcohol, so it’s no lightweight. But that great acid keeps it from being heavy or jammy, and gives it great balance. It really is an amazing bottle for $12 or so. And here’s one final kicker — there’s no oak in this wine, but you won’t miss it. The rich, tangy fruit is all you’ll need.

Make sure you send a comment if there’s a wine you want to enter in the Pizza Wine Wars, and Cheers!

  • Share/Bookmark

Elegance and Balance: Hesketh “The Protagonist” Shiraz 2008


Label artwork for The Protagonist by Hamish Macdonald

Restraint isn’t something we’ve come to expect from Australian wines. There are plenty of 15 and 15.5% Aussie Shiraz that bowl over your palate and senses with intense fruit, oak, and alcohol.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — there are times when I revel in the sheer excess of it all (see my review of Some Young Punks wine,“Taking Excess to the Extreme”).

But after basking for awhile in the hedonistic pleasures of such wines, reason (and shame) eventually bring me back to the balance point: i.e. that elusive place where fruit, alcohol, and tannin are all in perfect balance.

I drank a wine recently that struck me as pretty close to the balance point. In a wine bar in Arizona, I ordered a Shiraz I’d never seen before — Hesketh “The Protagonist” Barossa Valley Shiraz 2008. I know Barossa’s warm climate can produce blockbuster Shiraz, so I prepared my nose and palate for some monster fruit. Read the rest of this entry »

  • Share/Bookmark

Great Value “Second Label” Shiraz from Australia: Four Sisters Shiraz

4 sistersTrevor Mast is a great Australian winemaker whose wines have made it to the front cover of Wine Spectator magazine, alongside the likes of Penfold’s Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. His wines and wineries have all the credibility they’ll ever need.

Trevor is also known as a pioneer of cool-climate viticulture, which is evidenced by the boatload of awards and high ratings that he’s won over the years for his Mount Langi Ghiran wines. Langi Ghiran was his first and flagship  winery, which he bought in 1987, but he created Four Sisters Winery in the mid-1990′s so he could offer a line of wines that was stylish but sophisticated and appealed to a younger crowd, i.e. the Millennial Generation. He had several Millennials at home — his four daughters — and they’re the namesakes for the winery.

To give you a bit of backstory, Mast was first bitten by the wine bug when he was 20 years old, and honed his skills in viticulture and winemaking with a four-year stint in Germany. It may seem like it’s a long way from German Riesling to Australian Shiraz, but the remote region of Victoria where Mast’s vineyards lie can be just as challenging for its cool temperatures.sisters

The cool-climate growing conditions of Victoria province are obvious in the Four Sisters Shiraz 2008 that I enjoyed yesterday. It stands apart from most other $15 and under Shiraz because it’s not just fruity and jammy. The acid produced by the cool temperatures makes it bright and snappy, and the 4% Viognier blended right in during fermentation keeps the fruit bright and fragrant. The 2008 vintage in particular produced rich and intense flavors in the berries. There’s certainly plenty of Shiraz’ trademark black raspberry fruit in this wine, but it’s joined by spice, vanilla and that tangy finish.

This would be a great food wine, and I’d love to taste it with spicy red sauce or maybe red Chile. Do yourself a favor and find this or any other Four Sisters wine and give it a try. I’m going to do the same. Cheers!

  • Share/Bookmark
Wine Accessories

Switch to our mobile site