Archive for the ‘wine characteristics’ Category

Benziger Leads The Way in Organics


Benziger uses natural pests to keep vineyards healthy.

I remember, back in the day, when organics were “just stuff for aging hippies.” Whether it was organic food or wine, the average guy believed it was a bunch of  mumbo-jumbo, and even if it was better for you, organic stuff sure wouldn’t taste as good as our  factory-made, chemically-enhanced stuff.

There were a few wineries experimenting with organic farming, but they didn’t promote it. In fact, I had to beg a rep from a good-sized Oregon winery to put “Organic” somewhere on the label, in a type size big enough to actually read it. Their marketing people were afraid wine shoppers would avoid their wine if they “admitted” they used organic practices.

Meanwhile, there was a winery in California’s Sonoma County. At Benziger Winery, they started out growing grapes the way everyone else did, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It took a few years for one of the brothers, Mike Benziger, to decide that he was seeing changes in the vineyards, and they weren’t good. He wanted to revitalize the vineyards, and the fruit they produced, by using more natural methods.

“We learned which flowers attracted the bugs we needed to keep pest populations in control. Habitats were created for birds and owls, and we brought cows, sheep and chickens to live on the property.

Once the estate found its balance, the wines did too. As we tasted the wines grown from such a healthy and vibrant place, we realized that the distinctiveness and authenticity we were lacking before was right in the glass. Healing the land had led to an amazing new caliber of wines and we knew we had to begin applying the lessons learned on our estate to all the vineyards we worked with.”

That was the beginning of Benziger’s industry-leading conversion to Sustainable/Organic/Biodynamic winemaking. They and all the growers they buy from are certified at one of those levels. And in case you’re not sure what those words mean, here’s a quick primer (thanks to Benziger’s very informative website).

Sustainable Farming “emphasizes environmentally sound growing methods, such as biodiversity, soil revitalization and Integrated Pest Management, and shows growers how to cultivate grapes with more character, flavors and aromas with the goal of making better, genuinely distinctive wines.”

Organic certification is more stringent. “It avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and uses natural methods like crop rotation, tillage and natural composts to maintain soil health as well as natural methods to control weeds, insects and other pests.”

Biodynamics “is the highest level of organic farming. Instead of bagged fertilizer, weed killer and pesticides we rely on composting, natural predator-prey relationships, cover crops, and the animals that live on our estate, to keep our vineyard healthy and balanced.”

Do you get it now? There’s no mumbo-jumbo at all. It’s a very common-sense approach, and it’s designed to make better wine for you. Here’s a final quote from Chris Benziger:

“We don’t just farm this way because we think caring for the land is the right thing to do, it also happens to be the best way to make distinctive, authentic wines. By treating our vineyards the best way we know how, we’re making wines we’re really proud of. And that is good for, well, everybody.”

So it’s really all about what’s in the bottle. Benziger makes several families of wines, from different varietals and at different price points. I’ll be tasting some of those tonight in a live Twitter Tasting. These events are great — I’ll be able to taste the wines and talk (by Internet) to Mike Banziger himself.

Tomorrow I’ll start reporting on the wines and our online tasting. Stay tuned! Same Bat time, same Bat channel… Cheers!

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A Surprise from a Classic Winery: Sterling Napa County Meritage 2007

If you think you know everything you need to know about anything, then think again.

I thought I knew all I needed to know about Napa Valley’s Sterling Vineyards. I thought they had a classic reputation but weren’t very interesting, probably based on the fact that their wines have very large distribution — i.e. they’re in almost every grocery store. (As a small, independent wine retailer, I look for brands that my customers can’t pick up while they’re shopping for lettuce and milk.)

So when I came across a Sterling label that wasn’t familiar to me, I jumped on the internet to look it up. And I learned that Sterling Vineyards has a rather interesting history. The winery was created more than 30 years ago by successful British entrepreneur Peter Newton, who I’m guessing fell in love with the landscape and climate of the Napa Valley (if you’ve spent much time in London, you’ll now why).

Remember, this was back before Napa was a “wine country destination.” Newton planted some additional vineyards around the valley, including the first significant plantings of Merlot.

What??  You mean Sterling pre-dates, and may even have had a hand in creating, the American love affair with Merlot? (which later became a scornful relationship, thanks to one crack by a wine geek in a movie called “Sideways.”) Read the rest of this entry »

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Elderton Friends Vineyard Series Shiraz 2009: Intensity With Brightness

barossaElderton Wines shows you how great Australian wines and wineries can be. They’re family-owned and operated. They have vineyards dating back to the 19th century. They express terroir with elegance and style. And oh yeah — they’ve won a boatload of awards for their fabulous wines.

Deservedly so. Their primary Barossa line shows the big, bold style that the region is famous for. But they have another project, the Friends Vineyard Series, that says “Barossa” on the front label, but is designed to showcase a lesser-known sub-region.

The Eden Valley vineyards from which this fruit is sourced don’t sit on the Barossa Valley floor. They’re scattered up the hillsides, at elevations from 1200 to 1500 feet. Combine the effects of elevation with the cooler, wetter climate and more minerally soils of the Eden Valley sites, and you get fruit with more acid and structure, along with intense flavors.

When I poured the Elderton Friends Vineyard Series 2009 Shiraz, I saw what I expected: intense deep garnet and purple color that you could barely shine a pin-light through. The nose hit me with fruit, as I expected it would, but it wasn’t just tooty-fruity. There was lots of cedar and spice, tart red berries, and even a bit of meatiness tickling the back.

The palate had all sorts of stuff going on. The first was black raspberry candy. Ever had a black raspberry Jolly Rancher? If they made them, they would taste like this. And that’s a good thing — the rich fruit was clean and not jammy. Because the crisp acid jumped in right behind the fruit. It lifted the palate and made way for the eucalyptus and mint that followed. My palate was not quite overwhelmed, because as the finish lingered, a little black licorice teased me.

Boy — there’s enough stuff here for a meal. And did I mention my meal?

I was eating Seared Tuna as I sipped my Elderton, and the match turned out to be brilliant, if I do say so myself. The slight smokiness of the tuna was perfect with the sweet black raspberry fruit.

And this really was a good food wine. You might think that Aussie Shiraz is a meal in itself, but the Eden Valley version has so much natural acid that it keeps the wine bright and laser-beam clean. Elderton Friends is actually a fairly mind-blowing combination of intense fruit and tangy brightness.

And oh yeah — there are a few things you don’t get with this wine. The first is heavy oak, which used to be considered a feature of all Barossas. The second is a big price tag. You can take home the Friends Shiraz for under $20, and that’s a lot of fun for the money. Cheers!



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Giving Wines a Health Score: Sense or Nonsense?

grapesI read in a recent post by Dr. Vino that a couple of British wine people have created an online wine store that rates all of its wines on a healthfulness scale.  The site is called and here’s how Dr. Vino describes it.

Vinopic brings together Rosemary George, Master of Wine and one of the UK’s leading wine writers and critics, and Professor Roger Corder, world renowned health expert and author of The Wine Diet. These two wine experts assess and score every wine at Vinopic for the two key elements of wine quality. Roger guides consumers in the direction of higher “natural quality” by taking into consideration the richness in grape polyphenols. Rosemary ensures the wines are of superior “drinking quality”, rewarding aroma, taste and pleasure.

If you’re wondering what they mean by “Natural quality” and what “grape polyphenols” have to do with anything, they’re obliquely referring to our old friend, Resveratrol. This substance found in red grapes and therefore red wine was the Miracle Drug of the mouseMoment a year or two ago. Researchers found that if they fed massive amounts to laboratory mice, the little critters would show reduced signs of aging. (You can read all about it in my post, “Are You A Man (Woman) Or A Mouse?”).

Every nutritionist and anti-aging quack jumped on the Resveratrol bandwagon, and many wine geeks made it their mission to figure out which red wines would give drinkers the most anti-aging bang for their buck. They published articles saying things like, “Cool-climate Pinot Noir has the highest levels of Resveratrol, followed by mountain-grown Malbec” (or something like that).

People who didn’t know any better (i.e. who drank little or no wine of any kind) came stumbling into my wine shop, clutching dog-eared pages ripped out of magazines and newspapers. They believed that the key to their health and happiness lay in procuring this one, exact, cool-climate, mountain-grown red wine. And when I told them the Oregon Pinot they were seeking was gonna run them $25 or $30 a bottle, they almost wept.

What was the problem then? Too much hype and not enough common sense.

And what’s wrong with the Vinopic concept (in my humble opinion)? Too much hype and not enough common sense.


Wines made from grapes that ripen slowly, i.e. where cooler temperatures and lots of sunlight allow longer “hang time,” will have more developed polyphenols (and Resveratrol), which are the compounds in red grapes that ripen more slowly than grape sugars and also happen to contribute flavor and complexity to wine.

Grapes grown that way are also the ones used to make higher-quality wines: it costs more to baby the grapes through their growing season, usually dropping fruit to limit yields and further improve quality. So the wines made from these grapes cost more.

The cheaper wines generally use grapes grown by the boatload, the more tons the merrier, in the relatively hot Central Valleys of the world.

Do they have less Resveratrol? Yes. Are they less healthful and lower quality? Yes again.

But not just because of the Resveratrol. These wines happen to be made by companies that intend to fill grocery store shelves with wine in jugs and boxes. To keep costs down and to standardize flavor profiles, they add to the wine: CHEMICALS, SUGAR, SULFITES, AND GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE.

So we’re getting around to the Moral of my Story: If you want to be healthy, feel youthful, and enjoy a lovely-tasting beverage with food, friends and family — drink any red wine that doesn’t come in a jug or 5 liter box (notice I said % liter, because there’s some decent stuff in 3 liter boxes) and doesn’t cost less than about $8 a bottle. (Or even a little less for some good-quality and good-tasting imports from Spain, Chile or Argentina.)

It’s that simple. You don’t need complicated rating systems or scientific reports — just ask your friendly local wine merchant to recommend a good, naturally-made red (i.e. with no unnecessary additives) and whether it’s a Pinot Noir, Malbec, Rioja or Cab, you’ll be doing your body a favor while you give yourself some fun and pleasure.

And now excuse me — I’m gonna pour myself a glass of red wine. Cheers!

P.S. – I tried to go to and Google says “Cannot Be Found.”




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A Tale of Two Chardonnays: Part 2 (Rodney Strong)


Yesterday I made a confession: I like oaky Chardonnay. Not the “two by four in your mouth” kind of oaky, but I definitely like some richness and toast. I won’t take you through my diatribe again: you can read the story if you really want to hear it. Let me just cut to the chase and talk about one of the two great everyday Chardonnays I’ve enjoyed recently.

Rodney Strong Vineyards has been a bastion of Sonoma County wine culture since it was established in 1959. Rodney was one of the first to believe in the potential of a Northern California wine region that was Not Napa. He explored the micro-climates of the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and what is known now as the Sonoma Coast, and identified the best vineyard sites for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other classic varietals.

He realized that Chardonnay would thrive in the cool-climate regions in western and southwestern Sonoma County, where the influence of the Pacific Ocean allowed the grapes to ripen slowly and develop great flavors and acid.

Thirty years later, Tom Klein, fourth generation California agriculturalist, took the reins at Rodney Strong and continued the program of single vineyard, reserve and blended bottlings.

The Chard I tasted, Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay 2009, is part of their entry-level series. Grapes are sourced from vineyards in the Russian River, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Coast and blended to create — my favorite style of Chardonnay. Read the rest of this entry »

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Mollydooker Knocks It Out of the Park (Again)

feetGetting to know Mollydooker wines is like getting to know the hottest guy in town — it ain’t easy. He’s a lot more popular than you are, so he can be choosy, and make you wait.

I’ve been trying to get to know Mollydooker wines, but they’re maddeningly hard to get (because they sell out). I can’t find them at all in my home state — I had to have a single bottle delivered like a CARE package from the state next door. It was The Boxer, and it was great, and I wrote a story about it that you can read here.

So I just about jumped out of my skin when I saw not one, but two bottles of Molly Dooker Two Left Feet 2008 sitting on a retailer’s shelf. They went home with me, needless to say, and I treated them to a Rib dinner.sarah sparky

Before I talk about the wine, let me fill you in on the winery. ”Mollydooker” is another one of those wacky  Aussie words, and it means “left-handed,” which describes Sarah and Sparky Marquis. This young couple are Australian wine royalty, having won everything from Australian Winemakers of the Year (several times) to  five, count’em, five 99 point ratings from  The Wine Advocate. They started out partnering with grape growers to create exceptional fruit, from which they made exceptional wines. Some of their early brands include Marquis Philips and Henry’s Drive, both of which win the ratings sweepstakes on a regular basis.

The key to their exceptional wines is the vineyard, with a trademarked process they call the “Marquis Vineyard Watering Programme.” Vineyard canopy management and irrigation are meticulously controlled throughout the season, particularly as they near harvest. Here’s why: As grapes near maturity, their sugar levels shoot up very quickly. That may seem like a good thing, but there’s a catch: to reach their full flavor potential, grapes must also be physiologically ripe. The ripening of the polyphenols and other compounds that produce complex flavors lag behind the sugars, so here’s what they do:

“the Mollydooker team applies water to control the sugar level until the flavor level catches up. Leigh, Sparky’s Dad and Vineyard Programme Manager, tells us, “It’s the range and intensity of the flavor which translates into Marquis Fruit Weight™, and ultimately into the incredibly rich, velvety wines that have become Sarah and Sparky’s trademark.”

Now isn’t that cool? Read the rest of this entry »

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Intensity Without Heaviness: Siduri Strikes Again

siduriI’ve said plenty of nice things about Siduri Pinot Noir, because they just always seem to be knock-down good.  So when I wanted a Pinot for a wine and food pairing dinner, I took a flyer on a Siduri I’d never tasted and that was so new it had (gasp!) no ratings!

Did I dare serve a wine that hadn’t been blessed by one of the Godfathers of the wine biz? This would be crazy behavior for all those review freaks who drink and buy according to someone else’s opinion, but I know Siduri, and Siduri knows Pinot Noir, so I knew I’d made a safe bet.

So lets’s get down to the wine. I chose Siduri Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2009, which was so new that it hadn’t even made it to Siduri’s own website. I checked out the tech notes on the previous vintage (which was, of course, long since sold out), and learned that Siduri’s Sonoma County is usually a blend of  fruit from several vineyards from Sonoma Mountain and the Sonoma Coast AVA. I’ll discover the blend eventually, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and we sure loved our pudding…

The wine I poured showed very youthful, vibrant color and the nose jumped right out of the glass and into my nasal receptors.The intensity of the fruit was clearly obvious, with rich dark cherry, spice and a hint of smoke. The palate didn’t disappoint — sweet berries hit me right up front, followed by hints of cola, tobacco, and more rich berries. The whole thing was wrapped up in a velvet package, with a mouthfeel that was so voluptuous it was almost sinful (almost…).

Here’s the best part: it was intense without being heavy. It never slipped over the line into that, “Is this a Pinot or Petite Sirah” territory. I think this is an indication of masterful winemaking, and that’s why Adam and Dianna Lee, Siduri’s owners/winemakers, been so well awarded over the years.

Clearly, I was knocked out (again) by a Siduri Pinot. I want to taste it again, though, and see what a few months of bottle aging does to it. Hey, I see another wine and food pairing dinner coming on…. Stay tuned!

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A Classic Wins Hands Down: Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2010

alsaceI have to admit tthat I’m in awe of the fine wines of Alsace. They seem elegant, sophisticated, and delightful to drink… so why isn’t anyone drinking them??

In my corner of the U.S., Alsatian white wines are about as common on local dinner tables as Frogs Legs. By that I mean that many folks have heard of them, but hardly anyone actually consumes them. Let’s try to change that…

First of all, let me explain that Alsace sits on the northern edge of France, but it owes much more to Germany in its winemaking traditions.  Alsace’s wine grape growing region is sandwiched between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east, so they’re within spitting distance of Germany’s vineyards. The grapes they grow are similar to Germany and Austria — Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris — and unlike the rest of France, the Alsatians label their wines with the grape name instead of the region.

(Sidebar for those who find wine labels impenetrable: France and most of Europe name a wine for the region it’s from, such as Sancerre, rather than the grape it’s made from, such as Sauvignon Blanc.)mann

So Alsace follows Germany’s wine styles. The area also follows its climate: it’s pretty darn cool up there, but the Vosges Mountains at least protect the vineyards from the worst of the winds and keeps rainfall to a minimum. So despite its cold continental climate, all that sun helps the grapes ripen more than they otherwise would that far north.

But let’s get to the wine. I put Albert Mann Pinot Blanc 2010 in a blind tasting (that means the wine labels are hidden), and expected to smell and taste lots of acid (from the cool temperatures), plenty of minerals (from the soil), and not much more. Boy, did  I fool myself. Read the rest of this entry »

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South of the Equator Wins Again: Morande Reserva Pinot Noir 2009

chileI wrote a few days ago about a cheap and cheerful red wine from Chile. I said Morande Pionero Carmenere was easy to enjoy, without challenging your palate or grey matter in any way. So I pulled out another bottle of Vina Morande from their higher-end Reserva line.

This one is the Morande Reserva Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley 2009, and I admit I was skeptical when I saw “Pinot Noir” on the label. Beyond a cheap grocery store brand, Chile isn’t known for its Pinot Noir, but for the bolder, earthier reds such as Carmenere, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. So I put on my Researcher cap and dug up some useful info.

First of all, Chile represents a vast wine-growing region, with many different micro-climates. Its geography is unique, because the country is boxed in by four topographic features: the towering Andes mountains to the east; the cool Pacific Ocean to the west; the driest place on earth to the north (that would be the Atacama Desert); and glacial Antarctica to the south. Wow — that’s a lot of geography for a long, skinny country.

But those seemingly-daunting features have also created a wine-growing paradise. They protected Chilean vineyards from the Phyloxxera epidemic that decimated the world’s growing regions in the late 1800′s. They’ve also created many micro-climates that make it possible for Chilean winemakers to source world-class fruit. Read the rest of this entry »

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Bordeaux + Chile = Carmenere

morandeI admit it — I really like South American wines. They can be bold, rustic, in-your-face and over-the-top, but that’s they’re style. They’re like a Latin lover: hot-blooded, hot-tempered, but oh, so fun to play with.

So this week I’m in Chile. Well, not literally south of the Equator, but that’s where my tasting is focused. I have two Chilean Carmenere’s and we’re going to let them duke it out. But let’s get some perspective and context first.

Don’t feel like a dummy if you’ve never heard of the Carmenere grape. For about a century and a half, no one knew about Carmenere. The grape was native to the Bordeaux region of France and was one of the six grapes blended into red Bordeaux wine (for the wine-geek-wannabe’s, the others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Cuttings from Bordeaux vines were taken to Chile sometime in the 19th century, and Son of a Gun if they didn’t grow much better in Chile’s warm, dry climate than they had in their homeland.

But somewhere along the way, the Carmenere got lumped in with the Merlot, because they were visually similar. Funny, though, that what the Chileans bottled as Merlot had a very distinctive, earthy edge… So it wasn’t until the 1990′s that the lightbulb went off and Carmenere got its own locker in the locker room. Growers realized that it had the potential to make classic wine, blended or by itself, as long as it got a little more hang-time for the grapes to fully ripen and develop their phenolics (that’s the stuff in the grapes that delivers complexity and flavor).

So Carmenere, the “lost Bordeaux varietal,” leap-frogged from being a no-name to becoming Chile’s signature red grape.

But is it any good? Well, sure. At its best it offers intense color, lots of rich berry flavors, spice, hints of things like smoke, leather, tobacco or earth, and a smoother, less-tannic finish than Cab Sauv.

So my job here is to taste two Carmeneres, from different wineries and at different price points, and see what we think. I started with Morande Pionero Carmenere Maipo Valley 2009. Vina Morande is only 15 years old, but it’s made a huge commitment in vineyards, facilities, and personnel. The winery has created about five tiers of wines, from everyday stuff to world-class. Pionero is Morande’s entry-level line, and is designed to be “Friendly, lively, and approachable.”

All those words fit the Carmenere I tried. It’s the kind of bottle you could slam down on the table when you get together with friends, or pop open on a Tuesday night without a bit of “guilt” about spending yet more of your grocery budget on alcoholic beverages. (This is the definition of a Tuesday Night Wine, and Tuesday Night Wines should form a significant part of your wine collection.)

This wine doesn’t need any fancy descriptors. It’s round, which means there are no harsh edges. It’a also full-bodied enough to satisfy your wine appetite and stand up to your burgers or chicken. It’s fruity, but not in a Juicy Fruit kind of way: the taste reminded me of cherries and red berries, with some spice-herb-mint on the side. I didn’t get the earth or smoke I expected, so the wine is relatively simple. But that’s not a bad thing: this is a “drink and enjoy” wine, so drink and enjoy! For under $10, I think it’s a great value.

In a day or two we’ll taste a single-vineyard Carmenere, and see what we can learn by way of comparison. Cheers!

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