Archive for the ‘Review white wine’ Category

Charles Krug Sauv Blanc: New Take on an Old Classic

krug1874. That’s when the West was Wild and Napa was a hotbed of silver mining, not wine-ing.

The year 1874 is also when this lithograph of the Charles Krug Winery was drawn. And at that point the winery had already been around for a dozen years! So if you value classic stuff, it doesn’t get any more classic than Charles Krug.

The winery has been in the hands of the Mondavi family since 1943 — yes, that Mondavi family. Italian immigrant Cesare Mondavi jump-started the already-venerable Krug winery, and brought sons Robert and Peter into the business. Robert eventually moved down the road and established the eponymous winery in Oakville, and Peter took over the reins at Krug.

And at the ripe young age of 90-something, Peter is still holding the reins (albeit with a lot of help from two more generations of Mondavi’s).

Over the years Charles Krug Winery has built a classic reputation for Bordeaux varietal wines, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab blends. But they also do a pretty good job with the other Bordeaux varietal, the white one.

Sauvignon Blanc has been a staple in the Napa Valley for years. It grows well on the valley floor, and just about every Napa winery pushing out a $50 – $300 Cabernet has a $25 Sauv Blanc to go with it.

I recently tasted Charles Krug Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011, which just happened to be the winery’s 150th anniversary vintage. Wow! Those years represent a lot of history for California and the Napa Valley, but the year 2011 was anything but a banner year for weather. The 2011 growing season was, to use a technical term, lousy. Conditions included “below average temperatures, late spring rains, a cool growing season and rain during the summer.” Yields were something like 30% below normal, and Brix (or sugar levels in the grapes) were substantially lower than usual.

So I applaud any winemaker who crafted nice wines from this vintage. Charles Krug Winery had a new winemaker at the helm, Stacy Clark, who did a great job with this 2011 Sauvignon Blanc. Here’s how I experienced it:

The nose gave me mandarin orange and pear fruit, with something savory and tangy on the back. That’s good — it smelled like sunshine and blue skies.

My first sip was a test: would this be one of those Sauv Blanc’s that turns your mouth inside out with acid, or something that reminds you of cat pee? Happily, it was neither. Instead I got a Sweet Tart — does anyone remember those? They’re a candy that has the best sweet/tart thing going, and just like that candy, the Charles Krug gave me sweet pear and tart gooseberry fruit all at once.

Not that that’s a bad thing! I loved the fruity attack and crisp finish. I also got a nice richness on the palate that kept this from being a Johnny-One-Note kind of Sauv Blanc. That means that it’s — balanced! And isn’t that what we’re looking for in any wine?

Charles Krug Sauv Blanc was fun to drink, and I wished I had some Calamari or Mussels to enjoy with it. And at the very reasonable price of $18 a bottle, it’s good wine for the money. Check it out and let me know what you think. Cheers!



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Pine Ridge Winery Wicked Whites

pine ridgeWhen you’re talking classic, blue-chip Napa wineries, you’d better be talking about Pine Ridge Winery. Sitting just off the Silverado Trail in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge has been making wine since 1978, long before the Napa Valley was choked with wine tourists and Highway 29 became a parking lot. Gary Andrus’ first vineyard was planted on a ridge above the winery, and it’s been joined by four others representing the best and brightest appellations in the valley — Rutherford, Oakville, Howell Mountain and Carneros.

I remember visiting Pine Ridge Winery several years ago. I remember the warm Napa Valley sun, and then the cool calm of the Pine Ridge wine caves.

And I remember the wines — sort of. I know I loved the Chardonnay and a handful of Cabernets. But the details are foggy, lost in a touring-and-tasting haze.

I tasted them again recently in a manner much more conducive to memory retention. I tasted them through a Twitter TasteLive event where I watched a streaming video of the winemakers discussing the wines, while I tasted them in the privacy of my own home. It was a great use of online technology.

Winemaker Michael Beaulac and Assistant Winemaker Jason Ledbetter tasted whites first, so I’ll talk about them today.

The first white is a blend that I’d expect to be a hell of a hard sell to most American wine drinkers. Chenin Blanc and Viognier don’t really rock the U.S. wine world, but somehow Pine Ridge has made their Chenin Blanc/Viognier 2010 into a big seller. I’d wager that 90% of the folks who like this wine don’t know anything about these native French grapes, but they don’t need to. Anyone can enjoy this wine if; a) you don’t like oak; and b) you don’t like dry.

That doesn’t mean this wine is sweet, but it has a rich, soft approach that makes it friendly to almost any wine drinker. The Chenin Blanc (79%) is sourced from vineyards in Clarksburg, which is northeast of Napa in the Sacramento River Delta area. The relatively cool climate there allows the grapes to retain great natural acidity, which balances the fruitiness of the grape. The Viognier (21%) in the blend, sourced from warm-climate Lodi, adds richness and lushness.

For me, I got a nose that led with honeysuckle and slid into tangerine and floral notes. The palate was rich and viscous, with apricots and honey morphing into a tangy, spicy finish. There is a trace of residual sugar, which is what helps this wine appeal to a really broad market.

At under $15, this is a very good value, and a step up for those who’ve been buying White Zin just to get some sweetness in their glass.

The Pine Ridge Carneros Dijon Clones 2009 is a more “serious” white wine. It’s made with fruit from Pine Ridge’s Carneros vineyards, which Michael and Jason explain are covered in cool fog for a good part of the day. Cool temps allows the grapes to mature slowly, creating intense fruit flavors with good acid to balance them.

Pine Ridge is certainly not a typical California Chardonnay. Instead of all that heavy oak and butter, this Chard offers crisp fruit and a clean finish. On the nose, I got more spice than fruit: there was wood spice and Meyer lemon, and maybe a hint of banana.

The palate was more obvious. I got baked apple, custard, and baking spice, all wrapped up in a viscous mouthfeel that comes from aging “on the lees.” Again, just like the Chenin blend, there was crisp acid on the finish that balanced the rich flavors.

Pine Ridge seems to be hitting the modern American palate right on the button. They’re making very sound, very delicious wines that can appeal to lots of wine drinkers. I wish them all the best.


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Rodney Dangerfield’s Revenge: Murrieta’s Well The Whip 2010

screen shotIn the U.S., white blends have been the Rodney Dangerfield of wine. They aren’t considered elegant, like a White Burgundy, or bold and brassy, like a California Chardonnay. They don’t have the pedigree of a classic Alsatian or German Riesling, or the sassiness of a New Zealand Sauv Blanc. White blends aren’t any one thing at all.

And that’s a problem in the U.S.: Americans want their wine, like their politics, to be cut and dried. They don’t want ambiguity or confusion — they want the label on their wine to say clearly and unequivocally, “Chardonnay,” or “Sauvignon Blanc,” or whatever.

So I was intrigued when I found a white blend called “The Whip”. It’s not one thing, mind you, but the winery, Murrieta’s Well, had the good sense to list all six grapes right there on the front label. We like that in a wine!horse

First, let’s look at some background. The winery dates back to the 1880′s and is named for the watering hole frequented by Mexican gold-miner-turned-desperado Joaquin Murrieta. The spirit of the Old West and California’s Gold Rush Days lives on at the winery. Situated in a sunny valley that benefits from the cool fog and breezes off San Francisco Bay, Murrieta’s Well is known for “The Whip” and its sister red blend, “The Spur.”

The six grapes blended to make The Whip 2010 include Sauvignon Blanc (31%), Viognier (27%), Semillon (15%), Pinot Blanc (11%), Orange Muscat (*%), and Muscat Canelli (8%). Right off the bat (or off the nose), I sensed richness and lushness. Rich aromatics suggested honeysuckle and orange blossom, which always says “Viognier” to me. I expected a similarly rich palate, and I got it. There was honey and exotic fruit that was just about to become cloying, when the acid kicked in and gave me a clean, dry finish.

This blend was well designed. The aromatic grapes set the tone, but the Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Blanc create balance and structure. Balance is definitely the key here: perceived sweetness up front, crisp dryness on the finish, and no harsh edges anywhere.

For about $20 retail The Whip makes a nice wine for those who want a great “tween-er” white. I’d like to taste this with Seared Scallops or any kind of Pacific Rim dishes. Let me know what you think, and Cheers!

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Passion You Can Taste: Elena Brooks’ Dandelion Riesling

elenaElena Brooks doesn’t look like all the other winemakers at the crowded trade tasting. Gender aside, she’s certainly the most animated winemaker, smiling broadly and gesturing for emphasis.

Elena is an Australian winemaker by way of Bulgaria. And oh yeah, she’s a Spanish winemaker, too. Confused?

Elena Golakova grew up in Bulgaria, where her mother worked in the library of their local state-owned winery. Elena’s passion must have started there, and it took her to Australia, where she studied Enology and learned winemaking.dande

When we met her, she had a bottle of Dandelion 2010 Riesling in her hand, which was getting flung about dangerously as she talked with her hands. It’s not often you see the ubiquitous weed on a wine bottle (like, never), so we were intrigued. Stranger yet, the wine’s full name is “Wonderland of the Eden Valley Riesling.” Quite a mouthful. But since I’m always happy to taste anything Australian, we short-stopped the bottle long enough to grab a glass.

It opened with a classic aromatic Riesling nose — classic for Germany, that is. There was that hint of petroleum with bright apple and pear fruit, and a hint of minerality — like all good cool-climate Riesling.


Wow - a 100-year-old Riesling vine.

The palate showed the same snappy, tangy fruit flavors, suggesting pears, tangerines, and maybe a touch of honey. There was body here, but again, the classic acid supported it all. Dry, crisp and clean, this Riesling would be a great food pairing wine.

So I checked out Elena’s Dandelion Vineyards and discovered that Eden Valley is a cool-climate growing region. The fruit for this wine comes from 100-year-old Riesling vineyards. Those are some serious Old Vines. And the bunches for Dandelion’s Riesling are chosen virtually one at a time to ensure perfect ripeness and varietal correctness.

That’s a central part of Elena’s philosophy: she wants “to capture variety, vintage and vineyard.” Once the grapes are picked, she stays out of their way as much as possible, letting the terroir and fruit come through. With this terroir, that means acid, minerals, and crisp, tangy fruit.

This will age like a classic European Riesling, too. But why wait? I’d pop a bottle now as an aperitif or with some killer spicy Thai Coconut Curry. Yum for the wine, Yum for the food, and Yum for the pairing.

Thanks to Elena for making it possible. Cheers!


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Great Old World White: Heitlinger Pinot Gris

germanyAmericans don’t get Pinot Gris.

They don’t get this European style of wine that’s opulent and austere at the same time, and rich while being bone dry.

There really is no wine  on this side of the Atlantic that’s comparable to Weingut Heitlinger Pinot Gris 2010. About the only Pinot Gris we drink is from Oregon, and the Oregon Pinot Gris I’ve tasted are more fruity and less austere. Not that that’s a bad thing… There’ a very nice Oregon Pinot Gris from Raptor Ridge Winery, which I covered in another post, but it’s a very different in style from the Heitlinger.

Weingut Heitlinger is situated in southern Germany, where vineyards sunk into minerally soils on the south-facing slopes of hillsides gather the maximum radiant heat. The grapes achieve ripeness with a healthy level of acid, which ensures the crisp, snappy finish that German whites are famous for.

When I opened a bottle of the Heitlinger Pinot Gris 2010 and poured my first glass, I was struck by the nose: I smelled ripe pear, apricot and honey that suggested a sweet palate to follow.

But the palate was classically German: while I tasted  rich apricot and honey up front, it quickly dried out to a crisp, minerally finish with lots of snappy acid.

This style of wine is wonderful for food pairing. It works in those tricky situations where nothing else does, like with a salad course. I was trying to find a wine to pair with a Pear and Arugula Salad with Honey Champagne Vinaigrette, and when I tasted the Heitlinger Pinot Gris I said, “This is it!”.  I think it’ll be a great food wine in lots of situations where typical new World wines don’t work.

Try it, and let me know what you think is its perfect food companion. Cheers!

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Hot and Cold: Destinos Cruzados White Wine

whiteEver heard of Macabeo?

I hadn’t. I didn’t know if it was a grape or a town in Portugal. Turns out it’s a grape, all right, and one I’ve enjoyed many times — I just didn’t know I was drinking it.

Macabeo is one of three grape varieties blended to produce Cava, Spain’s sparkling wine. Just to confuse you even more, the grape is also called Viura in the Rioja region. The other two Cava varieties (just in case you want some obscure facts for your next trivia contest) are Parellada and Xarel-lo (no, I don’t know how to pronounce that).

I’m very fond of Cava. It’s a clean, crisp Brut style sparkling wine, and it’s a HUGE bargain compared to French and even most American sparklers. I always recommend a brand called Cristalino, and at only $10 a bottle, it’ll really stretch your wine budget. Cava makes a great aperitif wine: try serving it at your next dinner party with an appetizer of Smoked Salmon and Creme Fraiche or Boursin on a crostini. I guarantee it’ll be killer.

So back to my misterioso Macabeo. You may know that grapes used for sparkling wine production are usually high in acid, and often pretty tart on their own. But that’s what I wanted, because:

It’s mid-August, the Dog Days of Summer, and it’s 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity!

Who wants soft and fruity wine? We all craved something crisp, tart, thirst-quenching and icy cold. So I ordered this wine, untried and untested, for an in-store tasting. Destinos Cruzados 2010 was a big hit. It was just what the doctor ordered…

The color is a pale lemon yellow, suggesting the light body I expected. Sure enough — it was light and clean on the palate, with tangy citrus and green apple notes. There’s no sweetness at all, and the acid isn’t over the top (I don’t like to have my mouth turned inside out like some too-acidic whites can do). The finish is crisp, pure, and yes, thirst-quenching. This wine is simple, and sometimes simple is what works.

Destinos wines are made in the La Mancha region in southeast Spain, which I’ve written about it before in my review of Finca Sandoval Salia. The Destino line (there’s a red blend made from Tempranillo and Syrah) are priced to fly off the shelf. For under $10, I’d buy enough to fill up my picnic basket. Cheers!




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Wente: It’s All About Chardonnay

wenteYou literally can’t talk about California Chardonnay without talking about Wente Vineyards. Ever heard of the Wente Clone? It was created from cuttings that a Wente brought back from France in 1912, and can be linked to 85% of the Chardonnay planted in California.

The family’s (and winery’s) history doesn’t stop there. Wente Vineyards has the distinction of being the oldest continuously-operated, family-owned winery in California. (The current winemaker, Karl D., is the fifth generation.) And did I mention that Wente Vineyards produced California’s first varietally-labelled wine? It was a Sauvignon Blanc from the 1935 vintage. And only a year later Wente produced the first varietally-labeled Chardonnay.

I’ve tasted and enjoyed Wente Vineyards wines, so I was glad to get an invitation to join their second “Twitter Tasting.” I explained this in a post a few months ago, when I did my first Twitter event, but I’ll run it by you again. The way it works is that Wente Vineyard’s very helpful PR folks, Charles Communications, sent me and other bloggers (or “members of the on-line wine community,” the much more reputable-sounding name that I prefer) some bottles of wine. At the appointed time, we all log onto a special Twitter page called TasteLive and watch as winemaker Karl Wente tastes and talks about the wines. The medium is interactive, of course, so those of us in the blogosphere are tasting and tweeting questions and comments. Karl responds to them, live.

It’s really a blast — cheers to CC or whoever came up with the idea.

So let’s get to the good stuff — the wines. We were focused this time on four Chardonnays produced by Wente Vineyards. They represent just about every style of American Chard, and it was great to taste them side by side.

Wente Vineyards Morning Fog Chardonnay 2009 is their entry level bottling, made from fruit grown in their Livermore Valley vineyards. Although the area doesn’t have the name recognition of, say, the Napa Valley, it’s one of the best places in California to grow wine grapes. The valley runs east to west from the San Francisco Bay, sucking in the cool morning fog off the Bay. Gee, maybe that’s how this Chardonnay got its name… Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Drink Your Way Through Europe (Without a Passport)

tamasLots of California wineries have jumped on the Pinot Grigio bandwagon. Way too many, in fact.

I have a problem with most West Coast Pinot Grigio, and my problem is that it tastes like anything but. It’s too fruity, too soft, too insipid. And the really cheap ones are too sweet.

So it was a thrill to taste a California Pinot Grigio that tastes like… Pinot Grigio!

This one is from Tamas Estates, a Central Coast winery owned by Wente Vineyards in the Bay area’s Livermore Valley. Tamas Estates seems to have a very specific demographic in mind: they’re aiming at “adventurous people interested in exploring new wines and new places.” I think that means Gen X and Gen Y.The packaging suggests exotic foreign destinations, and their back label slogan reads, “Hop on the Bus for a Multinational Wine Tour.”

Multinational, indeed. As soon as I cracked the cap on my Tamas Estates Pinot Grigio 2009, I was transported to… somewhere else. The nose screamed flint, minerals, and tangy acid. “OK,” I said, “this may not be your typical American white.”

The palate took me a few miles further. There was no rich fruit — no “fruitiness” at all! Crisp, mouth-watering acid led the way, followed by more minerals and slate. I was hard-pressed to find a fruit in here — lime, I guess (or maybe that “Kumquat” I see in wine reviews but never find in my grocery store’s produce aisle). The minerals and slate carryied through the crisp, clean finish.

Oysters anyone? This wine was screaming for shellfish, and I wanted to be sitting in a French cafe or Italian bistro as I sipped my wine and downed my slippery, slimy oysters. The wine style that Tamas has captured is all about northern Italian whites like Gavi or Verdicchio, or even a French Sancerre or Muscadet.

So how can anyone make this style in sunny California? Well, just look at the climate of the Central Coast: it’s not all palm trees and suntans. The region has a Mediterranean climate, with cool ocean breezes to moderate temperatures and very cool nights. This slows the ripening of the fruit, creating complex flavors and good acid.

It makes for a damn fine Pinot Grigio, and at just $10 or so, Tamas Estates is also an affordable one. So put on your favorite beret, and drag out that red-checked table cloth. You’ll be speaking Italian in no time. Cheers!

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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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