Archive for the ‘wine characteristics’ Category

Strong Arms From Down Under

strongI love Australian Shiraz. I’ll admit it right up front.

I love it when I want a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred, in-your-face wine experience.

Australian is not elegant like Santa Barbara Pinot Noir. Or austere like Bordeaux.

Australian Shiraz is not “food wine,” if food wine means a low-key beverage that enhances flavors without making  a statement of its own. Instead, it’s all about ripe, rich, opulent fruit.

So this post is about my latest Aussie wine experience. This one is called Strong Arms Shiraz 2008, and it’s been available to American wine drinkers thanks to a fabulous importer called Grateful Palate Imports. Well, it was available, until Grateful Palate went out of business. I think this is a huge loss to U.S. wine drinkers, and I’d happily do anything I could to bring them back.

But let’s try to appreciate this wine for what it is. Strong Arms is just what it says: a strong expression of the fruit that’s endemic to Australia. This country, that was formed by hard-ass convicts and regularly deals with ridiculous extremes of climate, is capable of producing wines that are bold but juicy, and represent great value for stateside wine drinkers.

Strong Arms 2008 is a classic Shiraz. The nose jumps out of the glass with black raspberry fruit and just a little bit of spice. The palate  is just as rich, with boatloads of up-front raspberry cream. It’s not jammy, mind you — the weight is right for a wine that can be enjoyed with food, or without.

I sure hope this wine continues to be available n the U.S., and that we see a resurrection of the Down Under wineries represented by Grateful Palate Imports. I’d buy them, and back them, all the way. Cheers!

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Amazing Santa Maria Pinot Noir: Lazarre Bien Nacido

adamThis guy is very elusive.

About a year ago I caught a glimpse of his wine in Scottsdale, AZ. There was an Adam Lazarre Central Coast Pinot Noir on the Greene House wine list, and we grabbed it as fast as we politely could and enjoyed the heck out of it.

My attempts to find Lazarre  wine in Ohio were thwarted by a distributor who had it, but didn’t really have it. And then lo and behold, I accidentally hit the jackpot: I found a bottle of the single-vineyard Lazarre Bien Nacido Pinot Noir. And the fabulous 2007 vintage, no less!

To back up a bit, I should explain that Adam Lazarre is a California winemaker who directed some big-production wineries while making some very small production Pinot Noir on the side. He favors the area from Paso Robles south to Santa Barbara, and makes very classic, very pure Pinot from some of the best vineyards in the state.

One of those vineyards is Bien Nacido. Adam says it’s on the “south facing northern hills midway down the Santa Maria Valley.” South-facing is good: that means good sun exposure and complete ripening. He used just four rows of carefully selected vines, and made a total of — three barrels! Yes, just three barrels, which certainly fits my definition of “Small production.”

What Adm does with those three barrels is… not much. He claims he favors “minimalist winemaker intervention,” which means “Just crush, ferment, and jam (it) into the barrel. The strength of the wine lies in the vineyard – as it should be.”

The wine I tasted had all sorts of strength. Remember that this bottle was the 2007 vintage, which every expert and wine-critic-wannabe has dubbed the best vintage EVER for California Pinot Noir. First we smiled at the presentation of this bottle, which is wrapped in leopard print tissue paper. Yes, leopard print… Word has it that Angie Lazarre, Adam’s wife, hand wraps each bottle. That’s gotta be a labor of love. But it also adds a classy, whimsical touch that’s so sexy we all didn’t want to open the bottle. Well… we almost didn’t want to open it…

So it poured out deep ruby red, and the aromas started gushing out of the glass. I got bright cranberry and cherry, with a bit of smoke and spice. I dragged my Pinot-loving friends over for the first taste, and the flavors gushed out too.

Actually, there was a big rush of intense bright fruit that quickly turned deep, warm and velvety. It was weirdly great — a big bang and then a soft middle and lingering, elegant finish. The only thing better was what happened as it sat in my glass. I was eating a feast of grilled tenderloin, dry-rubbed chicken and cedar-planked salmon, so I made my way through a few glasses of the Lazarre Bien Nacido. By my second glass I started to taste dusky caramel and clove with a back-note of minerality. Wow — was that good.

I know that 2007 was a hard vintage to screw up. But Lazarre gave us a wine that’s even better than you’d expect. It’s pure and well-balanced  — bold where it needs to be and elegant when it counts.

So obviously, I’m recommending this wine highly. Your problem will be finding it. If I were you, I’d be on the look-out for any Lazarre Pinot, and grab it when you find it. Cheers!



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Luscious: Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet

h3I like horses. I like wine. And I like the romance that I hear in this name: “Horse Heaven Hills.”

Horse Heaven Hills is the name of a wine-growing region in eastern Washington State, and is also the home of a winery called Columbia Crest. There really were wild horses way back when, but for the two decades or so that Columbia Crest has been there, “H3″ has been producing some killer grapes — among the best in Washington State.

And that’s saying something. If you haven’t read many of my posts, you’ve probably missed the occasional rants about my love affair with Washington State wines. So here goes again…cab

Washington State has two totally different weather zones: the wet, cool west side that borders the Pacific Ocean and the dry, warm side east of the Cascade Mountains. This region, the Columbia River Valley area, is heaven for wine grapes. Its northerly latitude means that there’s more daylight hours during the growing season, with cool nights that allow the grapes to develop good acid and structure. The typical result is wine with intense fruit flavors balanced by good acid and soft tannins (my favorite kind of wine).

So getting back to Horse Heaven Hills, this area is blessed with a unique feature: unusually active winds that produce grapes with extra flavor and structure. While several wineries use grapes from these vineyards, Columbia Crest’s H3 wines represent unusual value. In fact, the one is drank last night got a Top 100 Value Wines rating.

I smelled and tasted the ripeness of the fruit in Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. The richness started with the deep berry and sweet vanilla aromas. The palate was bursting with fruit — sweet blackberries and cassis — that quickly turned to mocha. For a minute there I thought I was drinking a chocolate/coffee/berry milkshake: Not that that’s a bad thing… The finish was so soft and supple that it got me searching for the tasting notes. Sure enough, this wine is not all Cab: there’s also 8% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc.

The blend may account for the extra softness and richness. It might also be Washington’s exceptional 2008 growing season, which produced fully ripe grapes and good yields.

Either way, it made for a really seductive, luscious wine. That’s not surprising, since I’ve really liked the other wines in the H3 line, a Merlot and a Chardonnay. Grab any of them if you catch them at your local wine shop, and enjoy. Cheers!



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More Candor: Zinfandel Lot 2

candorI’ve written recently about the wines coming from the Hope Family Winery in Paso Robles, California: Or more specifically, from second-generation winemaker Austin Hope. I tasted and enjoyed his Troublemaker Lot 2 and Candor Merlot Lot 2, so my last tasting project was his Candor Zinfandel Lot 2.

I’ve probably written in previous posts about my taste in Zinfandel: I gotta admit I’m fussy. I don’t enjoy the over-ripe, overly-raisiny, and overly-alcoholic Zins. That style typically comes out of warm-climate appellations such as Lodi, which is why I’ve always gravitated to Paso Robles Zinfandels. This wonderful wine region has warm to hot daytime temperatures, but the mercury plummets in the late afternoon as cool ocean breezes come rushing through the Templeton Gap. That creates ideal conditions for Rhone varietals like Syrah, and for my kind of Zin.

I’m guessing that Austin Hope has the same kind of palate. Their website says that, “This wine benefits from a combination of hardy, gnarly old vines, some of them over 50 years old, and exuberant new at Austin Hope Wines, all meticulously farmed. Blended together across vineyards and vintages, Candor Zinfandel has real panache—bright berry fruit, spice, and that undefinable zing that says it’s really Zinfandel.”

Here’s my experience with Candor Zin: I had a bottle handy when we had some big steaks ready for the grill. I wouldn’t usually pick a Zin to accompany a steak, but hey, what the hell! We served up the rare steaks (marinated in Jack Daniels, no less) and poured Austin Hope’s Zin.

And it was fabulous. This Zin has nice blueberry and blackberry fruit, with enough structure to handle red meat. The wine was bold enough to match the beef, and never got too “jammy.”

I admit that I was pleasantly surprised. “If this is Paso Zin, bring it on!”

Both the Candor Zin and Candor Merlot show great quality and value. I’d suggest you try them, and keep and eye on winemaker Austin Hope. Cheers!



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Austin Hope’s “Candor:” Wine On Steroids?


Hope Family Winery on Live Oak Road, westside Paso Robles CA

I wrote recently about Austin Hope, a second-generation winemaker from Paso Robles, California. He’s doing some pretty edgy things down there in the Central Coast, like making wines with no vintage date. Yes, his Candor and Troublemaker lines say “Lot 1″ or “Lot 2″ instead of, say, 2010.

I explained their reasoning in my last post, but here it is again: “Wine is best made when a winemaker has choices.” The way they see it, each vintage brings something useful to the blend, just like different varietals do in a traditionally blended wine. When they can choose to add a bit of this vintage and a bit of that in order to make a better-tasting wine, then why shouldn’t they blend vintages?

A purist may say that each vintage represents a unique set of circumstances dictated by the vagaries of weather. When you see a vintage-dated wine, say “2007 Napa Cabernet”, you have an idea right off the bat of how that wine may taste, based on your knowledge of the reputation of that vintage in that region.

Well, guess what? There are plenty of wine drinkers out there who don’t have the foggiest idea what characterized the 2007 (or any other) vintage. They don’t need the short-hand message on the label, and don’t need to be reassured that this bottle isn’t too old for them to drink.

They just want a good-tasting bottle of wine.

And that’s what Austin Hope’s Candor Merlot Lot 2 and Candor Zinfandel Lot 2 give them. Let’s look at the Merlot first. Read the rest of this entry »

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Lost and Found: William Fevre Chablis Fourchaume 2006

chablisI love finding things unexpectedly; like when you put on a coat you haven’t worn for a few months and find a $20 bill in the pocket. That’s a great surprise. (Except that in my coats there’s never more than $1.)

Yesterday I dug into the hard-to-reach places in my wine fridge and found — a half bottle of white Burgundy. I’d forgotten it was there, and still can’t remember who gave it to me (probably a distributor rep trying to win points). But I didn’t care. I had a potentially great bottle of wine to taste, as we sat on our deck on a beautiful summer evening.

The wine is William Fevre Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume 2006, so it’s a white Burgundy from the Chablis region. Many of you may know that the Chardonnay-based wines of Chablis are known for their austere, flinty, style. They typically never see an oak barrel, and the cool climate in northern Burgundy produces plenty of acid in the grapes, and adds ageability to the wines.

I was anxious to see how this 2006 was drinking. When I poured it into our glasses, the wine was beautiful to look at. The color was a crystal-clear pale lemon yellow, suggesting a delicate palate to follow.

The nose was — nothing, at first. This wine really needed to be worked over in the glass, so I swirled and swirled to get some oxygen into it. When the aromas finally released, I was surprised. Instead of the citrus and flint I’d expected, I smelled tapioca, butterscotch, and maybe even creme brulee. All these rich aromas from a Chablis?? Read the rest of this entry »

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Trees or Vino: Here’s a True Conundrum

treesIt’s easy for me to work myself into a rage when I read stories about forests being chopped down to make way for yet another strip mall or cookie-cutter subdivision. But I just came across a tough one. Louis Sahagun and P.J. Huffstutter at the Los Angeles Times report that:

Two wineries want to remove  redwood and Douglas fir trees in order to plant Pinot Noir vineyards.

Hmmm… I love trees, but I also love wine. And it’s not like vineyards are a scourge on the landscape: they can be every bit as pleasing to the senses as towering evergreens.vineyards

But why do these wineries (Codorniu, whose Napa property Artesa happens to be one of our favorite winery destinations, and Premier Pacific Vineyards) want to plant on this particular patch of ground? Can’t they go dig up a cow pasture somewhere?

No, they can’t. As Nature would have it, land that’s capable of growing those beautiful trees also grows beautiful Pinot Noir grapes. Situated just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, the land is cooled by ocean breezes, and Pinot Noir is a cool-loving grape. The land also sits above the fog line, so there’s plenty of direct sunlight to ripen the grapes. And for the punch line, this area near Annapolis on the northern edge of Sonoma County is part of the desirable Sonoma Coast appellation. Pinots made from Sonoma Coast fruit have an intense, structured style that’s been adding dollar value in the marketplace.

So is that worth chopping down centuries-old trees? Well, the truth is that this a second-growth forest, replanted after the virgin forest was logged many years ago. Its value isn’t its venerable old age, but all the good things that forest lands do for the environment.

Environmentalists say, “”We are not going to let them rip these trees out by their roots, change the soil chemistry with amendments and develop neighborhoods so that these forests will never grow back.”

The developers, on the other hand, have promised to “restore streams, add more than 200 acres to a county park, plant 1 million redwoods and Douglas firs and make other environmental improvements.”

So who should get the nod? Should we go with pine cones or Pinot Noir?

Let me know which way you vote, and Cheers!


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“Moscato Madness?” or Cheap and Nasty California Sweet Wine

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Benziger Again: Cab, Cab and More Cab


Benziger's bowl-shaped vineyard on the mountain

If you drive northwest from the town of  Sonoma, California, up the amazingly beautiful Valley of the Moon, you’ll see Sonoma Mountain looming on your left. And if you get off the highway and head up into the hills behind the town of Glen Ellen, you’ll run into Benziger family territory. On the slopes of the Sonoma Mountain, someone found a pretty unique topographical feature: a giant bowl that sits in its own valley 800 feet above sea level, formed by volcanic explosions from the mountain some two million years ago .

What makes this bowl unique, and uniquely suited to grape growing, is that the surface around all 360 degrees of the bowl is exposed to a variety of sun exposures, elevations, soil profiles and drainage. In this one extended 85-acre vineyard, they have ideal conditions for planting…just about everything. While most of the acreage is devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon, they also grow other Bordeaux varietals, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.

Yesterday I reviewed a Zin and two vintages of  Bordeaux blend from this estate vineyard, and today I’ll talk about two more.

I’ll start with Benziger Obsidian Point Sonoma Mountain 2007, which is a blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 19% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot. This wine was slow to open, and in fact it didn’t show well until a few days later. The nose was more herbal than fruit, with a sharpness and off note. I thought it might be a spoiled bottle, because the palate, too was light on fruit and didn’t show a lot of depth or complexity. Read the rest of this entry »

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Benziger Zinfandel and Oonapais

benzMike Benziger has been called a pioneer. He’s probably also been called crazy by the folks who didn’t believe in his experiments in organic farming. But whatever you call him, he’s been instrumental in introducing and developing methods for growing grapes while nurturing and improving the land through his Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic farming practices.

He and many other Benzigers (a couple dozen, I think) also make wine at their winery in Sonoma County. Snugged up in the hills above the tiny town of Glen Ellen, and just a short hike from Jack London’s historic home and State Park, they’ve planted 85 acres of red and white grapes on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain.mike

This is a relatively warm-climate growing area, which was immediately obvious in the wines we tasted recently during a Twitter Tasting. In case you don’t know what that is…

A Twitter tasting is a very cool way to marry something very traditional with the latest in social media marketing. Here’s how it’s done: a group of wine bloggers (otherwise known as the “online wine community”) were invited to sit around with winemaker Mike Benziger as we tasted and talked about six of his wines. Only he sat in front of a camera in California and we sat in front of our computers in…wherever. He was on-screen and as we tasted, we tweeted questions and comments and he answered back. Very cool and very effective.

So let’s get to Benziger and their wines. I posted a story giving you background on the whole Sustainable/Organic/Biodynamic approach that Benziger Winery uses in all their estate vineyards and with all their contract growers. I think it’s a tremendous goal to grow better fruit and nurture the land for future generations. The question is — does it make better wine?

Mike Benziger thinks so. The wines he chose for us to taste included a Zinfandel, two vintages of their Bordeaux blend “Oonapais,” two vintages of the Bordeaux blend “Obsidian Point,” and their premium blend, “Tribute.” I’ll review three today and pick up the rest tomorrow. Read the rest of this entry »

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