Lighter Side of Alentejo: White Wines Offer Quality, Value

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures, Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-28-2018

Ask a group of wine geeks to free associate based on the phrase “Alentejo wines” and I’m guessing you’ll get comments about big, bold, jammy red wines. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But, after spending five days tasting my way through this region of Southern Portugal, I was impressed with how many exciting white wines I found.


Susana Esteban’s white wines (field blends from higher elevation sites,old vines) were some of the most exciting wines of my trip.

Aside from the thrilling and ancient amphora wines of Alentejo (which I wrote about in detail in this post), the high quality of the white wine (branco in Portuguese) was one of my biggest takeaways from the trip. White wine grapes are seriously outnumbered, with about 27,000 acres planted to red grapes and less than 9,000 planted to whites, according to data from the Vine and Wine Commission of Alentejo. But that’s still a lot of white wine, spread out across a large region, and the quality can be quite high.

Antão Vaz came up again and again in the wines that I found exciting, usually as the dominant grape in a blend. This indigenous local variety is heralded especially in the subregions of Evora and Vidigueira. It survives well in heat and is quite drought-resistant, which comes in handy in a region that has suffered through several years of drought. (Although this year has been quite wet, and I certainly got rained on quite a bit during my visit in early June.) The grape is quite aromatic and provides lots of oomph to white blends, and can stand up to a good amount of new oak. However, the grape can lack focused acidity, especially if picked later.

Hence: Arinto. This grape which can produce crisp, vibrant wines with deep minerality and tropical fruits. This wine popped up again and again in the white blends I fell for. Gouveio fits into blends quite a bit as well, which used to be called Verdelho, and that was confusing (as grape names are always) because it’s genetically separate from the Verdelho of Madeira fame.

Roupeiro and Fernão Pires round out the grapes you’re most likely to encounter in Alentejo white blends. Portugal has tons of indigenous grape varieties, and I definitely encountered some hard-to-pronounce grapes I’d never heard of before. But I also found some white Rhone grapes that seem to do quite well in this hot region, and I even found an exciting Sauv Blanc from a cooler vineyard near the ocean.

Stylistically, the whites were all over the map. From lip-smacking, lighter-bodied versions to drink with Portuguese seafood, to rich, unctuous, barrel-fermented, lees-stirred creamsicles — there’s a bit of everything out there.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: California New Releases

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-23-2018

We’re back to the Golden State this week with a mix of newly-released wines from various producers.

Old school California powerhouse Wente lays out four Chardonnays that show an interesting diversity of styles. For several years, I’ve loved the bright and brisk Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs coming from Sonoma’s Alma Fria, and their 2015s are singing beautifully right now, and will continue to do so for years. Ehlers Estate’s Sauv Blanc and Chateau Montelena’s Zin deliver yet again, while a few other wines round out the report.

These wines were received as samples and tastes sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Book Reviews: The Wandering Vine

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 06-16-2018

9781472938442It’s hard to imagine what the “Old World” wine maps would look like today had the Roman Empire never existed. So many lives, cultures, religions, and independent groups of people were crushed under the heel of Rome — but vineyards and wine spread out to almost all corners of Rome’s reach.

To cover the entire history of vineyard expansion under Roman rule would be a daunting task, and likely result in a heavy read. Luckily, Nina Caplan’s travel and wine memoir, “The Wandering Vine: Wine, the Romans and Me,” is a joy to read.

In the introduction, Caplan says her goal is to trace the path of the Romans, “back from England to France, Spain and Italy… an attempt to understand how they conquered the world through wine, and to look at some of the more unlikely consequences of that conquest.” She manages to weave together historical and modern wine stories expertly. Caplan travels from her home of England to Champagne, to Burgundy, to the Rhone, to Provence. She covers lots of Spanish and Italian regions (Barcelona, Tarragona, Seville, Palermo, Naples), and finishes up in Rome.

The story of wine, like the story of people, Caplan writes, is a story of displacement, of constant movement and adaptation. “How much duller our dinner tables would be if people and vines had ever learned to stay still!” she proclaims. “If we are lucky enough to happen on the right soil and left to inhabit it peacefully, we can root ourselves and flourish, to the benefit of all.” Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Rias Baixas Albariño

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-16-2018

With vibrant acidity, fresh fruit, and lots of oceanic and floral tones, Albariño from Rias Baixas is summer classic for me. Located across the Miño River from Portugal, this coastal area of Galicia produces almost exclusively white wines.

The Albariño grape rules, while other local white varieties like Caino and Loureiro are mixed in. I love the distinct oceanic elements (like sea breeze, sea salt and crushed shells) that I find in a lot of wines from this area. Tasting a good one makes me think of sitting by the ocean (my happy place) — and the price points make me happy as well.

Here on the U.S. East Coast, I’ve seen wider availability, and higher quality wines, from Rias Baixas. For years, I felt like the same few brands produced reliable, but not necessarily exciting wines. But the more I taste, the more I’m convinced that Rias Baixas Albariño can be more than fun, relatively inexpensive summer whites. Some of them are “serious wines.”

I recently received a bunch of Rias Baixas and found solid quality across the board, with a few standouts that I think far over-deliver for the price. These wines were received as samples and I tasted them single-blind. Read the rest of this entry »

Alentejo’s Amphora Wines: an Ancient Tradition in Renewal

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 06-14-2018

talha rocimWith rolled eyes, several Alentejo winemakers joked with me about the reputation they think many Americans have about their wines: They’re red, they’re high in alcohol, and they’re doused with too much oak. While I did get my palate pleasantly pounded by a brutal 16.5% red aged in all new oak, for the most part, this reputation (if it was once somewhat accurate), is undeserved.

Case in point: the talha wines from this region of southern Portugal. Talha is the Portuguese term for clay fermentation pots, also known by their Greco-Roman name amphora. And in Altentejo the talha tradition runs deep — 2,000 years, to the days of the Roman Empire. Except for Georgia (where using open-topped clay pots is a much older custom), Alentejo is the only region in the world with such a long history of producing wines this way.

On a recent trip, sponsored by Wines of Alentejo, I dug deep into the Alentejo wine culture and found an exciting mix of ancient practices and modern innovation. A new generation of winemakers is keeping this history alive, while adding their own signature. Over the course of a week, I tasted tons of wines, and, far and away, I was most thrilled with the talha wines, or vinhas da talha.

In the glass, generally speaking, I get bright and floral aromas, which can be shocking complex, inviting, and pleasantly different. The flavor profile of the grapes (usually blends) shines through wonderfully, unhindered by any toast or oak influences. The alcohol levels are frequently around 12-13%. But the texture is what really gets me excited: smooth, fresh, sometimes slightly dusty, always unique and hard to describe (although I’ve tried in my tasting notes). Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: International Grab Bag

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-09-2018

A lot of the wine samples I receive don’t fit neatly into a thematic whole — hence this week’s “grab bag” collection of wines. Some goodies in here to highlight, though!

Nobilo’s widely-available Marlborough wines make another appearance, delivering accessible, tasty wines that are a good first step into New Zealand. A few California Pinots from 2016 entice, while Southern Oregon’s Troon Vineyard delivers yet again with some serious reds from Applegate Valley.

These wines were received as samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Virginia Governor’s Cup Wines

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-02-2018

For the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of tasting through the top wines from the Virginia Governor’s Cup Competition. Each year, a group of esteemed judges (led by MW Jay Youmans) taste through hundreds of different Virginia wines, poring through for the best.

To enter, the wine must be produced from 100% Virginia grapes, and this year, more than 440 wines were entered into the competition. The top 12 are gathered into a case as an example of what Virginia has to offer the wine world.

Among the 2018 winners, I was quite impressed by two Bordeaux-variety-based reds from The Barns at Hamilton Station. I hadn’t heard of this winery, but was wowed, and pleased to learn the wines were made by iconic Virginia winemaker Michael Shaps. Like last year, Petit Verdot again makes a serious impression, both as a varietal wine and a blending grape.

Two Viogniers (the 2015 and the 2016) from Virginia really stand out as pure, vibrant, exciting Virginia examples of this grape. And, as usual, some dessert wines wowed the judges and tempted my sweet tooth.

My notes on the top 12 wines are below. These wines were received as samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Summer Sippers <$20

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-27-2018

It’s not officially summer just yet, but it sure feels like it here on the East Coast. And it’s Memorial Day weekend, which means I’ll be grilling, rain or shine. I have been receiving a lot of budget- and summer-friendly wines of late that I wanted to share, so I grouped them together into this report based on several factors.

Price: I think of summer sippers as those $20 and under bottles that you can pour generously with friends on a summer day. Easy-drinking aesthetic: These are wines that stylistically jive with a picnic, a pool, patio, or beach, wines that don’t require aging, decanting, or much serious thought, yet still provide deliciousness and pleasure. Availability: Most of these wines (some more than others) are quite widely available in markets around the country.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.  Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: California White Wines

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-26-2018

Well, I never go too long without another batch of new releases from California. I’ve been receiving all sorts of different California wines lately, and the white wines especially are piling up. It’s been hot and humid here on the East Coast, and a lot of fresh 2017s are headed out to consumers, so I’m stoked to offer up some new releases that will get you through the heat.

Sure, there are plenty of uninspiring California Sauvignon Blancs, but I didn’t find any here — just some serious wines and distinct styles. Paso Robles offers up a few strikingly crisp white wines, and it continues a long run of exciting white wines I’ve tasted from Paso over the past year or so. A killer Kerner from Lodi (California’s only varietal Kerner) makes a serious impression, as does the new vintage of one of my favorite California Rieslings, Smith-Madrone’s Spring Mountain. Lastly, a few Chardonnays round out this report.

Maybe I got lucky with these samples (which I tasted sighted), but I couldn’t find a mediocre wine in the lot. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Alsace

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-19-2018

If I trace my love for wine all the way back, it starts in Alsace. I was living in the far southwestern corner of Germany, in boarding school for 11th and 12th grades, and Alsace was a quick trip. I made a few excursions into quaint villages there, scarfing down (and swooning over) the local food, hiking around steep hills — I was enthralled by the way vineyards carved their place into the hillsides, all over the place.

As I hiked, I noticed vineyards planted into what looked like pure rock, and there were so many different kinds of rocks and chunks of earth that changed from ridge to ridge. Each nook and cranny was different. After a hike, I walked into a bistro in a small village, ordered a bowl of French onion soup, and asked if the bartender had any wine from the huge vineyard that climbed up the steep hills above town. I spoke no French and he almost no English (there was much pointing and gesturing), but I was served a glass of white wine I understood came from the vineyard I had just walked past.

My teenage mind was blown away at this concept. I don’t remember the wine, I think it was a Riesling, and I had no idea how to evaluate or appreciate it in any serious sense. But it was delicious. And, more importantly, it instilled in me a desire to find more about this relationship between specific places and their wines.

All this to say, to this day, I have a special appreciation for wines from Alsace. They continue to intrigue and excite me, so I’m always happy to review more of them. This week, I have a range of wines from Alsace, all hailing from the extended Pinot family (Noir, Gris, Blanc). Like a lot of wines from this region, they can be moderately priced, considering the high quality.

These wines were received as samples and tasted sighted.  Read the rest of this entry »