Wine Reviews: California Merlot

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 10-22-2016

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down with a handful of Merlots for a tasting. These selections make for a great re-entry. Some of these wines are quite expensive, full-bodied, oaky and packed with fruit, but I can’t deny the beauty of poise of the Pahlmeter, Mt. Brave, and La Jota Merlots from Napa.

Apparently October is “Merlot Month” — one of those ubiquitous months marketers ascribe to a certain grape variety, region, etc. But it means I’ve been receiving some really solid Merlot samples, so I’m fine with it.

Go Merlot!

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single blind (except for the Goldschmidt, which was received late and tasted sighted).

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Wine Review: Virginia’s Stinson & Keswick

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 10-08-2016

If you haven’t yet explored Virginia wine, getting started can be a bit tricky. With more than 250 wineries, it helps to start with a few reputable wineries. I recently tasted through a few wines from two Virginia wineries I think produce consistently good wines.

Stinson Vineyards produces some Monticello AVA fruit and source grapes from other areas. The father-daughter duo (Scott and Rachel Stinson) control about seven acres of estate vineyards, planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tannat. The wines are clean, vibrant, accessible, and I’ve noticed a strong consistency from vintage to vintage, something that can be especially difficult in Virginia.

Speaking of Virginia’s notoriously variable vintage conditions, during a recent online chat, Keswick’s winemaker and vineyard manager Stephen Barnard said, “The only consistency is that next year’s going to be different.” From frost to spats of torrential rain to heat spikes to looming destruction from tropical systems, Virginia winegrowers don’t have it easy. But he and other Virginia winemaker’s got a bit of a break in the exceptional 2015 vintage. A lot of reds are yet to hit the market, but based on the whites I’ve tasted and what I’ve heard from Virginia vintners, this is a vintage to check out.

Barnard, originally from South Africa, has been working with Virginia wines for about 15 years, the last 10 of which he’s spent at Keswick, garnering acclaim and doing his part to elevate the reputation of Virginia wine. Keswick has won awards at the annual Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition several times, including their 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve (included in this tasting), which won the 2016 Cup.

For a full re-cap on the 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup winners, you can read my report here.

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

Wine Reviews: Robert Turner Wines

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 10-01-2016

IMG_20160924_160447740_HDRRobert Turner Wines were new to me until I tasted these four, but this small producer is behind some really tasty vino.

In 1997, proprietor Bob Turner began buying grapes from Napa and Sonoma and crafting wines à la garagiste — by making the wines in his San Francisco garage. Bob, a dentist-turned-winemaker who studied at UC Davis, outgrew his modest cellar, so in 2005 the operation expanded into Stoney Springs Winery, north of St. Helena, and Robert Turner Wines officially began.

It’s still a small affair (about 500 cases per vintage), and the portfolio is relatively focused. Nothing crazy: a Grenache rose, a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Dutton Ranch in the Russian River Valley, and a Cabernet Franc from a site near the winery. Fellow dentist-turned-winemaker Dave Earnest (who also worked as a pilot) has been assistant winemaker since 2014.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

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Wine Reviews: Wakefield – Clare Valley

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 09-24-2016

CsexdcWUIAACvwZEarlier this year, I reviewed some new releases from Southern Australia’s Wakefield. Well, I’m back to Wakefield again, and this reports includes some really solid buys from the mid-shelf offerings. If you’ve turned away from Australian wines generally, it might be worth turning to Wakefield wines specifically. These wines in this report are moderately priced and highly delicious, showing a stylistic trend toward brighter acidity and fresher fruit.

The Taylor family kicked off their winery in 1969, after scoring a 430-acre vineyard near the Wakefield River in Southern Australia’s Clare Valley region. These wines are known as Taylor’s in Australia but, due to trademark restrictions, they’re labeled as Wakefield in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Clare Valley wines all come from the Taylor family estate, where vineyards at more than 1,100 feet above sea level vineyards get plenty of sun but receive the benefit if large diurnal temperature swings. The St. Andrews wines come from the estate fruit grown in their terra rossa soil, while the Jaraman wines are blended with fruit from other sites.

And for those looking to splurge, Wakefield has some stunning high-end reds, the Pioneer Shiraz and Visionary Cabernet. I reviewed these wines in November 2015. Spoiler: they are amazing.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.
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Mead: Wine, Beer, or Something Else?

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 09-20-2016

Larsen MeadworksMead is the oldest known alcoholic beverage, with lineage back to 7000 B.C. It predates wine and beer by thousands of years. But it’s only now gaining favor among American consumers. The American Mead Makers Association’s inaugural Mead Industry Report showed mead to be the smallest but fastest growing segment of the American alcohol industry. In the past decade, the number of commercial meaderies in the United States has increased nearly tenfold, from approximately 30 in 2003 to now close to 300 in 2016.

Mead is growing. But it has yet to solidify its identity with the drinking public. Part wine, part beer, but not wholly either, mead is a strange beverage. Those who know it as honey wine are shocked to encounter something dry or even hopped, instead of something viscous and saccharine. It’s perhaps mead’s resistance to classification that has turned off drinkers for so long. But it’s also what’s fueling its current momentum, especially among novelty-craving Millennials.

I recently encountered mead in an unlikely place—Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. That’s where Larsen Meadworks is quietly producing some of the freshest, most creative and delicious concoctions I’ve ever tasted (see my brief notes below the fold).

Nate Larsen, who opened his Mechanicsburg tasting room in late 2015, has only been making mead for three years, but in that short time he’s become proficient at achieving balanced and brightly nuanced meads. He uses only the freshest local ingredients—no concentrates and no evident backsweetening—and brings together techniques from winemaking and brewing. Fermentations are done completely in open-top containers, lasting anywhere from two to four weeks, with different ingredients added in stages. This incremental approach imbues the mead with distinct layers, which unfold almost sequentially, allowing you to taste every bit of each ingredient. The rapidity of the process says beer, but the complexity and alcohol level, which ranges from 10 to 15 percent and is dangerously imperceptible, says wine.

When it comes to ingredients, everything is intentional. As a former bartender, Larsen knows the difference between a lime that is juiced and one that is pressed—and chooses the latter in his mead making because of the rind essence that it produces. And for anyone who knows what it’s like to eat a fresh stalk of rhubarb, the Larsen Meadworks Aura is just about as close as you can get to the real thing.

The lineup of meads at Larsen is long, but each is interesting in its own way, not least for the backstory. You’ll want to read my notes below, but to list some of the ingredients that come into play: strawberry, rhubarb, cascade hops, ginger, mango, passion fruit, peppermint, peach, turmeric, saffron, maple syrup, and almond meal.

Larsen meads are now available for order nationally on Vinoshipper.

Somewhere between wine and beer, mead is carving a niche all its own. There is great pressure, say some, to turn mead into something wholesale and sugary, sold in six packs. Thankfully, mead makers have yet to acquiesce.

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Wine Reviews: International Grab Bag

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 09-17-2016

It’s time for another grab bag of wine reviews from all over this great big sphere of ours. This batch includes wines from New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Italy and Southern France. We’ve got some serious values in here, as well.

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

Wine Reviews: Ernest Vineyards

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 09-03-2016

I’m a huge fan of Sonoma Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and now I have another exciting producer to  follow.

Ernest Vineyards focuses on single vineyard-designated Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. The brand was established in 2012 by husband-wife team Todd Gottula and Erin Brooks, who work with Sonoma growers and their winemaking team to produce wines from sites throughout the Green River, the larger Russian River AVA and the West Sonoma Coast. The wines are produced at a custom crush facility called Punchdown Cellars, but Erin and Todd have plans to launch their own facility, called Grand Cru, in the summer of 2017.

I loved both of the Chardonnays, but the Pinot Noirs are even better. The wines sport a low 12.5% alcohol, but these lighter-bodied wines are by no means lacking in structure, flavor or depth. For those Pinot-lovers who tend toward the zesty, red-fruited, earthy style, Ernest wines are worth checking out. They do use a good amount of new French oak (about 30-40%), but that seems to be the perfect amount for my palate — accentuating and harmonizing the wine but not stealing the show.

“Todd and Erin pride themselves on making Burgundian-style wines with bright acid, low alcohol, and balanced flavor,” their website proclaims. A bold statement, but the wines back it up. I thought all four of these wines were delicious, crisp, complex and flawlessly executed. Ernest Vineyards is one to watch if you appreciate Sonoma producers of this style.

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 08-27-2016

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, blends, this report features a bunch of California white wines from all over the state. The Dragonette Cellars Duvarita Vineyard 2014 was shockingly good, while Sonoma Chardonnay purveyor La Pitchoune continues to impress me with their 2013s. Toss in some newly-released Sauvignon Blancs and a few blends, and you’ve got a nice selection of late summer sippers.

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

Wine Reviews: California Bordeaux Reds

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-20-2016

Yes, California Cabernet is king, but this report includes some solid examples of Merlot, Malbec and Bordeaux varietal blends. Actually, a Malbec in this report blew me away with its awesomeness.

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

Wine Reviews: Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-13-2016

Ready to dig into some Willamette Valley Pinot Noir? My answer to that question will always be a resounding yes.

The majority of these releases hail from the 2014 vintage, a year heralded by many Willamette Valley winemakers as historic in its high quality. With record-breaking quantities of heat and plenty of sun, the Pinot grapes were ripe and the crop was bountiful. Some growers reporting a 40% increase in crop size from the 2013 vintage. But the quality of the fruit is high, and the wines I’ve tasted don’t stray into overripe territory.

“Never seen the likes of it in 25 years,” Doug Tunnell of Brick House Wine Company told “I’m sure we’ll look back at 2014 as a rare gift.”

A stellar vintage like 2014 provides a perfect lens through which to examine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir in the entry level range. And I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of vibrant, juicy, complex and delicious Pinots that cost less than $30. These wines tend to drink best young, but even the basic wines show good structure. A lot of higher-end 2014s will improve dramatically in the cellar, methinks. Some 2013 Pinots in this report showed very well, too.

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