Wine Reviews: Exploring Idaho Wine

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-29-2015

People make wine in all 50 states. You’ve probably heard this before and thought: Yeah, but how many states produce wine worth buying and drinking? California, Oregon and Washington State lead the pack, of course, and wines from New York and Virginia have been showing great stuff for many years now.

So, which state is next to prove itself to the broader American palate? Michigan is home to some exciting vino. Missouri has been a key player in the history of American viticulture. And I’m a big fan of wines from some high elevation vineyards in Arizona. New Mexico, Texas, Maryland — the patriotic palate has plenty of options.

Well, what about Idaho?

When I told my wife I’d be tasting through a dozen Idaho wines she asked: “Umm… are they potato wines?”

I’m sure Idaho winemakers have heard similar comments more times than they care to remember. It can’t be easy convincing the average American wine drinker they should consider shelling out money for a wine from a state they know little about and have probably never visited. But if you shelve any preconceived notions and actually taste the wines, you may be surprised.

Idaho wine isn’t new, but it’s growing. In 2002, the state was home to just 11 wineries. By 2014 that number had grown to 51, according to the Idaho Wine Commission. These wineries produce more than 200,000 cases of wine a year, but that amount doesn’t even put Idaho in the top ten states in terms of production. (A bit of perspective: Ohio, the tenth-largest wine producing state, churns out about four times more wine than Idaho, according to Wines Vines Analytics.) So it’s understandable that Idaho wines don’t get much recognition on retail shelves or placement on restaurant lists outside of the immediate area.

Most of the states wineries are located in the Snake River Valley, southwest of Boise. In 2007, the Snake River Valley became the state’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA), an area that includes parts of eastern Washington. Several Idaho wineries in the Willow Creek area (a more hilly and rugged region) applied for their own AVA status in 2013, but that AVA is still pending.

I’d tasted a few Idaho Rieslings before, but this mixed case was my first real introduction to the state’s wines. And, I have to say, they make a good argument that Idaho wines should be taken seriously. I appreciated the freshness in a lot of these wines, and many of them have moderate alcohol levels. Also, the price points are generally quite attractive. If I have an overall concern about this lot, it’s the overreliance on new oak. Much of the underlying fruit seems solid, but too many of the nuances are overpowered by toasted barrel scents and flavors.

Still, if this batch is any sign, there’s a lot to explore in Idaho.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

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Wine Reviews: Values from Chile & Argentina

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-22-2015

Chile and Argentina have been producing slick, tasty, inexpensive wines for a long time. When I first started (legally) tasting and exploring wines after college, I bought up lots of bottles from producers like Catena, Trivento and Concha y Toro. They were attractive for their inexpensive prices and easily identifiable labels, the grape variety stuck on there front and center.

Fast forward a decade, and these producers are still standard bearers for South American accessibility. With large production levels and wide availability in many markets, these bottles comprise a cheap crash course in South American vino.

I found nothing novel or exciting in this bunch. These wines won’t leave you contemplating your existence. But for $12-$25, Chile and Argentina still deliver.

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

Wine Reviews: California Chardonnay

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-08-2015

Since my last report on California Chardonnays, I’ve tasted through a group of interesting and exciting wines. The best hail from that beautiful Central Coast Chardonnay haven, the Santa Maria Valley, but I also found a few fun and inexpensive Chards that would please many a palate.

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

Wine Reviews: Livermore Valley

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 08-01-2015

When studying the history of California Wine, Livermore Valley pops up again and again. From the opening of the region’s first winery in 1880s, to the Chardonnay pioneering of Wente Vineyards, to Concannon’s work with Cabernet clones and Petite Sirah promotion. California wine, as a whole, owes a whole lot to Livermore Valley.

When I was first getting into wine, I drank a bunch of Concannon’s $10 Petite Sirahs and Cabernets. As I moved along in my wine journeys, I didn’t think as much more about Livermore Valley. But this west-east valley, which sits 35 inland from the San Francisco Bay, is home to some 4,000 acres of diverse grape varieties.

I recently tasted through a group of Livermore Valley offerings and found some interesting bottles. Several of the wines boasted hefty new American oak signatures, more so than I find in tastings of other California regions. But the richer wines (especially the Petite Sirah from Vasco Urbano) seem able to absorb it well.

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

Wine Reviews: California Cabernet

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 07-25-2015

Since my last report on California Cabernets, I’ve received a bunch of impressive offerings from around the state, hailing from the 2012, 2011 and 2010 vintages.

I don’t usually pop a California Cabernet during these hot, humid summer days, but most of these wines will benefit from being buried in the cellar for at least a few years anyway.

Many of my favorite wines are not cheap, and many of the cheap wines were not my favorite. That said, there are some moderately priced and delicious wines in this lot. And some of these wines are worth the splurge, especially the single-vineyard Knights Valley Cabs from Anakota, which are just gorgeous.

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

Wine Reviews: Virginia Governor’s Cup Winners

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 07-18-2015

If you don’t yet take Virginia wines seriously, step up to the tasting table and get to work. Well-established and up-and-coming wineries are producing all sorts of exciting stuff.

The gold medal award winners of the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Cup are a good place to start. Since 1982, the Governor’s Cup wine competition has been highlighting the best selections from the commonwealth’s diverse array of wines. And as the top 12 wines of the 2015 competition show, Virginia has so much to offer.

One of the common threads in this year’s batch of winners is the preeminence of Merlot in the Meritage blends. When I first started tasting Virginia wines eight years ago or so, it seemed like Cabernet Franc had designs on becoming the red grape of the commonwealth. While Virginia Cabernet Franc can be very good (it certainly adds a lot of spice and savory qualities to many Meritage blends), I’ve been more impressed by how well Merlot performs in Virginia. I was recently chatting with Virginia Wine buff Frank Morgan about what grape variety is the most underrated performer in Virginia, and we agreed: Merlot.

Petit Verdot is also gaining respect, as demonstrated by two of the varietal wines in this batch. And I was excited to taste a delicious Tannat from renowned Virginia winery Michael Shaps and a Touriga from Cross Keys. Virginia is home to some stunning Chardonnay and other white wines, but this year’s winners were dominated by dry reds. A couple dessert wines were included for sweet measure.

If there’s one thing that gives me hesitation about a lot of Virginia wines, it’s an overreliance on new oak. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effect of some new oak on a wine, especially a bold Bordeaux-style blend. But some the nuanced flavor profiles in these wines can be obscured a bit by the toasted oak elements.

That said, many of these Governor’s Cup winners display a uniquely Virginian appeal. And with more and more options from all across the state, there has never been a better time to explore Virginia wine.

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

Wine Reviews: New Zealand

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 07-11-2015

The waves of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc have not let up, and the American market remains loaded with inexpensive offerings. Many of the wines play the same riff, but grassy grapefruit-driven wines clearly have a solid fan base.

New Zealand is home to plenty of other white wines, of course, as demonstrated in this small sampling. This lot doesn’t contain any stunners, but as a group these wines are consistent, tasty and moderately priced. I was especially impressed with the Trinity Hill Hawkes Bay Pinot Noir, which is a solid bargain at $17.

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

Wine Reviews: California Grab Bag Reds

Posted by | Posted in Uncategorized, Wine Reviews | Posted on 07-04-2015

It’s the dead of summer and it’s hot here in the District. These days, white and pink wines are my go-to. That said, drinking juicy California red wines and grilling out on a summer day is something of a patriotic duty for the American wine lover. And what better day than the Fourth of July to crack some Cali Zin, Petite Sirah or Charbono and toast to the good ol’ US of A?

These diverse wines were received as trade samples and tasted single blind.

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Wine Reviews: California Merlot

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-27-2015

A decade ago a character in some movie made some comment about Merlot sucking. All of the sudden, poor Merlot was persona non grata.

Not sure what all the fuss was about because Merlot can be a beautiful thing. Sure, there’s plenty of uninspiring Merlot, but replace the word Merlot with any grape and the same thing would be true.

Luckily for me, this bunch of California Merlots contained a few really good ones. The wines were received as trade samples and tasted single-blind. Read the rest of this entry »

Lodi Native: Redefining Old Vine Zinfandel

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 06-20-2015

Lodi is home to a ton of Zinfandel, 111,000 tons, actually. In 2011, that amounted to 32% of all Zin grown in California, according to Wines of Lodi California, a trade group. But in this historically rich region between Sacramento and Stockton, the best juice comes from single vineyards of old gnarly vines.

To highlight these old vine treasures, six winemakers have teamed up under the Lodi Native umbrella, producing six different single-vineyard Zinfandels (most of them from Lodi’s Mokelumne River appellation). The idea is to let these old vines speak as clearly as possible about their roots, so the wines are all fermented with native yeasts, and they get no new oak, fining or filtration. The bottles are sold as a $180 six-pack from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center. Together, they comprise a master class in old vine Zinfandel goodness.

During a recent online video tasting, Stuart Spencer, winemaker at Lodi’s St. Amant Winery, said the Lodi Native team hopes to elevate the region as a whole and broaden the picture of what’s being made in Lodi. And these winemakers have all sorts of ancient vine Zinfandel sites to choose from, with many historic vineyards remaining “undiscovered,” Spencer said. “There are really some treasures out here in these acres of Zinfandel vines.”

I was really impressed with this project’s first vintage, 2012, and the Lodi Native crew has done it again in 2013. If you’re used to candied, bruiser, oak-slathered Zins, you may be surprised by the freshness, vibrancy and silkiness of these old vine beauties.

I received these wines as trade samples and tasted them sighted. Read the rest of this entry »