Visiting the Wines of Chile Master Class

Posted by | Posted in Wine Events | Posted on 04-15-2013

Last week, I  attended a Wines of Chile Master Class at Charlie Palmer Steak in DC, led by Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer. The wines, which ranged from $9 to $85 per bottle (wholesale), didn’t disappoint. They were tasted in three flights — Chardonnay, Workhorse Reds, and Icons.

The Chardonnays were from opposite ends of Chile, literally. Two were from the Limarí Valley, in the north, and one from Malleco, at Chile’s southern end.

Limarí, a subzone of the Coquimbo DO, has historically been known for bulk wine, table grapes, and Pisco distillation. But the region is home to veins of calcareous soil, much like the clay/lime soils of Burgundy. So it’s no surprise that the region is capable of producing Chardonnays with crisp minerality.

Such minerality really showed in the 2012 Merino “Limestone Hill,” which was the most precise Chardonnay of the day and bursting with green apples, tart citrus and a leesy tang which developed while the wine matured in (likely neutral) French oak for one year. Slide this wine one on to your list of “Patio Pounders” this summer.

Also from Limarí, yet on the other side of the Chardonnay spectrum, was the 2012 Concha y Toro “Marques de Casa Concha.” While this might be more popular among grandmas than sommeliers — it’s quite ripe and sees 12 months in French oak, at least some of which is new — it still features enough minerality and acid to be quite enjoyable. Considering this wine lands on some retail shelves under $15, why not?

About 1,000 miles south is the Malleco region. The smallest wine region in Chile, Malleco is home to just 42 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The 2010 Clos des Foufs “Latuffa” Pinot Noir was wild. Showing a deep color, akin to Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir (perhaps a similar black rock soil?), the nose was overt with notes of garrigue, sage, smoke, and meat. The fruit profile on the palate showed bursting berries and bramble, with the innate acidity of Pinot Noir and a soft grip to it.

Of course, if you want to drink Chile, it’s big red territory. So I was pleased to see the 2009 Emiliana “Coyam” on the table when I walked in. It’s a wine with which I have had a lot of success selling at Bourbon Steak DC and one I would certainly consider ordering myself. This vintage is a biodynamic blend of Syrah, Carmenere, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvèdre & Petit Verdot. A very complex nose brings about dried spices, animale, and ripe dark fruits. Pit it against your favorite chewy Napa or Washington red.

The last flight featured the “icons.” A list of outside Chile’s outside investors reads like who’s who list — Los Vascos and Château Lafite-Rothschild; Concha y Toro and Château Mouton-Rothschild; Miguel Torres; Michel Rolland; etc.  Iconic indeed.

A look into how these wines can age was provided by the 2007 Errázuriz “Don Maximiano.” The structure on this wine featured a regal, even tannin set, refreshing acidity and well-integrated fruit and earth. I’d be excited to try this wine in ten years — or more.

Finally, you can’t talk about Chile without mentioning Carmenere, the forgotten Bordelais variety. Almost extinct elsewhere, when done right, it can produce a fragrant, floral and grippy wine. Tasted on this day was the 2007 Santa Rita “Pehuén” from the Apalta Valley. This wine, like the other reds, balanced a savory green pepper crunch with ripe fruits, here going into the plum, boysenberry and slight raisin categories. Big tannins, no doubt, but again with a long and even finish. This forgotten grape was recently planted by famous St. Émilion   garagiste and wine infidel Jean-Luc Thunevin at Château Valandraud. His reason? “Maybe!”

In case you’re wondering, all the reds, had a pyrazine, or green pepper, character — even the expensive ones. As they should! The Cabernet family of grapes has this characteristic, and if the flavor is integrated, it helps give wine depth, structure, and adaptability to food as a savory component. Many times I’ve seen a quality wine dismissed for this aspect, but honestly, if your Cabernet is not showing some green aspects, that’s the wine that should be put into question.

Now that I’m off my soapbox, drink some Chilean wine!

A Surprise In A Tough Vintage

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 03-12-2013

It started cold and rainy. There was mold while flowering dawdled, and anti-rot sprays were commonplace. Spring hail destroyed a few great vines in St. Émilion and Côtes de Castillion. Summer was bright with sun, but cool and slightly damp overall. Bordeaux needed something on which to hang its hat, and soon.

Finally, during harvest, the region had constant warm and dry weather. Vineyard managers that were hoping for some extra hang time were rewarded.

I found one of those wines. This wine was bought at retail and tasted blind, for exam practice.

A dark, opaque ruby core fled almost the entire way to a thin, clear meniscus. Fruits were dark. Boysenberry, currant and raspberry aromas, all just ripe, were on the forefront. Secondary whiffs of smoke, toast, bacon, vanilla and violets abounded. The wine was massive on the palate, featuring ribeye-demanding tannins and gravel galore. Savory aspects and a lush mouth feel gave the wine great depth.  What was on the fence on the nose just became an old world wine. My only rag on this bottle is a just-moderate amount of acidity. Granted though, it comes with the territory of the Cabernet family, and a long watery vintage.

My solution: Put that ribeye on the grill.

The wine was the 2008 Clos René Pomerol. I’ve found some great wines on the right bank in this frustrating vintage, St Émilion, Pomerol, and the satellites alike. This is one of the best.

In the hands of the Lasserre family for 6 generations, Clos René also employs Michel Rolland as a consulting enologist. The 72 acres of vines and resulting wines unsurprisingly feature Merlot and Cabernet Franc, but the estate’s inclusion of 10% Malbec is the highest percentage in Pomerol. They have a second wine out there, too, with Moulinet-Lasserre.

Pomerol is certainly the diamond in the rough of 2008, and at $30, Clos René is worth seeking out. I’ll likely purchase a few more and revisit them later in life!

(Extremely) Long Shadows

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-26-2013

Get it? (Credit: Julian Mayor.)

Allen Shoup may have been the first wine industry insider to realize that premium wine could be grown and made in Washington State.

Shoup began his career in Modesto, California, where he worked at Gallo as a marketing director. In 1980, he moved to Washington to take a job with Chateau Ste. Michelle, which at the time was just an upstart. He would watch the company grow tremendously — today, Chateau Ste. Michelle brings in nearly $200 million in revenue annually.

At Chateau Ste. Michelle, Shoup realized he had a knack for producing great wines — not by making the wine, but by bringing in great winemakers from across the world. While there, Shoup was instrumental in the collaborations with Piero Antinori — which resulted in the uber-smooth Col Solare — and the iconic Dr. Ernst Loosen, which resulted in the Eroica Riesling.

Soon enough, Shoup began dreaming of creating a line that produced nothing but iconic wines by iconic winemakers. So in 2002, he established Long Shadows: 7 wineries for 8 winemakers to make “best of type” wines from the Columbia Valley.

Credit: Julian Mayor.

Make no mistake: These are new world wines that boast all the ripeness Washington has to offer. And the wines don’t disappoint. Those that I’ve sampled all show age-worthiness, purity of fruit, tremendous balance, and distinctly Washington terroir. The reds range from $45-$55 and pack a lot of wine into each dollar, particularly when compared to their Napa counterparts.

The sole white wine in Shoup’s lineup is Poet’s Leap, made by Armin Diel of Schlossgut Diel in Germany’s Nahe region. Along with keeping the high standards of the estate that has been in his family’s hands for 112 years, Armin is an award-winning wine writer and president of the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweinguter’s Nahe chapter. His wines perhaps are under-appreciated because they’re so rarely mentioned in his own writings. The 2011 Poet’s Leap shows off a lot of what one can expect from a ripe German spätlese.  A mere hint of residual sugar tames the tingling acidity of lime pulp, lemon juice and quince. A slate and flint minerality wash away a large percentage of said fruit, leaving a clean and lasting finish. A straight steal for $20.

Credit: Julian Mayor.

A little research through Seattle sommelier Luke Wohlers found me salivating for Carmina Burana. Basically, the Poet’s Leap but aged in large fudre. Unfortunately this wine hasn’t been made since 2008. Very little seems to be on the market as well.

I have to employ my “get out of Napa” philosophy when looking for a great Cabernet in the lower price points of a wine list. Consequently, I have turned a lot of people onto the 2007 Feather.

Credit: Julian Mayor.

This wine embodies everything one wants in a steakhouse red. The fruits are dark and elegantly ripe, with a moderate amount of jammy concentration. The wine finishes with a strong, chewy grip which is unmistakably Washington. Feather is made by Randy Dunn, yes, THAT Randy Dunn. Known for his namesake Dunn Vineyards and a more restrained style of Napa Valley Cabernet, he took his Howell Mountain expertise to Long Shadows and made his seventh Feather in 2009.

My real epiphany for the Long Shadows line came in the 2003 Chester-Kidder. Named for Shoup’s grandparents, this wine showed off the longevity of these wines. A six-grape blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, it could be their best. It is, after all, made by the winemaker with the most Washington experience, Gilles Nicault, formerly of Woodward Canyon.

Adorned with the art of Tacoma, Washington native Dale Chihuly, and other winemaker names such as Rolland, Melka and Duval, this winery looks to cast long shadows for a long time.

Read more about the all-star lineup here. Huge thanks to Julian Mayor, the consummate traveler and sommelier, for the pictures featured in this article. He recently visited the winery while touring Washington wine country.

Winery Profile: Sella & Mosca

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 02-11-2013

Sardinia has piqued my interest as long as I can recall. It’s Italy, but different. Italian aside, the residents speak four distinct languages — influenced by Corsica in the north, and various Spanish dialects in the central and south. Culinary specialties include bottarga and lamb along with pristine Mediterranean seafood. And it looks like this, appealing to beach bums and rock climbers alike. Sardinia may also host my favorite episode of No Reservations.

Oh, and there is wine. Some really, really good wine. Along with too many Tre Bicchiere awards to list, one recent award for Sardinian standout Sella & Mosca stands above them all: The Gambero Rosso’s 2013 Winery of the Year.

Sella & Mosca has been around for a while. Founded in 1899 by two serendipitous Piemontese businessmen, they helped to save the world’s wine industry. While the European wine countries were being devastated by phylloxera, Sella & Mosca used their sandy soils and geographic isolation to house a nursery for new rootstocks. Many of the new plantings made their way to the south of France, Bordeaux, Spain and Italy.

Sella & Mosca’s flagship wine, Marchese di Villamarina, is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Knowing how the staunchly traditionalist mainland Italians felt about planting Cabernet Sauvignon, I figured there’s another Darmagi-like story here. Not so. Those vines in the nursery were largely Cabernet, so unlike the influx of international varietals in the latter 1900s in Piedmont and Tuscany, Cabernet has been a part of Sardinia for some time. The wine itself is tasty.

At a recent tasting, I was impressed with the 2004, 2005, and 2006 vintages of Marchese di Villamarina. All sported a concentrated dark color in their cores, a heft of savory herbs, and a mix of ripe and dried fruits, tart and sweet. They each seemed to have aged evenly, with perhaps five more years to go. A great pairing for a roasted Sardinian wild boar.

My favorite red of the tasting was the Terre Rare Carignano de Sulcis. From an appellation in Sardinia’s southwestern corner comes a varietal wine with a rusty, iron minerality coupled with dark fruits like plums, blackberries and prunes. The weight of the fruit was counteracted nicely by the minerality and a refreshing bright acidity. With a $15 SRP, it’s certainly worth seeking out.

The wine of the day, however, was a Sella & Mocsa exclusive. Terre Bianche is the only 100% Torbato in the world. Named after the white, chalky earth the grapes thrives on at the Sella & Mosca estate in Alghero this wine was unlike many I have ever tasted. The nose was bright and intense with citrusy notes of key lime, tangerine and tropical pineapple. Where this wine really shines is on the palate. The texture of the wine was waxy and broad with a slight grainy aspect. I don’t know if that had to do with Torbato’s fibrous nature but it yielded a texture reminiscent of Aussie Semillon. This wine could match any simply prepared seafood right out of the Sardinian waters (topped with bottarga please).

Sardinia is known to have one of the highest life-expectancies in the world. The locals cite their fresh cuisine, great weather, and stress-free lifestyle for this feat. Sounds like a place you might not leave once you get there.

“Chablis is not Meursault”

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 01-24-2013

When blind tasting wine, you don’t get to pick what you’ll be drinking after the initial 2 ounces and (practice) exam portion, so forgive me if I’m not writing seasonally. I found myself halfway through a 2010 Louis Michel Chablis and thought, “this is awesome wine.” To me, deciding whether or not I enjoy a wine is as important as finding the prescribed fruits, non-fruits, and structural assets of an unknown wine.

A vintage that saw only July with temperatures above average, 2010’s crops were influenced by both wet and dry weather throughout the growing season. This meant that quality-minded producers were fervently searching and tossing aside grapes with unwanted molds or less than voluptuous ripeness. As a result, growers saw a 16% drop in production levels when compared to 2008 and 2009. And the finished wines are concentrated and suggest they should age and develop for at least a bit of time.

The mid-level offering from Louis Michel does not disappoint. Ripe golden delicious and yellow apples mingle alongside lemon oil, lime pulp and and a hint of starfruit.  The texture wide with piercing acidity and a strong yogurt tang. Louis Michel “enriches” its Chablis & Petit Chablis AOP wines for 8 month on the lees, and up to 12 for Premier & Grand Cru bottlings.

Louis Michel is a staunch proponent of stainless steel, hence the (obvious) quote from the domaine’s website in the title. For 40 years, not a drop of their Chablis has seen any oak. I like both styles, this style to accompany a raw bar, certain chicken preparations, or last night’s grilled cheese with tomato and turkey; and the oaked style with aromatic asian dishes and firmer cheeses.

This is certainly a wine to come back to in a few years, likely to outperform its “generic” appellation. So hopefully, the 16% dip in production for this great vintage won’t impede the availability here in the States.

Winemaker Interview: Carl van der Merwe

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-18-2013

Carl Van der Merwe

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Carl van der Merwe, the winemaker of DeMorgenzon in Stellenbosch.

DeMorgenzon, or “the morning sun,” was purchased by Wendy & Hylton Appelbaum in 2003. The site sees the Stellenboshkloof valley’s  first rays of sun daily, thus the solar-themed moniker. The vines and cellar at DeMorgenzon receive a constant feed of Baroque music in order to energize the plant life (and the human workers as well, I imagine). They have obviously researched the effects of such practices, which you can read all about via their website, or you just just take it from me that their flagship Chenin Blanc truly does sing.

Carl joined DeMorgenzon in July 2010 after an 8 year stint at Quoin Rock Winery in Stellenbosch where he made excellent wines and collected many accolades. Carl received a degree in business management and oenology at Stellenbosch University and is currently a Master of Wine student.

Check out our interview with Carl below the fold! Read the rest of this entry »

Sommelier Interview: Luke Wohlers

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-16-2013

Today, Luke Wohlers joins us for an interview from Seattle, a city quickly gaining ground in the sommelier scene.

Luke holds a diploma from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and is a first year Master of Wine student. He’s at the Advanced level with the Court of Master Sommeliers, and is also currently pursuing the Master of Wine designation.

He began his restaurant career in 1996 and entered the wine industry in 2000, when he began working as a manager and wine educator at Corkscrew Wine Emporium in Urbana, Illinois. He soon moved to Boston, where he worked at Upstairs on the SquareFormaggio Kitchen, and Lower Falls Wine Company. In 2008, Luke he was part of the wine team at Eleven Madison Park when the restaurant earned a James Beard Award for “Outstanding Wine Service.” In 2010, Luke moved to Washington to work at The Herbfarm. And in June 2011, he joined the team at RN74 in Seattle.

When not engrossed in wine, Luke can be found with his cello in hand preparing for an upcoming recital, or clad with his running shoes on a near by running trail. You can follow him on twitter @lukewohlers. Check out our interview with Luke below the fold! Read the rest of this entry »

Sommelier Interview: Roland Micu, MS

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-09-2013

Meet Roland Micu, the world’s youngest Master Sommelier.

Roland immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe at the age of 6. Growing up, wine was common at family meals, but those meals only took place on holidays when nobody was working. Even as a child, Roland took to wine rather naturally, sighting “a different buzz,” and describing it as a “warmer, more relaxing experience as opposed to the aggressive buzz of malt liquor and bottom shelf vodka which could have been poured as rubbing alcohol and no one would know the difference.”

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Roland is currently the associate director of wine education at The International Culinary Center, the very same school where he got his start.

Roland’s teaching is rooted in what he found early in his formal training — fundamentals in the three disciplines of being a sommelier: theory, tasting, and service. “If your fundamentals are solid,” he notes, “you can start working on becoming a bad-ass.”

Check out our interview with Roland below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

My Day in Southern France (Part 2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-19-2012

Uploaded to flickr by Noodle93.

Last Tuesday, after exploring several wines from the Roussillon, I headed to Rasika West End for a Côtes de Provence Rosé dinner.

Rasika West End is one of the hottest Indian restaurants in the country. And my dinner was smack dab in the middle of Diwali. So unsurprisingly, the restaurant was  packed.

Although the weather was cool — it was hovering in the low-40s — the chill didn’t make these wines any less food friendly.

The wines all exhibited pure fruit and mineral in a variety of different expressions. Every wine was also dry. Appellation law mandates that Côtes de Provence rosé contain no more than 3 g/l of residual sugar, which is about as dry as wines get.

The first wine — Château Léoube “Secret de Léoube” — was a great example of a wine with a rich, concentrated fruitiness on both nose and palate. Although it hit the palate with as much richness as a a lemony, neutral Pinot Grigio, that sensation was washed away at the finish, which displayed a cleansing, saline, oyster shell minerality.

“Wait a second,” you might ask. “All this dry, mineral-laden wine with Indian food? Did it really work?!”

Some of the food like the Reshmi Kebab, was spicy, of course. Other dishes were more aromatic, like the Tamarind Black Cod. While I still might be more inclined to reach for something from Alsace or Germany if I were having a meal of spicy dishes, the pairing worked perfectly thanks to the many aromatic dishes we enjoyed.

Two wines from Château d’Esclans, Les Clans 2010 & Garrus 2010, both saw some time in oak with regular battonage, the latter showing a near seamless integration.  Any rich seafood, or any dish featuring saffron, would be great with these.

The star of the show was certainly the Domaine de Rimauresq. One of Provence’s 18 Crus Classés, this wine teathered the bracing minerality with rich and tart fruits — like I imagine an 80-year-old seamstress would take care of the left leg of my Levi’s. Textbook. And, for five dollars less, the Petit Rimauresq is an amiable, little-brother sidekick.

Even though it’s getting cold outside, don’t breeze by the Rosé. Winter vegetables and 2012-summer-jarred tomatoes prove that this wine can survive yearround.

My Day in Southern France (Part 1)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-15-2012

Grape pickers near Maury. Uploaded to Wikipedia by Jack R. Johanson.

Considering the level of traffic in Washington DC on November 13, I should have just flown to France and driven through the Southern countryside. There surely would have been less horn-honking. While avoiding license plates from Alabama, New Mexico, and Florida earlier this week, I headed to the Capital Wine School to taste a number of wines from the Roussillon.

“Oh, right, the Languedoc,” you say.  Well, yes and no.  Yes, winemakers in the Roussillon may label their wines as Languedoc AOP. But the traditional wines of Roussillon are worlds apart.

The tasting, led by Master Sommelier Kathy Morgan & Master of Wine Jay Youmans, began with a more modern tradition — still whites and reds. The Domaine Gauby Côtes Catalens IGP “VV” 2009 showed a balance between bruised apples, orange, and praline. Distinctive, in a good way. The nuttiness was welcomed, particularly considering the blend of easily-oxidized varietals (Macabeu, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, etc.). The reds were typically Southern French; blends of three or more grapes, juicy and herbal. The Domaine Puig-Parahÿ “Georges” Côtes du Roussillon 2010, a Carignan-weighted blend that spent one year in concrete, flaunted an up-front floral and pine-like herbaceousness to compliment tons of ripe red fruits.

The Roussillon, France’s last south and westward stretch of Mediterranean coastline on the way to Catalan Spain, sheltered by the Pyrennes Mountains, is responsible for 90% of France’s Vins doux Naturals. These wines are generally fortified to 15-17% alcohol and can spend many years aging in glass or wood in the scorching sun. Port, by comparison, is a stronger 19-22% alcohol. These wines, with common appellation names as Maury, Rivesalts and Banyuls, can come in a variety of oxidative and non-oxidative styles.

The first of these wines we tried was a Croix Milhas Rivesalts rosé. This watermelon and bitter orange peel driven wine is apparently the apéritif of choice in this part of the world. Even with its elevated alcohol, I’d like to try this wine with something spicy — as it’s required to have at least 100 g/l of residual sugar. A modern-style showed through in the 100% Grenache Domaine des Schistes “La Cerisaie” Maury 2007, whereas the Domaine Besombes Singla “L’Amédée” Rivesalts 1979 added a decidedly complex wheel of dried fruit, hay, and earth.

It was mentioned over sampling of many of these wine styles that some type of pork belly dish — or anything else needing sweetness and strength — would be a great pairing.

As we finished, I concluded that these ancient and distinctive wines can certainly find their place into the middle of a tasting menu, or after dinner and paired with a fireplace. These wines certainly bridge the gap between a sickly-sweet dessert wine and the overtly aggressive styles of Madeira and Port. They may take a bit more work to find, but can certainly surprise and delight.