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Everything’s Coming Up Rosés

14 May

Earlier this week, I attended RAPwine‘s (RAP stands for Rosé Avengers and Producers) Pink Out! event in San Francisco.  In the interest of full disclosure, I was invited to the Trade/Media tasting, which was provided free of charge.  RAP also held a consumer tasting later in the day, and tickets for that cost somewhere around the $40 mark.  It was a sellout.

When I was just starting out as a wine merchant (a little less than a decade ago now) we offered free daily tastings at the shop where I worked.  At regular intervals in the Spring and Summer, we’d pop open a rosé for the daily tasting.  I hated working the tasting bar on these days.  Not because I hated rosé.  (For the record I loved it and still do.)  But because I hated rejection.  On those days, when I offered a free taste of pink wine, 99% of customers who walked through the door would turn me down.  Many did so by recoiling in horror at the suggestion, many scoffed, others laughed and asked “are you kidding?”  I remember very clearly the face of one man who looked at me with a combination of pity and disdain.  On rosé days, I always went home feeling drained and dejected.

For the record, I blame White Zinfandel — Sutter Home, Lancer’s, Mateus, whatever.  Because of its ubiquitous presence at every airport bar, office party, and Oliver Garden in America social wine drinkers clearly went through a period of White Zin induced PTSD, unable to unlock the mechanism in their brains which, when it saw pink, immediately thought sweet; unable to understand that it didn’t always have to be that way.  One thing I learned from attending RAP’s PinkOut! tasting?  We have definitely recovered.

Recent studies have shown that over the last couple of years, during a down economy when the wine industry as a whole has been struggling to stay afloat, rosé producers have been enjoying a renaissance.  In fact, sales of imported rosés were up 28% last year.  A huge number given economic conditions.  When researchers talk about imported rosés, they’re really talking about France, and when talking about French rosés, they’re really talking about Provence, which accounts for about 40% of all the pink wine produced in that country.  It also sets the standard for what a blush can really be — pale-hued, mouthwateringly refreshing, with elegant minerality and subtle fruit.  Interestingly, at the PinkOut! tasting, only two Provençal rosés were on offer.  The vast majority of wines were from California.  Interesting, given that 10 years ago very few CA producers (but for the Sutter Homes, Beringers, Gallos and the like) were even making rosé.  A fact borne out by my own simple research.  As I worked my way around the tasting, I asked every winery representative I met how long they had been producing rosé.  The vast majority told me that it was their second or third vintage.

Not that that’s a bad thing.  One of my favorite wines of the day was one called Lorenza ($20).  A pink wine produced by the mother-daughter team of Melinda Kearney and Michele Ouellet at Intersection Wine Company from a blend of Mourvèdre, Carignane, Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah.  In only its second vintage, this wine showed the kind of charm, restraint, and elegance I tend to favor.  It wasn’t a hot pink hued wine bursting with ripe berry fruit.  Rather, it was a cool, crisp pour without even a whisper of residual sugar.

Speaking of color, I’ve focused a lot here on pale pinks, but the fact is that rosé comes in every hue from carnation to magenta, and I was a little surprised at the number of wines at the PinkOut! event that tended toward the latter.  While scanning my notes, I noticed that I wrote the words fuscia and hot pink quite a few times to describe a wine’s color.  This made me wonder if more domestic rosés tend to fall into the darker end of the spectrum?  Seems to me that it would be a possibility given American red wine drinkers’ penchant for dark wines.  Maybe the same follows for pinks?

I’m not typically one to advocate for trends, but in the case of pink wine I’ll make an exception.  Drink more pink…regardless of whether you like it salmon-hued or fuscia.  Just promise me it won’t be Boone’s Farm.

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The Best Bubbly Comes from…New Mexico?

7 May

photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Did you know that New Mexico is the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.?  Yeah, me neither.  But I did know that Gruet Winery, arguably the best sparkling wine producer in the country, is located there.  Over the years I have sold Gruet’s wines in my jobs at various wine store, and I have been happy to recommend (and drink) them.  They are not difficult to find (currently distributed in 48 states) and represent a great value in bubbly, starting around $14 a bottle.  For me, there is no better producer of domestic sparkling wine than Gruet, due in large part to its awesome cost-to-quality ratio, something that is sorely lacking in domestic fizz — particularly here in California, but more on that later…

Last week, I took a little vacation to our country’s oft-overlooked 47th state, and though this was not a “wine trip,” per se, I did  stop in at Gruet’s tasting room in Albuquerque to taste their wines at the source.  Sort of.  Gruet’s vineyards are located 150 miles south of its tasting room, in Truth or Consequences, NM, but the wine itself is made at the facility in Albuquerque, as it has been since the  first vintage in 1987.

First, a little history.  The Gruet family (from France, natch) were not New Mexico winemaking pioneers.  The first wine grapes were planted in the state around 1629 by monks who smuggled over some Mission grapes from Spain in order to make sacramental wine.  By the late 1800s, New Mexico was officially wine country, producing more than three million liters of wine per year.  So what happened?  Why isn’t New Mexico the wine powerhouse it once was?  Two things:  Prohibition in 1919 followed by the Rio Grande’s extensive flooding in 1926, the combined effect of which destroyed many of the state’s oldest and largest vineyards.

So in the early 1980s when the Gruets were traveling through the Southwest, the wine tradition in New Mexico was just beginning again.  During their trip they met some European winemakers who were having success with vineyards they had planted south of Albuquerque so the Gruets (who had been making Champagne in Champagne since the 1950s) decided to plant an experimental vineyard there, too.  And, it worked.  At, more than 4,000 feet in elevation, the Gruet vineyards are among the highest in the country, and this is to their advantage, as daytime temperatures in New Mexico can be very hot.  But at night, at this elevation, the temperature drops as much as 30 degrees very consistently, allowing the grapes to rest, mature slowly, and ultimately make very good wines.

So back to my visit.  The Gruet tasting room is a dated-looking faux château, located on a highway, in an industrial park, next to an RV dealership.  Check your idyllic wine country notions at the door.  They won’t be fulfilled in this setting.  Time to get on with the business of tasting wine.  Here in California, I often see Gruet’s NV Brut, Blanc de Noirs, and sometimes its Rosé.  These were all on offer, but I was more interested in some of the wines I hadn’t seen back home, namely:

NV Sauvage ($13.75) – A brand new release from Gruet.  This sparkling is made from 100% Chardonnay to which zero dosage is added.  Dosage is the mix of wine and sugar that is traditionally added to bubbly just before it is corked.  This slightly sweet (levels vary) mixture helps to balance the high acidity that typically exists in sparkling wines.  Non-dosed fizzies are becoming trendy these days.  I happen to like this style, but it can be too tart for some.  Although its worth mentioning that Gruet’s version is well-balanced, fresh and crisp, without being austere.

NV Extra Dry ($13.75) – Another new release also made from 100% Chardonnay.  This time there is dosage added, and for Extra Dry, the level of sweetness is typically on the higher side.  Extra Dry is kind of a misnomer, in that on the scale of sparkling wines, it is generally sweeter than a Brut.  How’s that for confusing!  Given my predilection for the drier styles, I typically veer away from Extra Dry for my personal consumption, which is exactly why I wanted to taste this wine at Gruet.  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of the sweetness I expected, I was met with ripe green apple with just a hint of creaminess.

2006 Blanc de Blancs ($25) – Unlike still wine, vintage sparkling wine  (vintage = a date on the label) is rare (it’s not made every year, only in the best years) and it takes a lot longer to make.  Thus, the price of a vintage is usually quite a bit higher.  So to see a vintage for $25 a bottle is a relative value.  This Blanc de Blancs — literally white from whites, which means all Chardonnay is in the bottle — was aged for three years before its release.  I found it to be very elegant and lemon citrus flavored with a light hazelnut toastiness.

2003 Grand Rosé Vintage ($32) – This blend of 92% Chardonnay and 8% still Pinot Noir (the latter gives the pink color) was the most vinous (i.e. tasted the most like regular wine) of the things I tasted.  There’s a little touch of smokiness on this bottling, as the still Pinot Noir that goes into the blend comes out of French Oak barrels.

Gruet makes a bit of still wine, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but unbeknownst to me until my visit they also produce a very small amount of Syrah.  I tasted the 2007 Syrah ($25).  This bottling is the winery’s fourth vintage of the Rhône grape variety, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of being heavy and tannic, this wine was lithe and elegant with a nose of violets and rose petals followed by smooth blueberry notes on the palate.

I left Albuquerque more than satisfied with my visit to Gruet, and with a single nagging question:  Why doesn’t California produce good-quality, affordable sparkling wine like this? For my money, the Roederer Estate Brut NV from Anderson Valley is the best cost-to-quality ratio I can find in my home state, and it’s $20 — a full $5 more than Gruet’s Brut NV.  My other CA choices (almost all of which are owned by large Champagne houses) are variously overripe, overly sweet (due to high dosage that’s out of balance with the wine), and overpriced.   My suggestion:  California bubbly producers should take a few cues from New Mexico.  It is, after all, the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.

Aromatic Whites Put Spring In Your Sip

15 Apr

Photo: q8 via flickr

Spring is in the air — literally.  A couple of weeks ago, as the season was just beginning to take hold, I got very sick.  The culprit?  Pollen.  Outside my house, the shop where I work, in every parking lot and on every curbside was pollen, piled upon itself until it resembled yellow snowdrifts.  The arrival of Spring can be an assault on the olfactory sense, but it’s this most aromatic time of year that makes perhaps the strongest argument for being a seasonal wine drinker, someone who matches the wines that they drink to the seasons.

We are all guilty, occasionally or often, of reaching for our perennial favorite wines without regard for the weather, dinner companion, or food pairing.  This is not a crime.  We like what we like.  However, there are certain events that seem to warrant a wine choice to match — birthdays, anniversaries, picnics, etc.  I believe Spring is one of these occasions, too.  When gray and rainy winter finally gives way to daffodils and poppies and birdsong and sunshine our senses are awakened and refreshed.  It’s a great time to expand your sipping horizons with a few unusual, aromatic whites, which as a category, offers the perfect pairing with Spring’s vibrant bouquet.  Go ahead, take a chance on one of these:

(Prices are approximate.  Importer’s name is in parentheses where applicable.)

2009 Bedrock Wine Co. Compagni Portis Vineyard Heirloom White, Sonoma County, CA, $20

A truly unique and unusual field blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Trousseau Gris, Berger, and some others, this wine is bursting with spicy floral notes.  Don’t let the blend of grapes scare you, this is not a sweet wine.  Rather, it is crisp (due to vinification in stainless steel), devoid of residual sugar, and has a beautifully silky texture.

2008 Patricius Tokaji Furmint, Hungary, $18 (Blue Danube Wine Company)

Tokaji?  Isn’t that a dessert wine?  Well, yes, but not in this case.  Tokaji is the name given to wines that come from the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary.  The grape variety is Furmint, which can be made sweet or dry.  We’re dealing with the latter in this wine that is a super-fragrant fruit basket.  It’s redolent of fresh pear, lime, mango, and a little peach all sprinkled with a touch of spicy cinnamon.  Mouthwatering.

2008 Luis Pato Maria Gomes, Bairrada, Portugal, $16 (Vinos Unico)

Sounds like a person, but Maria Gomes is actually a grape variety, albeit one most have never heard of.  Sort of like Grüner Veltliner crossed with Muscadet, it has both a peppery, mineral streak and a creamy lemon-grapefruit quality that is at once crisp, refreshing, and complex.  Delish with fish.

2009 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes, Cafayate, Argentina, $12 (Vine Connections)

This wine is so floral, you’d swear you just stuck your nose in a bouquet of fresh lavender and not a wine glass.  On top of that, there are flavors like peach, Bartlett pear, and tangerine.  And, it’s all backed by great acidity, which makes the wine feel very fresh and light.  Almost no grape is quite as perfect a fit with Springtime as Torrontes.

2008 Coronica Malvasia, Istria, Croatia, $20 (Blue Danube Wine Company)

From a part of Croatia that is characterized by its colorful green hillsides, spotted here and there with blossoms and olive trees, this wine says, “go outside and roll around in the grass.”  Round and soft with aromas and flavors of peach blossom and apricot, this wine is light, but manages to have a pleasant (but not heavy) creamy texture at the same time.  Like Spanish Albariño with an Eastern European accent.

If You Drink Cheap Wine, Drink It Young

8 Apr

Every cheap wine isn’t a good deal.  You already know this.

All of us at one time or another has grabbed a bottle off the shelf because we’re attracted by its low, low price.  We are lured by the hope that this wine will be the steal of the century, the greatest bottle ever at a rock bottom price.  Problem is, it doesn’t always happen that way.  Best case scenario is that the wine is simply boring; worst and all-too-often-the-case scenario is that it just plain sucks.   Yesterday, while reading an article from winebusiness.com called, “Consumers Respond to Grocery Outlet Wines,” I was reminded of all the times I’ve purchased wine based primarily on price, paying little attention to other factors, only to be disappointed later.  In general, winebusiness.com article puts a primarily positive spin on the Grocery Outlet wine selection (which leans heavily on wines in the $3 to $6 range), but it also offers insight into how large outlet stores get their wine at such deep discounts.  This is important information for wine drinkers to understand, but given that your average wine drinker doesn’t sit around reading dry industry publications, I’ve decided to highlight the important parts here in my blog, just in case an average wine drinker happens to read it some day.  Why?  Because understanding how the mechanics of discounted wine works can help all of us make better wine choices in the future, particularly when we’re rummaging around in the bargain bin.

According to Doug Due, Director of Wine for Grocery Outlet, one of the primary ways the chain gets its wine at such low prices is by buying back vintages.  What does this mean, exactly?  As Mr. Due’s explains, this is when “a brand is releasing its latest vintage, such as an ’09, but still has ’07 or ’08 vintages available and needs to move the older “juice” in order to focus on the new one.”  Given that the seller (in this case the winery) needs to move inventory, the buyer (in this case Grocery Outlet) is in the position to negotiate a very low price, allowing them to offer the wine to their customers at a deep discount.  Sounds like everybody wins, right?

Well, maybe…sometimes.  Allow me to explain.  The vast majority (and I mean vast, like 98%) of all wine produced in any region, in any country on earth is intended for early consumption. Early, as in right now, or at least within a year or so of the vintage date.  Now, this doesn’t mean that all those wines turn to vinegar in 18 months, but they’re also not getting any “better” for those extra months sitting in somebody’s warehouse.  Contrary to popular belief, most older vintage wines are not improved simply because they have some age on them. Therefore, drinking an aged bargain wine actually means that you don’t experience it at its freshest, which is arguably when it’s at its best. Don’t get me wrong, many bottles will taste just fine with age; in these (best) cases they just aren’t much different than when they were first released.  However, there are a few types of wine that really, truly should be drunk within that first-year window because after that time they are typically tired and over the hill (i.e. they taste pretty sucky).  These are the wines I would, personally, steer clear of at the Grocery Outlet or any stores that sell back vintage wines at a steep discount.

In the interest of helping you drink better on the cheap, here’s my short list of what to avoid in the back vintage bargain bin:

  1. Dry Rosé
  2. Sauvignon Blanc (particularly from New World producers, like New Zealand)
  3. Unoaked Chardonnay
  4. Pinot Grigio
  5. Gamay (absolutely and especially if it’s labeled Beaujolais Nouveau)

Daniel Boone Was a Man…Who Loved Wine

18 Mar

Fess Parker, best known for playing both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, died today at age 85 at his home near Santa Barbara, CA.  Much like his most famous characters, Mr. Parker was a pioneer.  In 1989, long before the movie Sideways brought Hollywood fame (and lots more tourists!) to the region, he planted a small vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley with the intention of selling his grapes to local producers.  It wasn’t long, however, before his little vineyard project became a full-fledged winery.  Indeed, Fess Parker Winery is billed as Frass Canyon in what is arguably Sideways‘s most famous scene, when Paul Giamatti’s character Miles drinks the contents of the spit bucket in the fictional Frass Canyon tasting room. Today, Fess Parker Winery has more than 700 acres of vineyards and produces a score of wines.  And, Mr. Parker’s contribution to Santa Barbara’s wine tourism scene doesn’t end there.  As a real estate developer, he built a posh inn and spa in the town of Los Olivos as well as the eponymously named Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort on the Santa Barbara waterfront.

Having once lived and worked there, I have a real fondness for Santa Barbara wine country, and it’s evident to me that it wouldn’t be where it is today without Mr. Parker’s many contributions.  So tonight I’ll raise a toast to Fess Parker with a Santa Ynez Valley Chardonnay.  Here’s to the King of the Wild Frontier!

Black and White and Red All Over

16 Mar

Recently, on the New York Times‘ wine blog, The Pour, asked “How Important Is It for a Red Wine to Be a Dark Color?” On the face of it, this seems perhaps to be a silly question, but it’s not.  Consumers notice, and are more often than not impressed by a wine’s dark color.  The reasons for this are not necessarily black and white, but winemakers know it, and it’s a big part of why they blend, say Grenache with Syrah or Zinfandel with Petite Sirah.  In both of these very common blends, the latter grape is much darker than the former.  An effort to achieve dark color is also why winemakers feel inclined to use extended maceration times because the longer the skins hang around with the juice, the darker the resulting wine will be.

Anyone who has ever provided wine in a service setting — restaurant, bar, winery tasting room — knows dark color matters, too.  Being a member of this group I can attest to this fact.  If I had a dollar for every time I heard a customer exclaim delightedly, “Wow!  Look at that color,” upon seeing a dark wine poured in his glass, I could buy myself lots of deliciously pale (and expensive) Barolo.

But, there’s proof that dark wine matters beyond observational experience and drawing conclusions about why winemakers do the things they do.  There is Alicante Bouschet.

Photo - corkd.com

Alicante Bouschet is a grape that is known as a teinturier variety.  While 99.9% of grapes have clear juice regardless of the color of the skin, tenturier varieties have red juice.  What does this mean for wine?  Darker color.  From the late 19th century up until the 1960s, a grape called Aramon was the most widely planted winegrape in France.  Aramon was good at some things.  It was very productive and naturally resistant to many diseases, but in terms of color and flavor, it was sorely lacking.  Enter an ancient teinturier variety called Teinturier du Cher, which is an ancestor (a grandparent, if you will) to Alicante Bouschet.  Not only was Tenturier du Cher blended with Aramon to boost its color and flavor, in 1824 Louis Bouschet crossed the two creating a new variety called Petit Bouschet.  Later, his son Henri crossed Petit Bouschet with Grenache and Alicante Bouschet was born.

Alicante Bouschet also made its way to California, but there’s not much to be found today, having been displaced in favor of more popular grape varieties and because we now have the modern technology to extract deep color from most any grape we want.  With the exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s Alicante Bouschet, which comes from Lodi, it’s now most often found in very small amounts in zinfandel blends that come from old vine vineyards in northern Sonoma County. Today, Alicante Bouschet is more a curiosity than a major player, but the mere fact of its existence is proof that human beings are attracted to dark colored wines.  Whether that’s silly or not.

Ms. Drinkwell’s Top 5: Shoulder Season Wines

13 Oct

boarding-bass-shiraz_1Welcome to shoulder season, that moment between the lows and the highs.  It’s a term used almost exclusively by the travel industry, but I don’t see why it can’t also be used in the context of wine.  In fact, it seems to fit quite nicely given that the wine industry is also a cyclical one with (usually) predictable high and low periods.  Wine sales are traditionally at their lowest during the summer months and peak during the November and December holiday season, which means that now, in October, we’re in the lull.

What’s so great about shoulder season is that it makes you think differently.  Ever dream of Christmas in Hawaii?  So does everybody else.  It’s as common as going into a wine store on New Year’s Eve and declaring that you want a bottle of Champagne.  Everybody wants Zinfandel and Pinot Noir on Thanksgiving and Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November.  They want big, impressive (but not too expensive this year) California reds to wow friends or clients during the month of December.  In wine and in travel, it seems that everybody wants the same thing at the same time, often dictated by the weather or the holidays.  But, what if, as now, there is not discernable weather pattern to guide you, no big holiday to prepare for?  What do you drink?  And where in the world do you go to find it?

Below are five shoulder season suggestions from wine roads less traveled that are both budget friendly (all under $20) and perfect for milder weather.  Welcome to the delicious in-between!
* Importer, where applicable, and approximate retail price in parentheses.

2008 Quinto do Alqueve, Ribatejo, Portugal (Robert Kacher Selections, $12)

quinto do alqueve

So many Rhône varieties, so little time… and so much money.  I’m often disappointed by white Rhône because for all its heady aroma, it’s often flabby and overpriced.  This Portugese pour made from Fernão Pires is from the Ribatejo region, which lies about 40 miles north of Lisbon.  A superior stunt double for the French stuff in terms of quality and price, it offers a nose redolent of dried apricot and linden blossom.   It’s chiffon-soft mouthfeel is at first ripe with pineapple and mango but finishes a squeeze of meyer lemon juice to give it just the right amout of zip.

2008 Cor Cellars Alba Cor, Columbia Gorge, WA ($17)

Alba Cor

Not only is the Columbia River Gorge (the natural border between Oregon and Washinton), well,  gorgeous, it also produces some mighty fine wine, like this 52% Pinot Gris, 48% Gewürztraminer blend.  It’s lychee and rose petal aromas give way to full bodied flavors of clementine and dried nectarine that are stopped just short of sweetness by a backbone of mouthwatering acidity.

2007 Domaine de la Pepière La Pépiè Côt, VdP de Jardin, France (Louis/Dressner Selections, $16)

50_274_274_pepiecot1

A Malbec by any other name would never taste like this.  Marc Ollivier’s very natural (only natural yeasts, no sterile filtration) Malbec, which goes by the alias Côt in the Loire Valley, is an elegant take on the variety.  One you’d never expect if your only experience has been in the form of brawny Argentine versions or even the inky, earthy offerings of Cahors.  No, here in the Garden of France Malbec is treated delicately and the finished product is a nearly clear garnet stunner that’s much more elegant than its drunken chicken label might imply.  Each pour brims with black raspberries, bing cherries, and violets.  Can’t get much lovelier than that.

2008 Palmina Dolcetto, Santa Barbara County, CA ($16.50)

palmina dolcetto

I admit that I have not traditionally been a fan of the Cal-Ital movement, primarily because I have found time and time again that Cali wines labeled as Sangiovese or Barbera are more or less unrecognizable as their stated varieties.  They have no character.  Thankfully, there are a handful of producers like Palmina, who are dedicated to upping the ante in the Cal-Ital game and are doing so with integrity and offering good quality at fair prices.  During shoulder season I like their Dolcetto, a friendly, easygoing wine filled with spicy cherry, rhubarb, and plum flavors that shows the characteristic Italian brightness (i.e. the acidity hasn’t gone down the tubes in favor of squeezing out extra gooey fruit).  Tasty and true.

2006 Bibich Riserva, North Dalmatia, Croatia (Blue Danube Wine Co., $18)

Bibich

This blend of three grapes — Lasin, Plavina, and Babic — drinks like a lusty, dusty spiced Dry Creek Zin poured into a lithe dancer’s body.  There’s a lot of muscle here but it’s lean, meaning this wine’s berry spiced intensity is discovered slowly, one sip at a time, not in a single knock out punch.  A perfect red to ease you into heartier glasses come winter.