Monday, October 20, 2014

New World vs. Old World

As the line between new world and old would wines continues to blur, last week at San Francisco Wine Center we found ourselves stumped this evening as we tasted through 6 comparisons of typical varietals made by old world and new world producers. With each pair, the class was literally split every time on which was which. As Mary Burnham, wine writer, explained, when we talk about old world, we mean Europe, while new world encompasses everywhere else. Old world wines are generally more earthy and savory, with marked acidity and minerality and less alcohol. New world wines are typically more fruit-forward, less acidic, and higher in alcohol. Did these generalizations hold up in this group?

In the first pair, wine #1 was fruity and dry, with grassy notes, citrus peel, and marked acidity. Many guessed it was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - but it was a white Bordeaux. Wine #2 was creamier, with sweet vanilla oak, lemon merengue, and peach; more complex, silky but still crisp. Were we in Pouilly-Fumé, France? Actually, Washington State. I didn’t even know anyone was making Sauvignon Blanc in Washington – this was actually majority Semillon (61%) with 20% Sauvignon Blanc – but I expect I will be re-visiting this producer, Buty.

In the next pair, many immediately thought #3 was a German Riesling due to its pungent petrol character. I got beyond that and began to think we were in Australia, since theirs take on that character as well but tend to be very lime-y and dry, which was how I would characterize this wine.  Wine #4 was more floral and peachy, like many Rieslings I’ve had from Finger Lakes producer Hermann J. Wiemer that highly mimic a German Mosel style when young.  The big reveal - #3 was from Oregon and #4 was Austrian!

The next two sets were a bit more obvious to me – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. New World chardonnay tends to have more pronounced oak, and I almost always prefer a more refined French style. With Pinot Noir, new world versions tend to be very fruity, whereas French versions are more funky and earthy, which I also prefer. Both sets were more typical expressions of new world and old world, though not obvious to everyone.

The second set of reds was a fun one – meaty, savory and spicy with firm tannin against brambly, sweet spice and soft tannin. We had ourselves a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah against a Barossa Valley Shiraz. We learned that the Barossa Valley does not cool off at night, so the grape skins don’t thicken, contributing to softer tannins in the wine. This was a great pair that solidified my favorite for the night in the Crozes-Hermitage, since I love this style and producer and the price cannot be beat, especially for a wine that will continue to improve with cellar time.
The last set was another tough one, mostly because both these wines were very tight and could use some more aging and air. The first had a eucalyptus nose with black fruit and violets on the nose. The second was a bit more closed on the nose but we could discern some vanilla. With a few bites of cheese, things started to become clearer - these were Cabernet-dominated wines, Bordeaux from Graves against Napa Valley’s Opus One.

A wonderful selection of wines with some curveballs…
  1. Chateau Lamothe de Haux White Bordeaux 2011 ($15)
  2. Buty Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc-Muscadelle 2010 – Columbia Valley, WA ($25)
  3. Chehalem Willamette Valley Dry Riesling Reserve 2007 – Oregon ($20)
  4. Hogl Wachau Riesling Smaragd Bruck 2007 – Wachau, Austria ($30)
  5. Domaines Leflaive Macon Verze 2012 – Burgundy, France ($39)
  6. Wente Riva Ranch Estate Chardonnay 2012 – Arroyo Seco, Monterey, CA ($18)
  7. Flowers Van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000 – Sonoma Mountain ($60)
  8. Domaine Trappet Chambertin Grand Cru 2000 – Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France ($200)
  9. Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage 2012 – Northern Rhone Valley, France ($30)
  10. Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2011 – Barossa Valley, Southern Australia ($28)
  11. Chateau Smith-Haut Lafite 2006 – Graves, Left Bank, Bordeaux, France ($90)
  12. Opus One 2006 – Napa Valley, CA ($290)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Madeira Master Class at SFWC

I recently attended a Madeira Master Class at the San Francisco Wine Center, led by professionals from The Madeira Wine Institute - the governing body of winemaking on the island of Madeira, Portugal. Madeira is a fortified wine known for its longevity - but did you know the best Madeira can last 300 years? Rui Falcao, our instructor, told us about the oldest Madeira he’s tried, which was from 1715! It was not only good, but very good – nowhere near tired or gone. How does this tiny, mountainous island whose subtropical climate is always 70 degrees produce one of the world’s most indestructible wines? Acidity! Like Champagne, Madeira’s wine grapes produce extremely acidic wines that are undrinkable in their normal, vinified state. But this acidity provides the backbone of a wine balanced by natural sugar levels and the addition of neutral spirit to raise the alcohol from about 9% to 18%. With the right amount of aging, a beautiful, complex wine emerges.

Madeira is always a single varietal wine. The 5 main permitted varietals vary in natural sweetness, so their wines will usually follow suit. Sercial is a dry wine; Verdelho – medium dry; Boal/Bual – medium sweet; Malvasia/Malmsey – sweet/rich. Tinta Negra is the exception to all of this: the only red varietal, vinified as a white, it can be any level of sweetness. Though it accounts for 82% of Madeira production, it used to not be talked about, but as recently as the day of this class it had been recognized as a Noble grape varietal and will be included on the label going forward.

Madeira has a total of just 900 acres of vines. Vineyards are managed separately from the wineries, and there are only 8 Madeira wineries in existence. One of these opened 3 years ago and it was the first new winery in 60 years. Clearly, Madeira winemaking is a very old tradition. (Fun fact: the fathers of the U.S. Constitution toasted its signing with Madeira!) The Madeira Wine Institute does all of the analytics on each wine and tastes them before bottling to make sure the wine matches its proposed labeling criteria. After a blind tasting, an approval allows the winery to bottle and sell the wine. Madeira wines are either a blended style (meaning a blend of different years, not grapes); a Colheita single harvest – also known as a “baby vintage” that must be aged for a minimum of 5 years to be labeled as such; or a Frasqueira/Vintage – which must be aged for a minimum of 20 years to be labeled with that vintage.

The tasting included a wonderful sampling across these grape varietals and aging categories. We learned that Madeira should be served cold (55 degrees F), and one shouldn’t try to follow it with any other wine – the finish is long and lingering and will overpower any other wine.  Despite the perceived “sweet” character of many Madeiras, the bracing acidity actually balances that sweetness, making it a friendly wine on its own or with food.

Typical Madeira aromas/flavors include toasted almond, caramel, molasses and dried fruit, like fig and raisin. My favorite was the Colheita 1996, with its honey and orange blossom character; the finish went on forever. The Malvasia 1989 was also a treat, with burnt orange peel and caramel.

Wine List:
  1. H&H Sercial 10 Años - toasted almond, lemon peel, caramel, almond skin. Sweeter than expected despite this being the "dry" grape. Great acidity. 
  2. The Rare Wine Co. Savannah Verdelho - cola, caramel and Tootsie roll.
  3. Broadbent Malvasia 10 Años - cola, raisin, dried figs.
  4. Blandy’s Colheita 1996 - honey, orange peel, orange blossom and white flowers. Persistent finish.
  5. D’Oliveiras 1989 Malvasia - burnt orange peel and caramel; wonderful acidity and sweetness. 
Thinking I need to go get some Madeira for my wine collection...

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Three Big B's of Italy at SFWC

Last month in wine school at the San Francisco Wine Center we were educated about the subtle but significant differences between the 3 Big B’s of Italy: Barolo, Brunello & Barbaresco.  Mauro Cirilli, Italy's top Sommelier, returned to SFWC for another round of his Italian wine series.  These 3 wines (named for their regions) are known for their longevity, structure, acidity and food friendliness.
Barolo and Barbaresco wines are both made 100% with the Nebbiolo grape. These northern Italian regions of Piedmont have a cooler climate, and the food of the region tends to be rich, so Nebbiolo pairs well with the cuisine. Minimum aging requirements for Barbaresco include 26 months in oak for regular wines and 50 months for Riserva wines. In Barolo, minimum aging for regular wines if 38 months and 62 months for Riserva. These two regions are a bit like Burgundy in that all wines are single vineyard designated. Despite their proximity, these two regions vary in climate and style due to Barbaresco’s closeness to the Tanaro River, which provides a maritime influence that helps Nebbiolo ripen a bit earlier than in Barolo. This results in earlier fermentation and less maceration, so the tannins in a young Barbaresco are not as tough at in Barolo, hence the reduced aging requirement.  Barbaresco is more approachable than Barolo earlier, but it won’t age as long. Barolo is one of the greatest wines of Italy, with its trademark calcareous soils and vineyard slopes contributing to the complex aromas of tar and roses and extremely long cellar life.

Brunello – short for Brunello di Montalcino - is in the region of Tuscany, known for olive oil and lighter foods, and the 100% Sangiovese wines complement this cuisine perfectly. Montalcino has one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany, and this particular clone of Sangiovese is unique to the region – it ripens more fully and consistently here than anywhere else in Tuscany, contributing to the body, color, extract and tannins commonly associated with Brunello di Montalcino. Sangio in Italian means blood, but in contrast to the Sangiovese in Chianti, Brunello is described as “fleshier.” Minimum aging for these wines is 48 months or 60 for Riserva.

Traditional wineries use large oak vats while modern wineries may used smaller French barriques. All 3 of these wines are lightly pigmented and tend to have a garnet color, with high tannin, high acidity, and medium to full body.

We tasted Barbaresco first, enjoying the licorice, spice, dried fruit flavors. My favorite was the 1990 Ceretto, from Bricco Asili. It took a while to open up but once it did I loved the roses and that smooth finish.
2007 Produttori del Barbaresco, Riserva, Montestefano (in Barbaresco)
2007 Gaja (in Barbaresco)
1999 Scarpa, Tettineive (in Neive)
1990 Ceretto, Bricco Asili (in Barbaresco)

Next, the Barolos. Meaty, savory, rich with sweet spices, violets and roses, rhubarb, licorice and fennel. The 2001 even had an interesting combination of mint crème and butter toffee along with tar and dried flowers. It was tough to pick a favorite in this group but all of them could definitely age much longer.
2010 Andrea Oberto, Rocche (in La Morra)
2006 Boroli, Villero (in Castiglione Falletto)
2001 Giuseppe Mascarello, Monprivato (in Castiglione Falletto)

The Brunellos were more approachable, with juicy ripe fruit and savory herbs and earth.  My favorite was the 2004 Casanova di Neri, which also showed dark violet, prune and sweet licorice in beautiful balance.
Brunello di Montalcino:
2006 Gianni Brunelli
2006 Gaja, Pieve di Santa Restituta
2004 Casanova di Neri, Cerretalto

All of these wines had amazing acidity and structure and could age even longer. They would be fabulous with a meal but we did fine with a delicious assortment of Italian cheeses.

Looking forward to Mauro's next class on November 4 - Indigenous Varietals of Italy. I can never be educated enough about this region. I'm hoping for some Lagrein, Teroldego and Frappato.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Welcome, Summer

To celebrate the Labor Day weekend and the true start of summer weather in San Francisco, I toasted at Ridge Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Ridge prides itself on vineyard specific wines made in pre-industrial methods, including no irrigation. With careful vineyard selection and steep hillside plantings, the vines have to work for their nutrients and water, resulting in complex wines with good acidity and balanced structures. I've been a big fan of Ridge since moving to California, and it was nice to get back up to Monte Bello.

Ridge Chardonnay is always a welcome way to start, since theirs is quite Burgundian in style, with freshness balanced by creaminess. This one came from the Jimsomare property further down the mountain. Minimal new oak makes this a very approachable and refreshing wine, not your typical heavy California chard.

While traditionally focused on blends, a couple years ago Ridge decided to do a series of Monte Bello components - single varietal wines from the grapes that make up their famous Bordeaux style Monte Bello wine, a varying blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. These wines also showcase the vineyards from which they came. The Perrone Merlot comes from the Perrone property on the mountain and uses the grapes from the upper tier specifically, which is attached to a natural spring for a water source. The 2010 Perrone Merlot has a beautiful nose of black tea and red fruit, approachable on the palate now but with enough tannin to age several more years. We contrasted this wine with the 2011 Estate Merlot, which includes fruit from the Torre property as well, which contributes dry, dusty tannins and herbaceous flavors.

Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon has tricked me before, and I'm always surprised how much I love this wine. While I find most young California Cabs to be too big, too jammy, too tannic, Ridge hits the mark exactly right, with an approachable, delicious wine with acidity and balance. The 2011 Estate Cab has a finer tannin structure that makes this wine very smooth, and the brambly, chocolate flavors cannot be beat. Even my sister, a Cab-hater, enjoyed this wine and bought a bottle.

Next we tried the Ridge 2011 Monte Bello, which did not have any Petit Verdot this vintage. The butterscotch nose and brambly fruit were delicious, and I can tell this will be a really enjoyable wine in several years once the tannins have had a chance to mellow.

On the Zin side of things, which mostly come from vineyards in Sonoma County, we enjoyed fruity Geyserville and East Bench and spicy Lytton Springs, plus their Paso Robles bottling from one of the oldest vineyards in that region, with beautiful strawberry characteristics and nice acidity.

Thanks to Aaron for a wonderful tasting during the busy Labor Day weekend!

The view over Silicon Valley

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chicago: Hot dogs, Pizza and... Wine?

Chicago is a lot like New York City - bright lights, tall buildings, great energy, and famous for its hot dogs and pizza. But in Chicago hot dogs get dressed up like burgers with pickles, tomatoes and onions, and pizza gets stuffed with whatever you can imagine and topped off with tomato sauce. I enjoyed my fair share of both, but the real impetus for the trip was to share some nice wines with family. J's Uncle Dave had been planning the wine list from the moment he heard we were coming. Burgundy, Bordeaux... we were in for a treat. Glasses and bread on the table, paper and pencils at the ready, we started with Champagne - Egly Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru. Classic, creamy, toasty with green apple and biscuit.

For the whites we did an Old World/New World Chardonnay comparison.

2000 Chassagne Montrachet's nose was closed, but on the palate it was creamy and toasty, with lemon meringue and marzipan. 2012 Hamilton Russell Vineyard Chardonnay from South Africa had the more Burgundian nose, with almond cookie, lemon zest and apricot.

Moving onto Pinot Noir, the 1990 Pommard 1er Cru had a classic barnyard nose with spice and meat, and on the palate it evolved beautifully, with subtle cherry and cranberry, cinnamon, and nice acidity. This wine was not going to get any better. 2007 Volnay 1er Cru was earthy and bright with baking spice and refined fruit, another Burgundy win. Next to this we tried a 2007 Anthill Farms Pinot Noir from Anderson Valley, CA, which unsurprisingly was jammier with more pronounced oak but still a good representation of California Pinot.

We went back in time with Bordeaux, from 2006 to 1985 to 1982. The 2006 Chateau Malmaison from Baronne Nadine de Rothschild had a brambly, beautiful nose, with lavender and eucalyptus, a big wine that needed time to open up. It could definitely go another ten years in the bottle. Cousin Anna was kind enough to share a bottle of her birthday wine, 1985 Lynch-Bages, with its spicy tobacco nose and smooth, silky fruit. The 1982 Cordier Chateau Gruaud Larose Grand Cru took some time to open up but once it did it showed warm spice and mature fruit with surprising tannic structure. A Bordeaux blend from Paso Robles, Justin Vineyards 1989 Isosceles surprised us all as one of the best wines, evolving over the evening with great complexity and balance.

We finished with Tokai - a Hungarian dessert wine. Its luscious peach cobbler and caramel apple flavors made the perfect end to an epic tasting.

I'd say the trip was a home run....

Thanks Uncle Dave, Aunt Madeleine and Anna!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

June at SF Wine Center

June was a busy month at SF Wine Center, with the Pinot Days tasting in San Francisco driving a lot of wine traffic and interest. I helped out with some events, including the actual Pinot Days tasting at Metreon and a couple satellite tastings at SFWC. Check out the SFWC Blog for more on these tastings! 

Pinot Days
Old World vs. New World with GLG Labs
Anderson Valley/Mendocino Tasting

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Happy Mumm Day

I celebrated my recent birthday with a trip to Mumm Napa for my favorite wine - the kind that sparkles. I received a tip to try their limited edition 2011 Sparkling Pinot Meunier, which was peachy, flowery and very pretty, having spent 18 months on its lees before disgorgement. This traditional Champagne blending grape is aptly named for the flour-like dusty white down on the underside of its leaves. Though unknown to many, Pinot Meunier is the most widely planted Champagne grape and is favored because it buds later and ripens more reliably than the finicky Pinot Noir. In the final wine it contributes fruity flavors and aromatics.

Another favorite from this tasting was the DVX 2006, a 50/50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which spent 5 years on its lees, so it was nice and toasty.

After this second visit to the beautiful Mumm terrace my favorite remains their Reserve Brut, a 60/40 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is consistently bright, creamy, fruity and toasty. We wanted to buy another Magnum but they were sold out. Next time!

Thanks again to Lauren and James for a wonderful tasting.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sharing Pinot at SFWC with The Corkdork

Lately I've been hanging out at the San Francisco Wine Center, and one day storage member John (aka The Corkdork) shared a bottle of Pinot Noir with us in The City Room. It was produced by winemaker Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, a sommelier who oversees the wine program of the Michael Mina restaurant group and is involved in various wine making projects. Raj is also a wine educator and writer of the book Secrets of the Sommeliers, co-authored with Jordan Mackay, a frequent SFWC educator.  As the label shows, the  fruit for this wine came from the warm Sta. Rita Hills Appellation of Santa Barbara county, which is not only the location of the movie Sideways but a region some believe to be the best place in the New World to grow Pinot Noir, due to its cool Pacific marine layer. While enjoying this easy-sipping Pinot on a pleasant afternoon, we noticed blackberry jam and delicate spice on the palate. Thanks, John and Rajat!

WOT is Wine on Tap?!

Ever hear of wine on tap (WOT)? It's a relatively new alternative to wine by the glass programs in restaurants and bars. The New York Times covered this trend in 2009 when it started taking off. WOT makes a lot of sense, benefiting both the restaurant and the producer:
  • Wine on tap stays fresh because it resides in an air-tight container. No more half-drunk, oxidized bottles. 
  • Bottles and corks are eliminated, which saves on costs for the producer and waste for the restaurant. 
  • The risk of cork taint from natural corks is eliminated. 
  • It is considered eco-friendly.
Logistically, the winery controls the storage of the wine and refilling the kegs, making sure to keg a finished, filtered wine. The retailer must have a special WOT system for storage and serving, separate from beer taps. This system by nature is airtight; WOT systems must be equipped with nitrogen to replace the air space left by the wine served.

When I worked at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard they had just started a keg program with some local restaurants, and I cleaned, filled, delivered and sampled my fair share. Wiemer's wine tasted the same or better coming out of the keg compared to the bottle; it really did taste "fresh."

I'm intrigued by the WOT concept and I try a keg wine whenever I see one.  Here in San Francisco, you can find WOT at The Slanted Door's sister restaurant, OTD in Pacific Heights, or at Barrique in Jackson Square, to name just a couple.

One issue with keg wine is the perception of quality. Is it cheaper wine if it doesn't come in a bottle with a cork? Is it not worthy of aging, and does this make it seem lower-quality? Is this what winemakers want when they keg a wine or is this what they are getting?

At the same time, wouldn't it be a good idea for wineries to use kegs for their tasting samples, instead of opening bottles all the time? Is anyone doing this? The tap dance continues...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wine and Watches

Last week the San Francisco Wine Center sponsored a tasting at Ben Shemano Jewelry, a beautiful second-floor showroom in Union Square that specializes in antique and custom jewelry.  For collectors of the finer things in life, the focus of the evening was on fine wristwatches from designers including Rolex, Patek Phillipe and Audemars Piguet.  For the group of about 30 people I helped pour an array of wines from around the world and shared stories about winemaking and travel. We even learned that the late owner of Pride Mountain Vineyards in Napa Valley was a former dentist. Wonder what toothpaste he’d recommend for wine stains? He actually wasn’t a practicing dentist but a consultant who advised other dentists on how to optimize their office layouts.

From the white wine drinkers we found many Sancerre lovers and even converted some to Riesling fans. It was a warm evening in San Francisco and many opted for the cold ones. We encountered those who thought Riesling was always sweet, so we educated them on the various styles of Riesling and the labeling term used to denote ‘dry’ in German, which is ‘trocken.’

Red wine fans enjoyed classic west coast examples of Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, plus a Chilean blend dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. A couple of magnums dared to impress bold palates and showed how the right amount of air can make a wine open up.

Inevitably, with an even number of wines it’s easy to find yourself comparing. 2 whites, 2 reds, 2 magnums. The Sancerre had a flowery nose and a rich palate. The Riesling had the distinct petrol nose that developed into stone fruit, followed by beautiful citrus and orange blossom on the palate. The Oregon Pinot Noir was earthy and leathery, while the Napa Petite Sirah had a flowery but smoky nose with spice, lead pencil and roses on the palate. The two magnums couldn't be more different; the Brown Zinfandel was immediately rich, fruity and lush, while the Chilean blend was super tight, smoky and herbal at first, eventually opening up to reveal warm spice, red fruit, and an herbal forest.  I found this one to be the most interesting, particularly as it evolved over the course of the evening.

Wine List
  1. Gitton Sancerre 2012 - France
  2. Peter Jakob Kuhn Riesling Trocken 2010 – Germany
  3. Provocateur Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2003 - Oregon
  4. Pride Petite Sirah Napa Valley 2003 – California
  5. Brown Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley 2006 – California (Magnum)
  6. Primus The Blend Colchagua Valley 2008 – Chile (Magnum)

Bites from The City Kitchen complimented the wines and provided a wonderful appetizer to later dinner plans. For some, the jewelry was dessert.