Sunday, November 15, 2015

Semillon Horizontals and Verticals

Recently SF Wine Center hosted a private Australian wine seminar focused on Semillon. This grape is traditionally found in Bordeaux, blended with the dominant Sauvignon Blanc, but Australia has established Semillon as an interesting standalone varietal wine that is bright and ageable. (This tasting brought me back to one of the first huge wine tastings I attended in New York City, back when I first started learning about wine and tasting en masse. At that Australian wine tasting I perfected the art of spitting in public, tasting over 60 wines, including a lot of Semillon.)


With producers like Tyrrell’s, Thomas Wines and Audrey Wilkinson, we sampled Semillon from 2015, 2009, 2005 and some older. The 2015’s, from the vintage down under earlier this year, were super fresh with a lot of lime, some tropical notes and ample acidity. The acidity was the most surprising element as I tasted through the older wines, permeating each wine and contributing to their freshness and longevity. The Audrey Wilkinson line-up was most impressive to me, with the freshness of the 2015 transitioning to the funky petrol and barnyard nose of the 2009 Reserve. I had forgotten that aged Semillon took on a petrol quality like Riesling; there was even some sherbet and talc on this one. The 2005 was toasty and complex, and the 2001 still had good acid and petrol, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the 2005.


Most of these wines are not widely available in the U.S., but if I happen to see an older Semillon on a wine list or in a wine shop I will be sure to give it a try.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lemberger and Lillybug

Last night we opened our 1 bottle of Hermann J. Wiemer Lemberger 2010, from the second vintage I worked there. As soon as I opened it I was sent back to the sorting, the tasting (these grapes were delicious!) and the punching down. I haven't had many Lembergers (the grape has its origins in Germany and also goes by the name Blaufrankisch) so I don't have a good reference point for this varietal, but the Wiemer version was extremely interesting and complex. Leather, earthy, brambly, herbal and spicy are the words I used to describe it. The medium body and good acidity made it delicious with both steak and barbecued chicken. I have to say this was my favorite Wiemer red to date. I should have gotten more than 1 bottle because I think it might be sold out :(

Separately, it's good to be back in action since this little bug came into our lives 6 months ago. Her outfit reminds me of the ladybugs we used to fling off the sorting table at Wiemer (ladybugs taste terrible - you do not want them in your wine). But we're keeping her.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

B.R. Guest

A while ago I had an older bottle of B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon and it stuck with me. So when we passed the winery on the way to our Sonoma rental in Glen Ellen this past week, I had to add them to our agenda. The estate property, called Olive Hill Vineyards, includes about 90 acres of vines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and a small amount of Malbec. The Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon is only made during exceptional years from 3 acres of bush vines in the front of the property that yield only about 1.5 tons of grapes per acre (this is not a lot). The Cab is dark and sultry when young and really opens up with proper aging.

I enjoyed all the reds, which had nice acidity and overall balance - Pinot Noir with berry fruit and vanilla, spicy Zinfandel with peppercorn and clove, Cabernet Franc with blue and black berries, and cinnamon-berry Malbec.

But the grand finale for me was the Late Harvest Semillon, made with grapes from Russian River Valley. Botrytis spice balanced the sweet honey and apricot flavors in this Sauternes-style dessert wine that brought me back to my sorting days at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard.

I felt quite welcome as a guest of the B.R.Cohn family that day and also enjoyed their delicious side projects - olive oil, vinegar, and wine-infused concoctions.

Side note:

Friday, January 2, 2015

Gun Bun

New Year, new wine! This week I spent time in Sonoma exploring a few wineries that happened to be open, including a couple I've been wanting to try for a while. As one of the original producers of California Gewurztraminer, my knowledge of Gundlach Bundschu ended there. The oldest family-owned winery in CA (since 1858!) hand harvests and uses gentle techniques to make their wines.

2012 Chardonnay offered fresh citrus flavors and a creamy texture with minimal use of new oak. Since our wine collection was lacking in the Chardonnay department, we picked up a bottle.

2012 Pinot Noir boasted pretty rose petals on the nose with cocoa, black tea and espresso notes around mixed dark berries.

2011 Merlot, one of Gun Bun's most successful varietals, had pretty black fruit, good texture and a really nice finish. I can't resist a good Merlot - Sideways or not!

2012 Tempranillo was brambly and spicy with good tannin that will make it last a few years.

Thanks to Rosie for an informative and fun tasting at Gun Bun!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Exiting 2014 with Pretty Bubbles in Pink and Gold

We celebrated the end of 2014 with a visit to Gloria Ferrer, one of my favorite sparkling wine producers in California. It was brisk in Sonoma but still warm enough to sit outside on the sunny patio.

What better way to toast an exciting year than with pretty pink bubbly! The 2010 Brut Rose's toasty nose with rose flowers led to a palate of crisp red berries in this Pinor Noir-dominated wine.

Next we had my favorite Gloria Ferrer wine, the Royal Cuvee from 2006, which smells of butterscotch and tastes like lemon merengue pie. This wine is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, aged for 5 years on the lees.

Happy New Year! Cheers to more empty bottles in 2015.

Monday, December 15, 2014

It's the Most Bubbly Time of the Year

Ahh, Champagne. Around the holidays Americans always drink more bubbly – it’s a festive time of year, and people view Champagne (or any sparkling wine) as a celebratory drink. Personally, my favorite kind of wine is the kind that bubbles, and I find any excuse I can to drink it.  Mauro Cirilli, instructor for SF Wine Center's recent Holiday Champagne Master Class, said he needs to have a glass of Champagne every day, and he suggests you do too. Don’t have to tell me twice.

Why is Champagne so special? It’s the magical second fermentation in the bottle that produces the bubbles, but it’s also the harsh growing conditions in the region of Champagne, France, that contribute to the high acidity of these wines. Champagne only averages about 1650 hours of sunlight per year, versus over 2000 for Bordeaux. This results in very acidic and unripe grapes. Through the Champagne method of winemaking, that acidity combined with extended aging on the yeast cells and just the right amount of added sugar result in complex, bright, toasty, creamy flavors that delicately dance on the tongue.

The class featured non-vintage (blends from different years to produce a consistent style) and vintage (from a single year) wines from grower houses and well-known luxury brands. Champagne can range in price from $40 to $400, and we tried a full range. Unfortunately, 2 bottles of Dom Perignon were faulty so I can’t say my first Dom experience was life changing. But among the rest there was beauty all around and I had a hard time choosing a favorite. The Gaston Chiquet was gorgeous with creamy almond/marzipan and a jasmine floral quality; I think I have a bottle of this in my cellar so I look forward to opening that in the future. The Sally had lovely lemon curd flavor and a persistent finish - Salon is always/only a vintage wine and needs to age for 10 years before drinking due to its exceptionally high acid profile. I'm a sucker for pink wine so I also enjoyed the Billecart-Salmon Rosé, with it's perfumed floral nose and pretty fruit. 

Champagne List:
  1. Doyard Cuvée Vendémiaire Brut NV ($40)
  2. Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier NV ($75)
  3. Larmandier-Bernier Vieilles Vignes de Cramant Grand Cru Extra Brut 2007 ($75)
  4. Gaston Chiquet Brut Cart d'Or 2002 ($70)
  5. Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil 1999 ($275)
  6. Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchhill 1999 ($195)
  7. Dom Perignon 1999 ($165)
  8. Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV ($70)

For comparison, we also tried sparkling wines from Spain and California. These were very elegant and enjoyable, and for $20-30 you could easily justify opening one of these any night of the week and any month of the year.

Not Champagne:
  1. Raventos i Blanc de Nit Rosé 2011 ($22)
  2. Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2006 ($30)

What kind of bubbly are you drinking this holiday season? Or tonight?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving Wine Recommendations

As we approach the holidays, all this Pinot Noir has primed my palate for turkey and all the fixings. Pinot Noir is a natural choice for red wine at the Thanksgiving table, and in particular I would recommend these wines that I tried recently in wine class at SF Wine Center:

Labyrinth Yarra Valley Viggers Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 – Australia ($20)

Seresin Marlborough Pinot Noir “Leah” 2009 – New Zealand ($40)
JK Carriere Shea Vineyard 2005 – Willamette Valley, Oregon ($60)

As for white wines, ever since I worked at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in the Finger Lakes region of New York, I've given Riesling and Gewurztraminer prominent seats at the table. I am not alone; recently both Food & Wine and Bon Appetit magazines featured Hermann J. Wiemer in their Thanksgiving issues. The bright fruit flavors and wonderful acidity of these wines compliment traditional Thanksgiving dishes as well as vegetarian fare.  So naturally I highly recommend drinking American this holiday with one of Wiemer's many Rieslings or other white wines, including the newly released Gruner Veltliner, which I haven't tried yet but I fondly remember installing the posts in the vineyard that produced that wine. All of these wines are around $20 or under and available in many states around the country:

Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling 2013

Hermann J. Wiemer Gruner Veltliner 2013
Hermann J. Wiemer Gewurztraminer 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Burgundy: Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-Saint-Georges

Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-Saint-Georges are two of the most famous and well-regarded communes in Burgundy for Pinot Noir. As part of the Cote de Nuits wine region in the Northern part of the Cote d’Or, limestone and clay soils create the perfect environment for complex Pinot Noir. Of course, Burgundy is known for its varied and coveted terroir within each sub-region’s individual vineyards, so full-bodied Gevrey-Chambertin wines are often designated Grand Cru, while many wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges receive Premier Cru distinction. During a recent class at SF Wine Center, James Beard award-winning author and resident Pinot Noir expert, Jordan Mackay, took us through a flight of beautiful red Burgundy from these two regions.

The first four wines came from Nuits-Saint-Georges; three of these were Premier Cru. I particularly enjoyed the 1995 Robert Chevillon, with its floral but rustic perfumed nose that smelled like autumn in a glass. Super smooth on the palate, the velvety body was balanced by a nice acid profile.  The 2001 Dominique Laurent smelled like pickles at first, which I didn’t mind, but as it opened up I enjoyed the violets and roses on the nose and the lingering finish.

The next four wines from Gevrey-Chambertin were a bit more complex and earthy. My favorite, the 1998 Domaine des Chezeaux Grand Cru, had a funky, earthy nose with spice, fruit and flower on the elegant palate; this wine had great texture.

Many of the wines kept changing in the glasses as we tasted them, reminding us that wine is a living thing that constantly evolves in its various environments.

Jordan had some suggestions for wine touring in Burgundy, which is a great way to learn about the terroir. From CDG in Paris it’s about a 3-hour train ride into Beaune, the town he recommended staying in; from there you can drive around the region or bike around the vineyards. This trip may be next on my travel wishlist.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pinot Noir Around the World

The world of Pinot Noir stretches way beyond Burgundy – though each new world version is compared to the French mother lode. Known the world over as a finicky grape, Pinot Noir is difficult to maintain since it ripens so early and is prone to rot due to its thin skin. Genetically unstable, many different clones exist and can have marked differences. In this wine class at SF Wine Center, Master Sommelier Gillian Ballance described Pinot Noir as “charming – exhibiting grace as well as power.” She took us through a varied flight of Pinot Noir from places like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in addition to Burgundy, Oregon and California.

First, a well-aged Pinot from Central Coast: Calera Mt Harlan Jensen Vineyard 1999, grown on one of the few limestone vineyards in California, which was planted in 1974. It was very much alive, with balsamic, stewed fruit and good tannin. Further north in Willamette Valley, Oregon, J.K. Carriere held the crowd favorite with the 2005 Shea Vineyard – a little funky on the nose but very Burgundian, with nice spice and good acidity. 

Over on the other side of the world, South African Pinot from Hamilton Russell showed its funky side with some rubber, pine and earthiness that was quite interesting and unique. Gillian explained that South Africa's wine areas lack certain minerals in the soil, so the addition of these minerals contributes to their "rubbery" quality.

Finally, we went down under to Australia’s Yarra Yarra valley in the Victoria district, a cooler area on the southern coast of the country. This wine is beautiful with pomegranate, cranberry and great acidity. It brought me back to a trip I took to this area in 2009, when I sampled my first Aussie Pinot and took a $25 bottle back home with me, halfway around the world to New York, where I lived at the time. This 2004 from Labyrinth is a steal at $20! Then, from neighboring New Zealand, a 2009 Marlborough Pinot from Seresin also showed really well, with pretty fruit, leather, good acidity and a long finish. While I’m partial to Burgundy, I found these two wines to be the most exciting of the night (and the most affordable). 

But speaking of Burgundy, a 2008 Premier Cru from Patrice Rion Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes in Cote de Nuits showed refined fruit, floral and herbal qualities with elegant structure and a long finish. I can’t help it – Burgundy is always my favorite.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Indigenous Italy

Italy is one of the most varied wine countries in the world, particularly because they have so many indigenous varietals – over 6000! There are no generalizations to be made, especially in a country whose climates and soil are so varied from one section to another. Italian wine labeling doesn't necessarily makes thing any clearer, since sometimes the name of the grape is used and sometimes it is not. Personally, I’m always trying to learn more about Italian wines, since there are so many wines to try and many are good values. Mauro Cirilli, native of Venice and current Wine Director at Press Club in San Francisco, helped us break it down in Wine School at SF Wine Center. We started with Prosecco, the refreshing bubbly wine of the Veneto region in northern Italy. Formerly named for both the grape and the region, things got confusing when Prosecco achieved DOCG status, the highest quality designation for Italian wine, so they since went back to using the name Glera for the grape. Prosecco is not "Italian Champagne" – it’s a completely different style of bubbly wine that is meant to be light, fruity and refreshing.

Further south and off the coast of the “boot,” the Mt Etna wine region of Sicily surrounds the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world, with vineyards planted on volcanic soil. Mt Etna white wines are made from the grapes Carricante and Catarratto; the version we tried was dry, austere and a little bit funky.

Image of Mt Etna looming over vineyards

Vermentino, a white wine usually varietally labeled, is an expressive grape that grows in Liguria, Tuscany and Sardinia; we tried a Sardinian version grown on minerally soil, with a rich creamy palate of chamomile. Cannonau is a red Sardinian varietal that we sampled, which is their local name for Grenache or Garnacha. I love Sardinian Cannonau for its earthy and funky qualities; this one didn’t disappoint me with its barnyard, herbs, mushrooms and long finish. 

Back in the Veneto, Valpolicella is a red wine typically made from 3 grapes – Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara – each contributing important characteristics to the wine including color, tannin, spice and body. The one we tried was earthy and spicy with dried fruit character.  Refosco, a wine made from grapes with red stems, also comes from the north, in Fruili-Venezia. This wine had bright fruit and flowers with a good texture. 

Finally, on the sweeter side of things, we sampled Lambrusco, the slightly “frizzante” red wine from Emilia-Romagna, and Moscato, the floral dessert wine from Piedmont. A wide variety of wines, quite representative of Italy.