Monday, March 31, 2008

A Cheap Experiment

I was killing some time this weekend while I was waiting to pick up my son. While he finished his Magic tournament, I was browsing the wine isle of a nearby grocery store. A bottle on the discount table caught my eye. First, the price was only $3.29 and second, one of the grapes in it was one I haven't had before: Müller-Thurgau (# 56 towards my Century count.) I didn't expect much from this purchase but thought it would be a cheap way to start learning about the grape. I'm afraid I'm more confused now!

It appears that Müller-Thurgau is not held in high regard. This grape is a cross of Riesling and Silvaner created by Dr. Hermann Müller in an effort to bring the quality of Riesling to the productivity of Silvaner. I read in several places that the grape is great for growing in colder regions of the world because of it is early ripening and very productive. However, comments like "Müller-Thurgau has never been known for quality and is almost single-handedly responsible for the decline of Germany as a world power in fine wine production" made me wonder about how wine made from this grape would taste.

The wine I bought off the discount table was a Ludwig Neuhaus Piesporter Michelsberg made from 70% Riesling and the remainder from Müller-Thurgau and Silvaner. The first taste was sweet, but it wasn't an overpowering sweetness like I've had with other off-dry Rieslings. The wine had a different flavor, that I can only describe as nut like, though that doesn't quite fit. The wine was more interesting than I expected. The sweetness was balanced by acidity and changed into the "nutty" flavor. The finish, though laking any tannins, left a sour apple flavor. I was surprised at how much I liked the wine.

The sweetness didn't quite allow it to go well with food, but maybe I just didn't have it with the right dish. We had spaghetti noodles with asparagus, zucchini and tomatoes that had been sauteed in garlic and olive oil. By itself, this was a great sipping wine. I think it would be great to serve before dinner.

My lingering confusion comes from enjoying the wine so much but paying so little (I may be falling into the high price = good wine trap.) Also comments like:

"Piesporter Michelsberg is a sub-region of the Mosel surrounding Piesport, not a vineyard. The wines under this declaration mostly come from flat mediocre vineyards at best, and is almost always of very, very, very poor quality."
How to select German fine wine

make me wonder if my palate just isn't experienced enough.

Have you tried a Riesling with Müller-Thurgau that was enjoyable? Especially let me know if you've tried the wines from Ludwig Neuhaus. If I find any bottles of this left when I go back to the grocery store I plan to pick them up. This would make a great wine for the coming hot Sacramento weather.

Related Note:
Last week, Mike Dunne from the Sacramento Bee had an article on Riesling. One of the things he mentioned was an idea to use color coded circles on bottles of Riesling to help consumers know what kind of a Riesling they are buying. Colors "ranging from green for a perceptibly dry Riesling to red for a dessert Riesling, the sweetest of the genre," were suggested. Read the article and let me know what you think.

Tasting Notes:

2005 Ludwig Neuhaus Piesporter Michelsberg Qualitatswein (9% alcohol, $3.29 on sale)

Color:  Light golden yellow

Aroma:  grass

Taste:  light sweetness, nutty flavor; both blend well with the acidity

Finish:  slight sour apple

Friday, March 28, 2008

Carvalho Family Wines

At the beginning of the month I visited several wineries in the Clarksburg area of California. This little know AVA (American Viticultural Area) Is a sixteen mile long by eight miles wide area spanning Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties. It has over 9,000 acres of vines. Travelling the levee roads along the Sacramento River, you cross many old draw bridges to view the fields of grape vines. Summer days can be very hot in the Sacramento Valley, but the cool Delta breeze keeps the area nine degrees cooler than the city and suburbs of Sacramento.

More than twenty wine grape varietals grow well in the Clarksburg area. The grapes that grow best here are Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah. Although there are about ten wineries located in the area, 90% of the grapes grown here are crushed outside the appellation. Several wineries are now producing under the AVA name, which may bring recognition for the area. One winery worth getting to know is Carvalho.

Carvalho Family Wines, according to their wed site, has been making wine "over 100 years, starting in the villages and vineyards of Portugal." Their heritage is evident in the port they make using traditional Portuguese varietals of Touriga, Tinta Cao, and Alvarelhao. Other port like wines I tried from other Clarksburg wineries were made from Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. The Carvalho port tasted like the real thing.

The Carvalho family owns the Old Sugar Mill, a former sugar mill converted to a warehouse where they and several other Clarksburg wineries age barrels of wines and have their tasting rooms. It's a convenient way to sample wines from five different wineries in one place. The day I visited I wasn't able to meet the Carvalho wine maker, but the staff that poured for me were very knowledgable and answered all my questions.

One of my goals that day was to sample Clarksburg Chenin Blanc. Just that week, an article came out in my local paper about Darrell Corti being inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. In the article, Mike Dunne mentioned Corti's claim that "the best chenin blanc made in California is made in Clarksburg." The Carvalho Chenin Blanc proved Corti's claim.

I have had Chenin Blanc before, but couldn't remember it. All I can remember is descriptions I've read putting it down as a bland jug wine. However, its supposed to have mineral flavors and high acidity that balance well with the sugars when its made off-dry. These sound like the flavors I like about Riesling or a good Sauvignon Blanc. Also, well made Chenin Blanc from the Loire has a distinctive, musty, damp straw aroma. The grape is also grown in South Africa where it is supposed to be made into enjoyable wine. In fact Dr. Debs blog pack on Domaine547 features a South African Chenin Blanc. Winehiker has been saying great things on Twitter about it.

When I tried the Carvalho Chenin Blanc I expected it to be like a sweet Sauvignon blanc but although it smelled of pinapple like a Sauvignon blanc and had some grassy flavors, it was different from the SBs I've had before. I was definitely a light wine, but the flavors were distinct and enjoyable. This was a nice dry wine and possibly because of the 10% Viognier, it had a nice mouthfeel. It had a light finish with an pleasant, almost sour aftertaste. I only bought one bottle (only $9.00) but I may be going back soon for more.

I look forward to trying more Chenin Blanc and other wines from Clarksburg wineries. In fact, on April 20th, Scribner Bend Vineyards is having a "release party" in Clarksburg. They don't have a Chenin Blanc but they make another white wine from the Fiano grape! I'm looking forward to it.

Tasting Notes:

2004 Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg ($9.00, 12.5% alcohol)

Color:  Very faint yellow

Aroma:  Faint nose, like a Gavi

Taste:  Very grassy, faint fruit and intense flavor, dry and very good.

Finish:  Faint tannins and light aftertaste

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Century Mark

One of my goals in life is to live to be 100 years old. My odds of making it don't look good, as only 1 American in 10,000 has lived to be a century old. I don't think I could ride my bike in a century ride as it takes me almost half an hour to ride 6 miles to work each day. That would translate to about 10 hours of bike riding! There is one century mark that I do have hopes of completing: The Wine Century Club.

Members of this club have tried at least 100 different grape varieties. The group tries to "promote the awareness of uncommon grape varieties" defined as any grape not in the "classic grapes" (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.) The clickable picture to the left shows the top half of their application, which you can get in either PDF or Excel spreadsheet form. There are about 185 grapes listed on the form, with spaces to add any grapes they may have missed. I'm currently at grape #52, half way towards the century mark.

Seeking to become a member of this group appeals to me for several reasons:

1 - It's a fun way to learn about wine!   After all, what is wine but grape juice. Part of the fun of wine for me is learning what goes into making a wine, where it came from and what grapes it's made from. A wine doesn't have to be a single varietal to count. A Portuguese blend of Touriga, Tinto Cao and Alvarlhao would count as three grapes. (Someone please correct me if I'm wrong on this point!) Having a list and a goal helps give some direction to the general goal of learning about wine.

2 - It appeals to my desire to collect things.   I enjoy learning the history, facts and stories associated with the hobbies I get interested in. I like to have a tangible item that I can look at that reminds me of a particular facet of the hobby. Coin collecting is an obvious example of this, where I tried to find an example of each coin design for a series. In amateur astronomy, I couldn't collect stars, but I would catalog the different celestial objects as I observed them, writing down the date I saw them, a description and sometimes drawing a picture of what I saw. I don't intend to collect bottles of wine, but having the Century Wine Club's list of grapes helps me "collect" the different grapes I've tried.

3 - It is a challenge!   I probably make my life much more complicated than it needs to be. Instead of just riding my bike to work I'll see if I can beat my fastest time. Instead of just taking notes about the wines I drink, I've committed to writing a wine blog. I think one of the reasons I do this though is it makes it more fun. The pursuit of a goal and accomplishing it is a great feeling. I'm going to be trying different wines from different grapes anyway, so why not have something to show for it when I'm done?

I don't want the certificate from the Century Wine Club to my end goal in this pursuit. I want this to merely be a marker on the way to a lifetime of learning about wine and constantly trying new wines. There are almost 200 different grapes on the list. It would be cool to reach my own century mark and have tried 300 different grapes! Gary Vaynerchuk was saying the other day on Wine Library TV that you can't get to know a type of wine until you've had 20 to 40 examples of it. Now that's a goal: 20 different types of each of the 100 grapes! This could get fun.

The Wine Century Club

Here's a list of some of the 391 members current members of the Wine Century Club who have wine blogs:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Supporting Local Wineries

Yesterday in her wine blog, Dr. Debs posted a great article titled "Living Not So Big Wine Life." In the post she listed five ways of making our wine purchases and drinking habits less about chasing numbers and pursuing the "best" wine and more about seeking wines that inspire us, that fit our life styles and are "sustainable in all the ways there are," such as the environment, your pocket book and local wineries. (If you haven't seen the post, check it out at Good Wine Under $20.)

I really liked what she had to say but the part about supporting sustainability made me a little nervous. As I understood the point, this meant supporting local wineries especially those that treat the environment respectfully. My fear was that my choices in wines would be limited. I recently went to a Portuguese wine tasting and really enjoyed the red wines made from the same grapes they use to make port. I love the earthy, dried cherry and spice flavors of a Tempranillo from the Rioja in Spain. And I've really been enjoying discovering white wines from Italy with their light but distinct flavors. Would I have to give all this up to support local wineries? It almost seemed a contridiction with another point made about being adventurous.

After calming down...and thinking...I realized that Dr. Debs article was not advocating drinking only what I could find locally. It meant making local more a part of my wine life. It meant not seeking those big, famous wineries that get all the scores to the exclusion of small, local wineries. Besides, there is a lot of variety, and the kinds of wines I've come to like, in my own backyard!

I did a quick search on Google maps to find out how many wineries are local to me. I searched in a 40 mile radius from my house. (If I had expanded the radius to 80 I would have included the Napa Valley wineries, but that would have defeated the purpose of this exercise.) The map to the left shows the partial results of the search, almost 40 wineries. Several of the wineries I have already visited didn't show up in the search and there may be at least a hundred wineries local to me. (Click on the map to see a bigger picture.) I know the message of the article was not to only drink from local wineries, but if I had to, I would still have a lot to choose from!

What's more important than the number of wineries is that these wine makers are growing some of the grapes I've come to love. The Sierra foothills is a great place to grow grapes for Rhone varietals. (Vinography recently said that the Granache from one of my local wineries, Cedarville Wineries, was one the best he tasted at the recent 2008 Rhone Rangers tasting.) Many growers in Lodi, Clarksburg and the Sierra foothills are growing traditionally Italian grapes like Sangiovese and Barbera or even lesser know ones like Primitivo and Vermentino.

You may not be as lucky as I am to live in an area so densly populated by wineries. But seek out local wineries. I was surprised when reading "Wine Across America" how many wineries there are all across the US. I used to envy the French and Italians because it seemed like every community had a winery associated with it. I know that that's not the case, but I'm not very far from having that situation myself! It isn't going to be very hard to support sustainability after all.

Here's an example of how I don't have to do without when drinking locally:

Tasting Notes:

2005 Bray Vinho Tinto: A blend of Portuguese grapes Touriga, Tinto Cao, Souzao and Alvarlhao grown in the Lodi area.

Color:  Deep ruby

Aroma:  Earthy, reminds me of a Rhone

Taste:  Just like a Portuguese red, but with less earthiness. Not a lot of fruit (just a hint of plum), but with a distinct, good flavor. Medium mouthfeel and tannins.

Finish:  Medium finish, tart with nice tannins


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Negroamora Blend

Last week I had my first Negroamora wine that was made from 100% Negroamora. I enjoyed that bottle and wanted to try another. Last night I tried a wine that was a blend with two other grapes and found that bottle just as good.

Both wines came from the Apulia region of Southern Italy. (For a description of the region, see my post or for a better description, see the WineCountry.IT site.) My second Negroamora was a blend of:

Primitivo is a close relative of Zinfandel and shares some of its characteristics: sweet, soft tannins, almost syrupy fruit and high alcohol. These features blend well with the bitterness and concentation of Negroamaro. When combined with the flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon, the blend gets even better. This wine from Tormaresca Vineyards, owned by the Antinori family’s, was made of grapes that were sourced from two areas of Apulia, Bocca di Lupo and Masseria Maime (see the map, from UST Inc. site.)

This blend was good by itself and with food. When I first smelled the wine the Cabernet really showed up. I smelled cherries and a distinct Cab aroma. When I tasted the wine, I picked up plum and slight cherry. This wine was a little more bitter than the 100% Negroamora I had, but the bitterness didn't overwhelm the wine. The tannins and fruit left a pleasant aftertaste. The wine went well with steak and garlic fries we had for dinner. At $8.99 this was a very affordable and enjoyable red wine that I could enjoy with many meals.

Tasting Notes:

2006 Tomaresca Neprica ($8.99 at BevMo)

Color:  Dark cranberry, with rose on the edges

Aroma:  Cherry, very cab like

Taste:  Plum, slight cherry, slightly bitter, little bit of an alcohol bite

Finish:  Good finish, leaving a plum and tannic taste

Monday, March 24, 2008

Torrontés: A White to Discover

I was looking for an inexpensive white wine that I had never tried before. I wandered over to the South American isle at my local BevMo and spotted a bottle with a grape I'd never heard of: Torrontés. The bottle was only $9.99, so I had my selection. Little did I know what a surprise was in store for me! (Picture courtesy of "All About Argentina.)

Without knowing it, I had picked up the "White Wine of Argentina." Some claim that the grape originated in Spain, but it seems everyone agrees that Torrontés has flourished in Argentina. The high altitude, alternating hot days and cold nights, and soils combine to produce a grape whose wines are described as having floral aromas, rich, lush flavors and wonderful acidity.

I found it interesting that Argentina is the 5th largest producer of wine in the world and that most of it is consumed in the country itself. In the US, the average person drinks 2 gallons of wine a year, whereas in Argentina, they drink 7.5 gallons a year. It's also interesting to think that right now, Argentina is just starting to prepare for the harvest of grapes that will become the vintage of 2008 whereas we in the northern hemisphere are just starting the growing season! One more "fun fact," the dreaded phylloxera plague never found its way to Argentina. As a result, this is one of the few areas of the world where grape vines grow on their own root stock. Back to the grape.

Torrontés grows mainly in the Mendoza region, highlighted on the map to the left (courtesy Wikipedia.) The Mednoza area is better know for its wines made from the red grapes Malbec or Tempranillo. But you'd be missing a lot if you pass over their signature white.

The first night I had this wine I didn't have it with food. I just sipped it after it had been chilled lightly. The aroma was slightly like champagne to me, though many others describe it as floral. Some have compared it to the scents of Gewurtztraminer. I enjoyed the flavors that also reminded me of champagne (without the bubbles) or a dry Sauvignon blanc. I couldn't really pick out a specific fruit flavor, but the wine was very good as a sipper. The following night I had it with Chinese food. It was a great match, especially with the ginger in the paper wrapped chicken. The two flavors played off each other in an intriguing way.

I found several other bloggers who reviewed the wine (see the list below) and I'll definitely have to try more Torrontés in the future. At such an affordable price, this could become my white wine for this summer. Check out these reviews for a more informed take on this cool grape:

(This grape is # 55 on my way to 100 grapes.)

2007 Pascual Toso Torrontés

Color:  Light golden yellow

Aroma:  Slight beer aroma, almost like champagne

Taste:  Similar to a light, dry Sauvignon blanc, nice acidity, almost like Champagne without the bubbles

Finish:  Slightly bitter, but in a good way

Friday, March 21, 2008

1WineDude :: Serious wine talk for the not-so-serious drinker!: How To Navigate Wine on the Web (3 ways to Keep Up With Wine Online & Still Stay Sane)

1WineDude :: Serious wine talk for the not-so-serious drinker!: How To Navigate Wine on the Web (3 ways to Keep Up With Wine Online & Still Stay Sane)

I don't know how this works, so please bear with me. This is such a cool post that I wanted to make it available to more people.

Shenandoah Winery: Bray Vineyards

Last Friday I wrote about my recent trip to the Shenandoah AVA in the Sierra foothills of Amador County. Another winery I visited that day was Bray Vineyards. Bray Vineyards was started in 1996 when the land was purchased from an estate. The property sits on 50 acres of rolling hills ranging in elevation from 1100 feet to 1300 feet. The soil is heavy with decomposed granite and is very rocky in places. Bray Vineyards is one of the first wineries in the area if you are arriving from the south. It definitely was my favorite.

I got to meet wine maker John Hoddy. He poured for me and spent time talking about the wines and grapes. John started out making wine at home for fun. After a while he took winemaking classes from UC Davis extension. He got more experience working with local winemakers during harvest and finally started working with Bray in 2004.

What really impressed me about John were his friendliness and his attitude towards wine. If I asked a question about a flavor of a wine I tasted, he’d sample the wine and make comments. He took the time to explain about the grapes they were growing and gave me some history behind their chooses at the winery.

Bray Vineyards grows several grapes that the Shenandoah appellation is know for, like Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. They produce several nice wines from these grapes. But what really impressed me was the variety of grapes, especially Portuguese varietals. They grow Touriga, Tinto Cao, Souzao and Alvarelhao to make their own Vinho Tinto (a great earthy example with medium mouth feel and nice tart tannins.) They even have a white from Verdelho. Other grapes they grow are Sangiovese, Barbera, Black Muscat and Primitivo. Another of the favorites I tasted that day was their Tempranillo (it had faint fruit, light tannins and the flavor was very good.)

For this wine geek, their array of grapes was awesome. I don’t know if John Hoddy is pouring every day for visitors, but if you get a chance to talk with him it will be the highlight of your visit to the Shenandoah Valley.

I definitely want to make a trip back soon to buy some of the other wines I tried that day. According to the web site, many of their wines can be found in stores local to Sacramento (see their list.) However, their more obscure varietals like the ones from Portuguese grapes are available only on site. I bought one of them on my visit, the Verdelho.

Verdelho is both a grape and a style of Madeira, a wine from the Madeira Island off the coast of Portugal. The heavy wines of Madeira go through a process where the wines are fortified and then oxidized slowly over time. Verdelho Madeira is between off-dry and sweet, depending upon the age of the wine.

Still wines made from the Verdelho in Portugal in the Duoro Valley can be off dry and bland. But when grown in hotter regions like Australia or the Shenandoah Valley they are light and citrus like the one I had. I couldn’t decide if it was more citrus or peachy. The wine was a lot like a Gavi in both aroma and taste. It has a light mouth feel and light tannins. The first flavor was peach as the wine hit my tongue, but then it changed. This wine is a good sipper all by itself but it would probably be good with seafood or Asian dishes. (This grape is # 53 on my way to 100 grapes.)

Tasting Notes:

2007 Bray Verdelho (13.9% alcohol, $16.00)

Color:  Light yellow

Aroma:  Peach or citrus

Taste:  Like Gavi, peach at first taste then it changes. Light mouth feel

Finish:  Faint tannins with pleasant aftertaste

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Back to Italy: Negroamora

I took a detour last week and spent some time posting about Portugal. I'm ready to return to Italy! The particular region is in the south, the heal of the boot known as Apulia (Puglia in Italian.) The map to the right (used by permission from WineCountryIT) shows this region, which to me looks like a sea horse laying on its side. This region is a fertile, flat plain with iron rich soil. According to Vino Italiano, this region "is the principal source of the three Italian staples: bread, olive oil, and wine." Apulia is in a tie with Sicily and the Veneto in the claim of biggest producer of wine in Italy.

The red wines of Apulia are mainly Negroamaro, which means "black and bitter", and Primitivo a close genetic cousin to Zinfandel. I've had Primitivo before and liked it, so I thought it was time to try a Negroamaro, which is the most widely planted red in the Apulia region. This grape has a thick skin, is dark colored and produces a wine with strong tannins. The wine is often blended with other grapes, such as Malvasia Nera, to mitigate the tough tannins. Many descriptions I read about the wine use the words "bitter" when describing this wine (see Wannabe Wino for one.) I was surprised when the bottle of wine I bought was not so bitter or tannic.

The Negroamora I had was the 2006 Feudi di San Marzano. This wine was 100% Negroamora grapes from districts in the area of Taranto. Apparently, it is the other parts of Apulia where they blend other grapes to make the wine. My main impression of the wine was cherries. It had a faint aroma and soft tannins. The finish was like sour cherries. We had the wine with spicy spaghetti and meatballs. The wine went well with the acidity of the tomato sauce. (Dr Debs had her Negroamora with another tomato sauce based dish: pizza!) I would definitely drink this particular wine again, but I was disappointed that it wasn't more tannic. I've bought another bottle already and I'll have it the next time we have spaghetti. (This grape is # 52 on my way to 100 grapes.)

Tasting Notes

Feudi di San Marzano Puglia IGT Negroamaro 2006

Color:  Dark purple

Aroma:  Cherry

Taste:  Cherry and light tannins

Finish:  Sour cherries

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Austrailian Shiraz

I've had several Australian Shiraz wines from the poplualr Yellow Tail to my favorite, Layer Cake. My favorite is a fruit-bomb that might be properly discribed as a "nuclear" fruit-bomb, it is SO big, fruit-forward and high alcohol. I wanted to try some more Australian Shiraz so I picked up a bottle from Aramis Vineyard.

Aramis Vineyard is in Southeast Australia. This particular region is called the McLaren Vale and is located on the Fleurieu Peninsula. The climate is described as Mediterranean, which means there are four distinct seasons with warm dry summers and mild autumns. Grapes tend to have more time to ripen than in the classic vineyards of Italy and France. As with most good wine growing areas, there is a source for cool breezes that cool down the vines at night to promote an even balance between sugars and acidity. That source is the surrounding ocean and 'Gully Winds' from the hills.

Wheat was originally the crop grown in the McLaren Vale, but in the 1850's grape vines were planted. Since that time the area has had various periods of success with wine, but the present wineries didn't really take hold until around 1965. Today there are about sixty-five wineries growing shiraz, cabernet and grenache.

The Aramis Vineyards Shiraz was less of a fruit-bomb than the Layer Cake I had already had. The Layer Cake is made from Shiraz grapes from a different Southeast Australian region, the Barossa. The Aramis Vineyards wine was a little more complex, though. It was fruit-forward, but it had more tannins and some spiciness to it. I drank a glass of the wine by itself the first night and with home-made pepperoni pizza the second. It didn't go as well with food as I remember the Layer Cake. Maybe a different dish, like a steak or other hearty meat dish would have been better. I liked the difference between the two and I'll have to explore some more Australian Shiraz. When I picked up the bottle of Aramis, someone recommended the Elderton Shiraz (another Barossa for $24.99) The Aramis was more affordable at $19.99 and I'd gladly pick it up again.

Tasting Notes:

2005 Aramis Black Label Shiraz

Color: Dark cranberry

Aroma: Cherry, bread

Taste: Spicy, almost jammy like a Zinfandel, nice tannins

Finish: Sour cherries and lingering tannins (pleasant!)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Story Winery: The Mission Grape

I had a great trip last Friday visiting several wineries in California's Shenandoah Valley. Virginia has the more famous Shenandoah Valley, but Zinfandel has helped put California's on the map. According to Appelations America, it was a group from Virginia that first started making wine here during the Gold Rush. Though the valley produced wine in the late 1800s, it wasn't until the 1980s that a wine boom came to the area. The AVA, which covers parts of Amador and El Dorado counties, spreads over 10,000 acres, with over 2,000 acres under vine. There are now 16 local wineries, while many of the large California producers continue to access Shenandoah Valley grapes on contract.

Driving through the area was beautiful. It was a spring like day with trees budding, especially cherry trees and Bradford pear trees both with their white blossoms contrasting the dark fields of sleeping grapevines. Dafodils had sprung up lining the winery roads, their white and yellow heads craning to catch the warming sunlight. I didn't see any buds on the grapevines, but I'm sure they are almost ready to wake up!

Though Zinfandel is what the Shenandoah Valley is known for the Mission grape has been here just as long. This grape may have been the first grape grown for wine production in California. Spanish missionaries grew the grape as part of their attempt to be self sufficient. Wine was an important part of the mass and the Mission grape supplied it. The source of the Mission grape is unclear. Dr. Harold Olmo of the UCD Viticulture and Enology Department has a theory that the Mission grape is "a hybrid of Spanish Vinifera and the wild grapes of California (Olmo and Koyama, 31-41).

Whatever its history, it is still grown in some fields in the Shenandoah Valley. Deaver Winery in Plymouth had five acres of grapes dating from about 1855 were removed in 1997 due to old age. Around World War I, they gave some of the Mission stock to Story Winery who grafted it onto Zinfandel. Story still has 300 acres of Mission that it uses to produce a dry wine and a port style wine. This field is visible when you walk up to their tasting room. Off to the right, you see a slope containing some large, gnarly vines. They are planted on a south facing slope that cascades down a hill. If you could see their roots, they would probably fill the hill. Story Winery practices "dry farming" where they water new vines for only the first two years of their life. After that, they vines have to depend on rainfall and the water table.

The Story Winery Mission was my first sample of this wine. In color, it was light like a Pinot Noir. In flavor, it was earthy with lots of fruit, though not sweet. It almost tasted like a Zinfandel without the pepperiness. From what I had heard about Mission wine, I was surprised that I liked the Story Mission so much. I was expecting a weak, sour wine, but this was an interesting wine that would probably match with the same foods that Zinfandel does. If you ever have a chance to visit Story Winery you'll be greeted by very friendly tasting room staff. Though the winery is small and at the end of a long road, it seems to be a popular place. Their wine and their history make it that way.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Portugal Wine Tasting: Alentejo Region

This is my final entry on the Portugal wine tasting I did with the Midtown Winers last week. This final region is the Alentejo is in south-central Portugal. Its name's origin, "além do Tejo", literally translates to "beyond the Tagus". The region is separated from the rest of Portugal by the Tagus river, and extends to the south where it borders the Algarve. The land varies considerably, from the open rolling plains of the south of the Alentejo to the granite hills that border Spain in the north-east.

The Alentejo is a large region and its flat plains cover almost a third of the country. Much of this area is used to grow cereal grain. It is hot like the Douro region and irrigation is used. In contrast to the northern regions, most of the production is done by large, professional companies.

The Alentejo region has done very well in the past ten years, producing old and new style wines. The traditional Alentejo style is described as “leathery, herby, with a sweet-spice complexity.” The new style is fruit-forward, almost new-world style. This second style has been a huge commercial success. This was the Alentejo wine I enjoyed the most.

The maker is Esporao, who has been producing wine in Portugal since 1975. This particular wine is a blend of:

This wine was not at all a fruit-bomb, but it was fruit-forward. The main fruit seemed to be cherry which mixed well with the tannins. The alcohol was a little strong (14.5%) but it wasn’t excessive as to take away from the wine. This wine was a nice combination of the old style and new style. For more information about the maker, see Catavino’s blog entry.

The theme for the April Midtown winers group is "Obscure Varietals." We are defining obscure as the less famous red grapes of the Bordeaux: Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. These wines don't have to come from Bordeaux, they just have to be made predominately from the individual grape. Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion of a good example of any of these grapes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Portugal Wine Tasting: Douro Region

Last week I attended a Portugal Wine tasting hosted by the Midtown Winers. The best represented region at the tasting was the Douro region in Northeastern Portugal. We had two ports (which I’ll post about later) and five bottles of red wine. Most of these wines were a blend of the same grapes used to make port. Some of them were even single varietals of a port grape.

I wrote about this region earlier when I reviewed a Portuguese wine. According Karen McNeil's "Wine Bible" many of the vineyards in this region were carved out of the steep cliffs of the region, built ellaborate terraces, and transported dirt up the steep cliffs to augment the shist soil. A grapevine growing in this hot climate and poor soil must struggle to grow. This seems to be the formula for producing great grapes the world over.

The main grapes of the Douro for making red wine are the same ones that go into Port: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. The common flavor I got in the Douro wines at our tasting was plum. These wines were a nice balance of fruit and tannins. All seemed like they would go well with food.

The favorite of the night was the 2005 Quinta dos Quatro Ventos. This dark purple wine was made from Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesca. On the nose I detected plum and alcohol. There was light fruit, almost like a Rhone wine. The strong but balanced tannins left a nice finish. This wine was a nice value at $16.99.

Other reds we enjoyed were:
2004 Praxo de Roriz (it might have been flawed, though)
2004 Redoma Tinto
2003 Callabriga
2002 Evel Vihno Tinto

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Portugal Wine Tasting: Estremadura Region

This week I attended a Portugal Wine tasting hosted by the Midtown Winers, a wine tasting group I belong to in Sacramento, California. Yesterday, I talked about the white wines we sampled. I'll begin the red wines by talking about the only wine we sampled from the Estremadura region. (Map used by permission of Wikipedia.)

It was hard to find much about this region. It isn't even mentioned in Karen McNeil's "Wine Bible." The Spanish and Portuguese wine blog CataVino describes this region as being northwest of Lisbon occupying an area of approximately 24 miles. It's made up of limestone soils or sand. Many grapes are grown here, but the Tinta Miuda is the one we sampled at the tasting. It was even harder to find information on this grape!

The 100% Tinta Miuda was made by Aveleda: Quinta da Aveleda Estremadura 2001. I don't think Aveleda makes this wine any more because I couldn't find it on their web site. The wine had flavors of plum and was earthy. There was light fruit along with a light black pepper taste, similar to what you might taste in a Zinfandel. The finish was not very lasting as the wine had light tannins. This wine was not very memorable, but it was a pleasant wine. It's too bad we only had one wine from the Estremadura region. Monday I'll cover the Duoro region which was very well represented at out tasting. Click here to read an interesting account of CataVino's recent trip in Estremadura.

Portugal Wine Tasting

I belong to a monthly wine tasting group in Sacramento, California called "The Midtown Winers." I wasn't able to attend the February Cabernet Sauvignon tasting unfortunately, but I participated in the Portugal wine tasting this week. I feel like I've got to do my homework after taking the test after attending the tasting. I don't know much about Portugal wine regions and I've only had a few Portuguese wines (two from the Douro region that I posted on: 2005 Valtorto Douro and Charamba.) I’m going to be visiting the wine blog
in the next few weeks to take advantage of the great work they’ve done.

We had a fair sampling of Portuguese wine regions at the tasting with six out of the nine regions. I was glad that there were three whites from the Minho or Vinhos Verdes region. This region is at the Northeastern top edge of the country and borders Spain. The white grapes of this region are Alvarinho, Loureiro, Pederna and Trajadura. They go into making the light, slightly fizzy wine Vinho Verde. We had three different Vinho Verdes (“green wine”) one of which I brought. The wine is called green not because of its color but because it’s a young wine meant to be drunk soon after its made (sort of the white counter part to Beaujolais Neuveau?) Most Vinho Verdes are meant to be basic wines, but some are really good and we had one at the tasting.

I brought one (not the best of the night) made by Casal Garcia. It was bottled in 2007, contained only 10.5% alcohol and cost $6.99 at BevMo. I’ve had this wine before and enjoyed it. It’s light and the carbon dioxide they inject into the bottle before corking adds an enjoyable, refreshing fizz. I like it as a sipper or with fried chicken. The high acidity and fizz combine well with the fat in fried chicken.

The Vinho Verde I enjoyed the most was made by
. It was also bottled in 2007 and similar to the Casal Garcia. But it had a better flavor and acidity. The flavors in the Casal Garcia were muted, but in the Broadbent I got a sense of apple and a light, pleasant veggie flavor. There were no tannins to speak of in either wine, but there was a slightly tart finish to the Broadbent. I’m definitely going to look for a bottle for myself. Vinho Verde is a great summer time wine to have as an alternative to Sauvignon blanc. It may become my favorite picnic wine to enjoy with fried chicken!

Tasting Notes:

2007 Broadbent Vinho Verde

Color:  Light yellow

Aroma:  Yeast, Sauvignon blanc like smell

Taste:  Apple, light veggie, very light mouth feel with spritz and acidity

Finish:  Slightly tart

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Comfort Wine

I had to think for a while to consider which wine to drink for this month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday. Joel Vincent at Web Life Today asked us to pick out a wine that we drink when we want to relax. My first thought was a big buttery, slightly oaky Chardonnay. But that would be like sitting down to relax with a bag of popcorn. What I really want to relax with is something sweet, big and bold. A wine that explodes in my mouth negating the need for analyzing. I knew what I wanted: a Zinfandel fruit-bomb.

I love the flavor of Zinfandel and I can enjoy it in either a fruit-bomb or a more balanced old fashioned style. To my palate, the spiciness of Zinfandel is immediately recognizable and pleasant. Most Zinfandels have the spice of black pepper to add to the mix. The ones I love the best have a “jammy” quality to them that for me means a mixture of strawberry flavor and a full mouth feel.
When I want to relax with a wine I want something familiar and very fruit-forward. I enjoy almost any wine varietal and style. Thanks to the great input I’ve received from wine blogs about trying something new every day (Gary Vaynerchuk’s urging to drink 365 different wines a year) to cross-training your palate (great post by Dr Debs on Good Wine Under $20) I try to drink new wine as often as I can. It’s a lot of fun and I’ve tasted some great wine.

But it’s nice to come back to something familiar, like a Zinfandel. I know I’m going to like it. I know what I’m going to taste. I don’t have to think, I can just enjoy. When I want to relax with a wine, I’ll pick a Zinfandel. I may not blog about my choice, hiding my guilty pleasure from my fellow wine lovers. But I’ll keep drinking what makes me happy. As Forest Gump says, life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. But if you go to See’s and pick out the box yourself, then you can relax.

The Zinfanel I had was from Latcham, a winery in the Fair Play AVA of the Sierra foothills. I visited this area last summer, but was not able to make it to Latcham. Several bottles of Latcham (and Granite Springs, their co-winery) are on local shelves, so finding the wine for me is easy. Fair Play is a great place to grow Zinfandel and I’ve enjoyed most of the Zinfandels I’ve tried from the area. The styles vary from fruit-bombs to more balanced wines. The Latcham is definetly a fruit-bomb!

The wine is so fruit-forward that the first taste of the wine all I got was a sense of sweetness. The successive tastes weren’t as sweet, as the flavors of Zinfandel and the tannins overcame the sweetness. Still, this wine bordered on being too sweet. It had all the jamminess and pepper I like in a Zinfandel. The finish was better than the first taste as the sweetness disappeared to leave the mild fruit flavor mixed with tannins.

I’ll have to try a different Latcham or Granite Springs Zinfandel to see if their other attempts at this varietal are less sweet. I could definitely relax with this bottle of wine, though!

Tasting Notes

2005 Latcham Special Reserve Zinfandel (15.5% alcohol)
Color:  Dark red

Aroma:  Strawberry

Taste:  Jammy sweetness, light tannins; light mouth feel

Finish  Light but lingering tannins and spiciness

Comments:  VERY fruit-forward

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Vermentino Closer to Home

Yesterday I posted about a Vermentino wine from Sardinia. I bought this bottle on the weekend. The next Wednesday, an article came out in my local paper about a local Vermentino (Dunne on Wine, 2/27/2008.) According to the article, there was a bottle of the local wine at the same store I bought the Sardinian, Corti Brothers. This was a rare opportunity for me, so I went back to Corti Brothers yesterday and bought the local sample to have a side-by-side comparison.

First, a little about the local wine maker Jim Moore. Jim was a specialist in Italian varietals at Robert Mondavi. He went on his own in 1998 and created L'Uvaggio di Giacomo (now just Uvaggio.) Jim makes afforably priced Italian varietal wines made from grapes grown from all over California. The grapes for his Vermentino come from the Lodi area. (For another recent article about Jim Moore, follow this link: SF Gate.)

The Uvaggio Vermentino was lighter in color than the Sardinia sample I had. The Uvaggio had more of an appearance of a Sauvignon Blanc, but with a little cloudiness, similar to the Sardinian. I found from the article that the cloudiness is actually a “gentle kick of carbon-dioxide for a touch more vibrancy without turning it into a sparkling wine.

The Uvaggio was more like a Sauvignon Blanc than the Sardinia wine was. I missed the nutty flavor that made it stand out from an SB for me. However, when I tasted the two wines side by side, I could detect the nuttiness in the Uvaggio. Clearly, this palate needs more training!

What made this wine more special for me was that I cooked a meal myself using the wine. I’m a bachelor this week as my wife is off on a trip. I read a simple recipe last week on the blog Smells Like a Grape for chicken and white wine. This recipe seemed perfect for my skill level. I used the Sardinia Vermentino instead of Pinot Grigio that the recipe called for. I really liked the nuttiness that the wine imparted. The Uvaggio Vermentino went excellently with the dish.

I really like the Vermentino grape. Both wines I had were good, but I like the Sardinian wine a little better because it is distinctly different. As my palate grows, I may like the subtlety of the Uvaggio better. It would definitely be a nice sipper in place of a Sauvignon Blanc.

Tasting Notes:

2006 Uvaggio Vermentino Lodi ($9.99)

Color:  Light golden yellow with tiny bubbles

Aroma:  Sauvignon Blanc like, lemon

Taste:  Mellower then the Argiolas Vermentino, less nutty

Finish:  No tannins, flavor lingered a little

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Sardinian White

Last week I tried a Sardinian red wine. In an effort to comply with the “equal time” theme of this election year, I tried a Sardinian white over the weekend. Though I drank the red wine first, I picked out today’s bottle first. The description of the wine on the bottle caught my interest and my decision was made when I found out the wine was made out of a grape I haven’t tried yet: Vermentino.

Vermentino is described as an “aromatic varietal combining notes of citrus, fresh grass, herbs, and almonds with a crisp and acidic framework.” The grapes vines are very good growers and the plant needs a poor soil to keep it in check. Sardinia is ideal for the grape as it is dry and hot, two other requirements for Vermentino.

Similar to the wines made from the Monica grape, there are
two regions
for Vermentino on Sardinia. On the whole island, there is the Vermentino di Sardegna DOC. Wines with this designation mean that the grapes can come from anywhere on the island. Wines with the Vermentino di Gallura DOCG come from grapes grown in the northeast end of the island (highlighted in yellow on the map to the left. Map used courtesy

The Vermentino I bought was made by the same winery that made the Monica wine I had last week, Argiolas. Their version is a Sardegna di Vermentino which reminded me of a Soave I had recently. The aroma of the Vermentino didn’t remind me of beer like the Soave did, but there is a certain flavor that the two share. Maybe it’s the description of almond that I’ve read both wines are supposed to have. When I first sniffed my glass of Vermentino it smelled more like a Sauvignon blanc than any thing else with a hint of pineapple. The wine had nice acidity but hardly any tannins. I liked the wine but didn’t have it with any food. It would have gone well with Chinese food.

This grape makes # 49 in my quest for 100 different grape varietals and become a member of the Wine Century Club.

Tasting Notes:

2006 Argiolas Costamolino (13.5% alcohol)

Color:  Medium golden yellow, slightly cloudy

Aroma:  Pinapple, lemon

Taste:  Like a Gavi or Soave, "nutty" flavor, nice acidity with light body

Finish:  No tannins, but the flavor lingered just approaching but never reaching a bitterness

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