Friday, July 23, 2010

Pinot Way!


I found a $10 Carneros Pinot Noir. And it's good.

I know what you're thinking, and I'm fairly certain I have neither lost my mind nor jumped the shark on this one. As many of you are no doubt aware, $10 Pinot Noir that's decent is hard to come by, and one that's downright delicious is practically unheard of. There are two factors accounting for this.

One is the fact that Pinot Noir is a tricky grape. It's tricky to grow, being extremely sensitive to sunlight levels (too much sun will fry the stuff - no hot Syrah climates for this baby), cropping levels (the flavors inherent to the grape are so delicate that anything above the lowest yields results in bland, insipid wine), and soil (it requires chalky clay to truly thrive, none of the volcanic rock or gravel that gives Cabernet Sauvignon such character). It also doesn't grow on what might call "robust" vines; its delicate structure and thin fruit skins make it highly susceptible to any number of hideously crippling vineyard blights. It's tricky to vinify as well, being extremely sensitive to yeast strains and fermentation techniques. It's also highly malleable by the soil, which can drastically affect the direction of the wildly varied flavor profile.

The other is what I call the Paul Giamatti Factor. Let's face it, Sideways was a huge movie. I admit, I love it. But if the movie damaged the reputation of my beloved Merlot ("If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving!"), it did twice as much good for Pinot Noir. The price shot through the roof and demand made a rare wine even rarer. Two harvests after the movie was released, vineyards in the state of California crushed almost twice as much Pinot Noir grapes as they did in 2004, when the movie came out. Producers struggled to keep up. Cheap, low-quality Pinots started flooding the market.

Enter the Caviste Pinot Noir.

Now, I can't help but notice that in 2007, the vintage of this wine (the only vintage I can find of this wine, bottled by one of my favorite Napa wineries, Acacia), the tonnage of Pinot Noir dropped off sharply from that 2006 peak I mentioned, only to regain its former girth in 2008 and grow even MORE in 2009. This makes me wonder ... what was wrong with the 2007 vintage? Was it not a good year for Pinot? Did something happen to affect the size and/or quality of the harvest? Perhaps that's why this bottle is sold so cheaply. Maybe their stuff just wasn't good enough for their ordinarily outstanding Acacia Carneros bottling.

Whatever, I'll take it. Because while the Caviste Carneros Pinot Noir isn't worth $20, it's certainly a mark or two better than the majority of the $10 stuff out there, and a great cheap Pinot to put in your face.

The color is a stunning deep clear ruby. It's a pleasure to gaze at, truly. The 14.2% ABV shows on the nose ... it comes off a bit hot, but I wouldn't say it burns. Just a sort of port-like quality in with the black fruit like bing cherry and dusty, brambly blackberry, as if they'd been soaked in said.

The palate is honestly surprisingly complex for such an inexpensive bottle. I spent a long time swirling, sniffing, and sipping this one, and I still couldn't quite define each flavor. There was a lot of spiced plum up front and mint-infused blackberry chutney. There was a lot of exotic spice on the finish, like chai: flavors of black tea, cinnamon, clove, and cardamom, with a lovely floral, rosey quality. Certainly a great bargain for the $10. I paired it with a chicken/sweet potato curry, and the pairing was beautiful. The Indian-spice flavors of the wine complimented the meal perfectly, and the heat of the high alcohol content disappeared under the bombardment of rich flavor from the food, getting nicely out of the way for a lovely match.

Date: 7/17/2010
Wine: Caviste Carneros Pinot Noir by Acacia
Grapes: Pinot Noir
Vintage: 2007
ABV: 14.2% 
Origin: Carneros, Napa Valley, California
Color: beautiful clear ruby - great legs!
Nose: brambly blackberry, raspberry, bing cherry, port
Palate: complex! spiced plum, blackberry chutney, mint. clove, tea, exotic spices, more going on, can't quite define. rose?
Price: $10

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sergeant Pepper

Hey guys, sorry it's been a while since my last post. It's been a hectic couple of weeks, and sadly I haven't been tasting a whole lot. What I DID do, though, was clean the house, and lo and behold: I found some tasting notes I'd done during the months leading up to my actually starting this blog. Joy!

Today I'd like to discuss one of my favorite wines of 2010.  It takes one by surprise. Mainly because of the trendy label. I admit, I'm one of those snobs that thinks twice about a wine with a pretty dancing lady on the label and (I kid you not) polka dot foil. I'm going to repeat that in case you missed it: there are POLKA DOTS on the foil.

But I'm begging you to look past that, like I did, because the Penelope Sanchez Garnacha is a treat for lovers of big red wines.

This little beauty has 15% Syrah punching up the fruit factor - and thank God it's there, because the Garnacha is a BEAST. Called Garnacha in Spain, Grenache in France, Cannonau in Italy, Alicante by some people (including Francis Ford Coppola) and about a million other names across the world, is a diva of a grape. Ripening late and therefore reaching stratospheric sugar (and alcohol) levels, it's most often used as a blending grape, lightening up the party with its sweet flavors of strawberry and raspberry jam. But in the right hands, low-yield varietal Grenache can be a powerhouse of black pepper, tar, acidic olives, coffee, and other such flavors that us dirt-drinking lovers of earthy reds so enjoy. The Penelope Sanchez is one such example. In this bottle, Grenache is no chorus-girl ... it's the star of the show, and rightly so.

The complex nose of intense spiced plum is promising. Further aromas of cassis and rose invite; the pepper excites. Now, Grenache isn't customarily a grape known for its tannins, but in this wine they're certainly present. Tight and focused, they spiral down the palate with more of what was detected on the nose - those brandy-soaked plum flavors and an explosive black pepper finish. The acid is bright, lifting the flavors on the palate, but the wine remains silky smooth on the palate. This is a big wine, an intense wine, and not for the faint of heart. Those of you who are accustomed to "smooth, easy drinking wines" ... I love you, but look elsewhere. Score a bottle of that 14 Hands Hot To Trot Red I mentioned earlier in the blog, you'll love it. But those of you who, like me, demand a bit of character from your red wine, a bit of effort; or simply just need something to accompany your Granddad's Signature Seasoned Steaks(tm) - pick up a bottle of Penelope Sanchez Garnacha and put it in your face!

Date: 6/8/2010
Wine: Penelope Sanchez Garnacha
Grapes: 85% Garnacha, 15% Syrah
Vintage: 2009
ABV: 13.5% 
Origin: Campo de Borja, Spain
Color: violet-tinged ruby
Nose: plum and spice, cassis, rose, pepper
Palate: great garnacha! tight tannins, bright acid, clean finish. silky smooth with plum, pepper finish.
Price: $11

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Head For The Hills Part Deux

At the same tasting where I tried the two new H3 wines discussed in my last post, I also tried the new vintages of two of the "old" H3 wines - the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I found the new vintages remarkably like I remembered. Just like before, they were both quite good, and certainly worthy of the 90+ ratings they consistently receive. And just like before, I liked the Merlot better.

The Cabernet Sauvignon had a nose of simple red fruit, and like previous vintages, I was surprised to find the flavors predominately vegetal, with green bean, cedar and resinous herb, like Rosemary. It's surprising because those are charactaristics I normally associate with cool-climate Cabs, and the Horse Heaven Hills are one of the hottest vineyard sites in the state. Also like usual, the finish had a distinctly gamey, roast-beefy finish, and the tannins were assertive without being too aggressive. I love a good reliable, consistent wine.

Date: 6/29/2010

Wine: Columbia Crest H3 Cabernet Sauvignon
Grapes: 89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc
Vintage: 2008
ABV: 14.5% (on a Cab? Jeezy Creezy)
Origin: Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State
Color: violet-red
Nose: cherries
Palate: more herbal - rosemary, roast beef, cherry, cedar
Price: $13

The Merlot had a slightly more complex nose of cherry and cassis. Mouth-coating, utterly velvety tannins fill the palate with the slightly dusty fruit flavor I like to call "brambly blackberry." It's more like a blackberry you just picked off the side of a dry gravel road that hasn't seen rain in a week or more, as opposed to the just plain "blackberry" flavor of a clean, ripe berry. And of course, a nice lengthy finish with hints of mocha. Probably tobacco, too - I couldn't quite put my finger on one other flavor (gotta love those palate-bombarding big tastings) and the winemaker notes on the sell-sheet say that's the only one I missed. So there you go.

Date: 6/29/2010

Wine: Columbia Crest H3 Merlot
Grapes: Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, a Kiss of Syrah (this is direct from the sell-sheet)
Vintage: 2008
ABV: 14.5% (again! I expect this sort of thing from a Syrah, but wow. Must have been a hot summer)
Origin: Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State
Color: deep brick red with purple highlights
Nose: cherry, cassis
Palate: Brambly blackberry with mocha
Price: $13

These are both very good wines, well worth their 90+ scores, so if you put them in your face you will be very happy. Personally, for the same price, I think I'd rather drink the Rattlesnake Hills Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Kennedy Shah series by Woodhouse Family Cellars. I'm adding this not to hate on the H3 series in any way, which I absolutely adore, but because I'm concerned that my penchant for focusing on the positive might make you beautiful readers think I just love absolutely everything the most possible OMG BEST WINE EVAR!!!!1 When the truth is, I really just tend to find something about everything that someone would like, and if I can't, well ... Momma always said if I can't say something nice, I shouldn't say anything at all.

But I digress, the point is, I love H3, but personally do slightly prefer Kennedy Shah in the same price range. However, Woodhouse Family Cellars is a relatively small winery in Woodinville Wine Country, and if you live outside of WA, you're unlikely to find it. So buy all means, wherever you live, whenever you see it, buy the H3 wines, put them in your face, and enjoy!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Head For The Hills (Horse Heaven, That Is)

Columbia Crest is one of the most successful wineries in Washington State. They have produced more 90+ scoring bottles than any other winery in the world, including last year's Wine of The Year (the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet. If you didn't get yours, so sorry, mine are nestled snugly at the bottom of my closet where they shall stay until 2020, as per instructions given to me personally by their fabulous winemaker, Ray Einberger).  They will always hold a special place in my heart, as the very first wine I ever tasted - the wine which made me the woman I am today - was one of theirs. The 1998 Walter Clore Reserve Red is embedded permanently in my mind. But I'm not here to talk about that one. Instead, I'd like to tell you about two new additions to the Crest lineup this year: the H3 Pinot Gris, and the H3 Les Chevaux Red Blend.

If you know Crest, you've probably seen the H3 series before. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay came first, and each has received 90+ scores multiple vintages running. H3 stands for Horse Heaven Hills, the hottest vineyard site in Washington State and source of the ripest grapes with the lushest fruit flavors.

The H3 Pinot Gris certainly lives up to that standard. The nose is deceptively simple, suggesting honey with floral undertones. But the palate is surprisingly complex! For a mid-range white, there's a lot going on here. The palate leads off with the honeysuckle from the nose, and is then packed full of sunny cintrus: orange, lemon, grapefruit, lime! The gang's all here, with a hint of minerality on the finish, like a nice Alsace. I ahd it with goat cheese on crackers and it was heavenly.

Date: 6/29/2010

Wine: Columbia Crest H3 Pinot Gris
Grapes: 92 % Pinot Gris, 8% Pinot Blanc
Vintage: 2009
ABV: 13%
Origin: Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State
Color: pale straw
Nose: honey, honeysuckle
Palate: surprisingly complex! honeysuckle, citrus circus, lemon, hint of minerality
Price: $13

Les Chevaux is the new red blend in the H3 herd. "Chevaux" is French for - you guessed it - "horses." The nose of cherry brandy, vanilla, and clove is nothing short of seductive. The palate is built upon a framework of structured, spicy blackberry, with more brandy on the finish, licorice midpalate, and lovely vanilla tones from the oak, shaded by graphite and cedar. The intense flavor of this wine is seamlessly integrated with the balanced acid and firm but gentle tannins. Yet another triumph from the amazing team at Crest. Put this one in your face for sure!

Date: 6/29/2010
Wine: Columbia Crest H3 Les Chevaux Red Blend
Grapes: 34% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Syrah, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec
Vintage: 2008
ABV: 14.5%
Origin: Horse Heaven Hills, Washington State
Color: violet-red
Nose: cherry, vanilla, brandy, clove
Palate: structured blackberry with vanilla and brandy on the finish. Kinda Spanish. Licorice, graphite, and pepper, oh my! Oaky reds for the win.
Price: $13

Friday, July 2, 2010

(Don't) Hold Your Horses!

There is no question that 14 Hands is one of the most sought-after labels in the Washington wine industry today. Part of it s popularity is due to its rarity. 14 Hands, you see, is a restaurant-only brand. So people buy a glass, fall in love, and can never find it again.

But no more! In response to the massive pressure put on them by consumer demand over the past few years, 14 Hands has finally released two new blends, a white and a red called Hot To Trot, that are retail-only wines. That’s right, I said RETAIL only. Eat it, restaurants. Pun intended.

The nose on the white leads off with rich melon aromas and a lingering note of lemongrass. The palate is loaded with lots of luscious fruit up front. Juicy peach and apple become tropical honeydew and cantaloupe, which then give way to a grassy, herbal finish with a gentle wisp of palate-cleansing acidity.

This versatile wine, with its flavors of fruit and hay, is so much like a summer picnic itself, perhaps that’s’ why I think it the perfect choice for such outings. It would pair fabulously with such summer fare as grilled chicken, fresh seafood, and salads of all types – fruit, green, potato, or pasta.

Date: 6/29/2010
Wine: 14 Hands Hot To Trot White
Grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Rousanne (percentages unknown)
Vintage: 2009
ABV: 13%
Origin: Columbia Valley, Washington State
Color: light gold
Nose: melon! Honeydew, cantaloupe, floral, lemongrass
Palate: light fruit up front with honey, but grassy, herbaceous finish. Gentle acid.
Price: $10

The Hot To Trot red blend is every bit as approachable as the white. With a nose of blackberry chutney, bourbon and tobacco, this wine smells for all the world like an old vine Zin. But surprisingly, there is no Zinfandel in the blend. The Syrah shows first on the palate, frontloaded with heavy spice. But it isn’t too peppery. More like cinnamon, cardamom, and clove, applied liberally to juicy blackcurrant. The Mourvedre comes through on the finish, with flavors equal parts fruit and game, like cherry-glazed roast beef.
This wine is so approachable, so lush and easy to enjoy (Menage a Trois lovers take note – this is right up your alley!), it would be a stellar choice for your backyard barbecues this summer. It would go great with everything from burgers to steaks to ribs – even pizza. Or nothing. Its great, and its only 10 bucks, so put it in your face and enjoy!
Date: 6/29/2010
Wine: 14 Hands Hot To Trot Red
Grapes: Syrah, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre (percentages unknown)
Vintage: 2008
ABV: 13.5%
Origin: Columbia Valley, Washington State
Color: ruby with violet highlights
Nose: spicy blackberry jam, bourbon, tobacco. Zin???
Palate: lots of spice! Peppery cinnamon, blackcurrant over cherry-glazed roast beef
Price: $10