As an homage to the people and wineries in California affected by the rash of wildfires this last week, we put out a wine for tasting that represents California very well. First off, Zinfandel probably is culturally the most significant grape in California, with hundreds of vineyard sites that cross generations of families in Sonoma, Napa, the Sierra Foothills, and others that connect back to the Italian immigrants that brought the vines over. Back then it was known as Primitivo, and it was planted in mixed vineyards with other varieties, but over time the variety prospered and came to dominate new vineyards as they were expanded. While many wineries still famously make 'field blends' from what the sites are planted to, Zinfandel tends to be the star. There is still a cultural 'hangover' in the perception that Zinfandel is a sweet wine, due largely to the White Zinfandel craze of the past, but also to the high presence of mass marketed Zin based blends that hide a LOT of residual sugar behind the term 'Smooth' and 'Bold' on the labels. A well made Zinfandel, like this one, can be a wine with bold flavors and smooth textures without leaving excess sugar behind to hide the deficiencies.
Deep purple color in the glass but with some clarity around the edges, this shows a lovely nose of warm red and black fruits with some dark baking spice and a slight touch of toasted oak (only 15% new barrels used), but nothing candied or over-amplified, and no boozy tones from excess or out of balance alcohol. The first sip is ample on the palate with loads of currant and black cherry flavors, and the tannins are very fine to allow a smooth and pleasant mouthfeel, but it's accomplished with absolutely no sticky or melted jelly sensations, even finishing with a dusty grape skin or peppery note that's undeniably dry. This has a lot more in common with the old school, food friendly Zins of the past, marrying some savory to the fruit and making it much more versatile.
With November quickly approaching, we are starting to get our turkey signs dusted off for our Thanksgiving wine selections. It never hurts to start making a few choices early before the rush starts on your personal favorites, so start thinking about grabbing a few provisional bottles and stashing them away. The Beaujolais Nouveau frenzy won't start until the week before Thanksgiving, which is just fine for us because it gives us time to remind everyone just how great the REST of Beaujolais is, and how quickly the quality goes up even in small price increases. Marcel Lapierre is one of the legends of Beaujolais, part of Kermit Lynch's 'Gang of Four' that helped to bring the region back from the brink of mediocrity in the 80s. This wine is a unique outlier to many producers in that it walks the line between the Nouveau and Cru designations, so much so that it doesn't even have a designation in their appellation system and has to carry the basic 'Vin de France' name. Most of the fruit here comes from their youngest parcels in the Cru of Morgon, with some other younger vineyard sources elsewhere in Beaujolais. This sees just a touch of carbonic maceration (the process that gives Nouveau its soft grapiness) and ages for a short time in tank to preserve the softness, but still imbues the savory texture of a Cru wine as well as giving it a much better shelf live than a Nouveau.
A bright juicy purple color in the glass without being neon level radiant,the aromas have plenty of fresh pressed grape juice in the nose to pull in most every Nouveau fan, but the second and third whiffs start to pull out the more traditional savory Gamay notes, hints of tart cherry skin and peppery herbs. The palate is super juicy, and thanks to the wine not being filtered there is still plenty of fine tannin texture that helps to pull out a lot of the more savory fruit the longer the wine sits in your mouth. There is also the nice tinge of tartness on the palate that comes from the traditional use of native yeasts, versus the industrial yeasts often inoculated to the mass marketed Beaujolais that gives them the overriding bubble gum character. As tasty as a Cru Beauj but with a few of the potentially harder edges polished off with 500-grit sandpaper, this will be a winner with pretty much everyone at the holiday table.
Ever on the search for great quality wine from anywhere around the world, we travel to the often forgotten but historically important region of Georgia for this week's wine. Situated between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, the winemaking culture here is among the oldest in the world, with evidence tracing back over eight thousand years. Politics have hindered the development of the industry more than potential quality, as the connection to the Soviet Union put much of its modern existence behind the Iron Curtain, inhibiting modern techniques and new markets outside of Moscow and other major cities. Even though the wines were reduced to mostly bulk production, Georgia has always maintained a higher reputation for potential quality, and as they have become an increasingly independent state they have looked to capitalize. Saperavi is probably the best known red grape in Georgia and the other countries around the two inland European seas, one of the few native grapes with a healthy and positive reputation for long term aging. Thanks to some of the modern techniques that have arrived in recent years, those hearty and rougher edges can be polished off a bit to make a wine that has more immediate gratification, enabling more wines to get bought and sold quickly in the world market and have more consumers trying these tasty wines.
Deep, inky purple color in the glass, with a first whiff to match that's filled with dark spice and almost sweet blackberry jam tones. The longer it is open, the more savory it grows, with somewhat garrigue-like spice that calls to mind a COtes du Rhone with a lot of Syrah and Mourvedre in the blend. In the mouth the texture feels as rich as you would expect from the look and aromas, but the tannins are surprisingly forgiving and the fruit characters are not sweet at all. In fact, most of the lingering flavors through the finish are tart black cherry and even citrusy with a flash of nervy acidity at the end. A great wine to pair with hearty comfort foods, stews and roasts and the like.
Most Americans, even the savvy tourists, may not be familiar with the Italian city of Grosseto and the region of Morelino di Scansano, or even aware that it's part of Tuscany. As a coastal city almost exactly equidistant from Florence and Rome, it just doesn't have the historical or cultural significance to make the buses stop in the same way a city like Pisa does, lucky enough to have a crooked bell tower everyone want to take a picture of pretending to hold it upright. Also not quite close enough to the coastline to be considered a 'beachfront' city to attract the locals for a Mediterranean getaway. But like every region of Italy, they do make wine, and their coastal influence allows them to make wines unlike any others in Tuscany. The warming influences from the sea provide for a richer character to the Sangiovese they grow (Morellino is the local name for the Sangiovese grape), and has also allowed grapes like Syrah, Grenache and Alicante Bouchet to thrive as well, giving those grapes fair use in the Scansano DOCG. The resulting wines carry a certain Tuscan signature polish, but can be much warmer and wilder depending on the amount of Sangiovese used. You also see a fair number of experimentation with 'naturalist' winemaking and other innovative styles, thanks to the lower cost of vines here and relatively low scrutiny on traditional styles, giving producers the freedom to explore and create their own paths.
Rich and warming on the nose, there are hints of a Chianti-like dark fruit and leathery tones behind the spice and cherry that pop forth almost immediately, gaining a touch more savory and structured tone as it opens up. The palate is richer and a bit more saturated than the usual Tuscan wine, but shows a lot less of the juiciness than it shows on the nose, with a lot of dark leather, anise, and currant flavors. At the same time, expecting a chewier tannin to come along with the flavors, the feel is actually very fine and approachable, only showing a bit of dustiness that lingers on the finish. The familiar side of this wine works in well with all sorts of traditional red meat dishes you could use a Chianti for, while the warmer fruit side gives you license to try it with hearty dishes that may have a bit of heat of aggressive spice to them as well.
Assuming that it will in fact get cool again in Central Virginia in the near future (90+ degree days in October aside) it's a good time to check in on some wine options that will be well appreciated for their rich and hearty character. While the Rioja region is Spain tends to show the more elegant Old World influence for their Tempranillo based wines, the Ribera del Duero has more of a bold and brash style that's definitely more modern and New World influenced. At almost every stage of creation for the wines, from vineyard to winery and to the shelf, the mindsets are different, and the resulting wines almost don't taste like they have a grape in common. Where Rioja tends to have more in common with Bordeaux or maybe Tuscan wines, Ribera del Duero shares more with Californian or Washington Cabs, or even Malbecs from Argentina.The richness in texture, dark color, and tendency to use more American oak for aging the wines definitely leave an imprint. Arrocal is consistently one of our favorite sources from the Duero for what they deliver for the money, never over the top in style but still showing all the great hallmarks of the region.
Deep and inky purple in the glass, the nose is loaded with almost sweet black fruits and spices with just a touch of toasty vanilla from the oak (only 8 months total, with no new oak used). Often the tendency is to use more new oak in a shorter period, but the rich wine doesn't need the help here, and oak would only take away from the immediate pleasure. The palate is as deep and dense as the color in the glass, with lots of currant and blackberry completely coating the mouth, seeming heavy at first but quickly showing the fine natural tannins and even some balancing lift of acidity. This is a big wine, but not a plodding monster, with lots of subtlety that emerges as the wine opens up and never feels chunky or overwhelming. Definitely a wine that warms the soul along with a hearty meal.
Most wine drinkers are familiar with the more 'civilized' images of vineyards, with neat orderly rows of vines divided block by block into precise sections, maximizing each varietal to its fullest potential. This is the path of the modern winery, deservedly so in many ways, as it eliminates a lot of random variables and helps to create a more consistent wine for the consumer. Before this level of detail came into being, many family vineyards were planted to a multitude of grape varieties, propagated from the neighboring vine when needed, resulting in parcels with a hodge-podge of grapes that could vary row to row and even vine to vine. Wines were usually made by harvesting the entire parcel all at once, usually without sorting out the different varieties and vinifying them separately, using an 'everybody into the pool' mentality. The healthier, more successful grapes would eventually make up a larger portion over time, but the wines made this way have a distinct personality that's built over time. California is famous for the largely Zinfandel-based wines made from these types of vineyards, with several wineries (Ridge, Ravenswood, Limerick Lane, and Bedrock to name but a few favorites) making their name on preserving some of the oldest and most cherished sites in the country. A little less known are the field blends in Italy, where old family plots abound and 'house wines' like this are pictures of days gone by.
As a red wine from the Piedmont, this is primarily Barbera and Nebbiolo, which is to be expected. The unexpected comes fro the mix of other lesser red varietals that make their way to the tank in small amounts. Even a few dozen or so vines worth of white grapes make their way in, and make themselves immediately evident in the aroma with a peachy white citrus tone above the crunchy red fruits and black spices. The palate is silky and polished with lots of cranberry and higher toned red fruits, even a touch of apple skin tartness (probably also offered up from the white varieties in the mix), almost zesty and refreshing for a red wine. While not profound in any one way, it's definitely 'distinct' and deliciously enjoyable. Fans of wines like the long time store favorite Vajra Langhe Rosso (also from the Piedmont) will find a lot of kinship with this wine, and something fun to add to the weekly rotation.
Even though the vineyards and the grapes don't change from vintage to vintage, the styles of Bordeaux can change fairly dynamically due to climate. Perhaps more than any other wine region consumers worldwide keep track of the weekly weather data, looking for long term trends that shape the final character of the wine and not just major events that make more obvious and dramatic impact. 2015 is considered very highly and there are a lot of great wines from that vintage, but is also a very warm year with lots of ripe wines that tend towards more naturally high alcohol levels (approaching and exceeding 14% in most cases). 2014 was cooler throughout that pushed the harvest well into the Fall, worrisome to many that the grapes would ripen well enough to make even decent wines, but saved by a warm dry September that got most vineyards over the finish line. The late and longer ripening process also created wines with less natural alcohol and darker natural fruit character, delivering many wines that would fall into a more 'classic' style of Bordeaux. Fans of these types of wines will be very happy with 2014, not the least of which being the hype machine won't drive up their prices the way 2015s may tend to be. Which is great because you may prefer this style anyway!
Cabernet Sauvignon was the biggest beneficiary the the length and coolness of the 2014 vintage, and even though it makes up only about 20% of this blend, it plays a pretty distinctive role. Lots of cool currant, black cherry skin and pencil lead aromas with a slight tinge of cedar even though there is no oak aging involved here. The texture is delightfully polished with very fine natural tannins that hold the wine together quite nicely, if anything the oak would have dried out the wine a little too much. Savory fruit fills the mouth without feeling thick or saturated, sitting just on the edge of ripeness without any green notes, pushing all the way through the lively earthy finish. A classic dinner wine that doesn't need any extra time to cellar, tasting and feeling surprisingly ready to go without a whole lot of time open.
We have always organized the wine in our store based on region and country, believing strongly in the idea that where the wine is from, its 'terroir' and the culture, is one of the largest factors if not THE largest in determining the character of the wine. Where it sometimes fails us is when there are great varietal wines from an outlying area, somewhere that isn't famous for making wines from X grape so we may only have 1-2 examples. When people are looking for Pinot Noir, they gravitate towards the classic areas of Burgundy, California, and Oregon to browse through dozens of examples. Alto Adige? Italy? Never crosses most people's minds. But it should, and we need to direct more people over there to find it. The grape does have a strong history here in the cool mountain region, perhaps not to the great heights of quality as Burgundy, but as a solid and consistent daily drinker, which is what more Pinot Noir fans hope to find these days.
Built with more of an Old World style in mind, this only sees a little bit of time aged in oak, mostly stored in concrete tanks to allow the natural fruit and savoriness of the grape to shine through, and also lets the wine show deliciously from the very first pour. Dark cherry skin aromas and pomegranate pop from the glass immediately, with a background hint of earthy stems and clove that gives a nod to some time honored Burgundian characters. The palate shows more body than expected without sweetening the fruit flavors at all, balancing the feather soft tannins with a lively acidity that prickles the mouth. While this would never be confused with a blockbuster Cru Bourgogne, it would marry perfectly with some weekday dining that features something like lentils or wild mushrooms, something rustic and easy. Priced right so you don't have to make a big deal about opening it.
The Basque portion of Spain stands historically separate from most of Spain, both geographically and politically. Their culture and cuisine are world famous, but generally do not get as aggressively marketed and distributed around the world the way other parts of Spain do, and the wine is affected by that as well. So much of the local wines get consumed locally in the thriving dining culture around Bilbao and San Sebastian, you just don't see that many value versions, just a handful of elite producers whose wines aren't terribly expensive but do make the more casual drinker pause. Thankfully there are starting to be a few reasonably priced stars emerging like this one, giving consumers a chance to try wines from grapes like Hondarribi Zuri and the like.
In concept, this is the cultural twin to Muscadet in the French Loire; racy, clean and simple, built to compliment and not take center stage on its own. Pouring with a slight pinprick of SO2 bubbles, even less so than your typical Vinho Verde, the aromas are all green apples and fresh cut limes, perhaps even a hint of sea spray when the wine is a bit cooler. The palate is juicy and wet, a bit neutral on the first sip but builds the lime zest and crisp apple flavors the longer it sits in the mouth. The slight prickle from the gas hits the palate as well to pump up the zestiness, but dissipates within 10 minutes or so to give the wine a softer finish over time. Being under 12%abv one would think this could be containing some residual sweetness somewhere, but the grape ripens with low sugars naturally so this is delightfully dry throughout. One of the great food matches when paired with oily seafood dishes, sardines, octopus, and the like.
The Alfaro Family Vineyard & Winery sits near the top for us of a very short list of California producers that are still 'true' family run wineries and are still capable of delivering tremendous values. For over 20 years the family has owned and managed great parcels along the Santa Cruz Mountain chain, which in and of itself is often overlooked in California as one of the great sources for cooler climate influenced wines. The heavy fog blanket that rolls dramatically over the mountains on an almost daily basis cools the air and limits sun exposure, a huge contrast to the Santa Clara Valley below. The vineyards through here are scattered as optimum growing sites compete with real estate development and Forest conservation. Not much bulk wine available for making more value oriented wines, yet somehow Alfaro cobble together delicious, distinctive wines through their 'A' label series, even if it's only a few hundred cases at a time. This Syrah is borne from two parcels under the family's control, one of which is the source for their own single vineyard bottling and sold to other wineries for their own higher end projects. This is not a 'lesser' wine by taste, only by price.
A deep ruby color, from the first pour the aromatics of the wine show off the Northern Rhone inspirations with cool, smoky cherry, cracked black pepper, and raspberries off the vine. Minimal barrel aging gives only a tinge of toastiness to the nose, allowing the natural savory dark fruit of Syrah to shine through. Also as inspired by the wines of Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph in the Rhone, the cooler temperature keeps the alcohol and weight of the wine down, letting the palate deliver the same savory character as the nose without any sweetness or alcoholic burn. The bright acidity even delivers a bit more gamey/bloody note and tartness to the dark fruits, and the surprisingly fine tannins are given extra texture from the wine being bottled unfiltered. This impressive, succulent red has lots of potential life ahead for those that like a bit more elegance in their Syrah, but at this price you can be impulsive and pull this for any great cookout or tailgate celebrations ahead when the meat is as good as the company.
The Best of the Best.
We offering free tastings on these wines in the store every Thursday and Friday, and a 10% discount off the retail price through the duration of the day. Come on by and give them a try!