As a wine lover, sometimes you have an experience that is so otherworldly that you're transported just by inhaling what's in your glass. It's rare, I know, but when it happens you feel like you've reached wine nirvana.
I've tasted good wines lately, but with the exception of the Kaiken Reserve Malbec, I haven't even approached this heavenly level of sensory delight in months...until I had the Domaine des Lises Equis 2007 Crozes-Hermitage. This may be the best Syrah I've ever had and at $22 it is one of the most intense, beautiful, complex, and utterly delicious wines I've experienced in this price range, period.
To give background, this wine is from the Northern Rhône Valley. The Rhône is split in two in a north/south fashion. The north grows mostly Syrah and has an inland climate (cold winters, hot summers, four seasons) and the south grows mostly Grenache and has a Mediterranean climate (temperate, not as many extremes in temperature).
Maybe my favorite piece of dork trivia about the Rhône is the name of the nasty, harsh wind that blows from the north and can ruin a harvest if the grapes aren't protected. It's called the Mistral. Apparently it's so strong it can blow away pollution from the skies and it's said to bring good luck (probably because it dried the stagnant water lying around and made people less likely to contract horrific diseases back in the day!).
But back to the Northern Rhône...
Only about 10% of Rhône wines come from the northern strip, but it is the source of the most prestigious ones (of course, human nature -- if it's scare then it must be outrageously valuable). In fairness, they do have something to this claim, since people have been making Syrah-based fine wines since the 10th century in the towns of Côte Rotie and Hermitage. Most of the wine in the Northern Rhône is red from Syrah, but whites from the aromatic Viognier, Marsanne, and Rousanne are made too. Sometimes these varieties are blended with the Syrah, producing some amazingly fabulous and interesting stuff that you should try.
Moving to the wine in question, it's from Crozes-Hermitage. This is below the esteemed vineyards of Hermitage (higher elevation usually means higher quality wines, BTW) and it's the largest area of the Northern Rhône. What does that mean for quality? Huge variability, but also lower prices and more selection. A good wine from this region can be outstanding, with characteristics of the famous Hermitage wines but a little more subtle. If you find a good producer, you'll get one of the best bargains in French wines. In my shopping for client tasting I came across the Domaine des Lises Equis and I think I struck gold.
Here is the rundown:
The Wine: Domaine des Lises, Equis
Where It's From: Crozes-Hermitage, Northern Rhône, France
The Grapes: 100% Syrah
Color: With a dark maroon center and brownish edges, this wine was very dark and stained the glass when I swirled it around. Pretty.
Smell: And here's where I kind of left the building and headed to nirvana. This wine was so aromatic and full of exotic spice that it reminded me of entering a Hindu temple on my trip to India a few years back. An intense aroma took me in. Piñon (a Southwestern pine tree -- it's kind of like warm, sweet pine sap), cardamom, tobacco, and clay-earth were striking. Violets, roses, potpourri, prunes, and dark ripe plums nearly overwhelmed my senses, but in a hedonistic, all-pleasure way.
Taste: To call this wine complex does not begin to scratch the surface. The taste was more delicate than the smell, but still the exotic, rich, Chai tea, cardamom essence was prevalent. There was a distinct mineral quality that tasted like dirty rocks, which I just loved. All this lived on top of huge fruit flavors. Overripe black plum, dried cherry, raisins, prunes, blueberry, and even a little blood orange flavor were in the mix. Nutmeg, clove, pepper, savory spices -- the layers just kept coming. This was unlike any Syrah I've tasted, with a honeyed character and not much horsey-ness or leather, which I usually associate with the grape.
The texture was unique too. The tannins were noticeable but not mouth-puckering or drying. The blockbuster on this wine was the acidity. If someone described the flavors and textures to me, I would think it was gross, but somehow there was an amazing balance between the acidity and the bold spiciness.
Food: This wine needs big food or spicy food. Tradition says grilled or braised meats with Syrah, so I'm sure that will do. I personally will take mine with Indian food, thank you very much. A complementing wine pairing can be delicious and this bottle with some baigan bharta, korma, malai kofta, or zeera aloo is it for me.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Domaine des Lises Equis is made by Maxime Graillot, the son of Alain Graillot, a famous Crozes-Hermitage producer. Clearly it's in the blood, because this wine is outstanding. Maxime's plots are less prestigious than his father's but he makes up for what he lacks in perfect grapes through perfect handling of them in his winemaking. Clearly, I say drink. However, as a caution, if you don't like bold, acidic, spicy, complex wines this ain't the wine for you!
Note: This wine was just reviewed by Jamie Goode, who has an outstanding blog, Wine Anorak. Here's the link if you're curious to see his take: http://www.wineanorak.com/blog/2010_02_01_archive.html
February 23, 2010
As a wine lover, sometimes you have an experience that is so otherworldly that you're transported just by inhaling what's in your glass. It's rare, I know, but when it happens you feel like you've reached wine nirvana.
February 15, 2010
Last night, my wonderful and adoring husband took me out for a lovely meal at Dogwood Restaurant here in Atlanta. It was delightful, but we both agreed that the best part was the Gloria Ferrer, Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma, a bubbly made from Pinot Noir, paired with our appetizers:
Butternut squash soup with local honey, creme fraiche, toasted walnuts
The butternut squash and honey soup with the Blanc de Noirs was a different, yet equally gratifying experience. It was creamy, warm, earthy, and sweet. Alone, it would have been delicious, but the berry essence of the wine made the soup burst forth with fruit and honey flavors while the acidity prevented the sweetness from sticking around in your mouth. The wine was a perfect complement to the creamy deliciousness of the soup and acted as a wonderful palate cleanser between bites.
I find that people frequently forget about bubbly when they are thinking about food and wine pairings, so I thought I'd share our experience, and encourage you to experiment with sparkling and food too. Surprisingly, these wines are very versatile and can even hold their own against certain red meat preparations. So don't be bashful -- it's worth a go!
February 11, 2010
Just about every month, I do the TasteLive online blogger event. Wineries or PR agencies send their wines, and my fellow bloggers and I taste them together and share our thoughts via Twitter. It's a nice communal experience, and although sometimes it can get a little off topic and the bloggers can be harsh with each other, I get to experience wines I may not normally try, and hear others' opinions so I find the events, on-the-whole, enriching to my wine geek soul.
On February 10th, I did an event featuring Wente Vineyards, a family winery in the Livermore Valley (right where I used to live in California, about 45 minutes away from San Francisco if you drive fast, more like an hour if you drive slow). If you're ever out that way, they have a beautiful facility with a nice restaurant, a picturesque golf course, and pretty views, so it's worth the jaunt off the freeway to see it. Oh, and If you go, you must get the wine-filled truffles. I still think about those sometimes...quite yummy!
The Livermore Valley is inland, so it's warm and can ripen fruit quickly and predictably. This large Valley has the cooling influence from the San Francisco Bay with cooler nighttime temperatures that preserve acid and tannin in the grape. The Wente family is the largest operator here, and one of the oldest. They are known mostly for their Chardonnay and for the "Wente Clone" of the grape which is used widely in California.
For this event, we were presented with three wines: the 2008 Riva Ranch Chardonnay, the 2007 Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2007 The Nth Degree Syrah. All were made by the fifth generation winemaker, Karl Wente.
Karl is a young, hip guy who has an unorthodox philosophy about wine, blending Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer into his Chardonnay, Petite Sirah and Barbera into his Cabernet, and the former and a touch of Cabernet Franc into his Syrah. Not being accustomed to these types of blends, I gravitated to the Syrah, which tasted the most similar to styles I frequently prefer. That said, the Chardonnay ($19.99) is a fairly traditional California Chardonnay and the Cabernet ($14.99) a nice light red, so they are good to try if you are a fan of Cali Chards and easy-drinking reds.
Here's the review of the Syrah, the wine which was the standout for me:
The Wine: The Nth Degree Syrah
Where It's From: Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay
The Grapes: 89% Syrah, 5% Petite Sirah, 5% Mourvedre, 1% Cabernet Franc
Color: An inky purple, the wine held the color to the edge, where it thinned out just a touch to a slightly watery rim.
Smell: Lush black fruit flavors abounded. Juicy fresh cut blackberry, black raspberry, and black plum were abundant with a healthy dose of basil, black pepper, and smoky leather as secondary smells. This is big wine!
Taste: With all the heat in the Livermore Valley, I'd expect this wine to be all fruit, but it was a great blend of the scents on the nose with chocolate, dried herb, and bacon all supported by a nice amount of tannin that imbued it with a strength and character that was impressive and tasty.
Food: A rich burger or steak off the grill, fatty game birds, or anything richly flavored would be a match. With a hearty stew on a cold night, you'd be a happy camper with a glass of this in hand.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Drink. It's a nice Syrah and worth a try if you have $45 to spend, although I'd explore the Australian section too. For that money, you could most likely get something that drinks like $100.
February 5, 2010
I had occasion to do a tasting of thin-skinned red grapes with a tasting group of which I am a part.
DORKY, I know, yet useful so I thought I'd share some observations.
In normal terms, thin-skinned grapes make wines that don't have the color, tannin, and general brawn of thicker skinned grapes. It makes sense when you figure that wines with that aforementioned stuff get it from contact with their big 'ole thick skins when the juice ferments in a vat. No thick skin, lighter wine. Easy math.
So there are lots of thin-skinned red grapes in the world, but some common ones that all of us wine enthusiasts encounter are Sangiovese (the main grape in Chianti), Grenache (the main grape in Cotes-du-Rhone), Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Gamay (used in Beaujolais from France) and everyone's favorite, Pinot Noir. That's a lot to swallow (literally), so I'll just run down the ones I thought were pretty interesting from a contrast standpoint -- Sangiovese, Grenache, and Pinot Noir -- and highlight the differences between them so when you're shopping for a lighter red, you can easily figure out what to get. If you want more info, comment and I'll post on the others too...just don't want to bore you.
First on the docket: Sangiovese.
Where it lives: Although it's grown in the US, Australia, South Africa, and parts of South America, the home of the grape (whose name means blood of Jupiter, the king of the gods) is Italy, and more specifically, Tuscany.
Color: Sangiovese is pretty light in color and tends to be orange or even brownish.
Smell: I feel like the wine almost smells like it looks -- rustic and kind of dirt-like or metallic, with a whiff of orange peel.
Taste: The wine tastes like it smells. It usually has a cherry or cranberry flavor and is a little bitter. It's got high acid, usually some tannin (if there are other things like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot blended in, it's pretty good mouth-puckering, drying tannin) and, to me, tastes like a dusty road, a cup of tea, and tart cherry all in a liquid package.
Good Food Options: Anything Italian with a tomato based sauce is a friend to this wine. No shocker there, I know but I'll risk being Master of the Obvious for thoroughness.
Wine Tried for the Tasting: Poggio alla Sala, Chianti Colli Senesi, 2007, $15.
Next, Grenache (AKA Garnacha and a few other names).
Where it lives: It's the main grape in the Southern Rhone in France, an important grape in it's home country of Spain (where it's called Garnacha), the US, on Sardinia off the coast of Italy (called Cannanou and tastes really different), and in Australia (where it is frequently part of "GSM" blends -- Grenache, Shiraz. Mourvedre, which are all delicious grapes originally from the Rhone in France).
Color: Grenache is a funny grape. It's generally very light in color. That said, some viticulturists reduce yields dramatically and the wine turns a rich purple/ruby hue (I love Clarendon Hills from Australia. Huge wine, but this is a great example of rich Grenache).
Smell: Grenache is usually blended with Syrah and Mourvedre in the Rhone, Tempranillo in Rioja, Spain, and Cinsault in Provence Rose wines. If you do get a varietal standalone, Grenache smells like spice, black pepper, raspberry, and strawberry. It can smell rustic, but unlike Chianti, it is usually really high in alcohol so it's a bit of a cilia singer. Also different from Chianti, Grenache or Garnacha has a lot herbal and lavender scents and can even smell like licorice.
Taste: In contrast to our Italian friend, Garnacha or Grenache tends to be very low in tannin and higher in alcohol. Its fruits are red berry with a little black fruitiness and the wine almost always has a spice/black pepper component. The wine can taste rustic, but it doesn't taste quite as dirty or dusty to me as Chianti does.
Good Food Options: For whatever reason, I think Grenache is the worst pairing with anything tomato-based. Vile with pizza, FYI. Stick with grilled veggies, stews, and braised meats. Usually it's going to be blended with Syrah anyway, so you'll want to pair it with richer foods since Syrah is so powerful in flavor.
Wine Tried for the Tasting: Las Rocas Garnacha, 2007. Calatayud, Spain. $12
Finally Pinot Noir.
Where it lives: Pinot is native to Burgundy France and is at its most awesome there. It's also one of the primary grapes in Champagne (look for Blanc de Noirs for 100% Pinot Noir). That said, since that movie Sideways, the whole world has gone bananas for it and now it's grown everywhere (although it's often grown poorly and tastes terrible). From Germany, where it's called Spatburgunder, to Italy, where it's Pinot Nero, to the US to South Africa to Moldova, to New Zealand (where it's delicious), nearly every region has a version of this really hard-to-grow, not supposed to be overcropped (or blended with Syrah/Merlot/Cab to decrease the price of it) grape.
Color: Well, there are somewhere between 200 and 1000 Pinot Noir clones (as a reference point, Cabernet Sauvignon has 12), so the color ranges a bit depending on what clone was in the vineyard. The standard Burgundy color tends to be a more ruby-red, but they can be maroon or even pinkish. No matter how you slice it, the wine is not a deep black like a Syrah or Malbec could be. It's light - which is the mark of a thin-skinned grape.
Smell: A traditional Pinot will smell like raspberry and strawberry, but unlike Grenache its spice flavors are really exotic -- like a tea shop -- and there is generally a characteristic earth flavor like a barnyard (seriously, it can be like poo), mushrooms, minerals, or smoke.
Taste: The best Pinots are like drinking velvet. They aren't rustic like Grenache or Chianti, they're plush and silky. They taste like they smell and have tannins and acids that are in perfect balance. This is a glam grape, if done right, and lacks the sharp edges of the other two wines mentioned above. A good Pinot is like watching a sunset over the ocean or falling into a bed at the Hotel Healdsburg (seriously, the best bed in the entire world. Next time you're in Sonoma, spring for it -- it's worth it!). Pure heaven. Even mediocre Pinots still have a silkiness that you won't find in Grenache or Chianti.
Good Food Options: Pinot is called the Chef's Wine for a reason. It goes with everything from salad to salmon. From cream sauce to spicy dishes, from chicken to pasta. It's a real treat if made well, and almost always a safe bet for medium to light foods of nearly any cuisine.
Wine Tried for the Tasting: Domaine Jean Louis Chavy Bourgogne Pinot Noir, 2007, $16
That's a wrap. Hope my mini-journey through these grapes was helpful or interesting. The tasting certainly helped me in my quest to master blind tastings, which are a requisite for me as I progress through the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Certified Wine Educator distinctions. Plus, they were pretty damn good, if I may say so myself.
February 1, 2010
On Saturday night M.C. Ice (my husband, for the new readers) and I finally opened a bottle of wine sent to me by Vina Montes Winery for review. And what a night it was....
All I can say to the folks in Argentina is thank you, thank you, thank you. This is the most heavenly bottle of Malbec that I have probably ever experienced and three days later I'm still thinking about it (if you read my blog regularly, you know that I'm honest about wine sent my way, even if I don't dig it, so please trust me -- this wine is the real thing).
As background, the Kaiken Ultra Malbec is from the Mendoza region of Argentina, which is the heart of wine production in the land of Evita (man, I loved that musical when I was young...except that my sister and I would listen to the record and sing, and she always made me play Juan Peron and various other undesirable roles, while she got to play Evita. Sucks being the younger sis!). Two-thirds of Argentine wine comes from this area in the eastern foothills of the Andes Mountains. The region has some of the highest vineyards in the world -- some at 3,500 feet. As a totally nerdy aside, apparently the producers here have some sort of competitive vine arms race going on, where they are constantly trying to farm higher and higher vineyards just because they can. Whatever does it for you, I guess...but I digress...
With an easy climate, great soils, a long growing season, and the Andes to provide a ton of water for irrigation, Mendoza is an ideal place to make fabulous wines. The region churns out a load of vino, so some of it isn't all that great, but the wineries, like Kaiken, who take time to care for their vines can make outstanding wines that aren't just fruit bombs and oak, but rather sexy, velvety, complex, and damn good.
Kaiken is the Argentine brand of Vina Montes, which is based in Chile. According to the Winery, "the name is a Mapuche Indian word for a Patagonian goose that is found on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile." Kind of odd, but who am I to judge.
Without further ado, let's get to it (well, maybe with some ado -- we decanted the wine for about 1.5 hours before drinking and I'd recommend you do the same to really experience it at its best. Just pouring it into a glass and leaving it open to air for an hour will suffice, BTW):
The Wine: Kaiken Ultra Malbec
Where It's From: Mendoza, Argentina
The Grapes: 90% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon
Color: Malbec carries color like a champ. The Kaiken is black-purple with a slightly watery, deep maroon rim. I noticed when I leaned the glass on its side that there were some small bubbles in the bowl -- probably some CO2 added last minute to keep the wine fresh.
Smell: Malbec is generally not noted for its subtle fruit, so the overwhelming whiff of black plum, blackberry, boysenberry, and black raspberry was not surprising. It gave such a fresh fruit bowl sensation to the wine, kind of reminiscent of a summer farmstand. Layers of vanilla bean, coffee, dried savory herbs, nutmeg, and brown butter were intoxicating, fresh, and nothing short of divine. The bouquet was so fragrant and heady that I could barely stop inhaling long enough to sip (damn, I wish I had another bottle right now!)
Taste: Could it get any better than the bouquet? YES, it can. That bowl of black fruit tasted like warm pie filling with a tinge of vanilla. Although the wine didn't smell like flowers, it tasted like violets and orange blossom tea. I don't want this to sound gross or detract from the lusciousness of it all, but there was a savory character present too -- like bacon fat with black pepper. I'm a pescatarian, but even I can appreciate the smell of a strip of bacon on the griddle, and it was all over this wine. Espresso notes were in the ridiculously long finish. The wine was so lux, it was almost like having a dessert course.
Lovely though these descriptors are, I do admit that many other Malbecs have this juicy, savory profile. But the Kaiken stood apart because its texture was so unique. The addition of the Cabernet Sauvignon added a firmness that made this wine outstanding. The high alcohol was perfectly balanced by a lively acidity that gave the wine a backbone and sharpness that reminded me of the experience of drinking an Italian espresso in a cafe in Florence -- a perfect, warming drink that makes you feel alive and appreciative of the wonderful scenery around you (M.C. Ice was looking even better than usual after this wine...no, it had nothing to do with the 14.9% alcohol in it! Just the experience of it all). What a wine!
Food: We opened the Malbec after dinner and had it with a cheese course. It overwhelmed our cheeses, but I would imagine that with grilled meats and vegetables this would be an excellent pairing.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Drink, and drink often. This wine could sell for $50 a bottle, but since it's only $25, I'll be getting it again. The Kaiken Ultra Malbec joins my list of great New World wines that showcase the best of their origins and are unapologetic about it. Kudos to Kaiken and keep up the great work!