Whew, with the first round of decadent, butter-laden, obesity-inducing meals (aka, Thanksgiving chow) behind those of us in America, and one more on the horizon (whether that be in form of potato latkes or Christmas ham), I thought I'd do a post to share my pairing experience and ask if you'll comment and pay it forward so we can all figure out what worked and what didn't.
I'd love to say that I tested out all my pairing suggestions this year (I have at one point or another done it, so please don't think I'm suggesting stuff blind, BTW), but we drank just two wines and MC Ice and I disagreed on the results. I'll share those and, as a bonus, I'm going to tell you about the pre-Thanksgiving random-ass pairing we had because it was, surprisingly, THAT good.
Because I do love the wine and because I had it on hand courtesy of Destination Riesling (the advocacy group for this under-appreciated grape) I pulled out a bottle of the Dönnhoff Spätlese (SHPATE-lay-zah) Riesling for the meal. Without having had this brand before, I didn't know how sweet it would be, but thought I'd roll the dice. This is the perennial problem we all face when buying Riesling.
I'll dork out on Riesling for just a second in the hopes that this information (whether it be a refresher or new news) may make you less squeamish about buying the stuff. I think it's damn confusing, so hopefully a plain English explanation (with a little German thrown in) will make it less daunting.
So to break it down, Riesling is a grape that grows really well in cold climates like Central Germany. I know the general perception is that Riesling is sweet, but when German growers pick it, it's generally kind of tart and ALWAYS really acidic -- that's just how the grape rolls. Now, if the growers decide to let the grapes hang out on the vines a little longer than regular harvest time (which is a risk because it could get cold and stormy and frosty), then the grapes may be slightly riper and the resulting wine fruitier and fuller, and often sweeter.
In a climate where it's cold and grapes don't ripen all that well, the Germans have decided that the longer the grapes hang on the vines, the higher quality they are. The thing is, this doesn't translate to what most contemporary wine drinkers consider high quality because according the German schema, the higher the quality, the sweeter the wine. It's all kind of cock-eyed, but if you know what the stuff means, you can avoid buying sweet wine from Germany and just get the kind of wine you want -- which for most of us is dry, aromatic, acidic Riesling that kicks ass and goes well with Indian food.
Here's a cheat list (with pictures) for you of the three most common German Riesling classifications out there:
Kabinett: ripe grapes (it actually means cabinet, like where you store the stuff). It is generally light in style, and usually a little drier than the next two levels because the grapes aren't as ripe. That said, I've had my share of off-dry Kabinett, so caveat emptor, my dry-loving wine pals.
Spätlese: late harvest, really just means ripe grapes. It can be dry or sweet. Usually if it's dry, it will say so somewhere on the label. The producer could indicate it by using the word "trocken" (see right) but these days I usually see them put DRY somewhere on the label. Germans are nothing if not efficient in labeling.
Auslese (OWS-lay-zah): select harvest. Means that the growers have hand-picked the grapes from selected bunches that are sweeter and riper than the Spätlese grapes. These wines can only be made when the weather is warm enough to get the grapes fat and juicy with ripeness. More often than not, these are sweet, but there ARE dry versions out there, rare though they may be. Much like the Spätlese, there will be a bit "To-Do" on the bottle if the wines are dry.
I won't get into these because they are rare, not produced in every vintage, and are definitely dessert wines, but for thoroughness there are three more levels of sweetness -- Beerenauslese, Eiswein (ice wine), and Trockenbeerenauslese. These are extremely sweet, never dry, and are generally super expensive.
The Dönnhoff we had was a Spätlese and it was a little more than off-dry. I won't go into too much detail, but this producer is one of the most highly regarded in all of Germany. The family has been making wine since 1750 and although Nahe is a small region that many don't know, it's known among Riesling lovers as rivaling the famed Mosel for having the greatest Riesling wines. Dönnhoff is the king of the Nahe, and, some would argue is the best producer in Germany. The wines are known to be a little fleshier and fatter than Mosel's Rieslings but with great acidity. The vineyard from which this wine hails is called Oberhäuser Brücke and it is famed for its gray slate and amazingly powerful wines. For me, I can see why these wines are esteemed -- it was pretty damn good.
Here's the quick rundown:
The Wine: Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke, Riesling Spätlese, 2008 (translation --Dönnhoff is the producer, Oberhäuser Brücke is the vineyard, Riesling, the grape, Spätlese, we just went over that)
Price: About $40
Color: The lightly golden hue made it a little darker than what I would expect from a totally dry wine. Sugar darkens a wine a touch, so I expected some sweetness.
Smell: It was a classic Riesling all right -- peach, lemon cookie, and white flowers just wafted into my nose and then there was a really light petrol or gasoline note.
Taste: The wine had a little spritz and it was noticeably sweet. It was very pleasant though -- peachy, lemony, with a really strong hit of cantaloupe or honeydew melon. There was a little bit of petrol smell after it left my mouth too -- kind of sassy. I liked the acid, it wasn't too strong but definitely present.
Food pairing: This was such a hit with all the savory food at Thanksgiving. The light sweetness and the acid just made everything even and smooth. The starches were lighter, and I was surprised that it was a great complement to the sweeter butternut squash soup and the sweet potatoes. The salty/savory stuffing was awesome with the wine too -- it was so nice with the herbal quality of my mom's famous recipe popcorn stuffing (it's stuffing with popcorn in it, not just popcorn). I don't eat turkey (just don't like it, sorry!) but it was a split decision at the table -- some loved the pairing, MC Ice hated it. I thought it was a fabulously versatile wine and it was a hit for my palate.
Drink or down the sink: For me, it was a total DRINK. I loved the complementary pairings of sweet with sweet and the contrast of savory with sweet. MC Ice hated the pairing and thought it made everything taste too sweet. He also is a total sweet wine hater, so take that as you will. It got a thumbs up from me, a thumbs down from him. Regardless, I will make the call that it was a well-made wine and of high quality, even if its style isn't for everyone!
Now for a Thanksgiving honorable mention.
The next wine on the docket -- Erath Pinot Noir from Oregon with Thanksgiving dinner. This is a wine I generally like. It's lighter in color and fruity and slightly earthy, but not a wine of great depth, I find. For $15, it's pretty good.
For me, it completely clashed with the starches. The acidity and fruit kind of made everything taste like an unripe cranberry! It wasn't something that worked for my palate at all. MC Ice, on the other hand, loved the way it went with everything, especially the turkey. He liked the contrast of the fruit and acid against the starch. What I found kind of angular, he found delicious. To each his or her own, I guess. This one is totally inconclusive -- maybe you can weigh in to tip the scales.
Finally, a non-sequitur to all of this. The night before Thanksgiving, for really no reason at all, I made a completely unseasonal, fattening, and wrong-holiday dish -- I made basil pesto. I know, it's not in season and it's not from my garden, but I saw basil at the store so I bought it and made pesto because, well, I wanted to. I make it with walnuts instead of pine nuts and it was a successful, yummy meal when placed over whole wheat pasta and tossed with a ton of grilled veggies.
Looking for something light and seaside-like (pesto is from Genoa, a seaside town in northeastern Italy so I thought I'd try something beachy), I grabbed a bottle of $5.99 Espirial Vinho Verde from Trader Joe's. Ohhhh yeah.
Vinho Verde is not "green wine" as in the color (recently I had a very snotty, self-professed wine connoisseur haughtily tell me that, of course, the name comes from the fact that the wine is green), it's green as in youthful. Actually in Portugal, one-third of this "green wine" is actually red. You get the point.
What's great about Vinho Verde -- it always is lightly bubbly (Fizzy Bubblech, for you Zohan fans) and it's always fruity, light, and a little briny or seaside-like. I love the stuff. It's inexpensive, it's fun, and it's reliable. And with fresh seafood or a bright, herbal dish like pesto, it gives just the right lift to food without butting in too much with a strong flavor. It was a great pairing. The only downside -- it made me want to eat more food to keep tasting the combo! So there you go.
In summary, I think Riesling is the bomb for Thanksgiving, but lighter style Oregon Pinot doesn't ring my bell (I do think there are other Pinots that would have done the job, though). MC Ice thinks the opposite. We both agree that Vinho Verde and pesto is the best poor man's dinner we've had in a long time. Maybe we'll have that for TG next year : )
Please post a comment or go on my Facebook page and let me know how your pairings worked out for Thanksgiving! I'd love to hear your opinions! Thanks for reading!
November 29, 2010
Whew, with the first round of decadent, butter-laden, obesity-inducing meals (aka, Thanksgiving chow) behind those of us in America, and one more on the horizon (whether that be in form of potato latkes or Christmas ham), I thought I'd do a post to share my pairing experience and ask if you'll comment and pay it forward so we can all figure out what worked and what didn't.
November 23, 2010
Ok, for my American readers, I know it's time to do a post when the UPS guy asks me what he should be drinking for Thanksgiving (he delivers lots of wine to me, so it wasn't completely out of left field, FYI!).
I planned on a post but figured that I should wait until it actually became relevant -- I'm assuming that normal people are like me and leave a lot of Thanksgiving shopping until the last minute. With all the prep and cooking that needs to be done for TG (as Thanksgiving will be termed through the rest of this article), wine -- probably the only item that doesn't need prep -- will be what you pick up tomorrow, or send your non-cooking roommate/spouse/partner/family member out to get.
With so much other stuff to think about we need to make this quick and easy.
Before we get into specific recommendations, let's think about the diversity of the TG meal. You start with appetizers of some ilk, cheese plates, nuts, etc. Then you move on to more savory, creamy foods -- mashed potatoes, buttery stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet potatoes, and moist turkey.
With each wine you've got a choice -- complement the food with flavors and textures that are similar or create a contrasting pairing that could lighten some of the weightier dishes. Each of the wines below will do the job in one way or the other. If you want to have fun with dinner, get more than one of the options, try them out and use them as a discussion point (sure beats politics or personal discussions about topics you'd rather avoid -- c'mon, you know what they are).
So using the above standard meal as benchmark, here are 5 wines (not brands, mind you) that nearly any store should have stocked and ready to go:
1. Sparkling wine or, for a splurge, Champagne.
Where to get it in the store: Sparkling wine comes in many forms. Usually the stores stock them together, but here are a few types to look for:
- California sparkling wine (look on the label for "Champagne Method" or "Traditional Method" to make sure it's the kind I'm talking about)
- Cava from Spain
- Cremant from France (made like Champagne but not from the Champagne region, try some from Alsace, Limoux, or the Loire Valley)
- Champagne (sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier in the eponymous region through a double fermentation, with strict harvest, production, and aging parameters).
Why It Works: With a lighter fruit component, these wines won't overpower any of the dishes with too much aroma or fruit flavor. The acidity and the bubbles will enliven the cheese and appetizer dishes and cut through all the buttery heaviness in the mashed potatoes and stuffing. The turkey will take on some of the fruitiness of the wine, giving it more dimension. Sparklers go well with the sweeter dishes too -- the sweet potatoes will taste a bit less sweet with sparkling wine, but there won't be a clash in flavors. It could even be ok with the impossible to match green beans -- at minimum, it won't ruin the flavor of the legumes. All in all, sparkling wine is a really festive and safe choice for the meal.
*Note: Notice that I did not mention Prosecco in this mix. To me, Prosecco has a grapey, abundant fruit flavor and low acidity. It would be innocuous with the dishes but not as good as a wine made from the traditional Champagne method, with more yeasty, complex flavors, and less punchy fruit.
This poor grape gets a bad rap, but it is unbelievably versatile and definitely my favorite match with TG fare because of its delicious aroma and its mouth-cleaning acid. Get a dry or only lightly sweet wine for the best results.
Where to get it in the store:
- In the German section: Look for a Riesling from Mosel, Rheingau, or Rheinhessen. If the label doesn't say Trocken (dry), classic, or selection ask your wine person if it's dry or sweet.
- In the French section: If it's from Alsace France, it will be dry and have a lovely "oily" texture that is sumptuous!
- In the Australian section: If it's from the Clare Valley or Eden Valley, it will be dry.
3. Lightly Oaked Chardonnay.
I am not a fan of big, oaky Chardonnays. But a lightly oaked, medium-bodied Chardonnay is an excellent, neutral choice for TG.
Where to get it in the store:
- In the France/Burgundy section: A Meursault from Burgundy, France or a basic white Burgundy (like Laforet from Louis Latour)
- In the South American section: Chilean Chardonnay
- In the California Section: A Chardonnay from the Central Coast
4. Pinot Noir.
They call Pinot "the chef's wine" since it is such a food-friendly libation. You do have to be cautious about style though. Big fruity Pinots may be too much for the food (look for alcohol over 13.5% as a tip off) and a really light style wine will be too wimpy to stand up to the savory spices.
Where to get it in the store:
- In the Oregon or Domestic Pinot Noir section: Oregon Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is a perfect "goldilocks" solution -- not too fruity and not too earthy, this is a top pick
- In the New Zealand Section: New Zealand Pinot Noir -- copy that from Oregon, especially if you can get some from Central Otago.
- In the France/Burgundy section: If you have the money, spend it on a good Burgundy. For great values -- buy from the villages of Savigny-Les-Beaune or Marsannay, which are fuller styles for around $20.
5. Beaujolais Nouveau.
Ok, I am not a big fan of this wine. I think most vintages it's poorly made, bubblegum crap that is marketed really, really, really well. That said, it's trendy, it's a crowd-pleaser, and its fruitiness (with very little texture -- either tannin or acid) will complement everything on the table.
Where to get it in the store:
- There will most likely be a giant display in the middle of the store. The 2010 release of this wine just happened last week (I haven't had it yet so I can't vouch for the vintage, I'm sorry to say) and the wine shops are pushing it. I don't want to push brand, but I do think you're better off going for the Georges Dubeouf than for Trader Joe's. The former is at least based in Beaujolais, who knows were TJ's gets its stash?
Regardless of what wine you choose, just enjoy the company your with, think about all the things for which you are so blessed, and have an awesome time! Happy TG!!!
November 20, 2010
Woodenhead's Amazing Wines: Proof That Stubbornness Will Get You Everywhere When it Comes To Pinot Noir
Who wouldn't love to go to a winery named for the fact that the winemaker is so stubborn that an ex-girlfriend called him "Woodenhead?" You may not, but if that stubbornness translates to an unyielding dedication to quality, you would probably change your mind (and, for those of you who are like me, maybe finding a kindred spirit in the stubborn department may be a little refreshing....).
I didn't know that was the origin of the name when both the folks at Siduri and the famous and fabulous wine blogger, Hardy Wallace (formerly of the ATL/Dirty South Wine and now of the Natural Process Alliance -- more on that in a future post) recommended we go there, but MC Ice and I were wowed and thrilled with the wines of this 4,000 case winery off River Road in Forestville near Santa Rosa.
In case I haven't made it clear, I am not often a fan of California Pinot Noir. I know it's an unpopular stance but I am damn picky about Pinot. There are versions of it I love -- Burgundy, New Zealand, and Oregon Pinots are generally fantastic and have attributes in common -- they have layers of flavor and subtle elegance, are earthy and spicy, and are definitively not fruit bombs. My problem with California producers is that they seem to apply the same excitement to Pinot that they do to Zinfandel or Cabernet -- trying to attain the fruitiest, boldest, ripest grapes to go into the wine. Where's the nuance? Certainly there are exceptions, but given the choice, I don't order California Pinot unless I know the producer and know they have some restraint (Siduri, for instance).
So I was wary because I knew that Woodenhead was mainly a Pinot Noir shop (they do Zin as well, but Pinot is their flagship). But it took just one wine to allay my fears.
This little place is kind of secluded so I don't think I would have ever even thought to go there without a recommendation (as MC Ice will attest, I already think that everything is closed all the time -- even if it has lights on and an open sign lit up -- so knowing my own paranoia, I would be less likely to go, believing that the place would be snotty, or appointment only, or just plain closed). If you share this certain craziness of mine, consider this your invitation to go. It's open and the people there are so nice and accommodating.
Even better -- Woodenhead aspires to make Burgundy style wines with California fruit. They have been making wine for 12 vintages and they're all about sense of place, minimal human intervention, and releasing wines when they feel the juice is ready not when it makes sense from a $$$ perspective. With only 4000 cases to keep track of, they are fully able to live up to this promise. They kick ass. (BTW, don't get mad at me for reviewing an esoteric winery where you can't buy their wines from the store! They really don't sell anywhere except the tasting room but they have a sweet, no pressure wine club. You get 4 bottles twice a year at a 15% discount. Here's the link: Woodenhead Wine Club).
A few words on Woodenhead before I move on to the wines. I didn't meet Nikolai Stez, the winemaker, in person but his card said it all. After endless protest to Zina Bower (pictured above), his partner and the Marketing & Sales Director, about having a business card at all, which he thought was dumb, he consented on one condition: it could say whatever he wanted. She said yes and his card today has his name and the phrase "no bullshit." The guy worked for the very famous Pinot Noir shop, Williams-Selyem for 17 years and his current wines are amazing, so I think he has full license to write whatever he wants on his cards.
Plus, the phrase is an excellent description of Woodenhead's entire approach to wine. They don't mess around with substandard vineyards and in winemaking they do everything by hand -- from hand done punch downs (to continuously put the juice in contact with skins so it gathers color and flavor), to use of the very gentle basket press (left, the grapes are pressed very lighlty, which prevents harsh tannins from getting in the wine), to the employing French oak barrels to impart light, subtle flavors that don't overpower nature's best. No messing around, this is how winemaking is meant to be.
One final note. I can't stress enough the value of doing a tasting like the one we did at Woodenhead. As we all progress in our wine knowledge, the best thing we can do is to spend a little time with one grape and really see the importance of place in growing that grape. When you go to Napa or Sonoma, or if you can stage a tasting with friends, make an opportunity to taste Cab, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc from a few different places. You will be floored at how soil, climate, and vineyard site change the flavors so completely. Getting the chance to do this with a crazy grape like Pinot Noir, which is so influenced by site, is a learning experience you won't soon forget. Hopefully this review will help show that!
Ok, without further ado...to the wines:
2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir
Color: A pretty pale ruby color. Fairly light, so I expected a lighter style wine.
Smell: This was my kind of Pinot. It smelled classic -- slightly berry with lots of dirt. It was like dried earth with some bright raspberry and strawberry lingering in the background. It smelled unmanipulated and natural. I loved that.
Taste: Just as I suspected, this was a light and slightly fruity Pinot. It had some nice berry and sour cherry flavors with soft, mouth-drying tannins. It was very pleasant.
Drink or down the sink? Drink. Pinot should not be a ridiculous fruit bomb and I was happy to see a Pinot from the Russian River Valley that wasn't overly stylized or huge on fruit. This wine proves that restraint is possible. If you have the right approach, you know that just because you CAN do something with a wine (use overripe fruit) doesn't mean you should. Bravo.
2007 Russian River Valley, Buena Tierra Pinot Noir
The Buena Tierra (good earth) vineyard is planted with 30 year old vines. It won Charlie Palmer's (a famous restaurateur) Pig & Pinot Event this year, which is a really prestigious honor. It's clear why.
Color: The wine was darker than the previous one -- it was ruby and had pretty decent alcohol, judging from the legs slowly cascading down the glass (legs are an indication of alcohol. As alcohol and water separate, the water runs down quickly and whatever alcohol is left drips down -- quickly or slowly depending on the amount in the wine).
Smell: This was similar to the first wine, with dirt and raspberry and sour cherry aromas, but it was more intense. There were some nice mushroom and exotic spice notes too. It really smelled like it was from a vineyard -- a sensation I often don't get with Russian River Pinot Noir.
Taste: This was such a well composed package of flavors. The bright red fruit, the slightly sour cherry notes, and rich earth were a heavenly combination. There was a velvety texture and the wine was clean but complex and fruity. A delicious dried apricot and dried strawberry note on the finish made this wine such a standout.
Drink or down the sink? Drink. Again, this proves to me that California Pinot in the right hands can be wonderful. This wine embodies the "no bullshit" on Nikolai's card. An amazing Pinot Noir that was not all about the winemaker showing us all the tricks he could pull out. This was about the grape and making it shine. With that attitude California could do wonders with Pinot...too bad there's so much ego.
2007 Humboldt County Pinot Noir
If you didn't know this, Humboldt County is the marijuana capital of the US. The county is located way up north, where the redwood forest is located (and where MC Ice and I headed after our stint in wine country because it is gorgeous!). In homage to the County's most famed claim, the label is a color I would call Hemp Green. How fabulous is that? I love Woodenhead even more now!
Color: This wine was a saturated, rich ruby color. It looked like it would be a fruit bomb. I was concerned, but given the restraint of the other two wines, I had faith.
Smell: I have never smelled a Pinot like this. It had the telltale dust, dirt, cherry and raspberry smell but there was this insane crusty bread note -- certainly from winemaking, not from the vineyard. I liked it but didn't know how it would come together in the flavor. Bread is certainly something I would eat with Pinot Noir, but it's not something I would expect to smell except in Champagne (which is made from Pinot, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, in case you didn't know that!). There is a winemaking process called sur lie, where the wine sits on dead yeast and picks up that bready flavor, but you don't see it a ton in Pinot, so I don't know where it came from. I just tasted the wine and stopped thinking about it!
Taste: If this is what a bready Pinot tastes like, give it to me all day long! This wine was insanely good. It had a chai tea and exotic spice flavor that was intense and complex. The sour cherry and raspberry flavors were a good vehicle for the cardamom and sweet baking spice flavors that made the wine rich. It was complex, yet had a silky texture. This was a stunning wine.
Drink or down the sink? Drink, if you want to see what Pinot is capable of and how it can vary based on where it is grown and how the winemaker approaches it, get this wine. It was absolutely amazing. I loved it. I genuinely believe that this type of wine can only be made from the vineyards from which Woodenhead got the grapes -- that, to me, is a real gem of a wine.
2007 Morning Dew Ranch Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County
Color: Going back a step in color from the Humboldt County wine, this wine was a ruby color but lighter. Quality vineyards in Mendocino for Pinot are very cool, so the wine shouldn't have major color and I was glad to see that the "No BS" rule stuck here -- take what nature gives you and work with it.
Smell: Again, just completely distinct from the others in the line, this wine had a totally different smell. It smelled like Pinot -- sour cherry, raspberry, and dust but this one was more perfumed and floral. It also had a Syrah-like note -- something leathery and spicy that I hadn't noticed in any of the other wines. It was a bold aroma to be sure.
Taste: It was a fuller style Pinot -- much richer and less subtle than the others. That said, it didn't taste like Syrah so I was grateful for that! The fruit was bright -- it was more like maraschino cherries than raspberry and strawberry -- and it kind of overpowered the dirty, dusty flavors that I enjoyed so much in the other wines. This was slightly astringent, but well balanced.
Drink or down the sink? Drink. I liked this wine, but it was definitely my least favorite of the bunch. From any other producer, it would be great, but given what I'd already tried, the bar had been raised and this was just good, not terrific. It can't all be roses and sunshine, right?
2003 and 2006 Wiley Vineyard Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County
It was our lucky day. After such an extraordinary lineup, Zina told us that they happened to have a bottle of the 2003 Wiley Vineyard Pinot open and asked if we'd like to try it up against the '06. I wasn't going to turn down that opportunity.
'03 Price: $100+ (sorry forgot to jot this down!)
'06 Price: $60
'03 Color: Despite it's 7 years of age, the wine was still a dark ruby color. It had lost none of it's umph.
'06 Color: Same color as the '03 -- the wine was a crimson color and it had thick legs (it was 14.7% alcohol, so this is not a surprise).
'03 Smell: This wine had such a mellow aroma. Savory herbs like thyme and rosemary, dark violet flowers, and cinnamon spice overlaid a hint of red raspberry and strawberry.
'06 Smell: A sweet spice nose with a ton of ripe fruit and a tobacco, smoke essence that was from the oak barrels. The wine was clearly brighter in aroma and smelled younger and more exuberant.
'03 Taste: I felt like this was a textural wine before it was a fruity or spicy one. The wine had pretty good mouth-drying tannins but at the same time its overall impression was mouth-filling and velvety. I noticed the fruit, herbs, and flowers only after I thought about the texture. The flavors were mellow, like the nose -- red berry and sour cherry, violets, and a lavender essence were all noticeable.
'06 Taste: I think this wine needed a bit more time in the bottle. It was a little tight and tannic yet, and very smokey and fruity. It was robust but not nuance and could probably use another 2 years to age and reach its peak.
Drink or down the sink? Drink the '03 now -- it's ready to go and would be a great match with earthy foods (mushroom, game, root vegetables). What a great wine! Buy the '06 and sit on it for a few years -- it will be worth the wait if the '03 is any indicator!
Thanks to Zina and to Woodenhead for teaching me that, if you're choosy, great Pinot Noir is possible in California. I love these guys. What a gem!
November 19, 2010
Darn it's been a busy week! Sorry for slacking on the posting. I will do one today and one tomorrow to make sure I'm keeping up.
Today I continue my recap of my trip out to Cali Wine Country and the good, the bad, and the ugly.
With this post we move out of Napa and into the more relaxed and laid back valleys that make up Sonoma. Or should I say valleys and warehouses (there were 2 visits on my trip)?
I'm so excited to write about the warehouse visit that I'm recapping today. It was the COOLEST few hours on our trip by far and the visit in which I learned the most. All hail Siduri, named after the Babylonian goddess of wine. I love their Pinot Noirs (that's all they do, FYI) and LOVE their no-frills location. For those who like the romance and the glitz of the fancy wineries, this may not be for you, but if you're passionate about wine and genuinely want to see how the stuff gets made, go to this warehouse in the middle of nowhere, Santa Rosa, California (I think it's next to Art Vadalay's Import/Export office...Seinfeld reference, FYI) and be dazzled.
This was the first place we hit in Sonoma, and on a rainy day, frankly, it was looking kind bleak and industrial. I knew Siduri made great wines but I wasn't accustomed to driving up to an office park to taste. Who cares though? Good wine is good wine!
We were welcomed by Jonathan, a completely down-to-earth, passionate, and very cool former southerner who immediately recognized my inner wine dork (I try to hide it with makeup and curly hair, but it's so obvious in speaking with me). He whisked MC Ice and me on the best winery tour I've ever had.
What constitutes the best visit ever? The hands-on, up-close view you get of winemaking. Pinot is the hardest grape to grow and the hardest to make taste good in the bottle. It's a finnicky heartbreak in the vineyard and, as Jonathan pointed out, to make it right you've got to know how to fix things when they start to go wrong, which can happen in an instant with Pinot. That's where Siduri stands above and beyond other Pinot producers -- they know what they're doing and they do it amazingly well.
But one of my favorite things about them -- they aren't snots about it. Adam and Dianna Lee are two native Texans that shared a love for each other and a love for Pinot Noir. With an uncompromising view that the wine should be made to let the grape shine, they have managed to create a line of wines representing 20 vineyards from Santa Barbara to Oregon. And everything they do, they do with love and passion. When we were there, Dianna was cooking up fajitas and making guacamole for the entire staff to reward them for working so hard. Terrific.
This isn't a big corporate winery, to be sure. Siduri makes its wines in the old school way and others could take a page from their book.
Our tour started in a small back room where we saw grapes in waist-high white plastic bins undergoing color extraction through a process called "cold soak" (common with the lighter colored Pinot Noir). Winemakers put dry ice in to keep temperatures cool and prevent fermentation so the skins can give color to the juice for a few extra days before fermentation. We got a good look under the lids and even got to touch some of the grapes!
We walked about 50 feet out of that room and listened to the bladder press inflate. Lo and behold, as the bladder pushed we saw the juice flowing into a vat in which the grapes would soon be fermenting. 100 feet away were winemakers and interns rocking out to music while they received grapes direct from the vineyard to be sorted twice by hand. In another area, in another waist-high white plastic bin, we saw fermentation happening -- frothing, munching yeast and all.
Forget big stainless steel tanks (although there were a few of these, each named for a Dallas Cowboy, in homage to the Lee's heritage), this is a scrappy operation where punch down (pushing the skins back to the bottom of the wine to allow the juice more contact with skins for color and texture) is sometimes done, no joke, BY FOOT.
If you really want to see winemaking in action, this is so much more valuable than anything you could ever read or see in pictures. Even when I worked for the big hulking winery and got to participate in crush, as the first stages of winemaking are called, it wasn't like this. These wines are all hand-crafted. Siduri makes wine the same way people have been making wine for thousands upon thousands of years -- with minimum intervention for maximum results. If you head here during harvest, you'll see it all in action. Very impressive.
The winery has 2 lines -- Siduri, which makes only Pinot Noir and its sister label, Novy Family Wines, named after Dianna's family, which makes everything from Chardonnay to Zinfandel to Syrah to Viognier. We tried through most of the line. Here's the order that we tackled them:
Novy: 2008 Russian River Valley Viognier, Sonoma
Color: The wine was pretty clear with just a very light golden tinge. Viognier usually has quite a lot of color -- it's almost yellow -- but this one, not so much.
Smell: My experience with Viognier is that it's hugely floral and like a bucket of peaches. It's luscious to smell (to some, maybe it's overpowering, but I love it). This wine smelled like herbs, namely oregano, and had a little gasoline note too it too -- not unlike a German Riesling. I was intrigued because it was not what I expected.
Taste: Again, not at all what I thought it would be, but a delicious wine! It was very dry and consistent with the smell -- oregano and herbs were most prevalent. The wine had a cheesy flavor too -- it reminded me of herbed goat cheese (which I love).
Drink or down the sink? Drink, but if you are a Viognier enthusiast do no expect a typical style. I loved it and bought a bottle, but not for its Viognier-ness, just for it's pure goodness! ___________________________________________________________
Siduri 2008 Muirfield Vineyard Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
This wine is a blend of five single vineyards.
Color: The wine was a very pale hue. Like most Oregon Pinots, it was kind of brownish around the edges. It looked very light in color, and I assumed it would be light in style too.
Smell: What a dirty nose! Minerals, dirt, and dust filled my beak. There was a really faint hint of flowers, but this thing was earthy.
Taste: The taste and the smell didn't line up exactly, but both were great so no harm, no foul. The wine's main notes were very classically Pinot Noir -- light raspberry and strawberry with a little bit of dusty earth. It was a light wine, with a little touch of astringent tannin and some acid, but nothing very complex.
Drink or down the sink? Drink. This isn't my favorite Pinot of the Siduri line, but it was a good starter. If you are transitioning from white wines to reds, you've got to get into this wine. It's an excellent intro to the world of red wine. ______________________________________________________________
Siduri 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, Central Coast
Color: Judging from the ruby, nearly maroon color, this wine was going to have some gusto. Santa Lucia Highlands is a cool area, but still gets lots of sun so the wines tend to have big fruit but still some other flavors as balance. This looked typical.
Smell: What I love about Siduri is that their Pinots smell like earth. These wines smell like they came from somewhere. They aren't manufactured or over done. There is a direct link between vine and wine. With raspberry, strawberry, and a little petrol and earth, this wine had a great aroma.
Taste: Almost identical to how it smelled, there was a bit of sour cherry and dust to add to the mix. The mouth-drying tannins were definitely prominent, and, as expected from the location of the vineyard, the wine was more fruit than earth but with a good balance.
Drink or down the sink? Drink. I'm not generally a huge fan of Central Coast Pinot Noir because it tends to be too jammy and fruity for me -- it doesn't have the complexity that I find in Oregon, Mendocino, New Zealand, or (my favorite) Burgundy. But Siduri does it right. If you like a balanced Pinot but one that skews a bit fruity...look no further.
Siduri 2008 Pinot Noir, Rosella's Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, Central Coast
So Siduri has two "series" that they make. One is from more than one vineyard (red band at the top of the bottle) and the other is their single vineyard wines. This wine was from the latter.
Color: This was even darker than the last wine -- it had a nearly purple tinge and thick, gloppy tears from the 14% alcohol (tears are caused when alcohol and water separate and the alcohol slowly drips down the glass).
Smell: Less earthy than the last wine, this was all about the fruit -- raspberry and strawberry with a touch of cherry to boot. The wine had a green savory herb quality that added a very different dimension.
Taste: This wine was VERY typical of the Central Coast Pinot Noirs I've had. Big fruit -- sour cherry, raspberry, and even blackberry were prominent. Nary an earthen note could be found! The wine had strong astringent tannins and was very exuberant in flavor and texture.
Drink or down the sink? This is a well-made wine and although not the style of Pinot I like, it's a DRINK if you like the fruitier, big Pinot style that is typical of a lot of Cali Pinot Noirs. _____________________________________________________________
2008 Siduri Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir, Central Coast
Color: The final Pinot of the bunch, this wine was a big one -- lots of dark pigmented color and thick tears running down the glass, it looked a lot like the Rosella's Vineyard Pinot.
Smell: I think this was a more interesting nose than the previous Pinots we tried. It had the standard raspberry, strawberry, and sour cherry fruit burst, but there was a rich herbal and petrol note too that I really loved. The wine smelled a little dirty too. This kind of complexity in a Pinot is a good sign that I will probably like it.
Taste: A really interesting wine in that it was kind of big on the sour cherry and raspberry fruit but it was still very subtle. There was a dried strawberry character and a soft dusty country road character that was savory and soft at the same time. The texture was extremely even -- it wasn't too tannic or acidic.
Drink or down the sink? Drink and do so often! This was my favorite Pinot of the day (they make about 20 others and I've had a bunch that are absolutely delicious, so please know this is just a sample of the goodness available from Siduri). Yes, it was big, but it was velvety, complex and it tasted like it was grown in a vineyard, not manufactured in a tank. Loved it. ___________________________________________________________
Novy 2006 Judge Family Vineyard Syrah, Bennett Valley, Sonoma
Made from vineyards right outside of Santa Rosa, where Siduri's winery is located, the Bennett Valley is a small area that makes wines that pack a punch.
Color: Syrah always tends to carry a rich color, but this was a more brown to garnet color, most likely because of its age (red wines lighten or get browner with age).
Smell: I was excited about this one. It smelled like a French Syrah. A blackberry and dark plum fruit thing was perfectly balanced with the overwhelmingly delicious smell of a rosemary bush, and an herbal underbrush smell (the French call it garrigue after the shrubland that carries this smell). Delicious.
Taste: If you want to know what spice tastes like in a wine, here you go. The black pepper and savory spice were calmed a bit by sweet cinnamon and ripe plum notes, but this wine was so interesting and delicious. The chewy tannins and noticeable acid (under my tongue was watering) were in complete balance with the spice and fruit -- an excellent combo.
Drink or down the sink? Rarely do I taste a Syrah that just nails the balanced between fruit, spiciness from the grape (black pepper, herbs), and flavors from the barrel (cinnamon and warm spice) like this one does. What a wine. __________________________________________________________
Novy 2007 Russian River Valley Syrah, Sonoma
Color: No other descriptor is more fitting than beet colored! It looked like the beet juice at the bottom of a dish of prepared beets! The wine was so rich in color, that it stained the glass as I swirled it -- probably the result of extended contact with the skins and lots of ripe fruit.
Smell: Unlike the last wine, this one was very fruit forward. It was bursting with blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. It lacked the complexity of the previous wine -- because the fruit just consumed the glass! It was a nice nose, just very fruity.
Taste: There were juicy, gushing black fruit and berry flavors with a tang of black pepper. This wine probably could use a bit of time to decant. Its tannins right out of the bottle were sharp and had my mouth puckering quite a bit.
Drink or down the sink? Again, I would have liked to let this one sit for a bit to calm the tannins, but it's a well-made wine that would be delicious with stews, lamb, or herb-flavored dishes.
Novy 2007 Rosella's Vineyard Syrah, Santa Lucia Highlands, Central Coast
Color: Nothing else to say: Purple. This was going to be big and fierce!
Smell: Meat. Seriously. [Don't look confused like that.] It smelled like meat with cracked pepper and savory herbs. Yes, there was a touch of black plum but this wine smelled like meat on the grill. That and like camping in the woods -- smoke and wet dirt and decaying leaves. I loved it!
Taste: Yes, it tastes like grilled meat smells. That and black pepper, herbs, and cooking spices. There was a distinct leather note that played really nicely against the mild black fruit. The tannins were tamed -- not too astringent -- and the effect was complex and heavenly.
Drink or down the sink? Drink. I love this wine. It was so full and savory and spot on for what Syrah should be. Like all of Siduri and Novy's wines, it tasted distinctive, well made, and just DAMN good.
Can you guess that I kind of am in love with Siduri/Novy? Almost no one is doing what this place is doing -- making great wines that have a sense of place, that are outstanding in quality, and that are utterly and completely for normal people who like wine but not the snobbery that goes with it. If I had a Wine For Normal People Presidential Seal of Excellence, Siduri would be a recipient.
Thanks to the Lees and to Jonathan for everything!
November 11, 2010
When I was little I had a favorite book called "The Big Orange Splot," which I'm sure few if any people have heard of (apart from my mom, sister, and M.C. Ice to whom I introduced the book shortly after I was sure he was in for the long haul : ). It's an illustrated book about a dude named Mr. Plumbean who lives in a very uniform subdivision. One day a seagull drops a can of orange paint on his roof (don't look for logic, it's a kid's book). His neighbors lament his bad luck and ask him to fix it, but instead he paints the rest of his house in psychadelic colors and creates a hippie oasis replete with frangipani trees and a pet alligator. The neighbors go over, one by one, to talk sense into him and wind up transforming their attitudes and then their homes into the homes of their dreams until everyone has a crazy ass house that represents them.
In my mind, this is kind of the story of Darioush Khaledi (minus the splot).
The first time I drove past Darioush I was completely confused. MC Ice and I were getting our bearings around Napa and wound up driving south down the Silverado Trail (the high rent section of Napa) when we saw an Egyptian castle-like building on our left. It was so over the top and out of place compared to the rest of the Napa establishments that we HAD to check it out.
Knowing nothing about the place, I assumed this was someone's folly and that the wines would be campy and gimmicky, which is how I perceived the building.
Realizing for the four millionth time that you can't judge a book by its cover, when I tasted the wines and they were outstanding, I was blown away. I'm a huge fan of Darioush and after my visit to the Winery and the wonderful hospitality we were shown, I'm an even bigger advocate.
Although Darioush Khaledi has the same story as every other dude in Napa (rich man loves wine, buys winery) his is full of many more interesting twists, as Gregory, our guide through the Darioush line and an all-around good guy shared with us.
Darioush was born in Iran and his dad made wine as a hobby. Being a curious kid, he snuck barrel samples and tasted wines from a young age. So began his Bacchanalian obsession.
After the s*%t hit the fan in Iran, he immigrated to L.A. in the late 1970s, where he had to start from scratch. He and his brother opened a value grocery store, and success bred success. Today he owns a chain of value grocery stores and his earnings allowed him to buy and build out the winery of his dreams, which pays homage and is a stunning monument to his heritage.
So it's not exactly a "Big Orange Splot," but Darioush and Mr. Plumbean both bucked convention and allowed their dreams to become reality in such an individual way, that I see a great parallel. Hearing Darioush's story makes me understand the motivation behind the building and I admire it so much more now that I get it.
But even without that background, I can tell you that if you walked into this winery you'd see a big difference between this place and others in Napa. It's not just the layout or the "theme," it's the warm welcome. This place isn't just a winery, it's a place to hang out for a while and enjoy yourself. They've got bar stools and seating areas, amazing Persian-roasted pistachios (we bought three bags to bring home!!!), and nice, knowledgeable people who want you to have fun and feel comfortable. This place makes you feel special (what a relief after being locked in the dungeon of the yuck winery before!).
We tried 6 wines and each was exceptional -- both the reds and the whites. Gregory, our guide, told us that Darioush has a true admiration for French wines and that his personal cellar is made up of a lot of wines from France. You can easily see the French influence in the wines' layers of flavor and complexity.
Without further ado...the Lineup:
Wine 1: 2007 Russian River Chardonnay
Color: This wine was slightly deceptive in color -- this is why I always say that color is our least reliable sense when evaluating wine. It was a light straw with a little green to it. Usually this color means the wine hasn't seen oak (or just used oak, since new oak darkens a wine's color) and the green generally indicates youth and high acidity...again book and cover don't match.
Smell: Green apples and classic notes of pineapple, tropical fruit, and vanilla were all over this wine. There was a lemonade note -- lemony but slightly sweet -- that was very unique and pleasing too. The smell reminded me of pina colada with a kick of lemon in it.
Taste: A classic Russian River Valley Chardonnay with a twist! The wine tasted like a Sonoma Chardonnay -- tropical fruit, pina colada, vanilla, caramel, smoke, oak and apple -- all what you'd expect. To balance this though, there was very high acid and a mineral/crushed rock/gravel-like component to the wine that gave it an interesting twist. Although I'm not willing to go as far as to say that it was French in style (because it did have so much ripe fruit), I do think it's a variation for those who like oak but want acid and minerals too.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. I don't like a lot of oak on my Chardonnay and I'm generally put off when I can detect it strongly but this wine is so well made and has great balance that even I enjoyed my taste of it. It had a enough interest from the acid and mineral components that I've got to respect it. If you like oak on your Chardonnay, but in moderation, you will go nuts for this wine. It's a stellar example of the mindmeld between great fruit and great winemaking.
Wine 2: 2009 Signature Viognier
Viognier, the aromatic white grape native to the Northern Rhone Valley, has really taken off in California. The only thing -- you usually see it from the Central Coast, not from Napa. I'd heard this wine was outstanding and was anxious to see if it lived up to the hype.
Color: The wine was a golden color and was reflective and really viscous (it stuck to the sides of the glass).
Smell: As all Viognier should be, this wine was like smelling a bowl of ripe fruit. Honeydew, tangerine, peach, and apricot created a heady mix. 15% of the wine spent some time in oak barrels, and I could detect a little sugar cookie smell (vanilla, baked sugar, and a biscuity note) from that. It smelled delicious.
Taste: I was so happy to taste what I just love in Viognier -- a huge hit of honeysuckle with ripe peaches. There was a tangerine twang too and a small touch of acidity, which is often lost in California versions of this classically low acid grape. It was mouthcoating, rich, and regal.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. I love that Darioush is making this wine. It's a bold move for a Napa producer but they've found the right vineyard in the Oak Knoll district and their careful handling of the fruit allows the true nature of Viognier to show itself. A highlight of the tasting for sure.
Wine 3: 2006 Signature Merlot
Color: SEXY!!! The wine was so pretty. A consistent, saturated crimson color that didn't stain the glass and didn't have gloppy legs (meaning the alcohol wasn't too high and the grapes didn't sit on the skins for too long).
Smell: Richness and complexity overlaying bold ripe fruit! Black cherry and a bouquet of dark flowers with layered undertones of smoke and rich coca powder (not the sweetened kind). What a classy smell! It was a privilege to take a whiff.
Taste: Blackberry, blueberry, and black cherry -- like a fruit pie. Similar to the smell, there were undertones of tobacco and wet, dark soil that were so awesomely different and refined. The tannins (things that dry out your mouth) can only be described as chewy -- you found yourself kind of wanting to bite on them after they left your mouth. It sounds weird, but if you've had a wine with this kind of tannin, you'll know what I'm getting at.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. This is my favorite of the entire line. I LOVE this Merlot. I wish every Merlot hater could grab a bottle of this and taste it blind. I'm SURE it would convert them. This is not an overcropped, watery, overly soft, pansy Merlot. This wine pays great respect to the Bordeaux native (the Merlot grape) and shows what Merlot can be when it's treated well, grown on hillsides (this is from the hills of Mount Veeder, a very prestigious area), and handled carefully in a winery. With 5% Cabernet Franc blended in for earthiness, this is a stunner. Go Merlot!
Wine 4: 2007 Signature Cabernet Franc
It's interesting to see a pure Cab Franc. Most winemakers use it for blending because it adds great earth and herbal notes to a blend. Although some examples can be phenomenal (Cheval Blanc is the most famous mostly Cabernet Franc wine from Bordeaux), some taste like a green pepper and are less outstanding. Important trivia fact -- Cabernet Sauvignon is the love child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, so don't be surprised if you see similarities to either of these grapes.
Color: Lighter than the Merlot, this wine was like bright bing cherry juice. It seemed like it wasn't going to have a lot going on.
Smell: I should just stop looking at the wine! There was A LOT going on in the nose. There was the typical green pepper note (to which I'm very sensitive so I always notice first) and then a hit of wet garden soil. Black tea leaves (like a regular tea bag), and a nougat aroma (like the inside of a 3 Muskateers bar) jumped out of the glass. There was a hit of nutmeg too. This was a very interesting wine.
Taste: Of course I noticed the green pepper first but it didn't ruin the wine. Blackberry fruit was overlain by that same tea leaf, earthy, nougat taste that I had smelled. The wine had a long finish and it tasted like fruit and almonds -- almost like a marzipan. It was intense and so interesting.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. I love that the winemaker reversed the Merlot blend for this -- it's 95% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot. If you've never had Cabernet Franc before, this is a classic example. If you don't like this, I think you may not be a fan of Cabernet Franc. This is a real pinnacle for a grape that isn't often made as a standalone (because most can't do it right). A terrific wine.
Wine 5: 2007 Signature Shiraz
Color: This was so dark it was almost purple in color and pretty damn near opaque. Because I had been so grossly off in prejudging based on color, at this point I gave up hope that this would be a flavor-rich wine, as it should have been with that kind of look to it...
Smell: But just when I thought I shouldn't bother looking at wine anymore, SUCCESS!!! This was a big daddy wine. Leather, smoke, and the smell of a horse stable (typical for Shiraz) were calling my name. There was a floral/perfume smell and then the essence of super-ripe black plums and blackberries. Almond, cocoa powder, and dark chocolate were somewhere in the mix too. I wanted to EAT this wine from the smell of it.
Taste: Just like it smelled except with some new layers of thyme and herb. The problem for me -- it had flavor, but the texture wasn't as rich as I'd hope so the flavor was kind of fleeting. I didn't get to savor it in a long finish or chew on the tannins as I did with the out-of-this-world Merlot.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. It's a great wine, although this was the least complex of the group for me and probably my least favorite. Although the wine is well-made, I wished it had a bit more staying power. Maybe it's just a phase in the wine's development and it may get better with time. Either that or it's not my style. Still, I wouldn't skip it if someone offers it to you.
Wine 6: 2005 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon
Funny story about this wine. My dad went to Napa a few months ago. He went with a friend and didn't consult me on the visit (bad move, as he attested). When he came back, he called me. "I went to a place called Darioush. So, how do I get a Cab like that for less than $80?" Sorry dad, even with my experience and all the stuff I taste, I can attest that it doesn't exist. This is Darioush's largest production item (8,000+ cases) but it's still handcrafted and beyond fabulous. A cheaper wine won't give you the kind of quality that's in this bottle.
Color: The wine was like a ruby gemstone and it had thick, lazy tears that took their sweet time running down the glass. High alcohol, high pigment, and I assumed, HUGE flavor.
Smell: Ohhh yeah. Although it shares some subtle components with its Bordeaux brethern, this isn't a wine from anywhere except Napa Valley. And it's amazing. The wine was bursting with black cherry. The smells from the oak were so awesome -- cedar, pencil lead, and tobacco were easily identifiable and mouthwatering.
Taste: What a complex wine! Black cherry and juicy black plum flavors were so vivid that it was like biting into the fruit. The oak flavors of tobacco, vanilla, and almond complemented the fruit and everything combined with tempered tannins that held the flavor after I swallowed the wine.
Drink or Down the Sink? Drink. This is absolutely divine wine. A great Cabernet that is subtle yet bold. It's steep in price (normal for Napa though) but for California Cab lovers especially, this is a must try. I think it's a beautiful wine that is truly Napa, but has some of the subtlety of the French wines Khaledi loves so much.
So that was the end of my tour of Napa. It's on to Sonoma next. Before I depart, I need to extend gratitude to the readers who told me to include Darioush on the itinerary (thanks for voting on Facebook and Twitter especially) and to Alessandra and Gregory at Darioush, who made our visit so outstanding. A million thanks and I can't wait to come back!!!