Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rochioli Pinot Noir and Sunday Night Supper

Susan bought some fresh whole wheat linguine at a new local market. It was flavored with garlic and basil. While normally I don't go in for flavored stuff, I thought it might work well with a mushroom cream sauce, which it absolutely did. A nice porterhouse was on sale at the store,  and then, oh yeah, the big question. What do you pull out to drink? It's  the usual Sunday dilemma: no house wine, nothing but the good stuff. What'cha gonna do?

I found a 1999 Rochioli Russian River Pinot Noir and said, 'what the hell!'  Beautiful spicy black cherries with dark 'pinot' perfumes. Nice. Juicy at first but the texture grew velvety as the wine opened up. Perky acidity kept the wine alive as primary fruits gave way to dried fruits on the long finish. The color was deep,dark, transparent ruby with hints of brick just starting to show on the edges. The wine was a fabulous match with the mushroom sauce and the earthy pasta.

It's always fun to taste wines with some age. Being in the wine biz, I am continually exposed to new vintages and young wines, but am always speculating with customers on drinking windows. This wine was right in its wheelhouse showing both primary fresh fruit flavors of a young wine transitioning into the secondary dried fruits of an older wine.

I did research the wines several days later. Both The Wine Spectator and Robert Parker scored the wine 90-91 points with the drinking window ending in 2007 and 2005 respectively. But the Rochioli was far from gone. The Spectator's tasting notes were still spot on for the wine even in its 10th year. Which goes to show that well made wines from great growing sites make great wines!

And speaking of great growing sites, Rochioli is one the great growers of California Pinot Noir. After years of working in vineyards, the family began acquiring Russian River property in the 50's. The oldest vines currently are Sauvignon Blanc planted in 1959 and Pinot Noir vines planted in 1968 and 1969. Wines produced first by Williams Selyem and then Gary Farrell helped spread the fame of Rochioli fruit and the family started producing their own wines, mainly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are sold mainly through their mailing list and restaurants with minimal retail exposure.

I find I can't write these blogs just off the top of my head. I have to learn more and feel the need to verify what I think I know. So I go digging for information and photographs because the wines I tend to like are often just tips of the icebergs which are the stories of the people who make the wine and the people who grow the grapes and the soils where they are grown. And I find treasures:

Williams Selyem Interview with Joe Rochioli

My digging led me to this interview with Joe Rochioli, Jr. on Williams Selyem's website. They have video interviews with a number of their growers, but here Joe tells the story of grape growing in the Russian River Valley, going from grapes to hops to green beans and back to grapes. The Rochioli's have grown them all. I found the experience to to be magic. Primary history. The download is slow, so be patient. When it stalls, just go back and listen again while it loads, you'll learn more that way. Look at his hands as he handles a leaf stem at the end of the interview, the gnarled hands of a farmer. He says, "I guess I had something to do with that Pinot Noir thing..." Yeah, I guess he did.

Friday, September 11, 2009

California Heirlooms? August Briggs, Part Two

Part two is focused on Charbono, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel, varieties that Californians like to claim for themselves. Is that really the case? And what is Charbono anyway. People always talk about it but it's almost never for sale in stores. (Well, we do get a little from August Briggs here at Sigel's!)

According to Carole Meredith, UC Davis' guru of the origins of grape vines, Charbono originates in the Savoie region of France, where is known as Corbeau, Douce Noire or Charbonneau. It is the same grape that is widely planted in Argentina, but there it is known as Bonarda. BUT the Argentine Bonarda is NOT the same as the Bonarda grown in the Piedmont region of Italy. Are you confused yet? If not then you're not reading carefully enough. Most Charbono originally came into California labelled as Barbera, which it is not. Existing California plantings are extremely small, about half being located around Calistoga. Most of the existing vines owe their existence to long-term contracts with the original Inglenook who produced Charbono's for many years.

August Briggs' Charbono comes from the older blocks of the Frediani Vineyard and were planted around 1940. Frediani Charbono is highly sought after and Joe feels very fortunate to be offered the fruit. The wine is inky black with penetrating laser beams of intense black fruit that linger on the palate supported by acids and ripe integrated tannins. It's almost Italian in style except for the ripe black fruits which reveal the signature California sun.

Petite Sirah is a young variety. The cross was discoverd by a Professor Durif of the University in Montpellier in vineyards in the Languedoc. DNA analysis shows the cross was made when Pelousin flowers were pollinated by Syrah. The new grapes saw an initial wave of popularity due to its resistance to powery mildew, but soon fell out of favor and is now almost non-existent in France. It proved popular first in California as a blending grape and is now found in Australia and Israel.

August Briggs Petite Sirah comes from the obsidian filled, red volcanic soil of the Black Rock Ranch vineyards in Lake County. The shiny black glass rocks both absorb and reflect the heat which ripens the fruit. The tiny berries develop thick skins which give the legendary tannins. Rich, soft blue and black fruits initially puts smiles on the faces of the uninitiated which scrunch when they encounter the astringent tannins on the finish. I tell them to imagine a well-marbled ribeye fresh from the grill. The fat protects the mouth from the tannins, while simultaneously the tannins cut through the fat. Which gives the most pleasure? Have a glass of old vine Petite Sirah with a great steak and let me know!

Zinfandel was long regarded as America's grape until the resemblance to Italy's Primitivo began to be noticed. It was debated for some time until Carole Meredith's DNA anaysis confirmed that Zinfandel was indeed the same as Primitivo and share common ancestry in the very rare Croatian grape Crtjenak Kastelanski. It is now thought that Zinfandel came in shipments to growers in Long Island in the 1820's and was brought to California in the Gold Rush. There are references to Napa Zinfandel in the late 1850's and by the end of the 19th Century, it was was the most widely planted variety in California.

August Briggs comes from two old vineyards near his winery in Calistoga. The Luvisi Vineyard was planted in 1908 and from the Frediani Vineyard (Note the Briggs winery in the photo to the right). Joe produces a rich silky Zin with lush, smoky black fruits leading to a velvety, spicy finish. The wine is definitely closer to the 'zin as claret' style than 'zin as dry port,' which makes it very drinkable and food friendly. And isn't that really what it's all about?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Staff Tasting: Miner Family Vineyards

Tasting through Miner wines is always a good way to start the day. Highlights of the day were led by the 2007 Viognier which is nothing new. This wine has been on fire all summer! Big peach and nectarine flavors explode into the long minerally finish with the rich viscosity of the Viognier coating the mouth. The wine is summer in a glass!

The 2007 Pinot Noir's showed very well. Both were very balanced with smooth rich flavors. The Rosella's (right) was light in color as ususual but long in flavor with dusty cherries and plums lingering on the long finish. The wine is from Pisoni and Dijon clones and the Burgundian heritage shows in the wine. The Garys' features mainly Pisoni clones and as might be expected, the wine is deep, dark, rich and spicy. Unlike many big California Pinot's, this wine is beautifully balanced and definitely not over-extracted.

And that's not to mention the Chardonnnay and Cabernet's! 

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blind Tasting Post Mortem

Well, if everyone made it home or to the airport successfully, the tasting was a great success. Spit buckets were not in evidence nor should they have been considering the outrageous quality of the wines. If you read the previous entry, you no doubt have visions of copious notes and rigorous analysis. Well, that's just not the way things go down. Pleasure drives kick in and that means just plain drinking. Still amazing stuff went down. I'll go briefly through the wines with a bit of play-by-play. We tasted through most of the wines and then revisited them for final conclusions and then opened a couple more just for good measure. The wines were accompanied by fabulous Salumi/Cheese platters and pizza's at Urbino's on Henderson. The flatbread pizza's were just delicous, check them out!

#1 Descendientes de Jose Palacios Corullon Las Lamas, 2003. Showed aromas of red fruits and minerals which were reinforced on the palate with an abundance of rich fruit and mineral laced gripping tannins and acidity on the long finish.  Proved a tough one to crack. First guess of Burgundy was shot down, followed by Spain. John then followed with a  series of 'nots': not Bierzo, not Corullon not Priorat, not Rioja as he  danced around the true identity. Most tasters were familiar with the lower tier Petalos, which Palacios produces from the same region and were not anticipating the intensity of this single vineyard expression.

#2 La Cedre, Cahors, 2004.  Wow! Another tough one to crack! Truly opaque black wine, the moderate rim variation indicated an old world wine, but the smoky blockbuster fruit scooted us out of most familiar haunts. The deep, smoky black fruit was followed a touch of acid and some red fruit and cranberry notes before the wine yielded to rich sweet tannins. The first guess was Mourvedre from Bandol and was followed by the correct designation of Malbec. From left field came the discovery of Tannat which also proved to be correct. Finally, after a second tasting, the wine was identified as Cahors. But, wow! I know I've never tasted a Cahors with this level of opulence and power!

#3 Ca' Marcanda Promis, Toscana, 2006. The floral aromatics of rose petals, violet and soy had everyone chasing this wine in the wrong direction. With the acidic finish it seemed to be definitely from from Italy's Piedmont. But no! The wine softened by the second go round revealing notes of silk panties according to some tasters (that was definitely considered a good thing!) We were told the wine had three grapes which threw out most Italian regions. The blend was unusual: Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah.

#4 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Masseto 2005. From the get-go, this wine had everyone spinning. Both the aromatics and flavors revealed copious rich black fruits, cassis and licorice, backed by firm oak and integrated tannins. Tasters were staggered. Before anyone could even gather their thoughts, John nailed the wine dead to rights. He shall henceforth be know as Number Four! Thanks to Jeff for such a treat!

#5 Melis 2008, Priorat. Aromas of cedar, floral fruit and earthy minerality led to dark cherries on the palate and a long finish with tart red fruits. Another wine that had tasters grasping at straws. The Spanish origin was identified, but characteristics led tasters to an old traditional Rioja, John however kept calling out Grenache! The wine opened up some on second tasting and the Grenache (not Carignan) dominated Priorat was revealed.

#6 Palomero 2000, Ribero del Duero. Wow. Another blockbuster. This one was not presented blind. The massively funky nose dominated intense aromatic black fruits while on the palate the fruits trumped the funk. All this massive flavor was layered over a richly textured, massively integrated structure. What a treat!

#7 Groth Cabernet, Napa, 2006. Though tasted blind, tasters lept at the joy of being on familiar territory, and this did not disappoint with its classic Cabernet profile. Pricewise, it might have been the star of the day. Napa producers can do Cabernet very, very well and this is a great effort from a longtime producer. 

Goodness, that was a tough afternoon. THANKS to all!

Tasting Blind

Invited to a blind tasting group this afternoon, always intimidating affairs. The wines will be double blind and it's so-o-o-o easy to look like a fool. But very interesting and demanding. Blind indentification of wine is a major component of advanced wine accreditation. 6 wines in 24 minutes for an MS. BUT there is a system. If you correctly identify 6 components of visual, aromatic, taste and general assessment you have 24 unique points that make up the signature of the wine. Think of a scantron with 24 choices. If you think it's Cabernet, use the answer overlays for Napa and Pauillac.  There are differences! Which one matches up best? 

Blind tasting becomes an intellectual exercise combining wine analysis and wine knowledge rather than Scientific Wild Ass Guessing combining memory and intuition. Well, until you've swallowed too much. 

Last time we got together I managed to get one right through analysis, SWAG, and some helpful elimination and have heard about my 'feat' several times since. Funny, nobody talks about the ones I missed by a mile, I guess you just take what you can get!

Monday, September 7, 2009

An Introduction to Nebbiolo

My mother is a great cook and so was her mother. My sisters went almost immediately into culinary careers; one as a chef and now a cheese expert, the other as a food stylist and now writer. I took a 25 year detour in packaging before finally landing in the wine biz. (OK, sometimes I'm clueless!) So when Mom invited us to dinner Saturday and said she was fixing veal shanks, well, I'm not THAT clueless. At least I knew what wine to bring!

I went straight for Barbaresco, the queen of Italy. Wines made from the Nebbiolo grape are a classic pairing for braised meats. They are rarely flamboyant, in-your-face wines. Subtle dried fruits are veiled behind floral, earthy perfumes and masked with acid and tannins. The flavors are complex, but once you find the key, the wine opens up like a painting.

However, I don't think either my wife or my parents have had much experience with these wines, so I chose the basic Barbaresco from the renowned cooperative, Produtorri del Barbaresco. The 2003 vintage was unusually hot, so there would be plenty of fruit to increase accessibility to the flavors. The extreme heat limited production, so fruit that normally went into their Riserva wines went into the basic cuvee, so there should be some complexity to the wine.
The evening was a great success! The Ossu Bucco melted in our mouths. The shanks yielded copious marrow. The rich meat squeezed the wine's fruits into a concentrated bubble that burst in the mouth with flavors of sweet dried cranberries that lingered on the palate.

25 years of boxes never yielded such pleasure.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Tasting: August Briggs: A Small Family Affair

We had a great staff tasting Thursday morning with Bryan Harley, national sales manager for the August Briggs Winery. It's a big title for a little winery. August 'Joe' Briggs is the owner/winemaker. He makes around 4500 cases, but 13 different varieties. Do the math. They are all tiny artisanal lots. The Briggs operation is a Napa fantasty: it's small and it's almost totally family. When visiting the Napa Valley, absolutely pay them a visit.

Onto the wines: I'll split this piece into two parts. The first will focus on the traditional Napa grapes: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The second will highlight California 'heirloom' varietals. Joe makes several Pinot Noirs as well, but restaurant demand has rendered them rarities on our retail shelves.

We tasted two vintages, 2007 and 2008 of Chardonnay sourced from the Leveroni Vineyard in Carneros. It is a relatively small vineyard with the fruit going to Briggs and into the Leveroni's own wine. Joe barrel ages the wine and allows his Chardonnay's to go through full malolactic. Recent years have seen a dramatic reduction in the use of new oak, allowing the vineyard's flavors of citrus, pear and apple to dominate the wine with acid and minerals sustaining the creamy finish. 2007 was the warmer vintage and the sun brought out rich aromas of tropical fruits. 2008 began with a severe frost in the late spring resulting in a tiny fruit set and very low yields. The wine shows more intense mineral notes and acid than the 2007. We opened the 2008 (the current retail vintage) at the in-store tasting later that evening and the wine opened up considerably after being open for a couple of hours.

We tasted the 2005 and 2006 vintages of the Monte Rosso and Napa Cabernets. Both are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a little old school. In the absence of achieving layered flavors through blending, Joe uses a combination of American and French oak barrels. The fruit comes through the creamy herbal notes of the American barrels into the finishing vanilla and spice notes of the French. Think of the barrel regimen as a spice rack.

The signature characteristics of the vineyards come through on both wines and override vintage variations. The Monte Rosso (above) shows its Sonoma heritage and rich red volcanic soils in red fruits which integrate into silky tannins. The oak, especially the American, is more evident on the Monte Rosso wines.

The Napa Cab is an 'East Meets West' affair as the fruit is sourced from both the Stagecoach Vineyard in the hills east of Oakville and the Corbett Vineyard  (above) on Spring Mountain to the west. The fruit is pure mountain blackberries and cassis with dark floral aromatics and more aggressive tannins. The 2005 vintage was plagued by heat spikes and the flavor profile is a little blocky. 2006 was warm and consistent and the fruit is silky from beginning to end. Vintage notes were consistent for both wines.

In summary, the tasting was educational as well as an opportunity to enjoy some well-made wines (even at 8:30 in the morning!) All August Briggs wines are made for the table and are approachable and enjoyable right off the shelf, which is Joe's style. He lets the fruit ripen fully and he resulting wines are balanced and silky.

Coming soon, notes on the stars of the tastings: Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Charbono.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Finding Great Values in Burgundy

Sometimes people don't think it's possible to find great affordable values in Burgundy. But you can and I'm not talking about an $80 wine that drinks better than some $150 wines. The secret is finding a good producer.  Look for a 'Domaine' label of a producer who grows his own grapes, makes his own wines and does it well. Look on the label to see where the producer is located. If the Domaine is in Meursault, chances are most of their holdings are in Meursault. Then look for their Bourgogne appellation label. The fruit is usually from their main holdings, but from younger vines, or from barrels that don't quite measure up to the quality of other barrels. Of course, one key is to buy these wines in good vintages so that the quality trickles down to the lower classifications.

We opened a perfect example the other day, a Bourgogne Blanc 2005 from Domaine Xavier Monnot. The wine sells in the mid to upper $20's, which is an outstanding price for top quality Chardonnay, be it from Burgundy or California. The majority of the fruit comes from 20-25 year old vines in Meursault according to the importer, Robert Kacher.

When the wine was opened, it showed bright citrus notes with good acidity and hints of richness. The 4 year old Chardonnay needed some time to develop. As we revisited the wine over the next few hours, it continued to reveal layers of complex  flavors over medium to full body textures on the palate. (How many New World Chard's will perform like this?) After being open for 4 hours, the wine showed rich citrus over light notes of hazelnut with a long rich, slightly oily finish. Classic Meursault flavors. 

This wine is a spectacular value, available at an affordable price and yielding performance well beyond expectation. Of course, the easiest way to find these values is to find a wine guy you trust. If he has enough inventory, he might even sell you some!