Sips: new releases from Oregon

Some wines from an Oregon label I wasn’t familiar with came my way the other day, and while I haven’t finished tasting through them, the first two were standouts. They were from Vista Hills Vineyard & Winery, a family-owned property that has been operating for 15 years. Vista Hills is growing pinot noir and pinot gris on 42 acres in the Dundee Hills in the Willamette Valley. vhlogowstamp Along with its own winemaker, Dave Petterson, Vista Hills uses “guest winemakers” from the region to craft its wines. Its 2008 “Treehouse” Pinot Noir, $28, is a lovely, balanced wine with moderate 14.2 percent alcohol. The overall impression is one of elegance rather than power, the style more Burgundian than American brawn that has become so fashionable in pinot noir. The tastes suggest raspberry, black cherry and tea with nuanced oak and good balancing acidity. A pleasure to sip.

Also notable is the 2008 “Treehouse” Pinot Gris, $18, a fresh and vibrant wine loaded with tropical fruit, including pineapple and mango, lemon and lime peel. Alcohol, again, is modest at just 12. 5 percent. (Wines received as press samples.)

Separately today, The New York Times  has an interesting look at the growing movement toward organic winemaking in the Willamette Valley.


Swirls: the sparkling wine wars

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the confusing world of wine labeling, from the challenges presented by place-specific labels on most French, Italian and Spanish wines (Montrachet, Chianti and Rioja, for example)  that require a good deal of knowledge to know what’s actually in the bottle, to the contiApril 2010 wine 015nuing misuse of the word “Champagne.” The last time I checked, Duck Walk  Vineyards had not joined Pol Roger, Moët or Bollinger as a genuine Champagne producer.  No, Duck Walk makes a sparkling wine on Long Island’s North Fork, and when I came across this sign on the road the other day, it made me curious about the state of the sparkling wine war that has been going on for decades over the use of  the Champagne name.

“The misuse of place names to sell wine is as old as the American wine industry,” Carol Robertson noted in an excellent article on the subject in Business Law Today, the American Bar Association’s news magazine. “Borrowing the name of a well-regarded wine was a shorthand way for new winemakers to impart some of the cachet of a better-known beverage to a new American product.” Korbel, she points out, has been using “champagne” to describe its California sparkling wine since 1882.

In 2005, after years of negotiation between the United States and the European Union, Congress passed legislation banning the future misuse of Champagne and 15 other wine place names, but it did not stop the practice by wineries using the names before the new law, so the Korbels of the world were “grandfathered” in. Then, just a few months ago, the Long Island wine region became one of the latest  signatories to the Joint Declaration to Protect Wine Place & Origin, “a global movement aimed at ensuring wine place names are protected and not abused or miscommunicated to consumers,”  as a press release by the coalition described it. Champagne is also among the 15 wine regions on the list.

Duck Walk must not have gotten the memo. What’s interesting about its use of the Champagne name is that it seems to be doing so only in its outdoor advertisements. A look at its sparkling wine bottles reveals that they are simply labeled “brut,” the common  designation for dry sparkling wines, with no Champagne reference. So, while Duck Walk is following the Joint Declaration as far as its labeling is concerned, it clearly still  believes that “borrowing” the Champagne name is a useful advertising tactic aimed at drawing in tourists who drive past its winery.

I described this to Sonia Smith, who heads up the Champagne Bureau, the region’s lobbying group in Washington. “When people drink a wine they need to be able to trust what it is,” she told me, reciting one of the group’s key message points. “It’s about a sense of place. It’s about authenticity.” She continued: “To be honest, there are wonderful sparkling wines made in the United States, except that they’re just not Champagne. The winemakers of Long Island should be very confident of the sparkling wine they make and should be confident about advertising it as sparkling wine.”

By the way, there’s another another winery not far from Duck Walk that makes only sparkling wines, and its name happens to be  Sparkling Pointe.


Swirls: a bad bill in Congress for wine

Every time a bottle or case of wine is shipped to my house, someone 21 years or older, meaning me or my wife and not my children, must be home to sign for it. If not, I get one of those  annoying “door tags” from shippers like FedEx saying that they tried unsuccessfully to deliver a package containing an alcoholic beverage and that they will try again. This is aimed, of course, at keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors and, while inconvenient, it is completely justifiable. I am reminded of this as I read about the latdome_72183_1est attempt in Congress to weaken the Supreme Court’s landmark 2005 Granholm decision, which made it easier for wineries to ship directly to customers outside their states. A House bill  (HR5034)  would give the states more power to regulate the shipment of wine beyond their borders -- in part, it is said, to control underage drinking but more importantly, it seems, to protect the three-tier distribution system that includes wine wholesalers, who are bypassed by direct-t0-consumer wine shipments. You may or may not be surprised to learn that the bill was crafted by the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents both wine and beer wholesalers, as Wine Spectator and others point out. There is a big effort by some of those opposed to the bill to kill it, including a Facebook campaign and a video.

Underage drinking, the specter of an epidemic of alcoholism --these are among the timeworn arguments, the spin, really, that  those who oppose direct wine sales use to defend the country’s traditional  distribution system, which, they argue, is threatened by direct wine shipments. A couple of larger points come to mind. Let’s not forget that while the distributors are still vitally important to moving most wine in this country, there are many small wineries out there that are, in fact, too small to generate interest by wholesalers and therefore rely on direct shipping, a right they were granted by the United States Supreme Court.  Let’s also not forget that controlling underage drinking begins at home. My children understand that it is wrong, and they understand because I have told them so. I feel they are protected adequately, without more legislation by Congress and certainly without advocacy on their behalf, thank you very much, from America’s wine wholesalers.


Sips: the first rosé

The temperature is a chilly 56, but I am thinking of the warmer days to come this evening and sipping the season’s first rosé, an excellent wine from the Languedoc region of southern France, a 2008 Vin de Pays du Gard from Roc d’Anglade, a small producer of organic wines. This blend of syrah, grenache and carignan is a droc-d_anglade-rose-A1780_smallelicious, pale-salmon-colored wine that is very dry but has expressive red-fruit essences, notably raspberry and strawberry, with touches of lime and vanilla on the finish and a nice little tannic  framework. It’s a model of rosé elegance. As for the vintage (2008), it has obviously been around for a year or so.  While just about everyone seems bent on drinking only the latest rosé releases – the 2009s are coming into the market now – the Roc d’Anglade reminded me that rosés are just fine in the bottle for a year or two; in fact, I would venture a guess that this one, with its expressive fruit, has benefitted a bit from a year of bottle age. Even though I’m shivering a bit, I’m enjoying this first rosé of summer as I write this. Some 500 cases were produced. A check of wine-searcher.com reveals that it sells for $23 wine at Sherry-Lehman in New York. A pricey rosé, but then you do get what you pay for. A Becky Wasserman Selection, imported by USA Wine Imports, New York. (Received as a press sample.)


Sips: a winning Spanish blend

Let’s start off the week with a very good, widely available red wine for everyday drinking and beyond. As I’ve written many times before, wines with catchy names help establish brRGU_TempNV_lowand identity but are sometimes more memorable for their names than what’s inside the bottle. A Spanish offering called Red Guitar is distinctive on both counts and outperforms expectations.  This 2008 Navarra made from old vines is an appealing blend of tempranillo (52 percent) and garnacha (48 percent), Spain’s two most important red varieties. Tastes include spicy raspberry and dark chocolate with a firm tannic grip. With nice complexity, it will match well with all kinds of foods, from burgers and steaks to pizza to Spanish tapas. At about $13 or less, it’s a top value from the up-and-coming Navarra region, which borders Rioja in northern Spain. Imported by  International Cellars, Gonzales, California. (Received as a press sample.)


Sips: some top spring whites

Lots of new releases are coming in for spring, and we’ll feature some of the best of them in coming weeks, starting with these three top white-wine values.

An Argentine blend: The native Torrontés is ArgentinaTayCmJy7WVPHr1qrL9JB53966_G’s most important white, and Trivento’s 2009 Amado Sur is the name of a winning blend of 75 percent torrontés, 15 percent viognier and 10 percent chardonnay from the Mendoza region. It’s highly aromatic with flowers and herbs, the signature of Torrontés, and the tastes are dominated by citrus notes, mainly orange and lime, with touches of vanilla and white pepper. It’s fresh and interesting, well priced at $15 and will match well with simple fish and shellfish dishes. Try it with ceviche. Imported by Excelsior Wine & Spirits, Old Brookville, New York.

An Italian chardonnay: Tormaresca’s 2008 Chardonnay from Puglia in southern Italy is superb at $12. With tastes of green apple, lemon-lime, a little sage, vanilla and wood, this is a great chardonnay for informal drinking that will also pair with a wide range of foods. In fact, with its subtle complexity, I think it will fool a good number of people into thinking it’s a more expensive chardonnay when served at an elegant dinner with, say, a  first-course soup pureed from freshly picked asparagus. It’s notable as well for its refreshing underlying acidity and modest alcohol of 12.5 percent. Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Woodinville, Washington.

A Washington riesling: Some of the most exciting rieslings being made in this country come from Washington state. As I noted here recently, Pacific Rim is in the forefront with its range of rieslings. Another welcome addition is the Cupcake Vineyards’ 2009 Dry Riesling from the Columbia Valley. This classy $15 wine is very dry indeed and shows notes of tropical fruit, pear, lime and lime peel and has an unusually long finish. It will pair well with grilled chicken, vegetables and seafood and is delightful on its own.  (Wines received as press samples.)


Swirls: China’s love affair with Bordeaux

There is a great deal of buzz in the wine world these days about China, which, with its exploding wealth, is developing a taste for wine as never before. This demand is fueling a growing domestic industry and, perhaps more importantly, it has provided a new and vitally important market for foreign producers, most notably those in Bordeaux. When I was in Bordeaux two summers ago, I noticed the attention that growers were paying to the Chinese market, with some telling me that their wine sales in China had become far more important to their businesses than those in the United States, where Bordeaux has been a tough sell in recent years.

Several articles have taken note of all of this in recent days. From  Bordeaux, Claude Canellas of Reuters notes that there was unprecedented attendance by Chinese wine buyers at the just-concluded “en primeur” tasting of the 2009 vintage, which is being heralded by some as an exceptional one. Chinese investors are also starting to buy wine properties in Bordeaux.

Charles Metcalfe of the Telegraph notes the Chinese presence as well and colorfully describes what it’s like to taste your way through such a large-scale event (exhausting, as I can attest).

Meanwhile, Jancis Robinson writes in FT.com of her recent stop in China. With the country’s love affair with Bordeaux, she says, the Chinese wine industry is obsessed with producing home-grown cabernet sauvignon (or trying to). But she does find several successful domestic wines, including a nice little white to go with a range of Chinese cuisines and, yes, a Chinese pinot noir.


The virtues (or not) of virtual wine tastings

One more example of how the wine industry is changing at lightening speed in terms of how it markets and promotes its wares came my way this afternoon. In the past, Wines of Chile, a trade group, might have invited a group of journalists and critics like me to a tasting event or a dinner, presenting the wines with some commentary by a winemaker or two. Today I received an invitation to attend a “virtual Wines of Chile blogger tasting” on May 12. The invitation said that prior to the event I would receive a “tasting kit” that would include eight Chilean sauvignon blancs, tasting notes and “suggested recipes that pair well with the wines as well as other information to make the experience as informative and enjoyable as possible.”

They make it sound as though tasting wines is a painful experience.  A sommelier, Fred Dexheimer, will be part of the event, as well as winemakers from eight of Chile’s “top-rated wineries.” Wow. With all those tasting notes and recipe suggestions, with all that commentary and guidance from a  sommelier and an army of winemakers, will there be anything left for me to figure out on my own, like whether I think the wines are well made or good values? I’m reminded of what a colleague told me eight years ago, when I was about to launch my column on MSNBC.com. He said, speaking for the audience: describe the wines in basic terms, give us some context, but leave something for us to discover on our own. They are words I’ve tried to live by in my many years as a critic. And they apply well to Chilean sauvignon blancs, which tend to be fresh, uncomplicated wines --the very thing that makes them attractive. They simply do not need to be overanalyzed. Yes, I’ll attend the virtual tasting next month with all that firepower and tasting ammunition. As always, I will like some of the wines more than others and I will let my readers know, in my professional opinion, why. But don’t be surprised if I spend at least part of the event with the volume on my computer turned down.


Swirls: South Africa’s first black female winemaker

I received an email this morning from Britt Karlsson of BKWine, a Paris-based, multi-media wine enterprise that I’d heard of before but hadn’t looked into until now. The Swedish-born Britt and her husband Per organize wine tours, their main business, but also blog about wine, take wine-related photographs and shoot wine videos, among other things. In fact, it was the release of their 100th video that ntsiki2_sprompted them to get out the word about it, and the subject is quite fascinating: an interview with Ntsiki Biyela of the Stellekaya winery in Stellenbosch, the first black female winemaker in South Africa. Stellekaya only makes red wines, and Biyela describes her style as fresh, fruit-driven and easy on the oak, which is music to my ears and may make her something of an anomaly in South Africa. I’m eager to taste them. In any event, have a look at the video as well the Karlssons’ blog for a refreshingly European point of view.


Sips: the joys of leftover wine

It’s a fact of wine life that most wines are released too soon, especially reds but also some whites, such as white Burgundies, which will continue to evolve for years in the bottle. This is understandable as the producers need to keep their income coming in. But I’ve sometimes wondered, what if all the wineries got together and put a temporary hold on releases for a year or two, letting the wines develop further in the bottle? It’s an appealing idea but completely impractical; wine producers, like the rest of us, need to earn a living.

Of course there are other ways of enjoying aged wines: purchase  them on release and hold them for a few years; buy older vintages if you can find them; or, partake in the pleasures of wlabel_2006_sonomacoasthat I like to call day-old wine. The latter is a subject I’ve written about over the years in my column, and I was reminded of it again the other night with the remains of a bottle of California red -- Merry Edwards’ 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir -- that was sitting on my kitchen counter. The reason for the leftover wine was simple: on opening it I felt it was just too young and enclosed; yes, we drank a glass or two with a dinner, but because of its youth we didn’t feel pulled into it in a way that makes it all but irresistible and effortless to enjoy another glass.

It was a far different experience when I tasted it again. The wine, with half an inch of the cork pressed gently into the bottle, had a couple of days’ exposure to air, which probably amounted to a year or two of bottle age. There was no sign that it had turned, which one is always on the lookout for when pouring leftover wine; sometimes you get lucky, sometimes not.

In fact, the wine had come alive and was now showing beautifully. With its transparent, light ruby color and alcohol at a modest 14.2 percent, it was more Burgundian than big-fruit California in character.  The tastes reminded me of slightly overripe raspberries and strawberries combined with notes of tea, mushroom and forest floor. It was at once earthy and elegant.

I don’t suppose there’s much of it around, since Merry Edwards wines are produced in limited quantities and I received this one a year ago (the ‘07s have since been released). But if you can get hold of a bottle, try decanting it a couple of hours beforehand, which will help it open up. Then enjoy it with some  chicken roasted with herbs or grilled pork chops, saving a little for a comparison tasting a day or two later. Let me know if you agree that sometimes, nothing beats a glass or two of day-old wine. (Wine received as a press sample.)


Sips: a wine and Twitter blend

I dipped into last night’s wine “Tweetup” event, an online wine tasting organized on Twitter and, despite a bit of skepticism, I must say I enjoyed the experience. The theme was wine blends: open a blended wine and then voice an opinion about it in 140 characters or less (actually 129 characters because at the end of each Tweet you had to type in “#wineblends” so that all who were involved in the event could see your posts.


The tasting was held from 5 to 7 PM Pacific time, which was actually great for me because we usually eat dinner here in New York after 8, so I was able to provide a food context. The wine I chose was Newton Vineyard’s 2006 Napa Valley Claret, a $25 blend of mainly merlot and cabernet sauvignon with smaller amounts of cabernet franc, petit verdot and syrah. I was hoping that it would be a good match for what seemed like a classic, simple pairing: grilled steak, baked potatoes and sautéed broccoli rabe.

The combination, it turned out, was superb, and I was excited to Tweet about it. So there I was, BlackBerry in hand at the dinner table with my wife Carla, who has a thing about manners, and our two boys who were clearly wondering what I was doing with my gadget when they couldn’t play with theirs. It was “business,” Carla explained. And so I called up Twitter, logged in and posted my first Tweet of the evening: “Nice combo = prime London broil + Newton's '06 Napa Valley Claret.” I immediately followed that one with a slightly more specific Tweet: “Newton's '06 Napa Val Claret kinda Bordeaux-like w/nice bal, gd tan struct, pretty dark berry fruit.”

Within minutes, I heard from an acquaintance, “joejanish,” who wanted to know, “What is more chewy? the london broil or the tannins in that claret?” I laughed out loud and clearly had to think of an equally witty counter-Tweet. Almost immediately, the experience had become more than about just the wine; it was entertainment, which is clearly part of what is drawing so many people into it. “Chewiness is in check in both,” I replied. “Maybe it's the A1 sauce neutralizing the steak & wine. ”

And so it went for a couple of hours with strangers and friends, amateurs and wine professionals, all mingling virtually as they posted tasting notes, observations and friendly banter. Some had gotten together at wineries or art galleries or in their homes for the event. Most seemed to have had a good time. Back on Twitter today, someone wrote that the event was attended by 347 “Tweeps” who posted 1,781 Tweets.

Wineries that had organized tastings within the Tweetup seemed ecstatic after last night’s event, as well they should be. With the chance to promote their brands to hundreds of wine enthusiasts at a time, the chances for positive feedback and increasing sales are high. It would be interesting to know whether anyone is thinking of a way of holding blind tastings on Twitter, which would present a slightly more challenging situation for marketers. Given the speed with which the wine world is changing, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is on it – and already Tweeting about it.