My Introduction to the C. Donatiello Winery

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

c-donatiello-bottlesLast month I was kindly invited to a pre-release luncheon for C. Donatiello Winery at the lovely Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills. Rarely one to turn down free wine or free food, I gladly accepted the invitation and waited for the big day.

Since I'm hyper-punctual (thanks, Mom!) I was the first one of the guests to arrive and I had an opportunity to spend some time with proprietor Christopher Donatiello. One of the things I love about the wine business is the willingness of the owners and winemakers to talk about their wines and themselves (even before they're knocking 'em back). Like a piece of art whose meaning is deepened by the artist's story and message, the more you know about the people making the wine and where the wine comes from, the more you get from the experience of drinking it. Getting to know the story of the birth of the C. Donatiello Winery helped me experience the wines as if I secretly knew the wines' hopes and dreams, in addition to what they were in the glass that day.

The focus for this winery was to be on single-lot wines made in a traditional “hands-off” style. I can't always taste the way a wine is made, but I typically notice a “naked” wine where minimal winemaking has been applied and the fruit is allowed to speak for itself. I enjoyed this aspect of the C. Donatiello wines we tried.

Chris was also interested in making great Pinot Noir (who isn't?). He wanted his Pinot to express a lighter style, and be more elegant than much of the super-cherry fruit-forward Pinot Noir we get from California.

I happen to be a big fan of Russian River Valley wines and typically when I purchase them I do so as a treat because they tend toward the over $30 mark and there's too much good wine out there priced well below $30 to have the expensive stuff on a regular basis. If you're looking to buy any of these wines, here's a good place to start for C. Donatiello Winery, and here for Healdsburg Ranches.

The Chardonnays

The first wine poured for us was the 2007 Russian River Valley Chardonnay (release price $24 per bottle). I always feel bad for the first wine that gets poured because my palate and nose are hyper-sensitive to alcohol until I've had a few sips. I suppose that's why they started us with their “lesser” Chardonnay (not single-vineyard). This wine contains fruit sourced from two vineyards: Orsi Vineyard and Maddie's Vineyard. Maddie's estate-grown contribution made all the difference in this wine.

What they said:

Nose: Lemon curd and apricot, with a bit of clove and just a hint of wet wool. Don't be surprised if you also detect an ever so faint whiff of vanilla cookies.

Palate: Layers of spiced apple, honey, and nutmeg reveal seamlessly on a tight frame to give way to the long, luscious chamomile-tinged finish.

What Jess says:

After trying all of the wines, this was the one I came back to and wanted more of. I was particularly impressed with the balance of this Chardonnay, a feat indeed since so many Chardonnays lean oaky or buttery or alcoholic or fruity… this just expressed itself as fine fruit made in a fine style. I find the $24 release price to be a good value, especially if you can find it a retailer for less.

Side note: I smelled honey on the nose. I often can't tell the difference between honey and apricot on the nose (or on the palate) until it's pointed out. I was able to detect the spice (though it was super mild) and I detected “herbal” where they say the “chamomile” ought to be. But then again, my descriptions tend toward the general rather than the specific.

Next up was the 2007 Chardonnay, Orsi Vineyard (release price $30 per bottle). This single-vineyard wine, in my opinion, didn't enjoy the balance of the Russian River Valley Chardonnay. It was brighter and fruitier (popular characteristics in Chardonnay, just not my preference).

What they said:

Nose: Aromas of baking spices, pannetone and toasted pineapple, exquisitely accented by a faint hint of lemon.

Palate: Decadently lush with flavors of caramel candied apple, key lime, lemon, and grapefruit. A round, full mouth feel develops effortlessly into a medium to long finish.

What Jess says:

I have no idea what pannetone tastes/smells like. And toasted pineapple isn't exactly familiar to me either (though I smelled what I referred to as “tweaky pineapple.” But I sure did smell and taste that lemon! I found this wine to be enjoyable and unique, but since fruity isn't my favorite, I didn't find $30 to be an attractive price.

healdsburg-ranches

Later on, we tried some of the wines from different labels that are part of the Hambrecht Wine Group. A value highlight for me was the 2009 Healdsburg Ranches Russian River Valley Chardonnay (release price $14.99 per bottle).

What they said:

Nose: Stone fruit, honey dew melon, apricot, golden delicious apple

Palate: Apricot, toffee, nutmeg, white peach, nectarine

What Jess says:

This was a great Chardonnay in this price range. I would happily sip on this on warm summer days or nights, accompanied by some form of food since the acid tended to build up a little in my mouth as I drank it. I detected a brightness and some non-specific form of “fruit” on the nose. Well-balanced for a $15 Chardonnay (only a little acidic), I detected notes of apricot, citrus, pear, and little hint of malolactic fermentation that didn't annoy me as buttery (considering this wine's fermentation was 100% malolactic, that's saying something).

The Pinot Noirs

I'm not one who goes gaga over Pinot Noirs, but when I do, they tend to originate from the Russian River Valley (and sometimes elsewhere in Sonoma County). So please take all of the following comments with the perspective that I'm not really a Pinot Noir afficionado… I think it's because Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult wines to produce and so very few wineries have truly figured it out.

First up in the Pinot department was the 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (release price $38 per bottle).

What they said:

Nose: A vibrant burst of Morello cherry, Santa Rosa plum, cranberry and muddle raspberries, braced by notes of grey pepper and mocha.

Palate: Luscious and fruity, with perfectly-balanced flavors of cherry, strawberry, and cola. The brightness of the fruit is elegantly framed by structured tannins.

What Jess says:

I found the nose to be bright, bold with cherry (though again, I don't know what a Morello cherry smells/tastes like) and a bit peppery. To me the palate was musty and structured up front but I found wateriness in the mid-palate right where the party is supposed to start. This Pinot had an earthy quality that really didn't resonate with me. Maybe it was my brussel sprouts that ruined it? (Though that Pasta Primavera dish they served was out of this world.)

Also served was the 2008 Pinot Noir, Floodgate Vineyard, Block 15 (release price $48 per bottle). When a label starts getting THAT specific I have an expectation that this wine is going to be very unique and special. I didn't have that experience. I have to wonder how much the record-breaking weather affected this particular vintage and would be interested to try a bottle from a year when the weather conditions were within normal range.

What they said:

Nose: The floral essence of rose petal meets the earthy aroma of forest floor, with jammy notes of cranberry and blackberry.

Palate: Opposite of showy, with reserved flavors of cherry and wet stone balanced subtly and beautifully by a tactile, full mouthfeel.

What Jess says:

The nose was mellower than the previous Pinot Noir (that's a good thing for me… sometimes when a wine has a strong nose it, by contrast, falls apart on the palate). I definitely was aware of “forest floor.” The palate expressed deep layers of flavor, was very balanced, felt restrained, and was supported by light, supple tannins. This was a very well-made wine, but at $48 and with my preferences, I'd probably spend my money elsewhere (like a Suacci-Carciere Pinot Noir also from the Russian River Valley).

Side note: C. Donatiello Winery takes the time to point out that this Pinot Noir contains grapes from Dijon Clones 667 and 777. Until I started studying plants, this seemed like a rather pedantic thing to talk about (especially since the rest of the plant-growing community refers to “clones” as cultivars and varieties).  But since I study wine and plants with the same level of voracity, I thought I'd see who else is using these clones… if you like any of these wines, you might very well enjoy this Pinot Noir:

Clone: 667

  • Melville (not sure which vineyards have this clone)
  • Cambria Clone 667
  • Alma Rosa (La Encantada Vineyard)
  • Foley (Santa Rita Hills)
  • La Rochelle (Sleepy Hollow Vineyard)

Clone: 777

  • Melville (not sure which vineyards have this clone)
  • Aston Estate
  • Brewer-Clifton
  • Windsor Oaks Vineyards
  • Lafond Winery & Vineyards

One last Pinot Noir was served that day, the 2009 Healdsburg Ranches Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (release price $18.99 per bottle).

What they said:

Nose: Aromas of plum, cranberry, cherry, golden raspberry, and spices

Palate: Flavors of strawberry, bing cherry, spice, baked rhubarb

What Jess says:

Oy. I don't agree with those tasting notes. I tasted toasty chocolate, not a lot of cherry expected from a Pinot Noir at all, and a touch of spice. Slightly acidic. Good Pinot under $13 is the holy grail of the value wine drinker. Good Pinot under $25 per bottle is rare enough that one should be impressed by such a feat. For me, this one falls under the general description of “nice Pinot Noir under $25.” For the same price I'd take the Clos du Bois Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir over this one though.

They also poured for us two wines from the Bradford Mountain label. The 2006 Grist Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel and Syrah (release price $33 for each). I didn't find either of these wines to be exciting for their varietal, or for Dry Creek Valley. I'd skip 'em altogether if you find 'em at the store.

The Winery

Typically when I do an elaborate tasting review such as this one, it's because I've visited the winery on a tasting trip. That's not the case but there are few special things about this winery that makes me hope I get there before too long.

The Aroma / Sensory Garden

Sensory & Aroma Garden at C. Donatiello Winery

Sensory & Aroma Garden at C. Donatiello Winery

C. Donatiello Winery has on premises an elaborate aroma garden where each plant has been chosen to reflect the wines they're making. There is a 60-species rose garden, a perennial garden in the English style, and herbs are planted between the two. Sounds AWESOME.

New Wine & Cheese Pairing program launching June 5, 2010

We are introducing a new wine and cheese pairing program. Over the course of the remainder of the year, the winery will focus on three local Sonoma County creameries, pairing four select cheeses with a flight of four carefully selected single-vineyard estate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  Each cheese plate is adorned with locally produced accoutrements and fresh cuttings from the winery’s organic Aroma Garden to further enhance the tasting experience. Reservations are required, so please allow us 24-hour notice.

Food & Wine Classic in Aspen June 18-20, 2010

Food & Wine magazine’s signature event brings together the world’s foremost authorities on food and wine. Chris has the distinct honor of participating in a panel discussion this year.  Food & Wine Magazine’s Wine Editor Ray Isle has invited him to speak on “The Power of Points.”  He will also be in attendance with the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association, so if you’re attending, be sure to stop by his booth in the tasting tent.

“Live from the Middle Reach” Summer Music Series, July 4 -October 3, 2010

The series will lead with the popular local Sonoma County group the Hellhounds, who have been a staple in kicking off the concert series on 4th of July weekend since its inception.  A total of 13 bands will be featured throughout the summer and early fall, including returning favorites and fresh new acts. The full list of music acts can be found on the Events page of their website.

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Orvieto, Vinho Verde and Pinot Blanc – Oh Dear…

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment

wine_corkI recently had the pleasure of trying several types of wine that – prior to my drinking them – I had never even heard of before. They were an Orvieto from Italy, Vinho Verde (a slightly effervescent wine) from Portugal and Pinot Blanc from Austria and the Alsace region in France.

Orvieto is a Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) located in Umbria and Lazio, Italy, centered specifically around the commune of Orvieto. Wine has been made here since the Medieval days of yore, although the actual wine making has changed a bit; while Orvieto whites were once known for their golden sweetness, now similar sweet wines are only produced in small quantities, and the majority of whites are made dry and delicious.

Most Orvieto whites are crafted from a blend consisting primarily of Grechetto and Trebbiano grapes (often called Procanico in this area, and referred to as Ugni Blanc, St. Émilion, Thalia and White Hermitage in other parts of the world). Eight blended red varietals are sold under the Rosso Orvietano DOC.

The beautiful Italian town of Orvieto

The beautiful Italian town of Orvieto

The Orvieto I tried – a 2008 Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco (try saying that ten times fast) – is comprised of all five of the standard varietals from this Italian region: Procanico, Grechetto, Verdello, Malvasia and Drupeggio.

Palazzone Umbria Dubini Bianco, as you might have guessed from the name, is a white wine. In the glass, it has the color of light golden sunlight and a nose of dried honey, apricot, pineapple and hay. The consistency is almost creamy; it’s smooth and somewhat thick. It has a lovely balance and flavor of apples and honey and stone fruit. Not sweet, but not overly sharp and acidic, either – even though this wine is aged in steel tanks. And at around $15 a bottle, it isn’t just the color that seems like sunshine in a glass.

Vinho Verde is my most exciting new alcoholic discovery, next to Jess’ La Finca Chardonnay find and adult Arnold Palmers. Vinho Verde, or “green wine,” is a popular Portuguese wine, from the Minho region in the north – a rainy and protected designation of origin (in Portuguese: Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC)). The name doesn’t refer to its color, but rather its youthfulness: Vinho Verde is best enjoyed within a year of bottling.

Green, green wine...stay close to me...

Green, green wine…stay close to me…

While available in both white and red varietals, white is exported far more than red and is rumored to be the tastier of the two (although not, perhaps, for the Portuguese, who tend to drink more of the red stuff). For the purposes of this piece, I will be referring to white Verde.

Although these wines do not qualify as sparkling or even semi-sparkling, they do contain a lovely, light effervescence. The Portuguese actually play this up by pouring one’s glass of Vinho Verde from a dramatic height. This sets all those tiny bubbles to frothing, and enhances the overall experience of the drink. But even poured from a more normal altitude, it’s still super yum.

Vinho Verde is less alcoholic than most of the wines we’re used to here. The most potent ones, made from the Alvarinho grape, top out at 11% alcohol by volume. This makes Vinho Verde great for lunch and picnics and not people who’re looking to get totally wasted – although, especially in the hot summer sun – this wine can pack a more powerful punch than you might expect.

Vinho Verde is light and crisp and refreshing and cheap. There is great stuff to be had between $5 and $10, although some go all the way to $20. I just finished a bottle of Trajarinho Vinho Verde, a blend of Trajadura and Alvarinho grapes, for about $10. It was the color of light straw with a nose of green apple and honeysuckle and peach. In the mouth it was fruity and lively and magically delicious, with flavors of honey and peach and citrus and green apple and the slightest touch of yeast. It bears repeating that Vinho Verde should not be cellared – but at these prices it’s worth it to drink up!

Pinot Blanc, like its fiery cousin, Pinot Noir (genetically mutated sibling, actually), is mysterious, seductive and – apparently – kind of hard to get to know.

Not Chardonnay

Not Chardonnay

Pinot Noir is genetically unstable, and sometimes a vine will produce all black fruit, but for one cane that grows all white. These freakish grapes (which are grown in their own right) are used to make still Pinot Blanc and bubbly Cremant d’Alsace in France (although buying a bottle of “Pinot Blanc” does not necessarily mean you’re getting Pinot Blanc if it comes from the Alsace AOC (speaking of freakish…). Pinot Blanc from that region only means it was made from Pinot varieties).

The most full-bodied and well-known Pinot Blanc wines (whether you’re looking for Pinot Blanc or “Pinot Blanc”) hail from Alsace. Sometimes Pinot Blanc grapes are used in the making of Champagne, although in the Champagne region, Pinot Blanc is usually called Blanc Vrai. Pinot Blanc is most widely grown in Italy, where it is known as Pinot Bianco; it is also grown abundantly in Slovenia and Croatia, where it’s called Beli Pinot. In the United States, what we tend to label Pinot Blanc is actually a variety called Melon de Bourgogne or Muscadet, but looks a lot like Chardonnay on the vine.

I’ll give you a minute to catch up.

Actually don’t bother, let’s just get right to the tastings!

Hop on over to Tasca and try a glass

Hop on over to Tasca and try a glass

I first tried Pinot Blanc while at Tasca wine bar with my friend, Jordana. It was her pour, and she picked a good one: Light straw color in the glass, with a lively nose and taste of green apple and a little citrus. An almost effervescent crispness. It was delicious, refreshing and – frankly – quite a surprise! Great balance and a nice, firm body. Went incredibly well with our ridiculously flavorful braised short ribs with spinach and goat cheese agnolotti with brown butter and sage sauce, and Tasca’s succulent wild mushroom linguine (with five types of mushrooms!) that made both of us sigh with pure contentment.

To recreate the joy of that experience, I went straight away to a local wine shop to pick up a bottle of my very own.

Much to my significant disappointment, they did not carry the 2008 Hopler Pinot Blanc from Burgenland, Austria. Instead they sold me a 2006 Domaine Stirn Pinot Blanc, from the Alsace AOC (and what did we learn about Pinot Blanc from the Alsace AOC, kids? Right. Could be any ol’ Pinot.) It was Pin-ew, in fact. Not impressed. I found it thicker and sweeter than the light, crisp Hopler. A bit flabby, without a lot of character. I guess one could describe it as the Billy Baldwin of beverages…

Anyway.

Whatever your taste or interest in adventure, I encourage you to try something new in 2010. In fact, I’d recommend you do it with an open heart and a glass of Vinho Verde.

Trajarinho

The name does not refer to the color of the wine,

La Finca Wines from Trader Joe’s

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wines from the Grocery Store | Leave a comment
La Finca wines from Trader Joe's

La Finca wines from Trader Joe\’s

With Two-Buck Chuck heralded as the “everyman’s” wine I have become more open to the idea of deeply-discounted wines. To me, Two-Buck Chuck has always been a nice $6 wine for $2. Since I don’t drink $6 wine unless there isn’t any beer available, Two-Buck Chuck is just something other people talk about, not something I experience myself anymore.

But a few months ago, Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer fearlessly arrived in my mailbox and found its way onto my coffee table. While perusing it, I noticed some new wine they were promoting that goes by the name of La Finca and comes from Argentina. They sell these wines for $3.99 and it caught my attention. The following questions ran through my head, in roughly this order:

  1. If it’s $3.99 could it be twice as good as Two-Buck Chuck?
  2. If it’s $3.99 could it be like a nice wine that’s normally $12?
  3. If it’s $3.99 could it be any good?

By the time I’d arrived at the third question I’d reached the point of mini-obsession and I just had to know what they’d be like. So I marched myself right over to TJ’s and picked up a bottle each of the La Finca 2009 Malbec, La Finca 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the La Finca 2009 Chardonnay.

I’ve drinking a lot of Malbec in the last six months as I’m going to write a post about Malbec one of these days. Anyway, the general conclusion I’m drawing about Argentinian Malbec involves the difference between “regular” Malbec and “reserve” Malbec and the old addage “You get what you pay for.” Looking for one more notch in my Malbec bedpost, I dove right in as soon as I got home. And I was pleasantly surprised!

I found the La Finca 2009 Malbec to be very drinkable, very characteristic of Malbec from this region, and of pretty solid structure for a very young wine. Here is a little recap from twitter after I tweeted my usual “mini-review.”

grapesmart: Drinking 2009 La Finca Malbec from Trader Joe’s for $3.99. Was very skeptical–Chocolate nose, slightly acidic, low alcohol… kinda nice.
7:10 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck

happywineguy: @grapesmart so…is it a middle of the week wine or something good enough to pour for friends?
7:18 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck in reply to grapesmart

grapesmart: @HappyWineGuy Depends on your friends. It’s acceptable for friends after the first bottle is gone. I have friends I could serve it to :)
7:26 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck

grapesmart: @HappyWineGuy That is, if you’re not embarrassed to serve a 2009 IN 2009 😉
7:29 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck

happywineguy: @grapesmart not at all. The Southern Hemisphere is a half year ahead of us on vintages. So a 2009 is not unacceptable. As a 2nd btl, ok.
7:32 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck in reply to grapesmart

grapesmart: @HappyWineGuy Thanks for teaching me something new about vintages! I had never thought about Southern Hemisphere being 6-months ahead!
7:42 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck

happywineguy: @grapesmart awww, that’s what I do. :-)
7:43 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck in reply to grapesmart

Some time later I opened the La Finca 2009 Chardonnay. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from an Argentinian Chardonnay, or a $3.99 Chardonnay for that matter. I have to tell you, I was absolutely blown away by this wine. It is better than 95% of the Chardonnays I’ve ever had, including all the ones that are over $30. My biggest concern was that since it doesn’t taste like a typical Chardonnay—or even an unoaked Chardonnay where you’ll (hopefully) find more of the Chardonnay grape showing off instead of the oak—that I was mistaken about how good it was. So, I called up Arianna (whom you may remember from such posts as: “I Don’t Read Playboy for the Articles“, “Wine and… Food? Please! Pairings“, and “An Oak Barrel-less Barrel of Fun“), had her come over, and gave her a blind taste. I told her absolutely nothing about what she was drinking and handed her a glass of chilled white wine. I found her analysis to be extremely curious considering what I’d poured.

Amazing balance, citrusy, apricot. Bright & crisp, no alcohol taste like you get in cheaper wines. I’d guess this is a Roussane or other white Rhone and that it’s at least $20. It tastes a little bit older, like a 2007.

This kind of wine is the reason this blog exists. We try everything and point you to great values. This kind of value is rare. If you like white wine go stock up on this Chardonnay, you’ll be glad you did. And if you’re not, I’ll buy the rest of yours off ya.

The story of La Finca comes to La Fin on a sadder note though… Last night I finally cracked the La Finca 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and I have to say… meh. Not only was there nothing extraordinary, there was nothing ordinary. Well maybe not nothing, because the underlying flavors were nice (cherry and blackberry I think), but I had to fight through minerality, alcohol taste, and that dreaded cheap-red-wine-toothiness to get to them and my taste buds were fatigued before I even finished the first swallow. I wonder if it sat in the bottle a while longer (maybe a year or two) if it would get better. I also wonder if it will be better tonight than it was last night (I’ll keep you posted if it is).

At any rate, the moral of the story is to drink lots of wine so you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like… and then buy lots of what you like when it goes on sale.

La Finca wines from Trader Joe\’sWith Two-Buck Chuck heralded as the “everyman’s” wine I have become more open to the idea of deeply-discounted wines. To me, Two-Buck Chuck has always been a nice $6 wine for $2. Since I don’t drink $6 wine unless there isn’t any beer available, Two-Buck Chuck is just something other people talk about, not something I experience myself anymore.
But a few months ago, Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer fearlessly arrived in my mailbox and found its way onto my coffee table. While perusing it, I noticed some new wine they were promoting that goes by the name of La Finca and comes from Argentina. They sell these wines for $3.99 and it caught my attention. The following questions ran through my head, in roughly this order:
If it’s $3.99 could it be twice as good as Two-Buck Chuck?
If it’s $3.99 could it be like a nice wine that’s normally $12?
If it’s $3.99 could it be any good?
By the time I’d arrived at the third question I’d reached the point of mini-obsession and I just had to know what they’d be like. So I marched myself right over to TJ’s and picked up a bottle each of the La Finca 2009 Malbec, La Finca 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, and the La Finca 2009 Chardonnay.
I’ve drinking a lot of Malbec in the last six months as I’m going to write a post about Malbec one of these days. Anyway, the general conclusion I’m drawing about Argentinian Malbec involves the difference between “regular” Malbec and “reserve” Malbec and the old addage “You get what you pay for.” Looking for one more notch in my Malbec bedpost, I dove right in as soon as I got home. And I was pleasantly surprised!
I found the La Finca 2009 Malbec to be very drinkable, very characteristic of Malbec from this region, and of pretty solid structure for a very young wine. Here is a little recap from twitter after I tweeted my usual “mini-review.”
grapesmart: Drinking 2009 La Finca Malbec from Trader Joe’s for $3.99. Was very skeptical–Chocolate nose, slightly acidic, low alcohol… kinda nice.
7:10 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck
happywineguy: @grapesmart so…is it a middle of the week wine or something good enough to pour for friends?
7:18 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck in reply to grapesmart
grapesmart: @HappyWineGuy Depends on your friends. It’s acceptable for friends after the first bottle is gone. I have friends I could serve it to :)
7:26 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck
grapesmart: @HappyWineGuy That is, if you’re not embarrassed to serve a 2009 IN 2009 😉
7:29 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck
happywineguy: @grapesmart not at all. The Southern Hemisphere is a half year ahead of us on vintages. So a 2009 is not unacceptable. As a 2nd btl, ok.
7:32 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck in reply to grapesmart
grapesmart: @HappyWineGuy Thanks for teaching me something new about vintages! I had never thought about Southern Hemisphere being 6-months ahead!
7:42 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck
happywineguy: @grapesmart awww, that’s what I do. :-)
7:43 PM Oct 19th from TweetDeck in reply to grapesmart
Some time later I opened the La Finca 2009 Chardonnay. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from an Argentinian Chardonnay, or a $3.99 Chardonnay for that matter. I have to tell you, I was absolutely blown away by this wine. It is better than 95% of the Chardonnays I’ve ever had, including all the ones that are over $30. My biggest concern was that since it doesn’t taste like a typical Chardonnay—or even an unoaked Chardonnay where you’ll (hopefully) find more of the Chardonnay grape showing off instead of the oak—that I was mistaken about how good it was. So, I called up Arianna (whom you may remember from such posts as: “I Don’t Read Playboy for the Articles”, “Wine and… Food? Please! Pairings”, and “An Oak Barrel-less Barrel of Fun”), had her come over, and gave her a blind taste. I told her absolutely nothing about what she was drinking and handed her a glass of chilled white wine. I found her analysis to be extremely curious considering what I’d poured.
Amazing balance, citrusy, apricot. Bright & crisp, no alcohol taste like you get in cheaper wines. I’d guess this is a Roussane or other white Rhone and that it’s at least $20. It tastes a little bit older, like a 2007.
This kind of wine is the reason this blog exists. We try everything and point you to great values. This kind of value is rare. If you like white wine go stock up on this Chardonnay, you’ll be glad you did. And if you’re not, I’ll buy the rest of yours off ya.
The story of La Finca comes to La Fin on a sadder note though… Last night I finally cracked the La Finca 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and I have to say… meh. Not only was there nothing extraordinary, there was nothing ordinary. Well maybe not nothing, because the underlying flavors were nice (cherry and blackberry I think), but I had to fight through minerality, alcohol taste, and that dreaded cheap-red-wine-toothiness to get to them and my taste buds were fatigued before I even finished the first swallow. I wonder if it sat in the bottle a while longer (maybe a year or two) if it would get better. I also wonder if it will be better tonight than it was last night (I’ll keep you posted if it is).
At any rate, the moral of the story is to drink lots of wine so you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like… and then buy lots of what you like when it goes on sale.

BevMo! Mega Tasting Notes!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 4 Comments
The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

The GrapeSmart gals and their pimp-for-the-day, Wilfred Wong

BevMo!, a beverage superstore local to California and Arizona, recently opened its 100th store, and Jess, Mitch and I trekked all the way to Rolling Hills Estates to help them celebrate (see Bordeaux Wines That Won’t Break The Bank). The expansive wine, beer and spirits “mega-tasting” was probably an incentive…

Armed with vinoculture literature and a solid breakfast, we descended on the event – determined to taste as much as possible before passing out. Or until they closed up shop at 5pm. So we started at the most likely place: The ticket booth.

Our $15 tax-deductible entrance fee went straight to Boys and Girls Clubs of the South Bay, and gave us 10 tasting tickets. Jess and I looked at our notes, looked at each other and promptly decided to buy 10 more tickets to split between us. We were handed a reusable 6-bottle wine carrier, a commemorative BevMo! glass and a shiny new wine key, then headed into the fray.

Before I talk about our tastings, I thought I’d share some important bits of info we quickly learned about these types of events:

1) Don’t buy extra tickets in advance. At this tasting there were several wineries at each tasting station but only one ticket was requested per table. So one ticket could buy as many as 10 tastings, depending on who was crowding into the area. And by the time the place was packed, tables weren’t even taking tickets anymore. Go back and buy extras as needed, but don’t stock up in the beginning.

2) Wear a hat.

3) Come sober.

(The last one is probably a given, but I thought I’d throw it out there, just in case)

And now that that’s out of the way, here is a list of our favorite pours and the ones we would’ve preferred to pass up:

FAVORITES:

Silver is golden

Silver is golden

Mer Soleil Silver Chardonnay 2007: This unwooded Chardonnay is made from grapes grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County and is aged in concrete tanks (which are made in Burgundy). It contains no malolactic fermentation and never touches oak. A beautiful light straw color in the glass, it has a lovely nose of grass, stone fruit (peaches, apples), and bright flavors of pineapple and citrus. It comes with a screw top!

Altocedro Reserva Malbec 2007: Rated as #47 of the “Top 100 Wines” in Wine Spectator, this Argentinian delight is a rich, dark purple in the glass, with a nose of grapes (!), oak, cherry and earthiness. On the palate it’s big and lush and oaky, with flavors of bright, dark fruit. This was definitely one of the stand-outs of the day. I should note, however, that it was only the Reserva that blew us away. The Ano Cero and Desnudos Malbecs didn’t do much to impress.

Rosenblum Rockpile Road Zinfandel 2006: This old clone Zinfandel is rich and robust and bursting with flavors of blackberry, black cherry, raspberry and vanilla. I’m already a big fan of Rosenblum’s more value-priced vinos, but this one really stands out and I think it’s worth the steeper price. Grown in Lake Sonoma in the upper Dry Creek Valley.

Trefethen Chardonnay 2006: Bright, light yellow in the glass, with aromas of pear, lemon and honeysuckle. Great balanced flavors of pear, lemon and vanilla. This is a nice, full, creamy white and has become one of our favorites in this price range.

Le yum!

Le yum!

Joseph Perrier Cuvee Josephine: Have you ever taken a sip of champagne that was so delicious it made you smile? The perfect amount of tiny bubbles tickling your tongue through the perfect balance of aroma and taste and mouth feel? Apple-y, citrus-y, peachy, vanilla and caramel deliciousness cascading over every tastebud and gracefully slipping down your throat? If you answered “no” to any of the above, than you need to find an occasion to try this remarkable champagne. Those French really know what they’re doing.

NOT-SO FAVORITES:

Roth Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006: You know how we’ve said that Alexander Valley Cabernet is across-the-board delicious? Yeah…well…we can also admit when we’re wrong. This is a blend of 76% Cab Sav, 19% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc. The color is 100% gorgeous. The nose is scrumptious chocolate cherry. The flavor is…well…bland. Slightly tannic. Unimpressive. And at $30 – $40 a bottle, I need more for my money.

Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005: Hailing from Healdsburg, California, Lancaster is a family-owned winery and was at the same tasting table as Roth. In the glass, this wine is gorgeous and dark, with a nose of cherry and coffee. Smooth, rich mouthfeel. Coffee flavors. Very tannic. Fussy. However, in their defense, I learned in my research that Wine Enthusiast doesn’t feel this wine will reach its full potential until 10 years of bottle aging. Currently between $55 – $70 per bottle, that’s the chance you’d have to take.

Zinfandon't

Zinfandon't

Renwood Grandmere Zinfandel 2006: Boy, I really wanted to like this wine. The owner was at the tasting. He was incredibly enthusiastic. His winery is “Green Friendly,” which is a term he coined to describe the beautiful environmental protections he practices in his business. The grapes for this Zin are grown in the “oldest known Zinfandel vineyards in America.” Honest-to-blog, I really, really wanted to like this wine. But I didn’t. The color was super light. The scent and taste were very strawberry. It was incredibly tannic. It wasn’t very good. In fact, I couldn’t even drink it. Maybe that makes me a bad person. I’m sorry. I tried.

Parcel Thirty-One Zinfandel 2007: The Wine Whore has an interest in the topic of why some varietals don’t work for him, but he just keeps tasting them anyway because you never know when your palate will change or you’ll find one you DO like. There are three wine-growing areas that I feel this way about… Monterey, Lodi, and Mendocino County. And this Zinfandel, from Victory, was yet another example of how the wines from those areas don’t work for me. This was thin and light (Zinfandels should have body and finish!) with no appreciable flavor qualities beyond “red wine.” {Sad face goes here}

To wrap up… Wine Tasting Events are fun! Bring a friend and come prepared. And don’t forget to take notes or you’ll forget EVERYTHING. Oh, and don’t go shopping at a wine store while you’re drunk… the next day Jess looked in the wine box and the following conversation ensued:

Jess: “I bought those?!”
Mitch:
“Is that a bad thing?”
Jess:
“No, actually, those are wines I either like or have wanted to try.”
Mitch: “I guess it’s a good thing that even when you’re drunk you know what you like!”


Wine Tasting Trip: Sanford Winery in Santa Ynez Valley, California

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wine Tasting Trips | Leave a comment

People who love wine often talk about how wine is just as much about the experience as it is about the wine itself. They’re sometimes referring to the process of uncorking a bottle, who they’ve shared the wine with, or the time they visited the winery. In my case, when I wax poetic about Sanford Winery, it’s 1/3 because of how I discovered it, 1/3 because of how beautiful it is there, and 1/3 because I like the wines.

A couple of years ago on my first trip to the Santa Ynez area with Mitch, we got lost looking for the Wine Ghetto in Lompoc. We’d never been and Google Maps is dreadful at understanding the addresses in this area so we had to attack the problem the old-fashioned way–drive around aimlessly until we stumble on it, or give up and try it again next time. We did NOT find the wine ghetto on that trip (but we did on the next one with much more assiduous research). We did, however, take a detour down Santa Rosa Rd (which we didn’t know the name of) through a beautiful valley, part of the Santa Rita Hills AVA. On our way, we encountered what appeared to be a brand new, and open, tasting room… so we went. We’d never heard of Sanford before that moment, but we’re glad our adventure went that way.

Chardonnay grapes growing on the flat land at the Sanford-Benedict Vineyard

Chardonnay grapes growing on the flat land at the Sanford-Benedict Vineyard

On this past trip, honoring the discovery of the winery on our last trip and the several bottles of Sanford Chardonnay we’ve consumed since then, we popped in on our way to a scheduled wine-tasting charity event. Boy are we glad we did!

We came at the winery from the opposite side of Santa Rosa Rd (exiting 101E instead of 246W) and drove through the gorgeous valley in late-afternoon sunlight which–yes it’s cheesy–danced on the grapevines showing their new fall colors. We passed by Mosby and Alma Rosa, making note to come back this way next time, and pulled into the parking lot at Sanford to find only four cars. Sweet!

In we went to the familiar tasting room. We later learned that the beautiful architecture is made from reclaimed Douglas Fir and local adobe hand cut by the vineyard workers themselves. Because it was empty we were served immediately and we shared our first tasting of the day.

Mitch isn’t crazy about Chardonnays in general, but really likes the Sanford Chardonnay (probably because there’s no oak). We both remembered not being crazy about their red wines a couple of years ago, but we know our palates have matured and each vintage is different, so we had open minds as we began the discovery process all over again.

The door to the barrel room

The door to the barrel room

The Sanford Winery Tasting Room does public tours of their winery every Saturday at 12pm and 2pm. We were the only folks around so we took a private tour of the winery with the new tasting room manager’s inaugural tour. If he hadn’t told us, we wouldn’t have known!

It was our first time in the “employees only” area of a winery so it was great fun to see all the wine as it ages, to learn about the equipment and methods of their winemaking, to hear about the investments a winery makes, and just to soak in what daily life might be like if we lived there (one can dream). As our careful tour guide removed the lock and the stellar old-fashioned door “knob” from the West Barrel Room, we knew we were in for a treat. The room requires no HVAC to remain a constant 60-something degrees and walking into the quiet room filled with barrels which each hold 300 bottles of wine was serene.

Fermentation-Tanks

Where the Chardonnay Ferments

We also saw the different types of equipment to start extracting juice from the grapes, the massive open-topped fermentation tanks, and views of the vineyard which included an explanation of how the Pinot Noir grapes grow up on the hill and the Chardonnay grapes grow in the lower flat areas. There were also, as I somewhat expected, various clones the winemakers are “fooling around with” as they craft their next wines.

The Pinot Noir grapes growing up the hill with the Chardonnay grapes in front

The Pinot Noir grapes growing up the hill with the Chardonnay grapes in front

Of course, let’s not forget about the reason it’s all here looking so luscious… the wines! Here’s a rundown of what we tasted and what we thought about it.

Sunlight shining into the Sanford Winery Tasting Room

Sunlight shining into the Sanford Winery Tasting Room

2007 Sanford Chardonnay, Santa Barbara County, $22 per bottle

What they say: Our 2007 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay comes from four great vineyards. Our estate vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills, La Rinconada and Sanford & Bendict, along with the El Camino Vineyard in Los Alamos and the Bien Nacido Vineyard east of Santa Maria, combine to give this wine aromatic complexity and layers of flavor. The 2007 vintage was low yielding and produced wines of great intensity and structure. This barrel fermented Chardonnay shows all of the exotic tropical fruit and citrus that Santa Barbara is renowned for, along with the minerality that is a signature of wines from the Santa Rita Hills. This full bodied wine has nice acidity to keep it in balance and makes a nice complement to most seafood, poultry, and pasta with lighter sauces.

What Jess says: Apple & oak on the nose, with a smoky, astringent quality to it. It’s initially strong on the front of the palate with a bit of pineapple in the mid-palate. A lingering finish that fades gracefully.

Also known as “The Flower Label” Chardonnay, it’s a fairly large-production wine that can be found at Vons/Pavillions/Safeway/etc. and other stores, too. Santa Monica Seafood retails it for $17 and it goes on sale at the Safeway stores for as low as $14.99. At $14.99 it’s a FANTASTIC Chardonnay.

Buy it at K&L Wines

2006 Sanford La Rinconada Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Rita Hills, $34 per bottle

What they say: The 2006 La Rinconada Chardonnay comes exclusively from our estate vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. It is sourced from our two best lbocks (Wente and Clone 15), whole cluster pressed and barrel fermented. With the traditional Burgundian technique of lees stirring and barrel aging, this wine has developed richness and elegance sought after in fine Chardonnay. Intense by balanced, our flagship Chardonnay is bursting with citrus and tropical fruit, with hints of creme brulee.

What Jess says: On the nose: detectable minerality, earthy, smells like a Chardonnay and not like overdone winemaking. In the mouth, light, acidic/bright, and smooth with notes of oak and, believe it or not, that creme brulee.

2006 Sanford La Entrada Chardonnay, $45 per bottle

What they say: A stunning Chardonnay from our most prized block of Clone 15. This intense but balanced barrel fermented wine is called “La Entrada” because it comes from the parcel at the entrance to the Rinconada Vineyard. From its lifted citrus and tropical aromatics, to its rich but well structured palate, this barrel fermented Chardonnay has impressed all who have tasted it.

What Jess says: Yum. I, too, was impressed. A delicate vanilla nose. Smooth and silky mouthfeel with hints of citrus and pineapple. I’d be happy to drink some more of this one.

2007 Sanford Flor de Campo White Blend, $48 per bottle

What they say: The 2007 vintage marks the second bottling of this exotic white wine. Inspired by the great wines of France’s Northern Rhone Valley, this wine from Santa Ynez Valley is called “Flor de Campo” which is Spanish for wildflower. To preserve the exotic spicy floral character of this Roussanne/Viognier blend, we barrel fermented in neutral French Oak barrels. The resulting full-bodied wine offers aromas of peach and nectarine, with hints of jasmine. The full palate is balanced by crisp acid and minerality.

What Jess says: Also blended with less than 1% Chardonnay, these grapes hail from Happy Canyon, happy indeed. The nose was sweet, green apple and honeysuckle for me. It was smooth but tasted heavily of the Viognier. As much as I’m a Rhone nut (or at least a Rhone Ranger Sidekick), I’m notsomuch a fan of the Viognier unless it’s been cut by something heavier or sweeter. In this case, the more delicate Roussane could have used more mmph than the 60%/40% blend gave it… at least for me.

2008 Sanford Pinot Noir Rose – Vin Gris, $18 per bottle

What they say: Our 2008 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir is from the La Rinconada Vineyard and the historic Sanford and Benedict Vineyard. After de-stemming our Pinot Noir, we allow 3-5 hours of contact time before draining off the lightly colored juice for our Vin Gris. This wine is then tank-fermented to dryness before aging in neutral French Oak barrels for 4 months. This wine has inviting aromas of strawberry, rhubarb, and cranberry along with floral notes suggestive of orange blossoms and a hint of white pepper. This dry orse has excellent acidity, which allows it to pair well with a range of foods. Grilled seafood, spicy dishes and most picnic fare would be excellent with this wine.

What Jess says: Nose: a nice smooth rose smell. Mouth, a light “red-fruity” flavor, cranberry, with a full-tongue experience and a good finish. We liked this and found it to be a good value at $18. The problem is that I’m in love with the Beckmen Grenache Rose and we figured we’d stop by there and pick some up on Sunday when we were over that way… except we didn’t go! I said, “Nah, some other time.” What was I thinking??

2007 Sanford Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills, $40 per bottle

What they say: A blend from our estate vineyard, La Rinconada, and the historic Sanford & Benedict Vineyard next door. A mix of vineyard blocks and several different clones give this wine added complexity. This wine is deep violet red in color and is bursting with black cherry and plub, pepper and sage on the nose. The palate delivers dusty berry flavors framed nicely by bright acidity and supple tannins. The wine was allowed to age in French Oak barrels (30% new oak) for 10 months where it gained concentration and picked up hints of vanilla and licorice.

What Jess says: Beautiful and earthy Santa Ynez Valley Pinot on the nose, enticing me to drink it. This is a structured, smooth Pinot Noir, the red fruit is expressive, there’s a little chalkiness on the mid-palate and I detected oak but no vanilla or licorice. We liked this Pinot better than last time but we don’t think it’s worth the release price of $40… yet. Perhaps with some age this wine will mature into something spectacular. You’d have to ask Robert Parker about that :) We’ve seen this at the grocery store at retail price, if it goes on sale for $25 or less I’d pick up a bottle.

Buy it at Wine.com, Buy it at K&L Wines

2007 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir, $60 per bottle

What they say: Sourced exclusively from this historic vineyard in the esteemed Santa Rita Hills AVA. Planted in 1971 this iconic vineyard consistently produces distinctively superb Pinot Noir. The 2007 wine is deep ruby in color and is loaded with aromas of black cherry and raspberry with hints of clove, cinnamon, and white pepper. The rich palate delivers bright spicy cherry flavors framed nicely by bright acidity and ripe tannins. Aged in French Oak for 11 months where it gained concentration and complexity, this wine will improve in the bottle for 5 to 8 years with proper cellaring.

What Jess says: The nose was deep and earthy, hints of clove for sure. This wine melts over the tongue with cherry, smooth earthy finish, oaky (but not in a bad way). This blog is about value wines because we’re too cheap to buy a $60 wine (in general). We liked the wine, but not enough to pay $60 for it.

A Weekend Full of Great Wine & Friends

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Wines from the Grocery Store | Comments Off on A Weekend Full of Great Wine & Friends

This past weekend my husband and I flitted off to San Diego to visit some friends and chill out. In addition to excellent company and excellent food, it was a fun wine weekend, too.

Wine #1: 2006 Beringer Napa Chardonnay

2005 Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay

2005 Beringer Napa Valley Chardonnay

As a pre-dinner diversion, our friends Greg & Celine had us over for snacks and a glass of wine before heading out. They served us homemade dips (a delicious Greek yogurt dip with herbs in it and a yummy parmesan-artichoke dip) with pita chips and edamame. They served it to us with (and here's an adjective I never thought I'd use to describe a Beringer wine) Napa Valley Chardonnay. It was crisp, a little oaky, and had hints of green fruit. A well-structured, enjoyable white wine for $10-13 per bottle.

Wine #2: 2007 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

2007 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

2007 Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

Greg & Celine brought us to their friends' new restaurant in Del Mar, California called Zel's. The patio was lovely, the food (mine at least) was excellent, and the service was an adventure. Greg insisted that since I have a wine blog I needed to choose the wine for the table. Unusually, there was a choice to be made because Zel's has a great wine list and really great bottle prices on the wine. I asked around and everyone liked Cabernet, so I chose the Alexander Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. You've heard me say before that you can't go wrong with a Cab from Alexander Valley and this gem was no exception. A delicious Cab typical of Alexander Valley, it carried us gracefully through mussels & french fries, warm spinach salad, sea bass with mushroom risotto, steak, pork shoulder, and a serrano ham woodfired pizza. We happily ordered 2 bottles during dinner and not only would I go back to this restaurant (a rare compliment from me) I would buy this wine at twice it's normal price of $14-17 per bottle.

Wine #3: 2005 Clos du Bois North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon

2005 Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast

2005 Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast

In the afternoon, I took my friend Gary shopping at Walmart. There are so many parts of that sentence which sound strange to me, but the strangest of all is that I voluntarily went into a Walmart (stranger still I spent money while I was there… on wine!). While we were wandering the aisles, I discovered they sell wine. In fact, I picked up a couple bottles of the Bonterra Organic & Biodynamic Chardonnay for $6 which is a STEAL. While perusing the shelf I saw the 2005 Clos du Bois North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon and opted to pass. Boy was that dumb. Later that afternoon, while sitting around playing games and drinking (that's what Sunday afternoons are for, right?) we opened a bottle that Gary already had at his place… and it was better than I've come to expect from Clos du Bois which can be SO hit-or-miss. (Example: I love their Pinot Grigio but hate their Pinot Noir.) This Cabernet was not of the same exceptional quality as the one from the night before, but nonetheless, when you're looking for value in your limited wine budget, this wine will make you think you spent more than you did for your $12-15 per bottle.

Wine #4: 2006 Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros

2006 Domain Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros

2006 Domain Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros

When we made it to our final dinner of the weekend, we were ready to keep the good times rolling, so we ordered another bottle of wine. Well, I guess we technically ordered two bottles of wine. The first one was a Zolo Malbec… a wine I love! Or thought I did. I in fact love the Zolo Gaucho Select Malbec which I bought at BevMo! (which is, near as I can tell, a Reserve wine). They also bottle a lesser-version of it without the Gaucho Select, and I can tell you it's not as good as the Gaucho Select. So, I sent it back. Instead we ordered the 2006 Domaine Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros because Mitch loves Pinot and we were all eating dinners that would go nicely with a Pinot. Lately I've felt like every Pinot Noir I taste is overwhelmingly cherry or tastes like water even though it looks like wine. Finally that streak has been broken but I don't have a new Pinot to add to my shopping list when I want a wine in the $20-25 range because I don't think it was worth that much. More like $15-18 per bottle.

Kirkland Signature Chardonnay – from Costco… Really!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | 2 Comments
2007 Costco Napa Valley Chardonnay

2007 Costco Napa Valley Chardonnay

I noticed recently that Costco has come out with more wines in their Kirkland Signature wines line and naturally, since I'm there once a month trolling the wine bins like the wine whore, er value seeker, that I am, I picked up a bunch more of 'em.

This time I tried the 2007 Napa Valley Chardonnay from Costco's Kirkland Signature brand line of house wines. In a different but happy way, I'm as impressed with this Chardonnay as I was with the Kirkland Signature Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

First, I've never had such a well-balanced Chardonnay under $20, much less under $10. California Chardonnays are often overly oaky, frequently too acidic, and sometimes taste like Sauvignon Blanc. Occasionally we come across Chards we love, but this one is a solid enjoyable player in a field of mediocre wines priced under $15.

What they say: 2007 Kirkland Signature Napa Valley Chardonnay is opulent and richly flavored. The succulent notes of apricot and fig are surrounded by intense bursts of apple and pear, finishing with bright, mouthwatering acidity; a distinctive, buttery edge; plus hints of cedar and oak. Chardonnay from Napa Valley is scarce, highly sought after, and the source for some of the finest California Chardonnay from the 2007 vintage. Drink now through 2010.

What Jess says: The bouquet is oaky, but don't let it fool you, other wonderful flavors come out to play once you take a sip. At first I noticed a brightness at the front of my mouth, oakiness in the mid-palate, and a smoky finish. The wine lingered in my mouth to offer a mild green-fruit and buttery finish. This wine would be great with any of the traditional foods one pairs with a Chardonnay (cheese, salad, fish, chicken, etc.) but could also compliment a heartier meal.

It doesn't seem to be on their website (I think because it's only available in California), so if you live in California you'll have to go to your local Costco to pick some up at the super bargain price of $7.99 a bottle. Here's an article about Kirkland Signature wines at Costco.com.

How Much Wood Would A Good Wine Want?

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes | 1 Comment

steel-barrelsFast on the heels of Jessyca's wedding wine recommendation request from Twitter, in this episode – dear readers – I thought I would take you on a journey to the land of Unoaked Chardonnay. Grab a glass, kick back and enjoy the ride!

My education on unoaked Chard started when Jess and I went to SummerTASTE at the Grove a few weeks ago. This LearnAboutWine event was co-sponsored by The Whisper Restaurant and Lounge, and focused – specifically – on unoaked wines. Naturally, most of the wines offered were white and fruity. I have to admit that a lot of them were also not my preference.

Then I wandered over to the Sweeney Canyon tasting table.

I was first poured a taste of 2008 Sweeney Canyon Chardonnay in order to contrast against future pours. This wine was presented only for sweeney-canyon-chardonnay1contrast, and it was made clear that what I was drinking was not even available for purchase. Good thing! As the pourer promised, this wine was undrinkable: sour and harsh and unpalatable. The 2007 was worlds better. It was smoother and sweeter, with a fuller and richer – although oily – mouthfeel. The 2001 was, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. The 2000 I was poured last just did not match up with the quality of the 2001.

But here is what really got me: None of the Chardonnay at this table had ever touched wood. Nor had it undergone malolactic fermentation (MLF).

What I didn't realize at the time is that this method of producing Chardonnay has been around for awhile, although most people are still familiar with the big, lush and buttery Chardonnays that are aged in oak barrels.

Let's look at why this is:

Some of the world's most renowned Chardonnay-based table wines come from the Burgundy region in France. Burgundy whites have a reputation for being complex and delicious…and aged in oak barrels, using malolactic fermentation. But Burgundy is Old World, with a cooler climate which makes it more difficult to bring the fruit to full ripening. These cool-weather grapes don't see a lot of sun and are low in sugar and high in acid. French oak helps to round out the wine, making it more complex and balanced. The addition of  lactic acid bacteria (usually Oenococcus oeni or various species of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus) de-acidifies the wine, creating a much smoother, richer and buttery mouthfeel. Considering the amount of acid the grapes produce, malolactic conversion is almost a necessity in order to produce a palatable wine.

As more and more Americans developed a vigor for vino in the 1980s and early 1990s, they became enamored with the woody vanilla flavors of oaked whites – like those from Burgundy. To meet demand, New World producers began to age their Chardonnay in oak – typically American oak – which by nature tends to impart a stronger woodiness than the tight-grained French barrels. Considering New World Chardonnay grapes are already ripe and lush and packed with sugar (but little acid), the result of barrel-aging is a big wine which tends to overpower the taste of the fruit. The low acid levels leaves very little for the MLF to work with, and thins the structure of the wine. In the end, American-oaked New World Chardonnay is unlike Chardonnay from Bordeaux.

nooakbarrelBy the mid-1990s, people had begun to develop a new appreciation for less bulky whites, preferring instead crisp, fruit-forward wines like Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. This led to an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) backlash, and new buzzwords like steel tanked, un-oaked, unwooded and acero (Spanish for “steel”).

New Zealand, like many of the New World wine regions, produces large amounts of Chardonnay grapes, and they were the first region to embrace production of un-oaked Chard on a grand-scale. The trend took off, and here we are – more than a decade later – and the movement is growing more and more popular.

Big, rich, oaky Chardonnays are unlikely to disappear. But for those who are looking for the crisp acidity and liveliness of the Chardonnay grape – front and center – unwooded Chardonnay is the way to go.

And stay tuned! Next up – Arianna reviews three different unoaked Chardonnays: 2008 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay (from New Zealand, and one of the first mass-market unwooded Chardonnay producers), 2007 Toad Hollow Francine's Selection Unoaked Chardonnay (Mendocino, California), and a 2007 Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay (from Monterey, California). Yum!

Request from Twitter: Cheap Chardonnay for Wedding

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Jess' Wine Tasting Notes | Leave a comment
Vinavera Unoaked Chardonnay

Vinavera Unoaked Chardonnay

This was a fun incoming request from Twitter:

@BluelegsTango Daughter’s wedding on a budget. Having Chinese.Can you recommend a dry white wine, $10 range, to appeal to a range of drinking tastes.Thanks – 11:11 AM Aug 22nd

Truthfully there aren’t that many whites under $10 I’d recommend to anyone. Some people out there think cheap white wines are more palatable than cheap reds, but honestly I think you have to spend more to get a decent white than a decent red, on average.

Something I’ve recently stumbled on is unoaked chardonnays. In keeping with my newly discovered preference for wines that are true to their varietals (meaning you can drink and know what grape it is, not have a guess what it is). I like the flavor of the chardonnay grape and even though I appreciate some oakiness, most California chards are too oaky. There’s definitely been a trend of late to downplay the oak that gets added, but the fascinating part is that there’s a natural gentle oakiness to Chardonnay anyway!

I recommended the Vinavera Unoaked Chardonnay to this inquirer. You can get it at Bevmo for $12.99 a bottle and it’s in their 5-cent sale, too. At the moment, the ClubBev price is $7.99!

You can also shop around and try some other unoaked chardonnays.

Coincidentally, I was at Crate & Barrel the other day and they’ve got empties as decoration around the store… what did they empty? Vinavera Unoaked wines of course! I wish I could have been the one to drink the wine they must have dumped 😉

Find a Wine Like Mine

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Cool Wine Sites | 1 Comment

Here’s an interesting exercise I was asked to do by one of our twitter followers (@LibArtsAndMinds): “@grapesmart Oh, do I need your help!Had Willow Heights Chard,’99 the other night. Divine doesn’t begin to describe.Can u think of 1 similar?”

Here’s my experience and thought process in trying to help her find another wine like the one she tried and loved.

My first thought was, “Wow, you had a Chardonnay from 1999? I wonder what that was like!” Next came, “How can I possibly answer this question? I’ve never had this wine.” Then the part of me that comes to life in the face of a good challenge lit up like a firecracker and I started searching.

The first order of business was to accurately identify the wine we’re trying to match. This was an easy, but curious challenge. With the information I had, the 99 seemed like a vintage, but I couldn’t find a Chardonnay from 1999 that also bore the name Willow Heights. I located a candidate called No.99 Wayne Gretzky Estates Chardonnay which CellarTracker thinks is somehow related to the Willow Heights Estate Winery.

Regardless, both wineries are located in the Niagara-Escarpment appellation of Ontario, Canada… an area I’m personally quite familiar with! My husband hails from the area and we visit a couple of times a year. Haven’t actually made it out to Niagara yet, but I’ve sampled many Ontario wines and had the pleasure of buying wine at the LCBO.

Note: It’s pretty likely that @LibArtsAndMinds hails from Ontario and she has to buy her wine through the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario). They’re constantly changing their stock, subbing in some new wine for an older one, and they heavily prioritize Ontario wines. Odds are good a staff member at the LCBO headquarters could help her locate something similar. If she had it at a restaurant, it would be worth talking to the person who buys the wine for the restaurant and seeing what could be done. Lastly, contacting the winery directly to see if they have any more stashed away somewhere would be the easiest way to get more.

It turns out what she was really looking for is “Reserve 1999 Willow Heights Stefanik Vineyard” Chardonnay. As I alluded to earlier, searching for a 10-year old white wine is a bit of a challenge so the possibility of finding a hidden bottle of the exact wine is slim-to-none. My next choices would be two related groups of wines… 1) Other 1999 Chardonnays from the Niagara Escarpment 2) Newer Chardonnays from Willow Heights Stefanik Vineyard.

Here are some of those wines that I was able to locate online:

  1. LCBO: 2006 Willow Heights Chardonnay Reserve
  2. Catalpana (restaurant in Toront0) has several older Willow Heights Chardonnays on their wine list
  3. Winery to Home had some useful information (confirmed the winery is now owned by Wayne Gretzky)

There are a couple more ways to go in searching for a wine to recreate the experience, but it seems like they would be the least reliable and most tedious methods… 1) Trying to get my hands on the original tasting notes for this wine and then trying to find other Chardonnays (especially from the Niagara Escarpment) that have the same or very similar tasting notes. 2) Looking for other wines produced from the grapes at Stefanik Vineyard. Since Willow Heights is an Estate Winery, I’m not sure I’d have any luck finding other wines sourced from Stefanik Vineyard grapes.

At the end of the day, we’ve ALL had this experience… we fell in love with some obscure bottle of wine and we won’t be able to find another. Here are my platitudes to help you cope:

1) Enjoy every sip while you can
2) Remember and appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime experience
3) Keep drinking! More gems are waiting for you!