Sassicaia and Super Tuscans

SassicaiaThe wine world has been shocked more than once by unexpected achievements.  In the 1970’s, a wave, described by some in Italy as an advance and others as a horrifying departure from tradition, shocked the wine world.  In the last 30 years or so Italian wine has undergone huge improvements and won international attention in a way it never has before.  The wave (the emergence of the Super Tuscans) added a new name and spurred this surge in quality of Italian wine.

Marketed by Antinori, these wines, in particular Sassicaia and Tignanello, won world-wide acclaim in a hurry.  In 1978, Sassicaia won first place in a prestigious international tasting conducted by a no less prestigious magazine, Decanter.  That Italy would beat French wines and those from 11 other countries created quite a stir.  This is a highly priced wine, but the lessons we can discern from tasting it need to be learned, at least from reading — better still from tasting.

  1. Wines are built for aging or for immediate consumption and this wine, along with its counterparts in Bordeaux, is made for the long haul.  I tasted it young and was not disappointed, but wait a few years and the wine will be much more giving.  We can tell a wine is made for aging by the power of its tannins and the firm structure of the wine, among other things.  When young it will usually be tight — a word tasters use to suggest the wine has much more in terms of flavor and aroma that is hiding behind the strong tannins and has not yet been released.  When the tannins soften, the flavors will pop.
  2. When you encounter a wine that is tightly wound but you want to enjoy it now, serve it with some rich protein — in this case with a rib eye, perhaps — and the tannins will be softened somewhat by the protein, releasing more of the fruit.
  3. When you taste a great wine, the tannins will no doubt be fine, not course and rough in texture.  Strength and texture are two different qualities of tannin to be observed separately.  Compare this in your memory with a black tea that has been brewed for 5 or more minutes and you will not mistake the textural difference of the tannins in the wine and the tea.  Fine tannins make for a better wine.
  4. This wine is a perfect example of a great European wine.  It is not made to be a fruit bomb or even to focus on the fruit.  Fruit, tannin, acid, and alcohol are all balanced beautifully with the obvious addition of minerality, which is like the finishing touch on an Old World wine.  Therefore, it may seem to some to be a little more austere when it really is not.  It is waiting for its debut a few years out.  As it ages, the wine’s elements will marry, softening more and producing a wine that changes with its age much like humans mellow and change.
  5. Great Old World wines can also be said to be both soft and aggressive.  This is one of the pleasures of drinking the best of the Old World.  The wines both attack and soothe.

If you have a chance to taste this wine, note these lessons and any others that you might discover as you taste.  You will have been treated to a measure of what a very great wine from the Old World is meant to be.

For those who are curious, here are a few of my notes:

Firm tannins and structure, tightly wound.  Perfectly balanced and stimulates the mouth with a velvety touch.  Citric and lactic acids dominate because of the malolactic fermentation.  This also means the wine can be approached while young without pummeling your senses.

The flavors are many:  blackberry, blackcurrant, toast, cedar, dark chocolate, and already hints of leather with some coffee beans and their slight bitterness (what the Italians call amore) from the tannins (but not in any way offensive).  Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Cabernet Franc 15%, 24 months in French oak barriques.

Rating: 94

Emotional rating: 94 and rising!  Salute!

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Grapes Don’t Come with a Guarantee

Colorado Grape Growers have suffered severe losses.  Of the last 5 vintages, only one has

Vineyards of Palisade, CO in the Grande Valley AVA

Vineyards of Palisade, CO in the Grande Valley AVA

been a good crop due to winter kill and the need to cut the vines off at ground level,  retraining the new canes that sprout from the unaffected root system.  For the 2014 vintage, even Canyon Wind received some damage, which is unusual. But Colorado is not alone.

Burgundy and Bordeaux have had their devastations too.  A recent report on winesearcher.com details how for the last two years, Burgundy growers have suffered very poor crops and this year all hopes for a great vintage were high, only to be devastated by “machine gun” hail, ruining whole areas and creating losses estimated to be up to 90%.  Even their trusted hail cannons, which fire silver iodide at the clouds to dissolve the potential hail stones, did not work.  Some growers are concerned whether they will be able to continue.

All agriculture is a risky business.  Devastating weather and diseases can wreak havoc on any crop, but usually not to the extent that grapes suffer.  Why?  Except for a few ideal locations that could not support the demand for good wine, the best grapes grow on the edge of climatic possibilities and there the struggling vine produces its precious fruit, full of flavor and potential for the winemaker.  A certain cyclical pattern seems to bring times of hardship and times of plenty and the hopeful grape grower awaits the return of some great harvests.  The wine industry has always been aware of the importance of vintages for these very reasons, one in five being an apparent average for Bordeaux.

Don’t give up on Colorado wine.  Some growers are very pessimistic, but we must wait and see what the future holds. When Colorado has a good year, the wine is good — yes, very good in the hands of Colorado’s best winemakers.  I’ll keep you informed of the best as the wines are released and flag you about some affordable but excellent wines from elsewhere around the globe.  As usual, each blog will be another lesson in understanding and appreciating great wine.

Next:  expect an education in Super Tuscans and the famed Sassicaia.

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Amphora Wine: Columbia Crest Reserve Viognier 2013

Here is a wine you have to try just because a portion of it was fermented in amphora pots.  We can applaud wineries that indulge in such experimentation.  Why are amphora pots so

Columbia Crest Reserve Viognier 2013significant?  Because it is a return to the past — innovative to us, but commonplace to the folks of two millennia ago.  Wine was fermented, stored and transported long distances in amphora.

This wine from the Horse Heaven Hills is a very pale straw, clear and brilliant.  Apple pear and stone fruit aromas emerge willingly from the glass in a delicate and complex nose.

The mouthfeel is satisfyingly full, creamy, and velvety to the touch coating the mouth with a long-lasting viscosity.  Feelings help us call to mind the meaning for us of this tactile experience and if is not too far fetched, the word exotic comes to mind.  That’s what we want to happen when we savor wine — or anything for that matter.  Meanings that come to us in words help us define the significance of the experience.

To me, it is a perfect example of the effect of “micro-oxygenation,” which is achieved by a tiny amount of oxygen passing through the amphora into the wine just like it does when wines are placed in cask and the oak, being porous, achieves the same result.  So many wines today are fermented in stainless steel tanks to keep the flavors of the wine fresh that they lose this important treatment.  Oxygen rounds a wine; too much oxygen destroys it.

The winemaker feels the amphora vessels accentuate the terroir — a point to which I cannot speak.  In the creaminess of the after taste is a spice that is mellow, adding character to the wine.  The fuller, richer flavors of the tropics are accentuated too.  Paula Eakin, the assistant winemaker at Columbia Crest, feels that the hotter fermentation that takes place in the clay pots draws out these warmer flavors. She is likely right if we apply theory to our conclusions, and our tasting certainly verifies the facts.

It is one of the softest wines I have tasted.  Its finish is seamless (nothing standing out and shouting at you as it slides down your throat).  The delicate flavors last and last.  True to the grape, the alcohol is up there at 13.8%.  This is a wine to impress your wine buff friends and one that you will enjoy, not only in summer but even the cool dark days of winter.

Serve this wine and wow your friends with talk of clay amphora and spice-laden Viognier.

Rating: 92

Emotional rating:  To those who are sensitive to the meanings of touch, this is a winner — 98

Although the aromas are more delicate than many Viognier’s, it loses nothing of its memorable appeal.

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Antipiano – A Vineyard and Winery In Infancy

Antipiano Vineyard Cab SauvThis small, family-owned and run vineyard and winery outside of San Diego in the Highland Valley Wine Country is planted in 2,600 vines from Brunello Italy and 1,100 other vines.  The vines are in third leaf so it is obvious that not only are the vines young but so is the wine.

There is no pretense here, only a sincere attempt at making wine and pursuing a mission to produce good quality, fine wine.  The winemaker reports, “The 2010 harvest yielded small amounts of these wines so there’s not much bottled inventory. The cab was blended with Hellanback Ranch and Paciello cab and is still developing in the bottle.”

It is always fascinating to taste during the development of a winery from its earliest days and see how the winemaker comes out of the gates.  At first, winemaking can be a nervous endeavor, but the innate artistry of the winemaker should be evident somewhere in the wine to be tasted.

The wine was opened at 59 degrees and tasted over the period of an hour as it took its deep breaths of oxygen and presented some of its evolving characteristics.  The color is deep — almost opaque, with a young ruby meniscus and a healthy glycerol ring.  The oak has not yet married with the wine and features as the top note.  The senses are quickly impressed by the fruitiness and richness of the wine — tastes like California.  It is not hugely tannic.  One might expect more tannin in its youth.  The acids are dominant on the palate and the finish and are a little sharp on the edges.  The fruit is strong enough not to be overpowered by tannin or acid in its future development, but it is not a wine with a certain promise of a long future.  Drink now and in the next few years.  As a food wine, it is very promising, holding good acid to the finish with a clean cut.

Antipiano Vineyard and Winery: Cabernet Sauvignon, California, NV 13.5% alcohol

Rating 85-86

Emotional rating would climb with food.

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An Noteworthy Napa Winery: Turnbull

Turnbull 2010 Cab SauvGrouse Mountain Grill in Beaver Creek, Colorado is well worth any foodie’s visit.  It was there that I had my opportunity to taste and evaluate a bottle of Turnbull, 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet while indulging in the restaurant’s wonders.  Turnbull is making a mark in the quality of its winemaking and, together with Chef David Gutowski’s magic, the evening was memorable.

A intense shade of ruby, touched with black, awakens your expectations of a deep wine and stirs the imagination.  Wonderful aromas, rich oak flavors and loads of black currant, greet you on the nose.  Red fruit flavors are hidden in its complexity.  The wine explores the fulness and roundness of Napa fruit and yet reminds one of the wines of Bordeaux.  Although still tight and needing a little age to loosen up (or benefitting from some vigorous aeration), this wine, though not expensive, does not disappoint and is a Napa Valley promise.  I also tasted it recently alongside of approximately 100 Napa cabs and, for its price, I would recommend its purchase.

Acids are vibrant and well-balanced with the fruit, tannins, oak, and alcohol.  It is built well with solid structure.  The wine is fresh, clean, and fruity, but young.  Hold on to it for a few years, if you can.  The development of this wine should be both interesting and rewarding.

Rating 90+

Emotional rating: high nineties for those who want a wine with promise as well as an exciting present tense.

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Mourvedre? In Colorado?

Creekside Cellars’ 2010 Mourvedre, total cases 54 

Lunch on the deck over Bear Creek at Creekside Cellars Winery and Bistro

Lunch on the deck over Bear Creek at Creekside Cellars Winery and Bistro

If you are a fan of fashionable grapes, then tune in to Mourvèdre.  In Spain, it is loosing ground, but not so in the south of France.  Plantings are increasing and the grape is favored.  California has caught on.  And Australia, though having lost considerable acreage to an ill advised vine pull, is now finding this grape’s wonderful characteristics again.  Better clonal selection has a lot to do with its resurgence.  Last year, Colorado released only one Mourvèdre (to my knowledge) as a varietal  and it is available through Creekside Cellar’s Wine Club.

Mourvèdre’s characteristics are:

  • Much needed structure for blending with more loosely put together reds ,such as Grenache and Cinsaut
  • An intense fruitiness — especially dark fruit
  • Some hold it is more fleshy than Syrah
  • A nose of blackberries, especially a perfume that reminds of blackberries coupled with a gamey, animal characteristic
  • Aging potential
  • Strong tannins
  • The headiness of high alcohol
  • Thick-skinned berries loaded with phenolics

In Colorado, when it ripens well it is a surprise, since it cannot stand very low temperatures and buds and ripens late.  The grapes for Creekside’s wonderful 2010 version came from Palisade.

Emotionally, we are set up for this wine by its almost opaque, dark red color.  The nose could not be more varietal, sporting the aroma of fresh, juicy blackberries, coupled with the darkening tones of vanilla from French Oak.  Lifting its dark character a little and adding another fresh note is the lighter aroma of thyme.  The body seems lighter than its 14.9% alcohol would indicate due to the refreshing fruit.  With 20 months in oak, it does not lack complexity, sparkles with fruit, and is vibrant with well-matched acids, begging for rich food.  Mocha and leather round out its dominant flavors.  It has a power-packed finish.  Drink and enjoy a prize wine — another great example of the potential that exists in Colorado for winning vitas vinifera products.

If you are fortunate enough to visit Evergreen, Colorado, be sure to stop by Creekside Cellars’ Winery and Bistro to enjoy their wine and great food in a quaint and beautiful Colorado setting.

Rating 90

Emotional rating?  The same feelings you might have in a ripe blackberry patch with the added benefit of fermentation.

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A Taste of Wines of Biblical Days: Chateau Musar

Mediterranean cellarHave you ever wondered what the wines of the middle east tasted like in biblical days?  Were they anything like wines of today?  We can, of course, exclude the flavors of oak, with which Chateau Musar treats their wines today.  The chateau lies 15 miles east of Beirut and the fruit is grown at 3,300 feet above sea level in the fertile valley of Beqaa, some ten miles further east in the snowcapped Lebanese Mountains.  For Coloradans, these wines have altitude too.  However, the grapes don’t grow at the dizzy heights of Colorado’s West Elks AVA (6,000 feet).

The Cinsault, Cabernet, and Carignan in the 2009  blend I am tasting from this warm mountain valley is a medium ruby, probably picked early as indicated by its fruit aromas.  The altitude would mitigate the warmth of the Eastern Mediterranean region and present a lighter wine.  The grapes are not planted at an altitude at which the UV rays would considerably thicken the skins as it does in Colorado.  You will also notice that it does not show the roughness that some of the wines of two millenniums ago must have displayed.  On the contrary, it is very smooth.

Red fruit, raspberry, and strawberry, with a liberal touch of toast, lead to a beautifully balanced wine.  On the palate, coffee, earth, and aromas of a moist forest air make it complex.  Warm oak and warm, but not offensive, alcohol play nicely together.  Perhaps the oak is just a little too much for those who want a dominantly fruity wine, but it is layered with character and more in keeping with the Old World wines.

I don’t think it is my imagination playing tricks with me, but the wine’s aroma reminds me of cedar, which you may know was the timber Solomon used in his building projects.  He dragged the great beams all the way from the slopes of these Lebanese mountains to Israel.  Finesse and a smooth character are the words that best describe this wine to me, not power or richness.  Note the difference to the Cabs of Colorado.

Chateau Musar knows the difficulty that can be encountered in making wine, just like winemakers do in Colorado.  However, the dangers are the dangers of war and the difficulties of transporting grapes — at times at great risk to life and limb — not the loss caused by winter kill, both of which can devastate the bottom line.

Try a wine from the world of two millenniums ago.  Choose any of Chateau Musar’s reds and the emotions of your imagination will be aroused.  Let your mind wander into the days of long ago.

Rating 89

Emotional rating will be gauged by the journey your mind is able to take.

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Gundlach Bundschu — 2010 Merlot

Gundlach BundschuAs the half-brother of Cabernet Sauvignon sharing one common parent — namely Cabernet Franc — Merlot has always shown its familial compatibility.  In the U.S., Merlot lags behind Cabernet Sauvignon in popularity and plantings regardless of its recent surge in consumption and its image as “Cabernet without the pain.”  But this is a pity, since not only in Bordeaux but here Merlot can rise to greatness and grace your table with power and style.

Here is an instructive exercise.  Take a Colorado Merlot — perhaps Two Rivers’ version, which is a well-made wine — and taste it alongside of Gundlach Bundschu’s Merlot.  You should immediately notice the difference a dry, well-drained soil (Colorado) versus one that typically holds more moisture and is richer (Sonoma) makes in the wine.  In Pomerol and St. Emilion, the soils are more clayish, holding more moisture, and their Merlot-dominated wines are regarded by some as the world’s best expression of Merlot.  Merlot seems to do best in soils that hold moisture.  The Sonoma wine is fuller and richer.  The comparison will let you experience for yourself the differences in these two excellent examples.

So, let’s see what we find in Gundlach Bundschu’s 2010 offering.

Rich aromas of oak and fruit fill your senses immediately.  Blackcurrant, blackberry, bilberry, some cherry and plum with coffee, vanilla, licorice and hint of truffle leap out at you making for a rich complex nose.  The deep, dark ruby that is opaque at the core signals a full rich wine even before you have raised the glass.  Long daylight exposure, some grapes from a warmer cline, a good cold soak plus the addition of 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec have contributed their characteristics to its opaque character.  This wine has spent 17 months in French oak (40% new), which accounts for its pleasant oak underpinning.

On the palate, lots of dark chocolate — and oh, so smooth!  It is a very rich, very full, and well-rounded wine.  What a warm, rewarding wealth of flavors and it’s true: no tannic pain or puckering astringency to disturb the American palate.  If you would like to know the definition of smooth, try this wine.  Let’s add the oft-repeated descriptor “supple,” because it, too, describes the overall effect of the wine.

Where the grapes have not swelled to full ripeness and the climate is more taxing  (Colorado is more taxing), an acid bite can be quickly noticed in Merlot.  However, along with this increase in acid goes the increased number of foods with which it will pair well, and a European palate might appreciate the Two Rivers version more.  Conduct your own comparison and educate your palate.  Which do you like best and for what purpose?

Blackcurrant (the dominant fruit flavor in the Gundlach Bundschu example) has a warm, dark, fruity aroma coupled with a lively edge that lifts the wine’s appeal.  See if you don’t pick up this liveliness on the nose of this wine.  I grew up with blackcurrant berries, jellies and drinks and love a wine in which I detect its full rich quantity.  It is also a fruit that will last for a long time without fading or disappearing in the wine as it ages.

As a parting note, this wine can challenge the wines from the right bank of Bordeaux and surprise you.

Rating: 91

Emotional rating?  Blackcurrant and chocolate lovers will probably rate it 98!

For an evaluation of the Two Rivers Merlot, go to my book, Experiencing Colorado Wine (page 253), which you can order from this site.

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