Monday, October 22, 2018

Tasting with Stefano Ricagno of Cuvage in Asti


I recently went on a Grappa tour that ended in the town of Asti which is located in the Piemonte region in northern Italy. The area is famous for Asti Spumante, a sweet, aromatic sparkler, that is often enjoyed at celebrations due to its easy drinking characteristics. Our group set out to enjoy a sparkling finish to our tour with 5th generation winemaker, Stefano Ricagno at Cuvage.  

He led us through the winemaking area where they are producing both Asti DOCG wines as well as Metodo Classico wines. Traditionally, the sparkling wines of the region have been made in the Martinotti method which is also known as Charmat. Federico Martinotti was a native of Piemonte so the local winemakers prefer to acknowledge and pay respect to him. He actually invented the method for making sparkling wine in a closed vat in 1895 while French winemaker, Eugene Charmat, would apply the concept on a more industrial level a little over a decade later and his name would become more well known. Metodo Classico means making wines sparkling in the same way they are made in Champagne with a second fermentation in the bottle. 

As we walked through the winery, we stopped at a tank and Stefano Ricagno served up samples of the Canelli Bianco Moscato juice. This type of white Moscato is indigenous to the town of Canelli in the Asti province. He shared that linalool is the name of the distinct aroma. Linalool is a naturally occuring terpene alcohol that can be found in some flowers and spice plants, it gives the wines a white flower or citrus blossom character. The juice was deliciously drinkable but we saved some of it to take back into the tasting room where three wines awaited us. All were from the Acquesi line and all were made from the same Canelli juice.

In the tasting room:
Acquesi Moscato d'Asti CasaritoIntensely aromatic and fresh, it differs from other Asti DOCG wines in that the fermentation process is halted when the alcohol content reaches about 5% by volume. Moscato d’Asti is not a true Spumante though it still has a lively sparkle. It has a sweet taste, but is not cloying, it tastes more like a ripe peach, than candy. This wine showed notes of honeysuckle, white peach and mint, with a fresh, juicy finish.

Acquesi Asti SpumanteAsti Spumante is often seen at celebrations due to its easy drinking characteristics. With moderate alcohol, a distinctive aroma and a well-balanced, natural sweetness, this wine has a lot to offer. Crisp, aromatic, lightly sweet and juicy, this off-dry wine is fully sparkling with a persistent mousse and fresh, lightly fruity flavors, with a slight savoriness and a bit of white pepper over honeyed peach flavors.

Acquesi Asti Secco - Light, crisp, and dry with a persistent mousse and more delicate aromas of apricot and citrus blossom with flavors of pear, mint and a slight nuttiness in the lingering finish.

Following our tasting room experience, we headed out into the neighboring vineyard in Strevi where Stefano Ricagno showed examples of some of the local grapevines, Moscato, Barbera, and Brachetto. We had the opportunity to taste some grapes off the vine and take in some beautiful views. After our vineyard tour, we went to lunch in Acqui Terme at Ristorante La Curia. Stefano ordered an antipasti array to enjoy while we continued our tasting which included a sampling of three local dishes: rabbit salad, Russian salad, and calamari on creamy basil. My entree of truffled risotto arrived in time to enjoy with the second Cuvage wine.

At the table:
Acquesi Rosé Brut - Dry and crisp with a delicate mousse and cranberry flavors with a slight salinity to the finish.
Cuvage Brut Rosé - This wine is made from 100% Nebbiolo in the same way as Champagne, called Metodo Classico in Italy, this wine had a persistent mouse with red fruit notes and hints of bread.
Cuvage Cuvage Pas Dosage - No dosage sparkling wine also made Metodo Classico from 60% Pinot Nero, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Nebbiolo. This wine spent 36 months on its lees giving it freshness and a fuller body. With bakery notes and baking spices, this crisp, dry, sparkler has a distinct mineral finish from the limestone soils where the vines are grown.

An assortment of local cheese arrived to the table to enjoy with a sweet Asti Spumante. This wine is made by Stefano's family. The wine is made from 100% white Canelli Moscato from Alto Monferrato.
Ca’ dei Mandorli - Sweet and sparkling with notes of honey and sage.
The decandent lunch would end with a final course of a simple dessert similar to peanut brittle, but made from hazelnuts, Torrone di Nocciole . This was served with a local sweet Piemonte Moscato Passito wine from Pizzorni. No notes on this wine, but it was a delicious finale to our visit.

Monday, October 1, 2018

EX TERRA Wines from Fall Creek Vineyards

Last week, I had the opportunity to taste some current releases from Fall Creek Vineyards at a media event in Houston with owners, Ed and Susan Auler, Director of Winemaking, Sergio Cuadra, and Director of Operations, Ame Brewster.

The big news they wanted to share is the release of a new premium line called Ex Terra which translates to "From the Earth". The three single varietal, single vineyard wines will be sold primarily through their tasting rooms but will also have some placement on higher end restaurant lists. All three wines in the line are sourced from the Salt Lick Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country in Driftwood. Ed Auler was quick to comment, "We have to give so much credit to Salt Lick for growing these grapes and so much credit to Sergio for making these wines."

Salt Creek Vineyards was originally planted in 2005. It is a unique growing area due to the fact that it sits at a bend near Onion Creek. This creek meanders all around the Hill Country before emptying into the Colorado River. The creek tends to catch a lot of different soils from the region and during floods they get deposited down into the valley below. The mix of soils contributes to the high quality of the grapes that are grown there.


Cuadra discussed the potential of the Hill Country which not only includes this great diversity of soil types but also the different hillside exposures and unique pockets of special micro-climates that haven't been fully explored yet. Recent years have seen tremendous growth throughout the area with greater knowledge leading to better variety and terroir pairings. Ed made the point that it has taken time to figure out which variety should go where. "What if people had showed up and drilled a hundred holes in Texas looking for oil and come up empty? They could have easily believed there was no oil here and what a wrong assumption that would have been. I think that is a great comparison to early grape plantings. It has taken a lot of trial and error but Texas can do it and can be competitive with the world's important wine regions."

All three of the new wines are from the 2016 vintage which Cuadra describes as a low yield but very high quality year. "We had envisioned a project like this,' he shared, "the concept was to revamp what we have done until now. The wines were carefully aged in the winery over 18 months in different types of barrels and these three wines are the best wines we have ever made."

Cuadra joined Fall Creek Vineyards in 2013. After working with the grapes from Salt Lick Vineyards, he had noticed the good consistency despite the weather. Then came 2016 which was an almost perfect year with under an inch of rain per rain event happening at almost regular ten day intervals, this continued for almost all of spring and through midsummer. The vineyard area remained fairly dry from midsummer through harvest. He believed the even higher quality of the 2016 vintage had a lot to do with water intake and he now believes that it can be recreated in dry years. "Unlike in Europe, irrigation is a tool that we can use to maintain this type of quality from year to year."

The Wines

All three wines are 100% of the named grape and were sourced from the Salt Lick Vineyards in the Texas Hill Country off of clay and loam that sits above weathered limestone, the top soils are deep and nutrient rich from past flooding of Onion Creek. They are each priced at $100 per bottle.
EX TERRA Syrah 2016 - This wine was aged 18 months in 100% new French oak barrels. Fresh, fruity, and lively with mixed berries and a smoky note, this medium+ bodied dry red has ripe tannins that are already well integrated with a persistent peppery finish. Ed Auler stated, "This was our first time to bottle single varietal Syrah but it sure won't be our last." Cuadra added, "I know this wine will evolve beautifully over the next ten years. Only 44 cases were produced.
EX TERRA Mourvèdre 2016 - Cuadra shared that this wine project began with no agenda as far as the wood aging. They did a lot of experimenting with both new and used barrels in both French and American Oak. After tasting each and blending different amounts to make several different samples, they determined the best was a blend of everything they had done. No matter how many ways they tried it, "Blending everything was always better," Cuadra proclaimed. Brewster added, "This is a Mourvèdre with finesse that I haven't really seen before, it's livelier, not as dense, dark and brooding as many that I've had. It's less rustic and more refined." This full-bodied, dry red displayed a mix of plum and berry aromas and flavors with freshly turned earth and what I had written down as hints of root beer that Brewster noted as sarsaparilla in the winery's tasting note, also fresh and smooth with polished tannins and a lingering finish. 134 cases were produced.
EX TERRA Tempranillo - This wine was confined to just three barrels, all American oak, two new and one used. Brewster noted, "After several years of making single varietal Tempranillo, this wine stands out as a distinctive wine worthy of this higher tier." Aromatically complex with cherry and plum fruit, black tea, and dried leaves, this full-bodied dry red has a distinctive tannic structure with a lengthy smoky yet still fruit-filled finish. Only 72 cases were produced.

This new line of premium wines also received a packaging upgrade with heavier bottles, longer corks and a new label featuring a topographical map to showcase the vineyard's terroir. After receiving more accolades from Ed and Susan Auler, Cuadra wrapped up the tasting modestly noting, "Modern winemaking with accurate analysis is crucial in winemaking today yet they had none of those things in the past and they could still make great wines. It's important to not let all that control take away from how good the wine can just be."

Undoubtedly, the EX TERRA wines from Fall Creek showcase what a skilled winemaker can do with high quality grapes from exceptional terroir, all are fresh and elegant examples and all are highly recommended.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Celebrating 50 Years with Vini d'Abruzzo


The 50th anniversary of the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC is this year and select winemakers went on a tasting tour in Houston, Toronto, and Boston. They kicked the celebration off with a seminar in Houston featuring local Italian wine expert and blogger, Jeremy Parzen, and Texas-based but Italian born sommelier and geologist, Osvaldo Pascolini.

Pascolini, a Master of Terroir, first led the group through the geologic features that make the Abruzzo region ideal for wine production. Abruzzo is located between the Adriatic Sea and the Gran Sasso and Majella massifs. This short distance between the coast and the mountains create the unique conditions that help to produce high quality grapes. The diurnal swing, or change in temperature from day to night, helps the grapes to fully ripen while still maintaining their natural acidity. The good ventilation and ideal amount of rainfall also contribute to the quality of the fruit produced. The region has more environmentally protected land than anywhere else in Italy with three National Parks and over ten nature preserves. This concern for the land is translated into the wines with most being sustainably produced and many being fully organic or biodynamic.

Though there are a substantial number of younger or next generation producers, their hearts remain with their land's history and their focus is on their indigenous grapes. The Montepulciano grape variety is the most important and most widely planted in Abruzzo and was the star of the guided tasting. Also important, is Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo, a deeply colored rosé made from the same Montepulciano grapes along with fresh white wines made from Trebbiano, Pecorino, Passerina, Cococciola, and Montonico. While some of these grapes are not well known, the wines produced from them are definitely worth exploring.

After the seminar, Parzen invited James DeLeon to join him onstage for the guided tasting. Deleon is a favorite on the Houston wine scene, he has achieved level 3 status in the Court of Master Sommeliers and is instrumental in leading other sommeliers to success through the notoriously difficult testing process.

The Tasting:

Il Feuduccio Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 1999 - Always a treat to taste older wines, this nineteen year old beauty showed the attendees the exceptional aging potential of these wines. From a hillside vineyard located over 1400 feet above sea level on a mix of clay and calcareous soils, this unfiltered red was fermented in stainless steel vats followed by 12 months of barrel aging in French oak before bottle aging. Parzen stated that he put this first in the lineup because he felt "It is time to stop thinking of Montepulciano only as a by the glass wine, they can be collectible." The wine was fresh and vibrant with black cherry and floral notes of rose and violet, with hints of dried apricot and leather in the lingering silky finish.
While this vintage is not available for sale, I also tasted the 2014 at the walk around tasting afterwards. Knowing its aging potential and that it is priced around $24, it is one to purchase multiple bottles to both drink now and also to try to hold. The younger version was loaded with dark fruit, tobacco and a bit of truffle, it was velvety and absolutely delicious as well.

Dora Sarchese Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva "Rosso di Macchia" 2005 - This is the top wine of this small producer. Fresh and aromatic on the nose with violet, cherry and licorice, the bright cherry flavors matched through the persistent spicy finish. DeLeon enjoyed the well-integrated tannic structure and stated the aroma profile was "like walking into a spice shop". Parzen commented on the crowd pleasing nature of the 13 year old wine.

Collefrisio Montepulciano d'Abruzzo "Semis" 2012 - This winery is the collaboration of two friends whose intent was to stretch the limits and show the great potential of Montepulciano. It was loaded with blackberry and cherry with notes of clove and black pepper with velvety tannins and a lengthy finish. This wine was more concentrated due to its lengthy maceration period. Parzen commented on its youthfulness stating "it's on fire right now."

Cascina del Colle Montepulciano d'Abruzzo "Mammut" 2014 - This winery is centered between the sea and the mountains, they practice organic grape growing and are working towards certification. Rich and beautifully textured with aromas and flavors of mixed berries and a bit of chocolate. Deleon described it as "an interesting combination of chewy fruit and a soft plummy finish."
I also enjoyed their Terre di Chieti Pecorino "La Canale" 2017, it was fresh and intense.

Tenuta Arabona Montepulciano d'Abruzzo "Manus Plere" 2014 - Also located between the coast and the mountains, this winery is certified organic since 1991. Fresh and fruit driven with aromas and flavors of sweet ripe cherries with a touch of dried herbs. It had a grippier tannic structure and a bit of salinity in the lingering finish.


Tenuta I Fauri Montepulciano d'Abruzzo "Ottobre Rosso" 2017 - This wine comes from the thirdgeneration of a wine making family located in Chieti. The grapes were fermented and aged in cement vats which is a very traditional production method in Abruzzo. Fresh and fruity with pomegranate and cherry, a bit more rustic with a big structure and a crisp, dry finish.
I also tasted both the Pecorino and Cerasuolo from Tenuta I Fauri, both are fresh, delicious, and very easy drinking. Parzen stated the Tenuta I Fauri Cerasuelo "Baldovino" 2017 was one of his standouts from the walk around tasting.


Citra Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva "Caroso" 2013 - The grapes for this wine were hand selected from the top properties of this cooperative. Mulberry, licorice and balsamic aromas and flavors mingled through the velvety tannins through the persistent finish. Deleon commented on the wine, "Value is key here, high quality at a great price."

Cantina Frentana Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva "60 Anni" 2015 - Also from a cooperative, this group is celebrating their 60th anniversary together and this bottle is named for that purpose. Though fully dry, it had a sweet fruit concentration of mixed berries with a touch of chocolate and spice through the smooth, lingering finish.

After the tasting, DeLeon noted, "Montepulciano is a grape not everyone knows but it deserves recognition. The wines it creates are so expressive and well structured." While Parzen concluded, "I love these wines, its what my wife, Tracie, and I drink regularly. All of these wines are confident and happy to be what they are, very Italian."

Unfortunately, I did not get to taste everything offered at the walk around afterward.
Other Abruzzo wines of note that I did try were:
Frentana Pecorino Costa del Mulino 2017 - Crisp and fresh with citrus and peach notes.
Tenuta Terraviva Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo "Giusi" 2017 - Aromatic and juicy with a pomegranate flavor.
Di Sipio Montepulciano d'Abruzzo 2015 - Elegant and intense with cherry/berry and licorice. DeLeon shared that he was also a big fan of all of the Di Sipio wines.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Rediscover: Grenache - A Wine Tasting at Pappas Bros



As I get to go to a lot of professional wine tastings, I tend to not really enjoy many consumer wine events, they are often loud and rowdy. An exception to the rule is the events held by Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. They always draw a good wine loving crowd and they are always top quality in regards to the selected wines they serve, and even more importantly, the sommeliers that pour at the events are incredibly knowledgeable. The wine dinners are some of the best that are offered in Houston and are always worth the splurge.

My daughter and I attended the Rediscover: Grenache wine tasting at the original location on Westheimer last week. The event showcased a wide variety of Grenache-based wines from around the world with the added bonus of delicious hors d'oeuvres throughout the tasting. Some of our favorite passed snacks on this evening were the morel and parmesan foam risotto with black truffles and the dry-aged Colorado lamb with lentils and braised Napa Cabbage on pomme gaufrette.

Table 1 was manned by Lindsay Thomas, she was pouring wines from Spain.
Comando G "La Bruja de Pozas" 2016 - Lively and aromatic with a fresh strawberry character, Thomas shared that this wine hails from bio-dynamically farmed high elevation vineyards outside of Madrid in Castilla y Leon. The 50-80 year old vines sit on sandy granitic soil which adds to the elegant nature of the wine.
Envínate "Albahra Almansa 2016 - With notes of mixed berries, cloves and freshly turned earth, this wine is one of a collection of wines from four friends that studied enology together. The wine is a blend of 70% Garnacha Tintorera and 30% Moravia Agria, a rare Spanish grape used for blending that adds acidity. The 30-50 year old vines are grown organically on a mix of limestone, clay and sand in high elevation vineyards, resulting in a spicy, mineral laced wine.
Sara and René Viticultors "Partida Bellvisos" Priorat 2010 - Showing black raspberry, balsamic, and slate, this wine is produced by a husband and wife team who work the land organically. The wine is a blend of Carignan and Garnacha made in what Thomas
describes as a more classic style for the area, it was richer and more powerful than the previous wines. The grapes were sourced from a steeply sloped vineyard that had been abandoned for forty years due to the difficulty in working the land. While other winemakers saw the area as too arduous to consider, this couple viewed it as an opportunity to gain a pristine growing area which has no neighbors and where chemicals have never been used.

Table 2 had Robert Smith pouring wines frôm France's Rhone Valley.
Domaine des Tours Vins de Pays de Vaucluse 2011 - With black cherry, tobacco, and black pepper notes, Smith said, "This wine is aromatic and flavorful, it reminds me a lot of Burgundy in style, it's just an incredible wine." He shared that it was a blend of mostly Grenache with Syrah, Counoise, and a bit of Merlot. Fresh, silky, and peppery, it was a delight to taste.
Domaine Gramenon "La Sagesse" Côtes du Rhône 2014 - Showing mixed berries, dried flowers, and a touch of barnyard, Smith shared that this 100% Grenache wine has a sad story behind it. Owner Michèle Aubèry-Laurent started to produce wine with her winemaker husband in 1990, a tragic accident less than a decade later, left her not only in charge of their three children but also heading up a winery and vineyards. She quickly proved that she was more than up to the task. Currently, she works with their now grown son using organic and biodynamic methods in their old vine
vineyard with low intervention methods in the cellar. Smooth, concentrated, ripe and spicy, only happiness is found in the glass.
Domaine de Mourchon "Family Reserve" Côtes du Rhône Villages-Séguret 2012 - Full of ripe cherry character with some vanilla and spice, this 100% Grenache wine comes from the most important estate in the village. The vines are grown on sandstone soils on a steep, terraced vineyard. Full bodied, supple and complex, the wine lingers with a stony minerality.

Table 3 featured Houston's newest Master Sommelier, Steven McDonald, pouring wines from the prestigious Grenache region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2016 - A buoyant wine with roasted plums and Asian spices, McDonald shared that he believed 2016 to be "an amazing vintage for the region." He shared that the winery is run by two sisters, their family being some of the first to introduce biodynamic farming practices to the area. McDonald described the wine as "a very pretty wine, very Burgundian in style." Full bodied, fresh, and rich with a light floral note, it was quite beautiful, indeed.
Domaine du Caillou "Les Quartz" Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2015 - Aromatic with ripe black fruit and notes of incense, this domaine is also run by two sisters. It is a blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah that is grown on sandy soils with quartzite. McDonald explained that the winery is located at the site of an old hunting lodge that was built in the 1930's by a gentleman with far more interest in hunting than in wine. As the designated boundaries for the wine region were being drawn, he chased off the officials with a shotgun. Today, if you look at a map of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, there is a missing chunk and that is where the property sits. While the vineyard for this wine is located in the legally designated area, McDonald shared that the domaine also makes wines under the Côte du Rhone label that are also of amazing quality. Velvety and rich but also with an elegant freshness, it was a wine to linger over.
Henri Bonneau "Réserve des Célestins" Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2011 - With smoked black fruit, licorice, and hints of barnyard, McDonald shared this wine's first vintage had been in 1956 by a man who many consider to be one of the master blenders of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Henri Bonneau. Bonneau died just two years ago, he was deemed a legend in the area. McDonald explained that 2011 was considered "a very tricky vintage for the region" but that Bonneau was considered a genius at making the most of the more difficult years. With ripe berry aromas and flavors, the wine had great depth through the smoky, mineral finish, a splurge purchase on a great year now seems like a very good idea.


Table 4 was overseen by Morgan Gray who was pouring Australian Grenache.
Sucette Barossa Valley 2015 - With bright strawberry, orange spice, and white pepper nuances, Gray enthusiasticly shared, "I love this one." She described it as concentrated, spicy, yet very easy drinking. The wine is sourced from 80-100 year old vines grown in sandy soil and spends about 10 months aging in neutral oak. Floral, feminine, and elegant, the wine was easy to consume, indeed.
Cirillo "The Vincent - Survivor Vine" Barossa Valley 2015 - With red currant, hibiscus, and sweet cinnamon notes, Gray explained that this wine came from a self-sustained biodynamic estate which has a very small production, she stated, "In my opinion, they are making very premium wines." We agreed with her assessment of this fresh and energetic wine.
Twelftree Wines "Schuller-Blewitt Springs" McLaren Vale 2013 - Roasted meat, rhubarb, and menthol were present in this offering from Michael Twelftree, one of the partners of Two Hands. Smooth and juicy with a bigger structure, it sent us in search of one of the meatier hors d'oeuvres.


Table 5 was the final stop on the Grenache tour where Chris Havens poured two from California and one from South Africa.
Habit "Demetria Vineyard" Santa Ynez Valley 2017 - Fruit forward with raspberry, cherry, and spice, Havens shared that this was a small production wine that was fermented in vats with 20% whole clusters used. He said he enjoyed the "bright red, crunchy fruit character and the beautiful aromatics." The nose was bursting with red fruit notes from cranberry to pomegranate to raspberry and cherry though the flavor profile was a bit lighter than expected.
Eben Sadie "Soldaat" Swartland 2015 - An interesting profile of brambly red fruit, wilted rose petal and a granitic minerality was delivered in a lighter, elegant style. Havens described the winemaker and vineyards as "a very well respected producer whose vines are grown on granitic soils which is everything Grenache loves." A bit of a smoky meat nuance lingered through the finish.
Saxum Vineyards "James Berry Vineyard" Willow Creek District 2015 - Showing notes of black currant, mulberry, baking spice, and pepper, this complex wine hails from a small district in Paso Robles that sits at a higher elevation with a cooler climate on the western side of the region. Havens credits the blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre, and Counoise which are all vinified separately with the Grenache in concrete while the others are in small French oak barrels for the intricateness of the wine.

It was, as expected, a top notch evening of food and wine with excellent service.

Don't miss out on these upcoming Pappas Bros wine events scheduled in Houston.
September 28 - Pinot for the People at the Downtown location.
October 2 - Master's Wine Tasting at the Galleria location on Westheimer.
November 7 - Heitz Cellar Wine Dinner also at the Galleria location on Westheimer.
Book online at PappasBros.com

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Winemaker, Andrés Sánchez of Alcance


I was invited to a media and trade tasting lunch at Backstreet Cafe with Andrés Sánchez, the winemaker for Alcance, a Jackson Family winery. As guests arrived, we were greeted with a glass of lightly chilled Alcance Chardonnay 2016, a perfect start for a hot summer day in Houston.
This rich and elegant Chardonnay is grown on granitic soils in a coastal mountain vineyard in the Valle de Itata. Despite my multiple wine classes, this was a growing area with which I was not familiar. This vineyard is located between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean about 12 miles from the coast which as Sánchez pointed out adds a nice sea influence to the wine. The Chardonnay was pleasantly fresh with light citrus notes and a touch of butterscotch with a distinct saline mineralty throughout the slightly creamy finish. 

A mixed appetizer platter with Gulf Coast Beignets, duck spring rolss, asparagus and zuchini flatbread, and lump crab cakes on red pepper beurre blanc were brought out to the group as Sánchez continued. The Alcance story begins in 1988 when Jess Jackson and son-in-law, Don Hartford came down to Chile in search of land. Jackson, who had founded Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in 1982 was seeking a new project. Sánchez recalls Jackson telling him to "forget everything you think you know about grape growing for wine in Chile," and more importantly, "don't listen to others, go out and taste the land." After a thorough search of the country and tasting wines from everywhere, the group rented a winery and made their first wine in 1993. Sánchez said the wines in today's lineup were the reflection of that search. 

Our next pour was the Alcance Merlot 2015 from the El Maitén vineyard in the Valle del Maule. This vineyard area lies west of Talca, the region's largest city. Sánchez stated that this growing area has clay-rich soils that Merlot loves. The wine itself is gently treated with only 10% seeing 18 months in new French Oak resulting in a lighter, fresher style of Merlot bursting with dark plum character with a soft, lush finish. As we tasted, burrata with grilled peppers, eggplant, olives, and tomatoes on pesto with pita bread arrived to the table. 

Next up was the Alcance Carmenère 2014. Sánchez started by questioning how the grape could have been confused with Merlot in Chile for so long. His own experience has shown how very different the two grapes actually are from both the appearance of the leaves and the grapes and even more telling the difference in the ripening schedule. He mentioned that the Merlot is typically harvested in mid to late March while the Carmenère is picked in the middle of May, over a month and a half difference. He discussed how he finds the grape somewhat difficult to work with as picking too early can create a wine with heavy green notes and despite his best efforts it can also have a bit of a hollow feeling mid-palate that requires an added bit of Cabernet Sauvignon for more substance. I found the wine to be nicely spicy with no green notes, primarily aromas and flavors of ripe blackberries with a black pepper note through the lengthy finish. This wine was also sourced from the El Maitén Estate Vineyard.


My red pear salad with red lettuce, bleu cheese, dried cranberries, candied walnuts, and pomegranate in balsamic vinaigrette arrived as the Alcance Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 was poured. This 100% Cabernet Sauvignon comes from their El Principal Vineyard in the Maipo Valle. This wine exhibited classic Cabernet aromas and flavors and was definitely ready to drink now. The gentleman across the table from me had ordered the red corn chicken enchiladas, a Backstreet Cafe favorite, which comes with corn pudding and green beans, which he was kind enough to share with me as he was enjoying it so much with the wine.

The next pour was the Bravura 2013. This proprietary red blend's name means courage in Spanish though it takes no bravery to enjoy this wine.The label was inspired by a Chilean dance. Though the nose was a bit austere, the wine had good structure with a a nice freshness and dense tannins with a persistent mixed berry finish. The wine is a Bordeaux blend that is sourced from the highest quality areas of the Maipo Valley Estate, it is only produced in the best years and always in limited quantities.

As the final wine, the Alcance Vigno Carignan 2014, was poured, seared lamb chops with sautéed arugula and savory bread pudding arrived for the entire group to taste alongside. Sánchez shared that Carignan was commonly grown in the Valle Del Maule in the 1940s. He stated that the variety is even mentioned in historical Chilean wine books from over a hundred years ago though no one is sure who originally brought the vines over. He founded an organization that includes fourteen high quality growers called the VIGNO Association of Chile with the goal of promoting old vine Carignon that has been head pruned and dry-farmed. Sánchez oversees fourteen acres of Carignan that are approximately 50-70 years old. The wine was definitely a welcome surprise for the table with its light floral nose with juicy red berry flavors, refined tannins, fresh acidity, and a lingering finish. It was a perfect pairing with the lamb chops.

It was a great pleasure to meet Andrés Sánchez and to learn more about Chile. Sánchez was born in Santiago but now lives in the city of Talca. He has watched the country change and grow and enjoys life in the less populated area in which he now lives. The stories he shared and the wines we tasted were as he said, "A neat way to understand Chile from a different perspective."

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Frescobaldi - Tuscan Wines for Any Occasion

Allessandro Bernini, Italian Portfolio Manager for Shaw-Ross importers, was in Houston last month to present some of the current releases from Frescobaldi Toscana. The tasting was held over lunch at Kiran's restaurant to showcase the versatility of the wines with cuisine beyond the expected Italian. The majority of these wines are found on restaurant wine lists versus at retail shops, all are sustainably made.

Bernini shared the extensive history of this family winery which begins over 700 years ago when the then banking family moved to medieval Florence from Germany. By the dawn of the Renaissance, the Frescobaldi's were the financial backers of major improvements to the area paying to build things such as the Santa Trinita bridge. Financial success and strategic
marriages with other landholders eventually brought six estates into the family holdings, all of which were conducive to the growing of grapes for fine wine. The vineyards ranged in location from cool climate mountain side locations to sunny coastal sites.

In modern times, the 30th generation of the family oversees the winemaking and they continue to add new vineyards both in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy. All of the estates are also engaged in hospitality, said Bernini, with hotel rooms in the original castles along with restaurants serving up excellent food along with the wines.

The tasting:
Massovivo Vermentino 2015 - Sourced from a sunny coastal vineyard in Maremma, this white wine had aromas of citrus blossoms and flavors of fresh Mandarin orange with a distinct saline minerality from the ocean breezes. It was delicious with the spinach pakoras and the salad.

Frescobaldi Ammiraglia Alie Rosé 2016 - This Provencal style rosé is a blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Vermentino which were vinified separately and then blended. Bernini stated that the seaside vineyard shares a similar microclimate to Provence and that the Vermentino adds elegance and lifts the aromatics. This wine is limited with only 20,000 bottles sent to the U.S. The wine had fresh strawberry aromas and flavors with a light mineral finish that was delicious with all the soups in the flight but particularly tasty
with the tomato saffron soup.

Tenuta Frescobaldi di Castiglioni 2015 - This Super Tuscan blend is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese sourced from the Colli Fiorentini sub-appellation of Chianti which is located in the hills around Florence. This property was the first property the family owned dating back to the 1300s. This wine displayed juicy cranberry aromas and flavors which Bernini said comes from the property's terroir which he says makes the international grapes behave like Tuscan grapes. He also referred to this wine as "a gateway to Italy for California wine drinkers".

Frescobaldi Nipozzano Riserva 2013 - This wine is sourced from a property in Chianti Rúfina that came into the family in the form of a dowery in the 19th century, there are still bottles dated from 1864 in the cellar. This blend of 90% Sangiovese with some Colorino, Cabernet and Merlot was aged for 2 years in barrel creating a rich and intense red with red cherry aromas and flavors and baking spice notes through the lingering finish.

Frescobaldi Mormoreto 2014 - This single vineyard red blend is composed primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Sangiovese which was then aged for 24 months in part new and part used barrique which is then followed by an additional 6 months of bottle
aging. This full-bodied red wine had aromas and flavors of mixed berry jam with notes of coffee, it was rich and velvety with a persistent finish.

Frescobaldi Castel Giocondo Brunello di Montalcino 2012 - This wine is 100% Sangiovese that was aged for a total of 5 years, half of the wine spent 2 years in barrique and the other half in Slavonian casks before being bottled. Bernini says this wine lies in the center of traditional and modern style Brunello, it is less austere than traditional but not as concentrated as modern. This elegant full-bodied red had aromas and flavors of ripe raspberry with light floral and dried herb notes, sweet ripe tannins, good acidity and a lengthy mineral-laced finish. While each of the reds was enjoyable, the Brunello was my favorite with the spicy lamb vindaloo.

The wines were tasted on August 21, 2018, all are recommended.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Ravenswood Single Vineyard Designate Zinfandels



A small group of Houston wine writers and their spouses were invited to try the Ravenswood Single Vineyard Designate Zinfandels last week paired with three courses at B&B Butchers, an upscale steakhouse with a laid back vibe on Washington. All the meat for the restaurant is hand cut in the butcher shop and the pairings were created by executive chef, Tommy Elbashary. Our host for the evening was Gary Sitton, Ravenwood's Director of Winemaking.

Each of the Ravenswood Single Vineyard Designate Zinfandels has less than 1000 cases produced. The winemaking for each is virtually the same and has been since the owner, Joel Peterson, started in 1976. All are fermented with native yeasts, punched down by hand in open top fermenters, and aged in 100% French oak with only 20-30% of it new depending on the vineyard. The differences in the wines are not the result of the winemaker’s hand but are the truth of what the vineyard has to offer. All are distributed nationally, primarily to restaurants and, occasionally, to higher end retail establishments.

All the wines were from the 2015 vintage so I asked Gary Sitton for his thoughts on the year. He feels that 2015 was a favorable vintage despite the few heat spikes coupled with the early drought. He ranks 2015, overall, as a very good year for Zinfandel. The wines have between 14.6-15.2% ABV, they still have good balance with rich fruit and fresh acidity.

He started at Ravenswood in 1999 and the goal was always to make terroir driven wines with good balance. When he's not drinking Zinfandel, he drinks wines made from Rhone varieties, he likes them for the same reason that he likes Zinfandel, for the food friendliness and versatility. He considers Zinfandel to be a quintessential summer wine for its pairing ability with all forms of bbq and the typical sides that go with it. He is a fan of serving summer reds slightly chilled, he believes it is better to start off too cool than too warm in the summer heat. Although he loves all of the wines, he most often drinks the Old Hill and the Belloni Vineyards.

All of the wines are highly recommended, they were deliciously drinkable and paired beautifully with the meal.


The Menu:
Course One - Bacon Three Ways
Ravenswood Single Vineyard Old Hill 2015Zinfandel, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Alicante Bouschet make up this field blend from a Sonoma County vineyard that was planted in 1851 at sea level on clay loam soil on St. George rootstock. Bright, generous and juicy with cherry, black plum, pepper and licorice; dry, full-bodied, fresh and silky with a hint of smoke in the lengthy finish. SRP $60
Ravenswood Single Vineyard Barricia 2015 - This wine is a blend of about 81% Zinfandel and 19% Petite Sirah. It is sourced from a vineyard in the heart of Sonoma Valley that is planted on a mix of old volcanic soils and red clay loam at sea level. The property boasts 6 acres of Zinfandel vines planted in the 1890s. Fragrant and fruity with blackberry, plum, and spice; dry, full-bodied, smooth and persistent. SRP $39

Course 2 - 28 day Dry-aged Rib Eye with Veal Demi Glacé served with Corn Soufflé and Roasted Vegetables
Ravenswood Single Vineyard Belloni 2015 - From a small 7.5 acre vineyard that was originally planted in 1900 that sits at sea level in the cooler Russian River valley on silty loam soils in Sonoma. This wine is a co-fermented field blend of Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, and Petite Sirah, Sweet, ripe aromas and flavors of fresh blueberries, forest floor and pepper with a hint of savoriness. The cool, foggy climate helps maintain the good balance and fresh acidity, it is dry and full bodied with a long, elegant, slightly spicy finish. SRP $39
Ravenswood Single Vineyard Dickerson 2015 -  This 100% Zinfandel wine is sourced from just south of St Helena in Napa Valley from a vineyard planted in 1930 on bale clay loam soils located on Zinfandel Lane. Though this is the warmest growing site of the single designated vineyards, it still produces elegant wines due to a leaf roll virus that slows down the growth rate of the grapes while helping to preserve acidity.
Bright, fresh, and elegant with raspberry aromas with eucalyptus and a light floral note, dry, medium + bodied with sweet tannins, rich berry flavors, fresh acidity and a bit of pepper in the lingering finish. SRP $39

Course 3 - Butter Brownie and Gelato
Ravenswood Single Vineyard Teldeschi Vineyard 2015 - From Dry Creek Valley, this is the third generation of the Teldeschi family that are now farming this vineyard. It sits at 300 feet above sea level on gravelly, clay loam. It is cross cultivated and dry farmed with a high percentage of old vines. The blend is 78.2% Zinfandel, 15.8% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane, and 1% Alicante Bouschet. This is considered to be Ravenwood’s highest quality Zinfandel vineyard that they source from in Dry Creek Valley. Big, dense, and dark with ripe blackberry, black cherry, and espresso, dry, full-bodied with a persistent, silky chocolate finish. 
$39
Ravenswood Single Vineyard Big River Vineyards 2015 - Sourced from old Zinfandel
vines planted in 1893 on 14 acres in southern Alexander Valley in Healdsburg on the backside of Fitch Mountain where the Russian River makes a turn and heads out to the coast. The vineyard takes its name from this geographic feature. The vineyard sits on a high bench above the fog at a 500 foot elevation on volcanic red clay loam soils. This vineyard is only planted with Zinfandel which was not typical of that time. Harvesting can be a challenge as the warmth of the region can lead from underripe grapes to overripe grapes within a couple of days. This Zin was a bit riper than the other one from the Dickerson Vineyard yet still refined. Rich and round with raspberry jam, dried herbs, and pepper; dry, medium + body with smooth tannins, good acidity with a juicy spiced cherry finish. SRP $39