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In Search of Value

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I am sure there are many wine drinkers who go to a store’s wine section, get overwhelmed by all of the different bottles, labels and names that are lined up on the shelves.  Yes, it can be quite confusing.  And because of that,  I have heard countless times, how people select wines based upon the eye catching label, pretty packaging, the 96 point rating  or the fact that the wine was on sale.  There is so much marketing jargon and image building in today’s world, it is hard to find out what the real dealio is on wines, even for the professional.

With a little research and digging around, however, one can find great values, which will deliver much more quality for your dollar spent.

For example, one of the aspects of wine I relish is those where a family owns the vineyard.  The really passionate and dedicated ones are then vested in the wine from the ground to the bottle.

Another good sign then is if they farm their vineyard sustainably and try to create a “living” vineyard, one they can later proudly turn over to the next generation.  This says something about them & their core values.

I then usually dig around in the less en vogue wine growing areas to find true value, where the land is much less expensive, especially if it was bought a generation or so ago, as this can greatly affect the store shelf price tag.

To help you get started, here are a few of our favorites.

2014 HYBIRD CHARDONNAY–The Schatz family purchased their vineyard in the 1950’s, out in Lodi, California. They farm sustainably, the first grower In the region in fact to certify 100% of their acreage by a third party.  The resulting estate Chardonnay is wonderfully tasty, pure, refreshing, thirstquenching & hard to beat for the price…and on many different levels.

2013 ANCIENT PEAKS MERLOT  “MARGARITA VINEYARD”–The Ancient Peaks estate vineyard is roughly 1000 feet in elevation in the hills of southern Paso Robles, California and is owned by three ranching families.  Certified “sustainable in practice”, the 2012 Merlot comes from 3 different parcels, each with ancient seabed soils.  There is therefore nothing simple or tooty fruity here, just lots of “mountain grown” flavor, depth and earthy character, which is why its perennially gets so much accolades and acclaim.  It really is too hard to beat for the price and therefore well worth searching out for.

2012 ERNESTO CATENA CABERNET SAUVIGNON  “TAHUAN”–Ernesto is the oldest son of the iconic , Argentinean wine legend Nicolás Catena. He decided in 2002 to branch out on his own to fulfill his vision of what the foothills of the Andes Mountains could create in the vines and the resulting wines.   Like his father, Ernesto also has vineyards high up in the foothills, which he organically farms.  The Ernesto Catena Cabernet Sauvignon is one of our favorites in terms of great value, as it is  elegant, suave, classy in style and certainly over delivers for the price.

2013 DOMAINE de FONTSAINTE CORBIERES–Historically, the  vineyards of this domaine were planted by the Romans, way back when.  The  Laboucarié family came on the scene sometime in the 17th Century and have been farming their vineyards & making wine since.  This is one of our all time favorite southern French “country” red wines, because of how delicious, lighter bodied and gulpable it is year in and year out.   You will also be amazed how diverse this wine can be with foods, from pizza, to meatloaf to vegetarian oriented foods to lighter pasta dishes to even more complex fish preparations when served slightly chilled.   With every cork popped and subsequent taste, I am always utterly re-amazed at the still very reasonable price tag.

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A very different perspective of Pinot

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Today in our VINO wine bar we did a tasting of 4 different Pinots from a very unique perspective.

2009 Movia Pinot Noir “Modri” –we began the tasting with a Pinot totally “out of the box”.  We wanted to get the tasters out of thinking & evaluating Pinot Pinot 1with preconceived notions.  In doing so, this wine was like serving a wine to the tasters blind.  Furthermore, we did not ask participants to identify the grape variety, soil, vintage, producer.  We instead asked if this was a “good” wine, eventhough it was not something they were used to.  What would they pay for this wine…….& what kind of foods would they think of serving this wine with.

Afterwards, we provided tasters some information from the winery’s website–“The Movia estate dates back to 1700, passing into the hands of the Kristančič family with a wedding in 1820. The estate extends over 22 hectares of land, about half of which lie on the Italian side of the Goriška Brda (Collio).  Heading up this iconic family estate is the absolutely brilliant & vanguard ALEŠ KRISTANČIČ, who once noted–Pinot Noir is like a virus. Once you’re infected, there’s practically no cure. At the same time it is one of the most difficult varieties for cultivation: there is no system, there are no rules, neither in selecting the parcel, nor in deciding on the method of planting, nor regarding the right time for harvesting. This is a variety that never ceases to surprise – sometimes it brings joy, sometimes disappointment. It causes so many headaches that even a small success delivers great joy“.  The Pinot is grown in Brda marl, hand harvested, wild yeast fermented & spends up to 4 years in 220 liter barrique.   Pinot 2

2011 Fürst Spätburgunder “Centgrafenberg GG”–Owner/winemaker Paul Fürst was selected as 2003 “Gault Millau Winemaker of the Year” & is today one of the top Pinot Noir maestros in the world.  In contrast to Pinots from other well know “homes” of this varietal, I find his renditions to be so hauntingly ethereal & so remarkably delicately nuanced & therefore so incredibly unique & probably “out of the box” for most avid Pinot lovers.  This therefore was yet another opportunity for tasters to ask themselves if this was a “good” wine… much they would be willing to pay & what kind of foods it might work with.  As readers will recall from past blog posts, the initials GG represent Germany’s attempt at a Grand Cru system & therefore the Bürgstadter Centgrafenberg has deservedly been selected as one of those standout vineyards.  Located in the Franconia winegrowing region of Germany, its red sandstone-clay-rocky soils create a very different profile of Pinot in comparison to his other holdings, most notably the Klingenberger Schlossberg.  Yes, the wines are pricey, but I believe one gets much more quality & pedigree than many equally priced Pinots from the New World.  Furthermore, I also think they have a rightful place on the world class mantle even in comparison to many one finds from Burgundy in similar price ranges.   Pinot 3

2014 Lucien Boillot “Les Grands Poisots”–here is a white wine, produced from the Pinot Beurot grape variety (a mutation of Pinot Noir), grown in Burgundy, France.  While visiting Boillot  several years back, my wife Cheryle & I were captivated by the one white wine in the incredible line-up of new releases we tasted at the domaine.  It smelled vividly of wild strawberries & all kinds of cherries, which really caught us off guard.  So, we ordered the wine.  Much to our surprise when the wine actually arrived into Islands & we excitedly cracked open a bottle, the red fruit had taken a back seat to Burgundian minerality.  Wow, what a trip!  We really loved the wine nonetheless.  Back then I was told the wine was produced from a couple of rows of vines in their Gevrey Chambertin holdings, but have subsequently also heard the vines are in Nuits St Georges.  In any case, as we have noted in previous blogs, the Cote de Nuits is most famous for their red wines & the Cote de Beaune for their white wines.  Here was an example of a Cote de Nuits white which because it was not Chardonnay had a very different character (with qualities/character I also see in other whites from the area).  Besides the red fruit nuances, there is a much more copper hue to the color & a rounder, more generous mouthfeel, especially in the middle.  Kind of reminds me of the Pinot Noirs vinified white used in Champagne before the extended yeast/less aging.  Fascinating to say the least.  Pinot 4

2008 Cavallotto “Langhe” Bianco–to continue this thought, we ended this tasting with a Piemontese Pinot Noir vinified white. The wine had wonderful minerality, flowed so evenly & completely from beginning to end & finished UN-oaky, UN-alcoholic & UN-bitter.  The wine smelled of Burgundy like minerality & over the years has fooled many of its origin.  Many years back, Cheryle & I stayed in & toured Piemonte, Italy.  I just wanted to see & walk as many of the Cru vineyards as I could.  At the top of my list was the steep hillside, conca Bricco Boschis & the brothers Cavallotto, who produce some of my favorite Nebbiolo.  In our tasting there, I was mesmerized by one of their white wines, which was simply labeled as Langhe Bianco.  It truly was one of the most interesting we encountered on that trip to Italy.  I soon found out that the family, we were told, had recently purchased some of the lower, flatter parcels down below, which included some then 22 year old Pinot Noir & Chardonnay vines.  I surmized, being a family engrained in producing more traditional styled wines, a red Pinot Noir would look odd in their portfolio.  However, by vinifying it white, it would then be a wine of the vineyard rather than of any grape varietal…..hence Langhe. (in addition to legal labeling requirements).  In any event, it made total sense to end this tasting with this wine.  Being a 2008 & therefore some bottle age & development, it was mesmerzing, captivating & VERY uplifting.  AND, there was again a reminder in color, taste & texture of the Pinot Noirs vinified white used in Champagne before the extended yeast/less aging.

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The next flight of this comprehensive Rhone grape varietal tasting featured 3 white wines from southern France.  The first wine, 2013 Clos Ste Magdeleine Cassis comes from a Cassisbreathtaking vineyard jutting out into the surreal colored Mediterranean Sea in the Cassis appellation of Provence, France.  This wine, however, is far from being a romantic notion because of its spectacular vineyard setting.  If you look more closely at the soil below the vineyard, one can see it is limetone dominated, which gives this white its vitality, freshness, ethereal lightness on the palate &  mesmerizing minerality.  For many years, therefore, this iconic white wine was the definitive wine pairing with Bouillabaisse, the world renown fish B Wine #9soup of Provence.  The blend is typically 40% Marsanne, 30% Ugni Blanc, 25% Clairette & 5% Bourboulenc, fermented in stainless steel, after which the lees in added back in & then further aged for 14 to 18 months.  (I remember a time, when this wine was more Clairette & Ugni Blanc dominated…..& fermented in concrete, so times have changed).  Having said that, this is still a wine of the site–soil, the salty air, the generous sunshine & the cooling sea winds.  For me, a classic.  The 2011 Domaine Vinci “Coyade” is a very unique & interesting southern French white wine which I frequently refer to as “liquid rock”, as it really does smell & taste like sun baked rock, with some wild shrub & herb nuances.  Produced from 75% Maccabeu, 15% Carignane Blanc & 10% Grenache Blanc grown in clay limestone soils, foot stomped & wild yeast fermented.  1/2 of the Maccabeu is fermented in stainless steel (with lees) & the other half in old demi muids, where it will age for 16 months.  This is a very masculine, mega intense, wild, powerful, stony wine, which makes you rethink your previous perceptions/thoughts with each sip & taste.  The 2014 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is another mega intense, masculine, stony white wine.  The reason why we served this after the Vinci “Coyade” is because of its innate pedigree & more layered/nuanced character.  It, however, really took me a long time to understand this wine.  The 2014 is 40% Clairette, 30% Grenache Blanc, 15% Bourboulenc & 15% Roussanne, 1/2 fermented in cement, 70% malolactic & then aged in foudre/demi muids, 10 to 15% new.  Definitely a white wine of the stones.

The final flight of this epic tasting, “In Search of Good Wine” featured 3 pink wines produced from Rhone grape varietals.  The first wine, 2014 Domaine Fontsainte Corbieres “Gris de B Wine #10Gris” has grown meteorically in popularity since I first brought this wine to the Islands sometime in the late 80’s/ early 90’s.  I would say key factors in its growth include a charming, outgoing personality, deliciousness year in & year out, its incredible food friendliness AND mainly because it really does over deliver for the dollar!  The 2014 is 50% Grenache Gris, 20% Grenache Noir, 20% Carignane, 5% Mourvedre & 5% Cinsault, tank fermented with no malolactic.  I would also say, that the quality has really improved over the years, without any significant price increases amazingly.  In comparison, the next wine, 2014 Chateau D’Esclans “Whispering Angel”, has changed since I first had it.  I am sure that has a lot to do with its growth in popularity, as I readily see it on top wine lists across the country.  The 2014 is a blend of mainly Grenache, with Cinsault & a smidgeon of Rolle (all from La Motte en Provence), fermented in stainless with twice a week less stirring.  The wine is still delicious, light on its feet, ethereal & therefore quite remarkably food friendly.  The final wine of this flight & the tasting, 2014 Maxime Magnon Corbieres Rose “Metisse”, is quite a unique & interesting wine, one that took me some time to get a handle on.  While there has been a movement to lighter, more ethereal, minerally styled roses, this masculine, heady, minerally one comes along.  The 2014 is 40% Carignane, 30% Grenache, 20% Cinsault & 10% Grenache Blanc, direct pressed, whole cluster (the Grenache & Carignane co-fermented) in cement, malolactic, with 6 to 8 month aging in old barrels.  My aha moment was when trying this wine with foods, & then realizing it really is more like a red wine in style.  Having said that, rest assured there is lots of vineyard character still in the wine (not some fruit bomb) AND it still has wonderful deliciousness & gulpability despite its heady, robust style.

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The next flight featured Mourvedre based red wines.  For many, the Mourvedre grape variety is a tough one to get to know & understand.  It can very easily make very non-chalant, raisiny wine or very high acid, super tannic juice or a combination of all of the above.  In actually, therefore, there really isn’t too many I would buy for our restaurants, for many reasons.

Here are 3.  The 2009 Skaggs “Montage”–Superstar entertainer Boz Skaggs is also a real wine lover.  On his 2 visits to VINO, he ordered red wines from southern France.  So, it is B Wine #4understandable that when he planted his own vineyard, 1100 to 1400 feet up (3 to 4 week longer hang time in comparison to the valley floor below) Mount Veeder (Napa Valley), it would be to mainly Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre grape varieties & which he would organically farm.  The mix of grape varieties %’s change each vintage.  The 2009 is 48% Mourvedre, 38% Grenache, 9% Syrah & 5% Counoise.  The resulting wine has a darker, more masculine edge than I tasted in his previous releases, but it still flows so evenly & completely from beginning to end.  The 2012 Force Majeure “Collaboration VI” features high quality Clos de Ciel vineyard grapes & the winemaking talents of James Mantone of Syncline.  The 2012 is 55% Mourvedre, 39% Syrah & 6% Grenache, fermented & aged in concrete & large puncheons.  This masculine, sultry, intriguingly rustic gives an inkling to the potential the Mourvedre grape variety really has in Washington state.  The 2013 Domaine Gros Nore Bandol–is the family project of avid hunter Alain Pascal.  The 2013 is 80% Mourvedre, 15% Grenache & 5% Cinsault grown in their estate’s clay dominated soils.  The 2013 was partially de-stemmed & spent 18 months in foudres.  Eventhough this remarkably “rising” star is only hundreds of yards away from the iconic Domaine Tempier, these wines are so decidedly different–much more masculine, earthy, robust….still with lots of the rustic, meaty, gamey, wild herb qualities it shares with Tempier.  B Wine #7

We decided to taste the 2013 Keplinger “Sumo” on its own as this wine is very different from anything else we poured on this afternoon.  I think we can safely say, this is a big, masculine, lavish, opulent, full throttle beast of a red wine, which the name “Sumo” aptly describes.  The 2013 is 76% Petite Sirah, 20% Syrah & 4% Viognier, all from the Shake Ridge Vineyard up in Amador county.  The 2013 was aged in muids d’Oc & demi muids from Burgundy.  Rated 94 to 95 points & a 270 case production, I would say, makes this a real challenge to get.

The next flight featured 5 Syrah based red wines, so that tasters could better understand what this innately noble grape variety can offer.  The first of the 5 was the 2013 Gramercy Syrah “Lower East”–here is what the  winemakers had to succinctly say–“Walla Walla lies in the Lower East corner of Washington State. Our goal was to make a fantastic Syrah at a fantastic price. B Wine #8Previously called the Lower East Southern Blend, in 2013 we decided to change the wine to a 100% Syrah blend. The 2013 combines the freshness and acidity of Minick and Upland Vineyard, sitting at 1300 ft in the Yakima Valley, with the funk and meatiness of the rocks at Stoney Vine and SJR Vineyards in Walla Walla“.  The wine spent 16 months in French, only 10% new.  How can true wine lovers not love the wonderful elegance coupled with the gamey, rustic, masculine, savory character of this wine?  Furthermore, this is essentially the “entry” level Syrah for this standout Washington producer.  There are several other very stylish Syrahs in their portfolio to try, as well as a most interesting Mourvedre based red.  The 2012 Mollydooker “Carnival of Love”, exemplified a lavish, opulent, decadent 95 point rated Australian Syrah fruit bomb in all its glory.  The 2013 came from the Gateway Vineyard in McLaren Vale & was aged in 100% new American oak.  This side by side provided a very clear comparison between 2 very different takes on Syrah based wines of the New World.  The 2011 Faury Syrah “L’Art Zele”, in comparison is a more traditional minded Syrah from France’s northern Rhone Valley.   The grapes actually came from a small parcel, 850 feet in elevation, only 150 feet from the Cote Rotie appellation boundary.  The 2011 was 70% de-stemmed & spent 15 months in 5 to 15 year old demi muids.  The classical stony, meaty, gamey, lavender/violets, hawthorne northern Rhone character just jumped out of the glass with such a wonderful textural, balanced & classy mouthfeel.  This classical style reminded me of what true Syrah was like when I was growing up in the industry, & I was immediately reminded of such classics as those from Joseph Panel.  The next 2 wines came about from a collaborative meeting of 2 giants of the wine field–legendary French wine maestro Louis Barruol & superstar wine importer Kermit Lynch.  The first of the wines we tasted was the 2012 Crozes Hermitage “Les Batits”.  It’s not often one runs across an engaging,  attention grabbing Crozes Hermitage, much less a good one, worth the asking priceQuite candidly I was somewhat skeptical before trying this wine.  The dangling carrot, however, is that Louis Barruol has such a passion for the old, standout Petite Serine selection of Syrah grown in the northern Rhone Valley.  Because of his long time reputation & his (& his family’s) resulting network & relationships, Barruol is therefore able to find & source these heirloom/heritage grapes.  Because he then passionately crafts each as unique individuals, we therefore thankfully get some really “good”, authentic, artisanal Syrah rather than losing them to huge negociant blends (which usually are more about generalities rather than uniqueness).  This parcel features 40 to 50 year old vines in sandy loam soils, is 90% destemmed, fermented in cement & aged for 15 months in 1 to 2 year old barrels.  This really was a pleasure to savor & certainly (& thankfully) provided the impetus to reminiscent of the old days AND the pure enjoyment of & sense of wonder created by the wines of the old days.  B Wine #12The final wine of this flight was the 2009 Cote Rotie “La Boisselée”.  I really loved this wine as it vividly reminded me of the old days & why I so passionately loved northern Rhone Valley Syrah based reds.  Aside from the characteristic gaminess, rusticity, stoniness, pepper, it still was so wonderfully aristocratic & regal.  And, I am not sure how many would say this wine also had a loveliness & charm, without taking anything away from its masculinity, virility or rusticity.  I wish more people could taste wines like this, so they can better understand the incredible, true potential the Syrah grape variety innately has.  AND, although lately I have been more enamored by what I have been tasting out of Cornas than Cote Rotie, this wine resoundingly reminded me how inspiring Cote Rotie can be.  I am really hoping this collaborative project can continue sourcing this quality level of Petite Serine for their cuvees.

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On this day, with the help of Warren Shon, we put together another comprehensive tasting for young wine professionals.  The theme for this one centered around Rhone grape varieties.

The main goal was to again help shed light on what is “good” wine.  In most cases, therefore, I prefer to taste the wines blind.  No one has to guess grape variety, soil, region…NO deductive, grid kind of angle.  The questions we instead ask… it a good wine?  Why/why not?  How much would you pay for this wine?  What foods would you consider pairing the wine to & why?  And finally, when would you consider recommending the wine & how?  We feel this is much more pertinent to the restaurant or retail store floor.

The first flight featured Carignane based red wines.  This red grape variety, I find, is not as showy or flambouyant as the Grenache, Syrah or Mourvedre grape varieties.  BUT, well grown & crafted Carignane can have a wonderful deliciousness, pliability & a surprisingly wide opportunity for a whole myriad of foods.   The secret is finding the good ones.

B Wine #1The 2014 Neyers “Sage Canyon”–is, in my opinion, a homage to the totally inspiring wines of Didier Barral & Maxime Magnon down in southern France (whose wines we will discuss shortly).   The 2014 is 34% 100+ year old Carignane & 25% Grenache, 15% Mourvedre & 15% Syrah (all heirloom/heritage grape vines), which has been foot stomped & made with deliciousness & gulpability in mind.  This wine is really unlike anything else I have tasted out of California.  The 2014 has compelling, charismatic fruit, an unprententious personality, coupled with intriguingly rusticity & vinosity, all done with absolute deliciousness, balance & wonderful, seamless texture.  We are HUGE fans.   The 2013 Domaine Fontsainte  Corbieres “La Demoiselle”–is one of those wines we buy year in & year out because of its inherent deliciousness & food friendliness.  The Corbieres appellation is located in southern France & Fontsainte’s vineyard holdings have a mix of soils–silica, gravel, clay & limestone.  The La Demoiselle parcel has 102 year old Carignane vines which serves as the core of this cuvee–60% (done carbonic) with 30% Grenache Noir & 10% Mourvedre, fermented in cement & aged in barrels for 8 to 12 months.  The 2012 Leon Barral Faugeres–Faugeres is another village down in southern France.  The dominant soil is schist, the 40 to 70 years old vines are biodynamically farmed.  This wine sees wild yeast fermentation with whole clusters & spends 2 years in cement & stainless steel.  Unlike the previous 2 wines, this is much more gamey, wildly rustic, even with a little “fur” to it.  Furthermore, one can readily smell & taste the sun baked rocks, wild shrub & herbs that surround the vineyard.  The 2013 Maxime Magnon “Rozeta”–is typically the hardest of these wines for us to get.  The core is 50 to 60 year old vine Carignane with some Grenache Noir, Syrah, Grenache Gris, Maccabeu & Terret, all grown in limestrone/schist soils.  The wine is then aged in old Chassagne Montrachet barrels.  The wine’s outgoing fruity/gunflint core nose is somewhat reminiscent of the wines from Jean Foillard of Morgon, Beaujolais–(protege & teacher?), although actually so different in character.  Well worth checking out!!!  (We also opened a bottle of the 2014 Maxime Magnon “Campagnes”, but it was sadly corked).

The next flight featured Grenache based red wines.  Grenache is typically a tough love for me.  I run across too many hollow examples & too many which B Wine #6have an extreme sun baked, raisiny quality which I find very distracting.  Still, passionately farmed bottlings from interesting vineyards & highly skilled winemakers can really help fill a void I see between Pinot & Cabernet based red wines, in terms of weight & drama.  The 2012 Villa Creek Garnacha–comes from 3 of the top caliber limestone/siliceous clay soiled vineyards of Paso Robles (Luna Matta, James Berry & Denner).  The soils help to create mesmerizing minerality in the finished wine, which makes it seem less heavy AND much more interesting.  This 91 point rated 2012 saw 75% whole cluster & was aged in 500 liter puncheons, 25% new.  I really believe that there is a huge opportunity with a wide audience of wine lovers for this wine because of how delicious & mineral driven it is.  The 2011 Samsara Grenache “Larner Vineyard”–this 100% Grenache comes from the limestone bedrock soils of the iconic Larner Vineyard of Ballard Canyon.  The resulting wine has more lushness, fullness & less obvious minerality on the palate than the previous wine, while still being elegant & refined.  The specs on the 2011–clone 136, whole cluster, aged in old oak….total of 56 cases….90 to 92 point rating.  The 2013 Keplinger “Lithic”–is a new wine to Hawaii.  Owner/winemaker Helen Keplinger has honed her skills & craft at several top caliber wineries including Bryant Family in the Napa Valley.  I find it so fascinating that the 2 wines we tasted on this day each came from the Shake Ridge Vineyard up in Amador county & its high altitude, quartz, basalt & shale soils.  The lavish, full flavored, outgoing, 93 point rated 2013 Lithic is 42% Grenache, 33% Mourvedre, 25% Syrah, 20 to 30 whole cluster & then aged for 16 months in 1 year old demi muids.  The 94 point rated 2012 Epoch “Veracity”–comes from the estate Paderewski & Catapult vineyards of westside Paso Robles & their rolling hills of limestone/siliceous clay soils.  The 2012 is 55% Grenache, 27% Mourvedre & 18% Syrah, fermented in concrete & stainless steel & then aged for 17 months in concrete egg & 30% new French oak puncheons.  Tasting this wine after the Keplinger clearly reminded the tasters how minerality from these kinds of soils can create mesmerzing minerality & buoyancy in the finished wine & thereby making it appear less heavy than it actually is.

B Wine #5We decided to showcase the Sella & Mosca Cannonau de Sardegna “Riserva” in this Grenache flight because it delivers such GREAT VALUE.  The enormous 1200 acre estate vineyard is located in northwest part of the isle of Sardegna.  Grown in clay-sand soils, this 100% Grenache is fermented in stainless steel & aged for 2 years in large Slavonian oak.  We have found the resulting delicious, wildly rustic scented wine has a wide appeal & with a wide array of Mediterranean styled foods it can readily work with. The 2009 Arrels Garnatxa “Clos Oblidat”—is 100% Grenache, which hails from the Montsant appellation of Spain (an appellation which surrounds the more famous Priorat).  This is the project of Master Sommelier Emanuel Komiji & the estate vineyard is only 6 acres in size with slate/clay soils & harvested at a scant 1 1/4 tons per acre (186 cases).  The 2013 Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras is typically one of our favorite bottlings from France’s southern Rhone Valley, because of its soulfulness & deliciousness, quite a rare combination.  A taster asked me the other night, if this wine had VA (volatile acidity) & brett (brettanomyces).  Yes.  And?  I still like the wine.  The grapes come the estate’s 17 hectare parcel on the “Plateau de Garrigue” & its combination of red clay, limestone & the round galet (stones).  Typically the blend is somehwere around 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah & 10% Cinsault, organically farmed, de-stemmed, fermented in cement & aged at least 6 months in foudre.  This is a masculine, virile, more traditionally made beast.  In comparison, the 2013 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape “La Crau”, also from the southern Rhone Valley, is an aristocrat, with much more class & refinement.  We also love its strength, rusticity & great longevity.  I am absolutely blown away with each visit to the iconic La Crau vineyard.  It really does look like a sea of stones (galet).  Even when they dug down 20 feet, it still was 75% stones (with red clay “molasses” & some limestone).  The blend is typically 65% Grenache, 15% Mourvedre, 15% Syrah & 5% Cinsault/Calirette, partially de-stemmed, fermented in stainless steel & aged for 12 months in cement & foudre.  This is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which by the way, gets even more interesting & complex with further bottle aging.

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Oldies But Goodies 02-27-16

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One of the real pleasures of wines, I must say, is enjoying an aged wine at a perfect time of its life.  Not all wines, however, get better with age.  And, not all wines are in fact meant to age.  Furthermore, I have found ageworthy wines often periodically go through peaks & valley as it sleeps/ ages.  The question then would be, when do I open it?

I remember, for example, watching one of the true “trophy” wines early on in my career, the 1976 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, evolve over the years, both in bottle age development & price.  I marveled at how the 2 attributes were so linked.

The 1976 vintage, eventhough a lighter year which therefore produced more approachable wines, Lafite was the clear star, at least for my palate .  I really liked the wine, because it had Lafite’s standout pedigree/truly noble nuances while still being surprisingly approachable.  I didn’t have much money then, but I liked the wine so much, I splurged & also purchased several 1/2 bottles too.

Over the years afterwards, I followed the 1976’s development (AND the prices, just out of interest).  I was fortunate to taste the wine at my work place, where I would serve the wine now & then, & I could therefore periodically keep abreast of how it was developing in the bottle as time went on.

As another perspective, I noticed every time the price really spiked, I would then try one of my 1/2 bottles.  In every such case I was amazed at how the wine had come out of “hibernation” & had opened up again.  I then surmised that when the wine had in fact opened up again & showed well, collectors would want to go out & buy some, so the demand therefore increased, thus driving the price up.

Watching a wine evolve over the years was a truly invaluable experience.  Because of the insight experienced over the years, I now better understand what the real sweet spot is I want to look for in an aged wine.  First of all, I relish bottle age development–bouquet & perfume, as well as a wonderfully harmonious, balanced & well textured flow on the palate.  At the same time, I also still want there to be a virile, solid core to the wine as well.  I therefore generally look for 15 to 25 year bottle age for most “trophy” styled reds.

I recently had 3 standout red wines the other night in VINO that fit the bill.  I would also, in fact, say…… was drinking each at the perfect time of its life!  OMG.  wine 1

1985 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma Mountain”-this wine certainly caught my attention.  Although I have been an avid fan & follower of the Laurel Glen Cabernets over the years, I still marvel at what they did to produce such an amazingly ageworthy wine like this.  This 1985, which was young, virile & quite hard in its youth, was not the prune mui, dried autumn leaves, dried, leathery, sometimes pruney nuanced wines one finds in the majority of 1985 Californian Cabernets we typically run across.  AND, there were no raisined, deeply oak laden qualities one finds in aged, contemporary styled wines.  This wine had a strong, deeply flavored, surprisingly youthful core still, with wonderful structure, balance & texture.  The nose had all kinds of different nuances & earthy qualities which were mesmerizing.  Wow!  This was truly memorable & reminded me of the Californian Cabernets of old……..PRE-fruit bombs.  Thank you Kevin for sharing!  wine 2

1987 Domaine Tempier Bandol “La Tourtine”–I have been very fortunate to taste lots of Tempier Bandol over the years.  I must admit, it took me a while to completely “get it”….BUT I certainly finally got it.  I told tasters at this particular VINO get together, this was the most floored I had ever been with a Tempier wine!  This 1987 was so wonderfully developed AND open, in all its glory on this night.  I loved the nose–wildly rustic–hung, aged game, wild herbs & shrub, licorice, lavender, gunflint, sun baked rocks with all kinds of dried red fruit; the superb, harmonious mouthfeel & texture & the long finish.  This wine was truly glorious & was singing confidently & purely!  Thank you to Gail & Vern for sharing.  Wow!    A Wine #5   A Wine #6

Interestingly, roughly 2 weels later, we were able to taste a 1987 (La Tourtine) & a 1985 (La Migoua)  Tempier Bandol again, but this time side by side!  Initially, on this day, the 1987 seemed much more youthful with lots of vigor & virility in the core.  In comparison the 1985 seemed to be freying at the edges with a prominent charcoal nuance to the nose.  With some breathing, however, the 1985 came alive & showed more youth than the 1987.  This bottle of 1987 Tempier Bandol “La Tourtine” just seemed much more lackluster & tired than the one we had weeks earlier.  What a very different experience!!!  Thank you to Vern, Gail & Brent for sharing!wine 3

1994 Chave Hermitage–here was yet another epic red wine in all of its glory!!!  Again, I have been very fortunate to visit Chave a few times over the years & also privileged to taste this iconic wine in many different vintages.  I can’t think of an occasion, however, where I was as astounded as on this night.  This truly was having a standout wine at an ideal time of its life in the bottle.  The nose was majestic, confident, masculine, savory, stony with graphite, herbs, dried fruit, meaty/andouille sausage/feral rusticity, lavender, smoke, pepper & a thousand other nuances.  I absolutely loved the breed & vinosity this wine deftly & proudly exuded.  Yes, it was a most memorable wine!  (We had the 1998 a couple of nights later & it was unfortunately quite shut down in comparison).  This taste totally reinforced to me why the Chave Hermitage is truly & undeniably one of the great red wines of the world.  Thank you Mike for sharing!


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Two Standout Napa Valley Merlots

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Californian Merlot was once a very hot commodity in restaurants.  Seems like every restaurant we went to offered at least 1 by the glass & there were many on their list.

Still, the category of Californian Merlot then usually offered a very different profile/style of wine than the Merlot based wines we typically encountered from Bordeaux, France.  In short, they were often very fruit driven, ripe, forward, quite supple & easy drinking & thankfully attracted a new crowd to enjoying wine while dining or as a cocktail.

Over the past few years, however, stand alone Californian Merlots has greatly dipped in popularity in our restaurants.  Some will say the highly popular “Sideways” movie help nudge Merlot out of the lime light & bring Pinot Noir to the forefront.  I am not sure if that is true, but the reality is that today Pinot Noir is IN & Merlot is in the background, at least for Californian renditions.

In reaction to this changing trend, we have seen, are seeing & have heard that more & more Merlot plantings in California are being changed over to other grape varieties.  In the Napa Valley specifically, it makes sense that the growth in plantings would be Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot based wines from Bordeaux, France, on the other hand, still seems to be growing in demand.  Not only are the iconic Chateau Petrus & Le Pin, for example, still regarded as the most expensive & prized Bordelaise bottlings eventhough they are mainly Merlot based, but we also see a growing list of petite Chateaux Merlot driven wines, from lesser known appellations, becoming more & more available in the U.S..  (In the latter cases, I don’t know if the general public is really aware these wines are predominantly Merlot based, but are buying them because they are Bordeaux….AND at a very reasonable price).

There are 2 Merlots from the Napa Valley which deserve more recognition.  They are both interesting, more vineyard driven, superbly crafted & surprisingly reasonably priced, given today’s price of quality Napa Valley grown Cabernets.


Typically the Selene Merlot is one of our favorites out of California.  Owner/winemaker Mia Klein is a long time, highly revered Napa Valley winemaker/consultant.  Her past consulting  projects included Araujo, Dalla Valle, Etude, Palmaz & Spottswoode, a venerable who’s who list for the Valley.

When she first started her own label, Selene, she chose to feature only Sauvignon Blanc & Merlot so there would be no conflict.

Mia Klein is surprisingly low keyed & humble for someone of her superstar status as a winemaker.  I would say her Selene wines are along that line too, despite the fact that they exude class, with superb flow, texture & balance.  Her winemaking under this label never gets in the way or overshadows what the vines, sites & grapes want to say.  As terrific as they are, I am continually amazed at how “under the radar” they are to the general wine public & even the media, especially given their reasonable prices.

selene 1991Her first vintage of Selene Merlot was the 1991 & up to & including the 2000, she worked with Madrona Ranch grown fruit, eventhough the label only noted Napa Valley.  The 2001 & 2002 (15% Cabernet Franc) were a blend of Frediani & Blackbird vineyards.  She did NOT bottle a 2003 & 2004.

In addition she also produced some single vineyard designated Merlot as well along the way–1994 & 1995–“Toth Vineyard” (Coombsville); 1995, 1996 & 1997 “Hyde Vineyard” (Carneros) & a 1999 “Blackbird Vineyard” in addition to the “Napa Valley” bottlings.

Mia really settled in with the “Frediani Vineyard” for her Merlot with the 2005 vintage & it has been since.  Owned by Jeanne & Eugene Frediani & currently run by their children & grandchildren, this clay-loamy soiled vineyard is located on opposite side of Pickett Road & Silverado Trail from the much heralded Eisele Vineyard of Araujo & Joseph Phelps fame.  One block she uses was planted in 1971 & the other in 1997.  selene 2011

The 2011 spent 18 months in oak, 80% new & because of the growing season ended up below 14 degrees alcohol.  It is long in character, still with an earth driven, solid core & wonderful, seamless texture.  The 2012 has more heft to the frame & deeper, riper fruit without compromising texture & balance, also seeing 18 months in barrel, but only 60% new.  Like with many top producers, rather than choosing a favorite, I prefer instead to appreciate how both wines provide distinctly different snapshots of the same vineyard, different because of the varying weather & growing conditions.  (Kind of like appreciating my son for who he is & my daughter for who she is, rather than choosing a favorite.)   The bottom line is both are well worth searching out & for different reasons.  As a side note, there is much anticipation for the 2013!  (Many are saying this is a near perfect vintage for most of Napa Valley).


Bruce & Barbara Neyers purchased their 35 acre lot in Conn Valley (an off-shoot of the Napa Valley) in 1984.  They started planting Merlot using UC Davis clone 4 & a massale selection from Beaulieu in 1989 & 1990.

I distinctly remember when & where I tasted the first commercial vintage, 1992, of the Merlot as the wine REALLY stood out.  It was 100% estate Merlot, which Bruce himself made & of the 12 barrels, 4 were new.  Imagine standing in a room of 15 or so top winemakers pouring their big time wines from around the world.  Bruce was in fact there pouring a collection of standout Kermit Lynch offerings.  2/3’s through the tasting, Bruce walked up to me & asked me to taste a red wine.  His.  I was completely entralled!!!  And, with a Californian Merlot at that.  It’s nothing about being Californian, but please understand, up to that point, I can’t recall perviously having a Californian Merlot so interesting & captivating before.  I was all IN.

Over the years since, lots have changed.  Ehren Jordan was brought as winemaking partner from 1995 to 2005.  Helen Turley was brought on as a winemaking consultant for a short while.  The estate vineyard grew to 45 acres.  Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 1994 with the help of superstar vineyard-ist David Abreu.  They planted the Ame parcel on the steep, VERY rocky hillside in the back of their vineyard away from Conn Creek.  Tadeo Borchardt became the winemaker–2004 to present.  They built a winery.  Just name a few.

The common thread through all of this, however, is that Neyers looks to work with heirloom/heritage grape vines, farm sustainably & produce the wines with as little interference as possible especially in terms of additives.

neyers MerlotTheir wines, especially during the Tadeo winemaking, are gorgeous, interesting, soil driven with superb deliciousness, texture, balance & Old World sensibility.

While Neyers is producing some of the very best Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Mourvedre, Carignane & Grenache out of California, the Merlot is still the one that has my heart.  Theirs shows the potential Merlot can have in California; it was the first of the New Era of Neyers wines AND I have to say, at least partially because it is the underdog.

Yes, the Neyers rendition is one of Californian real Merlot standouts

I was sad to hear that they will be T-budding over their 5 acres of Merlot over to Cabernet Sauvignon in the Spring of 2016.  I suggest you buy up while there is some still around.

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We continued this wine & food workshop with a flight of 3 red wines.  We first tasted the 3 wines, one by one….blind.  Again, the intent to help participants better understand what the wine is trying to say & then determine whether they thought it was a good wine or not for their palate.  W&F 6

Wine #4–2010 Ernesto Catena Cabernet Sauvignon “Tahuan”–we decided to start off with a Cabernet, as this would be in most people’s comfort zone.  Still, while this wine does have the familiarity of Cabernet qualities in both nose & taste, several participants noted it to be decidedly different from those from California, especially a stony/earthy edge.  Most participants recognized this was in fact a Cabernet based red–good intensity/concentration, medium bodied, medium acidity with moderate tannins which flowed on the palate even & seamless & UN-heavy.  (We addressed tannins by explaining how it can work with foods & where/how to perceive them on the palate, thereby again helping them for home use selections).  W&F 7

Wine #5–2011 Tedeschi Valpolicella Classico “Lucchine”— Tasters immediately started describing the rustic/earthy nose of this wine & how different it was than what most are used to.  Because of our earlier discussions, many of the group now understood this was a wine of the soil rather than just about grapes & oak barrels.  The wine had good intensity/concentration (& much better than the previous wine, despite being lighter in body & weight), light to medium body, medium high acidity, light to medium tannins, flowed very evenly & seamlessly from beginning to end (& much better than the previous wine) & finished UN-oaky, UN-bitter & UN-alcoholic.  (Judging people’s faces & body English, many of the tasters marvelled at this wine, as it was one that before this tasting, they would not have tried, understood or enjoyed).  W&F 8

Wine #6–DeMedici Ermete Reggiano Lambrusco Secco “Quercioli”–Here is a red wine, which would be a total “out of box” experience for most, if not all, of the participants–a very rustic scented, FIZZY, leaner, fruit driven, higher acid red wine, which we served well chilled.  One could see, the wine was initially quite off putting for several of the tasters because of its idiosyncratic profile & style.  Most, however, agreed that this wine had good intensity/concentration, light to medium body, medium high acidity, low tannins, flowed evenly from beginning to end on the palate.  Still, many people did not dig on the fizziness……that is until one taster noted, how wonderful this wine would be on a hot day with some cheese & charcuterie.  Almost immediately, one could see the participants then dive back into the glass after that comment & gradually start to nod their head in agreement.  Quite an aha moment for many.

We then served tidbits of cheese & salami & asked the participants to try each of the wines with a morsel.  W&F 5

For most of the participants, Wine #4 just did not pair with the salami, nor the salami & cheese together.  Many did not mind this pairing, it just wasn’t their favorite.  For some, the oak became more evident with the food & made any possible affinity even more disjointed.   For many, Wine #5 was the most interesting pairing with the salami.  they seemed to work together hand in hand.  And, with the pairing no one seemed to notice the wine’s rustic edge, or the higher levels of acidity any more.  Many of the tasters also liked Wine #6 with the food too.  Some even preferred this wine with the salami AND the cheese together in one bite.  (Makes sense as the cheese had a saltiness to it, which most people don’t notice when having the cheese by itself.  BUT, Wine #6’s lower tannin & alcohol levels, for my taste works better.  AND, the fizziness just freshens the palate between bites).

Just another learning opportunity.  Thank you to all of the 3 different sessions for participating!

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Education is a continual goal for us.  After all, how can one not love seeing a light bulb go off in someone’s eyes?  To that end, here is a wine & food workshop we did in our VINO restaurant tonight.

We first served 3 wines…..blind.  The goal was not to have anyone try & guess the grape varietal, the soil, the place of origin nor the producer.  We asked if each was a good wine……how much they would pay for it….& how it works with food.  For the non-professional attendees, we are hoping this will help them select better wines (& why) for home use.

W&F 2Wine #1–we chose the 2011 Sbragia Chardonnay “Home Ranch”.  We wanted to start with something in most wine drinkers’ comfort zone, hence an oak laden, lush, round, wonderfully layered Californian Chardonnay.  Participants readily reeled off descriptors such as apple, pineapple, citrus typical of the Chardonnay grape variety, as well as oak descriptors such as vanilla & clove.  As expected, many of the tasters really liked the rich mouthfeel & rather smooth texture as the wine flowed from beginning to end.  We then asked whether they thought the wine was dry, medium dry, medium, medium sweet or sweet.  The consensus was medium dry.  We then addressed the body of the wine, which most agreed it was medium to medium full.  We then explained what acidity meant, why we were addressing it & how to perceive it on the tongue.  The majority felt this had medium+ acidity.   A really good start for the work shop, as participants now had “lingo” to comfortably speak about each wine AND we therefore established a base to now compare the other 2 wines.  (By the way, Ed Sbragia was the long time star winemaker of Beringer & greatly helped to bring high acclaim & accolades to their Reserve designated wines.  Sbragia is his own label, done with his family).  W&F 3

Wine #2–2013 Sella & Mosca Vermentino de Sardegna “La Cala”–is a medium dry to dry, lighter, crisp, gulpable “country” Vermentino based white wine from the island of Sardegna.  The particpants felt this wine was drier than Wine #1, lighter in body, with medium high acidity.  They also noted the wine had NO oak nuances, had good intensity & concentration, without heaviness….flowed very evenly & seamlessly from beginning to end…..& finished UN-oaky, UN-alcoholic & UN-bitter.  Again, another “good” wine.  Finally, some in the group noted this wine had stony/mineral character, as opposed to only fruit & oak driven.  W&F 4

Wine #3–2014 Domaine Skouras “Zoe”–is a medium dry, light to medium to medium bodied, highly aromatic white “country” wine from Greece, produced from the indigenous Roditis & Moschofilero grape varieties.  The participants felt this wine lied somewhere in between the first 2 wines in terms of dryness & body with NO oak nuances, good intensity & concentration & a wonderful flow on the palate from beginning to end.  Another “good” wine.  Imagine, in 20 minutes, the group learned how to better understand the profile of each wine AND had “lingo” to comfortably talk about each wine individually & in comparison to each other.  Great start!  W&F 1

Now, we served sauteed shrimp served with a garlic, lemon, white wine sauce, garnished with fresh tarragon & had the participants taste a piece of the prepared shrimp with each wine.  Interestingly only 1 person (out of 24) preferred Wine #1 with the shrimp.  (Some people said it, however, was an interesting pairing, but just not their favorite.)  One person noted that Wine #1 over powered the dish–too strong, & higher in alcohol.  Others agreed.  Another noted that Wine #1 had a slight bitterness with didn’t work so well together.   A large % of people liked Wine #2 with the dish.  They felt the wine accented the food, just as a squeeze of lemon would.  Another group of tasters liked Wine #3 with the dish, as it made the food taste better.  One person noted, (which others later agreed) that the wine’s aromatics worked really well with the tarragon.

Interestingly, in most cases, this was a huge learning experience.  Many people commented that the wine they liked by itself was NOT the wine they preferred with the food.  The learning continued as they headed downstairs to order some food & wine before they left.  I was amazed at how open & adventuresome each were now because of the insights they experienced in the workshop.

What a really fun night!!!!!!   Thank you to all who came!

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We conducted a winetasting today for “Young Sommeliers”, held at VINO.   Thank you to Warren Shon for some of the wines he provided & to all who came!

This is yet another attempt to help educate….one of our goals for 2016.  The object of this blind tasting class, however, was not to identify the grape variety, nor the soil, nor the vintage & not even the producer. The questions we asked instead included, “is this a good wine”….”How much would you pay for the wine”….”What kind of foods would you think about serving it with”… and “when and how would you recommend this wine and for what reasons”.  After all, questions like this, I believe, are more pertinent to young sommeliers who are working on the restaurant floor.

somm1The first flight featured 3 white wines, which I would categorize as “aromatic”.  Although really “good” ones are a challenge to find, I find these sleek, high refined, ethereal, minerally, remarkably light, physiological ripe though less alcoholic renditions undeniably come in handy when pairing with contemporary fusion foods.  My recent experience at the Paws Up WinterFest clearly re-enforced that to me. (Please check that post out to better understand what I mean.)  The continually challenging secret is finding the “good” ones.  Here are 3.  SOMM2

In the next flight, we tasted 2 Chenin Blanc based white wines from the Vouvray appellation of Loire Valley, France.  The intent here was to show the difference between one which is lighter, more ethereal, mesmerizingly minerally & therefore much more friendly to a wide range of foods (Champalou) versus one which is much more “trophy” in style (Huet).  Showy, mega intense & profoundly structured styled wines like Huet, we find have a much smaller window of foods they can work with.   I think blind tasting these wines side by side clearly delivered that message. Furthermore, because of our thought process & questions, the comparison of the 2 wines’ price tags (Huet being significantly more pricey) also made the quality for the dollar thought clearer in terms of potential sales velocity because of price & therefore dollars tied up in inventory.   All 3 of these thoughts are, in my opinion, part of being a wine buying sommelier.SOMM3

The next duo featured 2 wines from the same producer, same vineyard…..young & older.  I am one of those fans who is captivated with the delicious-ness & incredible food friendliness of well grown & produced Beaujolais.  We have a long history with the Fleurie from Chignard because of that.  By serving one young & one older side by side, one gets a better understanding how the wine changes in profile with bottle age.  The fruit isn’t as exhuberant & forward & the acids & tannins get much more harmonious.  For sommeliers lookingSOMM4 to pair wines to foods, here then is another potential “tool” in your pocket to possibly consider when recommending a wine for a dish.

In this flight, we tasted 2 red wines, which I would categorize as aromatic… least in these cases.  At our recent food & wine experience at Paws Up Resort, we needed red wines which could pair well with fusion prepared elk, venison, chicken & duck.  As readers will recall in the Paws Up post, we paired the Cantine Valpane Grignolino with Resort Chef Ben Jones’ Elk dish.   It really was a fabulous match, as the wine was especially well suited for leaner meats like venison or elk.  Well, as much as we love the Grignolino, this small Piemontese family run winery also produces superb Freisa as well as Barbera, which by the way, greatly over deliver quality for the dollar.  I also believed this Freisa would have worked its magic with the elk….especially one done in a very rustic, hearty preparation, as this wine is wildly rustic, masculine & gamey too.  Paul Furst undoubtedly produces for my palate, the finest Pinot Noirs out of Germany that I have had.  They don’t have any hard edges, are delicately nuanced & intricate in a very demure, subtle manner.  SOMM5So, when one the chefs lightly layered his duck dish by adding a little curry into the sauce, we knew this wine could navigate that pretty well, because of its finesse, refinement & remarkably non confrontational profile.

WOW!, here is a very remarkably light & airy rose.  I am truly amazed at how the pink wine category has really stepped forward in terms of quality, especially over the past 5 to 7 years. While there are now thankfully more & more good renditions available, wines at the top of the heap like this, deftly feature riveting, mesmerizing minerality which not only enhances the perceived lightness/airness, but also really helps butress the wine’s crisp, refreshing, food friendly edge.  This wine, which happens to be from the island of   Corsica, sets a new standard to measure others by, at least for me.  The person who introduced me to this wine, simply wrote–“it’s like drinking a cloud.  After you swallow, all that’s left is perfume“.  Definitely one of a kind!

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