Friday, March 6, 2015

Riesling Paradise

After reading the headline of this post, chances are you're thinking this is about Germany or Alsace or maybe even the Clare Valley in Australia, as they're all home to great Rieslings. But no, this is about a specific district in the United States where some pretty special Riesling is also produced. This is about Riesling from the Finger Lakes in upper New York; the producer I will talk about today is one the area's finest, Villa Bellangelo.

Wine has been produced in the Finger Lakes since the mid-19th century and today there are almost 100 producers in the area. There are eleven lakes in total that comprise the Finger Lakes, with the two longest being Lake Cayuga and Lake Seneca. About 50 wine firms are in the Seneca Lake area; Villa Bellangelo is a relative newcomer, having been established in 2002. The current owners, the Missick family, took over in 2011 and have remodeled the winery.

There are several varieties produced at Bellangelo, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However, their star variety here - as it is throughout the area - is Riesling. I recently tasted three examples of Riesling from Villa Bellangelo and was quite impressed by two of them. Here are notes:

2013 Bellangelo Semi-Dry Riesling
Aromas of yellow peach, apricot and a note of mango. Medium-bodied with very good concentration. Lovely varietal purity, good acidity, ultra clean finish with a light note of sweetness. Beautifully balanced and delicious! Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. $18  Rating: 3 and 1/2 stars (out of five).

2012 Bellangelo Riesling "1866 Reserve"
This is the winery's finest Riesling; the grapes are sourced entirely from a single vineyard (Gibson), situated a bit north of the winery. Attaractive aromas of dried apricot, yellow pear and hyacinth. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Very impressive complexity, ripeness and freshness. Excellent persistence, remarkable balance. Beautifully made wine that is sleek, elegant and displays breeding. Dry finish with notes of spearmint. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. $32 Rating: 5 stars

This last wine is as fine an American Riesling as I've had in many years! The only American Riesling I've ever tasted that is as complex and varietally pure has been from Stony Hill in Napa Valley, a legendary producer.

Bravo to the team at Villa Bellangelo for these beautiful examples of Riesling!

Note: This is my first post on this blog for some time. I've been recovering from heart surgery and it's been some time since I have had the energy to write. Hopefully, I'll write more posts soon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

It's Only Wine!!!

From time to time, I  receive emails from a few retailers letting me know about new releases they have in stock. To get readers of these emails excited about how great these wines are, they include an excerpt from a leading wine "guru" along with his or her point rating.

That's standard stuff these days, so nothing particularly newsworthy regarding this. However, it was the language of one of the reviews I read earlier this week that made me sit up and pay attention (and frankly, laugh out loud.) Here are a few words of a review by David Schildknecht of The Wine Advocate about the 2011 Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese:

"Muller's 2011 Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese delivers a penetrating and multifarious nose of heliotrope, lily, candied lime rind, quince preserves, white peach preserves, distilled herbal essences, marzipan and brown spices... a kaleidoscopically interactive array of those diverse and exotic elements that on the nose signaled its ripeness and botrytis enoblement."

"Multifarious", "heliotrope", "kaleidoscopically"? Say what? Does anyone even know what the word "heliotrope" means? More importantly, why is a word like this being used to describe the perfumes of a wine?

I mean, I guessed the writer liked the wine, but this is ridiculous. It's no wonder that so many people poke fun at wine critics and wine reviews in general.

Then you have Antonio Galloni, who has essentially found a pet phrase that he loves to use again and again. That's "drop-dead gorgeous." He uses this term a lot - you could look it up. Drop-dead gorgeous - are we talking about a wine here or Angelia Jolie?

Look, I've been writing about wine for more than fifteen years and I know that you can only write pear, melon and apple aromas for white wines and cherry, plum and tar for red wines so often. Thus I can understand a critic wanting to break the mold from time to time.

That's fine, but talk to us in terms that first, are relevant to the wine (I don't consider, "drop-dead gorgeous" a proper term to describe a wine) and secondly, use words that we can understand. Yes, wine lovers, especially those searching for great wines made in limited production are intelligent people, but most of us don't use the word "multifarious" and we certainly don't talk about "an interactive array" of elements.

Writing such as this, it seems to me, is all about the critic trying to impress, trying to let everyone know about his vocabulary. He's basically talking down to us, letting us know he's more intelligent than we are.

Which brings me to an even more basic argument. When did the individual describing the wine become more important than the wine itself?

It's bad enough that too many people learn about wines with scores - basically the ultimate sound bites for wine. But writing such as this? It helps no one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Greatness from Laurent Perrier

There are some brands of Champagnes that are very familiar to consumers and connoisseurs alike; Laurent-Perrier is certainly one of those. Situated in the town of Tours-sur-Marne, a bit west of Epernay, the house recently celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2012.

Like most Champagne houses, Laurent-Perrier produces a range of wines, from its non-vintage (or multi-vintage, if you will) Brut to a vintage (or millésimé) Brut to a luxury cuvée. Last week I tasted almost the entire range at a special event in Chicago; the tasting was conducted by Michelle DeFeo of Laurent Perrier USA.

I won't write about every wine, preferring instead to focus on three wines, starting with the non-vintage Ultra Brut. This wine differs from the firm's regular non-vintage Brut in that the Ultra Brut has no dosage, making it extremely dry. Only a few medium-to large-sized houses make a wine such as this, as an Extra Brut is often too dry or slightly bitter for most consumers. However, this is a splendid wine, beautifully balanced and very appealing, produced from 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir. Displaying aromas of lemon rind, kiwi and chamomile, this has lively acidity, as you might imagine; here is an excellent wine to be enjoyed over the next 2-3 years, especially with oysters, mussels or about any kind of shellfish.

The Cuvée Rosé needs no introduction to those who are familiar with Laurent Perrier or who are fans of rosé Champagne in general. I've tasted this on several occasions, most memorably in a special dinner in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago about ten years ago, when the wine was paired with eighteen different courses!

Last week's tasting was not as remarkable as that one - how could it be? - but the wine again tasted out beautifully. This is a very distinctive rosé, not only for the fact that it is 100% Pinot Noir (there are some rosé Champagnes that, if you can believe it, are sometimes 80% to 90% Chardonnay), but also that is it made in the saignée method. This means that the color of the wine comes from the skins of the Pinot Noir grapes and is "bleeded" off during fermentation (or after a short maceration); this differs from other rosés where still red wine (Pinot Noir) is added to the cuvée. Most Champagnes are made in this latter method; the saignée process is carried out in much smaller numbers throughout the Champagne region.

The wine, with its beautiful light copper color, is simply delicious, offering aromas of pear and dried strawberry, very good richness on the palate and very good acidity. As Pinot Noir lends more weight to a Champagne, this is an ideal match for game and many red meats - I love it with duck breast or suckling pig. Enjoy this over the next 2-3 years; the flavors of this wine combined with its uniquely-shaped bottle make this a great gift!

Finally, I had the rare opportunity to taste the Les Réserves Grand Siecle, the luxury cuvée from Laurent-Perrier. This cuvée, first produced in 1955, is rarely made and when it is, it is produced in incredibly small lots; this is released in magnum and only 1000 bottles were crafted. This particular release - Cuvée 571j - is a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from three outstanding vintages: 1990, 1993 and 1995. Yes, here was a Champagne in which the youngest wine was almost twenty years old!

Additionally, the grapes for this cuvée were sourced exclusively from Grand Cru villages; eleven in total, including Chardonnay from Avize, Cramant and Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger (all in the Cote des Blancs), with the Pinot Noir from six villages, including Tours-sur-Marne, Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay. 

Thus we have a best-of the best situation with this cuvée - grapes from the finest villages from three memorable vintages. The wine does not disappoint, in fact, it is, as the saying goes, greater than the sum total of the parts. Full-bodied, with explosive aromas of chalk, yeast, dried pear and honey, this has layers of flavor that coat the palate. The persistence is excellent and there is very good acidity, along with notable complexity. While a big Champagne by nature, it is never forceful; rather it is a Champagne of great elegance as well as breeding.

Think of the greatest Champagnes you've ever tasted - your list will not be complete until you have tasted the Les Réserves Grand Siecle from Laurent Perrier. I rate wines by the star-system with 5 stars being my highest rating; this is a true 5-star wine and clearly one of the most memorable I've ever tasted. I don't think I'll ever have the opportunity to taste it again, as there are only a handful of bottles remaining (less than ten magnums, I believe), but in case I do, I want to taste it in another 7-10 years when it is at peak. I only hope I can enjoy it with something or someone as special!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

South American Wines - An Examination

Reference books on wine (or any subject) can be a great source of information. They can also be a bit boring at times, as the author can sometimes include vast information without much organization. Bigger does not make better in such instances.

That's why it's such a pleasure to read Wines of South America: The Essential Guide by Evan Goldstein. The author, a Master Sommelier, has taken this subject and injected it with his own opinions and has at the same time, truly given us a guide that covers the wines of South America as well as anything written to date.

Granted, there have not been a lot of books on the subject, as the topic of South American wines has not been treated with as much reverence, if you will, as wines from many other parts of the world, be it France, Italy or California. Too often the thought process on South American wines is that they are ripe, easy-drinking and inexpensive. That's part of the equation, but there are many excellent producers in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and a few other countries in South America that have made the effort to tell the world about the potential of the viticultural qualities of their lands.

The author begins with a brief overview, recounting history and a few influential names that have taken the quality leap in South America. He follows with an excellent chapter on grape varieties, filled with plenty of statistics, such as acreage as well as specific territories where each variety is planted. Goldstein has done his homework here, writing about well-known cultivars such as Malbec and Carmenére, but also relatively obscure varieties such as Cereza, Criolla Grande and Uvina.

The book is then organized by specific chapters about the major wine-producing countries. History and geography are discussed both in a broad sense as well as in specific regions, such as Mendoza and Patagonia in Argentina, and San Antonio and Maule Valleys in Chile. For each region or subzone, individual producers are listed.

One would expect all of this in an "essential guide," so Goldstein clearly delivers the goods. But the most enjoyable - and pleasantly surprising - part of this book comes at the end with a number of lists the author has assembled. The subjects are varied here, ranging from "Super Sauvignon Blanc" and "Magical Malbec" to "Best Bottles for Beef" and my favorite, "Twenty Wines to Drink Before You Die." Among the wines listed in this last category are Almaviva from Chile, Catena Zapata "Adrianna Vineyard" Malbec from Argentina and "Pisano "ArretXea" from Uruguay. I've had the first two and agree with the author, so given the fact that I haven't tried the last wine here, I'm interested to taste it- that a sign of an engaging book!

I do have two problems with the book, however. First is with the photos. Number one, there just aren't many and what are there are primarily landscape shots. They're nicely composed, but they're in black and white and relatively small, so the reader cannot grasp the beauty of these lands.

Also, there aren't any photos of producers; I really would like to know who these people are and while the author does talk about these individuals, often in glowing terms, I'd like to get a look at these individuals - a human face tells so much. A photo of stainless steel vats that appears on the opening page of the chapter on several countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, et al is rather boring - a stainless steel vat looks the same everywhere. Why not a few photos of winemakers and winery owners?

I understand the reason why the photos are in black and white - it's obvious that the cost of printing these images in color would drive up the production charges. But in this day when visuals are so important, it's very disappointing to have such a valuable reference books as this filled with black and white photos and at very small sizes at that. I'm a photographer myself, so maybe this is more of a fault I find; it may not bother some readers. But I wish the University of California Press, which published this book - and has published several other outstanding wines books recently - would change their thoughts on black and white photos. Just take a look at the beautiful Matt Wilson photo that appears on the cover - it's an invitation to this world. Given that, it's a real shame about the photos that appear inside the book.

The other criticism I have of this book is on a more refined basis. While Goldstein has done an excellent job organizing this work and has given us as authoritative a look on the subject as anyone, I wish he could have done more, at least in one area, that being wine descriptions. For example, when writing about Casa Marin, situated in the San Antonio Valley of Chile - and truly one of South America's greatest wine estates - Goldstein delivers a nice summary of proprietor Maria Luz Marin and how she stayed with her vision of creating a great wine property, despite some complications. Later on in his list of the best examples of Sauvignon Blanc, the author lists the Casa Marin "Cipreses Vineyard" offering. He's unquestionably right about this wine; I've visited the estate and have tasted several vintages of this wine. It is a great Sauvignon Blanc, not only one of the best from South America, but also one of the most distinctive produced anywhere in the world (much of that has to do with the fact the vineyard's proximity - less than three miles - from the Pacific Ocean. At this location, this wine has vibrant acidity, excellent structure and a razor's edge quality that separates it from other examples; I won't even go into the amazing aromatics of this wine).

But there is no description with this wine or the other recommended wines in the lists at the back of the book. Perhaps text such as this would have taken up too much space or maybe Goldstein simply did not want to include such writeups, believing that they would make the book just another study in tasting notes. I can understand that way of thinking if that's the case, and I do have to review the book in front of me and not the book I wish he wrote. Yet I did expect some marvelous descriptors for many of the wines; as a master Sommelier, Goldstein can certainly do this as well as anyone, but it was his choice not to do this, so I respect that.

Those two points aside, this is an excellent look at the subject. From travel tips to recommended restaurants to a wealth of information (very helpful to list websites as well as reasons why one should visit a winery - above and beyond the wines), Evan Goldstein has written what is so far, the definitive study of the wines of South America.

Wines of South America: The Essential Guide
Written by Evan Goldstein
University of California Press - 302 pages - $39.95

Purchase here

Monday, October 20, 2014

Inspired Words about Champagne

There have been several books written about Champagne over the past few years and most of them have been excellent. The latest entry is from Australian author Tyson Stelzer, who has delivered a work of great complexity and depth, somewhat akin to one of the great Champagnes he describes in this work. In other words, it's a must!

Stelzer's love of Champagne comes through on every page in this book, be it reviews, photos - which he took - or essays on any number of subjects. It's a major work and above all, it's extremely well organized. All the information and tasting notes in the world wouldn't be worth much if the book wasn't a joy to read and look at, but this one beautifully pleases any reader's needs.

Where to start? Let's begin with the tasting notes, which are among the finest I've ever read on Champagne. Stelzer's words perfectly sum up the distinctiveness that is at the heart of any special cuvée and he writes in such a way to thrill our senses, yet never does he talk down to the reader or write in a snobbish tone.

For example, here is a passage about the 2008 Rosé from the excellent Champagne house, Deutz.

"Capuring a knife-edge balance of breathtaking elegance and alluring fruit presence in vintage rosé is one of Champagne's finest arts, and Deutz has nailed it in this cuvée."

I don't know about you, but after reading that, I want to try a glass!

The 96-point rating that Stelzer assigns to this wine is another tempting factor, of course. Regarding the 100-point scale he uses (there are a precious few 100-point Champagnes in the book, wines that the author describes as "the pinnacle of character, balance and persistence), the author goes to painstaking lengths to determine why one wine is a 92 and another receives 93 or 94 points. There is a table at the beginning of the book in which Stelzer describes his definition of each score from 80 ("horrid") to 100. While I am not a fan of the 100-point scale, as it is a random ranking based on the author (Stelzer writes that one should only buy a 90-point wine if it's cheap), I have to give him his due for laying out his parameters and bringing detailed meaning to his scoring system. It may not be perfect (in reality, no scoring system is), but it's consistent and extremely well done.

Then there are the gorgeous photos that appear throughout the book. They were all taken by the author himself and he's an outstanding photographer. As a photographer myself, I'm always looking for great photos everywhere and I can tell you that too many book these days feature photos (often black and white and not color, due to printing costs) that are merely "good enough"; in other words, they'll do, but the images are not especially sensual or beautiful. That's not a problem here, as Stelzer's photos are a major highlight of this book. Be it a marvelous image of a snow-covered vineyards in the town of Cramant or a charming shot of a pruning cart, Stelzer's images are imaginative and perfectly composed and communicate the striking beauty of this region. In today's visual world, I think it's important to feature high-quality images in a book, so thanks to the publisher, Hardie Grant Books, for doing this.

There are several more aspects of the book I'd like to focus on, especially his selection of producers. Naturally the most famous houses, such as Krug, Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot are included in the book, as are marvelous grower-producers such as Larmandier-Bernier, Jacquesson and Chartogne-Taillet. But Stelzer has also written about some tiny producers that are not well known, such as Emmanuel Brochet, André Clouet and Jacques Picard; I'd like to thanks him for writing about these small producers. I'm constantly amazed at the sheer number of labels in Champagne and while no book can even come close to mentioning them all, the author has given us an excellent cross section.

I'd also like to point out that Stelzer does not automatically assume that great Champagnes are only produced by small houses. Yes, he waxes poetically about such favorites as Jérome Prevost ("some of the finest expressions of pure, single-vineyard, single-vintage Pinot Meunier in all of Champagne") and other celebrated vintners, but he also has much to say about the excellence of Moet & Chandon ("recent efforts have certainly refined the style") and Veuve Clicquot (awarding the La Grande Dame Rosé 2004 a score of 97 points, he writes that the wine "swoops and dives with red cherry and raspberry freshness, and acrobatics of truffles, orange rind, anise, vanilla and kirsch." The wine delivers, in the author's words, " a melodramatic juxtaposition of complexity and freshness.")

There are also some introductory essays that are well written and thought out, especially the one about the nomenclature of the terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru and how these regulated terms need to be updated. Also very helpful are summary tables of the author's highest-rated Champagnes as far as various categories such as Best Rosés, Best Blanc de Blancs, etc as well as the best Champagnes in various price ranges. These tables are very helpful, especially when you consider that most readers will use the book again and again, both for reference as well as a shopping list.

About the only criticism I have with this book - admittedly a minor one - is the inclusion of a few producers that have tasting notes for only one wine. I won't mention the producers here, but a few of them are ranked rather low. I'd understand an entry with one wine if it was highly rated, but for a score in the mid to high 80s, I wonder why the inclusion of these particular vintners.

Other than that small point, I highly recommend this marvelous treatise on Champagne.

The Champagne Guide 2014-2015
Tyson Stelzer
Hardie Grant Books

order here