Sunday, March 22, 2015

Greek Wines: Surprisingly Delicious and Affordable

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Okay, I don’t have a ton of experience tasting Greek wine. There are a couple reasons for this: I haven’t visited the country; the labels are confusing and plastered with words I can’t pronounce; and I don’t come across many Greek bottles here in the States.

But I’ve been missing out.

I recently tasted through six Greek wines and found lots to like. I’m especially intrigued by the unique flavor profiles and food-friendly approach of wines made from the indigenous red grape, Agiorgitiko. For my palate, the wines from Claudia Papayianni stole the show, especially the Viognier-Assyrtiko blend, which would be killer with all sorts of seafood.

These Greek selections come from Stellar Imports, and they were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2013 Claudia Papayianni Viognier/Assyrtiko - Greece, Macedonia, Chalkidiki
SRP: $25
Light gold color. Hugely aromatic, popping with lime, lemon and grapefruit zest, mix in some lemon oil, honey and wildflowers. Zesty and tangy on the palate, with mouth-tingling acid, but also some richness to the body. Lime and lemon mixes with white peach and apricot fruit. Laced with dandelion, white tea and margarita with salt. Some interesting pith, wax and nutty elements that evolve with air. Not your average hot weather quaffer, this is complex and possibly has more to show in the cellar. I’m quite surprised by how damn fine I find this wine. A 50/50 blend of Viognier and Assyrtiko that harnesses the best of both varieties in a bright but tropical mix. (90 points)

2014 Palivou Estate Vissino Rosé - Greece, Peloponnisos, Nemea
SRP: $17
Vibrant light ruby color. Smells like candied apple, strawberry jam, mixed with roses and rhubarb. Palate shows moderate acid on a medium-bodied frame. Red apple peel, grapefruit and wild strawberry mixed together, the wine also has an airy sense of hay, wildflowers and sea breeze. White pepper spice and sea salt notes linger on the finish. A crisp, fun, delightful blend of 90% Agiorgitiko, 10% Syrah. (86 points)

2013 Nasiakos Agiorgitiko - Greece, Peloponnisos, Nemea
SRP: $17
Bright red cherries and currants on the nose with roses and smoke, a Beaujolais-like element of granite and violets. Fresh and bright, a medium-bodied wine with some balanced acid. Juicy red cherry and currant fruit, even some fresh watermelon flavors, along with hints of red licorice, cinnamon and light roast coffee, which add a slight level of complexity. A drink-me-know approach, this begs for a sunny bistro and some tapas. (85 points)

2011 Nasiakos Agiorgitiko - Greece, Peloponnisos, Nemea
SRP: $19
Deep ruby color. Black and red cherries and some currants on the nose, along with smoke, rose hips and smashed rocks. Palate shows lots of vibrant acidity, smoothing out the dusty tannic structure and making the wine bright and easy to drink. Flavors of currants, cherries and berries, red and black equally divided. A very zesty wine with notes of balsamic, green olive and black pepper glaze. Interesting smoke, cedar and hazelnut notes on the finish. (86 points)

2012 Palivou Estate Single Vineyard Selection - Greece, Peloponnisos, Nemea
SRP: $25
Medium ruby color. I get aromas of cherries, but kind of like they’ve been left out in the sun a bit, along with some red currant jam, violets and roses. With time, some pretty loamy and rocky aromas come out. On the palate, fine tannins and refreshing acidity, a clean and fresh wine but some moderate structure. Bright red cherries and raspberry fruits are matched with notes of hazelnut, cedar and vanilla. Accents of granite and dusty soil linger on the finish. Drink in the near term. Made from Agiorgitiko. (87 points)

2008 Claudia Papayianni Chalkidiki - Greece, Macedonia, Chalkidiki
SRP: $25
Medium ruby color. These aromas are interesting things: wild raspberries and strawberries (throw the leaves in, too), notes of pickle, white pepper and roses, some underlying mushroom and tobacco. High acid on the palate, the tannins have been toned down a bit but still sport a fine-dusty structure. The acid tears across this wine, cutting through the tart wild red berries. I like the complex notes of tobacco, oregano, garlic and white pepper. I also get a sense of wet earth, moss and downed trees from this wine, a damp forest of goodness. A nerdy, interesting, but ultimately food-friendly wine that make a great ringer in a blind tasting. Not a ton of structure for long cellaring, but it is drinking just fine right now. 50% Xinomavro, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Syrah. (89 points)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Delicious Roussillon Values from Bila-Haut

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

The Roussillon region of France is full of value. Refreshing rosés, creamy whites, saucy reds and rich sweet wines (vins doux naturels), the adventurous consumer has a lot of options. 

Some of the most widely available bottles come from a Michael Chapoutier project named Bila-Haut. When I first caught the wine bug in the early-2000s, I remember being attracted to these wines based on their interesting labels and low price points. And the juice was good, too. 

I recently tasted through a bunch of new Bila-Haut releases and was impressed with their across-the-board quality and value. At $27, the high-end cuvee, Occultum Lapidem, is really worth seeking out for the cellar. 

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.  

2013 M. Chapoutier Côtes du Roussillon Bila-Haut Blanc - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon
SRP: $13
Nose shows waxy and honeyed notes on top of lemons and oranges, some sweet white flowers. Creamy body on the palate but some medium acid for balance. The white peach and apricot fruit is matched with whipped honey, peanut shell and some interesting mineral and crushed rock elements. Juicy but not thick, a more reserved style of white Rhone blend (Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeu). (87 points)

2013 M. Chapoutier Bila-Haut Rosé - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Vin de Pays d'Oc
SRP: $13
Bright watermelon colored. Nose of wild strawberries, salted margarita, white cherries, roses, very pretty. Fresh and juicy on the palate, a bright and food-friendly aesthetic. I really like the mineral and dried green herb elements to this wine. Chalky, some sugar cane and papaya on the finish. A crowd-pleasing bottle for a by-the-glass list. Cinsault and Grenache. (86 points)

2012 M. Chapoutier Côtes du Roussillon Villages Bila-Haut - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages
SRP: $13
Light purple color. Nose of black cherries and red and black currants thrown into a fire pit, topped with some pepper, rhubarb and bacon fat. Medium-bodied with light-dusty tannic structure, medium-low acid, an easily accessible wine. Flavors of black and red cherries and currants, the fruit is rich but not still fresh and. Notes of black pepper, incense sticks and boiled peanuts add some complexity, hints of earth coming out on the finish. Seems like a no-brainer for grilled meats and veggies or stews. Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. (87 points)

2012 M. Chapoutier Côtes du Roussillon Villages Bila-Haut L’Esquerda - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages
SRP: $23
Lively ruby-purple. Similar aromatic approach to the Occultum Lapidem (dark berries, charcoal, sweet spices) but just a shade less intense aromatically. Black and red currant and cherry fruit (a hint of blueberry), all of it tart and crunchy, but also rich and powerful. A firm, drying tannic presence, and moderate acid, providing structure and balance. Notes of violets, loamy soil, graphite, pickle, leather and allspice maybe? Long and complex, with time to spare. Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. (89 points)

2012 M. Chapoutier Côtes du Roussillon Villages Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem
- France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Côtes du Roussillon Villages Latour
SRP: $27
Lively ruby-purple. A bit dense on the nose, but opens up nicely to show blackberries and dark cherries, along with a plethora of non-fruit notes: black licorice, charcoal, lavender and some leather. Firm tannic grip but moderate-low acid helps make it approachable. Lovely elegance to the mouthfeel, this just glides across the palate. The currant and berry flavors are smooth, deeply complex and long, matched by notes of pickling spices, red flowers, white pepper, earth, hints of mushroom, black olive and coffee. Just a complex and lovely Syrah-based wine that could explode with a few more years in the cellar. More depth and cellar potential than the L’esquerda. (91 points)

2001 M. Chapoutier Rivesaltes Domaine de Bila-Haut
- France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Rivesaltes
SRP: $26/500ml
Nose of raspberry, strawberry jam, rhubarb pie. The tartness of the fruit is matched with the richness of the earth, spice cake, and anise cookie aromas. Smooth and creamy on the palate, this a full-bodied, raspberry jam-driven wine. I also get lots of tart strawberry, rhubarb pie and caramel notes. Initially a bit heavy but settles down with air. Finishes with caramelized sugar, crème brulée and fig paste. Decant, because it’s full of sediment. A fortified Grenache at 16% alcohol. (87 pts)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

South African Blends - Lots of Quality in the $20 Range

It’s a tune I’ve been singing for a while now, and one you’ve probably heard from many others. But it bears repeating: South African producers are continually putting out complex, unique and value-driven wines. You should be drinking them!

I recently tasted through two exciting South African blends (one white, one red), and the quality-to-price ratio was really impressive.

It’s not easy to find a lot of South African variety here in the United States. Sure you can find plenty of regional bulk blends for $10-$15, but if you spend just a bit more money, and some time looking, you can find much more exciting and honest wines.

These two are perfect examples…

2013 Bellingham “The Bernard Series” Grenache Blanc/Viognier - South Africa, Western Cape
Boisterous nose, lots of yellow and white flowers on top of creamy pears, green apple, melon and a honeycomb note. Bright acid but rich and creamy on the palate, a great mix. Liking the mixed pear, apple and melon fruit, and the honeyed-hazelnut accents. The underlying minerality is delicious and intriguing. The Grenache Blanc was fermented in 50% new oak, but it’s surprisingly woven into the wine well. 80/20 blend. What a value. South African white Rhone blends, man, I dig them. (90 points)

2012 Badenhorst Family Wines “Secateurs” Red Blend - South Africa, Coastal Region, Swartland
Juicy red fruit on the nose, some interesting rose and spice elements, lots of meaty-earthy accents. The palate is fun and inviting with fine tannins and tangy acid. Red berry fruit laced with bacon fat, pepper, earth and smoke notes, which are a delicious and quite complex. Bring on the braai! A blend of Cinsault, Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvedre and Pinotage. (87 points)

Have you tasted any good South African wine lately?

Every vineyard in South Africa has a beautiful view, including this one from the Western Cape region of Constantia.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Novel Review: A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism

Gabriel is a young business writer who left New York for a traveling gig with a high-rolling hedge fund. It’s 2005 and his first assignment is to La Paz, Bolivia. He’s charged with assessing the political and economic prospects in this volatile atmosphere, right after the populist Evo Morales is elected president.

Gabriel is both an interesting and irritating protagonist. He’s easy to hate, yet easy to dismiss as a loser unworthy of hatred. He fancies himself something of a hyper-capitalist hero. When it comes to character, Gabriel lacks most redeeming values. He’s dishonest, insensitive, demanding, weak, overzealous, apathetic yet arrogant. He’s not quite an asshole, but that’s only because he’s too bland. If he had more guts or gave enough shits about others to deliberately harm them, then maybe he could be an asshole. As a former journalist, he has persistence and gumption, which are good qualities and tempt the reader to relate to his character just a bit.

Yet, at times, I’m tempted to think Gabriel is a decent guy who’s simply making his own way in a crazy and corrupt world, just like all those who are richer, more powerful and more corrupt than him. In a way, yes, Gabriel is a mere participant in one particular match, part of a larger and endlessly complex game.

Mountford uses a third-person point of view close to Gabriel, which is a great way to position the narrative. I don’t think I could stand reading Gabriel’s first-person point of view for more than a few pages.

Gabriel’s identity seems in a state of constant flux: “Growing up, he never considered the possibility that his identity might be a fixed thing, that it might not be something that could or should be adjusted for each situation. He had been born with multiple identities, after all: Californian, Chilean, Soviet, bourgeois, only child of a single mother, Latino, Caucasian. In these, he saw options.”

His mother fled Pinochet’s Chile in the late 1970s. She is a lefty and an academic, and their relationship is key to the story, especially the unraveling and climax.

I get a bit distracted when the author continually interrupts the present action and dialogue to go on pages-long flashbacks, then drops the reader right back into the conversation like nothing happened. The backstory is great, but too many times it’s just dropped right into the middle of a really good scene and pulls me out of the Bolivian dream.

I do think the book, though a novel, offers an interesting historical analysis of Bolivia. Mountford strings together a deep historical perspective, chronicling the story of powerful men who have exploited the land and people of Bolivia. Gabriel is just the newest generation in a long chain of men just like him.

One of my favorite lines from the book: “what had struck him was not Bolivia itself but what it implied about the United States. That despite being one of the safest and most prosperous countries in human history, the United States was actually a very bizarre place.”

At times, Mountford tells a little too much a little too bluntly. (“He had made a bad decision when he had agreed to come down to Bolivia.”)

But when the introspection is firing, Gabriel actually becomes an interesting character to follow. For example, at one point Gabriel reflects on the Buddhist notion that, “all human suffering is identified, very succinctly, as craving. Tanha, it’s called, and it gives rise to the parasitic defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion. But the root of our problem, the cause of all human misery, is tanha: our insatiable craving for more. Economists have come to a similar judgment of the human condition, but they don’t levy any value judgments. To them, it simply is.”

The other characters are incredibly rich and round, however, sprinkled in with a few necessary stock characters here and there, representing different types of players in this globalized capital shuffle.

This book is also a coming of age story, wherein the young libertarian learns markets and capital don’t regulate themselves to promote the common good. “He liked seat-belt laws too, and rules about air bags. He liked his Food and Drug Administration, with its random sanitation checks and obsessive rules. He liked his milk thoroughly pasteurized. All of this would have seemed priggish to him once, but now it made so much sense.”

I think this would be a solid read for Americans from all different political and economic backgrounds. Mountford poses a lot of interesting questions without offering clichéd responses or blunt answers. And all of this is done through a well-written, well-plotted, intriguing narrative.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Moving in, Drinking Up

This is one delicious Beaujolais with a long life ahead of it.
Moving into a new house is chaotic. After ten days or so, I’m starting to catch up and regain some level of order to my surroundings, but boxes are still stacked up all over, stuff is still littered about and the cats are still out of their minds in their new environment. 

But before the move, I made sure to pack a few wine glasses for easy access. What better way to christen a new home that popping some corks? 

I look forward to hosting a lot of great dinners and wine tastings in my new home this year. But in the meantime, here are some notes on a few recent bottles sipped among the chaos.

2011 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Bright green apple and melon, mixed in with more obvious elements of green and white peppers and spices, underlying notes of honey and white tea. Full-bodied and creamy but bright acid. The green apple, grapefruit and melon fruit is rich but mouth-watering, and the crisp acid keeps this clean and fresh. Notes of white pepper, jalapeno and shallots mix with richer notes of nuts, honey and dried almonds, green tea. Interesting, but I think I like Merry’s Sauv Blancs when they’re younger. I’ve been experimenting with aging a few, but I tend to enjoy them more within two years of the vintage. Still a beautiful Sauvignon Blanc, though. (90 points)

2012 Domaine Guerrin Pouilly-Fuissé La Maréchande - France, Burgundy, Mâconnais, Pouilly-Fuissé 
Light golden color. Bright lime and lemon, topped with sea shells and salt, mixed with honeycomb, nuts and some sesame seeds. Medium-bodied and creamy but with refreshing acid, this wine is nervy and bright but set against a backdrop of ripe apple and apricot. Mineral-driven and salty, but some underlying richness, like honeycomb, white tea and wheat. Long finish. For $20, this is a total steal and should do interesting things over the next few years. (89 points) 

2010 Olivier Decelle - Pierre Jean Villa Côte de Brouilly - France, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Côte de Brouilly
Bright ruby color. Tart berries, strawberries, intense floral tones, really floral and pretty but serious rocky-loamy notes underneath. Firm tannic structure, on day one the tannins were severe, but the clean acid helped a lot. By day two, the wine had totally opened up and changed its approach to show a silky, bright and approachable sensibility. I got tart strawberries and red currants, along with serious mineral, graphite and earth elements. Opens up so much with air and gets softer and more refined. Incredible what air does to this wine. Long, pretty, tart, elegant, delicious. One for the cellar for sure, or at least a long decant. I love this gorgeous wine. (91 points)

2010 Domaine Vallet St. Joseph Meribets - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph

Dark ruby colored. Dark plums on the nose, tart red berries, some smoky tones and earth, some underlying pepper and bacon fat. Medium-bodied, 12.5% alcohol, bright acid keeps this fresh and lively, but it has a bold structure and firm tannic backbone. Tart currants and plums, hints of blackberry, the fruit is bold but oh so fresh. Lots of complex non-fruit elements: violets, roses, black tea, peppercorns, mix in some graphite, charcoal and smashed rocks. Just starting to show some bacon and smoke notes, especially with air, but this needs time to show its full potential complexity. Opened after a marathon day of moving and sipped this with family while eating Pete’s New Haven pizza. Good times. (89 points)

2005 Milz Laurentiushof Trittenheimer Leiterchen Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer

Golden apricot colored. Smells of apricot sauce, honeycomb, clovers, white peach, guava nectar. Crisp acid cuts through the intense richness on the palate, and this is actually quite a clean and fresh wine. Flavors of lime, white peach and guava, mixed with honeycomb, clovers, candied lemon and orange peel. Some underlying minerals, oceanic and slate elements. Sure it’s rich and unctuous, but I’m really surprised by the crisp acid here, which makes this capable of pairing with more than just sweet desserts. I’m a huge fan of the salinity and airy quality to this wine, which lingers long with those richer honeycomb flavors on the finish. Seems to have serious stuffing for age, but gorgeous now. (93 points)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Screaming Good Alder Springs Syrah from Behrens & Hitchcock

Always a good pairing: Syrah and snowstorms.
Every once in a while, I come across a wine that is so damn good I just have to write a whole post about it. I have to find out an answer to the question: How and why is this wine so awesome?

I recently uncorked one such bottle, a
2005 Erna Schein Syrah “Homage to Ed Oliveira” from the Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino County. This wine is a product of Behrens & Hitchcock, the husband-wife vintner duo of Les Behrens and Lisa Drinkward (awesome last name, by the way).

Of course, wine is made in the vineyard, and this vineyard is something special. It’s located in Mendocino’s rugged Redwood Valley appellation, which is a stunning and serene place. I’ve made several trips through this part of northern Mendocino County, and I think about this area often. I’ve never visited this particular site, but I hope to tour the vineyard on my next trip.

Stuart Bewley planted the first vines in the
Alder Springs Vineyard in 1993, and it’s since grown to 140 acres. The vineyard is home to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Rhone varieties spread across 31 individual plots. The juice from these low-yielding vines has found its way into bottles from an impressive list of winemakers, including Pax, Novy, Patz & Hall, Vie and Arnot-Roberts. Ranging from 1,700 to 2,700 feet in elevation, some 315,000 vines cling to steep sandstone slopes. It sounds like an amazing site, and given the level of focus on viticulture, it’s no wonder the juice tastes so damn good.

I also like the label and the aesthetic approach. Behrens and Drinkward pay homage to their winemaking mentor, Ed Olivera, in the proprietary name of this wine. They also pay tribute to Behrens’ mother by putting her name, Erna Schein, on the label, and they recognize her baking skills with an image of a mixer. The juice inside is what counts, but I always enjoy the stories and the people behind the wines, and I like it when winemakers honor those who came before and inspired them.

Like all stunning wines should, this Syrah was opened with people I love, specifically my mother and sister. They both really enjoyed the wine, dissecting the nuances as it evolved in the glass over the course of an afternoon. 

My notes:

Inky purple color with some slight brick rims. Smells of blueberries and black currants, dark and saucy, topped with pepper glaze, smoke, bacon fat and green olive tapenade. My sister summed up the smells thusly: “currants and animals.” Opens up with air to show more exotic spices and herbs, maybe lavender and basil, Still quite tannic but they’ve been fined down with age, this is a full wine but moderate acid keeps it quite balanced. The tart currant and blueberry fruit is laced with all sorts of complex and evolving non-fruit elements: bacon fat, smoke, roasted earth, sweet basil, liquefied olives, marijuana, beef jerky. Time has turned this into a very floral and airy wine. Light roast coffee and charcoal notes linger long onto the finish. A gorgeous Alder Springs Syrah that I’m glad has been cellared for so long. Even more time to go, if, like me, you love those olive, meat and herbal components. (93 points)