Friday, October 30, 2009

Catena Chardonnay 2007

Argentina never ceases to amaze me when it comes to wine. The results that they get with Malbec at high elevations have been phenomenal for quite some time now, and now I’m starting to see some interesting things happen with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in higher elevation vineyards. What I never expected was to see Chardonnay grown at elevations as high as 5000’ with good results. I guess that I should never underestimate Argentina and in particular I should never underestimate the winemakers at Bodega Catena Zapata.

Starting in 1902 when Nicola Catena came to Argentina from Italy, the Catena family has been making wines in Argentina for over a century now. For most of that time, they were making bulk wine for domestic consumption in Argentina, and for many of those years they struggled to survive as a winery. In the 1980’s Nicola’s grandson, Nicolas spent time as a visiting professor at UC Berkeley with many visits to nearby Napa Valley. In Napa, he was surprised to see that there were places in the New World that had the kind of terroir to make truly great wines. He returned to Argentina as an inspired man who immediately sold off their bulk wine business to focus on making great wine in the foothills of the Andes, and in my humble opinion he has had outstanding success with Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.

This offering from Catena is a Chardonnay that is grown in two different high altitude vineyards in the Mendoza region. The Lujan de Cuyo vineyard is at an elevation of 3100’ and the Tupungato vineyard is all the way up at 5000’. I did not have high expectation for Chardonnay grown at these high altitudes, but perhaps I just had the wrong attitude. This Chardonnay is very impressive.

Pale straw in color, the Catena Chardonnay 2007 brings aromas of apple and a little pear along with some subtle oak. In your mouth you also get apple and pear, but in this case it is the pear that dominates. In addition to the pear and apple, you also get a hint of peach on the palate. I love the fruit flavors in this wine. The oak is very well done without being overdone, and the wine has a medium-full bodied mouthfeel with very nice acidity and a great finish. Overall, this is a very nicely structured Chardonnay. It has a little something for everyone to like. Fruit, oak, body, acidity, and a nice finish all work beautifully together

With a retail price of $14.99, the Catena Chardonnay 2007 is a steal. At this price you’ll be hard pressed to find a better Chardonnay. This is a food friendly and versatile wine that you can enjoy with fish, shellfish, or chicken. We had it with sautéed chicken breasts in a parsley tarragon gremolata and they paired together beautifully. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Johnson Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006

After having tried and really enjoyed the Johnson Family Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I had very high hopes that there Cabernet Sauvignon would be another great find at a very reasonable price. Johnson Family is not actually a winery, but as I understand it, a negociant type business of David Bowler Wine, although they seem to be keeping this information as quiet as possible.

The Chardonnay and I believe also the Pinot Noir were made by a very well known and well respected winemaker in Sonoma, and both are outstanding values. This 2006 Cabernet is rumored to be made by a very well known and well respected consulting winemaker for numerous Napa Valley wineries. The fruit comes from Coombsville which is just east of the city of Napa and south and east of most of the better known Napa Valley growing areas. Slightly cooler than most of the rest of Napa Valley, Coombsville is an area that is generating some buzz in the valley as they are working towards becoming an official AVA (American Viticultural Area). The slightly cooler temperatures allow for longer and slower ripening of the Cabernet grapes, and at least in theory that should yield great results.

Knowing what I know about Coombsville and how much I liked the other Johnson Family wines, I went into this tasting with pretty high expectations for the Cab. Unfortunately it did not live up to my somewhat lofty expectations. Don’t get me wrong, its not a bad wine or a horrible value, but in my mind it has some flaws and is simply a fair value at a price point of about $18.

In you glass the Johnson Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 brings intense, deep purple color. The nose brings some very nice fruit aromas of blackberry, cassis, and plum; however, the fruit does get a little lost in all the alcohol which was still overpowering on the nose after 2 hours of decanting. At 15.5% , the alcohol can be a bit overwhelming. I have to say that 15% seems to be the magic number for me when it comes to alcohol. I can enjoy wines right up to 15% alcohol, but as a general rule anything even a couple tenths of a percent over that is just too much for me. In your mouth the wine is fruit forward with blackberry and cassis flavors and a rich, full bodied mouthfeel. The tannins are pretty strong and a bit harsh (I’ll say again that I did decant this for two hours), and I’m a guy who really likes tannins. There is also a bit of a burnt oak taste on the finish which overwhelms the fruit. This in combination with the harsh tannins, leads me to believe that there was either too much new oak used in the aging of this wine, or the barrels were simply toasted too much. I should also note that my wife and tasting partner here at A Couple of Wines enjoyed the fruit flavors in this wine so much that she was not bothered by the strong tannins or what I considered to be too much oak.

From a pairing standpoint this wine was actually pretty good with a prime steak I had on the grill. All the marbling in the meat coated the taste buds enough to counter those strong tannins and allow the fruit to come through. When I had a glass on its own after dinner though, I found this wine to be over the top in tannins, oak, and alcohol.

If your looking for something that has the muscle to stand up to a prime steak in the under $20 category, this might fit the bill depending on your palate. Just know that you might get a lot more muscle, alcohol, and tannins than you hoped for. There is also a 2007 vintage which was just recently released. I'm very curious to see how that one turns out. I think the Coombsville fruit they used in 2006 has great potential if it sees less new oak.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Jessup Cellars Juel 2006 Napa Valley Red Wine

Recently I had the opportunity to make a second visit to the Jessup Cellars tasting room in Yountville to pick up some more of their very good wines. My main objective was to simply buy some of their Merlot, but while I was there I also picked up a few bottles of their Juel 2006, which is a Bordeaux style blend that I did not get an opportunity to taste on my first visit. This past weekend I had the right occasion to open this excellent wine and enjoy it.

Jessup Cellars is one of those many little known gems that are sprinkled throughout Napa Valley. Jessup was started by winemaker Mark Jessup in 1996, after a couple decades of experience making wine for other wineries. Mark is a Napa Valley native, who started in the cellar at Inglenook over 30 years ago. From there he went to work for Robert Mondavi Winery, where he worked closely with Tim Mondavi on their reserve wines as well as on the Opus One joint venture between Mondavi and Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Now he is putting that experience to work at Jessup with some very nice results. Their tasting room is a fantastic space not only to taste some fine wines, but also to see some outstanding artwork by Northern California artists. Grant and Sarah in the tasting room were wonderful hosts and very knowledgeable, and they were kind enough to accommodate me right at closing time. Unfortunately they do not distribute, and the only way to get their wines is in the tasting room or by joining their wine club.

The 2006 Juel is a wine made in the Bordeaux style, and in particular Jessup is going for something in the Right Bank style. Merlot is the predominant grape in this blend, but there are also significant amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Aged for 20 months in French oak barrels, the wine shows a very nice purple-red color in your glass. The nose brings wonderful aromas of black cherry, blackberry, and black raspberry, with much more of the same fruit flavors on the palate. Along with the fruit, you also get a hint of mocha and some mild earthiness on the nice, long finish. Firm tannins and a bit of pleasant acidity round out this very nice Bordeaux style blend. If Mark Jessup is truly looking to make wine in the French style, he has hit the mark with this offering.

The Juel 2006 was perfect with my grilled tenderloin with shallot demi-glace (recipe can be found here ), and it would complement just about any steak or grilled venison beautifully. Priced at $89, it’s not necessarily an outstanding value but certainly a good one. It’s a very good and very well structured wine. Cheers!

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Visit to the Santa Cruz Mountains Appelation

Recently on a visit to Northern California for my real job, I had the opportunity to visit some wineries and tasting rooms in the Santa Cruz Mountains Appellation. This area is unbelievably diverse in its microclimates. At one point in my drive to my first stop, the temperature changed 8 degrees over the course of 3 miles. As a result of the many diverse microclimates, there is a pretty wide variety of grapes being grown here, although the predominant varietals that winemakers are having success with seem to be Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The appellation itself covers over 350,000 acres and the vineyards range in elevation from 400 to 800 feet. Evenings tend to be foggy and cool with the sun burning off the fog every morning followed by higher temperatures. This allows the grapes to ripen effectively but slowly and results in a rather long growing season with a nice long hang time for the fruit. I should note that although all the wineries and tasting rooms I visited were in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not all of the fruit for every wine I tasted was from the appellation.

My first stop of the day was the only winery I was previously familiar with, which was Bonny Doon Vineyard. They have a very nice tasting room and restaurant right in the heart of Santa Cruz. Bonny Doon can best be described as a not so serious winery that makes some seriously good wines. Their leader, Randall Graham, a UC Davis grad, started Bonny Doon with the hope of making great Pinot Noir, but has since switched his focus to other grapes, most notably Rhone varietals. I tried a number of wines here including a Cinsault and an Albarino, which are pretty unusual for California, but the standouts here were definitely the Rhone style blends. The 2007 Le Cigare Blanc was a blend of 64% Rousanne and 36% Grenache Blanc. Pale in color, it had aromas of pear and melon with decent acidity, and it was a very good, refreshing wine. The 2004 Le Cigare Volant was a wonderful Southern Rhone style red with a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignane, and Cinsault. Aromas of cherry, sour cherry, licorice, and spice worked together to create a wonderful and complex bouquet. In your mouth you got more of the same flavors with an incredibly long finish. This was some very good stuff for only $30 a bottle!

My second stop of the day was Storrs Winery. Here, owners and winemakers Pamela and Steve Storrs are crafting a number of different wines in relatively small lots. Both Pamela and Steve are UC Davis grads with a wealth of knowledge, and Pamela focuses on the winemaking while Steve focuses on the vineyards. This sounds like a perfect marriage to me. Their annual production is about 10,000 cases, and all their vineyards are sustainably farmed. They are big believers that wine is made in the vineyard and that the winemaker just has to gently guide what nature and good farming provides. They are also big believers in the Santa Cruz Mountains as a great place to make Burgundian style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

During my visit I tasted a number of different wines poured by the very friendly and knowledgeable CJ in the tasting room, but it was definitely the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that stood out here. Their 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay was a very good example of the potential this area has for Chardonnay. Pale straw in color, it was aged in French oak for 10 months. The nose was crisp with apple and pineapple and some well done, subtle oak that did not overwhelm the fruit. On the palate you had a nice mouthfeel with great acidity and minerality. The long finish displayed flavors of apple and pear with a hint of citrus. This was a very well done Chardonnay.

The other standout at Storrs was the 2006 Le Manoir Pinot Noir. Medium red in color, it had a great bouquet of cherry and strawberry fruit. On your palate you got much of the same great fruit flavors which were really nicely balanced by a very pleasant acidity. A lengthy finish followed to complete the experience with this very elegant and delicious wine.

My final stop in the day was a little further north at Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos, where I was greeted by the outstanding hospitality and knowledge of Jeanne in the tasting room. All wineries have a story, but this one has a pretty interesting one. Testarossa is essentially a hobby gone out of control for owners Rob and Diana Jensen who started making wine in their home. They slowly outgrew that and a number of other facilities before finally stumbling across the old Jesuit Novitiate Winery in Los Gatos that is one of the oldest wineries in the country and one of very few that made wine right through Prohibition. They now lease that facility from the Jesuits and have their winery and tasting room located there. As a graduate of a Jesuit high school, this place had some added meaning for me. .

The top wines I tasted at Testarossa were both Pinot Noirs. The 2007 Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir was a beautiful light red color in your glass. The nose brought cherry and strawberry fruit with some great spice. On your palate the wine was fruit forward but it had some spice and nice acidity to balance things out. This wine belongs on the Thanksgiving table! The 2007 Pisoni Vineyard Pinot Noir which has not yet been released was also outstanding. It had an absolutely wonderful bouquet that was bursting with cherry and strawberry fruit. In your mouth it had a very nice, elegant structure with cherry, strawberry, and some sour cherry fruit and a very subtle element of spice. Although I think it will need a couple years to fully develop, this has the potential to be an outstanding Pinot.

Well that’s about it for my brief visit to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Not knowing much about the area or its wineries heading into my visit, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines that I found.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Johnson Family Chardonnay 2008 Sonoma Coast

These days it seems it’s really hard for me to find an everyday Chardonnay that I can get really excited about that isn’t ridiculously expensive. I will also admit that I can be a little fussy about what I want out of a Chardonnay. I like my Chardonnay to have a really nice balance of fruit, oak, and acid. If any one of these elements is missing or so strong that it overpowers the rest of the wine, I find myself a little disappointed.

Johnson Family is one of those wonderful second label value wines that are made by great wineries and winemakers when they have a glut of high quality grapes for their higher end label. Instead of making more of the main label and perhaps getting supply, demand, and price out of balance, they will bottle some wine under a second or phantom label. In this case the very secret winemaker is from Sonoma and is wel known for making many excellent Chardonnays that retail for $40 and up.

The Johnson Family Chardonnay 2008 from the Sonoma Coast is a Chardonnay that gives me everything I want in really nice balance. In your glass you get intense golden color, which did have me a little concerned at first that this was going to be an over rich, buttery to the point of being flabby Chard, but that was absolutely not the case. The nose brings very nice aromas of apple pie and some toasty oak that does not overwhelm the fruit. In your mouth you get more of the same with some pear mixed in with the apple and the oak. Again, the oak is more than subtle but less than overwhelming. The unknown winmaker really did an outstanding job with the barrel aging in French oak. The mouthfeel is rich, but it is beautifully balanced by some refreshing acidity. This is a very nicely structured Chardonnay.

This is a great, food friendly offering from Johnson Family that could go with a number of things. Nicely balanced Chardonnays like this go very well with poultry and seafood. I had this with a grilled, marinated chicken breast, and they worked quite well together. I’d like it even more with some pan seared scallops or a broiled lobster tail.

Priced at $17, it’s a very nice Chardonnay for the money. Probably the best I’ve found under $20. Cheers!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino 2004

Very often when you long to get a particular wine that is very hard to find, the results can be disappointing once you finally obtain a bottle and taste it. With the Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino 2004, that is absolutely not the case for me. This wine is one of the most sought after bottlings of the 2004 vintage of Brunellos, and it is hard to find for a very good reason, which is the fact that it is absolutely delicious!

Made from 100% Sangiovese, the Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino 20204 has a beautiful deep garnet red color in your glass. The bouquet is extremely pleasant and complex. You get black cherry, black raspberry, chocolate, and a wonderful herbal element which is dominated by sage. In your mouth you get black cherry, blackberry, cola, and a hint of herbs and licorice. The mouthfeel is rich and pleasant without being overwhelming in its weight. It does not feel at all like a wine that has 15% alcohol. The tannins are nice but could certainly use a few years to mellow, and the overall structure of this wine is fantastic. Where this wine really shines is in the finish. You get a great big lift on the finish that lasts and lasts. The Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino 2004 is the gift that just keeps giving. If you truly enjoy the finish for what it is, you could easily enjoy a glass of this wine for over an hour. The finish is that good and that long.

Overall this is a fantastic wine that is worth searching for if you are a collector or someone who enjoys great Italian wines. I’m going to break from my normal practice of listing a retail price since there are very few retailers out there who have this left and the price range is large, but if you can get find a bottle for under $100, it is well worth it! My only suggestion if you do find a bottle would be to buy it now and drink it a few years down the road when it starts to hit its prime.

This would pair very well with hard Italian cheeses or grilled meats. It would be perfect with game or a rack of lamb. Cheers!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Do Wine Scores on the 100 Point Scale Really Mean Anything?

I find myself falling into this trap all the time. I talk about a wine that I ’m really excited about and will reference a score that someone gave a wine when telling people about it. I even did this in some of my early blog posts. I might talk about the Uccelliera Brunello di Montalcino 2004 and reference the fact that one publication gave it 97 points! See – I just did it again.

I’m here today to say that I don’t want to talk about scores anymore. More importantly I’d like someone to explain to me how the 100 point scoring system really works and what the scores mean. As an avid reader of a few wine publications and many wine websites and blogs, I’m finding that scores on the 100 point scale are becoming more and more meaningless to me. What we should be doing as wine consumers, drinkers, and collectors is paying more attention to the review itself instead of just a score.

Why do I have such a problem with the 100 point scoring system you might ask? Well there are a few reasons. Let’s start with the fact the idea of it being a 100 point scale is flawed. A 100 point scale inherently implies that 100 should be the best score, and that 0 or 1 should be the worst score. In reality, most reviewers give any bottle they can remove the cork or screw cap from 75 points right off the bat. In this instant, the 100 point scale has gone to what really is a 25 point scale. Giving a wine a 10 out of 25 sounds quite a bit different than giving it a 85 out of 100 doesn’t it? The truth is that reviewers using the 100 point system are grading on a serious curve. Just as important as this, is that the different publications using the 100 point scale don’t necessarily use it in the same way. 90 points from one reviewer is not necessarily the same as 90 points form another, and sometimes those two reviewers work for the same publication!

The second major issue I have with wine scoring is that scoring itself is a somewhat clinical and scientific process. Although there is quite a bit of science in the winemaking process, I would argue that winemaking is very much an art. I’m no art collector, but I don’t think any art reviewers would look at Van Gogh’s Starry Night and say, “I’ll rate that one a 98.” Instead they might talk about the beauty of the painting, the colors used, the unique brushstrokes, the feelings they get when they look at it, or the memories invoked.

To me, a bottle of wine is very much like this. Yes there needs to be some proper farming and techniques used in the vineyard and the winery, but beyond that a bottle of wine can be so much more. The winemaker’s style and choices might bring out flavors, body, acidity, tannins, and other elements that different drinkers might have very different feelings about. Certain bottles might also conjure up memories or feelings about the vineyard or winery itself, the place you first discovered it, or the person you shared it with. In my mind, to boil all this down to a score is a little bit cold and clinical.

What we as consumers really need to know about a wine is some of the more objective things. What aromas are present? What are the flavors and where and when do they hit you on your palate? Is there acidity and how much? What is the body like? Does the wine have tannins and what are those tannins like? What is the finish like? Did the reviewer feel that all of these elements worked well together? If you can get this information from a review and if you know and understand what you like, then you really don’t need a score on the 100 point scale for a wine. At best the score is only relevant to wines with very similar profiles reviewed by the same reviewer. For example if a particular wine drinker likes fruit forward, full bodied Australian Shiraz with some spice to it, then the same reviewer’s scores of two different wines that meet that profile might have some meaning; however, if you look at the score of one of those wines and compare it to a White Burgundy, a Rioja, or even a Syrah from the Northern Rhone, the scores are very often meaningless.

For those who think I have taken this too far, I should qualify that I am not completely against rating wines. It is simply people’s and to some extent the industry’s reliance on the score instead of the rest of the review that has me concerned. In my experience I get much more from the review than I do from the score. What do you think?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Gobelsburger Gruner Veltliner Kamptal 2008

Gruner Veltliner. It’s pronounced Grooner Velt-lee-ner. Go ahead and say it – it’s kind of fun. As the varietal is starting to gain popularity with consumers, even the normally reserved and conservative Austrian wineries are having some fun with the name Gruner Veltliner. The inevitable “Groovy” association is starting to take its place not only in reviews and descriptions, but also on some cartoonish labels. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when people have some fun and levity with wine, but Gruner Veltliner is a grape that wine lovers should take pretty seriously.

Gruner Veltliner is grown primarily in Austria, and it is believed to be native to the country. Grown primarily in Northeast Austria, very often on steep terraces along the Danube, Gruner is a unique and very food friendly varietal that has become a part of my everyday mix as of late. It is a wine that is unique in its ability to pair with many different foods as well as in its ability to pair with some tricky foods like asparagus, artichokes, and other vegetables.

The Gobelsburger Gruner Veltliner Kamptal 2008 from Schloss Gobelsburg is a very nice example of a good, everyday Gruner that has become one of my "go to" everyday whites. Pale gold in color, the bouquet brought lime and lemon with notes of peach and grapefruit. In your mouth, you get lemon and lime with Granny Smith apple flavors and just a touch of white pepper spice. The wine brings a wonderful crisp acidity and minerality that is extremely refreshing, but this is not just a hot, summer day wine. It is extremely food friendly. I should also note that although the finish was not exceptionally long, it did have a nice lift with crisp, refreshing citrus flavors lingering on your palate.

As far as food pairing goes, this wine is very versatile. You could pair it with chicken, fish, or shellfish prepared a number of different ways, and it would also pair quite nicely with sushi and edamame. I had it recently with a honey mustard marinated and grilled chicken breast and it paired nicely with that. What really surprised me though and set this apart from other white wines, is how it paired with the green beans I had on the side. I can’t recall the last time I got excited about a wine and vegetable pairing, but both the wine and the green beans were made more enjoyable by having them together. That is what a great pairing is all about.

I picked this bottle up for just under $14, and it was worth every penny. So go ahead – say it. Gruner Veltliner. Now go ahead and get some Gobelsburger Gruner Veltliner and give it a try and enjoy it. Cheers!