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Wine: Reviews, Thoughts & Culture

Archive for July, 2009

Visiting Swanson Vineyards

Posted by Gabe on July 30, 2009

Someone has to be the best. At the very least, with any interest or passion I have, there needs to be a faswansonvorite. It doesn’t mean there aren’t others I love, but there is always one that for some reason has something on the others. Ask me who my favorite ballplayer is and there will be no space from the time you ask until the name “Don Mattingly,” rolls off my tongue. I love many Yankees a lot, but Donnie Baseball is number one for me. The same is true of wineries, tasting rooms and wine tasting experiences. There are many regions I adore and a ton of wineries doing a terrific job in each of them. But if you ask me what my favorite is, the one that gets me back every time I’m in the area, the answer is Swanson Vineyards. They also happen to make some of my favorite wines in Napa. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case I’m not sure. But I can tell you that if I didn’t love the Swanson Wines it wouldn’t matter how good the tasting experience was, eventually, I’d get bored. Because let’s face it, wine is the reason I’m in Napa to begin with.

Swanson Vineyards doesn’t have a tasting room per se. What they do have is a facility in front of their Winery known as the Salon. Decadence with a wink is their stock in trade. And believe me they do that as well as it can be done. Tastings are by appointment and come in standard (Jean Lafite) for $30, or reserve (Harvey) for $55. Both tastings are similar in style the difference being the selection of wines being poured. Swanson has three wines that see wide distribution, Pinot Grigio, Alexis (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Merlot their workhorse which represents 2/3 of their production. The bevy of other wines they make, including an entire line of dessert wines (up to 8 at any one time) are mostly aimed at their wine club and tasting guests.

At most eight guests are accommodated at one time for a tasting at Swanson. The moment you arrive and park your car someone will greet you warmly before you reach the gate. More often than not, they come bearing Rosato, their dry Rosé made of Syrah. As you’re ushered into the Salon it’s like a trip into a good friends home. The Salon is an absolutely gorgeous and serene environment. In the center of it all is a table that looks to be setup for a dinner party. As people arrive they’re allowed to settle in and sit at their leisure. At that point the Salonier (host or hostess) will tell you a bit about the winery and take you through the wines on tap for that day. The Harvey tasting which is the one I tend towards usually features 7 wines. Truth be told, they often throw an extra one in during the proceedings if things are rolling. What I mean by that is cross talk and fraternization amongst the guests who have just met, and with the host are both highly encouraged. Great groups inspire more of the host and enthusiastic crews often get a bonus. Each wine has something to pair it with. At my my most recent visits, several were matched with cheeses, one with caviar on a potato chip and one with a signature bon bon. The wines poured and what they’re matched with change; however the Merlot and Alexis are almost always part of the mix.

It’s been my pleasure to be in the Swanson Salon with just about every size group. That includes with just myself and the host on a quiet winter afternoon and most often as was the case today with a full house. Both experiences are terrific, but when the room is full with the right people as it was today with myself and some lovely folks from North Carolina things reach a higher plane. As I said above, this all wouldn’t matter much if the wines weren’t excellent, which they most certainly are. Swanson is the largest producer of Estate Merlot in Napa and theirs is one to be reckoned with. It has structure, length and a load of flavor. Having had it over the last decade this wine is always delicious upon release but personally I like it better with about 5 or 6 years of age on it. If you lean towards Cabernet Sauvignon, you’ll like the Swanson Merlot. The Chardonnay is hands down my favorite Chardonnay in Napa Valley. The production is tiny and aimed at the wine club; ask nicely and they’ll sell you some at the Salon. Other wines such as small production Petite Sirah and Sangiovese are also full flavored expressions of each varietal. I’m a sucker for good Petite Sirah and I always look forward to my shipment from Swanson. The dessert wines are so varied in range and style that they deserve their own article. The Swanson dessert offerings are made of everything from Chardonnay to Petite Sirah; my personal favorite is Angelica which is made from Mission grapes.

If having a great time, making new friends, drinking elegant wines perfectly paired with little morsels to munch on, in a warm, welcoming enviornment isn’t your idea of a good time, then by all means don’t go to Swanson Vineyards. But if you’re like the other 99.9999999% of us then you need to go to Swanson Vineyards Salon. Imagine the liveliest and most memorable dinner party you’ve ever been to. Now add amazing wine and you might start to get the idea.  Like I always tell my friends who are travelling to Napa, “If You’ve been to Napa Valley but you haven’t been to Swanson, you really haven’t been to Napa Valley.”

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Posted in Wine, Winery Visit | 7 Comments »

Visiting Fontanella Family Winery

Posted by Gabe on July 28, 2009

TastingroomWhen I got up this morning I had no plans to visit Fontanella Family Winery. In fact, I wasn’t familiar with them. That all changed pretty quickly. For the second time in a few months I had the opportunity to spend some time with Peter Rubissow of Rubissow Wines. It was once again an excellent time; a detailed report of my first visit to Rubissow is available. The offshoot of all that is that Peter recommended Fontanella. I headed straight to their tasting room a bit further down the hill on Mount Veeder when I left Peter.

Karen Fontanella greeted me warmly when I arrived. I got a brief history of their winery which is a pretty new operation. Work on their tasting room was completed just about a year ago in the summer of 2008. They’ve been pouring wines there by appointment ever since. We went through their current releases which are made from purchased fruit. They have extensive plans to plant on their own property in the area surrounding the winery and tasting room. For now though they have sourced their fruit from sources they are familiar with, both friends and others. While there is quite a bit of Mount Veeder fruit in their wines they also source in Calistoga, Rutherford and Carneros. Once their vines are planted and bearing fruit they will ultimately make Mount Veeder Appellation wines.

Jeff Fontanella is the winemaker and he founded this winery along with his wife Karen. His prior wine-making experience includes work at Opus One, ZD Wines and Saddleback. Along the way he picked up a host of experience which helped him hone his craft and find his personal sweet spot in terms of wine-making style and philosophy. I didn’t get to meet Jeff this time out but his wines spoke for him, quite loudly:

The 2007 Fontanella Chardonnay is an even split of Carneros and Mount Veeder Fruit. This Chardonnay reminded me of the Van Halen song “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love.” Specifically when David Lee Roth sings, “I’ve been to the edge, and there I stood and looked down.” The reason for that is that this wine really skated the oak edge for me. I found it had just enough oak treatment to add layers of complexity and make it really interesting to drink and contemplate, but not enough to bog it down or mask the fruit. The nose of this wine is very expressive and the finish has a nice rich and creamy edge. The wine retails for $30.

The 2006 Fontanella Cabernet Sauvugnon is made from Rutherford (86%) and Mount Veeder (16%) fruit. More than anything I was salivating, hoping someone would show up with some fork tender Filet Mignon when I tasted this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. As there was no grill in sight I was left to think about this wine. It’s a well structured wine that features lots of berry fruit flavors and firm but yielding tannins. Rutherford dust, baker’s chocolate are out in force on the finish along with some espresso notes. This is a really nice Cabernet that should improve with some bottle age. It sells for $55.

The 2007 Fontanella Zinfandel is made up of Calistoga (67%) and Mount Veeder (33%) fruit If I wanted to sit in the corner, sip wine and contemplate life this Zinfandel would be a good choice. It has a big, bold, hedonistic nose that draws you to the glass. Rich, ripe, berry jam fruit notes are copious throughout the palate along with some spice reference points. The finish of this Zin is soft, smooth, silky and of excellent length. As soon as it’s fades you’ll want another sip.

In addition to these current releases I had the opportunity to taste barrel samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon components for the next release. They seemed to indicate consistency of quality and style, good signs in my book. As I mentioned above to visit Fontanella you need to make an appointment, so keep that in mind before visiting. Picking up the phone to make that call is well worth your time. The tasting room at Fontanella is cozy, welcoming and well appointed. It has a nice view of their property which will be under vine before long. Most importantly the wines are delicious, well made, artisinal offerings that are worth the extra effort to seek out. Karen Fontanella is a very gracious and charming host who will be happy to tell you about the wines and the burgeoning history of their winery. They’re already on my short list to revisit on my next trip to Napa as I expect the lovely wines to continue. Special thanks to Peter for the recommendation.

Posted in Wine, Winery Visit | 1 Comment »

Brancott – 2008 Pinot Grigio

Posted by Gabe on July 23, 2009

Quick, what grape do you think of when New Zealand comes up in brancott-pgconversation? I’ll bet your answer was either Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc. There’s good reason for that as it’s those two grapes that have really made their mark for New Zealand. But of course they aren’t the only two varietals being grown there. Today I’ll look at a Pinot Grigio from Brancott.

The 2008 Brancott Pinot Grigio is made from fruit that was mostly sourced in Marlborough. The remainder is from the lesser known (to this point) Waipara region. This Pinot Grigio saw no oak treatment. The wine was left on light lees for a period of three months and stirred weekly. The alcohol for this offering is a modest 13% and the suggested retail price is $14.

The hue of this wine is a very light, pale yellow in color. Lemon zest, anjou pear and hints of white pepper are apparent in the expressive nose. Throughout the palate this Pinot Grigio is soft, lush and full of gentle, concentrated flavorful fruit. White peach, hints of tangerine and continued pear are all part of the mix here. Nutmeg, additional white pepper and touches of clove emerge on the finish. This wine has excellent acidity and is a sure bet to match with a wide array of lighter cuisine. I paired it with a chicken and vegetable stir fry and found that it worked quite well.

For $14 (less if you shop around), this wine is a nice value. It exhibits plenty of Pinot Grigio character and has a ton of flavor. Don’ be afraid of overbuying this wine, it has the structure and acidity to drink well over the next couple of years. So no need to worry about drinking it all up during summer 2009.

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Posted in Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Wine | Leave a Comment »

Simonsig – 2008 Chenin Blanc

Posted by Gabe on July 20, 2009

Simonsig_Chenin_Label_NV_mainA little over a year ago I had the opportunity to taste the Simonsig wines with Pieter Malan of Simonsig Family Vineyards; you can read my report from that lunch here. One of the standout wines was the 2007 Chenin Blanc. So when I had the opportunity to taste the 2008 vintage I was curious to see how it would be and if it would compare, stylistically and quality wise. Chenin Blanc is an important grape for South Africa as it tends to thrive there.

The 2008 Sinonsig Family Vineyards Chenin Blanc was made from fruit mostly sourced in the Koelenhof area. This wine is 100% Chenin Blanc. Some of the harvested grapes had developed Botrytis. This “noble rot” is thought of more often when crafting dessert wines. 28,000 cases of this vintage were produced and the suggested retail price is $11.99

Apple, orange blossom and tangerine notes are all part of a bright, expressive, summery nose. The palate of this Chenin Blanc is rich and mouth-filling with creamy notes on the mid-palate that overlay and enhance tons of orchard fruit notes. Those are mostly ripe and bright, but hints of green apple do come through and add an additional dimension. Hazelnut, along with touches of honey emerge on the finish and give this wine hints of sweetness. This offering drinks quite nicely on it’s own and there are quite a number of layers to contemplate. However this wine would also be a natural to pair with curry based Indian dishes.

The bottom line for me is that the 2008 Simonsig Chenin Blanc is a lovely expression of the varietal, from one of the key regions for this under-appreciated grape. It’s also important to note that this offering is consistent in quality, style and overall value with the 2007 vintage.

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Posted in Chenin Blanc, Wine | 1 Comment »

Urraca – 2005 Familia Langley Reserva

Posted by Gabe on July 18, 2009

Many well known wine regions make blends inspired by the well known examples that come out of Bordeaux. These can fall flat when the urracawinery in question is simply trying to imitate a style. However when a producer aspires to make the best blend possible with the fruit available to them, all the while showing off their terroir, they have a much better chance of hitting the mark. Today I’ll look at the third wine from Urraca, which is a Bordeaux style blend.

The 2005 Urraca Familia Langley Reserva is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (36%), Malbec (36%), Cabernet Franc (17%) and Merlot (11%). Oak aging was accomplished in a combination of French and American barrels over a period of 18 months. The suggested retail price for this offering is $72.

Leather, vanilla, dark brooding berry and hints of espresso bean are all present in the nose. Lots of plum, blueberry, and a host of dark, ripe, heady berry fruit are prominent throughout the full bodied palate along with plum pudding spice. Sweet dark chocolate notes, black tea, mineral, white pepper, cigar-box and ever emerging earth characteristics come together to form an impressively lengthy finish. This blend has chewy tannins, good acidity and excellent overall structure. Pair it with big, bold foods that can match it’s combination of power and elegance. The blend may be made of Old World components, but this is very much a New World wine.

As was the case with the 2005 Primera this wine should be decanted for maximum enjoyment if you’re going to drink it in the next couple of years. My advice however is to tuck this away in your cellar and forget about if for the next 5 years or so. Then dig it out and drink it sometime over the next 8-10 years. The Urraca wines I have had are all excellent, well made, “high end” offerings. There are a ton of well priced, well made wines coming from South America in general and Argentina specifically. many of these offer value, and sufficient complexity for everyday drinking. The wines from Urraca aim for a different goal, they shoot for greatness. These delicious, complex wines meet their goal. In my opinion these offerings stand with a handful of other Argentine producers as examples of the best wines they offer.

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Posted in Blends, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Wine | 1 Comment »

Urraca – 2005 Primera

Posted by Gabe on July 15, 2009

urraca-primeraMalbec is more closely identified with Argentina than any other single grape variety. There’s good reason for that; while it’s made elsewhere Malbec absolutely flourishes and reaches its apex there. The wide array of styles in which Malbec is made reminds me of how diverse Zinfandel can be in California. Some choose to make it brash and exuberant while others go for more of a refined and elegant style. Each has its benefits. Not surprisingly Urraca Wines has more acres of Malbec under vine than any other varietal. Cabernet Sauvignon is a close second however. Today I’ll look at one of their Malbec based blends.

The 2005 Urraca Primera is a blend of Malbec (70%) and Merlot (30%). Oak treatment was accomplished with 18 months in a combination of French and American barrels. The suggested retail price for this offering is $37.

I highly recommend decanting this selection if you’re going to be drinking it over the next couple of years. An hour is very helpful, and closer to two hours would be even better. Once it’s had that chance to breathe this wine starts really expressing itself. The intoxicating nose features blueberry, plum and violets along with touches of cedar. There is a terrific purity of fruit through the palate that can not help itself but impress as it is intense, layered and just downright delicious. Black cherries are the most prominent along with additional berry fruits as well as fruitcake spice. Chocolate, hints of pencil lead and plenty of earth emerge on the long, persistent finish. Black and white pepper note linger so long them seem like they’ll never stop coming. This offering has firm tannins and excellent acidity. Roasted meats or game will be a natural match for this blend.

There are several things that impress me about this wine. The intense and pure fruit I mentioned above is one. The other is the fact that this blend is a perfect combination of characteristics. The Malbec shows its hedonistic, brash nature, and the Merlot provides backbone and structure. This is a tremendous wine that deserves and demands attention. Not an offering you want to rush to drink, rather one to contemplate over a nice meal with friends who will be lucky that you shared this Argentine powerhouse with them.

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Posted in Blends, Malbec, Merlot, Wine | Leave a Comment »

Urraca – 2007 Chardonnay

Posted by Gabe on July 13, 2009

Each week I taste a lot of different wines. The quality, intent and price ranges urraca_chardonnayof these differ greatly. I’m always interested in what the producer’s intent was when making a wine. Are they looking to make the type of value you can afford to drink everyday and find anywhere for $10? Are they looking to create a wine that might get high scores? Are they looking to just make great wine? After considering intent the other thing I look for in wines that I write about are selections that speak to me. Several months ago I had the Urraca wines at a large scale tasting in Manhattan. They left a real impression and I thought about them from time to time. So much so that I decided I need to retry them and see if they were as impressive as I recalled. Over the next couple of days I’ll look at three selections. I’ll start today with their Chardonnay.

The 2007 Urraca Chardonnay is produced from grapes sourced in their own 5 acre Chardonnay Vineyard. This selection is 100% Chardonnay. Oak aging was accomplished over a 6 month period in French barrels. Just 250 cases of this offering were produced. The suggested retail price is $37.

The nose of this Argentine Chardonnay is an apple orchard with touches of cedar and vanilla underscoring the lively fruit aromas. Continued apple, pear, and zesty lemon notes are prominent throughout the palate. In the mid-palate hints of smokiness kick in and continue through finish which also features significant mineral notes and touches of spice. This wine has excellent acidity and good structure.

What impresses me most about this Chardonnay is its balance. The oak treatment adds complexity but never comes close to obtruding the fresh fruit flavors. This wine is an absolutely gorgeous expression of Chardonnay. There are a lot of fine Chardonnays coming out of Argentina, many of them in the value category. This example from Urraca is a step up from most of them in complexity, age-ability, and yes price. However the quality of this wine warrants the price. If a wine of this quality had a Burgundy or Napa appellation on it the cost would be closer to $60. Therefore this Chardonnay fulfills it’s intent of being a world class offering. Please stay tuned as I look at two more wines from Urraca this week!

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Posted in Chardonnay, Wine | Leave a Comment »

Bodega Septima – 2008 Chardonnay

Posted by Gabe on July 12, 2009

septima-chardBodega Septima is a Mendoza, Argentina based winery. This region of Argentina is the one most familiar to US consumers at this time. The winery has a history that dates back 10 years. In 1999 they were founded by the Codorníu Group who have winery proprties in several distinct, world-wide locations. Originally starting with 470 acres, they now have well over 800 acres in Mendoza. The stated goal of Bodega Septima is to produce wines that take into account both Argentine tradition and modern global techniques. Today I’ll look at their current release of Chardonnay.

The 2008 Bodega Septima Chardonnay is produced from grapes in their Luján de Cuyo vineyard; 3,900 feet above sea level. This offering is 100% Chardonnay. This wine was aged in a combination of French and American oak barrels. Alcohol for this selection is a modest 13.3%. The suggested retail price for this South American Chardonnay is $12.

This 2008 wine has a fresh, light yellow hue. Green apple and anjou pear emerges in the nose along with a touch of vanilla bean. Pear and apples flavors continue through the palate, joined by pineapple and hints of additional tropical flavors. Most interesting is a light later of citrus (lemon custard comes to mind) that starts mid-palate and continues through the finish. hints of creaminess also echo through the finish along with subtle nutmeg spice. This Chardonnay has very good acidity. Chicken Piccata would be an excellent match for this offering, which is also quite tasty on its own.

Fresh fruit flavors burst out of this wine, which is what impresses me most. It complements summer nicely. If you happen to drink it in cool weather it’s going to make you wish for warmer days.  This wine is most commonly available for right around $10; another example of the many values coming from Argentina,

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Martin & Weyrich – 2006 Petit Verdot

Posted by Gabe on July 11, 2009

mw_crest_colorMartin & Weyrich’s history in Paso Robles dates back almost 30 years, to 1981. When they bought their first parcel of land only a handful of other wineries existed in the area. Today Paso Robles is a hot region recognized by more and more folks everyday as an area with distinct wines, often at excellent prices. The array of offerings in the Martin & Weyrich portfolio is impressive. Initially focusing mostly on Italian varietals they have expanded to include Bordeaux and Rhone offerings as well. In fact they have one of the widest selections in Paso Robles. None of that would matter if they weren’t making excellent wines, which they are. Today I’ll look at their current release Petit Verdot.

The 2006 Martin & Weyrich Petit Verdot is one of their smaller case productions. This selection is primarily produced for their Avanti Wine Club; however it does show up in a very limited number of Central Coast wine shops and a handful of restaurants as well. The suggested retail price for this wine is $30.

I really wish more wineries would produce a stand alone, varietal Petit Verdot. While it’s often part of Bordeaux style blends, this grape is too rarely given the chance to star on its own. This example from Martin & Weyrich is evidence that it should be given that opportunity more often. Dark plum, cedar and black pepper are all part of a heady and intoxicating nose. The palate of this Petit Verdot is rich and velvety with a luxurious mouth-feel. An abundance of dark fruits such as blackberry, dark cherry and raspberry as well as plum fill the middle of this wine with appealing berry pie flavors. Spice notes in the form of continued pepper, allspice, star anise, cloves and hints of cardamon underpin the palate and continue through a lovely and lingering finish. Touches of vanilla emerge as well and add a hint of lighter flavor to what is a mostly dark (gloriously so) flavor profile. This wine has sufficient acidity and nice structure. I found Lamb to be an excellent match for this beauty. Full flavored foods in general will do well.

This wine is one of the exceptions that proves the rule for me. Martin & Weyrich is one of the larger producers in Paso Robles. Many of their wines are widely available. They do a nice job with those. A wine like this, made in limited quantities and not widely available helps set them apart. This Petit Verdot is both delicious and unique. It’s clear they put as much care and effort into this exclusive bottling as they do into their larger productions. Another reason to look towards Martin & Weyrich for well made, interesting wines at a fair price.

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Lucas & Lewellen – 2008 Chenin Blanc

Posted by Gabe on July 9, 2009

In certain areas of France and South Africa Chenin Blanc is widely planted and pretty highly regarded. And while it’s planted in many LL-CBregions throughout the world it doesn’t get nearly as much acclaim anywhere else. In the US Dry Creek Vineyard has been making an excellent one for years that they do quite well with. There are certainly other producers in California, but the noteworthy examples are few and far between. Today I’m looking at one from Lucas & Lewellen.

The 2008 Chenin Blanc from Lucas & Lewellen is produced from fruit sourced at the Los Alamos Vineyard; part of the Santa Barbara AVA. This offering is 100% varietal. This wine was cold fermented. 376 cases were produced and the suggested retail price for this offering is $20.

This Chenin Blanc has an abundance of floral notes in the nose along with orange blossom and hints of spice. Lychee fruit, pineapple and mango are all part of the bright, fruity palate along with sweet pear nectar and touches of honey. Gentle but lingering spice makes up the finish. This wine has good acidity and is well balanced.

What I like about this wine is the wealth of appealing ripe fruit flavors. This Chenin Blanc has touches and hints of sweetness but is far from a truly sweet wine. Those hints however add a lot to the appeal of this selection and drive the desire to keep going back to the glass for another sip. This offering is delicious on its own but has the complexity to stand up to a variety of foods. Chicken based, spicy, Indian dishes would be a particularly good match. A lovely wine, made for summer.

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