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  • A Trio of Portuguese Reserve Ports from Symington Family Estates

    Posted: 2017-04-22 18:09
    Portuguese Port is rather redundant since thanks to the European Union Protected Designation of Origin guidelines most wine labeled as "Port" or "Porto" must be a fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro region in the northern provinces of Portugal. This may not always be the case outside of Europe, but most countries are accepting the Portuguese Protected designation of origin.

     Port wine is a classic style -- produced from grown and processed in the Douro demarcation and fortified with neutral grape spirit. There are over a hundred sanctioned grape varieties eligible for Port, but in general, expect the use of these five: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. There are also several categories of Port: White, Tawny, Ruby, Reserve, and Vintage.  (See The Wine Coach for specifics.)  Ruby Ports are aged in large vats for two to three years before bottling whereas Vintage Ports are from a single harvest designated as an exceptional year and aged additional years in the bottle.  The Reserve Port category was created by Cockburn's (founded in 1815) to bridge these two styles where the wine is aged longer in large barrique casks. The goal was to create a wine similar in quality to the Vintage Port but drinkable early like the Ruby Port.

    Symington Family Estates is a major player in Port as well as Douro Valley wine production, owning several brands such as Cockburn's. I recently received samples from three of their brands described below.

    Cockburn's Special Reserve Port ($18). This is apparently the world's most popular Reserve Port and is considered "The Original Reserve Port". The wine is produced from grapes harvested from their Quinta dos Canais vineyards in the Upper Douro and aged four to five years in oak casks. And this port is a great baseline for beginners. It is full bodied, with lush fruit and nut flavors, savory spices, a big mouthfeel, and a very healthy finish.

    Warre's Warrior Port ($19). Warrior is the oldest continuously bottled Port brand (1750's) as Warrior has been branded on the casks of Warre’s finest Reserve Ports since the earliest days of the firm. The grapes are drawn from Quinta da Cavadinha and Quinta do Retiro, Warre’s best quintas in the Pinhão and Rio Torto valleys that also produce Warre’s classic Vintage Ports. The wine is fruity and chewy, lot's of texture, with another long lingering finish. Apparently the higher altitudes and cooler climate lead to this ripe fruit character. For full bodied, yet fresh, easy drinking Port wine, start here.

    Graham's Six Grapes Reserve Port ($24). "The distinctive depiction of the six bunches of grapes on the bottle originates from the marks long-used in the Graham's Lodge to classify the quality of the wines in the casks. The six-grapes symbol is Graham's age-old mark of quality, used to identify the very finest wines from the best vineyards, which were destined to make up the Vintage Port or Six Grapes lots". The grapes are sourced from five vineyards that are responsible for the brand's Vintage Ports, including Quinta dos Malvedos. The wine was the freshest of the trio, vibrant acids mingling with the dark blackberry fruit. The finish is long and clean. Well done.
  • Single Vineyard Wines from Wente Vineyards

    Posted: 2017-04-19 13:38
    Wente Vineyards, California's oldest family winery, uses their Single Vineyard series to showcase the winery's plots in the Livermore Valley AVA and Arroyo Seco, Monterey AVA regions.  "Both regions provide climate patterns that are beneficial to wine grapes, which need warmth for healthy growth, maturation, and development, and cool nights and mornings to retain delicate flavors".

    The Livermore Valley is located twenty miles east of the San Francisco Bay, which along with Pacific marine climate, provides cool and foggy mornings (hence our favorite Morning Fog wine). The morning fog transitions to warm midday temperatures before early afternoon breezes and evening fog lower temperatures again -- preserving the fruit’s natural acidity.

    In 1962, Karl L. Wente planted some of the first vines in cool climate Arroyo Seco with the eastern part, influenced by the Salinas Valley winds, providing excellent conditions for growing Burgundy grape varieties. The vineyards also contain river stones deposited over the years which retain and release heat as well as providing excellent drainage.

    2015 Riva Ranch Chardonnay ($22, 14.5%). Wente is synonymous for Chardonnay after bottling the first varietally labeled Chardonnay in 1936 and creating a series of Wente clones that now account for 80% of all California Chardonnay.  The grapes are soured from the Riva Ranch Vineyard in Arroyo Seco, Monterey with 90% fermented in barrel with all undergoing 100% malolactic fermentation and is barrel-aged sur lie for 8 months with batonnage (stirring) occurring every two weeks. This process produces a well textured and creamy wine with noticeable vanilla and spices from the oak. Initially this creamy texture and vanilla seem to overwhelm the palate but quickly the grape's acidity brings the wine into balance.

    2014 Riva Ranch Pinot Noir ($30, 14.50%). The Pommard and Martini Pinot Noir clones are soured from the Riva Ranch Vineyard in Arroyo Seco, Monterey.  Each clone provides a distinct character to the wine, the "Pommard is especially fruit-driven providing bright lusciousness while Martini is more subtle with layered complexity on the nose and silky texture on the palate". The wine is also aged for 16 months in French and neutral oak barrels. This aging process provides a rustic quality and doesn't overshadow the light cherry flavors. And like the Chardonnay, expect bright acids for a long and smooth finish.

    2014 Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon ($30, 14.50%). The grapes are sourced from the Livermore Valley's Charles Wetmore Vineyard. This vineyard is named for "Livermore’s most prominent pioneers, California’s first Agricultural Commissioner, renowned for planting vine cuttings from many of Bordeaux’s top Chateaux in the Livermore Valley in the 1800s". The Charles Wetmore Vineyard contains gravelly loam soil similar to those in Bordeaux and the grapes for this wine are direct descendants from the vines first planted by Wetmore.  After fermentation the wind is aged for 20 months in 40% new French oak and 60% second and third use French oak barrels.The result is a fantastic wine, fresh fruit, smooth velvety tannins, and a long fresh finish. Simply fantastic. It can pass for a Napa Cab at twice that price.
  • A March of German Styled Pilsner

    Posted: 2017-03-31 09:45
    Apparently March, or at least its last two weeks, has tilted towards German styled pilsners as that beer style surfaced regularly over that period. But what's the difference between the German styled pilsner and it's Bohemian (Czech) relative? Whereas both beer styles are lagers, Czech pilsners are brewed with soft water (lower levels of calcium and magnesium) and utilize Czech Saaz hops which provide a very mild, earthy, herbal and spicy aroma. That's a Pilsner Urquell. On the other hand, the German styled pilsner is generally dryer, lighter, and crisper. They typically use German noble hop varieties, especially Hallertauer (highly floral, slightly earthy, and weaker spicy flavor) and Tettnanger (mild, floral, and slightly). 

    The beer style first appeared during a weekend trip to Philadelphia where the Sly Fox Brewing Company Pikeland Pils and Victory Brewing Company Prima Pils were available at restaurants and bars. Both were earthy and herbal, light, clean and refreshing. This style was also available during a stop at 2nd Story Brewing Co., which is highly recommended for both its beer and food. They offered the Daisy Point Pils, perhaps their best offering, which hit all the flavor points.

    When I returned home two German styled pilsners had ascended their draft list at our local WholeFoods Market: the Sixpoint Brewery The Crisp and the AleSmith Brewing Pilsner. Both were steller with the Alesmith completely balanced between hops and minerals, earth, and herbs and the Sixpoint providing a more pronounced hop presence.  A day later I stopped into my local beer store (Norms Beer & Wine) and a representative from Starr Hill Brewing was pouring their Warehouse Pils - a refreshing high mineral and herbal beer with a decent hop payload.

    I wonder where the next German Pils will pop up this weekend. Cheers.
  • Ned Luberecki's Take Five and Chateau Ste. Michelle's Columbia Valley Dry Riesling

    Posted: 2017-03-27 20:09
    On March 31st 2017 banjoist Ned Luberecki releases his newest album Take Five. I'm a fan of Luberecki's Sirius XM Radio Bluegrass Junction show, but I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical when receiving an early download link. I'd never listened to a solo banjoist album before; and in hindsight, there was no reason to be skeptical. First, Luberecki organized a stellar supporting cast from vocalists to fiddlers and guitarists. (This cast consists of Missy Raines and the New Hip, Jeremy Garrett of The Infamous Stringdusters, Becky Buller, the Helen Highwater Stringband (Mike Compton, David Grier, Missy Raines, and Shad Cobb), Chris Jones and The Night Drivers, Dale Ann Bradley, Amanda Smith, and Stephen Mougin -- guitarist of the Sam Bush Band and the other half of Nedski & Mojo.) Second, the interplay between the fiddle and banjo is hypnotic (See Cleveland Park). Finally, and most importantly, the album is as varied as possible.  There are fiddle tunes, train songs, and even concludes with the Theme from Star Trek. Higher Ground is my favorite track with Dale Ann Bradly on vocals. Blue Monk handles the blues and there's an excellent Buck Owens Medley.  And his take on the Brazilian bossa nova jazz song Girl From Ipanema sums up this album -- anything is possible with Ned Luberecki's banjo.

    Riesling is the wine equivalent to the banjo; it's underappreciated and misunderstood. (Such as Riesling wine is always sweet.) Yes some are, but the majority range from dry to off-dry with enough acidity to balance any residual sugar.  Normally I would think Finger Lakes Riesling, but recently I purchased a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle 2015 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($9, 12% abv). Like Take Five, this wine is refreshing and versatile - with apple and citrus flavors, some petrol, and all balanced with refreshing acidity. The winery has even implemented the International Riesling Foundation Sweetness Scale to inform the consumer of the wine's inherent sweetness -- with this wine solidly in the Dry range. And at that price and abv I could drink it every day while listening to Luberecki. Cheers.
  • Cecchi 2014 La Mora Vermentino - from Chianti Classico to Maremma Toscana

    Posted: 2017-03-23 15:35
    The Maremmano is a horse breed native to the Maremma area of Tuscany and Lazio in Italy that has transitioned from a working horse with livestock to a saddle horse today. The horse is known for its dark chestnut or black color as well as its solid frame and ability to adapt to bad weather and rough terrain. Chianti Classico producer Cecchi Family Estate pays homage to the horse by displaying a depiction of the Maremmano horse on the label and naming their Maremma Toscana brand La Mora - for the black horse.  These wines are produced from grapes grown in the Maremma Toscana D.O.C. - a region located in the southwestern part of Tuscany bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea. It recently gained D.O.C. status in 2011; yet in 1996 the Cecchi family purchased 360 acres of Maremma vineyards expanding out of Chianti Classico, the winery's home since the late 19th century.

    At a recent tasting Andrea Cecchi spoke proudly about the family's Maremma Toscana wines and I can see why in respect to the 2014 La Mora Vermentino ($20, 13% ABV)This is not your standard Vermentino wine. Yes it is lively with stone minerality, but a touch of malolactic fermentation provide richness not seen in others.  And the wine provides a deep stone fruit flavor accompanied by a dry and refreshing finish. Nicely done.

Featured Visit

Hill Top Berry Farm & Winery; Nellysford, Virginia - Friday, September 12, 2008
We have a goal of visiting the several Virginia meaderies so we traveled to Nellysford in order to visit Hill Top Berry Farm & Winery - home of dozens of excellent honey and fruit wines. And we mean dozens - and there selection continues to expand as the proprietors craft new and interesting blends. The winery started a decade ago when Marlyn and Sue Allen became one of the first Virginia wineries to produce fruit wines from their local "pick your own" orchard and fields. The family's philosophy should be mandatory reading for all wineries: use your land to grow produce (grapes or fruit) that are best suited for your environment. In addition to the fruit, the family also had an apiary - hence the introduction of mead. As the three Allen sisters took over operations, they had more production hours to experiment with the mead and start producing other styles: cyser, pyment, and melomel.

During our we we stuck to the mead products, except for one fruit wine: their Three Sisters Elderberry Wine. This fruit is too tempting and is a new release for the winery. Elderberry wines are full bodied and can be made in any style: from dry to sweet. Hill Top's is made off dry with a full fruit flavor - as good as any grape wine. As for the meads, five styles were available for tasting. We started with the Rockfish River Cyser (82% apple and 18% honey) which is made semi-dry. It was good, but the apple flavor overwhelmed the honey and quite frankly we were interested in mead. However, for those more interested in apple wine, this is a great alternative - and quite different from the standard apple offerings. We next tried the Perry and this dessert wine is awesome. First, its probably the first wine with pear as an ingredient that we've tried - then combined with honey - it has the perfect combination of flavors. The Pyment (grape\honey wine) was served next and this concord grape-honey blend is truly unique. The concord provides the grapey aroma while the honey flavors triumph at the finish. This year Hill Top entered several wines into the San Francisco Wine Competition and the later two came home with medals. We finally got around to their Blue Ridge Mountain Mead, which we had previously tasted at several earlier wine festivals. The wine is made semi-dry and has a strong honey flavor and aroma. The mead is usually in short supply because members of the Society for Creative Anachronism use it for their festivals. The final wine made the trip memorable and is one of the reasons we visit less familiar wineries - to find truly original wines and at Hill Top we discovered our first fruit ice wine: Pounding Branch Persimmon Melomel. Melomel is honey wine made with fruit and for this concoction Hill Top picked frozen persimmons from off Wintergreen Mountain. The melomel is advertised as "Southern Ice Wine" - so we were expecting a sweet wine. Of course we were wrong - the wine is as dry as any white vinifera wine. But with a very unique flavor - spicy with hints of honey throughout. The judges in San Francisco were also taken - awarding it a Gold medal. Unfortunately, Hill Top's inventory is extremely low, so hurry over to purchase. But their are other concoctions waiting to take its place on the tasting bar. The Lavender Metheglin (mead made with spices), Blueberry Melomel, and Raspberry Melomel will all be available very soon. Then there's the fruit wine we didn't have time to sample. Blueberry, blackberry, cherry, cranberry, peach, plum, raspberry, par, and cherry - you name it, they probably vinify it.

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