Down memory lane and the pursuit of sweetness

Fourteen years ago, I began my journey to learn the most I could about California wines. As a woman living in Boston, my awareness grew from visits to Napa and Sonoma. But one of the first California wines I appreciated was an old vine zinfandel made from Lodi grapes. Almost four years ago, I moved to Napa Valley, and when I opened a 2016 bottle of Ironstone Vineyards Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, it was a tasty reminder of my journey in the world of wine.

Those twisted, gnarly, head-trained vines are older than I am, and with a small dose of petite sirah and grapes sourced from five old-vine-zinfandel vineyards, this well-balanced wine is a bargain at $24.99.

I can’t say the same about the Moscato d’Asti D.O.C.G. 2017 from Luca Bosio Vineyards, but to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of moscato bianco. I do love the complex aromas of this Piedmont grape almost as much as I love a surprise bouquet of flowers. But it is undeniably sweet, and best sipped as an aperitif. $17.99

Speaking of sweet, a bottle of vino Dei Fratelli Mochetto tastes like drinking actual rose petals with a bit of effervescence to add dimension. I really did enjoy this wine, restricted to drinking one glass. Enjoy with dessert and you’ll be glad you chose this pink wine. $17

Speaking of pink bubbles, a toast was in order and validated my opening a bottle of Mionetto rosé sparkling wine. Extra dry. Although produced in Italy, I didn’t wane nostalgia for these soft-pressed red grapes with the peach blossom color. The flavor I can best describe is like drinking violets. Best served as an aperitif. Note: This prosecco might be a challenge to purchase in the U.S.

The time was right for Obsession, a 2016 red blend of California merlot, zinfandel and petite sirah. The merlot smooths the finish, the zinfandel catapults the palate, and three months spent in new French oak barrels sent me over the edge. I’m obsessed. $17

The obsession continued with a tall, slender bottle of 2016 Obsession Symphony California. Wow. This is a cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris grapes created in California. It’s exotic and fun to serve with Indian food.

Sometimes a wine label lures you to purchase a bottle of wine, and with Tom of Finland’s OUTstanding RED, let’s just say it’s the whole package. Tom of Finland is well-respected as a promoter of universal human rights and sexual expression – he was quite influential to the late 20-century gay culture. He was a Finnish artist known for his masculinized homoerotic fetish art, and has been called the “most influential creator of gay pornographic images” by cultural historian Joseph W. Slade. The wine, like Tom of Finland’s drawing on the label, is sensual in a blend of petite sirah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Going stag is something I’ve become used to, and it’s an excellent method of effectiveness in networking. But that has little to do with a bottle of 2018 Samuel Charles Sauvignon Blanc, High Valley, other than the fact that I drank this solo and there’s a picture of a stag on the label. It was a perfect light wine to enjoy on my own and without regret.

 

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Tripping and Sipping at Loisium Winery

During a Scenic Jasper river cruise from Budapest to Nuremberg, I opted for a visit to Loisium Winery, an architectural wonder located in Melk, a city in lower Austria, next to the Wachau Valley along the Danube. My experience might have been a dream if not for the photographs I took.

The winery reminded me of the d’Arenberg Cube in McLaren Vale, Southern Australia, but we were in Austria, looking at a winery built by New York architect Steven Holl. I learned that to provide shade for vineyard workers and to keep mosquitoes away, walnut trees were planted.

Vineyards are everywhere in Melk, including vines that grow on ledge rock. Fifty-five percent of vines grown in Wachau Valley produce white wine made from grüner veltliner grapes, followed by Riesling.

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Our tour at Loisium Winery was surreal. I thought maybe I’d consumed a magic mushroom because I couldn’t believe the experience from start to finish. First, our group gathered in what seemed like an underground well, and this is when the water and laser show began, with a voiceover like the Wizard of Oz. I was ready to flee and grab the Wicked Witch of the West’s broom to bring back to this mysterious voice.

From there, we toured through a cave with stops to view elements of the winery’s storied history. We viewed an example of wine’s evolution in comparison to a baby’s feet. There were actually baby’s feet to tickle in an interactive stop before we reached the end of this 900-year-old cave to watch a laser show.

My favorite in the region is the red zweigelt grape. The 2016 Steininger Zweigelt brought forth a bouquet of molded berries and a taste much like a Burgundian red. This wine would be great with a serving of goulash. I fell in love with this wine and purchased a bottle for about $30 and brought it back to the U.S., where I later enjoyed with friends during a dinner party.

A few good reds

Amid the month of romance, it’s a good idea to stock your wine rack with a few good reds. You never know when you’ll want to bring out your inner Cupid, so here are three wines worthy of sharing with that someone special:

#1 – Two Angels Petite Sirah 2016 Vintage, made with grapes grown in the highest vineyards in California, in Lake County’s “Red Hills” appellation for deepened complexity. This dark purple wine offers a bouquet of ripe, dark berries and plums that match the taste with a slow, long, luxurious finish. Enjoy this wine with any dish deemed robust, such as venison, game birds, beef and hard cheeses. $26.99

#2 – Heading Down Under to McLaren Vale wine region in South Australia, the 2014 Block 6 Shiraz is a pleasant change of pace. This deep, crimson wine is 100% shiraz (single vineyard) and a decadent splurge at $119.99. Know this: Block 6 vineyard is on four acres with heavy clay in the middle of the block and gravely alluvial soils on the lower side. Geologically speaking, which is essential in the making of good wine, quartz, ironstone and some silty limestone guide these grapes to their best presentation.

Take your time with a glass of this shiraz. You’ll want to enjoy its seductive aromas of Chinese 5 spice, anise, boysenberry and hint of marzipan before you take that first sip of juicy red fruit. What’s even more interesting is that this wine offers a gentler acidity than most, and a slow buildup of fine, chalky tannin structure. It’s a rich and concentrated mouthfeel with power and finesse. Save this if you have a wine cellar. It’s only going to get better with age. When you’re ready to open a bottle, decant it before you enjoy with hearty meat and game dishes.

#3 – Back in California, in the Sierra Foothills, a blend of 85% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petite Sirah, 4% Zinfandel and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon comprises a bottle of 2016 Ironstone Reserve Cabernet Franc ($24.99). This is definitely a soft wine blend, with elegance and richness to enjoy now. Worth noting is that the winery practices sustainable viticulture practices: crop reduction, leaf removal, organic materials and drip irrigation to improve the quality of the grapes and intensify the flavors. Cover crops to attract beneficial insects are also a practice that deems this winery a nod in a Roundup world. If you’re in the mood for chicken Marsala, grab a bottle of this Ironstone Reserve blend and enjoy!

Visit Quintessential Wines for more information.

Cabernet Season is in full swing

In the U.S., and especially in Napa Valley, Cabernet Season is an actual term. It’s a time when the vines are dormant and the weather is cooler; drinking robust red wines is preferred by many during the winter months.

In Australia, however, it is summertime and more than likely people are enjoying white wines with shrimp on the barbie. But that doesn’t stop wine drinkers in the U.S. from enjoying a 2014 Shirvington Cabernet Sauvignon from grapes grown in McLaren Vale. This deep ruby wine is truly a quality cabernet sauvignon, and priced at $58.99 a bottle. Aged for 19 months in 100 percent French oak (33% new oak, 11% 1-year-old oak and 56% 2-year-old oak), the vines were cared for in sustainable farming practices.

Enjoy this medium-to-full bodied wine with hearty dishes and red meats.

In Lodi, where old zinfandel vines rule, there’s also a cabernet sauvignon that leaps to attention. I’m referring to a 2017 Leaping Horse Cabernet Sauvignon made with 80% cabernet sauvignon, 10% cabernet franc and 10% syrah — a perfect combination for a wine flavored with black currant and cherry, a bit of blueberry jam, eucalyptus and mint, with notes of vanilla and coffee. Drink it now, seriously! At $9.99 a bottle, you can really stock up for dinners of hearty stews, beef-based soups, grilled BBQ meats and pasta dishes with red sauce. Yes, it works!

Finally, let’s head to Napa Valley to enjoy a 2014 Eponymous Cabernet Sauvignon made with 100% of that noble grape. It’s inky color, deep berry flavor and complexity of aromas: baking spices, rosemary, blackberries make this wine a steal for $59.99 a bottle. The grapes for this polished wine hail from Mt. Veeder and the bench lands below Atlas Peak Appellation. It’s rich earthiness and plentiful tannin structure leads to a lingering finish and a yearning to purchase more of this goodness that goes well with red meats, lamb and cheeses.

Three amazing cabernet sauvignon wines during Cabernet Season. Enjoy!

Sparkling from Italy to Argentina

As you prepare to ring in the New Year, you can begin in style and within reasonable cost with two sparkling wines worthy of the lead.

#1 – Vino dei Fratelli Vintage Prosecco 2016 ($17.99 or less)

They say ancient Romans drank Prosecco to preserve youth and to lengthen their lifespan. The empire lasted quite a while, so there may be something to Prosecco more than the high value, low-cost factor.

Prosecco is made with 100% glera grapes from Veneto, Italy. I opened my first bottle of Vino dei Fratelli upon the arrival of some friends who wanted to toast to the holiday season before we headed out for the evening.

Their first sips were voiced to this Prosecco’s success. They loved the dryness and ease of drink-ability. We agreed this was considerably an easy-to-drink bubbly on its own, but we enjoyed it even more with French triple-cream cheese spread on quinoa cakes. This is a drink-it-now sparkling, so that’s exactly how we treated the bottle.

#2 – Bianchi Brut Sparkling (no vintage) made by Bodega Valentin Bianchi, South America – ($21.99)

Predominantly made with chardonnay, followed by a third of pinot noir and a touch of viognier, this brut sparkling is sure to seduce your palate with delicate bubbles emitting notes of white peach and toasted nuts that lead to a fruit-forward, dry bubbly.

The grapes are grown in San Rafael in Mendoza, Argentina and the taste is better than many Champagnes I’ve tasted, especially when you factor in that you can drink this alone. But again, bubbles are best with cheese, so I succumbed.

This sparkling is made in the traditional French Champenoise method in that its secondary fermentation occurs in-bottle, which equals small bubbles and no headache for those who indulge.

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Raise your glass to usher in 2019 and look back to the past with warm memories. May this year bring new happiness, new goals, new achievements and new inspiration to your life. All the best wishes to a year brimming in happiness.

New Age Wine: Something Borrowed, Something Sweet

New Age, an Argentine sweet white wine, is best served chilled, on ice with a slice of lime. I know this because I tried a sip and knew I would never finish the glass unless I tweaked it a bit. This is not my typical wine experience, but it keeps things interesting in the wine world. New Age is a blend of mostly Torrontés with a bit of sauvignon blanc.

Aromas of rose petals swirled through my senses, leading to a sparkling sensation due to the process in making this wine. So, this wasn’t an actual glass of wine to sip, nor was it actually bubbly. I was at a loss on what to do with this interesting bottle, so I read the label and realized it was best mixed with gin, pink grapefruit juice, and ice, garnished with a slice of grapefruit, or just poured over ice with a twist of lime. I tried the latter and voila! I could now drink New Age.

Torrontés is a grape native to Argentina, best served as a refreshing start to a meal or paired with a meal of fish and/or shellfish. It works nicely with spicy and aromatic Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine as well. Price point: $12.99

Want to learn more about wine or gift someone who does? A new book just hit the shelves, offering insight into the world of wine in layman’s terms.

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Available on Amazon.com, Wine For Dummies explains everything from understanding grape varieties and wine styles to navigating wine shops and selecting wines in restaurants. Authors Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan share their expertise in the easy-to-follow, no-nonsense signature style of Dummies, breaking down everything there is to know for readers that range from casual beginners to intermediate wine enthusiasts. The book includes new information on emerging wine regions in the United States including Oregon, Washington state, and New York, along with international regions like Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia.

A winery with no name

My experience during a stay at Aria Hotel Budapest (by Library Hotel Collection) began in the music-inspired lobby where a spaceship-shaped Bogányi piano was being played. Guests were gathered at various bistro tables to enjoy complimentary afternoon wine and cheese in the indoor music garden. I accepted a cool glass of Sauska Rosé, an award-winning wine from Villainy, in southwest Hungary. It was a delightful refresher.

The next day, I set out to explore Etyek, a village in Fejér county in Hungary, less than 20 miles from Budapest, where it’s a good idea to taste wines. Etyek is, after all, a wine region in Hungary where cool climates  produce fruity wine varietals such as Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

While visiting Anonym (translation: no name) Winery in Etyek, owned by Áron Szövényi and his family, I was treated to tastes of its rosé of pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir. But it was the egyböl kettö blend of 40% pinot gris and 60% zenit (a varietal grown in Pázmánd, located about 40 miles south of Etyek) that stole the show, at least for my palate.

I had never heard of a zenit grape, but was informed that it is a rare, black-spotted, white grape varietal developed in 1951 by Hungarian viticulturist Dr. Ferenc Kiraly, who crossed Ezerjo, a local variety, with Bouvier, a grape cultivated in modern-day Slovenia.

I sipped a 2017 made using a reductive technique (when a winemaker ferments in stainless steel containers). These grapes were incredibly fruit-forward and brought forth a buttery mouthfeel of a “wow” factor. I purchased a bottle for $9 and took it home to enjoy later during a dinner party with friends. And now it’s gone forever with no hope of finding this wine in the U.S.

Although Anonym produces 23,000 bottles annually, they don’t export to the U.S. or anywhere else in the world because THEY RUN OUT OF WINE. They admitted to actually importing wine for local consumption.

Fun Fact: Hungary exports more Hungarian oak barrels than wine.

Two bottles of organic grenache

Terroir is the environment of vineyard, including characteristics of altitude, slope, soil content, drainage, exposure to sun and ambient climate. But that’s not all. It is also the history, class and pedigree of the vineyard and winery. Vincent Lataste is a third generation winemaker who continues to carry out the family tradition, combining history with modernity. Founded in 1890, Lataste vineyards is manned by Vincent, who took over the family vineyards at the age of 17, after the death of his father.

The Languedoc-Roussillon region of France is where Vincent Lataste produces this organic grenache I had the pleasure to taste. The Mediterranean climate and limestone in the soil adds the minerality adored by oeonophiles.

How can wine be organic? It’s in the production of grapes, which are grown free of chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides or chemical fertilizers. Instead, natural methods of combating vineyard pests are employed. Ladybugs and praying mantis’ are a few insects that eat the pests that ruin grapes.

The soft, pale salmon-toned 2017 grenache proved to be fruit forward, and I was more than pleased with this wine because I love the soft palate of grenache and the subtle taste of raspberries. It’s smooth, balanced and refreshing as a rosé.

I also tried the 2015 grenache, which was straightforward in its elegant expression of strawberries and raspberries. This is a red wine to enjoy with something a bit heartier, such as sausages or steaks, and even game meats like rabbit.

Did I taste the organic elements? Honestly, I wouldn’t know what organic or non-organic tastes like, but I do know that I sometimes experience allergic reactions to pesticides, so there’s that.

The price is right for the consumer who wants quality organic wines; you can purchase a bottle of the rosé at around $20. So, whether you’re sipping on rosé from Château de Lardiley, or merlot from Château Mamin, LaTaste is your go-to organic wine for every season.

The sweet truth of two bubbles

Like any wine reviewer knows, you must have range and understand value wines in addition to wines created with financial backing to create some of the world’s best. If you’re like me, your budget doesn’t allow a pricey bottle of bubbles more than once a year, if that. My goal is to share some favorite finds of affordable bubbles.

Here are two options: one sweet and one dry, one that hails from Piedmont, Italy, and one that’s made in Argentina. These are two different choices, so one will hopefully work for you!

Honestly, moscato is a hit or miss grape for my palate. But for those who enjoy a 100% Italian (Piedmont) moscato bianco with a bit of bubbles – and love sweet wine – you’ll want to purchase a bottle of Lucia Bosio Vineyards 2016 Moscato d’Asti D.O.C.G. ($17.99). Although this wine wasn’t one of my favorites, it will be somebody’s special sweet wine of summer. Enjoy with fruits, aged cheeses or hazelnut cake, or simply as an aperitif.

This is a wine with just a bit of bubbles created with secondary fermentation, or “pris de mousse” that took place over two months in its own yeast.

What is “pris de mousse” you ask? The secret to a successful secondary fermentation is in the temperature of the cellar. For this wine, the two months brought forth aromas of pear and taste of green apple.

My next review pleased my palate much better. Made with 100% chardonnay, the sparkling Toso Brut NV produced by Pascual Toso from the region of Maipu, Mendoza in Argentina proved to be celebratory. This was a perfectly balanced inexpensive bottle of bubbles ($12.99) to enjoy as a toast to celebrate any occasion: breakfast (w/some OJ), lunch or dinner works for me! There aren’t layers of character to this wine, so it would be considered unrefined, but it is crisp, bright and refreshing on its own.

What’s old is new again at Cakebread Cellars

The story of Cakebread Cellars begins in Oakland, California. Jack and Dolores Cakebread were high school sweethearts who married and led a somewhat average life…to start. Jack was a mechanic but loved taking photographs…enough to study under Ansel Adams at Yosemite. In homage to Ansel Adams, a new outdoor section at Cakebread Cellars incorporates a stone from Yosemite.

In 1972 Jack was hired as a photographer to head to the Napa Valley on assignment for “The Treasury of American Wines”. His payment for the book of images was later used as a down payment for Cakebread Cellars, a modest structure at that time. It wasn’t until 1985 that the structure seen today was built. Another renovation is in process – a visitor center which will be complete sometime next year.

Although Stephanie Jacobs has served a few roles at Cakebread Cellars for over a decade, most recently she was appointed as head winemaker. Among the 14 vineyards Cakebread owns, she has a love affair with pinot noir from Anderson Valley. I couldn’t wait to try a glass and share her comments with you:

Several of us on the Cakebread production team are UC Davis alums, so we enjoy partnering with their Viticulture and Enology researchers to explore new innovations – from the vineyards to the cellar – in pursuit of quality. That could mean new technology and equipment, like the infrared spectroscopy machine that we’ve started using in the lab to analyze large amounts of grape samples in short amounts of time.  What may have taken four hours in the past now only takes an hour, which is precious time savings during the busy harvest season and helps us make more timely grape picking decisions. 

Innovation isn’t just chasing what’s new.  It could also mean revisiting older historic techniques that have fallen out of fashion or are less commonly used.  For example, we harvest nearly all of our grapes at night because we think it greatly improves fruit quality, plus it provides cooler temperature working conditions for our picking crews during the warm Napa weather months.  Concrete egg fermentation tanks and larger-sized puncheon oak barrels are other examples of “what’s old is new again” when it comes to winemaking explorations.

On a hot 100 degree Saturday, I froze inside the air-conditioned private tasting room, where a pour of a 2017 sauvignon blanc set the stage for a superb tasting of a 2015 chardonnay reserve made from Carneros grapes. Carneros is a region within Napa Valley with a cooler climate; the grapes grow a thinner skin. This wine feels like cream on my palate and instantly I recall my gal pals on the North Shore of Boston who loved Cakebread Cellars chardonnay. I wholeheartedly agree.

Aside from tasting wines, Cakebread Cellars offers cooking classes and an in-depth tour twice each morning to oversee vineyard production – from the grapes’ path to the bottle. Cooking classes include the harvest from Dolores’s Garden for farm-to-table offerings.

garden

Finally, I’m ready to taste the 2015 pinot noir from grapes of Apple Barn vineyard. This is a heavy counterpart to Annahala Ranch and sold only at this winery. If you’re a wine club member, you can get this wine. This wine alone is worth the membership. But if you require more incentive, upcoming wine club events include an August 25 Full Moon Dinner at Dancing Bear Ranch, an October 13 Harvest Dinner and a December 1 Holiday Cooking Class.

OK, I’m ready for a tasting of the 2014 Dancing Bear Ranch Estate Merlot ($54), which turns out to be robust and dry, with 6% cabernet sauvignon to give it a good backbone.

If you’re in the Napa Valley and want to know what restaurant wine lists include Cakebread Cellars, check out Saint Helena: Cook, Goose & Gander, Market and Sunshine Market.

My farewell sip, a 2013 cabernet sauvignon from Dancing Bear Vineyard, is smooth – an actual drink alone cab?! One bottle will set you back $146 but like so many great wines of California, it’s worth the splurge.