Wine Column

Steve has a regular wine column in The Tennessean. Below you will find some of his articles.

Cremants–Champagne Without the Pain

Cremants are first cousins to Champagne. Made using the tradtional Champagne method, cremants differ because: they are produced outside the Champagne region, a wider range of grapes can be used, and cremant is slightly less bubbly. And cremants are generally much cheaper.

Cremant styles vary by region but Limoux, in the south of France, produces some wonderful bubblies and claims to have developed sparkling wine a century before the monks in Champagne. Toast with one of these cremants:

Domaine J. Laurens Brut Cremant de Limoux–bright citrus flavors, nice body, clean finish–and a steal at about $15.00.

Gerard Bertrand Cuvee Thomas Jefferson Cremant de Limoux Brut Rosé 2013–aromatic, nicely balanced, crisp, lingering finish. $18.00

Gerard Bertrand Cuvee Thomas Jefferson Cremant de Limoux Brut 2013–textured, honey/apple notes, classic dry finish. $15.00

Sparkling Wines, So many Options

Many wine drinkers don’t pay much attention to sparkling wines until the holidays come around and then the questions begin: Is there a difference between sparkling wine and Champagne? What should I look for when buying sparkling wine? Do I have to pay big bucks for a nice bubbly?

Simply put, all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Just as true Tennessee whiskey comes only from Tennessee–

True Champagne comes only from the Champagne region of Northeastern  France.Sparkling wines, on the other hand, come from all over the world: cava from Spain, spumante and prosecco from Italy, cremant from France, sparkling whites and roses from America and other wine producing countries.

No matter where the bubbly comes from, look for bottles labled, “Methode Traditionnelle” or “Champagne Method” (meaning secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle.) Or, look for sparkling wines like prosecco, using an alternative production method called charmat, where fermentation takes place in pressurized tanks before bottling. The only other way to get bubbles into wine is by pumping it full of carbon dioxide. We won’t go there.

Production costs obviously affect the final price of any product so naturally a bubby coming from an exclusive estate in the exclusive Champagne region is going to cost more than a sparkling wine produced on an industrial scale.

The good news is that there is a huge middle ground with plenty of good deals to be found.

In the States, we have so many quality sparkling wines it’s hard to pick one label, but here goes: Mumm Napa. Mumm has its roots in France, but its home in Napa. Their Classic line includes Brut Prestiege, Brut Rose, and Cuvee M. At around twenty dollars a pop—literally—they are a steal.

If it’s a deal you want, you’d be smart to look at Spanish cavas. Made in the traditional Champagne method, cavas are produced from indigenous Spanish grapes. Check out Campo Viejo Brut Reserva. Aged for eighteen months, it emerges with complex aromas and clean, lively white fruit characteristics. Also available as sparkling rose.

Cremants are another bargain. Produced in wine regions throughout France, cremants are made using regional varietals and the Champagne method. Domaine J. Laurnes Cremant de Limous Brut is an honest French bubbly at a fraction of the cost of its cousin, Champagne.

 

Just over the Alps, near Venice, the Italians have their own take on sparkling wine with prosecco. Named for the grape from which it is made, prosecco is lower in alcohol than Champagne and tends to be less effervescent and less acidic. Torresella Prosecco displays typical prosecco flavors: apple, cream, and honeysuckle.

Finally, back to France, and Champagne. If you want to see what all the fuss is about with Champagne, try Maison Forget-Brimont Brut Premier Cru—from a relatively small, family-owned Champagne house. Let’s just say it’s a little sip of heaven.

Mumm Napa Brut Prestiege (NV) Flag ship of an impressive line in Classic series.  $20

Campo Viejo Brut Reserva (NV) Clean, crisp Spanish cava with white fruit character. $13

Domaine J. Laurens Cremant de Limoux Brut (NV) French bubbly, a real crowd-pleaser.  $12

Torresella Prosecco (NV) Light alcohol, creamy fruit and almond on the palate.  $16

Maison Forget-Brimont Brut Premier Cru (NV) Elegant example of true Champagne. $50

Dress Up Your Bubbly

There is no need to treat bubbly too seriously. You can take it out and dress it up if that suits you. My wife is a big fan of embellishing her bubbly.

Champagne Cocktail: put a dash of Angostura bitters on a sugar cube and place in a chilled Champagne flute and gently top with sparkling wine. Garnish with lemon or orange twist.

Champagne and Chambord: Chambord is a French raspberry liqueur—just pour a splash or two into your bubbly to add a fruity tang.

Champagne and Saint Germaine: Saint Germaine is a French liqueur made from elderberry flowers—very floral and aromatic. Try a splash in the flute.

Inexpensive sparkling wines work well with all the above.

Cheers!

Cool Climate Pinots

The French call it Burgundy, the Italians call it Pinot Nero, and the New World calls it Pinot Noir. Call it what you will, the dark-skinned, small- cluster grapes can produce some of the world’s most elegant wines—but not without some challenges.

The challenges begin with finding a climate that suits the notoriously fussy varietal. Forget about planting Pinot Noir alongside heat-loving grapes like Cabernet, Shiraz, and Zinfandel. Pinot likes lots of mild sun–but it also likes cool damp nights. And it needs a long spring and summer—allowing the tight clusters of grapes to ripen evenly.

While Pinot Noir isn’t suited to every climate, wine growers have been able to find a way to make them thrive far from the historic Burgundy vineyards of France. As it happens, Pinot is chameleon-like, taking on very different characteristics depending on where it is grown. Some pinots are light and delicate, others are rustic and firm—with all sorts of variations between. Here are just a few samples from the wide world of Pinot Noir:

Rollhutt Pinot Noir is sourced from the sunny Alpine slopes of Italy’s Alto Adige region. Warm days and cool mountain nights produce enhanced aromas, rich color, and vibrant flavors.

Catalina Sounds Pinot Noir originates from the maritime Marlborough region of New Zealand and exhibits many New World Pinot characteristics: plush fruit, medium body, soft tannins, and slightly higher alcohol content than Old World counterparts.

Nanny Goat Vineyard Pinot Noir comes from Otago, New Zealand—the southern-most wine region in the world. Bright, sunny days are tempered by chill winds off the Southern Ocean—giving rise to intensely flavored dark berry fruit and fine tannins.

Cloudline is an Oregon Pinot Noir, through-and-through. A product of the Willamette Valley, Cloudline Pinot Noir is fruit forward and layered with dark cherry flavors—and a great place to start exploring Oregon Pinot.

Roserock Pinot Noir, Eola-Amity Hills and Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, have more than a little in common. They are both produced by the Drouhin family–fourth generation French-born winemakers transplanted to Oregon over twenty years ago from the heart of Burgundy. Their success in the New World must still have some pinot growers back in old country scratching their heads.

In deference to Domaine Drouhin’s roots, their tagline is: French Soul~Oregon Soil. And it shows in the tradition and passion they bring to their elegantly structured wines. Old World meets New World–Oh mon Dieu!

RE:FIND–Grapes Into Spirits

What is a winemaker to do with excess premium juice?

If you are Alex and Monica Villicana, you learn the art of distillation and how to turn that juice into craft spirits. After successfully establishing Villicana Winery in Paso Robles over twenty years ago, they decided to add a new a dimension to their family-owned winery—a craft distillery they called: RE:FIND.

The Villicanas started by conserving excess free-run juice (often discarded during the wine making process) and distilling it into a neutral spirit (vodka.) Because the spirit is distilled from red wine grapes, it has a high glycerol content—giving the vodka a rich mouth-feel.

What they created was essentially a blank, but textured canvas. Their next step was to experiment with adding a rich palette of flavors. They turned to local growers for citrus to make lemoncello and kumquat liqueur, and local farmers to create cucumber vodka and botanical-infused gin.

But one of RE:FIND’s great re-purposing concepts was aging their vodka in used rye whiskey barrels—drawing forth the rich essence of the whiskey and oak. Recycle, reuse, RE:FIND—it’s all good.

Thoughts about Wine & Spirits Written for Williamson County Magazine

In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
Ernest Hemingway

Williamson County, like Hemingway, also enjoys its wine. From Brentwood to Spring Hill wine lovers come in all forms–from the novice to the connoisseur. Nothing gives the staff of CSWS more satisfaction than getting to know our neighbors’ taste and then helping them find just the right wine.

Whether it’s a regular customer looking for a new table wine, or a sophisticate in search of something rare to add to their cellar, we can help. Exploring wine is a journey of discovery and that journey often becomes just as important as the destination.

“I’m having seafood risotto tonight; what would go with that?”

Sometimes the search is just about the wine, but when food is in the picture things become even more interesting. Pairing food and wine is a little like matchmaking. Experimenting is how you find out what works and that means tasting wines. At CSWS we taste a lot of wines (somebody has to). One of the reasons our wine pros can confidently guide you through the maze of choices is that we know our products.

Entertaining is a big part of the Williamson County lifestyle and it is especially important for our customers to find wines that suit their needs. Here are some things we might take into consideration when helping our customers find the wine that is right for them:

What style of wine do you and your guests generally like to drink? There is a time and place for getting outside your comfort zone but personal taste is also important. If you or your guests like a big, bold Cabernet with your chicken, go for it.

Think about the entire dish or meal when considering what wines to serve. There are often many flavors and textures to consider. Maybe you will want one wine for the appetizer and another for the main course.

What are the main features of the meal?

Is it mild or savory?

Is it lean or fatty?

  Are there sauces or condiments to consider?

Keeping flavors in balance is important to consider.

Big, flavorful wines go with big, flavorful foods. For example, you might pair a Steak au Poivre with a robust Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Light, delicate foods match well with lighter wines. Trout Almondine might call for a rich Chardonnay, while the same fish done with lemon and capers would probably be more compatible with a more acidic wine like Sauvignon Blanc.

Keep acidity in balance.

Acidic flavors like spicy tomato sauce need wines with enough acidity of their own to stand up to them. That probably means you’re not you are not going to pour that light, fruity pinot noir in your wine rack with the Pasta Puttanesca.

And remember, hot, spicy foods, especially exotic international dishes, can seem difficult to match with wine, but Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers can often work their magic by enhancing these foods. The fruit character and range of residual sugar in these wines tends to balance the heat and spice.

Sometimes, the right wine is beer.

Beer and food are an of-course in many parts of the world. “High gravity” beers (located in our Beer Corner) are the true royalty of beer. They marry well with food and range from dry and hoppy to rich and creamy. Ask our beer gurus to guide you to an adventure with a “wine-drinker’s beer.”

Bordeaux Buzz

Looking into the future—and Bordeaux lovers are always looking to the next great vintage—the buzz is  that the 2010 vintage, still resting in barrels, is shaping up to be one of the best in living memory. Robert Parker, king of wine critics, says that it is, “one of the three greatest Bordeaux vintages I have tasted in my career.” Experts are calling this a vintage that can be cellared for 100 years. Not that anyone will want to wait that long for this much-awaited French classic.

Spirit World

Many of our Williamson County neighbors are into things organic and that includes organic wines and spirits. Organic artisan spirits are a hot new trend. With flavors blood orange, blueberry, pomegranate, and espresso, these liqueurs can be used with organic vodka to make cocktails with authentic natural flavor. What would Hemmingway make of that?

The Wonders Down Under

Years after living in the wine country of Australia, I fondly recall driving through the Barossa Valley to visit Yalumba, Australia’s oldest family-owned winery. Established over a hundred and sixty years ago by English brewer and migrant, Samuel Smith, the Yalumba winery is still flourishing five generations later.
After hitting pay dirt during the 1840s Australian gold rush, Smith bought a small property in the fertile Barossa Valley of South Australia. He chose to call the homestead, “Yalumba,” an aboriginal word meaning “all the land around.” Smith and his son planted their first vines by moonlight (probably to avoid the scorching Australian sun) in 1849.
Many of the early settlers in the Barossa came from Germany, bringing with them European grape varietals and styles of wine making. The little villages of the Valley soon became the epicenter of the Australian wine industry, with Yalumba right in the heart of it.
Local vineyards grew some whites—especially rieslings, beloved by the Germans–but it is the reds that came to define Barossa Valley wine making. Shriaz and cabernet thrived in the sun-baked summers as vineyards expanded throughout the Valley. Most of the grapes went to produce nineteenth century favorites: sweet reds, fortified wines, and brandy.
A century later tastes and wine making began to change. Consumers wanted drier, more sophisticated wines, like those from Europe. And not coincidentally, after World War II, migrants from all over Europe brought their rich wine making traditions with them to Australia. With some of the oldest and most desirable vines in the Barossa, Yalumba was well positioned to excel.
It wasn’t long before Australia was making world-class wines. Then the world discovered them. What followed was an explosion of demand—and production. Yalumba and other stalwarts in the Oz wine industry are still making great wines but the market was also flooded with bulk-produced wines with cute Aussie animals on the label. In an effort to ensure the quality and diversity of Australian wines, Yalumba joined forces with an alliance of other iconic producers to form The First Families of Wine.
Here are just a few of the dozens of labels in the Yalumba portfolio:
Y-Series Unwooded Chardonnay: unoaked, organic, bright fruit, lemon, nectarine flavors—complex finish.
Y-Series Viognier:  exotic aromas, honeysuckle, lemongrass, stone fruit elements—great riff on a classic French grape.
The Scribbler: cabernet/shiraz blend with currant, red berry fruit, fine tannins—ready to drink.
Patchwork: classic Barossa shiraz, plum, dark cherry, licorice, peppery tannins—worth cellaring for a bit.

Steve Prati,  Franklin-based wine consultant

Captions:
Y-Series Unwooded Chardonnay—Unoaked, organic, bright fruit, complex finish.  $12.99
Y-Series Viognier—Exotic aromas of honeysuckle, lemon grass, lingering finish.  $12.99
The Scribbler, 2012—Blend with currant and red berry fruit, fine tannins, ready to drink.  $19.99
Patchwork, 2013—Shiraz with plum, dark cherry, licorice, peppery tannins, built to last.  $19.99

Value Wines

Finding a new line of wines that deliver both quality and value is always good. Finding two such lines is even better.
The first line comes from Trivento, a winery in the heart of Argentina’s famed Mendoza wine region. It’s fair to say that Mendoza is the Napa Valley of Argentina—with a couple of big differences.
Land in Mendoza does not cost a kings’ ransom like it does in California–so production costs are lower right from the start. And Mendoza grape growers have an abundant supply of pristine water from the snowmelt of the Andes. The vineyards of the region are also blessed with almost constant sunshine and because of their high elevation, very few pests.
Trivento, (named for the so-called Three Winds of the Andes foothills) production includes a line of popular labels, including a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend. Both wines are “reserves”–indicating select grapes and extra love at the production end.
Malbec is considered a noble wine in Europe (one of only six varietals allowed in red Bordeaux). In Argentina, Malbec is king. Expect deep color, rich aromas, robust fruit, and well integrated tannins. And Trivento’s Cabernet/Malbec blend? A marriage made in Heaven.
Speaking of Heaven, the second line of wines fitting my quality/value profile comes from a California operation that doesn’t even make wine. Ninety+Cellars bottles other producer’s wine. Specifically, they contract with well-known producers to buy their excess stock–at steeply reduced prices. Ninety-Plus then bottles the quality wine under their own label–at value prices. The arrangement allows anonymous producers to trim their inventory while protecting their brand. Seems like a win-win arrangement.
It’s certainly a win-win for the consumer looking for that sometimes elusive quality/value combo. Ninety+ is boasting the quality of its wines with its very name (ninety points in the world of wine reviews is like making the Dean’s List.)
Do the Ninety+ wines really live up to their name? Independent reviews pretty much agree that they do. And the Ninety+s wines I’ve tasted– Old Vine Malbec, Shiraz, Big Red Blend, and Pinot Grigio–certainly over-delivered in my opinion, especially for wines priced well under twenty dollars.
So, is there any down-side to this clever operation? Only that bottlings are limited by the very nature of the sourcing and lot numbers change regularly. Taste-test some of these little beauties—and if you like them, grab them before they disappear.
-Steve Prati, Franklin-based wine consultant
http://www.steveswinecellar.com

Trivento Malbec Reserve, 2013  Deep red fruit aroma and flavor, integrated tannins, lingering finish. $11.99.
Trivento Cabernet-Malbec Reserve, 2013  Well-balanced fifty-fifty blend, smooth tannins, solid finish. $11.99
Ninety+Old Vine Malbec, 2013  Dark berry and spice notes, touch of oak, mellow tannins. $17.99
Ninety+ Big Red Blend, 2014  Huge body, rich mouth-filling flavors/dark fruit and cassis.  $11.99
Ninety+ Shiraz, 2014  Classic spicy Aussie Shiraz—full-bodied, lush plummy fruit.  $11.99
Ninety+ Pinot Grigio, 2013  Apple/pear aromas, crisp minerality, fruit: Trentino, Italy.  $11.99

Hosting a Wine Tasting

Wine tastings are a lot of fun and certainly one of the best ways to learn about wine. Tastings at local wine shops invariably lead to comparing personal tastes, discussing favorites, and exploring new products. With a little planning, you can do all this in the comfort of your home and turn it into a party at the same time.

So-called “blind tastings” can be especially entertaining and challenging. Here is an easy way to do it: each person, or couple, brings two bottles of wine (of a certain price range or style) covered in a paper bag (taped around the neck.)
The host or a volunteer then labels the two bottles/bags with a number and sets one bottle aside.
Each guest gets paper and pen and is asked to list the wines by number and then try to identify the wine by grape variety and/or origin (old world/new world.) You don’t have to have a new glass for each wine, just rinse with a splash of still water between tastings.
It’s a good idea to have someone designated to pour “tasting portions” of an ounce or two. That should provide around fifteen portions per bottle and avoid over-serving.
Serve whatever food you like and provide a container where guests can tip out wine dregs.
Once everyone has had a chance to sample the wines and jot down their guesses, it’s time to unveil the wines. The moment of truth is usually good for a few surprises since many of us have preconceived notions about certain grapes and styles.
And what about the second bottles that were set aside earlier? Use them as prizes, party favors—or drink them.
Speaking of parties and wine, it’s always nice to find quality wines you can pour for your guests without breaking the bank. I have just the thing.
Line 39 is a California label that pretty much defines value wine. Named for the  39th parallel and the prime vineyards along it, their grapes are sourced from Monterey, Lodi, Clarksburg, and the Central Coast. The unique character of those vineyards is expressed in Line 39’s seven varietals–ranging from dry whites to full-bodied reds.
With a line-up like that, there is a 39 wine to suit almost any taste. My personal favorite is their pinot noir. Anytime you can find a pinot with rich raspberry and black cherry flavors for twelve dollars, you’ve got yourself a deal.
-Steve Prati, Franklin-based wine consultant

Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc—Citrusy aromas, crisp, clean finish  10.99
Line 39 Chardonnay—hint of oak, rich tropical fruit flavors  10.99
Line 39 Pinot Noir—fruit-driven, flavors of raspberry and black cherry  10.99
Line 39 Cabernet Sauvignon—rich currant and blackberry character  10.99

The holidays are always a good excuse to spoil yourself, or someone else, with a bottle of something exceptional. Here is a selection of some long-time favorites, and some recent discoveries.
Montaudon N/V (non-vintage) brut Champagne definitely qualifies as a long-time favorite. This little gem is the real deal—and a real deal. Loaded with rich, toasty character, Montaudon is a classic blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. For something a little more exclusive, check out Montaudon brut rosé and vintage Champagne.
If you are looking to party like royalty, you might consider Pol Roger N/V brut Champagne. Pol Roget was recently granted a Royal Warrant by Buckingham Palace, and it featured at William and Kate’s wedding. It was also Sir Winston Churchill’s favorite bubbly—so much so that one of their most exclusive labels is named for him.
Pol Roger is one of the few remaining family-owned Champagne houses. Miles of underground cellars are used to give their bottles extra time to age. Long, slow maturation leads to complex aromas, fine bubbles, and a creamy, dry finish. Mon Dieu!
Still in France, Oliver Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc Les Setilles consistently demonstrates how great a white Burgundy can be. Made from one hundred percent chardonnay grapes grown near some of France’s most famous vineyards, the juice gets just enough time in oak to create some vanilla notes. Expect a full-bodied wine with peach, citrus, and mineral characteristics.
Closer to home, Happy Canyon Vineyard, near Santa Barbara, is already a star in one of California’s newest wine regions. Happy Canyon Vineyard’s ranch is called Piocho, a native American word meaning, “where two rivers meet and go to heaven.”  I don’t know about the rivers, but the wines are heavenly.
Two of my favorites from the Piocho stable are their sauvignon blanc and the Piocho red blend. The sauvignon blanc contains a bit of Semillon for richness and balance. Their red blend is heavily merlot—plush red fruit, velvety smooth.
Santa Barbara County is also home to Hilliard Bruce Estate, a small state-of-the-art winery tucked away in the Santa Rita hills and specializing in premium chardonnay and pinot noir. Hilliard Bruce’s pinot noir is proof positive why this relatively new California wine region is already taken seriously. HB’s elegant Sky pinot exhibits lush plum, dark cherry, and raspberry supported by a solid back bone of acidity. Reason enough to celebrate any time.

Montaudon N/V brut Champagne—Fresh, clean, and toasty—outstanding value.  $39.99
Pol Roger N/V brut Champagne—Complex aromas, fine bubbles, creamy finish.  $59.99
Oliver LeFlaive Bourgogne Les Setilles, 2013—Full-bodied, first class fruit, subtle oak.  $24.99
Piocho Sauvignon Blanc, 2014—Added Semillon contributes to richness and balance.  $24.99
Piocho Red Blend, 2011—Merlot-dominated blend, plush fruit, velvety smooth.  $39.99

Santa Lucia Highlands Visit

You know you’re not in Tennessee when you spot sea otters and seals playing in the kelp beds outside your hotel. Actually, pretty much everything about Monterey, California told me I wasn’t in Tennessee—Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, the marine aquarium, whale-watch boats. But for all of its Old California charm, Monterey was really a base from which to explore the local wine country.
Nearby Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) has become California’s premier cool climate American Viticultural  Area (AVA) in just over two decades. The Highlands’ remarkable success story is mostly due to the micro-climate of its unique location–and visionary winegrowers like Nicky Hahn and Rich Smith .
On a recent trip, I was lucky enough to spend a few days walking the SLH vineyards (all the while eating grapes off the vine) and talking with some of the many wine makers there who turn out world-class chardonnay and pinot noir. My first lesson was about why local geography is so important.
With over six thousand acres under vine, the Highlands sprawl across more than twelve miles of mountainside along the Santa Lucia Range. Hundreds of feet below lies the Salinas Valley. Often referred to as America’s salad bowl, the Valley abounds in lettuce, artichokes, asparagus, and berries. But the Salinas Valley, running almost ninety miles to Monterey Bay, is also essential in creating the cool micro climate of the SLH.
As the day warms up in the Valley (and it gets hot), rising hot air starts to pull cool air into the Valley from the chilly waters of Monterey Bay. What starts as a breezy draft about midday turns into a gusty torrent of cool wind tunneling up the Valley by late afternoon.  Mother Nature’s massive air conditioner arrives every day like clockwork in the Highlands. What does all this have to do with grapes? A lot, as it happens.
Grapes obviously need sun, but too much heat can really do a number on them—especially varietals such as pinot noir. Pinot is naturally delicate and famously difficult to work with because of its thin skin–making it susceptible to sunburn, fungus, and rot. The cooling afternoon breezes of the SLH are like a balm for pinot grapes. It cools them, ventilates them, and stresses the vines. And that’s a good thing.
Highland growers have noticed that vines growing near natural wind breaks in the vineyards tend to produce larger berries and more clusters. Conversely, wind-stressed vines hunker down and produce smaller berries and fewer clusters—but with more concentrated flavors. Volume is great if you are making bulk wine, but in the SLH they are aiming for quality–and the essence of the grape.
Listening to Paul Clifton, director of winemaking at the venerable Hahn Family winery, talk about wine making is like listening to a conductor talk about his orchestra. Over lunch (and glasses of Hahn wine) surrounded by the rolling vineyards of Hahn Family Estate, Paul talks more about the grapes than the finished product. He explains that even in the remarkably consistent climate of the SLH, every year presents a different set of challenges.
This year started with an early bud-break (when vines bud and begin spring growth.) Next, a really warm summer forced grapes to ripen in record time, pushing the harvest into an unheard of August start. When I ask Paul what that’s going to do to this years’ vintage, he gives me a, well, there is some good news and some bad news, look. The farmer in him says that yields will be off a fair bit. The winemaker in him says that the grapes they do harvest will make exceptional wine.
Dan Lee, owner of Morgan winery and fellow SHL producer, echos similar thoughts about his pinot: a ten percent smaller berry produces thirty percent less juice. But oh, the juice. Dan picks up a gallon zip-lock bag of pinot grapes he had picked the afternoon before. He smooshed the fruit a little to release some juice and proceeded to pour some into a tasting glass. It’s rich, fruity, and plenty sweet.
Dan knows exactly how sweet it is. Wine makers watch the sugar content of ripening fruit like a mother watches her new born. Dan is waiting for the grapes to reach about twenty six brix. Brix is wine-speak for the amount of sugar in the grape. The amount is important, because the brix level determines how much sugar is available to ferment into alcohol.
Surrounded by his vines, Dan pours some samples of Morgan wines and explains that he is aiming for balance, rather than power, in his pinots. He gets that balance by blending grapes from many different clones of pinot noir—each with its own character. Blending is where art and science come together and listening to any of the SLH winemakers talk, it’s clear they move in both worlds.
Steve McIntyre, of McIntyre Vineyards, is another example of a wine maker who can speak both wine-nerd and poetry. As we walk down the dusty rows of his vineyards he talks arcane biochemistry one minute and the next, he rhapsodizes about sustainability in farming and how it is a self-correcting process–if you pay attention.
Like most of his neighbors, McIntyre also grows chardonnay grapes. He picks  grapes three times during the harvest season: early, middle, and late. The aim is to combine the crisp acidity of early grapes with the body and texture of the second picking, and the richness and fullness of the last.
Even though the harvest is early this year, SHL has an edge–those cooling winds from Monterey allow the grapes to ripen more evenly than their warm climate cousins, which means the grapes reach their full potential for flavor and body.
Rich Smith, revered SLH grower, says that the many famous wineries in the region share more than a climate. He’s proud that they also share a passion for the work that has put the Santa Lucia Highlands on the map.

Hahn SLH Chardonnay, 2013  Rich, layered flavors, barrel fermented in French oak.  $24.00
Hahn SLH Pinot Noir, 2013  Medium-body, velvety black plum flavors, soft tannins.  $24.00
Morgan Metallico Unoaked Chardonnay, 2014  Bright fruit, minerality, crisp natural acidity.  $22.00
Morgan Twelve Clone Pinot Noir, 2013  Cranberry/pomegranate character, great fruit/acidity balance.  $34.00

If You Go:
Accomodation
InterContinental The Clement Monterey
750 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 375-4500
http://www.ictheclementmonterey.com
Dining
Whaling Station Steakhouse
763 Wave St.
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 373-3778
http://www.whalingstation.net
Dining
Montrio Bistro
414 Calle Principal
Monterey, CA 93940

Road Trip Wines

A summer road trip to New England offered an opportunity to see (and taste) what they are drinking in other parts of the country. My wife will tell you that while I was taking in the scenery, I also had one eye on the wine shops and wine lists we encountered along the way.
First stop was downtown Louisville, KY, and a little gem of a Persian restaurant called Saffron. The wine list wasn’t huge, but it was well chosen to match the subtle spices and flavors of dishes such as marinated beef/chicken kabobs, grilled lamb chops, basmati dill rice, and shirazi salad. We paired this feast with Paringa shiraz from South Australia. Its dark, brooding flavors proved to be a perfect match.
Further up the road we followed the New York Thruway across upstate New York and right into the heart of the Finger Lakes wine region. Sprawling vineyards, picturesque villages (and of course lakes) make it hard not to pull off at every exit. The Finger Lakes are justly famous for their Rieslings, but they are also home to many other European varietals as well as native American grapes.
We ended the day in Kingston, New York, in the Hudson River valley, and home to its own wine region. Our long-time Kingston friends took us to dinner that night at Boitsons—a local favorite. There on the open-air terrace we shared an excellent bottle of locally produced Whitecliff chardonnay. The grapes were sourced from the Finger Lakes and the Hudson Valley. As cool climate grapes tend to do, they produced dry and delicate fruit flavors with mineral overtones often associated with French chardonnays.
By the time we pulled into the Boston area a couple of days later, we were ready to check out our old neighborhood in Arlington. Rich in Revolutionary War history, modern Arlington is also ethnically diverse and home to lots of authentic international cuisine—and wine. That’s what drew us to Pasha, a cozy Turkish restaurant.
Pasha’s menu was a feast of exotic dishes, and a chance to match them with native Turkish wines was a real treat. We sampled a white and a red (both blends) from Kavaklidere Winery, a leading Turkish label based in Ankara. I didn’t recognize a single grape listed in the wines—but I did recognize nicely balanced wines with deep, rich flavors. It seems that not all the Turkish Delights were on the dessert menu.

Paringa Shiraz, 2013  Dark flavors, intense fruit, mellow tannins.  $12.99
Whitecliff Chardonnay, 2014  Dry, subtle flavors, mineral overtones.  $15.99
Kavaklidere Cankaya Turkish White, 2013  Full-bodied, well-structured.  $10.99
Kavaklidere Yakut Turkish Red, 2012  A blend, bright fruit, balanced tannins.  $12.99

Out of Africa

South African wines can be harder to find than a white rhino–at least that’s what it seems like when you look at the local wine scene. There is a reason for that. South African wines currently account for less than two percent of American wine imports. That is a puny number for a country ranking eighth in global wine production, just behind Australia.
So who is drinking South African wine? The Brits, the Europeans, and increasingly, the Asian world. Fortunately, some excellent labels still make their way to our shores and more arrive every year.
Let’s take a little wine-safari to some vineyards within South Africa’s vast landscape and sample a few drops along the way. While vineyards range across hundreds of miles from east to west, most of them are in the southern tier of the country—putting many of them under the cooling maritime influence of the Atlantic or Indian oceans.
One of the best known wine regions is Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town. Cooling breezes temper the hot sun over Stellenbosch’s rolling, vine-covered slopes and valleys. One of the top wine producers in the area is Warwick Estate, maker of Three Cape Ladies—a complex, layered blend of pinotage (a signature South African varietal), cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and merlot.
A little further inland from Stellenbosch is the Paarl wine region–where the climate is generally more varied–allowing for a wider range of varietals. Paarl is home to Glen Carlou vineyards. My wife is a big fan of Glen Carlou’s creamy, lemon-drop-rich chardonnay, while their Grand Classique was what caught my attention. A hearty Bordeaux blend, Classique is an exotic marriage of Old World and New World styles.
You’d expect something exotic to come out of Africa, but Cederberg’s Bukettraube is still a surprise. Bukettraube is a little-known white grape that originated in Europe but flourishes in the cool, high altitude vineyards of the Western Cape. Bukettraube is rich, aromatic, floral, and yet mouthwateringly tangy. It reminds me of a first-class gewurztraminer. Delicious.
Last stop on the tour is a revisit to The Goose wines from the highlands of the Eastern Cape. I first tasted them last summer when they were launched in Tennessee. Named for owner and SA professional golfer, Retief Goosen, The Goose wines are new to the US market. Check out The Goose Cabernet or some of the other wines in their line-up and discover just how sophisticated South African wines can be.

Warwick Estate, Three Cape Ladies, 2011  Complex, exotic red blend driven by Pinotage, Africa’s signature grape  $28.00
Glen Carlou Chardonnay, 2013  Creamy, lemon-drop-rich with lingering finish  $16.00
Glen Carlou Grand Classique, 2011  Bordeaux blend—nicely integrated flavors of dark cherry/blackberry  $16.00
Cederberg Bukettraube, 2014  A little-known white with explosive fruit and tangy finish  $16.00
The Goose Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012  Deep purple color and flavor—mellow tannins, persistent finish  $24.00

A Crazy Quilt of Wines

Let me take you wine shopping today. We’ll splurge on some special bottles and put together what is known in the trade as a mixed case—a kind of crazy quilt of wines starting with some light whites, moving on to rich reds:

Luna Nuda pinot grigio is as clean and crisp as the mountain air in northeastern Italy’s Alto Adige region–ground zero for some of the world’s best pinot grigio. Dry, smooth, and elegant. $15.00

Torresella Prosecco Extra Dry, from Venezia, in northwestern Italy sounds really dry, but don’t let the term “Extra Dry” fool you. Counter intuitively, “Extra Dry” in the wine world is actually less dry than sparkling wines labeled “Dry.” Light and refreshing. $16.00

Scott Chardonnay comes from cool climate Estate vineyards inland from Big Sur. Extended ripening time there translates into grapes with intensely concentrated flavor and clean acidity. Lush mouthfeel, lingering finish. $25.00

Bouchaine Pinot Noir announces its presence with heady aromas of cherry and strawberry, following through on the palate with rich dark cherry and spice. All the fruit is Estate grown in Napa’s prestigious Carneros district. $35.00

Back in Italy: Tuscan Sassoregale Sangiovese perks up the senses with its ruby color, rich fruit aromas, dark flavors, and smooth body. A nice backbone of tannins makes it a good match for flavorful dishes. $18.00

Fuedo Zirtari Sicilian Red combines Sicily’s Nero d’Avola with Syrah to produce a full-bodied blend with a nicely balanced core and smooth dry finish. $14.00

Full disclosure: Franciscan Merlot and I have history. I remember being impressed by it years ago—and it still impresses. Think velvet plum. A reminder of how good a merlot can be. $23.00

Two Range is a collage of merlot, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah out of Napa. A rich and complex work of art by the winemaker. $25.00

Hahn Family Wines’ Smith & Hook Proprietary Red Blend is new to their lineup, but wine maker Paul Clifford and his crew nailed it. The plush blend of merlot, malbec, petite sirah, and cabernet sauvignon is proof that the whole can sometimes be greater than the sum of its parts. $25.00

Predator Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi brings on tons of red and dark fruit, a little spice, and wraps it all in smooth tannins for easy drinking. $15.00

Rutherford Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon captures the deep flavors of first class Napa fruit. A mellow product of twelve months in French and American oak. $35.00

Leviathan Red Blend—and yes, it’s huge. A concoction of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and syrah, pretty much everything about this wine is outsize: aroma, texture, body, and flavor. $48.00

Chianti

The Italian red we know as Chianti takes its name from a designated wine region in Tuscany. By tradition, and decree, Chianti must contain at least eighty percent sangiovese grapes. Defined by law, the Chianti appelation has expanded over time so producers in the original Chianti region label their wines “Chianti Classico.” Classico grapes tend to come from the best vineyards, and bear a trademark black rooster on the bottle.

Chianti fills the senses, often displaying aromas of dried cherry, oregano and balsamic vinegar. Typically earthy, tannic, and high in acidity, Chianti can be a dynamic compliment to food.

Da Vinci Chianti, 2014, is ruby red with elements of cherry, plum, and pepper wrapped smooth tannins. $19.99

Banfi Chianti Superiore, 2014, features black cherry and spice, full body, and lingering finish. $17.99

Vigneto di Campolungo Chianti Classico Rieserva, 2011, two years in the barrel mellowed the sangeoviese/cabernet blend and created a rich wine with refined tannins. $25.00

Holiday Wine Ideas

No wonder there is a spike in wine sales at this time of year. Hosts are looking for quality wines that won’t bust the budget, and holiday shoppers are looking for gifts that will delight and impress. If you are one of those entertaining or looking for the perfect gift, here are some suggestions.

 

When I think about wines for an event I start by figuring on five glasses of wine per bottle or about sixty glasses per case. Many wine stores will give you a price break on a case and even let you mix varietals. Ask the pros in the wine store where the bargains are—they know.

I often select party wines by narrowing the search to some labels I know I can count on for quality and value over a range of styles. Some examples: Casillero del Diablo wines from Chile are gem-quality across the board and great value. Bogle wines out of California consistently over-deliver on quality and price, and Columbia Crest Grand Estates wines (try their Two Vines label for a deal) from Washington State are another sure bet. SRP 7.00-12.00

If you want to serve first class bubbly–at coach prices–try a Spanish Cava, a French sparkler from outside the Champagne region, an Italian Prosecco, or a sparkling wine from California. Check these out: Spain’s Segura Viudas Cava, St. Hilaire Limoux Blanc de Blanc Brut from France, Italy’s Torresella Prosecco, or the highly rated Mumm Brut Prestiege from California. SRP 9.00-19.00

When it comes to gift-giving the possibilities are endless, but here are some higher end standouts:

Acumen Caberent Sauvignon is making a name for itself with estate-grown organic fruit from Napa’s coveted Atlas Peak AVA. Plenty of barrel time in French oak leaves Acumen rich and ready to drink. SRP 60.00

Justin Isosceles is one of the great reds to come out of Paso Robles. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, Isosceles is complex, intense, but still approachable. SRP 72.00

Don Melchor is a highly prized Cabernet Sauvignon produced from vines grown in the shadow of the pristine Andes Mountains in Chile. With a cellaring potential of 20-25 years, Don Melchor could be a perfect gift for a collector world-class reds. SRP 125.00

If you are shopping for whites, consider these: Torresella Pinot Grigio, Gran Reserva Series Riberas Sauvignon Blanc, Bila-Haut Cotes Roussillon white, Bouchane Estate Vineyard Chardonnay, Balletto Unoaked Chardonnay, Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc, and Sanford Rose of Pinot Noir. SRP 16.00-40.00

Cremants

Cremants are first cousins to Champagne. Made using the tradtional Champagne method, cremants differ from Champagne because: they are produced outside the Champagne region, a wider range of grapes can be used, and cremant is slightly less bubbly. Cremants are also much cheaper.

Cremant styles vary by region but Limoux, in the south of France, produces some wonderful examples of Cremant and claims to have created sparkling wine a century before the monks in the Champagne region. Toast the hoidays with one of these cremants:

Domaine J. Laurens Brut Cremant de Limoux–bright citrus flavors, nice body, clean finish–and a steal. SRP 15.00.

Gerard Bertrand Cuvee Thomas Jefferson Cremant de Limoux Brut Rosé 2013–aromatic, nicely balanced, crisp, lingering finish. SRP 18.00

Gerard Bertrand Cuvee Thomas Jefferson Cremant de Limoux Brut 2013–textured, honey/apple notes, classic dry finish. SRP 15.00

Santa Lucia Highlands—Report on the 2015 Crush

SLH—One of the Hottest New Cool Climate AVAs
The Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) is home to some of California’s leading producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Signs to Mer Soleil, Talbott, Morgan, Hahn, McIntyre, Garys’, and Pisoni lined River Road on our drive east, out of Monterey through the Salinas Valley.
Rising hundreds of feet above the valley on the right are the Santa Lucia Highlands–one of California’s relatively new American Viticultural  Areas (AVAs.)  The Highlands’ remarkable success story is mostly due to visionary winegrowers like Nicky Hahn and Rich Smith and the micro-climate they wisely recognized as ideal for cool climate varietals—especially Pinot Noir.
The Crush Was On-Earliest Ever
It was late August last year when I walked through the SLH vineyards of Hahn, McIntyre, and Morgan, with a small group of wine writers. Ripe grapes were hanging on vines in every direction, and the fruit that had been harvested overnight was already in the wine press. Juice was flowing into holding tanks and pomace was floating to the top.  But this crush was different– it was the earliest on record. Every grower we talked to said they’d never seen anything quite like it.
The early harvest ended a challenging year that started with an early bud-break (when vines bud and begin spring growth.) Next, a really warm summer forced grapes to ripen in record time, pushing the harvest into an unheard of August start. When I ask Paul Clifton, Hahn’s Director of Winemaking, how that’s going to effect this years’ vintage, he gives me a, well, there is some good news and some bad news, look. The farmer in him says that yields will be off a fair bit. The winemaker in him knows that the grapes they do harvest should make exceptional wine.
Listening to Clifton talk about wine making is like listening to a conductor talk about his orchestra. Over an al fresco lunch, served by Dyon Foster, Executive Chef at Hahn, and surrounded by the rolling vineyards of Hahn Family Estate, Paul talks more about the grapes than the finished product. He explains that even in the remarkably consistent climate of the SLH, every year presents a different set of challenges.
Highland growers have noticed subtle variations–even within their own microclimate. For example, vines growing near natural wind breaks in the vineyards tend to produce larger berries and more clusters. Conversely, wind-stressed vines hunker down and produce smaller berries and fewer clusters—but with more concentrated flavors. Volume is great if you are making bulk wine, but in the SLH they are aiming for quality–and the essence of the grape.
Morgan Winery Owner—Dan Lee
Dan Lee, owner of Morgan winery and fellow SHL producer, echos similar thoughts about his Pinot: a ten percent smaller berry produces thirty percent less juice. But oh, the juice. Dan picked up a gallon zip-lock bag of pinot grapes he had picked the afternoon before. He smooshed the fruit a little, releasing some juice, and proceeded to pour some into a tasting glass. It was rich, fruity, and plenty sweet.
Dan knew exactly how sweet it was. Wine makers watch the sugar content of ripening fruit like a mother watches her new born. Dan was waiting for the grapes to reach about twenty six brix. Brix is wine-speak for the amount of sugar in the grape. The amount is important, because the brix level determines how much sugar is available to ferment into alcohol.
Surrounded by his vines, Dan poured some samples of Morgan wines and explained that he is aiming for balance, rather than power, in his pinots. He said he achieves that balance by blending grapes from many different clones of pinot noir—each with its own character. Blending is where art and science come together and listening to any of the SLH winemakers talk, it’s clear they move in both worlds.
McIntyre Vineyards
Steve McIntyre, of McIntyre Vineyards, is another example of a wine maker who can speak both wine-nerd and poetry. As we walk down the dusty rows of his vineyards he talked arcane biochemistry one minute and the next, he rhapsodized about sustainability in farming and how it is a self-correcting process–if you pay attention.
Like most of his neighbors, McIntyre also grows Chardonnay grapes. He typically  picks  grapes three times during the harvest season: early, middle, and late. The aim is to combine the crisp acidity of early grapes with the body and texture of the second picking, and the richness and fullness of the last.
Even though the harvest is early this year, SHL has an edge–those cooling winds from Monterey allow the grapes to ripen more evenly than their warm climate cousin–meaning the grapes reach their full potential for flavor and body.
The late Rich Smith, revered SLH wine grower, liked to say that the many famous wineries in the region share more than a climate. He was proud that they also shared a passion for the work that has put the Santa Lucia Highlands on the map.
Bottom Line
The 2015 vintage of Santa Lucia Highlands’ Pinot and Chardonnay will be smaller than normal—but what it lacks in quantity it will more than make up for in quality.
Vintage Update
It’s spring now and seven months have passed since the harvest began so I called Paul Clifton, at Hahn Family Wines to see what he thinks of last year’s vintage. The first thing he mentioned was that the season was so early that they finished the harvest before they would normally begin the harvest. As expected, the grapes were small and crop was one of the lightest ever.
Paul reminds me that in the sometimes counterintuitive world of wine making , less can often be more. More concentrated flavors, more color, more varietal character. He says the barrels of chardonnay are already developing distinct stone-fruit flavors and the pinot noir is showing intense color and promise. By the time the wine is bottled late this summer, Paul says this will be a vintage to remember.

Spanish Treasure–Gil Family Wines

From a small bodega, (winery, in Spain) a hundred years ago, Gil Family Estates has grown to become a major winemaking dynasty today. Starting in the southeastern Jumilla wine region, or DO (Denomination of Origin), the family has expanded its holdings to include eight bodegas, spanning the country from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Their focus has been on nurturing the indigenous grapes specific to each region. In the industry, they refer to their wines as terroir-driven.
In plain English, that means that the distinctive flavors and character of Spain’s many diverse wine regions comes shining through. One of the features of these regions is old vine grapes—vines that are at least thirty years old. Old vines generally produce smaller bunches and smaller berries. But the fruit they do produce tends to have more intense flavor and varietal character.
The flavor and character of regional wines has attracted major attention from American consumers—so much so that Gil Family wines have seen a three hundred percent increase in sales in the last five years. Here is a sample of some big Gil reds that are making it big:
Atalaya Bodega’s Laya, 2014 is a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tintorera (Alacante Bouschet) and Monastrel (Mourvedre) from the Almansa region on the central east coast of Spain. Expect rich color and multilayers of flavor, including blackberry, licorice, and coffee on a subtly dry finish.
Ateca, 2013 from Bodegas Ateca, is entirely old vine Garnacha from arid hillsides in the northeast. Tangy cherry flavors give way to smooth tannins lingering on the palate. If this is your first Garnacha, I’ll bet it won’t be your last.
Tridente Tempranillo, 2013 comes from century-old tempranillo vines. At fifteen and a half percent alcohol content, it’s a huge wine displaying big, velvety red fruit that never stops.
Juan Gil Monastrell, 2013 Silver Label is entirely Monastrell, a classic Spanish grape known for its robust tannins (so dry that the French nicknamed it, “the dog strangler.”) Silver Label has tamed the tannins to produce a voluptuous, beautifully structured wine.
Can Blau, 2013 is a blend of Carinena (Carignan), Syrah, and Garnacha—all traditional Mediterranean varietals. Layers of aromas and flavors wash over the senses. Here is proof that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
I’d be happy to toast the four generations of Gil family winemakers with any of these wines. “Salud!”

Steve Prati—Franklin-based wine consultant
Laya, 2014—Garnacha, Tintorera, Monastrell blend, layers of flavor, great value  $9.00
Ateca, 2013—Old vine Garnacha, tangy red cherry, smooth tannins, made for BBQ  $17.00
Tridente, 2013—Old vine Tempranillo–big, velvety, endless fruit, try with Manchego cheese  $17.00
Juan Gil Silver Label, 2013—Straight Monastrell, beautifully balanced, voluptuous  $17.00
Can Blau, 2013—Blend of Carinena, Syrah, and Garmacha, layered aromas/flavors  $17.00

From a small bodega, (winery, in Spain) a hundred years ago, Gil Family Estates has grown to become a major winemaking dynasty today. Starting in the southeastern Jumilla wine region, or DO (Denomination of Origin), the family has expanded its holdings to include eight bodegas, spanning the country from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Their focus has been on nurturing the indigenous grapes specific to each region. In the industry, they refer to their wines as terroir-driven.
In plain English, that means that the distinctive flavors and character of Spain’s many diverse wine regions comes shining through. One of the features of these regions is old vine grapes—vines that are at least thirty years old. Old vines generally produce smaller bunches and smaller berries. But the fruit they do produce tends to have more intense flavor and varietal character.
The flavor and character of regional wines has attracted major attention from American consumers—so much so that Gil Family wines have seen a three hundred percent increase in sales in the last five years. Here is a sample of some big Gil reds that are making it big:
Atalaya Bodega’s Laya, 2014 is a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tintorera (Alacante Bouschet) and Monastrel (Mourvedre) from the Almansa region on the central east coast of Spain. Expect rich color and multilayers of flavor, including blackberry, licorice, and coffee on a subtly dry finish.
Ateca, 2013 from Bodegas Ateca, is entirely old vine Garnacha from arid hillsides in the northeast. Tangy cherry flavors give way to smooth tannins lingering on the palate. If this is your first Garnacha, I’ll bet it won’t be your last.
Tridente Tempranillo, 2013 comes from century-old tempranillo vines. At fifteen and a half percent alcohol content, it’s a huge wine displaying big, velvety red fruit that never stops.
Juan Gil Monastrell, 2013 Silver Label is entirely Monastrell, a classic Spanish grape known for its robust tannins (so dry that the French nicknamed it, “the dog strangler.”) Silver Label has tamed the tannins to produce a voluptuous, beautifully structured wine.
Can Blau, 2013 is a blend of Carinena (Carignan), Syrah, and Garnacha—all traditional Mediterranean varietals. Layers of aromas and flavors wash over the senses. Here is proof that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.
I’d be happy to toast the four generations of Gil family winemakers with any of these wines. “Salud!”

Steve Prati—Franklin-based wine consultant
Laya, 2014—Garnacha, Tintorera, Monastrell blend, layers of flavor, great value  $9.00
Ateca, 2013—Old vine Garnacha, tangy red cherry, smooth tannins, made for BBQ  $17.00
Tridente, 2013—Old vine Tempranillo–big, velvety, endless fruit, try with Manchego cheese  $17.00
Juan Gil Silver Label, 2013—Straight Monastrell, beautifully balanced, voluptuous  $17.00
Can Blau, 2013—Blend of Carinena, Syrah, and Garmacha, layered aromas/flavors  $17.00

Balletto Family Vineyards

I am probably drawn to family vineyards because I grew up on a family farm—and vineyards are nothing if not farms. In a world where so much of what we eat and drink is produced by industrial agriculture, it’s nice to know that there are still family farms. One of the other things I like about family owned vineyards is that there is always a story. Balletto vineyards and winery in California’s Russian River Valley is no exception.
John Balletto started growing vegetables at the age of seventeen, after the death of his father. He and his mother started with five acres and a lot of determination. Their hard work paid off, and the Ballettos became one of the biggest vegetable producers in the region. Part of their holdings included thirty five acres of grapes near their home ranch. Those thirty five acres would become key to the Balletto’s future.
By the late 90s, bad weather, crop failures, and changes in the vegetable business forced John and his wife, Teresa, to rethink what they planted. Even though it would be years before they would see a crop, they decided to replant hundreds of acres to vines. Then, in 2001, the Ballettos decided to start making a little wine.
Fourteen vintages later, they are making a lot of wine—wine that is highly regarded, even in the prestigious Russian River Valley. Belletto winemaker, Anthony Beckman, hand-selects the top ten percent of the crop for their wine production and the rest is sold. There is always big demand for Russian River fruit.
Having hundreds of acres of prime land has given the Ballettos other advantages—such as the freedom to give back to their staff and their community in creative ways like building a three acre “field of dreams” baseball field in one of their vineyards. (Local teams say that a home run will put you in the pinot noir vines—a foul ball will put you off in the chardonnay.)
Here is what you can expect from some of Balletto’s estate grown, estate bottled, Russian River Valley wines:
Chardonnay—Subtle, lightly oaked, perfectly balanced fruit and acidity, endless finish.
Teresa’s Unoaked Chardonnay—unadorned chardonnay fruit character—delicate body, tangy lime.
Rosé of Pinot Noir—cherry and strawberry notes countered with citrusy acidity—clean, bright flavors.
Pinot Noir—spice and red fruit, elegantly balanced, classic pinot character

Steve Prati—Franklin-based wine consultant

Captions
Balletto 2013 Chardonnay—Subtle, complex, elegantly balanced, lingering finish  $30.00
Balletto Teresa’s 2014 Unoaked Chardonnay—Minerality married to bright, tangy citrus  $24.00
Balletto 2014 Rosé of Pinot Noir—Notes of cherry, strawberry, and citrus–well balance acidity  $22.00
Balletto 2013 Pinot Noir—Lively red fruit, spice, lightly oaked, silky on the palate  $30.00

“Goose” Hunting in Tennessee

Wine tastings have always been a fun part of being involved in the wine industry. They are a chance to explore and learn more about wine—and a chance to be surprised and delighted.
I was both surprised and delighted at a recent wine tasting at The Grove in the rolling green countryside of Williamson County. The event was billed as a launch for a line of wines from a relatively new winery in South Africa, curiously named The Goose.
As it turns out, The Goose was aptly named for its founder, South African professional golfer and two-time U.S Open winner, Retief “The Goose” Goosen. Dressed in a golf shirt with a Goose logo (naturally) Goosen seemed right at home surrounded by his wines and The Grove’s lush Greg Norman-designed golf course.
Like Norman, Goosen takes an active role in his wine business. He talks enthusiastically about entering the American market (Tennessee is one of the first of eight states to carry The Goose label.) Goosen is also quick to point out how unusual his cool climate vineyard is in South Africa.
The Goose vineyards are situated 2500 feet above sea level on the scenic Garden Route in South Africa (and in a neat coincidence, they are actually home to a flock of wild geese). With average temperatures only in the sixties, varietals like sauvignon blanc and pinot noir achieve their full potential by ripening slowly and evenly.
The sauvignon blanc, in its Riesling-style bottle, brings to mind the crisp, mineral character of a Sancere or Alsatian white, while the pinot’s slightly spicy red fruit comes across as subtly rich—unlike some austere cool climate pinots.
Cooler growing conditions also seem to have influenced the other reds we tasted on the Manor House patio that night. The Goose shiraz, for example, was plush—without being a fruit bomb—a tendency of hot climate reds.
Well-integrated tannins define the robust cabernet. With its deep color, heady blackberry aroma, and lingering finish, even a vegetarian would think of steak after sipping this cab.
The flagship of The Goose’s vineyard specific wines is The Goose Expression. The current vintage is a blend of shiraz and cabernet grapes from specially selected clusters. Quality barrel time yields a complex, full-bodied wine layered with berries, spice, and oak. Something tells me that there will soon be more sightings of The Goose in Middle Tennessee.
Sauvignon Blanc, 2014–Crisp, dry mineral character/gooseberry notes  $19.99
Pinot Noir, 2013–Spicy red fruit flavors/ smooth, nice body  $19.99
Shiraz, 2012–Soft, rich, full-bodied/elements of smoke and spice  $19.99
Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013—Robust dark berry/ well integrated tannins  $19.99