New Zealand’s Big Reds

We’re back!  It was a terrific visit to New Zealand. What a beautiful and diverse country – from the verdant hillsides covered in vines to the rugged natural beauty of the South Island, from the bustle of wharf-side Aukland to the laid back charm of Queenstown this is a nation of experiences.  And that certainly includes the full range of wine experiences.

In January I wrote some resolutions so let’s make good on another one: “March – as we look forward to spring in the northern hemisphere, they are picking grapes in New Zealand so I think we’ll try some of the Cabernet and Merlot from the North Island.” And let’s add Syrah to that too. Other red varietals as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are grown on the North Island but we’ll stick to the three biggies.

When you think red from New Zealand, think Hawke’s Bay first, then Aukland. These are warm weather places and the regions that produce the most Cab, Merlot, Syrah and Bordeaux varieties and from which we have the best chance of finding some on our shelves.  Hawke’s Bay is also an area that has a subregion with a unique soil type called “Gimblett Gravel.” IMG_2043I had several of these on the trip and I think it brings something different to the taste of the wines – there is a flinty dry mineralty which adds to the character. It’s similar to the Napa Valley Cabs from Rutherford with the well known “Rutherford Dust” of the gravelly soil there.

For the most part the wines I had were big and boldly flavored; ripe, warm weather offerings made to drink today. And, of course, capped with a screw top. Some of the Syrah were like a smack in the face they were so powerful and peppery – more like the inky black Petit Syrah grape. I admit, it took a bit getting used to and to me they definitely needed food at the same time. The best matches I had with the Syrah were a braised short rib one night and a coffee rubbed steak another. Big flavors to match up with big flavors. Not wine for the faint-hearted!

My favorite sips were the Cab/Merlot and Bordeaux style blends. These were good food wines to have with the New Zealand lamb, venison and beef – versatile and drinkable. The Hawke’s Bay wines are clearly “New World” with bursting forward fruitiness and heady flavors of currant, blueberry and brambles. They aren’t tight or tannic making them an easy choice right off of the shelf. One of the wines I had was from Waiheke Island near Aukland which is rich in volcanic soils and it was one of the biggest mouthfuls of Bordeaux styled wine I’ve ever had.

So the bottom line is that we discovered some new sips that add to the big wide world of tasting experiences.  I just love keeping my New Year Resolutions!

Unfortunately for us there are not a lot of these New Zealand wines in US distribution at retail but here are some to try that I have seen, including my favorite, Te Mata “Awatea.” Be sure to give a look to the wine list when you head to your favorite steakhouse too.

Let’s Sip!

Every Day Sip
2014 Villa Maria Cabernet Merlot, Hawke’s Bay, Cellar Selection $18
Good everyday example of a Hawke’s Bay red blend and since Villa Maria is a pretty big exporter of Sauvignon Blanc there are a number of retailers who also carry this. Definitely worth a try if you see it.

2011 Craggy Range Te Kahu $20
From the Wine Advocate: ”A blend of 69% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 9% Malbec, the deep garnet-purple-colored 2011 Gimblett Gravels Te Kahu has a nose of warm plums, crushed black currants and wild blueberries with nuances of cedar, toast, cloves and dried mint. Light to medium-bodied with a slightly hollow mid-palate, it nonetheless gives very drinkable, delicate, black fruit and spice flavors in the mouth supported by crisp acid and chewy tannins. It finishes medium to long.”

Guest Sip
2010 Craggy Range Syrah Gimblett Gravels Vineyard $30IMG_2228
A chewy Syrah with bold flavor and lots of peppery spiciness.

2014 Te Mata “Awatea” Bordeaux Blend Hawkes Bay $30
My favorite of all the ones tasted from Hawke’s Bay during our trip! A blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 8% Petit Verdot. Full flavored and as good as any Napa or Sonoma Cab Blend and equal to even pricier wines from Bordeaux. I think it’s right between both with the approachability of California and the nuance of France.

Splurge Sip
2013 Vidal “El Legado” Syrah Hawke’s Bay $65
Every critic agrees on this one – just a terrific wine with lush dark fruit and complexity.

Sparkling Shiraz

It’s February and that means planning something for my Valentine, and this year we’ll celebrate with Sparkling Shiraz from Australia.  That was my resolution a month ago and I’m sticking with it.

Sparkling Shiraz may not be the most elegant and expensive fizzy – but it is certainly fun and interesting to drink.  sparkling-shirazAnd I like to keep things fun and interesting with the wines I pick for different occasions. Valentine’s Day seems like the perfect time to bring out a new sip experience, especially one that is deeply red, almost purple, from the wonderful foaming bubbles that rise in the glass to the rich dark berry flavors that will delight you as you toast the one who is most special to you.

Most folks aren’t familiar with this kind of wine – unless you’re an Aussie that is!  But it’s a style that has become much more respected and refined, especially as Shiraz from Down Under has increased in popularity.  This is not some syrupy, cloyingly sweet fizzy like “cold duck” or some of those 70’s wines many of us may have slurped in our younger days. Sparkling Shiraz is seriously good to drink.  Here’s why: the ones we now have available to us are made in the traditional method, which means that they are made the same way as fine Champagne and other world class sparkling wines. If you want to read more about that process just click on this earlier post. 

Let’s get to the taste – and the taste begins with the sight and smell of this wine when you pour it in a glass.  So start with what we like about Shiraz and then think of this as a Shiraz that has been sprinkled with stardust.  It’s densely purple color is classy and rich, to me it’s like an amethyst hanging on a pendant or set in a ring (not that I am suggesting what you give your Valentine!).  Shiraz gives us inky dark wines so expect it to be almost opaque.  Yet the magic is in those lively bubbles rising in the glass which add the special tingle of sparkling wine.  I prefer to drink it from a tall Champagne flute especially to enjoy those bubbles.  And inside that glass you’ll get the blackberry and peppery flavor of Shiraz.  What a nice combination!

You can enjoy this wine all by itself as an aperitif but it really is a good food wine too:

  • Sip it with cheese like aged gouda or manchego.
  • It’s wine for tapas and tasty morsels like bacon wrapped dates, grilled octopus or stuffed mushrooms.
  • And for entrees you can’t miss with most grilled red meats right off of the barbie Mate!

Serve Sparkling Shiraz well chilled like Champagne, but not ice cold. If it’s too cold you’ll miss out on some of those dark berry flavors.

I don’t think I can wait until Valentine’s Day so I’m off to pick up some Sparkling Shiraz right now!

Let’s Sip!

EveryDay Sips
Paringa Sparkling Shiraz $16

The Chook Sparkling Shiraz $18

Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz, The Red Brute $20

Guest Sips
Molly Dooker Miss Molly Sparkling Shiraz $25

Black Bubbles by Shingleback $28

Perfect New Year Resolution

This is not about working out.  And it’s not about doing the “cleanse” that is so popular or paying for a membership at the Bikram yoga studio.  My Perfect New Year Resolution is this: I resolve to experience a new wine every month.  I am up for the challenge (and the rules are pretty loose) – this can mean a varietal I’m not really familiar with, or a wine from a region from which I don’t normally buy the wines, or a particular style or approach to winemaking that is new to me, or a wine that is just different, or maybe something from off the beaten track.  I think this is a heck of a way to end up with a mixed case of new wine experiences.

This is one resolution that I know I can keep – how about you?

Over the years I’ve tried to be open to finding as many different wine experiences as I can.  And one of the things that enamors me most about wine is its almost infinite variety.  So here are my resolution sips and each month I’ll share them with you:

  • January – starting the year off with a journey south and an exploration of Carmenere from Chile
  • February – means something for my Valentine and this year we’ll celebrate with Sparkling Shiraz from Australia
  • March – as we look forward to spring in the northern hemisphere they are picking grapes in New Zealand so I think we’ll try some of the Cabernet and Merlot from the North Island
  • April – makes me think of the song April in Paris so let’s head to France. Hmmm, how about some of the lovely whites of Alsace?
  • May – we drink a lot of Italian wine at our place but there’s still a lot of Italy to sip into.  So let’s hop over to the island of Sardinia and see what we find
  • June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy!
  • July – time for the 4th of July and some wine from Jefferson’s home state, Virginia
  • August – did you know that Spain is the 3rd largest wine producing country in the world with more wine than the US and Australia combined? That’s a lot of wine to experience so we’d better get on it. Hint: following the footsteps of Don Quixote
  • September – crush time begins in California and what better time to step off the beaten path and take in some wine from places outside of Napa and Sonoma
  • October – the Danube flows through and separates the cities of Buda and Pest – but not the amazing wines of Hungary
  • November – when I visit Mexico I drink local.  Not tequila, but tasty wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja.
  • December – down at the tip of South Africa there’s a wine with a unique heritage to uncover

Stay tuned and keep sipping!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!img_4652

What is a “Reserve” Wine?

You see it on the label all the time – the word  Reserve, Reserva or Riserva.  At least on the surface that must mean there’s something a bit more special about the wine, right?  And that’s usually reinforced by the price, which is more than a non-reserve wine from the same producer.  The answer is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.

As with many things about wine there is a lot of “it depends” in that answer. In the New World wine countries – the US, Australia/New Zealand and South America, Reserve is not a regulated designation.  In the Old World there is broad European Union regulation of labeling which is then customized in each country. In Italy and Spain there is specific meaning to the term Riserva or Reserva based on the aging of the wine before it is released for sale. It is time focused.  Therefore, here’s a short guided walk through the meaning of those words on the label.

United States:  The term “Reserve” or other iterations of it on the label has no legal or regulatory meaning. It does not automatically mean higher quality. That’s right, it’s a labeling that is completely up to the winery to use in whatever way they chose.  I think that’s called marketing!

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe this is meant to be misleading, rather, wineries typically use “reserve” to indicate they have somehow treated the wine with more special care –  and most will also tell you why it’s more special.  They may have made it from selected vineyards or plots or from a blend of specific barrels or types of oak.  Whatever the case, the Reserve is meant to stand out, fill in their brand offering and generate more selective sales – and, according to the winery, give you a more special sip. The key is to know what you’re buying – so read the back label, check the winery website or rely on a good wine store to help you decide.  And here’s an earlier post on reading the label in general that you may find useful too.

Italy: There is no country wide rule for the use of Riserva but it’s definitive within the different Italian appellations.  Wine from the Chianti zone has different requirements than the Piedmont or Montalcino or the Veneto.  However the general rule is that Riserva have to be aged longer before being released. In Chianti that means a Riserva has been aged at least 2 years and has slightly higher alcohol, for a Brunello it’s 5 years with at least 2 in wood and 6 months in the bottle, and for Barolo the minimum aging is 5 years while Barbaresco is 4 years. These are all meant to be higher quality than non-reserve wines and they are “reserved” or held back for you by the winery while they age and develop. Further Italian wine basics can be found here.

Spain: Thankfully Spain is really straight forward and has specific aging designations.  For quality red wines Reserva is 3 years with 1 in the barrel and Gran Reserva means 5 years with 18 months in the barrel. For white and Rose’ it is 2 years/6 months for Reserva and 4 years/6 months for Gran Reserva.  So for Spanish wines it’s very clear that wine has been treated to extended cellaring before it’s ready for you to sip. And here’s a link to more about Spainsh Reds.

You won’t typically see Reserve designations for French wine (although it’s not precluded) since there is defined labeling based on the classification systems within the appellations and these are highly focused on the place and producer.  For more see earlier posts on Bordeaux and Burgundy.

So next time you’re in the wine shop, or looking over the list at the restaurant, and the word Reserve pops out you have this little sip of label knowledge to guide you!

Enjoy your reserved and unreserved sips!

Speaking Australian – Shiraz

I love Australians.  They have a certain joie d’vivre that’s unique along with a great sense of who they are.  Maybe it’s because the country is so self-contained and it began with a bunch of outcasts, but they certainly move to the beat of their own drum.  And it shows up in the wines.

Take Shiraz for example –

To the rest of the world it’s Syrah, but to Australia it’s SHE-RAZZ.

So why does it have a different name?  There are stories about that, including that it was once thought the grape originated in Persia – but you know what?  Who really cares.  Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape genetically.  It’s the way the Australians grew it and made it into wine that really distinguished it from the traditional Syrah of France’s Rhone region.  Shiraz is inky dark with pronounced flavors of blueberry or blackberry along with a tarry or leathery component. And it tends to be less tannic and more readily approachable than Old World styles.

What popped Australian Shiraz into the wine world’s consciousness was just that – it popped full of flavor – big and juicy, fruit forward and bold – and people loved it.  While there are now more elegant and subtler versions more similar to the French, the true character of Shiraz is still that bold and highly flavorful drinkability.  This is a terrific wine with barbecue and it’s great with grilled meats, especially steak and lamb.  I think it’s a perfect cheeseburger wine too – really good any night of the week since there is a lot of it priced at every day levels.

The home to the best Shiraz of Australia is the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia near Adelaide.  The Australians offer us Shiraz as a single varietal as well as blended with other grapes.  When it’s put together with Grenache and Mouvedre then its a classic “GSM” blend that’s in the style of the Rhone, but Aussies go farther.  You’ll see Shiraz – Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Shiraz – Viognier.  And there are fun Rose’ from Australia that are primarily Shiraz based too.

A bit about the label: when it says just Shiraz then at least 85% of it must be Shiraz in the bottle.  If it is a blend like the Shiraz – Cabernet then 50% or more of the wine must be the first first grape listed.  There is now Shiraz labeled in South Africa and a little bit in California, but the real superstar of Shiraz is from the land of Oz.

Let’s Sip!

Every Day Sip

2014 Woop Woop Shiraz $10

2013 Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz Viognier $17

2013 Torbreck Woodcutter’s Shiraz $22

Guest Sip 

2014 Two Hands Shiraz Angel’s Share $30

2013 Mollydooker Shiraz Blue Eyed Boy $43

Splurge Sip

2012 Hentley Farm Shiraz The Beast $80

Pinot Noir Styles

Pinot Noir is a grape of style and substance, subtly and passion, delicacy and strength.  Yes, it’s complex. And at the heart of that complexity is the way that Pinot soaks up the place it grows.  Perhaps more than any other grape variety, the terroir, the broader ecosystem and the micro climate all put their stamp on this luscious wine.  So here’s some guidance on what to expect of the Pinot’s from different parts of the world as well as within particular countries.  I’m going to generalize because there are too many nuanced differences than can be covered in this post, but at least this will get you on your way and help when you stand in the aisle of the wineshop trying to decide what to buy.

Pinot Noir is a cooler weather grape known for lively fruit flavors, medium bodied, silky texture and good acidity, and they are particularly food friendly wines as a result – and that’s our starting point.  So whether you’re having roasted chicken, a grilled pork chop, some beef Burgundy or seared tuna, there’s a Pinot waiting for you.

Burgundy is the mothership of Pinot Noir.  It is here that the grape was first mastered and here where it is mastered still.  The Grand Crus are wines of real distinction and are priced that way too. The Premier Crus and even the more notable village wines really typify the Burgundian style of Pinot and are much more affordable.  The Burgundian style is characterized by the essence of the earth.  The lovely red berry fruit flavors of the grape (strawberry and raspberry) are underscored by the sense of sous bois.  This is a French term referring to the aroma and taste of the “forest floor,” that scent of undergrowth that is stylistically so Burgundian. It’s also described as truffle or mushroom. It helps define the complexity unique to the region and French approach to celebrating the place more so that the fruity quality of the grape.  To me it is one of the wine’s charms which adds layering to the sipping experience. For some Burgundy basics see this earlier post Beginning Burgundy.

Oregon is America’s Burgundian cousin. The main difference is forward leading fruit flavor. Here I find more Bing cherry than berry tastes and wonderfully structured wines that benefit from the cool and damp.  A little fuller feel in the mouth too but still offering that tingle of acidity that’s so Pinot Noir. I also find more consistency in Oregon than in the myriad of vineyard plots and producers that typify Burgundy.  Oregon does have smaller, less “corporate” producers too, which I like because its more reflective of the Old World approach, but with the devotion to the grape of the New World style of winemaking.

California has embraced Pinot and dominates what is on the shelves.  Each area is a little different… it’s that Pinot thing and I love the diversity of the taste experiences.  Here’s quick look:

  • Russian River Pinot are lovely and rich.  There are darker fruit flavors of plum and cherry.  You might get a little woody taste too.  To me these are the bigger style Pinot from California althugh some from the Central Coast stand up to them.
  • Carneros Pinot on the other hand are bright and lively.  I usually think of cranberries or wild strawberries when I reach for a Pinot from Carneros.  Carneros straddles both Napa and Sonoma. By the way there is Pinot from other Napa and Sonoma areas too. You’ll see more and more from the Sonoma Coast.  This is a really big area and to me the jury is still out on the wines coming from grapes sourced throughout it, so I look for vineyard designations.  I prefer more defined growing sources.  And up and down the Napa Valley Pinot is produced, but it’s a little too ripe and not as acidic as the cooler areas.  One needs to check the source and winemaker approach.
  • Down the Central Coast, in the Santa Barbara area and Monterey, the wines remind me of cherry cola.  Not a full as the Russian River, but still on the darker fruit end.  And there is some delightful wine coming out of the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco.  Not a lot of volume but fun to seek out. Let’s not forget SLO – San Luis Obispo.  Again, kind of that mid range in terms of the fruit profile.  In all of these areas you’ll find very drinkable Pinots at quite reasonable price points.

Let’s finish with New Zealand.  Most of them remind me of munching on dried cherries or dried cranberries and sometimes there’s even an aroma that’s like sandalwood incense.  They’re bright and fun with crispy acidity.  There are regional variations within New Zealand and we’ll get more in-depth on Oz another time but if you like Pinot Noir then definitely take a sip.

Pinot Noir is a grape that gives us wine of ultimate diversity.  No wonder it’s a favorite Sip!

Full Bodied Reds

BODY is one of the most common descriptors of wine – and I think most of us know instinctively what it means.  It’s easy to identify with.  Some wines are thin.  Some are rich and full.  Others can be described as ‘muscular’ or ‘flabby.’  Sounds like people doesn’t it?

Well BODY is really about how the wine feels in your mouth and much of that has to so with how much alcohol the wine has, and of course the grape variety as well as the wine making style.  For a lot of wine drinkers, full bodied wines are the wine of choice.  After all, they tend to pack the most punch per sip.  We love the roundness of the flavor and heft of the wine.  Americans have never been accused of embracing delay in gratification in anything, have we?  I also think that we have learned to seek out these taste experiences in the US since we gravitate to bigger flavor foods.  How many of us were raised on a meat and potatoes diet? Lots of dairy.  Burgers?  Not a lot of nuance there.

And then there is the “New World” style of winemaking and the very popular rating scales used in the media.  The New World style, of which California’s influence is the most notable, is fruit forward, mostly drink-it-now, driven by the grape variety and the winemaking.  More extraction and higher alcohol are common.  A highly respected and followed publication, Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, became known for higher ratings of big and powerful wines. Higher ratings mean higher prices and greater sales – and more wineries jumped on the upfront style. So it’s no wonder that fuller bodied wines seem to dominate what we drink most.

What are these wines?  Most are red, but there are a couple of whites (particularly Chardonnay and Viognier, although we’re talking red today). If you like it full and bold here’s what to look for, with one caveat – one size does not fit all.  Each of the following cover the spectrum of weight and body.  Consider these a place to start.

Cabernet Sauvignon: In my post, “A Taste of Cabernet” I wrote, “Cabernet is a conundrum – big, bold and powerful as well as elegant, refined and beautiful.”  Cabernet has it all – structure, weight and depth to go along with its finesse and age-worthiness.  It fills your mouth with bursts of dark fruit and plum, tobacco and leather, cedar and mint – all kinds of layered flavors.  California, Chile and Australia lead with the fuller bodied styles dominated by fruit and drinkability. Bordeaux wines can also be considered full bodied for sure, but to me where they fall is much more dependent on the specific area of Bordeaux and the nature of the blend in the bottle.

Syrah/Shiraz:  Syrah from the Northern Rhone – Cote Rotie (the “Roasted Slope”), Hermitage and St. Joseph, and the Aussie Shiraz are midnight dark and intense with blackberry, currant and smoke. The tannins are softer than Cab.  I love Syrah/Shiraz with lamb and beef.  More Syrah is coming out of California too.

Petite Sirah: Not the same as the above, it’s its own grape and it is a chewer!  It’s on the shelves on it’s own from California and is frequently blended into Zinfandel to add punch to that wine. Inky black and bold.

Zinfandel:  Much Zin is really more medium bodied, but there are bolder styles driven by the blacker fruits, as opposed to red, and higher alcohol, as well as those with some Petite Sirah in the blend.  The “old vine” estate and single vineyard Zins are typically fuller bodied.

Merlot: Yes, Merlot is usually fuller bodied.  But it tends to get overlooked by its softness, its less tannic structure.  To appreciate Merlot’s full bodied appeal have a cheddar cheeseburger.

Malbec: Malbec has come into its own in Argentina.  It’s softer than Cab and to me has more of an edge to it than Merlot.  It’s affordable and approachable – a good choice to have on hand at home as your go-to glass of red.

To get into all the potential full bodied reds and the iterations of blends and indigenous grape varieties would turn this post into a tome!  One thing to take away – if the wine is 14.5% alcohol or higher you can be pretty sure that it will be a full bodied sip.

But know that the truth is in what YOU taste, and in what you expect out of the wine and the time you’re enjoying it.  I don’t like rules about wine.  I like guides that leave up to me to decide what I like or don’t like.  And the fun is in exploring it all.

Not a bad way to sip.