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.

On the Road – In Marlborough Country

Marlborough New Zealand that is.  We just finished a few days in Blenheim and got to immerse ourselves in the winemaking culture and attitude of Marlborough.  An aside – when we disembarked the Interislander Ferry from Wellington at Picton and took the short drive through the hills into the Wairau River Valley I had to pinch myself to realize I was actually in New Zealand, a place I’ve longed to visit (as I wrote about). They take their wine seriously here and, remember, it’s really Marlborough that put New Zealand on the world wine map with lively and zingy Sauvignon Blanc. They still focus on that but Pinot Noir is finding its place along with other varietals like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Notice a theme?  Yep – Marlborough is where you find cool climate varieties.

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Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the vine

New Zealand has several wine growing regions, and even though they have not yet adopted an appellation system like the US and other major wine growing countries, each does have unique characteristics. In Marlborough it’s the moderating influence of the rain shadow from the western mountains, the combination of clay and rocky greywacke soils and the ocean breezes from Cloudy Bay that give the wines their signature. The days are long and usually sunny and there are not high heat spikes so there is an extended, cooler growing season. Geek Alert: Greywacke is the mineral rich rock that makes up the mountains of the Southern Alps so its all over South Island New Zealand.

Blenheim is the heart of this wine region and from there it’s very easy to explore the whole area – none of the wineries were more than a 20 minute drive from our base station, the unique Antria Lodge, and owner Phil pointed us in all the right directions!  Most offer open to the public and free tastings at their “cellar door.” So we went off to sip some Marlborough wines.

This was like a Sauvignon Blanc seminar. When you consider that 85% of the wine in Marlborough is Sauvignon Blanc there’s a lot of sipping to cover – but somebody has to do it!

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Tasting 2016 Auntsfield Sauvignon Blanc and the grapes from 2017

What did we find?  We found characteristically grassy and tart wines and we found those with elegance and finesse.  We found wines with fruit forward flavors of gooseberry and herbaceous asparagus and wines with tropical grapefruit tastes.  We found edgy and acidic offerings and some lightly oaked with supple flavors. We found single vineyard wines and the high volume Marlborough wines you see all over the world. We found winemakers who are devoted to the heritage of their land (read the Auntsfield story), those who are experimenting with the nuances of the terroir (visit Clos Henri)and those using native wild yeast to give their wines a specific signature (see Greywacke).  In short we found a vibrant and eclectic wine country experience. There’s a lot more to a sip of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc than you may think. I know it opened me up to new sipping experiences.

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Greywacke visit

We were very fortunate to be able to wander these wines first hand, but a great way to pay a virtual visit to Marlborough, and help you find some wines near home, is by visiting Wine Marlborough.

Here are some Marlborough sips for you to enjoy from our visit. I tasted them all and they are a nice reflection of being “On the Road – In Marlborough Country.”
Let’s sip!

2016 Omaka Springs Sauvignon Blanc $14

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc $16

2016 Babich Sauvignon Blanc Black Label $16

Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2015 $16

Auntsfield Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc $18

Zephyr Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $18

Villa Maria 2016 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc $18

2016 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $20

Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $24

2014 Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25

What is a “Single Vineyard” Wine?

There certainly is a lot of information on wine labels and you will frequently see the name of a specific vineyard.Nunes Vineyard on harvest day 2006 This means the wine is a single vineyard or vineyard designated wine and, along with featuring the name on the label, there are other considerations that go along with it. If there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard

To me that’s important because it means the grapes that make up the wine in the bottle have come from one clearly identifiable location.  And when it comes to wine this tells us that there has been more consistent soil, climate, vineyard management and all of the other things that go into growing grapes and producing good wine.  The French term this terroir – and for more about that you can read this previous post.

I know this gets a little geeky so why should it matter to you?  Well, the rule of thumb is that the more tightly defined and controlled the growing environment, the greater the opportunity to make the best wine from the grapes.  If you buy into the idea that great wine begins in the vineyard, which I do, then it’s something to know and care about as you get further into wine.

And it can make you a smart wine buyer.  Makes sense to me.

There are many single vineyard wines on the shelves – it’s become a common practice to isolate the source of the grapes in order to highlight greater potential quality. But some growers and winemakers go even further and designate down to the specific block of vines within the vineyard or even the specific clone of vine that is being used, and there are more of those appearing on the shelves too.

What does that mean in practice? It’s what Fred Nunes does with his Pinot Noir at St. Rose Winery and Nunes Vineyards in Sonoma.  Fred not only makes his wine under the St. Rose label, designated as “Nunes Vineyard” but further identifies “Ten Block” and “777” to show the Pinot Noir comes from a selection of the ten different blocks of Pinot vines within the vineyard or exclusively from the vines of the 777 clone of Pinot Noir.  nunes-10

Both are terrific and you can taste a difference.

His vineyard is also the source of high quality fruit for other winemakers, so it’s possible to find “Nunes Vineyard” wines not made by Fred – like the Matrix Pinot Noir pictured here.10_29681-36062_F

One final point: not all single vineyard wines are “Estate” wines. If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes. So, while all of the St. Rose wines are Estate wines, you don’t see the word “estate” on the Matrix label.

It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon of wine, but there are some basic things that will help you become a smarter buyer and add confidence to the wine selection decisions you make at the retailer or when you’re at the dinner table.  Knowing what’s behind the info on the label is one of those basic things.

Our thanks to Fred and Wendy at Nunes Vineyards and St. Rose Winery for providing the photo of Fred checking his Pinot Noir!

Getting Serious about Riesling

For one of the world’s most noble grapes, Riesling is pretty much unappreciated, misunderstood and under consumed by much of the world’s wine drinkers – especially in the USA.  And that means we are really missing some special sips!  We are a land long dominated by Chardonnay and infatuated with Sauvignon Blanc, so I think it’s time we got serious about Riesling. Many people carry the misconception that Riesling is a cheap sweet wine that comes in a tall blue bottle when it is really a wine that offers incredible stylistic variety, great age worthiness and terrific versatility with food.

Native to Germany, where it is celebrated as a national treasure, Riesling is a colder climate varietal that does well there and in other areas with shorter growing seasons like Austria, the Alsace Region of France, Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, the Finger Lakes Region of New York and, increasingly, Washington State.

As I wrote in German Wine 101, “Riesling has a wonderful balance of acidity and sugars, yielding wines that smack of ripe peaches along with spiciness, tanginess and mineralty.”

Be sure to visit that post because it is a great overview of the German approach to this wine.

What makes it so drinkable?  The main thing that makes Riesling so drinkable and versatile is its naturally occurring high level of acidity. Much of the Riesling on the shelves has been produced with some residual sugar, and the balance between the acidity and some degree of residual sugar makes the wine drinkable with many different kinds of foods.

When it comes to Riesling my mantra is that “a little heat needs a little sweet.” In fact, Riesling seems ideally suited for just about any dish that has some spiciness so it’s one of my default wines with Asian dishes or Mexican flavors. I love Red Snapper Veracruz – grilled or baked fresh snapper filet covered in a salsa of onions, pepper, olives, tomatoes and capers paired up with a well chilled class of Riesling.  But it’s also a perfect fit for seafoods and other fish dishes like clams casino, shrimp cocktail, a filet of sole or some seared scallops.  And don’t forget the chicken stir fry or, given its heritage just about any sausage you like – along with the ideal (to me) German dish, Schnitzel with Spaetzle!

So let’s recap: what can you expect when you pour some Riesling in a glass?

  • Aromas of peaches, apricots or honeysuckle and maybe a bit of lime but also a telltale note of petrol. Yes I said petrol. It sounds bad but when you sniff it you’ll know its not!
  • Tastes of that ripe stone fruit along with a lush texture and that bit of sweet/tart balance of the sugar and acid all wrapped together with a slate – like mineralty that adds to the freshness in your mouth.

Time to Sip!

Ever Day Sip

2014 Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling Eroica, Columbia Valley $20

2015 Chateau Montelena Riesling $24

2014 Chateau Ste Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling $14

August Kesseler R Riesling Kabinett 2014 $16
Unscrew it an enjoy.

2014 Dr Loosen Estate Blue Slate Riesling Kabinett $20
Great producer. Classic Kabinett profile.

2013 Georg Albrecht Schneider Niersteiner Hipping Riesling Spatlese $15
Nice off-dry Spatlese for your brat!

Guest Sip
2014 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese $30
Lovely balance of acidity and sugar. Delightful to sip at the dinner table.

2013 J J Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese $50
Elegant wine – terrific producer.

Splurge Sip
Dr. Loosen Riesling Eiswein 2012 $80 375ml bottle

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

Napa Valley Visits

The first time I paid a wine tasting visit to Napa Vally I knew I was in trouble right away!  We drove up after some business meetings in San Fransisco and Cris and I spontaneously, and randomly, began stopping at wineries for tastings.  We had no plan. We didn’t know what we were doing. But before we even checked in to the Wine Country Inn the trunk was full of wine!  Napa still holds a special place in my personal wine world.

When you visit Napa it’s easy to get over-whelmed by the sheer number of wineries since there are about 400 or so with tasting opportunities.  As tempting as it is, don’t try to do then all in one visit!  There are lots of different tasting and touring experiences you can have, whether you are a first-timer, as I was those many years ago, or a veteran of the Silverado Trail.  But the main thing to remember is that it’s best not to over-schedule yourself.  Not only will your palate get worn out during the day, meaning your ability to really taste and enjoy the wines will decline, but you’ll end up consuming too much alcohol, even before you head out to dinner and bring that bottle of wine you just discovered with you.  It’s really easy to over-consume, even if you discipline yourself to spit your tastes into the dump bucket in the tasting room.  Unless you’re a wine pro odds are you aren’t there to spit, but to enjoy the full range of experiences that your wine country visit offers.  And then there’s driving. Getting a car and driver is best and it’s the safest way to fully embrace your winery visits.

Back to Napa.  Napa Valley is only about 30 miles long, and it’s narrow – just about 5 miles across at its widest.  This means that a few days will give you ample opportunity to wander it to your heart’s content.  I always suggest that first-timers do a blend of tours and tastings to include both large producers and small, stopping within the different AVA’s of Napa to get a sense of the diversity of wines and styles, and ending up with a fairly broad set of sipping experiences.  And don’t do more than four stops a day – frankly three is ideal since that gives you time to spend in each place, perhaps a nice picnic on the winery grounds, or even more selective tasting experiences.  And consider a booking a car and tour to jump start your time there one day.

If you’ve been wine tasting and winery touring before then you know the drill, so plan ahead with reservations at places that are must visits for you.  Over time I’ve enjoyed deep dives into the Napa AVAs, concentrating on particular subregions and varietals.  There are any number of special experiences you can participate in, including things like vertical or library tastings, winemaking seminars, component tastings, cooking classes, even getting your hands dirty during the harvest.  Here are a couple of really good websites to help you plan your time:

And here is our favorite “insider” tip… wherever you visit and taste be sure to ask the person doing the pouring where they like to go – what are their own favorite smaller producers or off the beaten track wineries. It’s a great way to discover some gems.

There are lots of ways to fully experience Napa Valley and all it has to offer in wining, dining and simply soaking up the whole ambiance. From the city of Napa itself to the mud baths of Calistoga, from the quiet of the Silverado Trail to the winding roads above St. Helena, from savoring some local cheese with a lovely Napa Chard in a wooded glen to the relative buzz at the Rutherford Grill and all of those wonderful wineries to give you sips, Napa is ready whenever you are.

I think I need another visit real soon!

Chile’s Carmenere

Have you already forgotten your New Year Resolutions?  Well I haven’t!  My first “Resolution Wine” of the the new year is Carmenere from Chile.  If you haven’t had any yet then it’s certainly time to try some now.

Carmenere is quickly becoming Chile’s Malbec.  By that I mean that as Malbec has come to define Argentina, so too will Carmenere come to define Chile.  The reason is simple – in addition to the terrific Cabernet Sauvignon we get from Chile, Carmenere holds a more unique place in the world of wine.

In France, it’s native land, it never achieved the greatness of a standalone varietal.  It was virtually always just used as part of blending in Bordeaux.  Not so in Chile.  Carmenere found its way there in the 1800’s with other French varietals and it began to thrive.  However it was often mistaken for a local “Merlot” – until some testing in the mid 1990’s nobody really knew what it was.  And the Chilean “Merlot” that was rather unusual finally found its place.

Chile is now the only place in the world that is widely growing Carmenere – and making wines that have dramatically become a uniquely Chilean entry into the world wine scene.  What can you expect?  In an earlier post I wrote “it’s got a dark and fruity flavor with an almost smokey character that to me is like a rustic version of Merlot.”  Hey, I stand by that!  But let’s get a little deeper.

It’s a deep ruby red that seems to glow in the glass. When I sip a Carmenere I usually find a dense black cherry flavor with hints of spice and just a touch of mocha.  It’s that spice that makes it more rustic and, to me, unique to the grape.  In some of the wines it’s a definite peppery quality; in others more like cloves or allspice.  But, guess what – there’s no need to get all caught up in any of these subtleties if you just want a juicy, tasty, accessible, everyday glass of red in your hand.  And that’s the particular reason I am coming to love Carmenere.  It’s got really good acidity but isn’t very tannic meaning this is a wine that is great all by itself to sip and perfect with a burger or just about any thing off the grill.  It’s also a wine to reach for with some more challenging dishes like Mexican food.

And the best part is that it is really – and I mean really – affordable. Most of the Carmenere you’ll find on the shelves is well under $20.  How good is that! There is also highly regarded, costly bottles too – but let’s walk before we run.

Here are some to try that are pretty widely available.  If you don’t see any at your wine store just ask them to get some for you – you’ll be doing both of you a favor.  Let’s sip!

Every Days Sips
2014 Root 1 Carmenere $10

2015 Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carmenere $10

2013 Chono Carmenere Single Vineyard $12

2014 Casas del Bosque Reserva Carmenere $14

2011 Montes Alpha Carmenere $20

2014 Concha y Toro Marques de Casa Concha Carmenere $20

NOTE: I you want to learn a lot more about the wines of Chile you can visit the official site here.