another side of napa at the 2012 wine festival.

california wine, cheese, colorado wine, food pairing, Uncategorized

I admit. I went in with my biases at this year’s 21st Annual Wine Festival of Colorado Springs, put on by our sister store Coaltrain with the Fine Arts Center. Every year they knock it right out of the park with incredible speakers, winemakers, demonstrations and pairing seminars. This year’s focus was Napa. I assumed they might cater towards an audience who was seeking to glorify their beloved Cabernet, a varietal that is so inextricably linked to this American viticenter’s image. But I was wrong. And that shouldn’t surprise me. Year after year, whether women winemakers, South African wine, Spanish or whatever the theme might be, never do the organizers for this event shape it around a collective imagination of what a region, grape or style should be. They quite intentionally push the limit of a region’s character and emphasize its diversity, intrigue and potential, exposing evidence of a truly influential and great wine region.

And so, this time it was Napa.

In the two seminars I attended, I was able to taste through an array of grapes and sub-regions within Napa. From the floor to the high points of Spring Mountain, we tasted the difference a stone’s throw makes in the land of milk and honey.

Bright and early, it began with a wine & cheese seminar–without a doubt one of my favorite seminars they put on if you think to go next Spring. Whereas many tasting seminars expose you to tons of components and flavors, making it difficult to discern a direct connect between elements, this tasting is just you, the wine and the cheese. The influence of one on the other compounded by winemakers there discussing their viticultural and vinification techniques on each particular wine while a cheese expert does the same for each selection really allows you to sit and get to know your tastebuds in depth.

We tasted through a Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc with a classic chèvre, a Chardonnay from Keenan with a Triple Creme, a rose from Bouchaine with some salty year old Manchego (an excellent pairing, as the wine really had some Spanish rosado flare), a hearty Bouchaine Syrah, a Keenan Zinfandel and a Cabernet paired with a blue. The most charming red we saw had to be the Flora Springs Sangiovese. Had I been blinded, I may have gone Tuscan, but that ripe forward fruit really is Cali’s thing. The most stunning and surprising red I tasted was Keenan’s Zin. It had the finesse, balance and complexity to force me to throw everything I thought I felt about Zin out the window. I thanked him for that. I come across people daily that get fixated on hating particular wines or grapes (Merlot and Riesling come to mind immediately). There are good versions of just about everything out there! Or, I should say, a version that you are more accustom to liking. That’s what I learned Saturday morning. I was not much different. Even I can get a little judgey. This wine reminded me to just keep an open palate…

The next seminar was a luncheon I had been excited to sit in on for weeks. Chef Soa Davies from New York’s Le Bernardin was there to lead each exquisite course. And so, below is a synopsis of each memorable bite…

#1 ’10 Robert Sinskey Abraxas: sashimi-style salmon, green apple, jalapeño cream sauce, micro green salad

When Sinskey took the floor, he kind of lit up the room. Here he was in a nice flannel shirt, thick black frames, and white hair. He had an air about him. A confident yet humble presence. A calm demeanor. A kind smile. His success has come from hard work, patience and a very calculated intention. I realized this when he spoke.

His Abraxas, named for the Egyptian god whose letters stood for the 365 days in a year.  In the same way, each day that went into this wine was weighted and meaningful. He pulls from four Alsatian varietals: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Blanc–an ode to his wife in a way, though both are fond lovers of this French region. His fear was that Napa might be too warm to grow these grapes independently, when it occurred to him, he didn’t have to. Though harvested and fermented separately, they share a bottle and meld together beautifully. Faint orange blossom on the nose, lime zest on the palate. Bone dry. Sensational white. It was good with the salmon, but slightly too dry perhaps for the heat. It kicked up a lot of citrus on the palate.

#2 ’09 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay: Caramelized Endive, Caramelized spicy shrimp, bouillabaisse

The winery that helped put Napa on the map in a big way back in 1976 when their Chardonnay took gold at the Judgement of Paris tasting against some of the finest burgundies in the world, Chateau Montelena was an incredible addition to this event. Vineyard manager Dave Vella has been at the winery since the early ‘80s keeping it honest and consistent. Even in the height of buttery oaky blockbusters, they have chosen to remain true to their style. This wine shined with the dish, complimenting its richness and inherent acidity, elevating notes of lemon curd, pineapple and caramel.

#3 ’08 Robert Sinskey 3 Amigos Pinot Noir: Roots Vegetables

This was my favorite course hands down. The flavors Davies teased from these roots had me liking parsnip (and that never happens). Though earthy veggies seem like a logical match for lighter pinot, I didn’t realize just how incredible they could be. The carrot lit up the spices, the parsnip pulled out a creamy texture to the wine, and the beets turned up the volume when it came to that earthy, cherried sandalwood one seeks in a Cali Pinot. It is a grape that mesmerizes but is possibly the hardest to articulate. Sinskey likens it to a marriage… you never quite figure your partner out, but they will always have you happily guessing.

#4 ’09 VGS Chateau Potelle The Illegitimate Red: Chicken deboned and cured, herbs

Jean-Noel is perhaps the most fascinating winemaker I have ever met! He stands today with one kidney and one lung. He recently climbed Annapurna. He is French. Incredibly French. But he absolutely LOVES California wine. Not long after the 1976 Paris Tasting, while he was working as a critic in Bordeaux, sniffing around to be sure quality was up to standards, he was sent on assignment to America as a spy of sorts. He was to report back what they were up to in Napa. As he says, he called them and stated simply, “It’s good. I stay!”

Illegitimate is a throw-back to his French roots, when you couldn’t mix your Bordeaux grapes with your Rhones and slipping in a varietal that wasn’t French might have you arrested! He is exploring the wild west attitude of blending with this red, combining Cab, Merlot, Syrah and Zin. On the nose, Syrah wins with its peppery, floral, wow factor. On the palate the Cab fights to dominate. It is a fun wine, intriguing and bold.

#5 09 VGS Chateau Potelle Zinfandel: Braised short-rib, pickled onions

For too long, Jean-Noel feels Zin has been treated as a second class citizen. I think he said this about five times. Insisting on its relevance, he has dedicated himself to making some incredible, food-worthy wines of the Zinfandel variety. Though Croatian-born, this grape has become, in many ways, the ‘American’ red. Here it gained recognition, much like the French-born Malbec in Mendoza. Just before we were left to enjoy the spot on pairing, his final words were, “If you like it, I was responsible. If you don’t, you have bad taste.” He was such a treat with his thick French accent and smiling eyes.

#6 ’09 Chateau Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon: Bittersweet chocolate mousse, sea salt, caramel puff, brandied cherries, ice cream

In Soa’s words, to pair a dry acid Cabernet with such a decadent dessert, it was the brandied cherries that for her bridged the two worlds. I was impressed, I admit. No offensive, bitter flavors arose. It was smooth and enticing. More than anything, surprising and bold. Were I to have this heavenly dessert again, I think I would reach for a tawny port, however, to really elevate the caramel undertones, play with the saltiness and magnify the mousse.

Two Cabernets out of twelve wines. That’s it. That’s Napa. With every passing year, innovative folks and adventurous vignerons see the potential beyond Cabernet in this exquisite region. Don’t get me wrong. I just sipped through a vertical of Mondavi Reserve last year form 1991-1996, and they are nothing short of breathtaking right at this very moment. Those age, man. They have guts. But tasting everything from Sangiovese to Alsatian blends, I was convinced there is so much more to wow the world from this corner of the world.

Keep an eye out just after Christmas for next year’s lineup. There are a number of events and seminars that range in price. Whether a wine newbie or a wine nerd, you are certain to learn something new with every sip.

Best is Best: A reflection on 2011’s best wines.

california wine, colorado wine, french wine, Lopez de Heredia

Every year, I am amazed at the wealth of new wines that find their way to the market. It opens my eyes to the potential of so many regions and varietals. This past year, so many wines made an impression on me. Some, new vintages of old friends. Others, brand new kids on the block making their way into my radar. What follows is what I feel were the best of their category (in my ever so humble opinion). They are the ones that stick out above the rest in 2011. (I have kept a somewhat realistic price point in mind, as I am honestly more impressed by lesser expensive wines that over deliver… It’s more of a challenge to be best when you are under $50+ per bottle.)

Best Overall: 1990 Lopez de Heredia Bosconia Gran Reserva ($175)–I mean, come on. Give me any wine in the world right now within reason, this is the one I will want to drink this one. Why? This winery always manages to beat everyone else, for it has the power to transfer you to another place and time. Wine is no longer made like this anymore. Like time stopped in 1889, these wines are haunting, saddled with stories, mysteries and family legend. They have a most unusual, identifiable aroma to them. I am at once nostalgic for what I cannot articulate. Sensational and moving, these wines evade a clear definition. They are the most memorable I have ever experienced. These wines, in fact, are an experience in themselves. I guess that’s the definition.

Best Old World Red: 2003 i Clivi Merlot ($26)–If this doesn’t redeem the ever-fallen Merlot varietal, I don’t know what will. I craved this wine often this year with a variety of foods, as it went perfectly with game, duck, rustic casseroles, pot roast, or simple cheese plates. Ripe, concentrated red fruits, spice and a respectful nod to the great wines of the right bank of Bordeaux, this Friulian find has been in the front line of recommendations for me. Rustic and wholesome, an uncompromising wine in its focused agenda to please yet be taken seriously.

Best New World Red: 2007 Bonny Doon Cigare Volant ($35)–A tired choice to some? Perhaps. But in all seriousness, trying it again this year a couple of times reminded me that it is truly an outstanding wine in so many ways. Incredibly complex for the price and indicating that bottle age will only unravel more facets, this Rhone blend is an outstanding wine from one of our country’s most gifted vintners.

Best Old World White: 2010 Patrick Piuze Petit Chablis ($21)An absolute rockstar to keep an eye on, Piuze is like the soil whisperer. He has a way to take a region that already enjoys fame for its minerality and take it to an ever more pronounced level in his wines. No better way to prove it than with his entry level Petit– a region that is greatly overlooked for its lesser glorified Portlandian soil, he manages to give it an admirable face lift.

Best New World White: 2008 Pyramid Valley Vineyards Riverbrooke Riesling ($29)–I seldom bring in New Zealand Riesling, let alone higher end selections. They are a hard sell. This one had to, though. It is hard to put into words. I don’t worry that it might sit. It will only get better with time.

Best Champagne: 2002 Gaston Chiquet Special Club ($72)-How people can drop $175 for Dom when a 1er Cru Vintage can be had for more than half the price less is beyond me. A simply superb buy from a true farmer, from the vine to the bottle.

Best Bubbles: Camille Braun Cremant d’Alsace Rose ($25)– A remarkable new addition to the Denver market, this rose has provoked more of a response from my customers (and myself) than any bubbly ever has. It is stunning. Near flawless. Only 300 cases made. And that is evident on the palate.

Most Eccentric: 2008 Penalba Cruz Bianco of Tempranillo/Sauvignon Blanc ($21)–An incredibly intriguing wine, for they remove skins from the red Tempranillo grape, blend it with Sauv Blanc then leave it in barrel to become a most unusual, profound substance. Delightfully rich and multidimensional.

Best Value: 2008 Chateau Valcombe Cote du Ventoux ($15)–An old favorite, this red has the rusticity of the Rhone with the finesse of Burgundy. Delicate layers and hidden aromatics will have you sniffing for hours.

Most Surprising Gem: 2004 Crooked Creek Meritage ($13)–Wow. Blindfold me, and I was guessing a well made, mid-priced ($25ish?) aged Cab from California, only to find it had a fair amount of Cab Franc from where else but Creede Colorado! Outstanding little blend.

Best Conversation Starter: 2008 Casalone Freisa ($17)–A winery that has been elevating every varietal in Piemonte other than Nebbiolo since the 1700s, including the rare Freisa grape. A light froth on this purple liquid might have you thinking sweet lambrusco, but you will find a savory sensation that is dying for cured meats and cheese to really shine.

Best Weekly Standby: 2008 Damiano Ciolli Silene Cesanese ($20)–Anyone who had me to dinner this year has probably tried this fascinating varietal from just outside Rome in the region of Lazio. This grower is bringing Cesanese back and showing everyone that it can be extremely complex. I cannot get enough.

Best Label Design: Lini 910 Lambrusco Bianco ($17)–If this were a place, it would be Williamsburg. Hip and edgy, it is pushing the envelope by refusing to be confined to a predictable definition. Dry, crisp, white and complex, this bubbly will have you scratching your head if you ever beheld Reunite.

Best Book on Wine: Reading Between the wines by Terry Theise ($20)–It doesn’t even take a wine lover to slip into this memoir. Terry Theise is a lover of language and his ability to arrange it in beautiful shapes is both refreshing and inspiring. A different way to consider wine.

Best Wine List in Town: Table 6–Best is Best. Whether I recommend them all the time or not. Come on Denver. Give them some competition. Bigger is not better. It’s the thoughtfulness that counts.

Best Night Cap: Vajra Chinato ($80)–An old recipe from Piemonte, it isn’t difficult to imagine this was an apothecary liquid to cure winter born illness. Christmas spices will warm you from the base of your body on up to your brain. A soothing voice manifests itself in this Barolo kissed digestif.

Best Aperitif: Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth ($35)– On one massive rock with a twist of orange, and you just might start to hear an old jazz standard playing in the background of each sip.

Best of the Eco-Friendly: 2009 Nikolaihof ‘Hefeabzug’ Gruner Veltliner ($24)–2010 still a little too jazzed. This vintage is drinking perfectly from the oldest estate in Europe, first to be Demeter biodynamic certified.

Best of the Boxes: Caves de Pomerols Picpoul de Pinet ($22)–This is just one of those gems I will never tire of, as it proves that a wine need not be pricey to impress an entire room of novices and know-it-alls alike. Fresh, zippy and playful.

Are we there yet?: A review of Colorado’s wine

colorado wine, Wine Blog

I have to admit, I have been meaning to make that trek out to Palisade and Grand Junction to reacquaint myself with Colorado’s wineries, when it just so happened, they came to me here in Denver. Two days ago, I spent an hour and a half tasting through over 50 wines from the Western Slope. The last time I did so was about 5 years ago, and it left me… disappointed to say the least. I mean, it was great and all that we were giving it a go, but there was little I could stand by and sell for $20, knowing full well there were much better (and cheaper) wines out there.

Over the years, I have kept a few I sincerely like on my shelf if someone was to inquire, but they seldom changed. Some have included Creekside Cellars in Evergreen, Two Rivers from Grand Junction, Guy Drew, Alfred Eames in Paonia and Denver-dweller Infinite Monkey Theorem. But switching up those spots or building up the section in general, just hasn’t made sense.

Until now…

Probably the most impressive change I saw in Colorado wine was the price drop. I think I would have always been more open-minded if I wasn’t paying $25 for a so-so Palisade Chard, when I knew I could get a really great unoaked Chard all the way from the Macon in Burgundy for $15. The only winery that is still, in my opinion, fetching entirely too high a price for their wine is Balistreri. Don’t get me wrong, people love the wine and happily spend $25, $35, $55+ for them, but to me this is a curious phenomenon. Tasting them the other day, I was startled by the alcohol levels they achieve. Almost port-like in nature, these oaky fruit-driven wines were pretty thick on the palate. These are perfect for the rare occasions where you might be eating filet or lamb, but my old world palate was having trouble with the lack of finesse. Ultimately, my perspective would change if I could justify the cost. Every wine and style has a place. As it stands now, though, it simply doesn’t pair up.

Not only are prices easier to swallow in general, the quality is rising in Colorado wines as well. There is no denying that. I believe it is a combination of more serious-minded vintners moving in as well as getting closer to figuring out which grapes really work well in Colorado’s extremely challenging climate, altitude and soils. Most vineyards sit between 4,000-7,000 feet in elevation! This gives vineyards great sunlight intensity, but a short harsh growing season for some. Judging by the high alcohol levels, however, that are still apparent on the labels, they are managing to achieve ripeness no doubt. That is one characteristic I would like to see lower sooner than later. It is still quite loud on the palate, making it hard to get through to the fruit, spices and structure that might otherwise sing. Perhaps covering the grapes would help moderate this? I’m still not entirely sure how this is being addressed, or if they feel their wines are more powerful, desirable and therefore more marketable this way?

To some extent, Colorado has an ideal climate: warm days, cool nights and low humidity. They are, however, some of the highest vineyards in the world. As such, there are inherent difficulties in fully ripening such sought-after varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, doesn’t take quite as long, therefore it is finding success on the Western slope. Other grapes that are doing well are Riesling, Viognier, Syrah and Malbec (not huge a surprise as Argentina sees a similar climate and altitude). That said, Colorado winemakers are still experimenting with just about everything, from Tempranillo and Cinsault to Chenin Blanc and Semillon.

Of the wines I sampled, these were the wines (or wineries) that stood out:

Best in Show (for me): Garrett Estate Cellars

Totally strange website that had me rethinking my notes, but all jokes aside, there truly was not a wine that I tried from these folks at Garrett Estate Cellars that I didn’t like. All had modest alcohol levels below 14%, and all were balanced, varietally correct and tasty. Their 09 Chard was unoaked with bright apple notes and even a Burgundian flair of the fungal I so love about this grape. Their 09 Pinot Gris was similar to Oregon’s style, with white peaches up front and an almond note on the finish. Their 09 Riesling wasn’t too sweet, but it was thirst-quenching, floral and fruity, making it a bit dangerous. They even had a 09 Rose of Merlot that was bone dry and devoid of that awkward off-tasting funk I have been finding in so many Colorado attempts at pink wine. Finally, the ’08 Pheasant Run Red—a 1/3 blend of Cab, Merlot and Syrah. This is the perfect table wine for any day of the week. The tannins are soft, there is a modest use of oak and the flavors of the three grapes are really well-integrated.

Best Value Red: 05 Cottonwood Cellars Classic Blend ($15)

Not only did this wine show well on my palate, I learned that it, in fact, won “Best in Show Red” for the Colorado Wine Festival. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of those grapes that personally needs time to come into its most appealing character, so perhaps the extra bottle age helped this blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc (Cab Sauv’s dad). Only seeing 1 year in oak, this wine is more about showcasing the varietals, not the wood. This is important, as for so long, the majority of my experience with Colorado Wine has been a suffocating pillow of oak upon the grapes, making it difficult to know if these varietals really did or did not have a chance. I couldn’t taste them through the spicy, vanilla sap! Don’t get me wrong, these burly grapes could use a kiss of the barrel, but there is always a limit.

Best ‘Splurge’ Red: Creekside Cellars Robusto ($70+)

Michelle Cleveland just gets it. She hasn’t been doing this whole winemaking thing too long, but mid-stream down another career path, she decided to walk away and follow her passion. Thank God she did, because she is certainly giving Colorado wine a better image with every passing vintage. Only in the best years, with the best grapes does she make her ‘Robusto’ blend. This is an incredible wine that really does the higher price tag justification. If you are into big, bold Napa-style reds, make the trek up there and see if she will sell you one. There aren’t many, so don’t be surprised if it must remain a legend. But if you can snag one, it’s worth it.

Best in Value White: 09 Guy Drew Gewurztraminer

I am normally not too into this grape. I appreciate it for its exotic display of stone fruit and spice, but that damn orangey flavor always gets in the way of my total acceptance. Though this one does not evade the ever-characteristic orange blossom, it is more nuanced and woven into a myriad of other aromatics, so as not to overpower. The alcohol is moderate (13.6%), allowing you to really dig on the juicy fruit and layers of cardamom and citrus zest. Though certainly sweet, there is a good kick of acid to clean up the back palate. A perfect accompaniment to any Thai meal.

Most Enjoyable Grape Overall: Cabernet Franc

I am eager to see how this varietal pushes forward in this great state. Producers like Mesa Park Vineyards, Infinite Monkey and Bonaquisti Wine Company are putting out some terrific previews with their current releases.

And finally, some honorable mentions:

-If you’re to the moon for big, toasty, rich Chardonnays: 09 Two Rivers Chardonnay ($15)

-If you desire gamey, blackberry, oak-influenced Syrah: 09 Again, Two Rivers ($15)

-If you are craving a citrusy, streamlined Sauvignon Blanc: 10 Infinite Monkey Theorem ($18) and 08 Garfield Estate Fume Blanc ($12)

-Searching for a good, solid everyday red Cab blend: 09 Creekside Cellars Rosso ($18)

-If you have a sweet tooth when it comes to red wine: NV Bonacquisti Vinny No Neck ($17)

-Want a fun, funky Rose?: 09 Zephyr Cellars Rose

-For a rich, full bodied Cab: 08 Boulder Creek Cabernet

Every wine region has its infancy and awkward teenage years. Colorado, it seems, is finally working through the pimply years and coming into its own. It feels good to support local agriculture, especially when you truly prefer it to another. I can tell you that I regularly sip on Creekside and Infinite Monkey. I can confidently say I have added a couple more to the list after this tasting. Ten more years, and I am certain we will not only know its character better… we will be craving over others with all our wonderful Colorado cheese, livestock and garden fresh food!