Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Steeply terraced vineyards producing excellent Gruners and Rieslings at Domane Wachau

On the steep slopes of Austria's picturesque Wachau Valley where the Danube River flows past terraced vineyards, wine grapes have been cultivated for hundreds of years.  And it's here that an award-winning winery (recently chosen as one of the top 50 vineyards) is creating great Austrian white wines.  I had the opportunity to meet with Heinz Frischengruber, oenologist and winemaker of Domane Wachau in New York this week. At a special media dinner, he conveyed the philosophy of making wines with clarity that reflect the diversity of soils as well as the elevation and exposure of more than 100 single vineyards of this UNESCO heritage area.

I have been a fan of Austrian wines since visiting the vineyards in 2010, and the wines that Heinz brought offered fantastic quality at a modest price.  Dining at midtown Manhattan's Aureole restaurant, we had a variety of well-prepared dishes to keep these food-friendly wines in good company.

Our dinner wines included:

Domane Wachau Gruner Veltliner Federspiel Terrassen 2018 - The wine had a fresh herbs and white stones on the nose.  The wine had crisp acidity and flavors of chamomile and lemon with good length.  A wonderful, food friendly wine at $18.  The Federspiel category refers to the weight/alcohol content of the wines - they will be 12.5% alcohol, medium-bodied wines.

Domane Wachau Riesling Federspiel Terrassen 2018  - Nosing the wine, I found lush aromatics of honeysuckle and orange blossom.  It had a round mouthfeel, while also offering mouthwatering acidity.  The palate was pleasant with tangerine.  Such a good wine for only $20.

Domane Wachau Gruner Veltliner Federspiel Ried Liebenberg 2018 - This single vineyard wine from the Liebenberg (in German, "love mountain") vineyard showed the true spicy character of the Gruner Veltliner grape. Heinz explained that he only uses stainless steel to ferment Gruner and then ages it in very large barrels - not the small barriques that would impart oak flavor - thereby allowing the grapes to express themselves.  According to Heinz, this allows the wine to "keep the clearness, the straightness."  On the nose and palate, I found celery seed, chamomile, and stones, with spice and lemon at the finish.  $25

Domane Wachau Riesling Federspiel Ried Bruck 2018 - Heinz told us that the Bruck vineyard is in a cold part of the sloped terraces.  This wine was lush, with gorgeous honeyed apricots on the nose and palate as well as a spritz of lemon.  I found it to have mouthwatering acidity and a long finish. $25

Domane Wachau Gruner Veltliner Smaragd Achleiten 2016 - Heinz told us the Achleiten vineyard is the best in the country.  It has a stunning slope, with the Danube at its feet and a forest that grows above the terraces. The mix of soil types including slate, mica, loess, help create a wine of great complexity. The wine had mineral aromas as well as herbal aromas like fresh cut palm.  On the palate there was lemon, celery, minerals, and huge length.  The acidity was racy and made it a great match for my plate of diver scallops.  Smaragd wines are more full bodied than Federspiel, as they are picked later in the season but before boytritis can set in. $46

Domane Wachau Riesling Smaragd Achleiten 1996 - In this comparison, we had another wine from the famous Achleiten vineyard, but this time a Riesling and 20 years older.  Heinz said that with age, the soil actually comes through more in the wine. This, he explained, made it harder to distinguish between the Gruner Veltliners and the Rieslings as they aged.  What a treat to taste this 20-year-old Riesling.  There were honeycakes on the nose, apricot jam and refreshing grapefruit on the palate, as well as a smokiness.  The wine was still very lively and it had huge length.  Heinz assured us this was a white wine we could eat with grilled steak - perhaps the focus of another wine dinner?  This gorgeous wine is only available in limited quantities.

Wine tourism is popular in Austria, and Heinz told us the winery offers a number of experiences to visitors.  To help them with planning, there is a new app called "My Wachau."  The app shows aerial views of vineyards, maps, and details about arranging visits.

While Domane Wachau is a relatively modest producer, their wines are thankfully available in the states. I recommend trying them with a wide range of foods - from pork, to chicken, to fish.  And yes, try the rich Smaragd wines with steak.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Lugana wines delight at Cantonese Happiness Dinner

A birthday was at hand, and a feast was in order. That was the setup for a recent wine media event at Jing Fong in New York's Chinatown, where Lugana wines and a stunning array of Cantonese dishes delivered on the promise of the name "Happiness Dinner."  Pinny Tam, publisher of the blog Chinese Food and Wine Pairing and collaborator in the special menu, explained that the traditional happiness dinner is an elaborate celebration meal.

The parade of dishes wowed us, with beautiful and sometimes surprising presentations.  The flavors were enticing but not overwhelming, with mild sauces seasoned with garlic, ginger, scallion and rice wine among other flavors.  Our extensive menu for the night included: baked scallops with seafood rolls, sauteed cuttlefish, sauteed shrimp and chicken, seafood in a basket, steak filet, crispy chicken, fried fish with garlic, steamed lobster with garlic, and fried rice.  

A dinner of this magnitude needs special wine to carry you from one delicacy to the next, and at this event we learned that the white wines from northern Italy's Lugana region fit the bill very well. With medium to medium high acidity, depth of flavors ranging from stone fruit to bitter almond, and medium weight, they can stand up to and enhance - but not overwhelm - a wide variety of foods. 

Our dinner wines were: 

Cantina Bulgarini Lugana DOC 2017 - A crisp white with refreshing acidity and good length. Aromas of white peach with ripe yellow apple on the palate.  

Le Morette Lugana DOC Mandolara 2017 -  This rendition of Lugana wine had a kiss of sweetness along with flavors of fresh plums and apricot, with a finish of bitter almonds.  

Ca Maiol Lugana DOC Molin 2017 - This wine was produced with techniques to obtain greater depth of flavor by fermenting at low temperature and allowing skin contact.  This wine had more structure, with flavors of ripe bosc pear and a crisp minerality.  

Cesari Cento Filari Lugana DOC 2016 - This wine adds a touch (5%) of Chardonnay to the traditional Turbiana grape of Lugana.  I found this wine to be far richer than the first ones, with butter aroma and flavor as well as clementine and peach on the palate. It had a long finish and was a white wine of character. 

Ca Dei Frati Brolettino Lugano DOC 2016 - This wine offered a fuller-bodied rendition of a 100 % Turbiana wine.  The winemaking process includes fermentation in steel tanks and 10 month aging in barriques.  I found richer fruit flavors such as dried apricot and even a hint of candied pineapple in the wine.  While it offered plush fruit flavors, it also had refreshing acidity that made it a wonderful pairing for fried fish. 

Tenuta Roveglia Lugana DOC Vendage Tardive Filo di Arianna 2014 - Grapes were picked at the end of October to the beginning of November for this late harvest wine that had slight sweetness.  With fermentation and aging in barriques, this wine has lots of structure, stone fruit flavors of apricot, peach, and plum, and a long finish. 

To end such a feast is sweet sorrow indeed, but the cheerful part is that it gives us a reason to gather with good friends and pour delicious wines like this array of delights from Lugana at a future celebration. 



Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Pioneering Santa Rita Hills spirit re-energized at Sanford Winery

The history of Sanford Winery is in the soil, as some of the first vineyards in the cool climate Santa Rita Hills AVA were planted at the pioneering Sanford and Benedict winery in 1971. There the winery's Pinot Noir soon began to gain attention. The operation later added an adjacent vineyard, La Rinconada in 1997.

I met one of the original founders of the winery, Michael Benedict, and one of the partners in the business, John Terlato, in New York this summer.  The pair guided a group of media through a vertical tasting of their award-winning Pinot Noirs, as well as two of their Chardonnays. 

Before the tasting began, John Terlato filled me in on the history of this special area, telling me that California had been covered by an ancient ocean that left calcareous shale in the land that would become the vineyard. John noted that the geological history of this vineyard was similar to Burgundy, which also was once covered by an ancient sea and still has fossilized sea life in the soil. 

John told me that when his family first became involved with this winery, their focus was on improvements in the vineyard, changing the canopies, the pruning techniques, and the grapes.  One of the exciting aspects of the vineyards is that there are some 47 year old vines on their own roots - a rarity in the world of wine. 

Today the winery is pioneering once again in the winemaking process: around 2017-2018 they stopped using commercial yeast in favor of all native yeast.  John showed me detailed notebooks of other experiments, including a comparison of wines that had low intervention and those that used "battonage" - meaning the wine was stirred in an effort to develop more flavors by encouraging more contact with the "lees," essentially dead yeast left after fermentation.  John found the wine in the trials that were not stirred were "mineral" and "precise." 

After enjoying learning some history of the vineyard and winery, we moved on to an extensive flight of excellent Sanford wines that showed the progression in winemaking philosophy over the years. 

2016 La Rinconada Chardonnay - This had fresh flavorful white pear and a clean mineral quality. $50

2015 Founders' Vines Chardonnay - Rich, browned butter nose, with extended length, and a palate of ripe yellow apples - a truly elegant Chardonnay reminiscent of Burgundy. $70

2011 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - A touch rustic with savory notes of cherry, clove and baking spices. 

2012 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Brighter tart cherry notes with balsamic on the finish, it opened and became more fragrant as it evolved in the glass. 

2013 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Bing cherries and wild blueberries dusted with clove. There was well integrated oak in this wine. $140 

2014 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Ripe cherries and raspberry puree with savory notes on the midpalate and a touch of leather on the nose.  $70

2015 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Tart cherry throughout with an angularity and fine tannins.  $70

2016 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir - Plush mouthfeel, round, soft tannins, cherry compote with a long finish. Excellent Pinot. $70

2015 La Rinconada Pinot Noir - Bright fruit character with cherry/raspberry notes, and a touch of cola on the midpalate.  $72

2014 Founders' Vines Pinot Noir - Deep flavors of ripe sour cherry mixed with rich baking spices of clove and nutmeg. Gorgeous depth of flavor and extensive length. $120

This impressive vertical tasting showed the evolution of this winery and its philosophy. The earlier vintages showed the gorgeous ripe fruit that this pioneering vineyard area is capable of, but the later vintages begin to show a more direct representation of Pinot Noir character.  This re-energized spirit of pioneering is serving Sanford winery well. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Working Up a Thirst for Ferzo Wines at the Metropolitan Museum

I was recently the guest of Winebow on a mouthwatering Met tour for wine media led by the charismatic tour guide, Angelis Nannos, founder of the highly-rated In Food We Trust culinary tours.

The "Yum Yum Met Tour" began at a medieval carving of St. Nicholas with three small boys exiting...a pickle barrel. Angelis related the harrowing tale of an evil man "pickling" the small boys  during a famine. The unfortunate youngsters were miraculously rescued and revived by the saint.  Angelis told us food and drink are depicted throughout the museum, as he handed us tiny Heinz pickle pins and led us enthusiastically to the next exhibit. 

Here we admired a beautiful Austrian stag crafted from precious metals. Angelis asked what we thought the piece was used for, stumping us all.  As it happened, the stag could be animated to traverse a dining table, stopping randomly in front of a guest.  That lucky person got to bend back the stag's head to reveal a body full of wine - which it was the obligation of the guest to drain.  Oh, to bring back the days of the Hapsburgs! 

In our hour and a half tour, we saw Egyptian tomb relics that depicted beer and bread making, the "oldest shopping list" in ancient Greek, and a frieze with the Assyrian host of the world's largest dinner party.  

After viewing some of the Met's treasures through a delicious new lens, we had worked up a good thirst, and this was where our friend from Winebow came in.  We gathered in the Met's upstairs restaurant to sample a selection of delicious wines from Abruzzo with several of the restaurants' cheese plates. 

2017 Ferzo Pecorino, Terre di Chieti IGP - We started with the Pecorino, and I was delighted by the crisp white wine with nice acid, aromas of grass and lemon, and zesty citrus character. $26 

2017 Ferzo Cococciola, Terre di Chieti IGP - Next, we moved on to a lesser-known indigenous Abruzzo grape Cococciola.  Rounder on the palate, this had more lush stonefruit with minerality and a medium level acidity to keep things fresh. $26

2017 Ferzo Passerina, Terre di Chieti IGP - The Passerina grape had lovely aromas and flavors of white peach and lemon and also had a touch of salinity on the palate. As with the other Ferzo whites, it was a tangy pairing for the goat cheese and olives we were served. $26

2013 Caroso Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva DOP - This six year old Montepulciano was full bodied with black plum on the nose and black and red fruit on the palate, with savory flavors of olive and balsamic inflecting the wine with more character. It's an excellent value at $30. 

The white wines of Ferzo were universally fresh and crisp, yet far from simplistic.  Each of the native white Abruzzo grapes presented a different fruit expression and different weight - while all possessing refreshing acidity.  The Caroso Montepulciano is a nice reminder of how wonderful these wines can be and what great value they deliver.  And, without question, the In Food We Trust tours are well worth checking out - especially for entertaining out-of-town guests.  I challenge you to start looking for the food and wine in art - you'll begin to see delicious works everywhere. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Piper-Heidsieck's Emilien Boutillat honors tradition while seeking innovation

The historic Champagne house Piper-Heidsieck has engaged a new cellarmaster, Emilien Boutillat.  The charming Frenchman, who grew up in a winemaking family, has already made wine on four continents.

I met Emilien at a media dinner in Manhattan and the first thing one notices is his youth - at only 32 he may seem a surprising choice for cellarmaster of such a revered house.  Yet, when Emilien explains his approach, it's clear he has great respect for the traditions of Piper-Heidsieck that have made it so renowned.

He explained that he isn't intent on changing the wine much, but he stated that he "wants to focus on small details to make this wine even better."  He is encouraging sustainable farming practices in the vineyards that supply grapes to the house, and he's working with the growers on choosing when to pick the grapes. 

Dinner began with the Piper Heidsieck Brut, which Emilien explained is 80 percent of their production.  For this wine, Emilien said he wants "the nose to be complex, but not complicated." The brut had medium high acidity; fine, quick moving bubbles; crisp lemon on the attack; and a midpalate of pear.

We then moved on to the rose, Piper-Heidsieck Rose Sauvage.  Emilien described this wine, which is predominately Pinot Noir, as "a basket of fruit on the nose." This very dark rose, which boasted  aromas and flavors of raspberries and cranberries and crisp acidity, was meant to pair with food.

The third wine was a special vintage Champagne, the just-released Piper-Heidsieck Brut 2012.  The cuvee is 52 percent Pinot Noir and 48 percent Chardonnay.  The Champagne was rich, the flavor mouth-filling. On the palate there was a heady  mix of yellow fruit, gingerbread, butter, and a citrus lift on the finish.  This very special vintage wine can age and develop even further to gain greater complexity.

The fourth wine showcased the tradition of off-dry Champagnes, the Piper-Heidsieck Sublime, a demi-sec.  Emilien told me that it would work wonderfully with my foie gras (he was right!) and that it also pairs very well with spicy Asian cuisine.  With red fruit aromas and flavors - pureed raspberries with vanilla notes - the wine offered a balance of freshness and sweetness.

Across the various blends, Emilien stated that the style of the house is "elegance and finesse," noting that it's "all about the fruit."

After tasting these current Piper-Heidsieck releases and speaking with Emilien, I believe the prestigious Champagne house is in very capable hands.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Nino Franco celebrates 100 years of Prosecco success

Primo Franco is a renowned figure in Italian wine.  As the third generation to head the ground-breaking Prosecco winery in Valdobiaddane, his commitment to producing delicious wines has helped the brand reach its 100 year anniversary in 2019.

The historic winery was started by Antonio Franco.  In 1919, he created Cantine Franco in the hilltop village of Valdobbiadene.  Primo took over the business in 1982, and he traveled across Italy and around the world to bring Prosecco to a wider audience.  His outreach efforts, along with quality improvements he introduced in grape cultivation, helped make Prosecco the widely popular beverage it is today.  

Primo hosted a media dinner in New York at Avra Estiatorio, where his range of crisp wines paired beautifully with Greek seafood dishes.  The range of wines poured included: 

Rustico Prosecco - With generous mousse and a brioche-laced nose, this wine had good body and notes of pear.  The wine sells for $24. 

Faive - This rose wine's name is from Venetian dialect, loosely translated to sparks from a fire.  This uplifting beverage had flavors of a summer fruit bowl of raspberries, strawberries, and pomegranate. A wonderful rose sparkling for $29. 

Vignetto della Riva di San Floriano Valdobiaddane Prosecco Superiore DOCG - A single-vineyard wine from the San Floriano vineyard, this Prosecco had a more structured body, with notes of white peaches and bosc pears and a good length.  This retails for $37. 

Primo Franco Valdobiaddane Prosecco Superiore DOCG - With lively acidity and long length, this is Prosecco with distinction.  The grapes are grown on high hillside vineyards, and the flavor profile includes ripe golden delicious apples, a whiff of citrus, and roasted almonds.  This wine sells for $37. 

The Nino Franco portfolio offers strong, diverse interpretations of Prosecco that prove that this DOCG region can make serious, delicious wines. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Rosés of many dimensions from noteworthy Cotes de Provence Chateaux

Simple is a word often associated with rosé wines, but the adjective is not one you’ll hear at a tasting of Cotes de Provence wines from Chateau Roubine and Chateau Sainte Beatrice. 
I recently had the pleasure of meeting the elegant and talented winemaker and owner of the pair of wineries, Valerie Rousselle at a special media dinner at Benoit. 
Valerie’s involvement with Provencal vineyards is straight out of a romance novel – the land called to her on a visit and even when she returned to her home in Paris, she couldn’t put it out of her mind.  Valerie’s holding include Chateau Roubine, which is located in Var.  The region is rich in history and legend of the knights Templar, with renowned cru classé vineyards between Verdon and the Mediterranean. 
Valerie’s second property is Chateau Sainte Beatrice, with south-facing 30-60 year old vines of Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more. 
With 13 grape varieties grown on estates with different terroirs, Valerie is able to blend both within the cellar as well as take advantage of field blends.  The wineries harvest both by grape and by parcel for the most precise control of wine blending. Valerie’s passion for Provence extends to nurturing a near-extinct and difficult-to-work native grape, Tibouren. It is used in blended rosé.
Paired with authentic French cuisine including Quennelles de Brochet, Nantua, the wines shone in a variety of hues and flavors.
Chateau Sainte Beatrice Summer Dreams Rosé 2018 – Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault - Fresh nose of clove spiced raspberries, good acidity and strawberries on the palate with a clean finish.
Chateau Sainte Beatrice “B” Rosé 2018 – Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault - More pronounced nose of rhubarb and mouth filling flavor with savory notes of white pepper and basalmic-drizzled strawberries.  This is a full bodied rosé for red wine drinkers.  
Chateau Roubine “R” Rosé 2018 – Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault/Rolle - Floral notes on the nose, a lighter bodied wine with delicate strawberry and red currant flavors.
Chateau Roubine La Rose 2018 – Grenache/Cinsault/Syrah – Gorgeous, pronounced nose of ripe wild strawberries and rose petals.  The wine has good body with notes of cranberries and cloves, a full-flavored wine that paired well with the Quennelles.
Chateau Roubine Cru Classé Premium Rosé 2018 – Grenache/Cinsault/Tibouren/Rolle/Cabernet Sauvignon/Mourvedre – A carefully blended wine that includes Tibouren, it has a fresh nose of raspberries and on the palate, lively fruit including strawberries as well as a savory, salty hint of bacon, making it food-friendly.   
Chateau Roubine Inspire 2018 – Tibouren/Syrah/Grenache – In this wine, Valerie lets Tibouren shine, giving it 90% of the blend.  The organic wine is made with some of the Tibouren vines over 80 years old.  It’s a full bodied, savory wine with clove and pepper burnishing rhubarb and star anise. 
Chateau Roubine Lion & Dragon Rosé 2018 – Grenache/Tibouren/Mourvedre/Rolle – According to Valerie, the idea behind this wine is to create a “strong rosé” with “character and intensity.”  The wine is made from vines averaging 50 years old, but with Tibouren vines over 80.  The wine is full bodied, with concentration, and spice dusting the core of strawberry compote.  It has a long finish that comes as a lovely surprise in a rosé.
The wines of Chateau Roubine and Chateau Sainte Beatrice are all about balance and blending.  While some of them offer intensity, they are never heavy. Yet they are far from the light-weight quaffers people expect from rosé.  They showcase the grape varieties that thrive in this Mediterranean region, as well as precise blending and care in the vineyard.  Each cuvée is unique, and all well-suited to the fine French fare of Benoit.