California Wine Country Trip 2016-Napa

For the second year in a row, my wife, Vonda and I went with our friends to California Wine Country for a long weekend in late January. It’s a fantastic time to go (shhhh…don’t tell anyone!), because even though the vines are dormant, it’s still beautiful, the weather is mild-usually in the 60’s during the day, and, best of all…there’s nobody there! Tastings are easy to get, and you get lots of time and personal attention at the wineries. Hotel rates are about half of what they are in the fall, traffic is manageable, and restaurants are relatively easy to get in. It’s quickly becoming our favorite time of year to go.

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Beautiful morning in Sonoma County

This time out, we had 2 full days, a Friday and Saturday, so we decided to spend one day in Napa Valley and one in Sonoma County, but in a place we hadn’t been before-the Russian River Valley, north of Santa Rosa. Everyone in the Bay Area seems to go to up to Wine Country for the weekend, so Napa, with its one main road, can be very very crowded on Saturdays and Sundays, even in the off-season. So we decided to go on Friday-good call.

We have a great friend who has close connections with many of the wineries and also has great taste in wine. He often hooks us up with some amazing tastings, and Friday was our day to enjoy his suggestions. When we go to Wine Country, we try to schedule 2 main tastings, with time in between for lunch and for one drop-in to any place that looks interesting or is recommended to us. Here’s a tip-whenever you finish a tasting, ask the host where else you should go. They often do tastings at other wineries to get ideas, and because most of them are wine lovers, and they also have friends at other places. Then we plan an early dinner so that we can get back to the hotel by 8 or 8:30.

Our itinerary for Friday in Napa was:

The Spire Collection at 10:00 in the Calistoga area (north Napa Valley, north of St. Helena)

Time for a quick lunch at Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena

Fantesca at 2:00 just west of St. Helena, on Spring Mountain

Time for a drop-in, which we did at Orin Swift‘s tasting room in downtown St. Helena

Dinner at Bouchon, the Research and Development kitchen for Chef Thomas Keller, who owns The French Laundry (one of the most prestigious and expensive restaurants in the U.S.).

This was an absolutely fantastic day, and I will share each stop along the way in the next few posts, over the next week

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Our room at the Kenwood Inn and Spa

One last thing-the hotel! We stayed once again at the Kenwood Inn, which we absolutely love. It was wonderful again, and I highly recommend it, particularly in the off-season, when it is around $250/night, as opposed to $600 and up in season. See my review from last year.

 

 

 

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Expanding Your World, Part 6-South Africa

Invictus is one of my favorite films. Starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman (as Nelson Mandela), Invictus tells the story of how Mandela used Rugby to unite South Africa after Apartheid had ended and he became President. Many things changed after Mandela came to power, including the South African wine industry. Before the end of Apartheid, South African Wine was scarcely available in the U.S., but that has been changing over the past 20 years, with trade bans lifted, and now South Africa’s export wine business is booming. And the wine industry in South Africa, traditionally dominated by white males, has been intentionally developing talented black winemakers to reflect the nation’s true identity. See this great CNN article about South Africa’s first black female winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela.

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South Africa has been producing wine since the mid 1600’s, but the industry truly organized in the late 1970’s. Although South Africa produces excellent wines across the board, from Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon to Chardonnay, there are two varieties of wine that are somewhat unique to this region. Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut, both grapes of French origin. South Africa is the first place that Pinotage was bred and planted. It is a red grape, and is very difficult to get right. The best of them are full-flavored and bold, and the worst of them can taste a bit metallic and paint-like. So if you’re going to try one, it’s best to get one that is highly rated. My best suggestion would be Kanonkop Pinotage Simonsberg-Stellenbosch 2012. I found it at http://www.specsonline.com for $40, and it received a 92 in Wine Spectator.

Chenin Blanc is the most planted variety of wine grape in South Africa, the largest Chenin Blanc producer worldwide. South Africa is known for making some of the best Chenin Blanc outside of France. Originating in the French Loire Valley, it is a very versatile grape, and can be shaped by the winemaker to be an expression of the “terroir”, or the type of soil it came from. Because of this, the flavor can vary quite a bit. The best of them are complex and deep in flavor, particularly for white wines. If you’re looking for a familiar name, try PGA golfer Ernie Els’ Big Easy White, which is 100% Chenin Blanc, and sells for about $16.

Even though South African wine exports are increasing, they are still harder to find in the U.S. than many other nationalities, so keep in mind two words-Stellenbosch and Constantia. These are two of the best wine-growing regions in South Africa, and the wines from these two places are consistently good.

If you want to get an excellent crash course in South African wines, go to the Wines of South Africa website, where in about an hour, you can take an online class and get a certificate to boot! Keep an eye on South Africa, the world’s seventh-largest wine producer. I have a feeling that great things are coming!

Expanding Your World, Part 5-Of Wine and Kiwis

While Kiwifruit may be the national fruit of New Zealand, wine grapes come in a close second. If California is known for big, buttery Chardonnays, New Zealand is primarily known for a completely different kind of white wine…Sauvignon Blanc. In the 1990’s, the world discovered New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and it is now widely regarded as the best of its kind in the world. Sauvignon Blanc is a crisp, refreshing wine, full of citrus and herbal flavors, and is a great change of pace fom Chardonnay. You’ll often taste hints of grapefruit, pear, honey and, yes, Kiwifruit.

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The best Sauvignon Blancs come from the South Island (one of the most beautiful places in the world), in the Marlborough region, which is the home of the nation’s wine industry. Most of the New Zealand wine you will find in the U.S. is Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, although they also make some highly-regarded Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, from several different regions. The smaller wineries in New Zealand, which make up 80% of all of the wineries in the country, are growing in popularity.

Here are a few wines to look for from New Zealand. I was able to find all of these on U.S. wine-selling websites.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough-$11 at Costco and always very solid-see my review here2014 is 89 pts WS (Wine Spectator)

2014 Brancott Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Flight Song-$13, 89 pts WS

2014 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough-$26 93 pts WS

2014 Dog Point Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough-$21, 92 pts WS

You’ll also often see Nobilo, Villa Maria and Selaks, and they are all very reasonably priced and solid.

If you love white wine, and are looking for something a little different, a little lighter, you can’t go wrong if it says “New Zealand” on the label

 

 

 

 

Expanding Your World, part 4-“A Land Down Under”

 

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Moving from South America to Australia, we find another amazing wine that may be new to some of you…Shiraz. They’ve been making Australian Shiraz for over 150 years, but it has really come to international prominence since the late 1970’s. Shiraz is the Australian name for Syrah, a french grape that is most associated with the Rhone Valley, but is also grown in many other places, including the United States. Legend has it that Syrah is an ancient grape that dates back to biblical times.

Shiraz (or Syrah) is spicy, smoky, peppery, full-flavored and bold, and some of them can be really complex, which means there are a variety of flavors at once, complementing each other. Australian Shiraz is typically a little fruitier than French Syrah. Shiraz is great by itself or with food, and works really well with spicy foods-barbecue, italian, mexican. I also love it with Manchego cheese, which is a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese

Penfolds is the best-known and largest winemaker Down Under (as well as one of the oldest-1844!). Their Grange Shiraz is legendary (check out the video on the Grange link narrated by Russell Crowe!), and the 2008 Grange was even awarded a rare 100 points by Wine Spectator. But at $850, Regular Wine Guy has clearly not tasted a bottle (It sometimes shows up in a locked case in Costco that calls out, “You can’t afford me”). But Penfolds makes a staggering number of wines, from Shiraz to Chardonnay, Riesling (a sweet white that we’ll get to in Germany), Cabernet Sauvignon and several red blends, and you see at least one of their wines almost anywhere you go. They range from under $10 to thousands per bottle, and are at almost every price point in between. Here’s a rule of thumb I’ve found to be helpful-if it says Penfold’s and it’s over $40, it’s really, really good. If it’s $20-$40, it’s good to really good, and if it’s under $20, it’s solid and drinkable. How’s that for a rating system?

But you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy Australian Shiraz. There are 3 wineries from Australia that you will find in virtually every grocery store in America-Rosemount, Yellow Tail and Lindemans, and most of the time, you can buy them for under $10. They are all very good values for the money. With Yellow Tail, you want to look for their Reserve wines, which are a different color label than the $6 variety, but are usually a couple of dollars more, and they are significantly better than the entry level wines. Rosemount makes great Shiraz blends, especially their GSM (Grenache Shiraz Mourvédre-which is the classic French Southern Rhone blend), and Lindemans tends to make better whites than reds. Greg Norman (yes, the golfer, also a vineyard owner) also makes a really nice Cabernet-Merlot blend that is in the $14 range.

Finally, I want to highlight two of my absolute favorite wineries-Mollydooker and Two Hands. I’ve written about Mollydooker before-see the profile here. Both wineries make powerful, flavorful, just plain awesome wines! They both have whimsical wine names-Two Hands has among their brands “Zippy’s Block”, “Bella’s Garden” and “Gnarly Dudes” and Mollydooker makes “Velvet Glove”, “Two Left Feet”, “Gigglepot” and “Carnival of Love”, among others. All of their wines are exceptional, and they run anywhere from $20-$200. Mollydooker’s website is not to be missed-it makes me happy just to go on it!

I had Two Hands’ Angel’s Share ($30) about 9 months ago, and it was one of the best $30 wines I’ve ever tasted. Ditto for Mollydooker’s Two Left Feet and The Boxer (both $20-25)-I’ve had them both (The Boxer multiple times), and they are consistently good, across many vintages. I had the 2013 Two Left Feet (a blend) at a restaurant by the glass and it was incredible-really complex flavors, beautifully crafted. Trust me, go to your local wine store and ask if they have anything from Mollydooker or Two Hands. You won’t find them in an ordinary grocery store (you will at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s), but wine stores and Costco sometimes have them.

Australian Shiraz has become one of my go-to $20 and under wines, and if you’ve never had one, grab a bottle, throw the proverbial “shrimp on the barbie”, turn on some Men at Work, and go for it!

 

Expanding Your World, part 3-Uruguay

Although Argentina and Chile are by far the largest producers of wine in South America, they are certainly not the only countries that have wineries. Brazil, Peru and Bolivia also make and distribute wine, but to date, none of those countries have produced any wines of note. Uruguay, however, is a different story. Although it is only the 28th largest producer of wine in the world, Uruguay is starting to grow in international prominence, mostly because of a grape you’ve probably never heard of…Tannat. Tannat is a grape that originated in southwest France and was brought to Uruguay by Basque settlers in the 19th century (thanks, Wikipedia!). It is usually a harsh grape, but for some reason, Uruguay has found a way to soften the harshness of it (or the “tannins”, in wine speak), and has produced many top quality Tannat wines. Tannat is the “national grape” of Uruguay, and the vast majority of vineyards in Uruguay grow Tannat.

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The other nice thing about Uruguayan Tannats is that they are really reasonable, if you can find them, usually around $15-20 for the best of them. Bodega Garzón’s 2013 Tannat is the highest-rated Uruguayan wine in history, at 89 points in Wine Spectator, and it lists for $20.

Tannat has a very dark color and a heavy flavor, so it is best paired with red meat-short ribs, ribeye steak, game, anything that has a strong flavor. Do not drink Tannat by itself-at minimum it needs a strong-flavored cheese to go along with it. I tried a Tannat once that I bought at Costco and really liked it-it was different than anything I had before. If you like big, powerful wines, it might be worth hunting down a Tannat and giving it a shot.

Expanding Your World-part 2-Chile

To the West of Argentina, Chile is the largest producer of wine in South America (as of 2013) and was the 5th largest producer in the world. Chileans have been making wine for over 150 years, and the region produces predominantly French-style wines, similar to the famed Bordeaux region (we’ll get there eventually!), using a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Melot, Petit Verdot, and one other grape that is distinctive to Chile-Carmenére.

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Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, a Carmenére and Cabernet blend

Carmenére is an ancient grape that originated in France, but disappeared from there almost altogether 150 years ago, due to a plague. Fortunately, it had been brought to Chile before that, and it thrived in this Pacific coastal nation. Carmenére is very similar in appearance and taste to Merlot, and is usually used in blending, but sometimes is found as a varietal, or “one grape only” wine. Carmenére is the main grape in many of the top blends produced in Chile.

There are several valleys in Chile that produce wine, but the 3 that you see most often in the U.S. are Maipo, Colchagua and Rapel.

Chile produces two of the best wines I’ve ever tasted. Though they are very pricey, they are worth picking up for a special occasion, and they are usually available at better wine stores, and sometimes at Costco. They are Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta blend and Concha y Toro’s Cabernet Sauvignon Don Melchor. Depending on the vintage (the wine word for the year on the bottle), you can find these from $50-$100, but they are usually at the higher end of that. I had Clos Apalta, which is predominantly Carmenére and Cabernet Sauvignon, at a wine party recently, and out of several $50-$100 bottles we tasted, it was by far the best. It had layer after layer of flavor, with a very long and smooth finish (in other words, it lingered on my taste buds for a long time in a very satisfying way). It was a boom, if you know what I mean. I bought a 2009 Don Melchor for a friend’s housewarming gift and we shared it-equally as good. If you’re looking for a special occasion wine or a really nice gift, it’s hard to do better than these two.

In terms of lower-priced wines, there are 3 primary wineries to know in Chile, with both high-end and value wines, that you’ll find at most wine stores, and a couple of these you’ll find in grocery stores as well. There are other great producers in Chile, but these are 4 of the best and easiest to find in the U.S.

Concha y Toro-The largest wine producer in Latin America, it was established in 1883. They have too many labels to mention, but the 3 you’ll find most often are the aforementioned Don Melchor, the mid-level label Marques de Casa Concha -8 wines in the $20 range-the Cabernet is the best of them, and Casillero del Diablo (Wine house of the devil), 12 wines in the $10-15 range, and again the Cabernet is good (it is the top-selling Cabernet in the U.K.!). Any red wine is a safe bet if you see “Concha y Toro” somewhere on the label.

Casa Lapostolle-Similar in quality to Concha y Toro, Casa Lapostolle produces great Cabernet Sauvignons and blends. I already mentioned Clos Apalta, which usually sells in the $80-90 range and their Cuvée Alexandre line, which includes 8 different varietals, sells in the $25 range, and also gets very high marks. The Cabernet, Chardonnay and Carmenére are all very good. Casa Lapostolle was founded in 1994 by the French family that owns Grand Marnier liqueur.

Viña Montes-Also consistently high in quality is this winery, founded in 1987. Alpha M is their flagship wine, a Cabernet blend, and is consistently rated in Wine Spectator in the 94-95 point range. It competes with Don Melchor and Clos Apalta, at a similar price point of $90. I have not tasted this one yet, but would love to compare it to its competitors. They have two other high end ($70-85) wines, Folly, a Syrah, and Purple Angel, a blend of Caremenére and Petit Verdot. Easier to find but also very good is their Montes Alpha line, which is usually in the $20-25 range, and is often at Costco. The Syrah is the best of this line, but they are all solid. Montes also makes wines in the $10 range, which are decent values.

Another Chilean label worth mentioning-Viña Almaviva-A partnership between Concha y Toro and legendary French producer Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, they produce one wine, Viña Almaviva Puente Alto, which sells in the $80-$180 range, depending on the vintage, and also scores in the 93-95 range. I have also never tasted this wine, but by all accounts, it is a powerful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenére, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, a classic Bordeaux blend that might have been, had Carmenére not been wiped out in France.

If you love French wines, California Cabernets or Australian Syrah, trying out Chilean wine is a must!

Next post: The national wine of Uruguay-you’ve probably never heard of it or tasted it!

Expanding Your World-Part 1

If you’re a wine lover in the U.S., chances are you primarily drink the top-selling types of wines (also called “varietals”)-Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot, or blends, and you drink almost exclusively American wines. There’s nothing wrong with you, that’s just what most of us do. Although there is an incredible variety of those wines, you may eventually reach a point where you start to get a little bored. Maybe you’re ready to branch out a bit and try something new.

Fortunately, there are so many other options out there, and some amazing wines to try…new countries, new types of wines, an abundance of flavors waiting for you! In this series, I’m going to highlight a few of the other top wine producing countries, along with the wines they are best known for. Here’s to expanding your horizons…and your wine collection!

We’ll stay in the Americas to begin. To find great wine in the Western Hemisphere made outside of the U.S., you have to go south-way south!

South American wines have grown tremendously in the past 10 years, and if you’ve never tried them, they are well worth checking out. There are 3 South American countries that produce significant wines. I’ll highlight all 3 in separate posts, starting with:

Argentina

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If you want to try wines that are different, but really easy to love, Argentina is a great place to start. Malbec is the star of Argentinian wines, and makes up about 60% of the wine produced in Argentina, which is the 7th largest producer of wine in the world. Malbec is a red grape that came from France, and is usually used as a blending grape in French red blends, to give it darker color and more “tannins”, which are what provide the dryness, or “bite”, to wine. Argentinian Malbec is fruitier than French Malbec but not sweet, and the best of them are bursting with flavor. The tannins in Malbec are soft-in other words, it doesn’t attack your taste buds, but it also usually means you need to drink it sooner, and it doesn’t age as well as Cabernets, for example. That’s good news if you want a wine you can buy off the shelf and drink tonight.

My wife particularly loves Malbec, especially from the Mendoza province of Argentina, which is where many of the best examples come from. Bodega Norton produces some of the best and most easy to find Argentinian wines, and there are 2 levels of Norton that you can usually buy at Costco or grocery stores-Norton Reserva Malbec and Norton Privada (which is a blend). They are usually $11 and $17 respectively, and they typically score very high in the wine magazines (88-93). The regular Norton Malbec ($8) should be avoided, however.

The king of Argentinian Malbecs is Achával-Ferrer. They were the first South American winery to hit a 96 point rating in Wine Spectator and the first to hit a 99 point rating in Wine Advocate. They have 3 lines of wines, Mendoza, consisting of their entry level Malbec (see below, $22-25) and Cabernet, which is good, but not at the same level, Quimera, consisting of one wine, a “winemaker’s choice” blend that changes every year ($35) and Fincas, which is made up of 3 single-vineyard Malbecs-Finca Mirador, Finca Bella Vista and Finca Altamira. Each of these 3 are in the $130-$140 range. The 2011 Mirador and Altamira Fincas each scored a 96 in WS, and the Bella Vista scored a 95. Needless to say, Regular Wine Guy has not tasted these 3 wines! But I have had the entry level Malbec Mendoza, and it was great-flavorful and bold, yet smooth.

You’ll see a lot of Argentinian Malbecs in grocery stores and wine shops in the $10-20 range. Some are consistently better than others, so here are a few of the better labels to look for:

Catena, Alta Vista, Altos Las Hormigas, Colomé, Terrazas de Los Andes, Tahuan and Luigi Bosca

We always try to have at least one or two Argentinian Malbecs on hand to open when we want something easy and satisfying to drink.

Next post: We’ll travel next door, to Chile!