Monday, April 27, 2009

Wines from the Land(s) Down Under

My poor neglected li'l blog -- how I've abandoned you so. Sorry, getting ready for a 6-month South America trip but have been getting out to tastings & taking some trips (stay tuned for a report on Paso Robles). What inspired me to write today was yesterday's "2 Shades of Pinot" tasting at South Wine Bar in SF, where about 7 importers were showing Pinot Noirs & Pinot Gris from Australia & New Zealand.

There weren't too many standout whites except for the '08 Borthwick Pinot Grigio "Paper Road" from Hawkes Bay, NZ -- and interesting my favorite was actually labeled Pinto Grigio & not Gris! Same grape, but I find whenever it's labeled Gris the wine is done in a much more interesting style, with more floral aromatics and usually some nice peach action on the palate. Another NZ white that got my attention was the 2008 Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris from Central Otago, but not for tasting like a PG -- one the nose & palate is was a ringer for a NZ Sauv Blanc. Smelled like grapefruit & gooseberries and had the crispness & high acid of a NZ SB. I'm sure it would fool many in a blind tasting...

That PG in an SB disguise was imported by American Estates Wines, which also had the '07 Roaring Meg Pinot Noir from Central Otago among its wares at the tasting. Given the name, I had to try it, but before I told the guy pouring that it was my name, I asked for the story behind it. Turns out Meg was a fiery red-headed prostitute in the mining camps of Australia in the 1850s... Ha. Good wine at a nice price point ($22), showing dark red & black fruit with a touch of oak and nice dusty tannins. It was more Burgundian in style, which was a trait shared by most of the Pinot Noirs I tried at the event.

Other standouts were nearly all of the wines from the Lion Nathan group -- '05 Stonier Pinot Noir "Reserve" from Australia's Mornington Peninsula, which had lovely earthen, dusty qualities; the '05 Withers HIll Pinot Noir from Marlborough, the NZ region famed for it's Sauv Blanc, but also an up-and-comer for PN; and the '05 Philip Shaw Pinot Noir from Orange, Aus. This last one, poured by Shaw himself (and no, he's NOT related to "Two Buck Chuck" Charles Shaw as a silly woman asked him), had distinct notes of eucalyptus (native to Aus, where it's also called a "gumtree" -- remember the Kookaburra song we all learned as children?) on the nose & palate, something I had never experienced before in a wine -- but picked up later in two other PNs.
That menthol quality made it cry out for food, IMHO, especially lamb with mint sauce. Shaw had been a bit peeved when he saw which vintage he'd be pouring, as he remembered thinking the eucalyptus was overpowering when he tasted it last, but he thought it had mellowed out and was surprised an American palate like mine picked up on it! ;-p

While Australian wine has been getting a bad rap, I was impressed with the Pinots and think many of the Aussie wine-bashers would do well to give them a chance -- especially the ones who also snub CA Pinot Noir for being too fruity, hot, and more like Cabs than traditional Pinots. The Aussie ones were far from that, and well worth giving a chance.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Old World Meets New World

Spanish wines have been one of my favorites since I got serious about vino a few years ago. While Spain is definitely part of the Old World wine club, it is interesting to note that many of its bodegas use a lot of new American oak and seem to be aiming to please the New World palate. Spain's wines don't seem to be as rustic as many Italian bottles I've drank and many trend toward the very ripe & juicy.

Jorge Ordoñez, a Spanish importer who now lives in the U.S., is credited for reviving interest in Spanish wines after they had fallen of the world's radar due to a long period of vineyard neglect during the Spanish Civil War. Seeing Ordoñez's name on the back of a bottle of Spanish wine has become a mark of quality for me, so I was stoked to attend the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant's recent tasting of wines he represents, many of which have a New World taste but come from ancient vines.

Ordoñez was there to chat with tasters and provided some of the wines himself, allowing the wine shop to offer the following flight for just $20: 2007 Botani Moscatel Seco, Malaga (Ordoñez's own wine); 2004 Remirez de Ganuza, Rioja; 2006 Finca Sandoval, Manchuela, Castilla Leon; 2006 Bodegas Alto Moncayo 'Alto Moncayo,' Campo de Borja (also produced by Ordoñez); 2006 Bodegas El Nido 'Clio,' Jumilla (another Ordoñez gem); and 2005 Merum 'Osmin,' Priorat.

The standouts for me were the Moscatel, the only white of the lineup that reminded me a bit of an Albariño with its crisp minerality, floral notes, and a twinge of effervescence; the Finca Sandova, an earthy blend of Syrah, Monastrell and Bobal; and Clio, with such lucious and rich blackberry and vanilla flavors that we had to order a glass.

Continuing on the Spanish tip, last weekened I opened up a bottle of the Ordoñez-imported 2004 Mas de Can Blau to go with a dinner of kalamata-olive chimichurri steaks. The wine - a blend of nearly equal parts of Cariñena (also known as Mazuelo), Garnacha, and Syrah from the Can Blau estate's oldest vines - was a delightful match, its smoky fruit and herbal compementing the distinct taste of the olives and the slight heat of the chimichurri spices. I have been hearing that Monastrell, my favorite Spanish varietal, can pair well with spicy dishes, but was dubious. However, after tasting the Mas de Can Blau, with grapes that have similar qualities (especially in Spain) to the big M, I think I may have to give that pairing a "whirl."

As I'm alluding to the inimitable Gary Vaynerchuck, host of Wine Library TV, I should mention that you can watch Jorge talk in action on Gary's show here.

¡Brinda a tu salud!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Chard or Viognier?

Last night to go with chimichurri salmon (thank you Trader Joe's, yeah!) and roasted golden acorn squash with butter, kosher salt and herbs from the garden, we opened up a bottle I've had for awhile. It's one I got from a work holiday party over a year ago (when we used to get gifts -- guess I should be thankful we even had a party this past year) and I didn't have high expectations. I wasn't expecting much since it was a Chardonnay (one of my least favorite varietals by far) and it was from Coppola's everyday label, the Diamond Collection.

But I decided to give it a whirl and, while it smelled like an oakey, buttery Chard, it had much crisper flavors of apple, tropical and stone fruit than I expected. It tasted like something else, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Brian called it though -- "It's like a Viognier," he said. I was impressed with his on-the-money call. Its resemblance to a Viognier -- albeit one crafted for the California pallet -- was why we liked it. (Both of us usually turn our nose up at much of the domestic Chardonnay). It went well with the oiliness of the salmon and the rich flavors of the squash, just as a Viognier would have as well.

The similarities reminded me of the blind tasting challenge at the Wine Bloggers' Conference this past fall. The very first taste stumped both myself and Jessica (who made it to the final round as the only woman with five guys!) as well as a good portion of the room. We were positive the varietal was Chard, but it turned out to be Viognier. Before then I had never had a wine that so closely resembled both varietals, but as last night proved, it wasn't the last time!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Very Worldy Wine List.... À(hhhhh) Côté!

I've wanted to go to À Côté in the Rockridge district of Oakland for as long as I can remember. This longing was only cemented by the fact that a girl in the wine class I took last fall had worked as a server there and had some very atypical wine knowledge, which led to her and the instructor having some lively conversations. So when Brian fared well in his first semester of law school finals, we decided to treat ourselves and go there.

The front room, which included the bar, was busy and the hostess said it would be about 20 minutes. After barely 10 she led us down a narrow hallway to the back, where there were two rooms of additional seating under a heated tent. We figured the wait list was to make it seem busier/trendier than it even was. Hmmmm. No matter -- once we saw the wine list, we knew we were in the right place. Over 70 varietals (40+ by the glass), many of which I had never heard of and most of which I'd never tried. While a couple I really wanted were only sold by the bottle, we had no trouble -- along with the helpful server's suggestions -- customizing our own flights.

Another couple was seated shortly after us and when the girl asked for a "Red Zin" (at least she didn't say White Zin!) I was waiting to hear the server's response considering the wine list was 98% Old World. There was a Plavac Mali (Zin cousin from Croatia) that may have been a fine stand-in, but it was only sold by the bottle. The server patiently guided her to another red, which couldn't have gone well with the oysters she ordered later...

I chose the '07 Xavier Frissant, a Surin Gris/Fie Gris blend from Touraine in the Loire Valley, which reminded me of Sauvignon Blanc (no big surprise considering SB is the predominant white grape of the area) with fresh, grassy aromas; the '06 Castro de Lobarzán Treixadura/Godello duo, which, despite good minerality, was a bit lackluster for me; and the '06 J. & H. A. StrubKabinett Riesling, with it's signature petrol-laced nose, bright acidity and twinge of sweetness. Later I had a glass of the '06 Gonzales-Suñer Manto Negro/Callet blend -- not being able to pass up a Spanish wine (actually, to get more precise, Mallorcan) from varietals unbeknownst to me. It's berry flavors combined with a rustic earthiness went well with the grilled flat iron steak and greek lamb sausage flatbread.

But the star of the night -- and the one we took home two bottles of, thanks to À Côté's 1/2-off carry-out price -- was the '07 Tajinaste Tinto Tradicional from the Listan Negro grape. It's a deep, dusty wine from the Canary Islands that couldn't help but remind me a bit of my favorite Napa Cabs (despite seeing no oak and selling for a fraction of the price), but without as much red fruit. Brian ordered it first in his flight and then had to have a full glass of it. He's got good taste, as two of my favorite wine shopkeeps -- Kevin Hogan at Spanish Table in Berkeley and Jeff Diamond of Farmstead in Alameda and Montclair -- have both featured it in recent months.

We'd be there once a week if it wasn't for the bill (ouch). Looking forward to the next special occasion...