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Summer sippers: Easy-to-find white blends

Earlier this week, I published a blog post about some outstanding white wines from Lodi. While they’re extraordinary, they aren’t easy to find, and most people will need to order them directly from the winemakers.

This post will cover some whites that are at the opposite end of the scarcity spectrum: they are available in the supermarket. However, these wines are still off the usual beaten path, as they are white blends. Here they are, in no particular order.

ApothicWhite20122012 APOTHIC White Winemaker’s Blend, California, $9, 12% ABV

NOSE: Floral, vanilla.

TASTE: First impression of some sweetness. Opens to melon. Pleasantly smooth and round. No edginess at all. If you’re looking for a break from “crisp acidity” and oak, this is your ticket. It’s soft, easy to drink, and can be enjoyed by itself.

LABEL: Inspired by the “Apotheca,” a mysterious place where wine was blended and stored in 13th century Europe, Apothic White offers a truly unique wine experience. Apothic White is a luscious blend of smooth Chardonnay, vibrant Pinot Grigio and aromatic Riesling, which create layers of tropical fruit complemented by hints of honey and vanilla.

WEB: www.Apothic.com

Conundrum20112011 CONUNDRUM White, California, $14, 13.5% ABV

NOSE: A hint of Sauvignon Blanc, minerals.

TASTE: Minerals, a touch of Sauvignon Blanc, some sweetness, lots of fruit mid-palate, lychee, light tannins, light acidity, apple pie spice. Slightly velvety mouthfeel. This one can be enjoyed by itself, or I would pair it with an Asian dish with coconut, peanut, ginger, and garlic as ingredients. The exact blend is a secret, but each year their blend includes, in varying proportions, Chardonnay for its weight and complexity, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon for acidity, Viognier for unctuousness, and Muscat Canelli for floral qualities. Some lots are aged in stainless, some in seasoned French oak barrels, some in new French barrels.

LABEL: Conundrum White—a great wine for a fun night out or a lazy afternoon by the pool—it’s made for food and friends! This wine is pure California at heart with a blend of grapes that makes the taste so special and unique—always the completely enjoyable Conundrum. Served chilled, it is a perfect wine, any time. Jon Bolta, Winemaker. Vinted and bottled in Rutherford. Wagner Family of Wines.

WEB: www.ConundrumWines.com

14HandsHotToTrotWhiteBlend2011 14 HANDS Hot to Trot White Blend, Washington State, $9, %ABV

NOSE: Pears, apples and citrus, with light floral notes.

TASTE: Pear, melon, lemon. This paired surprisingly well with a slightly spicy chicken enchilada with verde sauce—the food really brought out the fruit. A hint of cinnamon, and a little more acidity than the first two. It’s a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sémillon.

This spirited white wine reveals vibrant aromas of white stone fruits and citrus, and mouthwatering flavors of fresh apple, pear and melon. The flavors race smoothly across your palate creating a juicy, refreshing finish. 14 Hands celebrates the spirit of the wild horses that once roamed the Columbia River Valley. Fourteen hands in height, these tough little horses were revered around the world for their strength. The terrain that once gave them endurance and spirit now feeds our vines. Our 14 Hands wines share the soul and intensity of this unbridled freedom. Artist Cynthia Sampson.

WEB: www.14hands.com

LittleBlackDress20112011 LITTLE BLACK DRESS Divalicious White, California, $8, 12%ABV

A little flabby mid-palate but a surprisingly long, acidic finish. A hint of mushrooms and earth among the fruit. It’s a blend of 65% Pinot Grigio, 18% Muscat, 8% Chardonnay, 4% Sauvignon Blanc, 3% White Riesling, and 2% Viognier.

LABEL: It’s not an indulgence if you’ve earned the pleasure. That’s what makes you divalicious. So feel free to immerse yourself in divalicious white and experience the crisp intensity, ripe attitude, racy edge and surprising playfulness afforded all great divas, including you. Great taste is your best accessory! Vinted and bottled by LBD Vineyards Hopland, Mendocino County.

WEB: http://www.excelsiorwines.com/winery/little-black-dress/

MenageATroisWhiteBLend2012 FOLIE À DEUX, MENAGE À TROIS California White Wine, $9, 13.5% ABV

NOSE: Citrus and florals.

TASTE: Bananas, melon, citrus; off-dry, mouth-watering, acidity on the finish. It’s 44% Chardonnay, 34% Muscat Alexandria, and 22% Chenin Blanc. Refreshing and quite good.

LABEL: Our White blend brings together refreshing citrus and sweet tropical fruit flavors with crisp acidity. A delightful blend based on three varietals—Chardonnay, Moscato, and Chenin Blanc.

WEB: www.MenageATroisWines.com

Posted in California, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Moscato/Muscat, Muscat Alexandria, Muscat Canelli, Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris), Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier | 2 Comments

Five Outstanding White Wines from Lodi

Lodi, pronounced “LOW-dye,” has become a winemaker’s paradise, with 750 winegrowers farming nearly 100,000 acres of wine grapes. In 1998 Lodi had only 10 wineries, and today the number has increased to 77. With about the same number of different varieties being grown there, Lodi produces a whopping 24% of California’s wine grape output.

Located at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, Lodi is 100 miles east of San Francisco and 35 miles south of Sacramento. During the growing season, the area has a Mediterranean climate; the days are sunny and warm, with significant temperature drops at night. Rain is rare in the summer, which makes the vines bear intense, concentrated, flavorful grapes. The area, best-known for its reds, has been dubbed the Zinfandel Capital of the World.

However, during a recent tasting, I experienced five wonderful white wines from Lodi which are among the best whites I’ve enjoyed all year. While these five wines are all true to their types, their winemakers are clearly working creatively to produce unusual wines that are way off the beaten path, yet affordable.

The online video tasting was hosted by Camron King, Executive Director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission; and Susan Tipton, owner/winemaker at Acquiesce Winery and Vineyards, Lodi’s only all-white wine winery. Despite the importance of Lodi, it still has a quiet, down-home feel and a strong sense of community. Our hosts told us, “You go into a tasting room and you meet the winemaker, the owner.” They said women are prominent in the region.

The first wine we tasted was the 2013 Borra Vineyards Artist Series Nuvola Gewürtraminer, 13.6%, SRP $19. This was a huge surprise. Gewürztraminer is generally thought of as a sweet wine. However, this one had salty minerality, crisp acidity, lychee, green apple, and citrus; it was dry, yet beautifully mouth-watering—a bit of a contradiction, but there it is. This surprising Gewürtraminer has very little sugar—just 0.49 g/litre. Winemaker Markus Niggli picked the grapes at lower sugars (21 brix) deliberately to maintain acid levels.

Markus Niggli hails from Switzerland, hence the deft European approach and the foray into German grapes. “Nuvola” is Italian for cloud.

71 cases were made. Just 14 are left; the wine can be ordered via the winery’s Web site.

BACK LABEL: Inspired by modern European architecture, our 2013 Artist Series features the cloud, Nuvola, a symbol of something new and powerful. Label design by Anneka Weinert, a Studio Art freshman at the University of the Pacific, in partnership with Borra Vineyards. This is the second label design in an emerging artist series.

Next up: 2013 Bokisch Vineyards Garnacha Blanca, Vista Luna Vineyard, 13.2%, SRP $18. This lovely wine is 90% Garnacha Blanca and 10% Albariño. This had a beautiful aroma—floral, melon, lychee, peach, just a hint of green. The taste reminded me a little of saké! The mouthfeel was silky. Our hosts told us that it is lovely at any temperature; it can be chilled significantly and it won’t shut down, or it can be almost room temperature and it won’t collapse. It has crisp acidity, yet the brightness of tropical fruit, and was especially round at mid-palate.

This wine was produced from organically farmed and green certified vineyards. The “Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winemaking Practices” is a rigorous third-party certification.

Owner/Viticulturalist/Winemaker Markus Bokisch said, “Our Catalan roots have inspired our dream to produce Spanish varietal wines in California.”

This is a versatile wine that is said to pair well with cheeses and tapas.

BACK LABEL: Our Catalan roots have fueled our dream for producing Spanish varietal wines in California. This Garnacha Blanca is grown in the volcanic clay loam soils of the Borden Ranch Appellation of Lodi. Tasting notes reveal creamy flavors of apricot and Comice pears with hints of guava juice and zesty pineapple. Production: 250 cases. Salut!—Markus and Liz Bokisch

Our third selection was Susan Tipton’s 2013 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards Viognier, 14.1%, SRP $23. Susan grows just one acre of Viognier, and 268 cases of this wine were made.

She likes this paired with lamb tagine, arugula, ceviche, Thai stir fry; cilantro, lime. She called these “big pairings. The peachiness comes out that way. Tangerine, peach, rose.”

This wine was another that presented with a salty minerality. Susan told us, “In the tasting room, they have people taste the grapes off the vine, and taste the wines side by side. The Viognier is identical to the grape.”

There was a faint nose of cigarette smoke as it opened (that’s a new one on me), and it had tannins on the palate too, even though it never touched oak.

The unusually shaped bottle is from Provence; Susan called it an “homage to myself, my body type, except my neck isn’t that long!” Camron commented that his wife reuses beautiful bottles like this to hold flowers and fulfill other functions.

Susan said the reception she’s received in the tasting room has been amazing. (Her pairings are reportedly “legendary.”) She is excited to see winemakers coming on the scene and “playing with more fun whites in Lodi;” she observed that where reds are concerned, people put them on their shelf and “acquire” them, but “when people buy white, they put them in the fridge and drink them right away, so they’re always running out of whites. Wine is meant to be shared with family and friends.”

In her blog, Susan wrote, “The day I tasted my first white Châteauneuf du Pape wine, my life changed. It was the best wine I had ever had. So I quickly drove back to the store for a couple more cases of this wonderful nectar, only to be told I was holding the last bottle in California! Okay, what’s the deal? After research, I realized that the CDP area of France … [doesn’t] produce many whites. The whites consist of blends with Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier, Clairette and a few other varietals. I decided to give the Grenache Blanc a try and was pleased with the results in our vineyard so I planted Roussanne, Viognier and Picpoul Blanc. These cuttings came by way of Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, California. Tablas is partners with Chateau Beaucastel in Châteauneuf du Pape, where these varietals originated.”

BACK LABEL: ac-qui-esce (a-kwee-‘es) verb; to surrender, to become quiet. I “acquiesce” to nature, the vineyard and the wine when handcrafting these classic, premium, food friendly wines made here … by hand … by me … Susan Tipton.

Fourth in our lineup: 2013 Heritage Oak Winery Sauvignon Blanc, 13.5%, SRP $18. This wine, actually 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Sauvignon Musquee, is the best Sauvignon Blanc I’ve tasted in a long time. With mushrooms and earth on the nose, it opened with citrus, big-time fruitiness, and once again the salty minerality. This is the biggest seller in their tasting room.

There are heritage oaks on the property, hence the winery’s name, but no oak goes into their whites. In their reds, yes.

Owner/Winemaker Tom Hoffman suggests pairing this with crab cakes and soft, creamy cheeses.

BACK LABEL: Sauvignon blanc is a superb white variety for Lodi’s warm days and cool nights. We especially like the crisp citricy [sic] flavors and full aroma we get when the grapes are grown in the shelter of a full canopy of leaves. This wine is a wonderful complement to fruit, cheese or a light meal of chicken or fish. Bottled in February, 2014. 325 cases produced.

Our fifth wine, “dessert,” was the 2012 Uvaggio Moscato Secco, 12.9%, SRP $14. This wine, like the first Gewürztraminer, was a huge surprise because it simply wasn’t sweet. It was dry and beautiful, with the distinctive rose aroma and taste I’ve come to love about Moscato. “Secco” means dry, and Uvaggio does produce a “dolce” version. This Moscato is 100% Moscato Giallo. The aromas go on and on: besides roses, honeysuckle and ginger are evident.

Uvaggio is in Napa, but the grapes are sourced from Lodi. Uvaggio is producing all Italian varieties, although they are adding a Zinfandel.

Our hosts suggested pairing this with spicy dishes; it has a similar utility to the Viognier. Grilled chicken with fruit salsa or chutney would also work well.

BACK LABEL: Uvaggio—sounds like “Bellagio”—is Italian for “really great wine made by two incredibly hip wine lovers.” We have moved far beyond the conventional chocolate and vanilla by making Barbera, Primitivo, Vermentino and now Moscato. We say since California has a Mediterranean climate, we should make wine with the grapes that actually thrive there.

ALL of these whites were surprises. They were all beautiful expressions of the grapes, yet not stereotypical. All were bright, crisp, clear, with that distinctive salty minerality I’ve already mentioned a dozen times. Different? Oh, yes. These winemakers are clearly having a blast exploring new ways of playing with grapes. But they don’t make wines that don’t sell!

The multicultural aspect of Lodi winemaking was also great fun. Swiss/German, Cataluña (Spain), Châteauneuf du Pape, and Italy wines and grapes are all being used as inspiration and even as sources of vines.

This was a phenomenal online tasting. For one thing, the technology worked perfectly. Even more important, the tasting was a revelation. I no longer think of Lodi only as a region for big reds, from now on I will also think of it as a source of unusual, beautiful whites. High marks to these great winemakers, and to Charles Communications Associates for sponsoring a remarkable evening.

Samples sent for review.

Posted in Alberino, California, Garnacha Blanca, Gewurztraminer, Moscato/Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musquee, Uncategorized, Viognier | 1 Comment

PREVIEW: Mia line of Spanish wines, just released in the U.S.

Pictured here is a 187ml bottle of Mia sparkling Moscato, a well-made sweet wine. Weighing in at 7% ABV, it’s light enough to enjoy with lunch without spoiling the rest of your day. And, it’s delicious, with a bouquet of roses on the nose and on the palate.

What’s genius about this little bottle is its screwcap. Forget about intimidation with pressurized corks.

More to come on the Mia line. I attended the release party in Ft. Lauderdale and took lots of pictures and notes. Winemaker Gloria Collell.

WEB: www.MiaWines.com

Posted in Moscato/Muscat, Spain | Leave a comment

Catalan cuisine: Cooking with “Chef Isma,” Ismael Prados Soto

What better way to learn about Catalan wines and cuisine than to experience a cooking class? As part of my tour of Cataluña, I did just that.

Our guide and chef was the talented “Chef Isma,” Ismael Prados Soto. A TV celebrity chef and author of five cookbooks, Chef Isma trained in many restaurants cooking classic Catalan cuisine, Mediterranean cuisine, and alta expresión (“higher expression”) cuisine.

We met Isma outside Barcelona’s famous La Boqueria market, and we walked around the fabulous place, enjoying the sights and the array of wonderful foods, while Isma selected the ingredients for the afternoon’s class.

La Boqueria is known for its locally grown, “Zero Kilometre” program. The Catalans do not allow GMO seeds or produce at all.

Isma told us that booth rental is nominal, and it is paid to the city. However, the license is granted for 50 years; thus, like the full liquor licenses in Florida, they are sold from person-to-person for a fortune. No wonder: Isma said some of the stalls gross the equivalent of $2,000,000/year.

Many of the market’s stall owners greeted him as a friend, and fans walked up to him occasionally in the aisles. He is a kind family man with a good sense of humor. He is taking a hiatus from the TV scene, because he grew weary of having to come up with jokes and entertainment rather than simply showing people how to cook.

One booth was a mushroom lover’s paradise. Isma said he felt right at home in New York City at some of the Jewish markets.

He chose razor clams and monkfish (“poor man’s lobster”) to prepare for us along with the other ingredients he already had in his kitchen. The seafood was so fresh, it was (a) pink and (b) still moving (in the case of the shrimp and prawns, anyway).
Here is a video of the still-moving shrimp and prawns at the BarcelonaMarket.

After completing our tour and shopping trip, we boarded an elevator and ascended to the top floor of the market into Isma’s kitchen. We had plenty of wine waiting for us!

We were each given personalized aprons with the Freixenet colors, black and gold. In the photo below, Isma’s “assistant” is Toni Domènech Pujol, head of Public Relations for Freixenet. Isma’s sous chef, Mikho, is behind Isma, working on something delicious.

Our starters included edible “spoons” filled with wild salmon caviar. The second appetizer was a construction of a strawberry, sardine, and a strange cactuslike herb that was naturally sparkly and oddly sweet. This course was served with a delightful Freixenet Cordon Rosado sparkling rosé.

Next, Isma prepared monkfish, with the veins and such removed. We learned that if fish is cooked too fast, the fish goes into shock and contracts, resulting in (a) tough fish, (b) a watery, fishy-smelling discharge around the fish, and (c) less flavor in the fish as well. However, if cooked very slowly, the fish retains its moisture yet releases a gelatin. Isma demonstrated how to use this gelatin to create a self-sauce in the pan. With white “hook” beans, snow peas, razor clams, nutty-tasting Jerusalem artichokes (a nice alternative to potatoes), and self sauce, this lovely dish was served with a refreshing Vionta Albariño (crisp, lemon custard; fragrant with citrus, melon, and flowers). The wine is from the Salnés Valley, the birthplace of Albariño and the coolest of the Rías Baixas growing districts, noted for producing crisp and aromatic wines.

For yet another course, Isma prepared rice, but in a way I’d never seen done before. He pan-tossed it in an olive oil based roux, adding “just a little bit” of water when needed to keep it from burning and to keep the moisture in. Then he transferred the rice to a baking dish with water and sauce and baked it in a convection oven.

In due time we were served our main course: Guinea hen rolled up with fois gras in the middle, velvety beans, and Jerusalem artichokes. Guinea hen. We had a laugh about hen-house vs. whorehouse. It was a language thing; you had to be there.

This was served with a Vaza Rioja Crianza 2010. The vintage was whited-out and corrected with pen, because the wine hadn’t been released yet and the appropriate vintage’s label hadn’t even been printed!

For dessert we enjoyed a heavy, triple chocolate brownie cake paired with a Freixenet Cordon Negro Cava, but I loved it with the Vaza Crianza. This is the first pairing I’ve found that works impressively with such a rich chocolate dish.

Originating from the word “Baza” which in Spanish means “trump card” or “new beginning,” Vaza
is produced at the Freixenet group’s Solar Viejo, a winery situated on the shoulder of the medieval village of Laguardia in Rioja Alavesa. This Tempranillo was absolutely delicious and is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. 14% ABV.

This is Part Three of posts about my experience of Freixenet wines and vineyards in Cataluña, Spain. Part One was about Cataluña’s Priorat district and the Morlanda winery. Part Two was about the René Barbier vineyard in Cataluña’s Penedès district.

WEB SITES: www.freixenetusa.com, www.heredadcollection.com, and www.boqueria.info

Media/trade trip courtesy of the Freixenet company.

Posted in Alberino, Cava, Food, Spain, Tastings, Tempranillo, Travel | 3 Comments

René Barbier vineyard: Innovation in Cataluña’s Penedès district

This is Part Two of my report on Spain’s Catalan Freixenet properties. Part One covered my visit to Cataluña’s Priorat district and the Morlanda winery. This post will focus on the René Barbier vineyard in Cataluña’s Penedès district.

Once again venturing out from Barcelona, our group was treated to lovely views of the city. Occasionally, modern logos appear atop old buildings; new buildings have been built alongside the old, at least in the city’s outskirts.

The René Barbier vineyard story began in France more than a century ago. The Web site explains, “In the late 1860s, the phylloxera plague devastated the vineyards of France, among them those of the Barbier family. It destroyed millions of acres of French grapevines over a fifteen-year period and put at risk every vine in Europe. In vine districts, wages were halved, businesses collapsed, and much of the population, including the Barbiers, emigrated to other countries such as Spain. Léon Barbier crossed the Pyrenees, settling in Tarragona where he established his winery in 1880 and was the first to sell his wines in bottles (most wine was sold in bulk at that time in Spain). He applied French winemaking techniques to various types of vines, microclimates and soils, discovering that the local Spanish varieties produced premium wines with striking personality. His son René [1890-1981, pictured at left] would later take control of the winery, reinforcing the quality of the wines with technological advancements, and building a network to distribute these wines throughout the world. In 1984, the winery was purchased by the Ferrer family, owners of the renowned Freixenet sparkling wine house and many other estates in Spain and around the world. Today, René Barbier continues to apply the latest technology in order to craft wines of quality and value that express the terroir of the Catalunya region.”

The René Barbier vineyard uses viticultural techniques that are as natural as possible, but more out of common sense than because it happens to be de rigueur. The earth’s climates are cyclical, and recently the area’s rainfall has often been concentrated in blasts of violent storms with strong, damaging rains. To prevent erosion, every other row is planted with wheat and oats, benign crops that get along with the grapes. The crops are rotated each year.

Winemaker Gabriel Suberviola is experimenting with natural pest control, too. Their method uses “sexual confusion” to deter pests. Red wires, loaded with pheromones to confuse male pests, thus limiting their ability to locate females for mating, are tied to vines here and there, creating a “cloud” of protection over the vineyard. Ever the curious one, I took a whiff, and the red wire indeed had quite a scent. I was briefly affected, and not so well! The system is working, as demonstrated by the specimens prevented from reproducing. Gabriel joined Freixenet in 1980 and became head winemaker at René Barbier in 1998.

The trip took place in early April, and some of the vines’ buds were already beginning to burst. This was happening in the Priorat, too.

Each vine is a poem. I am reminded of Japanese paintings.

Grapes grown at René Barbier include uniquely Spanish white grapes, such as Xarel-lo, native to Cataluña and used almost exclusively in Cava; Macabeo; and Parellada. The estate also grows Merlot, Tempranillo, Garnacha, Carignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

In 2003, René Barbier moved to the village of Sant Cugat Sesgarrigues, about 30 miles west of Barcelona, in the Penedès district. The winery includes a modern 97,000 sq. ft. cellar in a facility designed by Catalan architect Oscar Tusquets, and 296 acres of land and vineyards.

Here is a view of Montserrat from the René Barbier rooftop. Montserrat, soaring to 4,000 ft., can be seen from Barcelona as well. It is, of course, a Catalan icon.

WEB NOTES ABOUT CATALUÑA The province of Catalunya is an area of contrasts, recognized for the relaxing beauty of its Mediterranean coastline and the cutting-edge innovation of vibrant cities like Barcelona. An intrinsic element of life in Catalunya is the joy of wine and food, and the production of wine has a long history in the region. Though the official denomination of origin was established in 1999, winemaking in Catalunya dates back to the time of the Phoenicians.

D.O. Catalunya extends along the northeast of the Iberian peninsula, bound by the Mediterranean to the south and east, and the Pyrenees to the north. [Map courtesy Wikimedia Commons.]

The influence of the Mediterranean Sea and plentiful sun makes the Catalunya region an area with a temperate climate ideal for growing vines. Vineyards in the coastal areas enjoy moderate rainfall and warm temperatures, while vineyards further inland [such as the Priorat] see larger temperature swings and less rainfall.

Catalunya has 27 authorized grape varieties. Among the most important white varietals are Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Parellada and Chardonnay. The most important red varietals include Garnacha, Cariñena, Monastrell, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The primary characteristics of this region include chalky limestone, clay and sand soil.

Catalunya produces a wide range of wines, including powerful reds, crisp and fresh whites, and classic rosés, and it is also the birthplace of Cava, Spain’s renowned sparkling wine.

Pictured to the right is Kraliner, a still wine blended from the three grapes most frequently used for Cava: 40% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo, and 30% Parellada. Pale yellow and green; aromatic with green apples, pineapple, light citrus; dry; lingering.

WEB SITE: http://www.renebarbier.com

Media/trade trip courtesy of the Freixenet company.

Posted in Macabeo, Parellada, Spain, Technical Stuff, Visits to Vineyards/Winemakers, Xarel-lo | Leave a comment

A visit to Cataluña’s Priorat district and the Morlanda winery

Recently, I went on a media/trade trip to Spain to visit the Freixenet (pronounced “fresh-a-net”) properties. I learned about their famous Cava, the sparkling wine made in the Method Champenoise (more on that in another post).

But besides Cava, I learned about many other wines of Cataluña (also known as Catalunya and Catalonia) that Freixenet produces. The Cataluña region is in the northeast corner of Spain, bordering France (map courtesy Wikimedia Commons). This post will focus on the marvelous wines of the Morlanda winery in Priorat, a district within the Cataluña region.

Barcelona,Cataluña’s capital city, is famous for its cuisine, wines, and architecture, particularly the buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí. I studied his work in a college art history course, and to be honest I thought his buildings were somehow a little frightening. However, seeing the buildings in person is a revelation, and they are breathtakingly beautiful, especially when illuminated at night. (Photo: Park Guell, photo courtesy http://luellalondon.blogspot.com.)

From Barcelona to Priorat

On our trip from Barcelona to Priorat to visit the Morlanda winery (http://www.morlanda.com), we passed many hillsides that were lined with windmills. Wind power, from large commercial windmills to small farm
windmills, is prevalent in the region. Of course, windmills have been prevalent in Spain for millennia, most famously in La Mancha, thanks to the medieval novel, Don Quixote.

Tunnels and caves are common in the region, and mining is an important industry. The area has wonderful architecture; buildings are often 1,000 years old. We passed many lovely groves of olive trees and almond trees. Because of the steep hills, terracing is used frequently, both in farming and in unique applications such as the graveyard pictured above. Stone walls are abundant as well.

The beautiful Morlanda winery, near the town of Bellmunt del Priorat in Cataluña, is at the end of a winding country road with charming vineyards, both large and small, tucked into hillsides on the way.

The oenologist at Morlanda is Judit Llop. Women are strongly represented in the Freixenet family. Judit has been at Morlanda for 11 years. Like many winemakers, she hails from a farming family. She has a team of three others who work with her to taste the blends together, bottle, and label the wines. Morlanda farms sustainably and uses probiotics on the vines. The whites are steel fermented, and French and American barrels are used for the reds; the winery uses their barrels for three years.

Bordered by the great Montsant mountains, the area’s soil consists of chalk and clay, and the climate is very dry. With a special dispensation from the officials who govern the DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada), Morlanda is allowed to irrigate, but only for the first four years of new vines’ existence. Daytime temperatures can be brutally hot—up to 120°F. I visited in the benign month of April and temps were already notably warm.

Grapes grown at Morlanda include White Garnacha, Garnacha, and Carignan; some of the vines are 90 years old. The winery has also started planting Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties.

We barrel-tasted both whites and reds, as well as earlier vintages that had already been bottled. The beautiful 2005 Morlanda red, pictured to the left, is a delicious Carignan and Garnacha blend. This dark wine was resplendent with florals, raspberries, and plum sauce, as well as an interesting meat flavor.

The hillside towns are just beautiful.

We ate lunch in the town of Bellmunt del Priorat (pictured above and to the right), in a tiny restaurant called Fonda Cal Quel that was run by a brother and sister of a certain age in their 200-year-old home. The picture to the right was taken from the street/alley leading to their home/café; theirs is the first door on the left. Along with several wines from the Freixenet family including some from the Priorat as well as the Montsant district (the subject of another post), we were served salad, canneloni, local almonds and cashews, and an amazing beef stew with peas and onions. The stew was baked in their wood-fired oven, pictured below. For dessert we enjoyed flan, pound cake, and homemade whipped cream.

We were also introduced to The Spanish porrón, a little bota-like vessel that is typically used in Cataluña and the rest of Spain. A few of the more brave members of our group tried this ultimate method of aeration, with napkins at the ready, some more success- fully than others!
Graffiti was seen here and there but it wasn’t obnoxious. Some of it was amusing and even very well done, such as this strange piece of street art in Bellmunt del Priorat.

In Priorat, trees are pruned like the grapevines so that they are gnarly. I enjoyed seeing many roundabouts and lovely European side streets that are such eye candy to my soul.

The wine pictured to the right, the 2009 Mas de Subirà, is a delicious blend of 60% Garnacha, 30% Carignan, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Weighing in at a whopping 15% ABV, it is an intense cherry red wine loaded with ripe red and black fruits and a layer of oak.

WEB NOTES: To make Morlanda, we choose the oldest plots on the estate which are nearly 50 years old. As for the winemaking process, we produce wine from each plot separately in 10,000 or 5,000 litre tanks. The estate is located in Bellmunt del Priorat. The vineyards surround the winery among rolling hills where we grow the vines on terraces facing different directions, which requires that we conduct thorough canopy management on each plot: shoot thinning, leaf pulling, different degrees of tipping, cluster thinning—a full range of tasks essential to achieving ripe, concentrated, healthy grapes, which are the key to making Morlanda. Soils are predominantly clay loam. The company also has four hectares located in another area of Bellmunt with slate soil characteristic of Priorat.

WEB SITE: http://www.morlanda.com

Media/trade trip courtesy of the Freixenet company.

Posted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Cava, Grenache/Garnacha, Spain, Visits to Vineyards/Winemakers | 3 Comments

RECOMMENDED: More from Casey Flat Ranch.

2013 Viognier, 14.1% ABV, $20 SRP.

This lovely light-straw-colored wine started out with canteloupe, a hint of citrus, and a delicate candy (circus peanuts!) flavor, which always delights the heck out of me on the rare occasions I encounter it in a wine. This well-crafted wine opened into a velvety, chewy wine of substance with minerals, stone fruit, and a touch of nutmeg.

2013 Syrah Rosé, 14.1% ABV, $18 SRP.

Pale pink. Refreshing and aromatic with a light mouthfeel; delicate strawberry and a hint of spice. Aged in stainless. We paired this with steak and it stood up very well. Also a great summer sipper (Florida temps are in the 80s and 90s now) by itself.

2013 Sauvignon Blanc, 14.1% ABV, $18 SRP.

Every once in a while a winemaker does something unusual with Sauvignon Blanc, and that is to age it in oak á la most reds and many Chardonnays. This particular wine was in fact aged in 75% stainless and 25% neutral oak. It’s a pale yellow-green with extremely crisp mouth-watering acidity, brilliance, citrus, minerals, astringent grapefruit, green grass, and that bit of “cat-pee” that’s distinctive to Sauvignon Blanc. Refreshing and very tart.

LABEL: Deep within the rugged terrain of the Vaca Mountains in Northern California lies the Casey Flat Ranch. The family ranch is home to our Longhorn cattle and the vineyard is nestled on a flat, high above the Capay Valley at a 2,000-foot elevation. The family is committed to sustainable farming, thoughtful stewardship of the environment, and creating exceptional estate wines.

WEB: www.CaseyFlatRanch.com

Samples sent for review.

Posted in California, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah/Shiraz, Viognier | Leave a comment

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Casey Flat Ranch “CFR” 2010 Estate Red Wine, Capay Valley, 14.8% ABV, $35 SRP.

WOW. This opaque, nearly-black wine was smooth yet charismatic from the get-go.

Flavors of cassis and blackberries played nice with the pleasant but not-overbearing wood overlay of faint cedar. This was an extraordinarily rich potion that was balanced, impressive, and concentrated without bonking us on the head.

The Casey Flat Ranch vineyard is planted in Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, and this wine is indeed a lovely French twist with 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Syrah, 19% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Mourvedre. Aged in 75% new French oak.

I love great discoveries. I’d never heard of Casey Flat Ranch or the AVA, and if this wine is typical of the quality of wine coming from Capay Valley, I would like to hear and taste more.

ABOUT THE AVA: In Yolo County, just across the border from Napa Valley, sits the secluded and little-known Capay Valley. It was established as an AVA in 2002. Originally part of the Berryessa Spanish land grant, the area was settled in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush. Vines were planted a decade later, making it one of the pioneer winegrowing regions in California. Today, the Capay Valley has less than 100 acres planted in vineyards.

WINEMAKER’S NOTES: “The first vines were planted in 2004 and the vineyard is sustainably cultivated, using materials and farming techniques that emphasize water and soil conservation. The growing season brings warm days and cool nights, creating climate conditions similar to the St. Helena appellation, which lies just 22 miles to the west. The winter of 2010 brought an ample amount of rain that fell well into the month of May. The cool and wet spring delayed bud break until the last week of April, already about 10 days behind a typical year. This was exciting news for [us.] Given that we are an early site, we were excited to hear of the potential late harvest and possible October hang time for our red varieties! June and July were mild with very little heat. Early August brought a short heat wave that accelerated ripening. As predicted, the cool, late season provided us with long hang time and the red varieties were picked at optimal flavor and tannin ripeness.” Laura Barrett, Winemaker

LABEL: Nestled deep within the rugged coastal mountains of Northern California sits the 6,000-acre Casey Flat Ranch, home to CFR Estate wines. Sheltered high above the Capay Valley at a 2,000-foot elevation, our 24-acre vineyard produces fruit of exceptional quality and character. Our CFR Estate Red Wine is a thoughtfully blended, distinctively authentic expression of the land and the winemaker’s art.

WEB: www.CaseyFlatRanch.com and www.facebook.com/CaseyFlatRanch

Sample sent for review.

Posted in Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Mourvedre, Red Blend, Syrah/Shiraz | Leave a comment

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Cono Sur “Bicicleta” 2012 Merlot, Valle Central, Chile, 13.5% ABV, $7 and up

It was one of those nights when I didn’t want to consume any of the wines we’ve laid away at home; I just wanted to get ripped. Late Thursday night, I was on my way home from a theatre rehearsal that had gone unexpectedly badly. (The actors and music were fine, but the theatre’s administration sucks.)

So I stopped at the new gas station/convenience store on the way home, and after filling up the car’s tank, decided to fill my own, and went inside to pick up two bottles of drink-me-now wine for us. First I selected a Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, which I was surprised to see there, even at $13.49 for the always-dependable bottle.

And now for a red. Hmm. Nothing there I hankered for, so I went to the small selection of Chilean wines from the Cono Sur winery. The name, which means Southern Cone, refers to the southern region of South America. I figured a bad Merlot would be better than a bad Cabernet, so I picked up the $7.49 bottle of Merlot and took it with my KJ to the cash register.

Upon opening the screwcapped bottle, I.Was.Really.Surprised. This modestly priced bottle has as much character as any wine I’ve had all year. Ripe, big fruit with violets and bright soprano cherry notes. I knew immediately it was a blend. (In the U.S. as long as a wine is 75% anything, i.e. Merlot, its label can describe it as, simply, Merlot.) I figured it had Grenache in it, but no, it’s 85% Merlot, with 7% Cabernet, 5% Malbec, and 1% each Petit Verdot, Carignan, and Alicant Bouchet.

The Web site says this wine was aged for 8 months in stainless steel, yet refers to “toasted oak” in their notes. I didn’t have that perception, but perhaps the lack of heavy-handed oak in this wine is part of the reason it appeals to me (it’s refreshing to leave the word “molasses” out of my description), besides my love of florals. Winemaker: Matías Ríos.

This is a surprisingly good wine at a great price.

LABEL: The Cono Sur vineyard workers travel around our estate by bicycle, tending the vines using natural methods, in order to produce the best quality grapes. Our Bicicleta wines are a tribute to them. WINEMAKER’S NOTES: A dark plum red Merlot with blackberry, chocolate and lightly toasted oak aromas together with a ripe, fruity palate.

WEB: www.ConoSur.com

Posted in Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Chile, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot | 3 Comments