Mar 252014
 
Turkish Wine

Courtesy of Wines of Turkey

A five hour drive from Istanbul (not Constantinople ;-) ), Turkey’s Ankara province is home to Vinkara’s main vineyards and winery, which were established by the Gürsel family in 2003 in the village of Kalecik. This newer venture is part of the continued renaissance of Turkey’s viticultural and winemaking history, which originally dates to 7000 BCE.

Like many other Turkish wineries, Vinkara has hired an international consultant – in this case, Italy’s Marco Monchiero – as their winemaker. But, its main focus is decidedly Turkish. Although Vinkara’s plots include international varieties, it is the indigenous Narince and Kalecik Karasi that the company is widely promoting as they debut their wines in the U.S. (Does the world really need another Chardonnay or Merlot?) Moreover, 60% of its plantings are dedicated to Kalecik Karasi, along with the preservation of other important Turkish varieties.

The white Narince (pronounced Nah-rin-djeh), which translates as delicately, hails from the mid-Black Sea region (Tokat), situated a little closer to the coast than Kalecik. This variety is produced by Vinkara in two guises – regular (aka unoaked) and Reserve. The Reserve is treated to 14 months in oak barrels and it unfortunately shows. When tasting the two wines side by side, the overwhelming preference among the four of us was for the unoaked version. Perhaps the variety is just too delicate for so much time in oak (Kavaklidere’s Prestige Narince only spends nine months in oak and seemed much more balanced to my palate on previous tastings).

Also available in unoaked and oaked styles, the Kalecik Karasi (pronounced Kah-le-djic-car-ah-ser) is a red grape whose name stems from its origin’s proximity to the village of Kalecik, translating as “black from the small castle” given that Kalecik is home to –you guessed it– a small castle. This low tannin variety offers lovely freshness and bright red fruit character on the palate. Much less delicate than the Narince, the Reserve Kalecik Karasi wasn’t hurt by its 14 months of oak aging.

Choosing to drink these wines provides a refreshing change of pace, and, with the exception of the Reserve Narince, I found them to be well balanced, well made wines with good fruit, nice acidity and good length.

The company’s circular logo, prominently featured on every bottle, displays not only its name and location, but also the phrase “This is the time, my love, to pour the wine…” And I agree; you might say, it’s a Turkish delight.

For more information on Turkey’s wines, regions and its indigenous grape varieties, please see the Wines of Turkey website.

Feb 212014
 
Courtesy of Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery, LLC

Courtesy of Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery, LLC

At a seminar for the American Wine Society’s annual conference, fellow TTB contributor, Mike Wangbickler, presented a session on “local wine.” As president of the Board of Directors for Drink Local Wine, Mike tried to dispel the notion that the only worthy wines in the U.S. were from California, Washington and Oregon. To support his claim, Mike had the audience blind taste a selection of five wines – not only didn’t the participants know which grape variety (or varieties) were in the glass, but they were truly clueless as to where the wine was made.

Once the wines were revealed, we found ourselves not just drinking, but enjoying, Finger Lakes Riesling, Texas Tempranillo, Ohio River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Maryland Red Blend Landmark Reserve (69% Merlot, 19% Syrah, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot), Colorado Cabernet Franc and a Bordeaux-style blend from Virginia. (Did I mention that the last wine retails for $75.00?)

At the same conference, I had the opportunity to taste wines from Michigan. Admittedly, the state of Michigan is not my first thought when it comes to wine regions, but I was impressed with many of the wines, especially those made from Riesling, Vignoles and Cabernet Franc.

So, when a winery located in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina (technically called Ronda, NC), contacted me, I was game. Although the winery graciously invited me to attend one of their upcoming events in Ronda, my schedule prevented me from joining them; when I declined, they offered to ship the wines to me instead.

The culmination of Jay Raffaldini’s dream, Raffaldini Vineyards draws on his family’s Italian heritage, which dates back to 1348 in the town of Mantua (of Romeo & Juliet fame) in Lombardy. Jay’s own father immigrated to America shortly after World War II, choosing the state of New Jersey to make his new home.

As a Wall Street businessman, Jay had the cahones and the cash to set about establishing an Italian-style winery in the U.S. With a preference for bold reds, Jay chose to look south of the City, instead of north, for the perfect property on which to pursue his passion.

Upon discovering the area of Swan Creek in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley back in 2001, Jay had found a home for his vineyard and winery. The 43 acres of vineyards were primarily planted between 2003 and 2005. While neighboring wineries in the area haven chosen to focus on French varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Savignon and Viognier, not surprisingly, Raffaldini has opted to concentrate on Italian varieties. Consequently, Raffaldini is the only local vineyard with Sangiovese, Vermentino and Montepulciano planted. They also grow Pinot Grigio, a variety which is also found at nearby Laurel Gray Vineyards.

Despite North Carolina’s southerly location, its proximity to several mountain ranges provide high elevations and consequently, a cooler climate that the latitude would suggest (just one degree north of Sicily).

As evidence of Raffaldini’s success, it was one of ten wineries named as a “Hot Small Brand of 2009” by Wine Business Monthly magazine, sharing that honor with Pacific Rim and Abacela among others.

The company’s image comes across as a little bit confused – the family is from Lombardy, but the grapes hail from Tuscany and Southern Italy, the property boasts of a Tuscan villa and the winery’s tagline is “Chianti in the Carolinas.”

Of course, in their defense, it would have been even more challenging to try and sell Barbera or Bonarda than it already is Vermentino and Sangiovese. And, frankly, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the Raffaldini family has created an idyllic location in which to produce and taste good wine.

In perusing their website and other materials, it is clear that the owners have spared no expense in making the estate beautiful. A well appointed, Tuscan-style villa sits atop a hill, while the winery is housed in a fattoria (Italian for farmhouse). Sweeping vistas of the vineyards from the villa’s terrace make it obvious why the winery has been ranked as a top place for weddings and other events.

This is precisely the type of place that my in-laws would find and fall in love with while traveling. We have occasionally been the beneficiary of their travels, previously receiving wines from Temecula and Sonoma. Most recently, they enjoyed a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they spent considerable time tasting. In fact, they just bought a second wine refrigerator to store a case of wine purchased on that journey, which they had been encouraged to lay down for a few years.

As we continue to think locally – from beets to beef – we should be equally encouraged to seek out these local wineries. What you find just might surprise you, whether you are in your own backyard or just passing through someone else’s.

Tasting Notes
Tasting through the generous selection of samples sent by the winery, I had the opportunity to try six of their wines. In general, these were well made wines that offered some varietal characteristics, good balance and, with a few, some complexity. My preference among them was the Vermentino, Sangiovese and the sparkling Dolce Vita, which resembles an Asti wine.

Raffaldini Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $15.00
With floral and tangerine aromas on the nose, this wine has medium+ acidity, medium body, citrus and pith on the palate. It is simple, but varietally correct and pleasing.

Raffaldini Vineyards Vermentino 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $19.00
Floral/blossom, pear and citrus aromas greet the nose, and are joined by beeswax on the dry palate, with medium acidity and medium+ body, culminating in long length.

Raffaldini Vineyards Sangiovese 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $$18.00
This wine has cherry, oak and vanilla aromas which are repeated on the palate, along with high acidity, medium+ tannins and a slight herbal note in the finish.

Raffaldini Vineyards Sangiovese Riserva 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $23.00
Although this wine is very similar to the Sangiovese 2011, the Riserva has more pronounced herbal aromas and flavors and a longer finish.

Raffaldini Vineyards Montepulciano Riserva 2011, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $29.00
This wine displays blackcherry, rosemary and vanilla notes with bright, ripe blackcherry flavors on the palate and an undercurrent of wet leaves and earth, along with medium+ tannins and full body.

Raffaldini Vineyards Dolce Vita 2012, Swan Creek (NC), U.S., $16.00
This lightly sweet wine has floral and peach notes on the nose and palate, beautifully balanced by sufficient acidity and good length.

Feb 042014
 

Wine Reviews DroningRecently I was listening to Michael Krasny interview wine importer extraordinaire Kermit Lynch on the local Bay Area NPR radio affiliate. At the end of the interview Kermit took calls from listeners and one of the callers complained bitterly about wine reviews and how they describe wines in florid detail using terms that, according the caller, were complete nonsense. Kermit soft-pedaled his answer saying that yes, writers can sometimes go off the rails when describing wine and that yes, everyone’s palate is different so you can’t expect to agree on everything you read in wine reviews. But Lynch’s response made me pause because I’ve heard this complaint all too often; that wine descriptions are in some form or other nonsense and that wine writers frankly make things up. So I’d like to address this personally, even ecumenically, if you will.

Odds are wine writers as much as you may want to believe it are not making things up. Sure there may be the odd hallucination now and again but usually they’re simply trying to tell you what wine X, Y or Z smells and tastes like to them. Emphasis on THEM. Beyond that we often hear the phrase “everybody’s different” when it comes to wine and that is correct across the board. Here’s how we’re different. In short, here’s the deal:

We all have the same hardware in the form of our brain and neurology. But after that all bets are off. What’s different? Simple answer: everyone’s memories. So your take on Meyer Lemon is going to be different than my mine because my experience in the form of my internal pictures, movies, sounds and feelings associated with Meyer Lemon throughout my lifetime is unique and not yours. And while we may agree that there’s something sour and citrus-like in the wine we’re sharing we’re never going to share an identical experience collectively known as Meyer Lemon. You may think it smells more like pink grape fruit or a catcher’s mitt or a freshly painted garage door for that matter. Further, the wonderful bouquet of flowers I adore in a glass of glorious Grand Cru Alsace Gewurztraminer may utterly repel you because it’s entirely too close to that memory of your tragic drive-by at a Macy’s perfume counter at some point in the distant past. Personal likes and dislikes are important and those are based on memory too.

Context is also important. The how’s, who’s, why’s and when’s you taste/drink a wine collectively form the trump card in any wine experience. That magic bottle of whatever you enjoyed when your boyfriend proposed will forever be your favorite wine in the whole entire universe and just the mere thought of it will send you around the moon and back to that magic moment–until the divorce. Then it becomes the most cursed s#@*&% bottle of wine in the history of mankind. Yes, friends, context is important. Remember that.

Remember also that wine tasting is marginally about actually tasting. It’s primarily about SMELLING as smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste. So if you’re passing by the nose on your evening goblet of Cabernet going right in for the big slurp the proverbial cow is already out of the barn. In fact, the cow is so far out of the barn that it took your car to SFO and is now headed to Fiji. On your credit card. Moo.

That is to say olfactory memory is the most powerful form of memory we have because aromas from the glass or any other source go right up our nasal passages directly into the cerebral cortex. That means when such-and-such wine writer rambles on about how the pepper and herbal notes in a Chateauneuf-du-Pape remind him of the cassoulet his grandmother used to make when he was a kid during the holidays, guess what? It probably does and that means you shouldn’t wig out over said writer’s musings but should instead try to get to your own memories of pepper and savory herbs to better understand what the writer is trying to express about the wine. Hopefully the next time you taste the same wine or a similar wine you might experience them too unless, of course, you find something completely different. Because after all, it’s what the wines smells and tastes like to you that actually counts.

As for the sense of smell, we as a culture generally suck at olfactory memory. It’s not important to us so we don’t practice it and we’re not very good at it. Other than a smack-me-on-the-side-of-the-head tsunami of cow pasture, raw garlic or did somebody left the burner the gas stove on, we’re generally not tuned into the olfactory world. But there are definitely exceptions and those individuals usually tend to be in the perfume, wine and spirits worlds or other professions where one’s expertise is largely determined by smell memory. It’s not surprising then that when someone with a highly developed olfactory memory writes about their subject in depth it’s viewed with great suspicion.

It’s easily understandable then how the poetic meanderings/descriptions of wine writing can leave one puzzled, forlorn and even verklempt. This because wine has no inherent vocabulary leaving us wine professionals to borrow, often tragically, nomenclature from completely unrelated fields. Adjectives such as “murky,” “bold,” “dense,” and even something comical like “explosive” find their way into wine descriptions not to mention any number of fruits, herbs and spices (Road tar is among my favorites). But when you read that tasting a rare old vintage made some famous wine writer start weeping you should definitely have serious misgivings. I would.

Know that wine professionals taste a lot of wine as in potentially thousands of bottles a year. If someone is tasting that much, odds are they’re pretty good at it and they should also be proficient at communicating about it in a meaningful way even if they are limited to nomenclature that may seem like Martian to the novice. Keep in mind that this is tasting and not drinking. A professional tasting may sound like fun to you but it’s hard work requiring a hell of a lot of focus, concentration and inevitable palate fatigue. Still think it sounds fun? Imagine tasting 45 different coffees in 90 minutes, taking notes and then writing about the qualities of each one. I rest my case.

Finally, if the florid wine descriptions still give you agita consider giving wine writers a break. Even with the zillions of wine blogs and everyone pretending to be a wine expert these days there are more good writers than ever. Find one whose prose you can live with—even like—and follow them. Chances are their likes and dislikes are similar to yours. But above all remember that your palate—and what you like to drink—is the bottom line. Because after all, I made all this up.

Just kidding.

Jan 102014
 

Wine Snob | Wine Education

Photo Courtesy of 303 Magazine.

What makes a wine snob? Is it that they know more about wine than anyone else, or do they just pretend to know more than anyone else? In fact, most “snobs” are just putting on an act. They know a little bit more about wine than those around them, but they are hardly experts. They may have received a little bit of “wine education” (air quotes) by attending a class or two, and they like to show off. The worst are those that keep the knowledge to themselves, hording it like a miser does with gold.

I can’t abide snobs. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Wine is, in fact, just spoiled grape juice. It’s agriculture combined with chemistry. Yes, there is more to it than that, but it’s not really that complicated.

The majority of wine consumers, however, don’t really know that much about wine in general. A lot of them know what they like and stick with what they are comfortable with. To most, wine is a mystery and their ignorance often prevents them from experiencing the simple joys of wine appreciation. Wine can be intimidating. In fact, even those of us who consider ourselves experts are constantly learning new things about wine. It’s what makes the study of the subject so compelling.

Which is why I’m thrilled whenever I come across a genuine attempt at wine education for the masses, like NPR’s Science Friday. In a series they’ve begun called “Out of the Bottle,” they are exploring some of the science behind wine in a way that most of us can understand. Through a series of cleverly produced videos, they’ve made wine education more fun. We need more mainstream wine education like this.

Jan 082014
 

Nomacorc select seriesUsed for centuries, natural cork is still among the most accepted closures, especially for wines that are meant to be aged. However, natural cork’s market dominance has been waning significantly over the past 13 years. Whereas approximately 95% of all wines were bottled under a cork or cork derivative in 1999, by 2012, that figure had dropped to 56%.

In fact, cork bashing has become a popular sport, with many people decrying the high failure rate of such corks, which result in corked wines. Admittedly, no one is happy when upon opening a bottle of wine it is found to be accompanied by a musty/wet dog smell. At that point, there is no other remedy than to simply pour the wine down the drain.

For some winemakers, the incidences of cork taint and bottle variation have proved to be too much to bear. At noted Savennières producer, Domaine des Baumard, Florent Baumard had had enough and began using the Stelvin closure (aka screw caps) in 2005 for all of his still wines, including those he expected consumers to hold/age for 6-7 years. Baumard claims that having made the switch helps him to sleep better at night, particularly because the closure permits more consistency among bottles.

Similarly, Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche starting experimenting with screw caps in 2002, having identified problems with TCA (the chemical responsible for cork taint) in 2001. Today, he offers his customers a choice of closure, with 75% of total sales bottled under screw cap. He admits that “we are breaking the rules,” but notes that with his experience, he won’t come back to promoting corks. “We love to feel young and healthy,” he says, “It is the same with wine,” stressing that screw caps keep wine fresher with more tension (read acidity). While the screw cap was not always my preferred bottle, a comparison tasting of his wines (one bottled with a screw cap and the other with a natural cork) proved his point.

Lines drawn in the sand

Not surprisingly, screw caps have been touted as the perfect alternative to natural cork, keeping the wine as fresh and fruity as the day it was bottled. But, such closures have predominantly been used for whites and rosés, which aren’t meant for aging. Early-adopters New Zealand and Australia have implemented screw caps across the board, but producers in many other countries have been reluctant to try them. Still others have outright refused to consider them as a viable option, essentially separating producers into two camps.

With this debate almost firmly centered on natural cork vs screw cap, faux corks have often been dismissed out of hand. But, it turns out that there are synthetic corks and then there are synthetic “corcs” – or, more precisely, Nomacorcs. Founded by Belgium businessman Gert Noël during the 1990s, Nomacorc produces a synthetic closure made from plastic foam. Nomacorc’s original goal was to eliminate cork taint; mission accomplished, it has now begun to focus on the integration of oxygen management with its new product line.

A brave new (wine) world

The Select Series, which debuted in 2012, permits winemakers to choose one of four models, based on their desired level of oxygen ingress over time. For example, the Select 100 permits the ingress of 1.2 mg/L of O2 in 12 months, while the Select 500 permits the ingress of 3.0 mg/L of O2 over this same period. Straddling both sides of the aisle – freshness and ageability – this new type of closure opens up an interesting world of possibilities. Consequently, when considering which Select Series product will best meet their needs, a winery can develop an integrated strategy taking into account how long it will take to get the wine into the market, how long it will sit on the shelf and when the winemaker thinks that the wine will be ready to drink, potentially prolonging the shelf life, or hastening the development, of a given product.

Nomacorc now has 13% of the closure market worldwide, with 58% of Nielsen’s Top 500 SKUs closed with a Nomacorc product. While big wineries such as Gallo, Barefoot and Yellow Tail are large accounts for the company, the adoption of Nomacorc has not been limited to commercial brands. Eberle Winery’s winemaker, Ben Mayo has been a convert since he joined the winery in 2003. The Paso Robles producer switched entirely to Nomacorc in 2002, inclusive of its Reserve-level Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $75.00. Equally esteemed clients include the Willamette Valley’s Ken Wright Cellars and Alsatian producer Anne Boecklin among others.

But not everyone has embraced Nomacorc. The company recognizes that consumer perception of its products as being unnatural is its biggest challenge and has gone out of its way to emphasize its commitment to sustainability in all aspects of its business practices. Further, the Classic and Select Series Nomacorcs are 100% recyclable (with #4 plastics), while its newest product, Select Bio, claims to be the “world’s first zero carbon footprint closure.” Instead of being made from petroleum-based plastics, the raw materials for Select Bio are derived from plant-based polymers.

With Nomacorc’s new approach and younger consumers’ more ready acceptance of synthetics, it will be interesting to see how the supply side reacts to these changes. While natural cork’s supremacy has indeed eroded, its future remains unclear. Only time (and marketing dollars) will tell what we find at the top of the bottle standing between us and our wine.