Oct 122015
 

Michigan Wine - Chateau Chantal

This summer, my family and I took a trip to Traverse City, Michigan to spend some R&R and check out Michigan wine country. Not many folks outside of the state ever consider Michigan wine, but they should. The mitten state has some very dedicated and talented winemakers, and it shows in the quality of the wines they craft.

There are several winegrowing AVAs within the state. The best, in my opinion, are the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas, which is where we spent our time on this trip. I’ve been to the area before, but before I could legally drink. So, needless to say, it had been a while. As we drove from winery to winery, I was struck by the beauty of the area. I’ve been wine tasting in a lot of regions, including California (all over), Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Texas, New York, Maryland, Missouri, Colorado, Ohio, Spain, Italy, and France. Hands down, the most beautiful region has to be the Old Mission Peninsula. It was absolutely stunning! I highly recommend a visit.

Not only are the views tremendous, but the people are friendly, helpful, and hospitable. It reminded me a bit of Napa Valley in the old days. There was an obvious love of the area and its wine in everyone we met.

Michigan is known for producing great Rieslings. And they are. While I don’t pretend to know all the nuances of the growing conditions, I’d wager it’s a combination of latitude, lake effect, and soil type. In addition to Riesling, however, the area produces a number of other Vitus Vinifera and hybrid varietals. We tasted some great Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc, and Gewurztraminer. I think the region has some room for improvement with their Pinot Noir.

In addition to grape wines, the state is the country’s leader in the production of fruit wine such as cherry wine. We tried a few of these, and they were quite good.

During our time, we visited Chateau Chantal, 2 Lads Winery, Bowers Harbor Vineyards, and Black Star Farms, and had a wonderful experience at each. I also recommend wines from Left Foot Charley, L. Mawby, and Chateau Grand Traverse.

Oct 132014
 

It’s Drink Local Wine Week 2014, and we kicked it off with a trip to TasteCamp in Hudson Valley, New York. For those in the know, New York is one of the top five wine producing states in the nation. When most people think of New York wine, however, they would most likely choose the Finger Lakes and maybe Long Island. Hudson Valley wine wouldn’t be high on their list. Well, I’m here to tell you that they make some pretty damned decent wine in Hudson Valley.

Is it the caliber of Napa Valley or Willamette Valley? Well, no, probably not. They still have some growing up to do; ironically, since they claim the oldest continually operating winery and oldest planted vineyard in the country.  They haven’t quite found their identity like the Finger Lakes has with cold climate varieties such as Riesling and Long Island has with Bordeaux varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Cold climate varieties show a lot of promise, as do several hybrid varieties. Cabernet Franc could also be a contender.

That said, they have all the right ingredients. First, they are in the backyard of the biggest wine market in the country. By far, New York City is the 800 pound gorilla when it comes to the wine business. But, because they are so close, Hudson Valley wine has two major advantages: access and price.  Second, they have enthusiastic winemakers who work together to promote the overall Hudson Valley wine community. I was told by Yancey Stanforth-Migliore at Whitecliff Vineyard that they frequently meet with other winemakers to taste and critique their own wines. Third, they’re not afraid to ask for help. Several wineries we visited use outside consultants from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, and beyond. Ben and Kimberly Peacock of Tousey Winery regularly consult with Peter Bell at Fox Run Winery, arguably one of the best producers in the Finger Lakes area. And finally, they aren’t trying to be something they’re not. Unlike many wine regions who emulate Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Napa, by planting Chardonnay and Cabernet everywhere and try to produce “international-style” wine, Hudson Valley wines seem to embrace their uniqueness, whether intentional or not.

The attendees to TasteCamp had the opportunity to taste dozens of wines. The following are some of the standouts.

Millbrook - Hudson Valley Wine

The converted barn at Millbrook Vineyards & Winery.

Millbrook Vineyards & Winery

In 1979, John Dyson, former New York State Commissioner of Agriculture, purchased the old Wing Dairy Farm and converts it to wine production. A few years later, in 1985, Dyson hires winemaker John Graziano and Millbrook Vineyards and Winery is established as a commercial winery. Today, the winery farms roughly 140 acres, which probably places it among the largest in the Hudson River Region.  The winery is a converted barn and is really something to behold. It’s rustic, yet it really works for the area. I liked their Proprietor’s Special Reserve Hudson River Region Cabernet Franc 2012 ($30) and Proprietor’s Special Reserve Hudson River Region Chardonnay 2012 ($25).

Winemaker Cristop - Hudson valley Wine

Winemaker Kristop Brown with a little intro for TasteCamp attendees.

Robibero Family Vineyards

Harry and Carole Robibero purchased their 42 acre estate in 2003, and began making their own wines in 2007. Today, their winemaker, Kristop Brown, is pushing the Robibero family to grow and improve. They are small now, but have plans for gradual grown, and will be planting a new vineyard soon. I liked the New York State Cabernet Franc 2012 ($40) and the New York State Traminette 2013 ($19).

Benmarl Winery

Overlooking the historic Hudson River Valley, it’s 37 acre estate lays claim to the oldest vineyard in America. The winery also holds New York Farm Winery license no.1. Matthew Spaccarelli is Winemaker and General Manager, and he makes arguably the best Cabernet Franc I tasted all weekend. I liked the Seneca Lake Semi-Dry Riesling 2012 ($17.99) and the Ridge Road Estate Hudson River Region Cabernet Franc 2012 (N/A).

Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery

Michael Migliore and Yancey Stanforth-Migliore literally built Whitecliff Vineyard & Winery from the ground up in what was an empty field thirty years ago. They built the winery, they planted the vineyards, and they made the wine. They have a sweet story. They are both avid rock climbers and met each other while climbing the nearby Shawangunk Ridge. The ridge can be seen from the winery, and is the inspiration for the name of the winery. I liked the Estate Bottled Hudson River Region Cabernet Franc 2013 ($22.95) and New York Riesling 2013 ($16.95).

Tousey Winery - Hudson valley Wine

Tousey Winery may be humble, but they make damn good wine.

Tousey Vineyard

Tousey Vineyard began as a family-run enterprise (and still is today) by Ray Tousey. The winery is now run by Ben and Kimberly Peacock – Ray’s daughter.  They are kind of the new kids on the block, but as such they bring a more modern sensability to a pretty traditional area. Kimberly and Ben are young and enthusiastic, and it shows in their wines. Their strong suit is their Rieslings, but they are make reds under a second label. I liked the Estate Grown Hudson River Dry Riesling 2013, Estate Grown Hudson River Riesling 2013, and Estate Grown Hudson River Reserve Riesling 2013. I don’t think the 2013 wines are officially released, hence no prices listed.

Hudson-Chatham Winery

I’ve known owner Carlo Devito for years. He was largely responsible for organizing TasteCamp this year. Quite frankly, he has a screw loose, but you’ll never meet a nicer guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you asked for it. But, he’s also a brilliant marketer and built Hudson-Chatham Winery into a powerhouse. His signature grape? Single Vineyard Baco Noir. I kid you not. And it’s good! I’ve had the priviledge of tasting through several vintages and several vineyards. they are really unique and something to seek out.

There were also several creamery visits, a distillery tour and tasting, and some sightseeing around the Hudson Valley, but that is a tale for another post and perhaps another blog.

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.

Dec 132013
 
Regional Wines: Michael Wangbickler

Photo Credit: American Wine Society

Last month, I was graced with the opportunity of presenting a couple of seminars at the American Wine Society National Conference in Sandusky, Ohio. One of those presentations covered the subject of regional wine.

As I’ve previously stated on this blog, I’m the president of the Board of Directors for Drink Local Wine. It’s a group of folks who believe that wines from ANYWHERE in North America are worth a look and consideration when purchasing and drinking wine. So, my session focused on why we should give a fair shake to regional wineries and highlighted wines from six different producers, from six different states. This included regional wine from Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, New York, and Ohio. Oh yeah, and did I mention that we tasted each of them blind, so no one knew what they were actually tasting until I told them?

The reaction to the wines was very good. Most of them were quite impressive, and I had several attendees approach me later, letting me know how much they enjoyed the session and the wines. My ultimate goal was to open some eyes, and change some perceptions. I feel like more than a few of the people in the session walked away with a new-found appreciation for regional wine from places other than California, Oregon, and Washington. We’re changing perceptions, one wine enthusiast at a time.

Here is a copy of the slides from my session. Feel free to share them.

Jul 292013
 
Colorado Wine

Photo Credit: Michael Wangbickler

Last week I visited The Centennial State as a judge at the Best of Fest Wine Competition. Hosted by the Colorado Association for Viticulture & Enology (CAVE), Best of Fest is Colorado’s “most prestigious local wine competition” for Colorado wine.

I can pretty confidently state that I’m probably (is that enough hedging?) the most knowledgeable California blogger on Colorado wine now. In the past two years, I’ve visited the state three times (once on the Front Range and twice in the Grand Valley).  I can tell you that it is one of the most unique growing areas anywhere in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful and the people are exceptionally welcoming.

Colorado Wine: A Rockies Road

And how is Colorado wine? Well, to be honest, it’s a mixed bag. I’ve tasted hundreds of examples from the past several vintage. There are some very GOOD wines being produced, but there are also some very BAD wines as well. Colorado’s not unique in that regard. Any wine growing region is going to have its stinkers (including California). In Colorado’s case, however, it’s probably more pronounced. Since they only have about 1,000 planted grapevine acres and around 60 producers, the bad apples tend to float to the top. Which, in my opinion, is a great disservice to the  truly great winemakers of the area. The good gets lumped in with the bad and the whole industry suffers.

This disparity in wine quality is one of the reasons that competitions like Best of Fest are so important. It’s a validation for the better producers and a way for consumers to know which Colorado wine they should pick up for dinner this evening.

Best of Colorado

This was the second year the competition took place in Colorado, though it was held for years back east before that. The one main difference with this year’s Best of Fest, which I wholeheartedly applaud, is that they added an important element in judging criteria: Only wines that are Colorado Appellation or from one of Colorado’s AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) were able to enter. Simply stated, this means wines must be made from 75 percent Colorado grapes.

Wait, what? You read that right. Before this year, Colorado wineries could enter wines they made from fruit sourced outside the state. Several of the larger producers import wines and grapes from California and make or bottle them in Colorado. It makes economic sense. It’s basically an insurance policy for an area known for winterkill and frost damage. It’s a bit confusing (or misleading) for the consumer, however, and doesn’t really support local growers. So, the fact that the competition made this change is a very good thing for Colorado wine.

“Our winemakers have always been the stars of the industry and now we are elevating our amazing grape-growing industry, too,” says Cassidee Shull, executive director of the Colorado Association for Viticulture and Enology (CAVE).

This was no fanboy lovefest. All the judges evaluated these wines critically and rigorously. Using a stringent judging standard designed to reward wines for shining in quality, not just passing minimum standards, 44 percent, or 73, of the 165 entries received medals.

Fruit Basket

It’s not all grapes though. The state is also known for it’s fruit wines and meads. Now, many wine ‘experts’ tend to poo-poo wines made with anything other than grapes. They shouldn’t. When well made, these wines are the very essence of the fruit they’re made from and very popular with consumers. Most are sweet, which appeals to a broad audience. In addition, there are several winemakers making excellent dessert wines. In fact, a third of all medal wines from the competition were fruit, mead or dessert wines, with ports a very strong category.

Diversity is the Key

The breadth of the wines offered in Colorado makes the area pretty unique.

“Colorado is an impressively diverse, emerging wine region,” says Richard Leahy, Best of Fest Competition Chair. “Its two AVAs (West Elks and Grand Valley) provide a range of varietals from cool climate classics to red Bordeaux and Rhone varieties and blends. In addition, fruit wines and meads are very strong as are ports. Colorado may statistically be the state (not growing hybrid grapes) offering the most diversity of any in the country, not just in grape varieties but in fruit and non-fruit wines.”

“I like the originality and experimentation in Colorado wine,” Leahy continues. “Graystone Vineyards only produces port wines, St. Kathyrn’s specializes in mead and fruit wines, and they produce a lavender wine (made in a riesling base) that flies out of the winery, and got a silver medal in this competition. This shows the diversity possible in Colorado wine but also the spirit of pioneer individualism that is part of the Western character and a refreshing change from the herd mentality of the corporate wine world.”

The Results

So, here are the category winners of the competition:

Best of Fest winners:
Best of Category Red Wine
Turquoise Mesa Winery Crimson 2011

Best of Category White Wine
Plum Creek Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2012

Best of Fest Fruit, Berry and Mead
St. Kathryn Cellars Blueberry Bliss

Best of Fest Dessert Wines
Graystone Winery Port V 2005

* “Best of Fest” wines are recognized as best in a category and received no less than a gold medal. “Best of Category” is the highest scoring wine in a category where there were no gold or double gold medals. 

A list of the remaining medal winners is posted on the CAVE website. I enjoyed my time in Colorado and look forward visiting again.

Disclaimer: CAVE paid my expenses to participate as a judge in the Best of Fest wine competition.