Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Pinot Grisless

This time of year, few things irk me more than wine shops that don't carry pinot gris. How can that be, you might ask? You'd be surprised.

There are, of course, some very fine wine shops that have complained, when confronted, that they don't get a huge number of pinot gris to choose from out here in Connecticut, so they have trouble keeping it on the shelf when the weather warms up. But there are other places that don't seem to stock it much at all and instead try to steer me to the pinot grigio, oceans of pinot grigio. To me, if a wine shop doesn't stock pinot gris, I can't take them seriously.

I know full well that pinot gris and pinot grigio are made from the same grape. Made chiefly in Italy, pinot grigio is simply a lighter, crisper style of pinot gris. But, to me, the difference is night and day. I just don't care for pinot grigio. I know that will probably get me in trouble with some. I've actually had one or two I did like, so I know decent pinot grigio does exist. But the vast majority leave me...cold.

Pinot gris, on the other hand, as produced in Alsace or Oregon, is usually lush by comparison. Closely related to pinot noir, the grapes often have a nice soft red or pink color. In the glass, the wine sports wonderful ripe mellon and pear flavors, often with a hint of orange blossom or honey. It's just so satisying with summer salads, my curried chicken salad or fish. Along with Alsatian riesling, it's my summer fling.

That's why I get upset at wine stores that don't have any pinot gris once the warm weather comes. We're talking a serious need here. Only serious wine stores will do.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Jerram Vineyard

Our next stop on the Connecticut Wine Trail takes us to New Hartford, about 25 miles west of Hartford, to the Jerram winery. Once home to a dairy farm, this winery has to be one of the lovelier locations you'll find, if you like simple, unpretentious charm.

For a get-away-from-it-all experience in the Connecticut countryside, Jerram is the place. The winery itself is located in the old horse barn on this sprawling farm property. And, the tasting room is cozily sheltered in the 1903 creamery, which has been restored to include an 18-foot wine bar and an art gallery (featuring a different artist every 6 weeks). Leisurely taking in the art (for sale), or the gardens on the grounds, is encouraged. Small groups also can enjoy a picnic with wine on one of the decks or patio, if the weather cooperates.

(I would love to show you photos, but Blogger has been a disaster for uploading photos lately -- nothing will upload today. My apologies. Perhaps I can edit this post at some point.)

The winetasting experience on weekends is enhanced with crackers and a cheeseboard, featuring Connecticut or imported cheeses. All in all, sipping wines here is a relaxing and warm experience. A lot of wineries these days are building elaborate tasting room facilities with a Mediterranean flair -- drawing on the imagery we most associate with fine wine. Jerram, instead, goes with what it has to work and it feels authentic. For this reason, I give Jerram's facilities/ambience a 5 out of 5 score.

Our pourer was owner Jim Jerram, who opened up with a genuine passion for his product once prompted by a few questions. The Jerrams have occupied the farm for roughly 30 years and have been making wine since 1982. With plenty of experience under their belts, they decided to open for business in 1999.

Though not effusive, Jerram is perfectly willing to share his accumulated wine wisdom if you demonstrate some interest. This is a definite complement to the tasting experience. I rate the knowledge and enthusiasm 4 out 5 points.

The Wines
As I noted previously, making wine in Connecticut can be a real struggle, especially when damp weather prevails. Jerram offers nine wines to sample for a $6 tasting fee -- the price includes a Jerram wine glass to take home. Unfortunately, I could taste evidence of the battle for ripeness in several of the wines.

The wines include some noble grapes and some not so noble grapes often grown in the area, such as seyval blanc and villard blanc. The flight of white wines included White Frost, a light-bodied 100 percent chardonnay that would serve as a nice companion to white fish or light pasta fare; Seyval Blanc, a dry crisp wine that does well in cold climates like ours but which, in this case, sported what I thought were off smells -- definitely a disappointment; Gentle Shepherd, a slightly sweet blended wine with just a hint of orange peel that was my wife's favorite of the day; and Aurora, which showed a little more sweetness and body to make it a decent match for some spicy fare.

The red flight included S'il Vous Plait, a light cabernet franc that I found lacking in characteristic spice but with simple tart cherry flavors; Highland Reserve, a cabernet franc/marechal foch blend that showed a little more spice with its cherry flavors but still not quite ripe; Marechal Foch, a dry wine with a little more body that could go nicely with food but is a touch green; and Nor'easter, a semi-sweet blend of chambourcin and foch -- while I don't typically like noticeable residual sweetness in my red wines, I thought this wine was interesting. A red that could go equally well with Asian beef dishes or chocolate.

The last wine we tried was Vespers, a late-harvest dessert wine made from vignoles grapes. With its rich, honeyed aromas, the Vespers was very enjoyable.

I admire Jerram's adventurous approach to winemaking, trying numerous blends that make the most of the Northwest Connecticut terroir. And, in dry years, I'm sure they have a lot of success. But I found many of the '04s and '03s currently served to be lean. Still, a few wines were quite nice. I rate the wines a 6 out of 10.

Overall, Jerram nets a score of 15 out 20 points. Jerram is without a doubt a lovely destination that many people would enjoy for picnicing or for just soaking up the winetasting experience in a pastoral setting. There's a few wines to enjoy, but I'm not sure experienced tasters will find the $6 tasting fee worthwhile.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Smell the Roses

June is a great month. My wife is happy because she can smell the roses. I'm happy because I can smell the rose'.

So what could be better than combining the two, which is what we did on a sparkling day this week at Hartford's Elizabeth Park. Elizabeth Park is an absolute jewel, one of the oldest parks of its kind in the country with a truly amazing rose garden. For our annual trek this week we loaded up on some grilled salmon sandwiches with aioli and sweet potato fries, some ripe olives and a nice chilled Vin Gris De Cigare from Bonny Doon. Dry but profoundly fruity.

The local store actually had a nice selection of rose' wines from Rioja and Southern France, but the Bonny Doon won out because it was chilled and came with a screw cap -- perfect for picnicing. And, what could be more perfect for a picnic than a fun summer wine like rose'. Rose' in the roses.

The air was filled with the scent of, well, roses. Was it the wine? The roses? The wine? The roses? Not important. It was sensory overload. Got some rose beds near you?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Reliable Chardonnay

I was amused but not surprised by this post over at Avenue Vine. Apparently, while most eyes were focused on the high profile reenactment of the 1976 Paris winetasting -- at which California wines kicked French butt -- another winetasting was comparing French vs California wines. But this time the wines were of a much more recent vintage.

The author notes that while most tasters preferred the style of the California reds over the French, they found high quality in both groups. More interesting, however, was that the tasters preferred the white Burgundies over the California chardonnays, without question.

Not surprising to me. I enjoy the occasional big California chardonnay from time to time, and have written about them fondly. But I am a routine white Burgundy drinker and would reach for the white Burgundy 9 times out of 10 when looking for a rich, dry white wine with dinner.

I always keep a case of white Burgundy in the basement, usually a Verget Bourgogne or a Macon. These are affordable wines -- you don't have to shell out for a Meursault or a Montrachet to enjoy a terrific white Burgundy. A lot of the low-end stuff is exceptionally well made. And, when I run out, I replenish without fail.

There's something about white Burgundy that I don't find in a lot of other wines. It's called balance. You can find true aromas of apple, pear and vanilla with a touch of minerals for a crisp finish. It seldom dominates its food companion, but it has enough body and charm to guarantee it's never overlooked.

There's so much hyperbole thrown around these days about French wines vs. California wines and old world style vs. overly extracted fruit bombs. I find something to enjoy in most of these wines. But if I have a prejudice of sorts it's that white Burgundy belongs on the dinner table, California chards seldom do. If I'm going to consider a California chard with dinner, it's going to be one of the premium labels I trust. So, you see, white Burgundy is the better value in my book.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Haight Vineyard

The first stop on our quest to evaluate Connecticut's native winetasting experience is Litchfield's Haight Vineyard. Located in the northwest part of Connecticut, Litchfield is known for its rolling hills, pastoral scenery and large country estates (Litchfield is home to many wealthy New York natives and even a few famous movie stars looking to escape the glare of Hollywood). It should also be known as the home of Connecticut's first established winery.

Having planted their first grape vines three decades ago, Haight is among the state's most experienced winemakers producing a number of white wines, a couple of reds and a couple of fruity wines. A number of Northeast wineries make wines based on different fruit combinations -- my guess is that this a popular practice here because it's so darn difficult to produce a diverse lineup of extracted, interesting reds. While many people like, for example, blueberry or apple wines, I won't be reviewing them. I really have no good frame of reference for comparing them, and I suspect most people are not coming out in search of these wines anyway.

The winery is located on a wide open piece of farmland, surrounded by vineyards. With plenty of room to move, the winery hosts many community events, such as craft fairs and a Taste of Litchfield.

The facility itself offers loads of rustic charm. A walk upstairs, past the tapestries and mounted game tropies, takes you to a fairly large tasting room and gift store. There are a couple of tables for leisurely tasting by the fireplace, and there's a veranda. While the tasting bar can get crowded, there's plenty of room to explore the many different items for sale. In fact, my wife rated the gift store one of the best at a local winery. So I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 (see end note on scoring).

Our guide for the tasting experience was a very pleasant woman who conveyed a real love of wine, without resorting to cliches and hype. She also had a good knowledge of the products, though she had a few holes in her memory banks and couldn't answer some questions. All in all, she was helpful to anyone looking to learn and get excited about wines. 3 out of 5.

The Wines

Tastings are free at Haight. In general I found some tasty whites with good acid levels, but the reds lack ripeness and complexity. Growing grapes in Connecticut means an almost constant battle against mildew -- this year, with lots of early rain, is off to a very bad start. But the occasional dry years can help Connecticut winemakers make some excellent wines. The wineries right now are serving almost all '04 wines (not ideal), though a few have some '03s. But some of the problems are evened out by using up to 49 percent of the grapes from other sources (true of wineries across much of the U.S.), such as South America or California. Haight uses some grapes from California.

Chardonnay ($11.98). This wine won't net blockbuster scores, but it's a very enjoyable, crisp style of the varietal with green apple aromas and just a bit of oak.

Covertside White ($9.98). An off-dry blended wine made from seyval blanc from different vineyard sites is interesting and enjoayble. Could go well with light Asian dishes.

Barely Blush ($9.98). A bit simplistic and quite sweet -- not for me.

Riesling ($11.98). A very nice expression of the grape, this wine is somewhat sweet but with balance. Definitely a Litchfield Hills success story.

Merlot ($11.98). Light and simple with tart cherry flavors. Just not there.

Picnic Red ($10.98). Made with mostly marechal foche, this red has a bit more ripeness with a slightly sweet finish. More full-bodied than the merlot, it would be nice with grilled summer foods. However, also short on complexity.

Honey Nut Apple ($9.98). A dessert wine made apples and honey (she twisted my arm), this wine lacks for acidity but is nonetheless enjoyable with its slightly nutty finish.

I enjoyed roughly half of these wines and find in them reason to hope for even more from Connecticut vineyards -- at least from the whites. I give Haight 8 out of 10 for quality of wines.

As a winetasting destination, Haight gets 15 out of 20 points, in my opinion. Which is quite good, if you consider the high quality of winetasting experiences to be had in the big wine-producing states. As an aside, we were told that the Haight family and its aging patriarch are selling the winery and vineyards. Hopefully, the winery will continue, even grow. But this might be good incentive to check it out soon.

NOTE: While most reviews tend to look only at the wines, I believe visiting wineries is as much about an "experience" as it is about the quality of wines. Wineries probably get more tourists than wine geeks for visitors, and I think they're looking for a combination of comfortable, wine-focused facilities, knowledgable and passionate staff, and enjoyable wines. So, I'm assigning scores to each winery on a 20-point scale. 5 potential points for enjoyable, mood-enhancing ambience; 5 for knowledgable, enthusiastic staff; and 10 for quality wines. The scores are purely a result of my personal judgment; I have no relationship to any of the wineries.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Connecticut Wine Trail

When I worked in a wine store less than 10 years ago, we, of course, sold wine from many different countries around the world but only two from Connecticut. At the time there were eight wineries in the state, but the owner believed he could recommend wines from only two.

That's probably not surprising to many wine collectors, since the Northeast is not exactly known for producing serious wines. Frigid, snowy winters; wet springs; and humid summers make it a challenge just for the vines to survive, let alone produce ripe fruit.

Among my wine-swilling friends, few know anything about the wineries located in their own back yards, so consumed are they by the chase for great California cabs, Oregon pinot noirs and jewels such as Barolo and Bordeaux. If they do, their experience covers but two or three state wineries.

Connecticut's promotional wine trail website boasts there are now 16 wineries in the state. According to a local winemaker we met recently, the number is now 19, though the state's website apparently has not yet caught up to this fact. This may not seem like many to folks living in Washington, New York or Oregon, but it's a virtual explosion in winemaking around here.

This trend has me wondering, is this expanding interest due principally to an increasing number of hobbyists anxious to become a part of an emerging wine lifestyle in the U.S., or is Connecticut finding its respectable niche in the winemaking world? After all, Long Island is producing some fine merlots and cabernet francs, and the Finger Lakes region of New York is producing some fine white wines and sweet wines. And they're relatively close by.

I'm truly anxious to find out the answer to this question, so I've decided to hit the road this summer and try each one. Don't expect to hear about cabernets or syrahs. Apart from the occasional merlot or chardonnay, you're far more likely to read here about seyval blanc, vignoles and marechal foch. Could be fun; it certainly will be an education.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bad Cork, Bad

Nothing like sitting down with company to a delicious dinner of grilled loin lamb chops and pouring everyone a glass of cabernet that you know is rich and delicious. You raise the glass to your nose ready to inhale intoxicating aromas of cassis and and cedar and, instead, it's #@$%&$"#*$%&$#@# corked! Totally contaminated alcohol.

It's so damned annoying. At first you have a half-hearted thought -- maybe no one will notice. But after two or three more sips you realize you're in denial and you suddenly grab bottle and glasses and head toward the sink before you can do any more second guessing. As you watch it go down the drain you can only sigh -- well, you can grumble, too.

I think I've been lucky in that almost all the wine I've had from my cellar that's been corked has been relatively inexpensive. When it's not cheap, it's downright painful. Because tainted corks have become relatively common, many people advocate screw tops instead of cork. I've blogged about this before -- all wines under $20 should have screw tops but ageworthy wines still require cork. Just too much uncertainty about the effects of plastic on wine long term, not to mention the importance of cork-based ceremony for better bottles.

Still, it's hard to let go no matter how much you reason with yourself. The wine in question was a 2001 Steltzner estate cabernet, not real expensive but bad enough at $35. And, the previous bottle I had was absolutely delicious. More's the pity.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Brawny Barbera?

I've been a fan of barberas for a long time. These every-day wines of the Piedmont region of Italy show a lot more character than low-end chiantis, for example, yet are far less well known.

There's a good reason barbera is the most frequently drunk varietal in the Piedmont itself and it has to do with getting the most bang for your buck. Yes, everyone knows that Barolos and Barberescos are the big guns that helped make the Piedmont revered by oenophiles. But, these days, who can afford to have them more than once in a while. Barbera, on the other hand, hints at the greatness of this wine producing region without the steep price.

Another great thing about barberas is that these low-tannin, acidic wines are a great companion for so many foods. Forget chianti with tomato sauce; barbera is a better match. It goes so well with a great variety of medium-body dishes that it just might be one of the most versatile wines around.

However, I just had a barbera that is challenging a lot of my long-held assumptions about this varietal. I'm aware that many winemakers in the past decade have been doing their best to coax more extraction out of this grape, making for bigger, less acidic wines. An international style, as they say. But I was still unprepared for the incredibly full-bodied Sergio Barale '03 Barbera d'Alba Preda ($24) that I opened with dinner last night.

This wine has gobs of ripe plum, even prune-like flavors in a soft round package that makes for an impressive tasting experience. And, floored by its weight, I decided after my first sip to check the alcohol and discovered it was a whopping 14.5 percent. How did I miss that? Of course, 2003 was the famously hot summer across Europe, making for intense, alcohol-laden wines nearly everywhere. So, I shouldn't have been too surprised.

I just hope that this wine is not exactly what we should come to expect of barberas in the future. It certainly is a delicious, fun wine to drink on its own or with a dinner of roasted meats. But it makes it harder to know what to expect from the varietal, and its big flavors make for less versatility. Perhaps I'm just being paranoid. As an example of what record-breaking weather can do for winemaking, the '03 Sergio Barale barbera is an eye-opener.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Slam Dunk

Between a mini-vacation and a home improvement project, I've been AWOL from blogging for a bit. To get the juices flowing, I've spent the last couple of days trying to get caught up on some of my favorite other blogs out there.

Sure enough, Tom Wark's Fermentation got me going again with this post. This subject, power vs. finesse wines, is one that often rattles around my brain, particularly as I sip cabernets. But what really got me going was Tom's photo of a Laurel Glen Sonoma Mountain cab. This is the very same wine that often gets me thinking about the power vs. finesse thing.

I've long been a huge fan of Laurel Glen wines. They are well-crafted, well-balanced wines that show great flavors in an elegant, graceful package. What exactly does that mean? Well, it means that these Patrick Campbell wines are absolutely delicious and enjoyable but not a knockout. And, that's just fine with me.

I can remember tasting Laurel Glen wines alongside certain other cabs when I worked in a store some years ago. And, the other wines were the ones that prompted raves from some tasters because of their power. But some of us actually preferred the Laurel Glen wines, full flavored but never flashy or boisterous in demeanor.

I'm reminded of how some sports fans like nothing better than watching the sheer power of a slam dunk in basketball or the long ball in baseball. But there are others of us who enjoy watching skillful playmaking on the basketball court or scrappy small ball in baseball because of the interesting strategy at work and the element of surprise it often harbours. Laurel Glen is like that -- it won't knock you over the head with fruit but it will gradually and seductively impress.

Seems to me Laurel Glen wines don't often net scores in the mid-90s, but it's a good example of how lovely and interesting wines in the high 80s can be. It should tell us not to be overly dependent on numerical ratings, especially since high ratings are often based on simple power. There's a lot to be said for stylistic success rather than opulence, especially when you find a style that suits your palate. Odds are such wines, like Laurel Glen, will go much better with food as well. They deserve more attention.