Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Stonington Vineyard

Hitting the Connecticut Wine Trail again recently took us to one of the state's oldest wineries, Stonington Vineyards, in the southeast corner of the state. I was really looking forward to this stop, since I've had their chardonnay a number of times. In fact, Stonington was one of two Connecticut chardonnays that we used to sell at the wine store where I worked. We always liked their chard, but it's been six or seven years since I've tasted it. Would they still measure up?

When it comes to chards, a definite, yes. As for the rest, read on...

The Facilities
A long driveway takes you out to the red barn-like winery that is not among the most stylish in the state. But the grounds, with their well-tended gardens and gazebo that looks out over the vineyards, definitely feature some nice spots on which to enjoy a glass of wine outdoors.

Inside, the winery has a nice little gift shop and a no-frills art gallery that doubles as a setting for small functions or events. The tasting room itself is a small area wedged between a bar and the gift shop, that definitely left us wishing for a little more elbow room as we competed for space with a crew of six female college buddies on a reunion excursion. Overall, it's a simple, pleasant environment that's adequate but not inspiring. I would give the facilities 3 out of 5 points.

The Staff
Our pourer had the disadvantage of being a bit on the shy side, but she clearly knew her stuff as I flung question after question her way, never once feeling like I got an incomplete or misleading answer. She definitely was helpful and immersed in the world of wine, but I couldn't help but feel she might not kindle a fire in some people. So, I give the staff a largely positive score of 4 out 5 points.

The Wines
The wines at Stonington most definitely benefit from the moderating influences of Long Island Sound. Being near the ocean can mean the difference between a cold winter and a bitter winter that destroys half your vines. It also can help set the stage for marvelous cool weather grapes, like reisling or chardonnay.

At Stonington, just like some of the other Connecticut winemakers I've met, they freely admit not having the environment needed to make good red wines. Consequently, the line-up is almost entirely white wines -- though they do make a cabernet franc. Similar to other Connecticut wineries dabbling in red, they owe any success they enjoy to grapes purchased from other states. The pleasure of tasting these wines here will set you back $5 a person.

2005 Sheer Chardonnay $15.99. Sheer in this case means no oak aging, so it's sheer fruit you taste. The result is a pleasant, if unsensational, wine with apples, pears and even minerals on the nose and a bright, acidic finish.

2003 Stonington Chardonnay $16.99. This is the chard I'm used to from Stonington. It has a full nose of vanilla, butterscotch and spiced apples. It has a creamy mouthfeel, but enough crispness to finish clean. The 2003 is the product of a great vintage, unlike 2005. A very good wine.

2003 Vidal Blanc $11.99. Fermented in steel, but aged in oak, this wine has interesting lemony flavors. This hybrid does not make one of my favorite wines, but Stonington does it better than many others.

Seaport White $8.99. This blend of vidal, cayuga and chardonnay is a little sweeter, lighter wine than the others. It might appeal to those looking for a simple, quaffable summer white.

2005 Triad Rose $14.99. An off dry rose that starts with a pleasant strawberry nose but finishes a little green. I can't recommend it.

2004 Cabernet Franc $19.99. Thank goodness for purchased grapes because this is a nice cabernet franc with lovely aromas of cassis and blackberries. It has some short-term aging potential as well.

The experience of the family shows at Stonington, as the whites show nice fruit and balance overall. The cabernet franc also is well made, even if the estate vines don't play a significant role. I give the wines an 8 out of 10 score.

Stonington Vineyards is worth a visit, if for nothing else than to taste one of the better chardonnays in the state. And, you may want to try it while it's still in the hands of the family that's owned it for most of the last two decades -- as it's one of several Connecticut wineries currently for sale. While they have a lovely property, Stonington does not have one of the more impressive tasting room facilities, but it's simplicity is not a real drawback, either. I give the winery an overall score of 15 out of 20 points.

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, August 26, 2006

Bordeaux Blues

The news this week out of France is that French consumers are angry about 2005 Bordeaux prices. Apart from the fact that the French are angry about a lot of things, I found this story interesting for a couple of reasons.

The huge price hikes for the much-heralded 2005 vintage, though not yet in bottles, comes as the highly publicized wine glut in France continues to grow. The French have always been the biggest consumers of their own wine, but wine consumption in France has been dropping. And, most French wine labels are not up to competing on the worldwide wine market with more marketing-savvy New World winemakers.

The glut, however, does not apply to marquis wines such as fine Bordeaux. They are not, for the most part, staying home without a date on Saturday night. But one thing's for sure -- the astronomical price hikes for '05 Bordeaux will do nothing for the French wine industry's overall problems. Even French consumers are calling Bordeaux merchants greedy -- sort of like how we feel about our oil companies.

If some wine collectors cannot help themselves regardless of price, I think many others are getting to the point of swearing off Bordeaux -- including many, like myself, who refused to participate in the silly, politically motivated boycott of French products during the outbreak of the Iraq war. I mean, who can stand to pay 300 percent price hikes for a product that comes down only a little in off years.

The '03s are in the process of arriving right now, and I've been looking for some of the better wines from this scorcher of a vintage. I picked up a Chateau Angelus today -- not cheap by any means but a lot better than paying for a first growth and probably a lot more affordable than the '05 version will be.

I don't go crazy for Bordeaux mainly because of the price. But I like to pick up some every 2 or 3 years for long-term aging. They, along with wines from the Piedmont, are still the best bets, as far as I'm concerned, for long-term cellaring. But as I look at the prices on the '03s and read about the '05s, I'm starting to feel like this is a personal tradition that probably is coming to an end.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Jonathan Edwards Winery

For Connecticut wine enthusiasts, there's a really unusual winetasting experience waiting for you at the Jonathan Edwards Winery in North Stonington. And, California readers may find this of interest as well.

My wife and I hit the Connecticut wine trail again last week, concentrating this time on wineries in the southeastern part of the state. Tasters may notice that many of the wineries in this vicinity benefit from some moderating influences of Long Island Sound. But, surprisingly to some, Connecticut's coastal weather doesn't matter one bit to most of the wines at Jonathan Edwards.

Turns out you can get a pretty reliable taste of Napa Valley in North Stonington by going to Jonathan Edwards, and if you've never been to Napa Valley you owe it to yourself to check out this place. But I'm going to warn you upfront -- you're going to pay for the privilege.

The Facilities
Jonathan Edwards is located in North Stonington farm country, but there is much about the winery that is more reminiscent of California than Connecticut. First of all, the white clapboard house and connected tasting room and barn are sundrenched. There is little in the way of trees near the winery, just sun-baked white buildings and vineyards. On the bright sunny day we were there I definitely was not thinking of typical New England ambience.

Best of all, when you get inside the tasting room, it feels almost as though you are right smack in the middle of Napa Valley. This warm tasting room has the look and feel of a western winery or farm with its modern style and heavy use of light oak. If you've ever been to Napa, you can get nostalgic here. Or, you can just go with it and enjoy the uncluttered, roomy environment. It's an atmosphere meant to make you feel immersed in Napa, and I think it works.

My wife thought the gift shop was subpar, but I think most people will find the atmosphere fun and inviting. I give the facilities 5 out of 5 points.

The Staff
Our pourer had an impressive knowledge of all the products they sell and what it takes to make great wines. She was stumped by no questions, and knew the ins and outs of the business. She also had a subdued enthusiasm for wine that would not hit anyone over the head, but would surely convince them of the depth of her passion -- with just a little probing.

The only problem we found was that it was hard to get her attention for very long, despite the distinctly uncrowded room. Phone calls and drop-in visits interrupted our tasting a couple of times, without apology, giving the occasion an alternatingly frenetic and neglected feel. For this reason, I give the staff a 4 out 5 score.

The Wines
This was such a fun tasting because the products are so unique compared to those served by other Connecticut wineries. But that does not mean Jonathan Edwards is an unqualified success. For starters, wine tastings here will cost you $6 a person -- seems like everyone is charging these days. The problem I have in this case is that my wife showed me a Rhode Island tourism booklet with an ad for Jonathan Edwards claiming winetastings here are complimentary. Definitely not cool.

The wines themselves speak to a philosophy openly voiced by our pourer: "We stick to what we do well, and they (California) do great reds out there." That means most of the winery's white wines are made here with Connecticut fruit. But most of the reds are Napa-sourced. Jonathan Edwards has long-term contracts with some Napa vineyards to supply fruit. Jon goes out to Napa in the fall and oversees harvest, crush and fermentation. The wine is then shipped back to Connecticut for aging in barrels.

So, the wines billed as Napa Valley Wines really do come from Napa. It's a confirmation of sorts that quality reds from Connecticut are a rarity. I found our pourer's admission rather refreshing, since I've heard some Connecticut winery workers dance dizzyingly around this issue.

The whites are another story -- they're often quite good. Jonathan Edwards' 20 acres are used for growing gewurztraminer, chardonnay and some cabernet franc. Or, in the words of our pourer, "whatever would do well in Germany." Only trouble is, you can't get any. There were no Connecticut wines available when we visited -- this year's release of Connecticut whites are already sold out (the gewurzt after just five days), and the cabernet franc won't be released until fall.

It makes you wonder a bit about their commitment to Connecticut wines, and it certainly makes it harder to properly review their wines. The only recourse I'm left with is to review the Napa wines vs what we've sampled at the Napa wineries we've visited. If I was reviewing these wines vs other Connecticut reds, Jonathan Edwards would be a winner hands down. Most of these wines are in fact very good, but there were a couple of issues.

2004 Napa Valley Chardonnay $19. A good California chard showing plenty of green apples with a smoky, toasty oak finish. Good acidity.

2004 Napa Valley Merlot $23. Ripe plum and cassis flavors with a medium finish.

2003 Napa Valley Zinfandel $25. Jammy black cherry but slightly cloying residual sweetness. Definitely lacks balance.

2003 Napa Valley Cabernet $32. Black cherry and cassis flavors and soft texture, but may be lacking in complexity for the price.

2002 Napa Valley Syrah $32. Lots of black fruit and a bit of pepper with a great zesty finish. My favorite red.

2003 Napa Valley Syrah Port $40 (half bottle). This is a good domestic port, showing black cherry, cocoa and blueberries. But this is a ridiculous price -- $80 for the equivalent of a full bottle? This is true vintage port territory price-wise, but with little of the true complexity you would expect from great vintage ports.

All in all, these are very good wines, though I would have liked a little more complexity for the prices. The cost of long-haul transportation is definitely built in. Still, price aside, I give these wines an 8 out of 10 score, though I'm tempted to knock off a point for the paucity of Connecticut wines.

If you are cool with the prices, I definitely recommend giving these wines a try -- especially if you have not been able to enjoy a real Napa Valley winetasting experience. On a sunny day, you'll get a nice glimpse of the Napasque-venue. I only wish the Connecticut wines were produced in sufficient quantities to demonstrate that they take these wines seriously as well. If so, and the wines are well made, this could have been my first 9 out of 10 score for wines. Regardless, Jonathan Edwards' total score stands at 17 out of 20 points.

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.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Sorry About That!

I've been bad about blogging recently, but my excuse is, vacation...again! Kathy and I took off for a week last month, but we had another week coming to us, this time at the Rhode Island shore.

Normally, I would have posted something to that effect or made some special arrangements to get online. But I thought I was going to be able to do all the posting I wanted where I was staying...I was wrong. Sorry about that. The good news is that we were close to several Connecticut wineries in the southeast corner of the state, much closer than I would be from home. So we did some tasting while on vacation, and I'll be reporting on it this week. Just got home and have too much unpacking to do right now!

Who, who looks after wine made in Southeastern Connecticut?

What's the best way to top off a day of rigorous winetasting?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Spectator Curse Reversed

Most of us read wine magazines to try to stay current with trends in the wine business. We also hope to get word of exciting new finds, especially in the value category. But when Wine Spectator suddenly discovers wines you know and love, it's no blessing. It's usually a curse.

Do you remember the 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cepage? This is a very good Sonoma meritage that just a few years ago was selling for $28. Then, the 1996 turned out to be a truly outstanding wine that prompted Wine Spectator to declare it "wine of the year" five or six years back -- due at least in part to its very affordable price tag.

If you don't know the story you can probably guess the rest. Suddenly, you couldn't find the wine. If you did, it was marked up as high as $75 a bottle. Price gouging? You bet. But try to get government worked up about the (high) price of wine.

Recently, I thought we had another, if less dramatic, example of the curse. This spring, Spectator sang the praises of a terrific value wine, 2004 Falesco Vitiano, giving it 90 points. Now, I've been enjoying this wine for about 10 years. It's not a blockbuster wine, but it does deliver more complexity than the vast majority of $10 wines out there. A few months ago, I noticed that some bloggers were questioning whether this is really a 90-point wine. Maybe a fun blog topic, but there's no denying there's real value in this wine. So, I always liked to have some on hand.

I cringed when I saw the review. I just knew it was now going to be hard to find, though this is far from a limited production wine. Sure enough, I couldn't find it for months. I was sure it was the Spectator curse all over again.

Last weekend, however, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. There it was on the shelf at one of the wine shops I frequent. And, it wasn't marked up, either. Just $11. Turns out, I discovered, that a different distributor is now handling the wine in Connecticut. So, wine shops used to getting the wine from someone else were not finding it listed. Only recently have they discovered that they have to look to a different distributor to get it.

Like I said, not a blockbuster, so I wasn't going to lose any sleep if it wasn't available. But it is so worth the money and I'm so used to having it that I'm much happier now. Saved this time from the Spectator curse. But beware. It's out there, yet.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Perfect Match?

While Americans in general are becoming more knowledgable about wines and comfortable with their own preferences, I think the question of what wine to pair with specific foods continues to goose the insecurities in most wine consumers.

When I worked in a wine shop, the variations in these questions were endless. I always advised customers to think about matching the weight of the wine to the weight of the dish -- rich foods with rich wines and light foods with light-bodied wines. The big question is always how the food is prepared, what kind of sauce is used, not whether the meat is white or red. After finding the right group of wines, there's a lot of room for personal preference.

Part of the reason for all the insecurity is that many so-called experts insist on certain magical pairings. A lot of Americans probably assume that these codified pairings are logged somewhere and only those who've undergone rigorous training and learned the secret handshake can get access to them. Make an uninformed choice based on your own tastes? Might as well wear a scarlet "P" for philistine.

I got to thinking about all of this while trying to decide what wine to have with lamb chops on the grill last night. I have always had a special fondness for Beaucastel chateauneuf-du-pape with lamb chops, but I have found several other combinations much to my liking as well, like a spicy, earthy cab (as opposed to the fruit bomb variety) or any of the peppery southern Rhone reds.

Part of the reason for my preference is that I like my lamb done simply on the grill with plenty of cracked black pepper and rosemary. Like mint jelly with your lamb (not my cup of tea)? Then you probably want a shiraz or a cab with a little residual sweetness.

However, I decided it was time to break from my personal routine and see what others say about it these days. Some swear by red Bordeaux with roasted lamb and new world pinot noir with grilled lamb chops. Others frowned on the choice of new world reds or (my choice) southern Rhones with lamb. And, a local wine shop proprietor said red Burgundy is the "classic" pairing with lamb.

Since I have some red Burgundies aging in the basement, I decided to give this suggestion a whirl. I was sure red Burgundy has potential because most Burgundies I've tasted have plenty of complexity, and I like an earthy wine with the full taste of lamb. That's why I never seriously considered inexpensive, new world pinot noir with their strawberry bouquets.

I chose a '96 Daniel Rion Vosne Romanee Villages. The aromas of black fruit, leather and earth went extremely well with the lamb, each sophisticated yet soft and enjoyable. The wine had a vibrant, acidic finish that made me wish I was drinking premier cru or grand cru, but there was no denying that the primary flavors matched up very well together.

Was it a perfect match? Silly question. I believe there can be only favorite matches, since this is such a personal business. While I still personally love Beaucastel with lamb chops, I'll just have to keep trying different combinations to see if it's truly perfect for me. That's what wine appreciation really is, experience born of tasting, tasting and more tasting.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

McLaughlin Vineyards

Distracted for a short time by a vacation trip north, we resumed our journey on the Connecticut Wine Trail earlier this week. And, good news, we finally found some Connecticut red wine worth writing about.

We had a great time visiting the McLaughlin Vineyard in Sandy Hook, a family-owned winery located on a 160-acre farm. One rather quaint feature is that visiting McLaughlin requires driving down a long gravel driveway that winds first through some woods and then through vineyards. You can see vineyards from other wineries, but none take you by so many rows of vines as McLaughlin -- a definite mood enhancer.

The Facilities
One of the oldest in the state, the winery is housed in a simple gray building with a lovely patio that overlooks acres of vineyards and a wide swath of green lawn. It's an ideal location to hold an "event" or just to sit while enjoying a bottle of wine.

Inside, the winery hosts a nice country store that features not only wines and wine-relate souvenirs but farm products, such as maple syrup, berries and farm-fresh eggs. In an adjacent room is a small winetasting bar, where visitors gather to sample five different wines while the pourer explains the unique traits of each.

The two rooms in the tasting area create a nice ambience with a mixture of wine-related pictures, barrels, stemware and other paraphernalia. The facility strikes a nice balance overall, with its country store approach in front and its more pure wine experience in the back. I think anyone would enjoy the experience of tasting wines in this environment, so I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 score.

The Staff
Our pourer was cordial and knowledgable, which is half the battle when you visit a winery and want to have a good time. He was able to answer virtually every question I asked, except those regarding older vintages at McLaughlin. Hard to fault him too much for this. He also was more erudite than enthusiastic, which, again, is a very minor complaint. I give the staff a 4 out of 5 score.

The Wines
Winetasting at McLaughlin costs $5, but as I indicated at the beginning, I got a nice surprise for my money. I knew almost nothing about this winery going in, which means that I got to experience an exciting element of discovery in addition to the pleasure of the wine itself. Finally, some Connecticut red worthy of a nice filet mignon or a Delmonico.

Vista Muse 2002: This chardonnay (from Long Island) and seyval blanc (estate) blend has terrific peach and melon aromas up front with a tart, lemony finish. A very respectable summer quaff.
Merlot 2002: This merlot (Long Island) and cabernet franc (estate) blend has a nice jammy nose with an herbaceous finish. It's more light-bodied than the nose first indicates, but not a bad effort.
Vista Reposa 2000: I realy liked this wine. It has complexity. Made mostly with estate-grown cabernet franc, this interesting red showed some earthy, almost barnyard aromas that stopped me in my tracks. My first taste of real Connecticut terrior? I also got blueberry notes as well. This $14 wine is definitely worth the price, even if the body is medium at best. I'm guessing the 2000 vintage was kinder to Connecticut wines than the more recent vintages I've been tasting at other wineries.
Vista Reposa 2001: Same wine but a different vintage with less cab franc and more marachel fauche. The difference is apparent right away -- no barnyard. But it still shows some nice black fruit. Also a very enjoyable red at $15, and a fine companion for many foods.
Blue Coyote: This is a semi-sweet white made entirely from the Aurora grape, with green apple aromas and a surprisngly tart finish. It wasn't my cup of tea, but it was stylistically interesting.

McLaighlin does not offer as many wines to taste as some Connecticut wineries, but what they do pour is interesting and well made. I give the wines an 8 out of 10 score.

Overall, I think most consumers would enjoy a trip to McLaughlin for both the wine and the locale. Their wines show just what can be done on Connecticut soil. Total score: 16 out of 20 points.

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.