Sunday, October 29, 2006

Are We There Yet?

One of the big surprises for newbies is that something on the order of 95 percent of the wine you find in stores is ready to consume the day you buy them. No wine before its time? A gross exaggeration, or even myth, perpetrated by marketers years ago.

But if you want to know the joys of a well-aged wine you could do a lot worse than to invest in some Brunello di Montalcino. Vacationing in Tuscany and want to bring back a few bottled memories? Forget about chianti, a decent enough but unsensational table wine. Brunello is a darker, richer Tuscan wine with much greater longevity.

If you want to monitor a wine's development over time, Brunello is a great place to start. Sure, there are lots of wines you can buy that will improve with age, such as the better Bordeaux or California cabs, and Barolos or Barbarescos. But you can pay an awful lot for these ageworthy wines.

Brunellos are not exactly cheap; in fact, they're getting much more expensive. But I think they still represent a great buy relative to other collectible wines. And, in my opinion, if you can't wait to open up a bottle, Brunellos still have a lot to offer even if drunk younger than recommended.

Back when the heralded '97s were released, I bought as many as I could. But I could only afford one or two bottles of several different labels because the price tag had climbed to $50 - $60 a bottle. A local wine store, however, highly recommended one that went for only about $32 a bottle -- Fattoria La Lecciaia. Anxious to try such a wine over time, like the big guys with deep pockets, I plunked down the hard-earned cash for half a case.

Last night we tried the wine for the fourth time, and I'm happy to report that this wine is absolutely delicious right now. Though not quite 10 years old, it's either at peak or just starting to slide ever so slightly over the hump. The tannins have softened nicely, producing a completely silky texture. And, the youthful, vigorous fruit has morphed a bit into a complex blend of earth and leather and brown spice that can be an amazing revelation for anyone used to drinking fruit bombs.

If you don't currently tuck away a few bottles for aging you owe it to yourself to strive for this unique tasting experience, now and then. Yes, you want to make sure you're choosing the right wine from the right vintage for aging, and these wines can be expensive. But you don't want to miss this tasting experience. Just ask your wine retailer to point out the bargains among the real ageworthy wines and get as many as you can so that you can taste over time and learn.

The '97 Fattoria La Lecciaia has been berry, berry good to me.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Back to School

I've said it many times -- one of the joys of buying wine while traveling and carrying it back (when you could still carry it on a plane) with you is that it takes you back to a fun place and time, while also permitting you the hedonistic pleasure of some fine wine. Last night, we went back to school.

Not the school of our youth, but rather L'Ecole No. 41, a fine Washington state winery housed in an old school building. Located in Frenchtown just west of Walla Walla, the winery name pays tribute to the early French Canadian settlers who may have cultivated the region's first grapes and to the 1915 building itself.

We knew nothing about this particular winery when we stopped there on a tour of Yakima Valley and Walla Walla wineries a couple of years ago. But I was immediately impressed by both the wines and the setting.

Wisely, the owners decided not to gut the building and create another California style tasting room experience. Instead, they plunked down a tasting bar in an old school room. Blackboards filled with wine information still anchor the decor, though there are shelves and racks of the usual wine-related gifts. It is unique, to say the least. When we descended the brick stairway lined with old pictures down to the facilities, I had flashbacks to the old elementary school I attended. I half expected a pop quiz.

But there was nothing to sweat when it came to the wines. I was really impressed by virtually every one, though not by our pourer who looked bored out of her mind. But she did not spoil things because the wines were so well made we did not need guidance to help us figure out we had stumbled on a great winery.

The Seven Hills vineyard merlot we had last night showed off a richness and complexity that is becoming a trademark of the Seven Hills area of Walla Walla. This wine has wonderful plum, black cherry, cocoa and mocha flavors. Don't be fooled into thinking merlot can't be good, especially from a winery like this.

What a pleasure, in this case, to go back to school.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Priam Vineyards

If asked for a rule of thumb guide to picking a good Connecticut wine, I'd say stick with those who have the experience. In general, the best of the bunch during our wine tour this summer and fall came from wineries that have been around for 15 or more years.

But every generalization is vulnerable to exception, and on the Connecticut wine scene that notable exception could be Priam Vineyards in Colchester. Priam, the name is borrowed from the king of Troy in Greek mythology, is not yet ready to rule. But I found more character here than I expected from this three-year-old winery and no total clunkers, unlike other young Connecticut wineries.

The Facilities
Simplicity is the force at play at this eastern Connecticut stop on the wine trail. Unlike some other wineries, Priam does not seem to be striving for elegance nor is it giving in to the rustic farm look.

Instead, Priam took a simple gray barn-like structure and completed it with a simple, clean modern interior featuring light-colored wood decorated overhead with electric grape lights.

But, if the decor is underwhelming, the functionality and efficiency are not. The tasting room features a long tasting bar, with bar stools, that accommodates quite a few comfortably. And, when it's really busy, as it was the day we visited, there's another bar they can open up around the bend in the L-shaped room.

What this says to me is that they have made the convenience of tasters the focal point of their interior design. That, after all, is really what it's all about, not the work of local artists -- however enjoyable they may be. I give the facilities a 5 out of 5 score.

The Staff
We visited Priam on a busy Saturday, always a good test of the staff's commitment to facilitating an enjoyable winetasting experience. The crew with whom we interacted were at all times friendly and accommodating.

It took a bit of coaxing to get a more informative element as well. But the experience was largely a positive one. Questions for the most part were answered, if without much enthusiasm. I give the staff a 4 out of 5 score.

The Wines
Winetasting at Priam will cost you $6 or $8, depending on which style of glass you want to purchase. Yes, yet another Connecticut winery won't let you taste unless you pay for the glasses -- it's up to you whether you take the glasses home. I've said before how much I hate this practice, and $8 for a tasting is starting to get in the realm of exhorbitant.

With a modest 40 acres of vineyards, some Priam wines were no longer (not yet in some cases) available. But six wines were available for tasting, including one red.

Cayuga $16.50. The style of this hybrid wine may not be everyone's favorite, but they managed to coax some genuinely attractive flavors from the wine. I found grapefruit, pear and banana aromas in a nearly dry presentation.

Blackledge White $15.50. This blend of cayuga and riesling had a sweet pineapple aroma and spicy characteristics. I did not find it as crisp as billed, but a very pleasant wine.

Riesling $18.50. I very much enjoyed this Alsatian-style riesling, which had a floral, citrusy nose and just a hint of sweetness.

Salmon River White $15.50. This a chardonnay blend that is billed as off dry. It shows off some nice spiced apple and vanilla aromas, but it's not a style of chardonnay I enjoy much.

Jeremy River White $15.50. Again a blend of riesling and cayuga, but this time quite sweet due to cold fermentation. There was just a hint of orange peel on the nose, but not balanced enough for me.

Jeremy River Red $16.50. Billed as a Bordeaux blend of cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, this wine was a pleasant surprise. The grapes are all estate grown, we were told, which shocked me because it actually has a pleasant nose of black cherries and spicy oak. No one will be bowled over by the wine because it lacks body, but the aromas and flavors are true. I'm guessing there's not much cabernet sauvignon in it, since this tough-skinned grape requires too much hot, sunny weather to do well here. Still, Jeremy River is not a bad light-style cab and went fairly well with the 50-cent pieces of chocolate they sell.

Overall, the wines here are pretty well made. I would have liked to try their other wines, such as the late-harvest riesling and gewurztraminer, but those we had were enjoyable. I noticed little of the green, underripe flavors that come with some Connecticut wines. Priam holds lots of promise for what may be possible as the vines mature and the winemaker gets additional experience working with this terroir. I give the wines a 7 out of 10 score.

Quality-wise, Priam has gotten a good start out of the gate, and already is making some very good wines. As for ambience, if you're looking for fashion or style to enhance your experience, you're probably better off visiting one of several other Connecticut wineries. But if it's all about the wines, you'll like Priam just fine. Their overall score is 16 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.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Other Cristal

While true wine fans know Champagne and sparkling wines are not just for special occasions, there still remains no better beverage to help revel in a special moment. Take last weekend -- my pal in all things Red Sox, Jim, was over as a certain team was collapsing. It was too good a moment to pass up without some bubbly -- sorry Austenesque, the rivalry demands it.

Luckily some Cristalino Brut was at hand to help enhance the moment. And, while the moment was indeed enjoyable, we suddenly found ourselves distracted by the contents in the glass. This isn't just a good sparkler, it's truly amazing...for about $10 a bottle.

A lot of cheap sparklers are vainly in pursuit of the yeasty qualities in the more expensive Champagnes. To say they don't come close is an understatement -- anyone who's ever actually drank to a wedding toast can testify to how dreadful some cheap sparklers are. The Cristalino Brut is no pale imitation of anything. It has its own brand of appley, citrusy flavors that jump out of the glass.

It's a great idea to keep at least a few good bottles of bubbly around the house, for unexpectedly special moments or just to match up with your Asian food. With sparklers like this, at $10 a bottle, there's no excuse not to.

Some people claim that sales of Champagne are up. It's great stuff, no doubt about it. But if you haven't yet experienced what Spain is doing with sparkling wines, get to it. You'll save a lot of money and enjoy yourself just as much, well as long as the sports gods are kind, you will.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sharpe Hill Vineyard

Tucked away in Connecticut's rural northeast corner, the Sharpe Hill Vineyard doesn't feel like it's close to anything. Indeed, it was our longest trek to a Connecticut vineyard, and we're more or less located in the center of the state. But, don't let that stop you. Sharpe Hill is arguably the Connecticut Wine Trail's finest "destination."

Sharpe Hill is quite simply a fabulous setting for an outing, especially right now while Connecticut's hillsides are beginning to light up with color. And, the winery hosts a fantastic, though pricey, restaurant. The fare here features classics such as filet mignon and Delmonico steaks, and the more trendy, such as Jamaican chicken. But what makes the restaurant so distinctive is the liberal use of estate-grown herbs and fresh ingrediants of all kinds -- right down to the edible flowers on your plate.

However, we had such a wonderful meal and were so impressed by everything in sight that I have to make a very deliberate effort to prevent my enthusiasm for the dining experience to spill over into my review of the wines. This is not a restaurant review, after all.

The Facilities
The winery is located in a hilly, pastoral setting bordered by forests -- quintessentially New England. But the vineyards you pass driving in help you appreciate that this no dairy farm. To really soak up the vineyard ambience, you must walk up the hill and through the rows of vines, as guests are invited to do. You will learn a few things about vineyard management -- loudspeakers pipe in the sounds of predatory birds squawking loudly to scare off the grape-eating birds -- and you will be treated to some lovely views of the valley below.

The facilities themselves are rustic, on the one hand, with their exposed beams, barnboards and plank floors. But these modernized barns are so lushly decorated with flowers, so clean and well organized that the scene is somehow one of rustic elegance. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but believe me, you'll struggle to come up with an apt description of your own for this simple but classy environment.

There's only one potentially sour note to the setting. The tasting room is the first room you enter upon arrival, and it has a very definite rustic charm with its antiques and colonial farm decor. But as soon as you request a tasting you soon discover the quarters set aside for tasters are cramped, indeed.

The tiny tasting bar more closely resembles a check-in counter at a country inn than a winetasting bar. Four is the absolute maximum that can fit comfortably at the bar to sample wines. If you come at an off-time and have the place to yourselves or if you can get a seat outside on the patio for a tasting, you'd probably think I'm exaggerating the point. But if you come on a busy weekend, I'm sure you'll agree Sharpe Hill is not paying enough attention to the needs and comfort of tasters.

For this reason, I've got to knock a point off the score for the quality of these otherwise charming and enjoyable facilities. I give the facilities a 4 out of 5 score.

The Staff
Sharpe Hill is a big enough operation that you're not likely to run into the winemaker schmoozing with guests. But the staff we met helped make up for that fact. They were friendly, knowledgable and eager to find the answers to questions not exactly wine-oriented -- my wife's curiosity led her to grill the staff about the identities and other details of some of the early American portraits that grace some of the Sharpe Hill wine labels. When they did not know answers, they found someone who did.

These women were patient and personable. They were sometimes distracted by the large number of tasters and guests on the patio, making extended conversations sometimes difficult, but this was understandable and not a significant problem. I give the staff a 5 out of 5 score.

The Wines
Tasting at Sharpe Hill will set you back $5 a person, a fairly standard amount for Connecticut wineries. In general, I found many high quality white wines and some passable reds. Sharpe Hill offers more wines to try than do most others, so it probably makes sense to get right to it.

Ballet of Angels, $10.99. This is the winery's signature wine, found in almost every Connecticut wine store. The staff claims it's New England's best-selling wine. They will divulge that the wine includes vignoles and up to 8 other grapes, but staffers will say no more about the exact blend -- the "winemaker's secret." In any event, this stainless fermented and aged wine has very nice grapefruit and lime flavors with a sweet note throughout. Not enough sweetness to be distracting, but enough to keep it in mind for spicy foods.

Cuvee Ammi Phillips 2004, $22.99. This chardonnay, made exclusively with Long Island fruit, is a big California-style wine. Aged in French oak, it has rich vanilla and cooked apple flavors. Despite the very noticeable oak, it's fairly well integrated.

Sharpe Hill Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2003, $15.99. This estate chardonnay is a more subtle, yet enjoyable, version of chardonnay. Aged in old oak only, the fruit trumps the vanilla here for a crisp and food-friendly wine. I'm not sure why they serve it after the Phillips, but I would not do so.

Sharpe Hill Vineyard Dry Riesling 2005, $14.99. If you're used to lush, sweet riesling, this wine will come as a surprise to you. It has nice citrussy flavors and some flowery aromas, and could pair well with goat cheese appetizers. It finishes very crisply.

Dry Summer Rose, $14.99. This a very crisp, dry rose with just a hint of strawberries. It's a little too light, I think, but they did manage to keep it in the realm of respectability.

Red Seraph, $12.99. This blend of merlot and St. Croix has some nice plum and red licorice aromas but finishes weakly. It's a pleasant red, but not quite up to the food pairings suggested by the Sharpe Hill menu -- lamb and chocolate desserts? It would be crushed, and not in a good harvest way.

Cabernet Franc 2003, $17.49. Cabernet franc tends to be New England's favorite red vinifera grape because it does not take as long to ripen as others. This wine shows some nice red cherry and raspberry aromas but is just a bit thin and underripe. It's enjoyable but shows the difficulties New Englanders face trying to make quality red wines.

St. Croix 2004, $17.99. The tart red cherry fruit does not show a hint of complexity and makes me wonder about the 14 medals it's supposed to have won.

Select Late Harvest 2004, $22.99. Not a bad effort at all, with pineapple and sweet lime flavors. I would have liked a bit more acidity and balance, but the flavors extracted from this boytryticized vignole-based wine are very pleasant.

Despite a couple of misses in the red wine category, Sharpe Hill makes some excellent wines worthy of seeking out. Most people in the area may know Sharpe Hill only for its popular Ballet of Angels wine, but they really should try more of the lineup. I give the wines an 8 out of 10 score.

With some very strong white wines and an idyllic setting, Sharpe Hill should be one of the 3 or 4 Connecticut wineries you visit if you have to limit yourself to just a few. There's an attention to detail here that you won't find just anywhere. Sharpe Hill's overall score comes to 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.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Through A Glass Wastefully

As my wife and I have made our way across the Connecticut Wine Trail this summer, I've been both delightfully surprised and disappointed by what we've found. In one regard, we're downright annoyed -- by the profusion of winery glasses foisted upon us.

At the vast majority of wineries we visited this summer we discovered that we had no choice but to buy wine glasses bearing the winery's logo. I say buy, even though the glasses are supposedly free when you pay your tasting fee. Now, we have more wine glasses than we know what to do with.

Almost every winery these days charges to taste. It's true in California, and it's true here in the Northeast. It doesn't matter much whether the wines are held in high regard or not, a nominal fee is the norm. I don't really mind. It's fair for wineries to recoup the overhead costs of employing people to serve those wines, and it's understandable that they want to do something to weed out frivolous "drinkers" from the serious tasters.

But, I object to paying for wineries' more overt marketing efforts. It's obvious that wineries like to send customers home with glasses bearing the winery name and logo so that they will serve their friends wine in a miniature glass billboard. A tacit endorsement of the winery. The problem with this is that you know the cost of all those glasses is built into your tasting fee, so by taking the glasses home and using them in front of friends you are taking on some of their advertising costs.

I suppose for young couples just starting out, the glasses really can be a help. But for those of us who have invested money in acquiring the right glasses, these winery glasses can be an annoying waste. Of course, you can always refuse to take the wine glasses, but I more or less look at that option as leaving money on the table.

We have done winetastings everywhere from Virginia to Napa, and it seems like it's only here in the Northeast that so many wineries try to foist their wine glasses on you. It's probably a case of trying a little too hard for recognition. Can you imagine if every winery you visited on a trip to Napa or Sonoma or Bordeaux gave you glasses? Where would you put them? How would you get them home without breakage?

One of these days we'll have to hold a stemware tag sale. Maybe then we can get a refund on excessive tasting fees.