Standing the Test of Time…

I recently pulled some reasonably old wines from Cline Family Cellars out of the dark corners of the wine cellar and opened them for a taste. The results were surprisingly strong. I say surprisingly, because my personal experience with aging mid-level California wines has been decidedly mixed.

I probably should not be surprised, though. I have been enjoying Cline Family wines since the late 80’s and always found them to be a notch better than other wines at their price points. For those who are unfamiliar with the brand, Cline Family Cellars was started in 1982 in Oakley California by Fred Cline. The early vintages came from original plantings of Mourvèdre, Zinfandel and Carignane dating back to 1880. In 1989, Cline purchased a 350-acre horse farm in Carneros and relocated the winery to Sonoma County. Cline chose Rhone varietals as their focus, planting Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. As the years past, so did further expansion, both in acreage in Sonoma and in breadth of varietals, adding Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay.

Cline Family Cellars is exactly that, a family-owned operation. As their website states, the winery is “built on a passion for winemaking and rooted in respect for the land.” As such, the winery practices sustainable farming at all their sites, achieving Certified status in Sonoma County as well as the state of California. An abiding philosophy at Cline is stewardship of the land, something that is echoed in the quality of their wines.

The same attention to sustainable farming is applied to wine making, where a combination of classic techniques is combined with modern technologies to produce authentic and expressive wines that allow the quality and character of the fruit, and vineyards to speak through the wine.

The wines in question predate much of what is on the web site, so it is hard for me to say what, if any influence the current team had on their production. However, it is safe to say that the wines showed so well after nearly 20 years in the cellar because of the basic philosophies of “passion” and “respect.” The foundation upon which Fred Cline built his winery shows in the longevity if these bottles.

ClineZinfandel

2003 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel

Bold nose, with cherry, blackberry and red current hints. Surprisingly powerful for a wine of this age. Well balanced, with moderate acid and well-integrated tannin. Silky. Burnished on the finish. Raisins, exotic spices and dried fruit on the finish. At peak. Very impressive.

ClineMorvedre

2001 Cline Ancient Vines Mourvèdre

Lively nose with blackberry, cherry jam notes and hints of allspice. Jammy, with elegant structure and very well-integrated tannin. At peak, but with a seemingly tireless finish… suggesting a long duration at peak! Another stellar offering!

2001 Cline Small Berries Mourvèdre

Spectacular fruit on the nose, bright and intense. Well-balanced with finesse and elegance and an endless, layered finish. Black cherry, menthol and eucalyptus in the palate with dried currant, raisin and tar on the aftertaste. Remarkable!

 

Whisky and Special Cask Finishes

Today, we are going to explore the topic of barrel finishing Scotch.

For those who may know a lot about this subject, the following will, hopefully serve as a quick and useful review. For those to whom the topic is new, I hope the discussion serves to broaden your understanding and enjoyment of Whisky.

So, let’s start at the beginning: What is Whisky?

From Webster’s… “Whisky or whiskey is a type of distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn, rye, and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak.”

To fully understand how barrel finishing comes into play, it becomes necessary to review the process for making Scotch Malt Whisky:

  1. Barley is steeped in water and spread on the malting floor to germinate. This accomplishes two things – one, the water, drawn from local sources, introduces flavors into the grain (brine, iodine, peat, etc.); and two, the malting process converts the grain to fermentable sugar.
  2. The Barley is then dried, usually over a peat fire to both stop the germination, as well as to introduce other flavors into the grain (smoke, peat, earth, etc.).
  3. The dried Barley is then milled to grist, the grist is again mixed with hot water and placed in a mash tun – this mixture is called a wort.
  4. Yeast in now added to the wort and fermentation is undertaken, creating a beer-like liquid called a wash. This liquid is also frequently referred to as “low beer.”
  5. The wash is then placed in a copper, pot still called an alembic, and the liquid is distilled into the high-strength, concentrated malt spirit known as Scotch Malt Whisky. The action of distillation may involve several “runs” through the alembic until the correct degree of fineness and alcoholic strength are achieved.
  6. The extracted spirit is then placed in oak barrels to be aged, imparting yet more flavors and refining the spirit into a smooth, enjoyable drink.
    It is at this last step that is the topic at hand.

WhiskyProcess (2)

WhiskyProcess2

The act of aging Whisky in oak barrels is undertaken for three main reasons:

  1. As a flavor additive – a properly prepared oak barrel will instill certain flavors into the spirit, such as vanilla, coconut, toasty wood and caramel sweetness.
  2. As a filter – a properly prepared oak barrel will act as a filter to remove undesirable compounds from the spirit that may detract from the overall character of the spirit.
  3. As a chemical synthesizer – A properly prepared oak barrel will physically interact with the spirit to alter its chemical make up and as a result, improve the flavor and structure of the spirit. This happens as a result of specific chemical reactions, as well as concentration of the spirit through absorption and evaporation.

There are five constituent parts of oak that contribute to the maturation of the spirit:

  1. Cellulose – No flavor effects but it is critical to maintaining barrel structure.
  2. Hemicellulose – Contain simple sugars, which when properly prepared (heated and toasted) contribute body, toasty caramel notes and color.
  3. Lignin – A binding agent to cellulose, which when properly prepared (heated and toasted) contribute vanilla, spice and smoke notes.
  4. Oak Tannin – Enable oxidation, which create delicate fragrances in the spirit through chemical changes that form esters and acetals over time.
  5. Oak Lactones – Resulting from the lipids in oak, which when properly prepared (during charring) pass along strong woody flavors with coconut overtones. American oak has more lactone than European oak.

WhiskyChemistry

Three species of oak are used in the production of oak barrels, and they impart subtly different characteristics to the spirit:

  1. Quercus Alba: White, American Oak. The most commonly used wood for Whisky aging. Emphasizes vanilla flavors because of high concentration of oak lactones. Larger pore structure increase absorption and evaporation rates.
  2. Quercus Petraea: Sesille, European Oak, primarily France. The most commonly used wood for Wine aging. Fine structure emphasizes fewer tannins and slower maturation rates.
  3. Quercus Robur: Pedunculate, European Oak, primarily Spain, but found throughout. The most commonly used wood for Cognac and Sherry. Broad structure and grain make-up emphasize oxidation rates which contribute more raisin and prune-like flavors.

The most common oak barrels used for the initial aging of Whisky are:

Ex-Bourbon Hogsheads – 225-250 Liters – Because these barrels are used originally in the aging of Bourbon, the barrels are charred – meaning the inside of the cask is literally set on fire for a short period of time, which creates a black charred layer. There are various levels of charring which will have different effects on the spectrum of compounds and flavors the barrel will impart to the maturing Whisky, such as enhanced vanillin, lactones, toastiness, spiciness, and tannins. Charring casks causes further transformation. Char (carbon) removes sulfur compounds and immaturity from new spirit. Ex-Bourbon Hogsheads are typically charred for 40 seconds to 1 minute, but some distilleries have experimented with charring times of up to 3-4 minutes. The result of charring also changes the chemical composition of the inside surface of the barrel, resulting in caramelized oak lignin, which creates both sweetness and red coloration that leech into the aging Whisky. When the barrel is newly charred is when this leeching has the most dramatic effect, so by the time the barrel is used for Scotch Whisky aging, the impact is lessened.

Ex-Sherry Butt/Pipe – 450-500 Liters – Sherry casks are only toasted and not charred. The casks used to mature Oloroso are the most popular for aging Scotch Whisky. Sherry casks can be made of American Oak, but this is usually for barrels used in the production of Fino Sherries and are generally not used for aging Scotch Whisky. European Oak generally adds more flavor than American Oak – ex-sherry cask matured Whisky tends to be more full-bodied than ex-Bourbon cask matured ones, which is a result of the differences in varietal characteristics of the wood, as opposed to the prior contents of the barrel.

The majority of Scotch Malt Whisky is only aged in the aforementioned barrels. This produces a homogenous end product that consumers can count on tasting the same from year to year.

WhiskyBarrels

However, it is common for distillers to experiment with other cask types in the “finishing” of a Scotch Whisky. Legally, Scotch must be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be bottled and sold. Most well-regarded distilleries age their Scotch for far longer. During the maturation process, the distiller may select certain casks for special finishing. If this decision is made, the spirit is transferred to a special cask for a specified period of time. The special cask is referred to as a “finishing cask,” and can be taken from a wide variety of prior usage casks.

Common cask types used to “finish” a Scotch are ex-Port, ex-Sherry, ex-Rum, and ex-Wine casks. The use of a finishing cask will subtly add other flavors to a Scotch. The flavors added are a direct result of the liquid that was previously aged in the cask. For instance, Port can be very sweet and depending on the style, can have a wide range of flavors. Placing Scotch is a cask that previously held Port, will likely impart some sweetness to the Scotch, as well as some of the other flavor elements left over in the cask. Distillers spend a lot of time and money experimenting with cask types to create expressions of their Scotch that are presumably subtly better, if not more intriguing than their standard bottlings.

Some call this marketing gimmickry while others call it the true essence of an artiste. As a wine and spirits connoisseur, I call it fun and educational.

To that end, I recently had the pleasure of conducting a Scotch Malt Whisky tasting that examined the use of various finishing casks and their resulting effects. The group focused on two flights of Scotch Malt Whisky from two producers.

Glen Moray – Elgin Classic Selection – Special Cask Series

Glen Moray is a Speyside distillery producing single malt Scotch Whisky, situated on the banks of the River Lossie in Elgin. Glen Moray started production in September 1897. The distillery was sold in 2008 by the Glenmorangie Company Ltd. to La Martiniquaise.
In my opinion, Glen Moray is one of the more under-valued single malts in the market today. Their product is consistently pleasing and priced very well.

We started the flight with the Glen Moray 12-year-old Single Malt Whisky. The malt is a classic Speyside, with an easy drinking style and creamy, vanilla nose. The malt set a good baseline by which to measure the three special cask finishes.

Sherry Cask Finish This example is finished for eight months in Oloroso Sherry casks. The resulting malt has a drier nose with hints of cinnamon, toffee and dried fruits. On the palate the malt is seductive with creamy vanilla and exotic spice notes. Very well-balanced and smooth.

Cabernet Sauvignon Cask Finish This example is finished for eight months in Cabernet Sauvignon Wine casks. The resulting malt has a soft, almost fruity nose with cedar and menthol hints. Intriguing palate with hints of cherry and violet notes. Vanilla, toffee and iodine on the finish. Smooth and well-balanced.

Port Cask Finish This example is finished for eight months in Port Wine pipes from Porto Cruz, a very popular Port producer. The resulting malt is drier on the nose and palate than the Sherry Cask, with cocoa and cedar notes. Subtle on the palate with a light toffee and butterscotch finish. No perceptible smoke or peat. Very well balanced and smooth.

Lost Distillery Company – Lossit – Loch & Key Society Special Cask Series

The Lost Distillery Company believes “it is a tragedy that over one hundred Scotch Whisky distilleries have been permanently closed during the last century.” The Lost Distillery Company has breathed life back into many of these distilleries, by painstakingly researching all of the important elements that made a distillery unique and then taking their research to heart by producing archival bottles of these magnificent ghosts.

Lossit-Rear-Label

One such “ghost” is Lossit, a small, farm-distillery founded in 1817 by Malcolm McNeill in the Islay distillery at Lossit Kennels, near Port Askaig. In its earliest years, Lossit was the biggest producer of whisky on Islay until they closed in 1867. Lossit used either ex-sherry, or pure oak casks. These sherry casks, infused sweet, zesty fruit flavors into the aging spirit. Fragrant peaty notes fused with floral notes from the bere barley. They sourced water from Loch Lossit.

 

This series of malts was produced especially for the Loch & Key Society and had a number of limited bottle expressions, all based on the standard cask finished Lossit. I did not get to taste the standard bottling, but reliable tasting notes suggest: A nose of sherry and dried fruits with strong peat, smoke and brine. Smoky and peaty on the palate with fruity sweetness and spiciness on the finish. Good mid-palate weight and a long, smooth finish. Well-balanced.

The special cask finishes that were tasted, are as follows:

Ribera Del Duero Cask Finish This example is finished in the red wine casks of Ribera Del Duero from Spain. The resulting malt is heavily peated with campfire and iodine notes. Slightly sweet with red fruit elements in the nose and light cherry fruit on the palate. Well-balanced.

Port Cask Finish This example is finished in Port Wine pipes. The resulting malt has pronounced chocolate and marzipan notes. Campfire and peat on the finish. Smooth and very well-balanced.

Pedro Ximenes Sherry Cask Finish This example is finished in PX Sherry casks. The resulting malt is wonderfully rich, crème brûlée with wisps of campfire smoke and peat on the finish. Well-balanced and smooth.

Rum Cask Finish This example is finished in Rum casks. The resulting malt is not as sweet as either the Port or PX Sherry Cask finishes, with no campfire and peat on the aftertaste. Still smooth and well-balanced. Sweet mid-palate with vanilla and allspice.

Beckmen Vineyards Winemaker Dinner

I recently had the pleasure of enjoying a wonderful wine dinner at Legal Sea Foods, Park Square. The dinner was memorable for many reasons. First, I was able to reconnect with an old friend, who is one of the key influencers of my wine journey, Sandy Block, MW. Second, I was able to taste some great wines from Santa Inez, from a west coast winery that does it right and is hard to find on this side of the map. And lastly, I was able to experience the amazing Food and Beverage program at Legal Seafoods and meet our absolutely gracious and amazing host, Bryn Burke.

Sandy Block, MW is an icon, not only in the Boston area, but in the world of wine. I have been remarkably fortunate to have met some of this area’s wine luminaries over the years and more importantly, I have had the opportunity to taste and discuss wine with them, at length. The experience has been immeasurably important to my personal development as a wine educator. Enjoying this evening with Sandy was truly something special. Sandy is the consummate gentleman. Soft spoken, laid back and completely unassuming, making you feel right at home. His keen observations and deep knowledge provide the proper balance between sybaritic enjoyment and educational awareness.

If I look at the program that Sandy has created at Legal Seafoods, it is a model of exactly how the hospitality industry, specifically restaurants should approach wine (and spirits). First, concentrate on staff education. It is proven that a restaurant will sell more wine when the staff are properly educated and can provide trusted input towards a patron’s wine choices. Legal Seafoods invest significant effort into training staff so that they know and understand wine as an integral part of the dining experience. Second, create a wine list that is interesting with great value, appealing to a wide range of diners from novice to expert. A wine list should have enough diversity, with the usual “suspects,” peppered with eclectic bottles from far-flung regions to give choice without being overwhelming. Lastly, offering fun wine dinner experiences is critical to program success. Such dinners allow consumers contact with the wine makers without having to travel to far-away regions, which for wine enthusiasts is like meeting their favorite Hollywood movie stars. Wine dinners also provide a vehicle whereby the importance of wine and food pairing is showcased.

The dinner in question was the Beckmen Vineyards Winemaker Dinner, with Jeff Beckmen, the current proprietor. This was the first time attending a Legal Sea Foods wine dinner and I have to say, the experience was truly amazing. Upon arrival, we were ushered downstairs into the basement dining area and offered as a greeting wine, a glass of the Beckmen Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc. I will preface my remarks by saying that it is very rare that I find California Sauvignon Blanc that is true to type, or very interesting. The Beckmen was a delightful surprise. The wine had a perfumed nose of grapefruit and fresh mown grass with hints of honeysuckle and orange blossom – quite attractive. The palate was well-balanced with crisp acidity and clean, refreshing aftertaste. More grapefruit on the palate with notes of citrus and papaya. Showing beautifully, the wine was a perfect way to kick off the evening!

The dinner consisted of six courses, each paired with on or more Beckman wines. Once we were seated, our taste buds were tantalized by a mix of Hors D’oeuvres, including Baby Octopus Pintxo, Scallop Crudo, and Crabmeat-stuffed Shrimp was served. A wonderful mélange of flavors and textures that made an ideal accompaniment to the Beckmen Sauvignon Blanc.

Beckmen-SauvignonBlanc

The first entrée was a Spinach-wrapped Ora King Salmon with Wild Rice and Tarragon Beurre Rouge. Paired with the Salmon was the 2017 Beckmen Cuvee le Bec, a charming, fruit-forward blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Counois. One doesn’t instinctively think of pairing red with fish, but I was shown early in my career that medium-bodied, fruit-forward reds can pair well with certain fish, Salmon being one. The wine was all fruit in the nose with loads of black cherry and red currant. Well-balanced with moderate acidity and firm, well integrated tannin. A lush palate with more cherry, resolving with a spicy, herbaceous finish. Truly charming and a perfect mate to the fleshy, earthy tones of the Salmon and Tarragon. Heaven and we were only at the first stop of the journey.

Beckmen-Salmon

Next up was a Toasted Sesame-Crusted Tuna and Nori Roll, with Fermented Kelp and Sesame Chili Vinaigrette, paired with the 2017 Beckmen Grenache. Another red wine with fish paring that worked perfectly because of the savory flavors found in the sesame and fermented kelp. The chili tang created magical synergy with the spicy-sweet quality of the Grenache. The nose of the wine was somewhat tight with bright, red fruits and a very light floral perfume of violets. Well-balanced with a dark fruit core, moderate acid and firm, intense tannin – Massive is the word that comes to mind. A long, almost sweet aftertaste softened the blow of the tannin. Ordinarily, pairing a wine with this tannic strength with fish is a recipe for disaster, but in this case, the flavors matched very well and created a complementary blend of sweet and savory. Well done!

The main course was a Panko-Crusted Lamb Chop with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes and Sautéed Provençal Vegetables, paired with two Beckmen wines, both from Purisima Mountain and both Syrah – one, the 2014 and the other, the 2017. If the food and wine to this point were truly amazing, the perfectly cooked lamb chop was absolutely sublime. The perfect degree of doneness showcased the tender, succulent nature of the meat. Mild without any gaminess, the flavor of the crust wove delicate streams of earthy, nutty goodness through the dish.

The two wines could not have been any more different, despite coming from the same vineyard and following a similar wine-making regimen. The two wines highlighted the importance of climate in this part of California, which, according to the pioneer of this region, Richard Sanford, are the reasons why California Central Coast wines are, and I second his opinion, the best the state as to offer. The 2014 Beckmen was a masterpiece. Dark fruit on the nose, earthy with concentrated black cherry and tar hints, mixed with delicate cedar and spice. Well-balanced with moderate acidity and firm, well-integrated tannin. Dark fruit with chocolate and cocoa dust on the palate. Tight finish. This wine is a sleeping monster, largely due to heavily reduced yields (only 80% of normal) as a result of droughts during the spring and growing season.

The 2017 Beckmen showed similar lineage, but the wine was much more overtly expressive. A jammy fruit-driven nose with allspice and blackberry jam hints leads the way. Good balance, not as well integrated as the 2014. Bright and fruity on the palate – ripe berries and just a hint of eucalyptus. My imperfect prediction is that the 2017 is not the massive wine that is the 2014, and as a result may not age as long or as gracefully. Jeff Beckmen, a man who obviously has much more experience with aging his wines, politely disagrees and sees as much potential in the 2017 as was shown on the 2014. It matters not – the wine and food pairing was again, heavenly!

We next had a wonderful cheese course of Brillat-Savarin, Montrachet and Morbier, with Mission Figs, Jamon Serrano and Toasted Almonds, paired with the 2016 Beckmen Cabernet Sauvignon. The cheese was perfectly ripe and was the ideal way of finishing the meal. Anything sweeter would have pushed the limit on one’s appetite.

Beckmen-Dessert

The principle vineyards owned by Beckmen are in the western portion of the region in what is called the Ballard Canyon, where the mountain valley vineyards benefit from the broad diurnal pattern of Santa Ynez climate. The soil, highly limestone and clay, also shares many similarities to the Rhone Valley, where the varieties of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Counois are made into historically significant wines. It may be that Ballard Canyon will share in some of this notoriety that the Rhone Valley enjoys. I suspect that the positive press received by Beckmen wines hints as such.

The Cabernet grapes that went into the 2016 were NOT from Ballard Canyon… Not surprised because the climate that grows great Rhone varietals is NOT the climate that grows great Cabernet. This wine is sourced from grapes further east in Los Olivos, another favorite region that I tripped over nearly 20 years ago!

The 2016 shows an earthy nose with menthol, eucalyptus, tobacco leaf and brambles. Cherry aromas wove within the “terroir-like” bouquet and gave the wine a lightly fruity character. Well-balanced with moderate acidity and well-integrated tannin creates a lush mid-palate loaded with bright red cherry and red currant. I bought several bottles of the wine because I want to see how it evolves with some bottle age – you should too!

I can’t offer any higher recommendation for the Legal Sea Foods wine dinner series than to insist that you find a way to attend a dinner soon. The dinners are offered at both the Park Square and Long Wharf Waterfront locations – if you have not done so, visit https://www.legalseafoods.com/ and sign up for their special events newsletter. As someone who has been enjoying fine wine and food for over thirty-five years, the Legal Sea Food wine dinners are a throwback to the golden age of fine wine and food appreciation mid-1980’s Boston!

Also, I will be conducting an extensive wine tasting of Beckmen Vineyards wines – some from the wine dinner and others from the library of Jeff and his family. I am working out sourcing as I type. Follow me at: https://www.facebook.com/pg/MusingsontheVine/events/?ref=page_internal, my Facebook events page for more details and sign up details when the event becomes reality. Expect a June timeframe if all goes well.

— Cheers!

The Truth in Wine Labels

*(Author’s Disclaimer: This article is not meant to imply that Nielson has done anything misleading or underhanded in the production or sale of its Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. The wine conforms in all ways to the legal bottling requirements for what is listed on the label. My use of the Nielson label in no way constitutes a criticism or endorsement of the wine or winery, nor does this article in any way seek to positively or negatively influence a reader’s impression of Nielson, or Byron wines. The article is an educational piece meant to demonstrate how to interpret the legally-disclosed information on an American wine label.)

Anyone who has been to one of my classes has heard me talk about the legal meaning of terminology on a wine label… Our Federal Government has created certain requirements for wine labeling and additional legal definitions for terminology found on a wine label. The requirements and definitions are there, presumably to protect the consumer, or at least inform the consumer about the product they are buying.

There are seven pieces of information that are required to be displayed on a wine label in the United States:

  1. Brand Name
  2. Wine Class or Type
    • Fruit Wine, Rice Wine, Mead
    • Sparkling Grape Wine
    • Still Grape Wine (Generic, Semi-generic, Varietal)
      • Table wine (wines less than, or equal to 14% alcohol by volume)
      • Dessert Wine (wines more than 14% alcohol by volume)
      • Fortified Wine (wines more than 15% alcohol by volume)
  3. Name & Address of Bottler
  4. Alcohol Content (tolerance +/-1.5% for <14%; +/-1% for >14%)
  5. Sulfite Statement
  6. Government Health Warning
  7. Net Contents

Other important definitions, are as follows:

Place of Origin Requirements (for a place name to be listed on the label):

  • United States 100% from the named area
  • State Name (Except CA) 75% from the named state
  • California 100% from California (if so labeled)
  • AVA 85% from the named AVA
  • Specific Vineyard 95% from the named vineyard

Varietal Requirements (for a varietal to be listed on the label):

  • 75% of named varietal (90% in Oregon)

Vintage Date Requirements (for a vintage to be listed on the label):

  • 95% of the wine must originate from the listed vintage

Bottling Requirements (for bottling terms to be listed on the label):

  • Produced 75%, or more of grapes crushed
  • Made 10%, or more of grapes crushed
  • Cellared, Selected, Vinted 10%, or less of grapes crushed

The terms: “Estate Bottled” and “Grown, Produced, and Bottled By” have special defined meaning on an American wine label.

Use of these terms is limited by the following criteria:

  • The wine must list an AVA
  • The winery must be located within the listed AVA
  • The winery must have grown 100% of the grapes used to make the wine on the
    land owned or controlled by the winery within the AVA (control is defined as “a
    lease of at least three year’s duration”)
  • The winery must have crushed the grapes, fermented the resulting must and
    finished, aged and bottled the wine in a continuous press.

Other proprietary terms, such as “reserve” or “meritage” have no defined meaning.
Trademarked terms have no defined meaning.

So what does this all mean? It means that wineries can craft their labels to tell whatever story they want, so long as the seven aforementioned label items are included. It also means that you need to be astute to fully understand where marketing ends and truth begins.

I was recently out to dinner with friends and is often the case, I was asked to select a wine from the restaurant wine list. Always looking for something interesting that also appears to be a good value, I landed on a domestic Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara county.

Let’s examine and dissect the following wine label:

*Author’s Note: The use of the Nielson Pinot Noir label in no way reflects the author’s impression of quality, but is merely used to illustrate the legal requirements and definitions of American wine labels.

For the seven required items, we have:

  1. Brand Name: Nielson (by Byron)
  2. Wine Class or Type: Table Wine
  3. Name & Address of Bottler: Nielson Wines, Santa Rosa, CA
  4. Alcohol Content: 13.5%
  5. Sulfite Statement: Present
  6. Health Warning: Present
  7. Net Contents: 750ml

Some other important terms found on this label:

  • Santa Barbara County (Legal): 85% of the grapes in this wine came from Santa Barbara County – There is no vineyard statement, therefore, we can only conclude that the wine has no specific vineyard of origin.
  • Pinot Noir (Legal): 75% of the varietal in the wine is Pinot Noir. The wine could be 100%, but legally, all we truly know is that 75% of varietal is Pinot Noir
  • Vinted and Bottled By (Legal): This statement means that no more than 10% of the grapes in the wine were actually crushed by the winery listed. In actuality, none of the grapes needed to be crushed by the winery in order to use the term “vinted.”
  • Original Vineyard Planted in 1964 (Marketing Statement): Absolutely no meaning to this statement, other than somewhere in the “history” of the winery, a vineyard was planted in 1964. There is nothing that legally connects this “original” vineyard to the wine in the bottle.
  • Primary Soils, Barrel Regime and Flavor Notes (Marketing Statement): Absolutely no meaning to these statements. While the winery may be implying that the grapes were grown in a vineyard whose primary soils were “marine-derived sediments,” there is nothing on the label to legally connect this statement to the wine in the bottle. Furthermore, the Barrel Regime is merely a statement to how long the winery held the wine and in what medium they used – in this case – 16 months in French Oak. The Flavor Notes are merely one taster’s impression of the wine and again, have no legal meaning, but may be helpful in connecting style with personal preference.

Another point that is very subtle… On the back label the name of the winery (Nielson) has a trademark symbol and then the statement “by Byron.” This tells me that the actual winery behind this bottle is Byron and they are licensed to use the Nielson name, as well as tell the story on the label. Nothing about the origins of Uriel J. Nielson in 1964 necessarily have anything to do with this wine. I’m not saying this is deceptive, but it is very shrewd marketing indeed.

So, not to be too one-sided, like any thorough wine consumer, I visited the link on the label. I found a very flashy web site that told a wonderful story about the origins of Nielson wines, specifically that the wine “pays homage to its namesake, Uriel J. Nielson, who in 1964 planted the first commercial vineyard in Santa Barbara County.” Scrolling down, I find a brief paragraph about this “Nielson Vineyard.” Their wine maker seems to be quite the adventurer, as evidenced by his feats of rock climbing.

I drill downed further into the web site to find specific information about this Pinot Noir. I found the following:

2016
This wine comes from three major Pinot Noir growing regions within Santa Barbara County, each of which is influenced by unique soil types and proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Santa Maria Valley is one of California’s coolest AVAs with well-drained soils and one of the longest growing seasons in the world, brings pretty aromatics and red fruit flavors to the wine. Slightly warmer in climate, the Los Alamos area contributes ripe dark fruit flavors. Just south of Santa Maria Valley and Los Alamos, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, characterized by steep vineyard slopes and a distinct gravel minerality, adds power, depth and austere tannin expression.

Interesting…

So, my conclusions… Byron is actually the winery behind Nielson. This is not necessarily noteworthy – I like Byron wines and market segmentation is important in wine making. It is fairly common today for wineries to be owned by larger parent wineries or holding companies. It is a fact that wineries demand extraordinary amounts of operating capital and sometimes, small, family-owned operations struggle and seek outside investors to ease the burden somewhat. Nothing wrong with this, just important to keep in the back of one’s mind.

However, the grapes in this specific wine had nothing to do with the Nielson Vineyard so lovingly described on the web site and it is highly likely that the wine was not even made by the winemaker at Nielson. They likely purchased an already made wine, or wines, from  “three major growing regions in Santa Barbara County.” He took said wine and aged it in French oak in a storage facility, probably in Santa Rosa CA, not Santa Maria. Why Santa Rosa? Because the address on the back label states Santa Rosa. The address on the web site says Santa Maria. Santa Maria is the sexier address from a wine making perspective and the office or tasting room of the winery is in Santa Maria. However, the legal address of the wine’s bottler is Santa Rosa, as evidenced on the back label. Again, not terribly important, except you should know where the marketing ends and the actual truth begins – which was the premise when I started this article.

In closing, does any of the above matter? I guess if you like the wine and are happy paying what you pay for the wine, then all of the above can be filed under “legal arcana” and left at that. However, if you closely examine wines and try to understand linkages between soil, climate, grape growing and ultimately wine making, then this wine is a bit of an enigma. Readily available information on the wine would imply all kinds of things about vineyards, soils, climates, grape growing and wine making and yet, none of that is necessarily relevant given the legal statements on the label. Could I have written the winery or even made an attempt to speak to the wine maker himself? Sure, but they were fairly clear on the web site, even providing a PDF of wine information for my use.

That said, Nielson does produce several Pinot Noir wines from grapes grown on the Nielson Vineyard. The wines produced from these grapes are “Grown, Produced and Bottled by,” so we know that these are the real deal. However, they are between 2 and 3 times the listed price of the Nielson Santa Barbara County wine, the subject of this analysis. Again, none of this is a problem if you like the wine and don’t have an issue with the price…

Remember, I started this article by saying that the Federal Government requires and defines the statements on a wine label to “protect the consumer.” I would say they did their job, as long as you know the definitions behind the terminology.

Here endeth the lesson…

*(Author’s Disclaimer: This article is not meant to imply that Nielson has done anything misleading or underhanded in the production or sale of its Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir. The wine conforms in all ways to the legal bottling requirements for what is listed on the label. My use of the Nielson label in no way constitutes a criticism or endorsement of the wine or winery, nor does this article in any way seek to positively or negatively influence a reader’s impression of Nielson, or Byron wines. The article is an educational piece meant to demonstrate how to interpret the legally-disclosed information on an American wine label.)

A Cautionary Tale

First… This post is not about Greenvale Vineyards in RI. I adore Greenvale and I think they make amazing, estate-grown wines. Their winery is a lovely place to visit – my favorite in RI actually, and the proprietor and staff are among the friendliest and most knowledgeable that I have ever met. So, even though the wine that I will talk about is a product of Greenvale Vineyards, this post is not about Greenvale…

What then is this post about? The dark side of owning a deep, deep wine cellar.

With more than thirty years of collecting, we have amassed a significant number of wines, with a total bottle count well north of 5,000 bottles. The collection is scattered across a wide palate of wines – many from regions where the wines are made to age. Inevitably, when one grows a cellar to these proportions, wines are purchased that do not have prodigious aging potential. One buys wine that one enjoys and not every enjoyable wine begs to be aged. So, lurking in the dark corners of our wine cellar are bottles that are aging into atrophy.

In October of 2013, we conducted a tasting entitled “The Lost Bottle.” The tasting consisted of a flight of wines that were uncovered during a “cleaning and reorganizing” effort. After a week of work, a case+ of wines were found that exemplified the risk of deep cellar ownership. The list of wines was as follows (dates in parentheses note purchase date):

1996 Domaine des Cassagnoles, Cotes du Gascon (4/27/1998)

1996 Chateau La Blancherie, Graves (4/27/1998)

1997 Domaine du Closel, Savennieres (7/8/2000)

1995 Francis Cotat Chavignol, Sancerre (1/31/1997)

2004 Monkey Bay, Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough (4/23/2005)

1996 Domaine Dauvissat-Camus, La Forest, Chablis (7/4/1998)

1989 St. Clement Chardonnay, Abbott’s Vineyard (3/30/1992)

1990 Herm. Donhoff Oberhauser Brucke Spatlese Riesling, Nahe (12/28/1998)

1990 Le Bocce, Chianti Classico (11/5/1992)

1997 Ricasoli San Ripolo, Chianti Classico (3/29/2004)

1998 Ricasoli Occa Guiccarda, Chianti Classico Riserva (2/23/2005)

1998 Villa Cafaggio, Chianti Classico (10/6/2001)

1998 Domaine Celinguet, Coteaux du Languedoc (1/29/2000)

1999 Les Cailloux, Chateauneuf-du-Pape (7/2/2002)

The outcome of the event was actually far more favorable than originally anticipated, with only two of the wines tasting simply dreadful (the 1996 Domaine Dauvissat-Camus and the 1989 St. Clement, were undrinkable), and the other wines tasting decently, albeit some with that resplendent patina of age. We dodged a bullet…

Fast forward to today… As I was looking for something to have with dinner, I stumbled across a bottle of 2003 Greenvale Vineyards Cabernet Franc from the Southeastern New England AVA.

We visit a lot of wineries and when we visit, we tend to take home our favorites from the visit. Back in 2006, we made one of our many forays into the then burgeoning RI wine trail, which included a stop at the beautifully situated Greenvale Vineyards in Portsmouth, RI. After a few hours of tasting and being given a tour of the vineyards, we left with a few cases of our favorites – including the 2003 Cabernet Franc. I was especially pleased with the Cabernet Franc because the wine did not exhibit the usual markers of cool climate Cabernet Franc – bell pepper and green, stemmy notes. Instead the wine was very nicely balanced with dark, cherry fruit, dried herbs, cedar, vanilla and excellent structure. At the time, I noted a five year window of improvement in bottle aging – which means the peak for the wine would hit around 2010. We actually bought six bottles in September 2006. We drank bottles in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014 and 2020. The cellar notes indicate the wine showed strongly in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2011, with some weakening in 2014. The last bottle we opened just recently in 2020 had this tasting note:

Herbaceous nose with hints of bell pepper, cardamom and cedar. Dried cherry and rosemary notes. Firm acidity with tired fruit. Balance is consistent with a 17 year old wine from New England, meaning there is little fruit, tight acid and almost no tannin. Pleasant but tired aftertaste with layered complexity.

This story is actually a favorable example of aging wine over a long period of time… meaning, the last bottle opened was a fitting closing chapter for the wine.

Then why is this a cautionary tale? Because deep in the corners of our wine cellar there are numerous bottles of wine that are likely at, or worse, past peak. Many of which are not the last bottle of a particular vintage. The 2003 Greenvale is a wake up call that a careful, re-assessment of the cellar is in order. If for no other reason then to prioritize the drinking of certain bottles. Recognizing that there will be too many to consume before their fated end.

As has been said at almost every Musings event – the assessment of a bottle’s aging potential is far more art (read “swag” – silly, wild ass guess) than science and part of the beauty in having a wine cellar is to watch wines grow, develop, age and eventually pass. It is the cycle of life in a bottle – the constant reminder that nothing is permanent and that from whence we came, so too shall we return…

The Lost Distillery – Gerston – Archivist Bottling

The Lost Distillery Company believes “it is a tragedy that over one hundred Scotch Whisky distilleries have been permanently closed during the last century.” The Lost Distillery Company has breathed life back into many of these distilleries, by painstakingly researching all of the important elements that made a distillery unique and then taking their research to heart by producing archival bottles of these magnificent ghosts.

One such distillery is Gerston, a North Highland producer that actually had two lives during their history. The original distillery opened by the Swanson family in 1796 and produced spirits until 1882. They were globally popular with customers as far away as Asia and Argentina. The malt was peated and exhibited a style that was traditional North Highland Coastal. Records indicate that both ex-Rum casks and ex-Wine casks were used in the aging process. After closing in 1882, the distillery remained closed until 1886, when it was reopened as a larger, more commercially-oriented distillery, producing un-peated malt. The distillery shuttered for good in 1914.

Gerston

Recently, I came across a bottle of Gerston from my friends at Julio’s in Westboro, MA. The Archivist Bottle is exemplary of the original style of Gerston. This particular malt was bottled in 2017 after being finished in Ribera del Duero casks.

Gerston-JuliosTag

The malt is a pleasure on the nose and palate, showing a light briny bouquet with dried fruits, allspice and vanilla in the nose. The palate is smooth and slightly smoky with hints of juniper, caramel and saddle leather. Very long in the finish.

Gerston-Label

The Lost Distillery Company should be commended for their efforts! The revival of high-quality malts long deceased is a labor of love. While no one really knows whether their creations are actually representative of the original products, the results of their efforts are still wonderful libations that evoke the past beautifully.

Slainte!

2016 Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Back in September we assembled a brave group to taste through a small, but classic assortment of wines from the storied region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the highly-touted 2016 vintage. We tasted two whites and eleven reds and not one disappointed. In a scene reminiscent of tasting the 1998 vintage, it seemed like each bottle delivered even greater enjoyment as the afternoon carried on.

Before we look at the wines, let me provide some background to Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is by far the most famous region within the larger region referred to as the southern Rhone valley in France. Its name translates to “Pope’s new castle,” which is derived from the period in Papal history when the Pope’s summer residence was located in this region of France, under Pope Clement V in 1309. While he made his home here, Pope Clement V did not cultivate the vine. It was under Pope John XXII when serious viticulture began to take place.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is quite distinctive for a variety of reasons.

  • The wine has the highest minimum strength of any French wine (12.5%).
  • The wine has thirteen (13) allowed grapes in its cepage (grape blend).
    • Chateau de Beaucastel is one of the few wineries in the region that actually still use all thirteen in their wine.
  • As a region, Chateauneuf-du-Pape has some of the most varied soil, ranging from large, rounded, heat-absorbing stones (galets) to more traditional clay topsoil.
  • In 1923, Chateauneuf-du-Pape was the first region to initiate the Appellation Origine d’Controllee system that would become the standard for French wine law.
  • Chateauneuf-du-Pape also doesn’t allow chaptalization (the addition of sugar to grape must to increase total alcohol in the finished wine), which is unlike many other regions in France.

The region is located at about the midpoint of the overall Rhone Valley, just south of the city of Orange.CDP-Map

 

 

Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Grapes

Reds

  • Grenache
  • Syrah
  • Counoise
  • Picpoul Noir
  • Mourvedre
  • Cinsault
  • Vaccarese
  • Terrent Noir

Whites

  • Grenache Blanc
  • Bourboulenc
  • Picardin
  • Clairette
  • Roussanne

The traditional cepage, or blend, allows for all thirteen of the aforementioned varieties to be used in making the wine. Traditionally, the high alcohol of Grenache often gives many Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines their prodigious 14% alcohol. Mourvedre and Syrah add structure, while Cinsault and Counoise add flesh and body to the wines. The white grapes were often used to further soften what can sometimes be extremely tannic wines.

About 6% of the wines made in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are made entirely from white grapes, wines that are very rare indeed.

2016 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wines

The following are the wines in the flight.

The whites:

CDP2016-Vieux-Lazaret

  • 2016 Domaine de Vieux-Lazaret Blanc: Bright lemon and citrus nose with hints of peach and wet stone. Grapefruit on the palate – refreshing with little oak.

CDP2016-VieuxTelegrapheBlanc

  • 2016 Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Le Crau Blanc: Grassy with wet stone and grapefruit on the nose. Medium weight on the palate with hay, citrus, chalk and light vanilla notes.

The reds:

CDP2016-Bosquet

  • 2016 Bosquet des Papes: Dried currants, saddle leather, vanilla and black pepper in the nose. Tannic, structured with a deep, dense core of black fruit. Should age well.

CDP2016-Fortia

  • 2016 Chateau-Fortia: Earthy nose with hints of molasses and dried plums. Well rounded palate with red currants and tobacco leaf.

CDP2016-ClosBrusquieres

  • 2016 Clos des Brusquieres: Earthy with dried herbs and light campfire smoke. Blackberry fruit on the palate, closed.

CDP2016-ClosduMontOlivet

  • 2016 Clos du Mont Olivet La Cuvee du Papet: Fruit forward nose with black cherry and blackberry hints, some smoke. Tannic, structured, but lacking a strong fruit core. Higher than expected acid.

CDP2016-Domainede3

  • 2016 Domaine de 3 Cellier Alchimie: Cedar and bramble in the nose with light vanilla and caramel. Dried cherry and saddle leather on the palate. Complex finish.

CDP2016-FontdeMichele

  • 2016 Font de Michele: Cedar, cigar humidor and dried stone fruits in the nose. Gorgeous and seductive. Blackberry, black cherry and black pepper with hints of vanilla on the palate. Spectacular.

CDP2016-LeVieuxDonjon

  • 2016 Le Vieux Donjon: Soft nose with hints of red berry and wet stone. Tannic and structured with a tight core of black fruit. Black pepper on the finish. Lovely.

CDP2016-MasdeBorslauzon

  • 2016 Mas de Boislauzon: Classic. Jammy nose with dried herb, wet stone and black pepper. Well-balanced palate with more jammy fruit and silky tannins. Should age magnificently.

CDP2016-OlivierHilaire

  • 2016 Domaine Olivier Hilaire: Phenomenal. Another classic. Fruit forward nose with black cherry and black pepper notes. Well-balanced with a solid core of almost Port-like fruit. Seemingly endless on the palate. Stunning.

CDP2016-VieuxTelegrapheRouge

  • 2016 Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe Le Crau Rouge: Tight nose – Port-like with stewed fruit hints. Tannic with a good core of fruit. Cherry and dried herb on the palate.

CDP2016-Beaucastel

  •  2016 Chateau de Beaucastel: Tight nose with faint hints of blackberry and wet stone. Fruit forward palate – very young – firm tannin with a tight finish. Needs lots of time.

CDP2016-Flight

  • The flight – Overall – impressive and each bears examination in the coming years.

A superb tasting, which will be repeated in another five years to see how the wines are evolving. One of the best arguments for purchasing multiple bottles is the ability to study the wines over their life…

Cin-Cin!

 

Domaine du Fleuve

Wine is forever evolving. For the last thirty-six years I have watched and tasted how wine has changed, specifically, how it has improved in areas where only a few years ago, the product was marginal. One such area is Quebec. Nine years ago we visited this region and the wines were decent, but almost entirely limited to hybrid grapes, like Frontenac and Vidal, or fruits, like apples and pears.

Fast forward to today. We spent the afternoon tasting at a wonderful little winery in Varenne called Domaine du Fleuve. Our host, proprietor and wine maker Louis Thomas is gracious, knowledgeable and clearly passionate, producing spectacular wine from both vinifera and hybrid varietals.

We started with a selection of whites featuring estate grown Chardonnay

St-Pépin

Pinot Gris

and Vidal.

The four whites were all fresh, well-balanced and showed vibrant noses with delicate palates. Quite nice.

A rose was next featuring a blend of 60% Frontenac Gris, 20% Ste-Croix and 20% Vidal. The wine had a beautiful strawberry, floral nose with a well-balanced, fruit-forward palate. Slightly chilled the wine was perfect on this warm Summer afternoon.

We finished this flight with a final white wine, an off-dry estate-grown Vandal Cliche, which is a grape native to Quebec. The wine has a perfumed nose with a delicate, slightly sweet palate featuring apples and honey.

The next flight featured two reds, both made from hybrid grapes. Unfortunately, the other reds made at the winery, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Franc were sold out, clearly a testament to the quality and appeal of the wines.

The first red is a blend of Lucy Kulhmann, a cousin of Marechal Foch, Frontenac Noir and Marquette. The use of Lucy Kulhmann, which is softer and much more delicate on the palate than Marechal Foch makes for a much more seductive wine, showing lovely cherry and lilac notes in the nose with a quaffable, easy-drinking character on the palate.

The second red we tasted is a blend of Frontenac Noir, Sabrevois and Ste-Croix. The wine showed a much more vibrant nose with stronger cherry and red currant notes, with more structure and firmer tannins on the palate. The second red is not yet for sale, but should be available very soon.

Both reds were very well-balanced, something ten years ago would have been unusual for hybrid wines.

We finished with a very interesting dessert wine, made in the style of Bordeaux’s Pineau du Charente, consisting of the unfermented grape must of the Vandal Cliche grape mixed with Brandy. The result is a wonderful mix of apples and honey, lightly sweet and not a bit cloying. Simply delicious!

The vineyards surround the winery and create a picturesque scene reminiscent of wineries we’ve visited around the world.

The soil, as can be seen in the pictures is varying degrees of clay topsoil over schist.

Our visit to Domaine du Fleuve was truly wonderful. The wines were excellent and Louis was such a gracious host. In the nine years since we visited, the quality and appeal of Quebecois wines has improved, evolving into legitimate wines we should all have in our cellars, or at least on our table!

Cin-Cin!

The Opera

They say that Queen Elizabeth keeps a flask of London Dry Gin and Dubonnet in her coach so that she can have her favorite cocktail, the Dubonnet Cocktail on demand. Refreshing and well-balanced, I can clearly see why the longest-reining British monarch keeps this fine libation within easy reach.

So how does one improve on a classic? Find a way to add a complimentary layer of complexity with Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur. Slightly floral with subtle nutty overtones, Maraschino Liqueur lurks in the background teasing and exciting one’s palate.

Presumably, the authors of the handy drinks book called 365 Days of Cocktails, christened this drink to celebrate the opening night of Madam Butterfly in 1904. I guess that is as good a reason as any to roll this lovely flower of a drink.

So, I present The Opera…

2 oz. London Dry Gin

2 oz. Dubonnet

1/4 oz. Maraschino Liqueur

3 dashes Orange Bitters

Shake with crushed ice and strain into a coupe

Cin-Cin!

2017 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon Colchagua Valley Chile

Almost twenty-nine years ago I tasted my first Los Vascos Cabernet. It was one of the first Chilean wines I had ever experienced, and frankly I was seriously impressed. It doesn’t hurt that the winery is owned by Lafite Rotchild, the famous first growth from Pauillac in Bordeaux, masters of fine wine.

Hugh Johnson has written that Chile may be the most perfect place on Earth to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. With ideal climate and vineyards that never experienced the scourge of phylloxera, Chile has incredible potential, which is why Lafite has chosen to invest so heavily in Los Vascos.

Back in the late 80’s, I put the 1988 Los Vascos in many flights, blind, against fairly credible Bordeaux. Time and again, the Los Vascos was picked as everyone’s favorite. Back then, the wine sold for just under $5.00/bottle. Pretty incredible…

Today I picked up the 2017 vintage and the wine is wonderful. Fruity with nice complexity and elegant structure. Well-balanced with a nice, long finish. Not built for long term aging, the wine does have enough structure to improve for the next 7-10 years.

Here’s the best part… I paid a discounted $7.50/bottle… Los Vascos is offering a $36 mail-in rebate for a case purchase. You do the math… that translates to $4.50/bottle… that is cheaper than what I paid for the 1988 vintage almost 29 years ago… that is incredible…

I recommend you run to buy this wine. The rebate is for purchases made before 12/31/2018, with claims filed by 1/31/2019.

Cheers!