Bitten by the Barossa Bug

The Back Story:

I picked up the Thorn-Clarke Winery’s 2007 Terra Barossa Shiraz for no other reason than I was walking past the Australian section in Total Wine on my way to the Austrian and German whites section. I saw the massive variety of Shiraz, took note of the many, many that I hadn’t tried before, and thought “Why the hell not?”

As I’ve alluded to occasionally on Twitter, I’m a fan of the Barossa region in Australia. It’s such a fantastic case study for how the delicate balance of a climate can make or break established vineyards and wineries. To be honest, I don’t know much about the valley aside from its climate and the wine produced, but considering it’s on the other side of the world, I’m pretty sure I can get by for now. If there’s anything I’d ever need to know about the area, there’s a nice, humble website sponsored by the Barossa Grape & Wine Association dedicated to promoting “Australia’s most famous wine region.”

Barossa’s climate is especially suited to growing big, fruity reds. The warmth and dryness keeps the acidity in the grapes low, allowing heavy tannins and ripe fruit flavors to fully develop. This also leads to a risk of developing fruit bombs, wines so stuffed with fruit that they overwhelm the acid and break the structure of the wine. Winemakers have their work cut out for them when working with such potent fruits, lest they release yet another wine that tastes like the run-off from an old jar of strawberry jelly.

There might be a dearth of Barossa wines available in the United States for the next few years. Production is currently down, with 67,000 tons of Barossa Valley grapes crushed in 2008 and barely topping 51,000 tons in 2009. Estimates project a return to the golden years of 80,000 tons produced back in 2005 and 2006, though this probably won’t happen till after 2012. These projections, assuming the return to normal growing conditions, sound like good news to me. For now, 2009 and 2010 vintages might not show up in large quantities (if at all) in your local shop.

Barossa’s output is still largely reds and overwhelmingly Shiraz. Of the 51,000 tons crushed in 2009, almost 14,000 tons were white wine grapes, but over 22,000 tons were Shiraz grapes alone! Shiraz also accounted for almost 59% of total profits from bulk grape sales. Climate-wise, that makes sense, but it’s also a bit monotonous:

“I bought an Australian wine yesterday!”

“Is it from Barossa?”

“Yeah… um… how’d you…”

“Was it a Shiraz?”

“Oh… yeah.”

“Good for you.”

The Results:

The appearance of the wine was a pure, dark red. It was rather translucent for a big red, and the swirl alluded to it having a very silky, full texture.

The nose of the wine was very fruity, an assuredly winter scent with rich plum accented in spice. I also detected notes of black currant and a touch of menthol.

The mouth feel of the wine was enjoyable, but not as full as I was expecting. It still coated the mouth very nicely and smoothly, with a dryness that was chalky but not overwhelmingly puckering.

The flavor of the wine was, thankfully, not a fruit bomb. It had a ripe plum attack and a spicy mid-palate with black pepper and nutmeg on the finish. The alcohol was well balanced, not at all hot for 15%, and it complemented the spicy flavors very nicely. The acidity, I thought, was a little too sharp, but it didn’t disrupt the harmony of the wine too much. The wine itself was fruity without being sweet. I greatly enjoyed the flavor. It paired very well with a selection of buttery, lighter cheeses like Havarti and Brie, becoming a little softer and smoother and giving the cheese a more creamy flavor.

For the Casual Drinker:

There really isn’t much to say about this wine. It’s a good, hearty red, not too overwhelming in its alcohol or tannins, and it’s fruity enough to suit a pickier palate. Its flavor would suit a red-meat or spicy meal, so long as it wasn’t too spicy or hefty. It’s a big red, but it’s softer than the average Shiraz. At $13, it’s a very affordable option and well worth giving a try.

The Conclusion:

This is a great example of a standard Shiraz from the Barossa Valley. It’s a drink now kind of affair, and it’s a little too simple to be considered a stand-out, but if you’re looking for a wine you don’t need to age, I’d recommend giving this guy a shot. Anything under $15 would be well worth it for this wine. 6/10

If you’re interested in a taste of the higher end offerings of the Barossa Valley, check out Steve Paulo’s Notes from the Cellar. He reviews three wines from Yalumba, the oldest winery in Barossa. I’ve got my eye out for all three of them as I visit wine shops now.

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 2

The Back Story:

Pinot Evil labelPinot Evil’s Pinot Noir is one of those shapeshifters in the wine world. Because they don’t have a dedicated vineyard, they’re free to chase the best grapes they can find for their wine. The drawback is there’s really no guarantee of quality from cask to cask, and this is reflected in the fact that the wine is non-vintage. Pinot Evil eschews the entire traditional wine-making process, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certain to offend old-school wine sensibilities.

Pinot Evil used to use a variety of what is referred to as “vin de pays” Pinot Noir grapes from France, meaning the wine produced was regulated and tested but not necessarily reaching Appellation d’origine contrôlée standards. I haven’t had any of the French production, but from what I’ve read and heard it was less than impressive, and that’s being kind. See Drinkhacker for an extreme and Fermented Reviews for a more moderate take on it.

The new Pinot Evil only recently began production, meaning it’s just now getting worked out in the consumer market. They’re now currently harvesting their grapes and making the wine all in Hungary, then shipping it off to be packaged in Pinot Evil Cellars in California. From an environmental standpoint, this is ideal. You get both the authentic Hungarian winemaking elements and the cost- and energy-saving benefits of shipping in bulk. Packaging in bag-in-box also helps to save shipping space and weight cross-country.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a deep, pure red translucency, though it has a rather thin texture. There’s no inkiness or opacities tainting its lighter color.

The nose of the wine is very hot, especially at 12.7% alcohol. I’m getting primarily cherries, though there are some interesting earthy undertones with mushrooms and cinnamon making an appearance.

The mouth feel of the wine is a little bit silky and surprisingly aggressive. I was expecting it to be flabby, but there’s a pleasant tanginess that suggests a good balance between the acid, tannins, and alcohol.

The flavor of the wine is primarily sour redfruits, a strong cherry and cranberry attack. I’m getting a weak chocolate flavor on the mid-palate, but beyond that it’s fairly simple and fruity, with a disappointingly short finish and an odd metallic tinge after the initial flavors subside. The acidity is a little high, but not too bad given the relatively meager tannins. It’s initially off-dry (residual sugar at 6.5 g/l), and you’ll get a nice, light burst of sweetness with the attack, but as the wine approaches the finish it creates a powdery dryness.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is the first boxed wine I’ve had that truly offered a sense of balance. The acidity is low but just high enough to provide structure to a lighter-bodied wine with low tannins. The nose is rather alcoholic, but as long as you keep your nose out of the glass when you smell, you’ll be able to experience an interesting, earthy bouquet. The flavor of sour berries will definitely please your tastebuds, even though the finish is far too short. I would be more than comfortable serving this to a big party. The flavor is so delicate, though, you’d need to pair it with a meal that’s not too spicy or otherwise aggressively flavorful, maybe a dish from one of the various meats you can get from a pig.

The Conclusion:

For the price, $18.99 retail for a 3 liter cask, averaging to $4.75 per bottle, this is a fantastic bargain that would do well for a dinner party, at least so long as the wine snobs aren’t allowed to see the box or the non-vintage designation. Bottles normally retail at $5.99, so if you go boxed, you’re getting 20% off the price. Translated another way, that means around 20% of what you’re paying on that bottle is for the fancy glass packaging. Even if you’re not a green kind of person, knocking that much off the price is well worth slumming it with a bag-in-box. I could definitely see myself buying this guy again, if only to have a backup red wine to share. 5/10

Note:: This review applies to the regular box packaging of Pinot Evil, which is no longer available in stores. I have not tried the Octavin release of this wine to see how it compares.

Current Line-up:

Pinot Evil Pinot Noir NV

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – slightly imbalanced acidity, balanced alcohol, earthy nose, red fruit flavor, short finish, slight metallic undertaste.

Bota Box Shiraz California 2006:

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, imbalanced (high) alcohol, smooth texture, black fruits, very hot nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – imbalanced acidity and alcohol, smooth texture, no loss in flavor, hot nose, maybe  a bit more bitter finish

Black Box Chardonnay Monterey 2008:

  • Week 0 – 4/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, balanced alcohol, briny, weak texture, slightly sour, fruit-forward, weak nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – lost nothing on the nose, lost some flavor, still very imbalanced acidity, similar mouth feel, texture, increased sourness
  • Week 2 – 2/10 – Nose and flavor are starting to get musty, still overly acidic, beginning to taste flat, metallic, alcohol flavor still balanced

Retired Line-up: None so far!

The 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit Part 3: Independent Research

No post local today, but you can catch part 3 of the collaboration between me and Vinotology on his blog here: The 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit Part 3: Independent Research. Have at it!

Spin the Wheel: Rock Music Wine Pairings

We’re back with another one of our patented music-wine pairings. Our two selections today ended up being some variation of the punk genre, though they’re departed enough that I would simply classify them as rock. These were especially a lot of fun, and I’m pretty happy with the pairings that resulted. What do you guys think? Give them a listen and toss up your own pairing. I know we have some music geeks in the audience!

Letter Kills – Carry You

The first band to come up was Letter Kills. I’ve been hyping these guys up a lot on Twitter, and with good reason. They engage in a brilliant combination of modern-day punk rock and 80s metal, producing a style that lifts them up out of the cesspool of scene kid bands clogging the airwaves.  Because they stood out from the pack, of course, they never developed a following, and their first album was their last. And no, I’m not just being bitter.

The drummer jumps in and out of syncopation with incredible ease, and he absolutely loves moving around the drumkit in 16th-note fills. He’s also a huge fan of big snare hits and playing the bell of his crash cymbals, an homage to 80s metal. The vocalist has his own manic style, complete with raw, whooping calls to energy (What I say? HA-HA! Aww-Right!), but he’s got the pipes to pay homage to his flamboyant hair-metal influence. The lead guitar moves between punk and metal picking during the verses, usually sticking with standard quarter-note punk chords for the bridge and chorus and embracing full on metal guitar solos when necessary. The rhythm guitar and bass are relatively simple, though they provide the dirty, churning backdrops appropriate for either style.

To pair with this band, I’m looking for a blend. What kind of blend? I’m thinking a red blend, not a big red, probably something medium-bodied. These guys are punk-metal-lite, after all. You won’t catch them breaking bottles over their heads mid-show, and I think I even saw a little bit of make-up on the lead singer once. Because they combine an old metal style with contemporary punk, I’m thinking an old-vine, young-vine blend, something that brings the strength of a bigger, more tannic grape representative of more entrenched wine culture but combines those qualities with a younger, more common upstart. Maybe a Mourvedre or Carignan, two localized, rich and complex varietals, blended with Grenache, a wide-spread, softer grape that needs a little help to stand out. Hell, why not toss them both in there? This is my blog, and I want a three-grape blend to match my broken-up punk-metal-pop-scene band, and that’s what I’ll have.

Vampire Weekend – A-Punk

I’m glad Vampire Weekend came up, because I’ve been looking for an excuse to post a Frizzante. Vampire Weekend embraces the indie trend of slightly off-the-wall takes on popular music style. The best way for me to describe them would be something cobbled together from a few successful bands: The Clash, with their world-beat-inspired guitar-work, intricate but subdued drumming, and a vocalist who manages to sound both whimsical and passionate; The Decemberists, with their out-there lyricism, head-tossing rhythms, and anachronistic conceits; and Pavement, a band that managed to not crumble under its popularity, instead maintaining some sort of stubborn obliviousness to the outside world as they continued to produce music that defied the close scrutiny warranted by Pitchfork-styled music critics.

Sweet, condensed, effervescent, I would compare Vampire Weekend to a Moscato d’Asti. They’re subdued enough to not strike me as resembling a full-on Spumante, and they sound so innocent even as they address societal concerns. They’re simple, basic, but just a little bit outlandish. If you were trying to introduce someone to Italian wine, especially a sparkler, and you knew they had no palate for wine, a Moscato d’Asti would be a good place to start. If you wanted to introduce someone to indie rock, and you knew they weren’t ready for the absurdity of Xiu Xiu or The Unicorns, the lo-fi meanderings of No Age or The Moldy Peaches, or the overwhelming vastness of Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, someone like Vampire Weekend is a good bet.

Also, I really, really wanted to post that video. Those guys are so fun.

Riesling from the Southern End of the New World

The Back Story:

You just unwittingly signed yourself up for a geology and geography lesson, ladies and gents! The 2008 Cono Sur Riesling, grown in the Bio Bio Valley in southern Chile, is a fantastic case study in the benefits of growing certain varietals in certain areas. Though, based solely on geography, Chile’s climate should match that of the Mediterranean countries, the cool Pacific Ocean greatly tempers the heat and humidity you would expect in that area.

Comprising a rather long swatch of South America’s west coast, Chile’s wine-growing land actually compares to that of the varied climates of the west coast of the United States. Varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Viognier thrive in the various regions here. For today’s lesson, though, we’re going to focus on this wine’s home in southern Chile. If you’re interested in an in-depth study of all of Chile’s wine regions, check Trekking Chile.

The Bio Bio Valley benefits from both its ample supply of volcanic soil and its situation at the southern end of South America: the longer, cooler days and red clay, acidic soil lend themselves very nicely to highly acidic and long-ripened fruits, allowing white wines such as Riesling to fully develop the optimal characteristics of their terroir. Chilean viticultural practices have also progressed to the point where they’ve learned to control their yields, meaning higher quality vintages are becoming more commonplace.

Why is volcanic soil considered so beneficial to wine growing in this region? The volcanic soil from deep in the earth is composed of pure, earth-abundant minerals — all other components would have been burned away during lava formation. This allows the chemical weathering process, where water and atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide, oxygen, and hydrogen interact with the soluble minerals in igneous rock, to create young, fresh volcanic loam that hasn’t yet been depleted of its nutrients. A more in-depth description of the processes of weathering and erosion is available in my old textbook, about halfway down the page. God bless Virginia Tech and their cost-cutting via online textbooks!

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a pale blonde. The wine has great legs and a high viscosity.

The nose of the wine is very appealing. It is very floral with notes of lemon peel. Despite the high alcohol content, the nose suggests a fantastic balance.

The mouth feel of the wine is very pleasant and tangy, with a firm bite that you can feel in your jaws. I thoroughly enjoyed the feeling.

The flavor of the wine is on par with the rest of its characteristics. It was very dry and tart, with a delicate, white floral overtone and a distinct note of grapefruit. There’s a strong mineral on the mid-palate and a slightly long apple finish. The acidity is rather high (7.42 g/ l), and it might encroach upon the flavor just a little bit, but the residual sugar (8.8 g / l) and alcohol (13.5%) are just high enough to balance it all out. The result is a medium-bodied, potent wine that offers a very active and lively experience.

For the Casual Drinker:

This isn’t the dessert-wine style of Riesling you might be expecting. This is very dry (the acidity keeps it from being even off-dry) and not very fruity. The primary flavors are floral and citrus-y, and there’s a distinct mineral characteristic that jumps from the mid-palate. This wine would be fine to drink on its own, but I think it would really shine with a more flavorful seafood or chicken dish. Just make sure it’s not too spicy.

The Conclusion:

The 2008 Cono Sur Riesling is a nice change of pace from the more syrupy Rieslings and Viogniers I recently found myself drinking on a whim. I’ve been getting back into the drier, non-fruity whites, and this is a prime example of the kind of wine I’d be looking for in those regards. For under $10, this is a great purchase.  7/10

For another take on this wine, check out Palate Match. They found the Riesling to be a little too sweet for the flavor but also liked the acidity.

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