Yeti Espresso, an Oak-Aged Gem from Colorado

The Back Story:

It’s a funny thing about wine regions. People are very, very protective of where their favorite wines come from. Wine regions have spawned organizations, bloggers, books, arguments, articles, and carefully delineated wine sections.

But what about beer?

Trappist beers: Belgian beer brewed directly by or under the supervision of Trappist monks only (from crossroadsmag.eu)

I’ve had a Belgian Twitterer(er?) quickly and sharply correct me when I incorrectly referred to a Canadian ale as a Belgian ale instead of “Belgian-style.” Can you imagine a Kentucky resident knocking someone down a peg for referring to a Heineken as an “American beer”?

I’ve been told that Colorado is the capital of American craft beer (a claim I wouldn’t necessarily dispute, either). Considering the staggeringly good beer coming from that state, it’s a rightful argument.

Oktoberfest is a now-worldwide celebration inspired by Bavaria and its many, many fine beers. Without the German pride and enthusiasm combined with quality food and brews, this innocuous seasonal festival would never have reached global obsession.

Basically, the short answer is yes, beer regions have their supporters as well. Because beer is so much less dependent on terroir and because beer (generally) takes a lot less time to craft and perfect, regions matter much less than the process and the quality of ingredients. This doesn’t negate the fact, though, that hops are like grapes in that they have ideal climates and harvest times. It’s just that there are so many more ingredients involved in the process that the gains are diminished.

The perception of region is more dependent on the fact that certain places attract certain brewers and breweries, and that tradition dictates product moreso than terroir. Belgian-style ales can be brewed anywhere on the planet, but the best still arguably come from Belgium. The monasteries that made the Trappist and Abbey styles famous still hold the mystique and guard the secrets that keep their product in higher esteem than the non-so-designated outsiders.

Because the New World is so, well, new, we don’t really have respected beer regions yet. Americans celebrate their Budweiser and Miller beers, and Pabst Blue Ribbon is only somewhat ironically consumed by hipsters. When Belgians bought Anheuser-Busch, swill-drinking Americans acted as though the world were ending. Since the buyout, A-B has produced two astoundingly not terrible beers: the American Ale and Golden Wheat. Lo and behold, the noise machines wound down, and the world moved on. To relate, a similar reaction would be to Americans protesting a Bordeaux chateau purchasing Franzia and developing premium wines that don’t taste like the underside of a shower drain. There shouldn’t be a down-side, but we just largely didn’t know better.

I don’t think we have too much longer to wait on this. We’re developing regional craft beers that are gaining steam. Dogfish Head in Delaware, Abita in Louisiana, Bell’s in Michigan, these are all attracting like-minded, experimental brewers who are slowly bringing recognition to their respective regions. Because of the absence of tradition in any of these regions, they are free to create whatever beers strike their fancy. There is one state, though, that I believe is ahead on many fronts.

The state that produces Coors Light.

Allow me to present exhibit A for the case of Colorado as the first great beer region of the United States: Great Divide‘s Espresso Oak Aged Yeti. Aged with oak chips and infused with coffee, this beer showcases the innovation of American brewers.

The Results:

The appearance of the beer is deep, dark, opaque, almost entirely black. It pours like a cup of strong coffee. The head is thick and espresso-colored and retains for over a minute.

The nose of the beer is of a dark roast coffee combined with notes of almond and vanilla. There’s no mistaking the added coffee in this beer.

The mouth feel of the beer is wonderfully active and hefty with a very thick smoothness. The carbonation is more aggressive than I anticipated. It’s bright and sharp.

The flavor of the beer is, as you might expect, primarily coffee-forward with a hint of vanilla. The hoppiness comes through after the initial coffee flavors fade, contributing a bitter orange zest. The finish is a blend of dark chocolate and espresso, and it tastes almost exactly like the sediment at the bottom of a mocha latte. You’re basically approaching a wine level as far as alcohol is concerned, at 9.5%, and it’s hardly detectable. It does for beer what alcohol should always do for beer: stay out of the way of the flavor while providing the structure.

For the Casual Drinker:

The color alone should suggest that this isn’t going to be a light affair. The coffee flavor, though, makes it drink much more smoothly than a black stout would. As much as I mention coffee in the descriptors, it’s actually fairly light, at least lighter than a cup of coffee would be. If you’re looking for a food pairing, you’re going to want to look on the hearty side. Savory dishes like pork or chicken with spices and gravy, or spicy, bright foods.

The Conclusion:

Phenomenal. Of the higher end craft beers I’ve had, this one is right up there. For $11.00 per half-liter, it’s not cheap, but let’s face it: you’re willing to spend $20 on 750 ml of wine, why not invest in a properly brewed craft beer? 8/10

In Case You Missed It:

Beer: Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti

Producer: Great Divide

Region: Colorado, US

Vintage: n/a

Alcohol: 9.5%

Price: $11 / 500 ml

No, Seriously, North Carolina Wine Pt. 2: RayLen Vineyards

Though I would love to flesh out a detailed post on RayLen Vineyards this week, I feel like I have a lot more to learn about the winery and its owners. Instead, I’d like to highlight some of the wines that I tasted and hammer home the word of the day: “potential.” This winery is poised for some fantastic things, and it’s only a matter of time before these guys start getting national recognition.

Let’s start with the whites.

Fine, let’s.

2009 Chardonnay (naked): Very good acidity and dry flavors on this wine. Apple, pear, and a bit of tropical fruit make it a fairly conventional but wholly enjoyable Chardonnay that’s well worth its $13 price tag. 6/10

2008 Chardonnay (oaked): Very, very buttery. I underlined buttery, that’s how much butter there is. Absolutely beautiful, clear butterscotch flavor, very smooth. The oak is fairly obvious but not overwhelming. I honestly think winemakers in Virginia and North Carolina understand oak better than California right now. $14 gets you a serious winner. 7/10

2008 SMV Chardonnay (oaked): Grown in a more distant vineyard at an elevation of 1200-1500 feet, this Chardonnay offers a slightly different oak as well. A decent creamy texture, softer than the on-site Chardonnay, accompanies a buttery, toasty flavor. Definitely a different flavor, still very worth it at $15, though I prefer the other barrel Chardonnay. 6/10

2008 Yadkin Gold: A blend of Riesling, Viognier, and Pinot Grigio. A very subdued tropical nose and palate. Slightly sweet at .81% residual sugar, and it drinks beautifully at a bargain-level price tag of $13. 6/10

And now the Reds?

Sure, why not.

2007 Shiraz: Consider this the single biggest surprise of the trip. I did not like it at first, probably because I was a) not expecting much of anything from it and b) it’s not exactly a typical Shiraz. My second taste of it, though, I was convinced. This wine went down very smooth, with a beautiful blackberry flavor accompanied by an interesting mix of spices and herbs. This is definitely a red meat pairing waiting to happen. Oh, and it’s only $14. 7/10

2007 Cabernet Franc: From what I can tell, 2007 was a good year in a lot of places, both New World and Old (there’s a breaking statement for you). The difference between the 2006 and 2007 Cab Franc at RayLen is staggering… the 2007 is much, much smoother, with a beautiful coffee and black cherry flavor and a fantastic structure. For $14, this is a serious bargain. 7/10

2007 Category 5: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, this wine packs a serious punch. Though the structure is just a tad harsh, the oak is just enough to tame the wine while not overwhelming a very good, bright cherry flavor. It’s $18, which is a bit more than their other basic reds, but still very reasonable. 6/10

NV Pale Red: A blush wine blended with about 2% Concord to give it a slightly sweet, grape-y flavor on top of the bright red fruits the rest of the blend provides. 2.78% residual sugar makes for a very interesting and not at all overwhelming off-dry red wine, and it’s only $10. 6/10

2006 Eagle’s Select: This wine, right here, is the mother of all reds at RayLen. A Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, with 18 months in oak, this takes all the best aspects of their various grapes and really showcases the winemaker’s skill. Black cherry, mint, and spice all provide a beautiful flavor accompanied by incredibly nuanced tannins. This wine is ready to drink now, but it could lay down for years, and I’d really be interested to see what it would do. Best of all, this finely crafted wine is only $25. 8/10

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon: Remember when I said the word of the day is “potential”? That’s exactly the case with this wine. While it is a delicious specimen now, with red fruits, cherry, slight spice, and a hint of tobacco, I feel like laying it down for 5 to 10 years would soften it into a truly sublime drinking experience. This wine is actually a pretty good metaphor for the rest of the winery… they’re on the cusp of great things. This might turn out to be a serious bargain down the road if purchased now, as it’s only $16. 6/10

And the sparkling?

Right, right.

NV Sparkling Wine: So, funny story… RayLen isn’t actually equipped to create sparkling wines. They have to send their product to Biltmore Estate in the far west of North Carolina for secondary fermentation. It’s definitely a worthy enterprise, though, because this actually surprised me. It’s very dry and crisp, with apple and lemon flavors. Though the flavor is fairly plain, it’s not at all disappointing. I would go so far as to say it’s almost worth the $24 price tag. Actually, considering the dreck that you would get charged $10 to $15 for at Food Lion , I’d say this is comparatively worth the cost. 6/10

No, Seriously, North Carolina Wine Pt.1: Westbend Vineyards

I just realized that it has been almost a month since I’ve focused a piece on North Carolina wine. That is entirely unacceptable. Luckily, I went on a wine tour this weekend, hitting two of the hottest vineyards in the state, and I’ve got the pictures and tasting notes to prove it.

I might have the tasting notes, but they've got the medals

You might remember the Westbend Vineyards Riesling from an earlier review on my blog (you can check it here). There, I quote a mini-raving by Robert Parker about Westbend’s wines:

One of the South’s best kept wine secrets is Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, North Carolina. Westbend produces two excellent Chardonnay cuvées; a tasty, rich Seyval, a good Sauvignon, and a surprisingly spicy, herbal, cassis and chocolate scented and flavored Cabernet Sauvignon. As fine as these wines are, I am surprised they are not better known outside of North Carolina.

Well, I finally got to try the rest of their wines. Want to know what I thought of them? First, a bit more about the vineyard.

Westbend Vineyards began its life as a hobbyist’s farm back in 1972. Originally designating his land a weekend getaway for experimenting with new crops, Jack Kroustalis decided to go against the grain and plant vinifera. He started with the standard French varietals and French/American hybrids, found some early success, and rolled with it from there.

Oh, and the original 150 year-old homestead still stands on one of the vineyards, and they’re currently restoring it to use for events. You’ll recognize it immediately from their labels, which have featured artwork of the homestead pretty much every year since their first official vintage back in 1988.

Recently, they’ve been revamping the vineyard, which was a sprawling mix of various varietals. Old growths of vines that had fallen out of favor were torn out and replaced to homogenize the sections of the vineyard. You can see the results in the picture below, with thick, old vines sharing space with grow tubes.

old and new growth side by side, a sign of changing for the better

The vineyard overall has been growing steadily ever since that first vintage. They’re now up to 300 oak barrels, a mix of American, French, and Hungarian, in addition to their sizable stainless-steel fermentation tanks, recently retrofitted with cooling jackets. They also brought in a winemaker from Long Island, Mark Terry, to take the winery in a new direction. I have to say, based on what I tasted today, that was one savvy business decision.

We got to chat with Mark for awhile, discussing some of his experiments, future plans, and past decisions. I especially liked learning his thought process behind ideas such as fermenting Chambourcin in all three kinds of oak and blending them together. He’s got a bit of a mad scientist kind of mentality about his wines, which is big help when you’re trying to make your winery stand out.

But about those wines…

note: all vintages are what were poured in the tasting room as of June 19th

Let’s start with the reds, and begin with my least favorite wine of theirs, which is something like being the least warm spot on the sun.

Pinot Noir: Yes, a Pinot Noir, that finicky, cruel, flighty varietal, grown in North Carolina. And you know what? It’s on par with many Pinot Noirs I’ve had. Chocolate, coffee, and nutty aromas and flavors lead to a medium chalky finish accompanied by espresso. The mouthfeel is a bit thin, the acidity maybe a tad high but the tannins are pleasantly chalky. 5/10

Chambourcin: One of the most blueberry-heavy wines I’ve experienced in awhile, this is yet another great example of how well Chambourcin does in North Carolina. A dusty, earthy flavor accompanies blackfruits and blackberries on a decent finish. 7/10

Cabernet Sauvignon (’06): Beautiful nose of coffee, slight chocolate flavor, bright cherries, and the oak is nuanced and surprisingly tasty. Bordeaux varietals do very, very well in the Yadkin Valley, and this one is no exception. 7/10

Cabernet Franc: A blend of 85% Cab Franc, 10% Chambourcin, and 5% Merlot. Tobacco on the nose, which is light enough to not overwhelm my senses. Black fruits, raspberry, and heavy cinnamon flavors, and a medium finish with a very stark black pepper flavor, which I actually enjoyed. Beautifully full mouth feel. 7/10

Vintner’s Signature: 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Merlot. A very interesting aroma of raisins, mocha, and cedar. An equally interesting array of flavors: woody, cloves, red fruits, leather… with a velvety mouth feel and a good finish. All I can say is this wine is unusual, and I rather like it. 7/10

“Les Soeurs” Cabernet Sauvignon (’07): A pungent, woody nose of smoke, sawdust, and cigar box. Flavors of espresso, cedar, and ripe black cherry combine with extremely fine, powdery tannins to create a beautifully complex experience. The finish is long and woody. 8/10

So what about the whites?

Viognier: Nose of hot house strawberries, oddly enough. Flavor is pear and minerals. Rather simple, but very pleasant, with a brilliant acidity. 7/10

Barrel Fermented Chardonnay: Heavy nose and flavor of oak, though it pairs fairly well with the coconut flavor. A little overdone, but still enjoyable and smooth. 6/10

Chardonnay: I scribbled in the margins “surprisingly full-bodied.” That it was… that it was. Citrusy and tropical, with pineapple really standing out on the nose. Bright flavor of lemon-lime that matches a crisp acidity and perceived sweetness rather well. 6/10

Watching Chardonnay ferment: more or less exciting than watching paint dry?

Sauvignon Blanc: Rather acidic, with a flavor that’s more nuanced than aggressive. Notes of lemon-lime and melon really match the acidity well, and there’s an herbal overtone that feels right at home with the Sauv Blanc experience. 7/10

First in Flight (NV): Based on the blend, 68% Seyval Blanc, 30% Chardonnay, and 2% Riesling, and the lack of vintage, my initial reaction was lacking in anticipation. Boy, was I wrong. Beautiful pear on the nose, with lemon-lime (seeing a pattern in the whites yet?) matching a light sweetness and strong acidity, and a beautifully clear tart granny smith apple on the finish. 7/10

Do they have good dessert wines?

Hell yes, they do.

Lilly B: A citrusy, floral nose with orange peel and marmalade accompanying a honeyed scent. Very pleasantly sweet, not at all syrupy, with apricot and honey really standing out in the flavors and an explosively active acidity providing a serious backbone to a deliciously pungent wine. 7/10

Lillmark Blanc de Noir: Sparkling wine with a beautiful peach-orange color and a very active carbonation. Absolutely dazzling flavor of sour apple candy. I’ve rarely tasted a flavor as pure and aggressive as this one. We tried it on a whim, and 5 minutes later I was spending $35 on a bottle. Totally, completely worth every penny. 8/10

note:: you can purchase all of these wines at their current vintage on their website at http://www.westbendvineyards.com/

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine Wrap-Up

After many interesting weeks of buying and rating boxed wines, I’ve finally concluded my experiment. I set out to prove that boxed wines were a viable alternative to bottled wines, and that winemakers would eventually embrace this trend. Along the way, I learned a few things about boxed wine:

Boxed wines actually test better than bottled wines for flavor-altering chemicals, but phenomenally worse for oxidation. The PET bladder that most boxed wines use is oxygen-permeable. Until a better alternative presents itself, oxidation will always be an ongoing problem.  This means that:

Red wines will last about a year after they’ve been boxed. Basically, it’s unwise to pick up any vintage more than 2 years old. The 2008s I was drinking on weren’t all that impressive in 2010. The extra sulfites present help prevent oxidation.

White wines will last about 6 months after they’ve been boxed. Once we hit 2011, avoid the 2009s like the plague. If you can catch last year’s vintage early in the year, you should expect the wine to be at its peak.

I was very, very hard-pressed to find a Rosé boxed wine. There must still be concern of too much backlash against two historically reviled trends combined in one product.

There are very expensive boxed wines out there, up to and way over $50 per box. For the purposes of this experiment, I declined to include those.

edit:: @Tishwine on Twitter asked why I didn’t try more imports. I only used the boxed wines I could get at local wine shops, Total Wine, and grocery stores. Consider me very intrigued, however, as I’ve noticed some interesting boxed wines at a high price point, and I’m almost certain to get into more expensive or rarer fare for a future post.

Now that I’m done, I’ve compiled all the wines I tested, summed up the experiences in a quick paragraph, and gave each one an overall rating that encompasses flavor and longevity.

Was I pleased with the results?

Yes. Yes I was.

I had horrible wines, I had good wines, and I had one prime example of what boxed wines can be.

The trend?

Octavin was hands down the best distributor, giving me my top 5 wines. Because they’re expressedly focused on legitimizing the word “premium” in boxed wines, I have to give them a special shout-out for all the leg work they did to attract passionate, open-minded producers.

Before I give anything else away, please, check out the wines!

The results (ranked in order from best to worst):

Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc2009 Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc: 7/10. This is a classic, aggressive, beautifully flavored Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. I actually had a lot of trouble keeping my pace with this box. It drank so well for so long, I actually finished it a week early. If you can get the 2009 before we hit 2011, I highly, highly recommend it for anyone who likes a crisp, acidic Sauv Blanc.

Seven wine boxNV Bodegas Osbourne Seven: 6/10. This hearty Spanish red blend of seven varietals is an interesting mix of red fruits, spice, and earthiness. It has a very smooth mouth feel, though the alcohol flavor is a little too prominent. A very pleasant, versatile offering that has a good staying power.

Pinot Evil labelNV Pinot Evil Pinot Noir: 5/10. This is a very interesting, very simple Pinot Noir. Somehow, and I don’t know how, a bargain-priced Pinot Noir manages to be more than drinkable; it’s actually delicious! There’s a bit of an imbalance, and the metallic undertaste keeps it from being better than good. Still, if you’re looking for a pleasantly tannic, light red-fruit-flavored wine, you could do worse than this guy.

2008 Monthaven Central Coast Chardonnay: 5/10. Though I’m not usually an oaked Chardonnay fan, this boxed wine didn’t disappoint. The imbalanced acidity is especially palpable on the finish, which is cruelly bitter. The flavor deteriorates a bit too much after 3 weeks, but until then, it’s a very serviceable, average white wine.

2008 Big House Red: 5/10. This mind-boggling blend of varietals manages to even out into an agreeable, lean, balanced combination of dark floral and red-fruit flavors. The only issue with it is that after 3 weeks, the flavor significantly deteriorates. If you’re doing a weekend trip and need a lot of wine in a small space, this is definitely a good candidate.

Angel-Juice-Pinot-Grigio2009 Angel Juice Pinot Grigio: 4/10. I’m not a Pinot Grigio fan by any means, but this wine’s apple and melon flavors were actually pretty tolerable. Became harsh rather quickly. Still made it most of the way while still being drinkable. If you’re a Pinot Grigio fan, I say have at it. If you’re not, there’s no reason to sniff near this box.

2006 Bota Box Shiraz: 3/10. Imbalanced, lacking in flavor, but hanging onto its meager flavor for much of the experiment. This Shiraz is typical for a bad Shiraz. If you can get past the lack of balance, and you really like your black fruits, I guess you could do worse. I’d personally rather deal with the extra weight and volume of 4 bottles than buy this wine.

2008 Wine Cube California Vintner’s Red Blend: 3/10. I feel dirty giving this wine a score even that high, but to be honest, it was consistent and drinkable. Way too much oak, way too little tannic structure, and a flavor of vanilla sugar made the flavor offensive to my tastebuds, so if you don’t like oak, don’t get within 50 feet of this wine.

NV Double Dog Dare Chardonnay: 2/10. I’m not going to split hairs here; this wine is barely drinkable. It maintains its plain apple flavor fairly well, though it picks up an odd chemical note that just won’t go away. I can’t think of a situation in which I would recommend this wine.

2008 Black Box Monterey Chardonnay: 2/10. Had a lifespan not terribly longer than a bottled counterpart. Its flavors were not impressive to begin with, and the structure just wasn’t there. It had a briny, throat-clogging acidity that made it the opposite of smooth. This is best consumed within a weekend. Again, go for a bottled Chard instead.

NV Washington Hills Merlot: 1/10. Not a good representative of a state that produces quality Merlot. The red fruit and blueberry flavors are obscured by too much oak, and the structure is just off. It doesn’t last long once opened, and the experience wasn’t much to write home about anyways. If you’re serving to a lot of people who like oak, maybe this will do in a pinch, but it’s simply not a viable long-drinking option for most of us.

More Fine Wine from the Great State of Texas

The Back Story:

You might remember the expansive piece called the Texas-Virginia Wine Summit that I co-wrote with Ben Simons from Vinotology some odd months ago (if not, here’s a refresher). In the trade, I ended up getting 4 bottles of Texas wine, 2 from Alamosa Cellars and 2 from Pheasant Ridge. I indulged in one offering from each during our experiment, saving two for a rainy day.

Well, it poured while I was in Virginia. The Alamosa wine I opened, which I forgot to save the label from, was a remarkable trip through Texas terroir, a Spanish blend exhibiting almost no fruit whatsoever, instead providing a leafy, seedy experience of black tea, coffee, and chocolate. The other bottle from Pheasant Ridge was a Bordeaux blend, and as Ben so aptly stated in a Tweet, Pheasant Ridge is doing good things with Bordeaux fruit.

I didn’t pair this wine with food, but I did enjoy it while re-experiencing several of my old favorite songs. I decided to post one to continue my unofficial Music Week. Like this wine, the song is best experienced with eyes closed. Sipping the wine while just letting the music wash over me was a sublime experience.

(also, I recommend closing your eyes because the music video is kind of hokey)

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a beautiful spectrum of red and age. While the depth of the wine is almost a pure red, the swirl reveals shades of rust and cola. It’s a very interesting depth with a low viscosity.

The nose of the wine consists of blackberry and oak. As it opens up in the glass, it begins to develop a light cola and chocolate scent. After a good hour of airing out, it developed a very pleasant black licorice scent. There’s a complexity here I did not expect from the first sip.

The flavor of the wine initially consists of blackberry and oak, just like the nose. It’s surprisingly nuanced, with a higher-than-expected acidity that actually balanced very, very well with the flavor. As the wine opens up, darker fruits and seedier flavors of cola and coffee began to make an appearance. The tannins are a bit light but chalky. This wine is surprisingly complex for only 7 years of age.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a nuanced, atypical wine and beautiful representative of Texas terroir. That being said, I recommend decanting this guy for at least an hour. You’ll definitely appreciate how much the mouth feel improves, and the “aged” character definitely needs some encouragement to present itself. If you want a unique example of what new regions in the New World are doing, I highly recommend this wine. As an added bonus, you’ll blow people’s minds when you tell them about the fantastic Bordeaux blend you had from Texas.

The Conclusion:

This wine might be hard to get a hold of, but at $15 you have absolutely no reason to pass on this beast of a Bordeaux blend. 8/10

In Case You Missed It:

Wine: Proprietor’s Reserve

Producer: Pheasant Ridge

Region: Texas, US

Varietal(s): 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc

Vintage: 2003

Residual Sugar: unknown

Alcohol: 13.8%

pH: unknown

Price: $15

For a second look from a local palate, check out Vinotology’s review. He introduced me to this wine, and I have to say it’s a damn good thing he did.

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