Exploring an Utter Mystery in the Yadkin Valley

From the first moment that I saw the name of the winery, “Cellar 4201,” on the North Carolina map, I was intrigued. The name reminded me, strangely, of the vaults from Fallout, and I half-expected to come across some sort of bomb-shelteresque hole in the ground a la Vault 101:

Fallout Vault 101 Door

Instead, you’re greeted by an elegant wooden door surrounded by sub-tropical plants and set in a cottage-like tasting room that seems yanked directly from Italy’s Piedmont countryside:

Cellar 4201 Entrance

Words cannot convey how intrigued I was by this winery simply because of the name. Mysterious, entirely non-descriptive, and surrounded geographically by quirky names like Divine Llama and Rag Apple Lassie and old standbys like Shelton Vineyards and Flint Hill, Cellar 4201 provoked every curious bone I had in my body (206 I believe is the current scientific count). Looking at the pictures from their website only made me even more intrigued.

Oh, and by the way, that pour they put in the montage on the home page? That’s actually about the pour you get if you pay for a glass of wine. All their wines are only $5 by the glass, and you get to keep the glass as a souvenir every single glass you buy. They, uh, they take care of their customers.

The owner, Greg, was out straightening up the patio when we arrived; he gave us a friendly welcoming, and we started conversing. He gave us a rundown of the history of the vineyard, about how he and his wife, Donna, developed their passion for wine through traveling and decided to bring their favorite varietals from France and Italy to North Carolina. While they’ve been growing the grapes since 2003, their tasting room has only been open for a year. They took plenty of time to ensure their wines were top quality before they invited the public in. He also explained the name and the label; rather than gussy up the winery’s name, they wanted to quite simply describe what they were, a wine cellar located at 4201 Apperson Road. All their labels feature an arrowhead, an homage to Donna’s Cherokee heritage. The vibrant orange that runs through their label, their logo, and the flora on-site stems from Donna’s affinity for that color.

The expansive lawn of Cellar 4201 (yes that's a cornhole set out there)

While we talked, Greg began to pour a tasting for us. He described the intent behind each wine, each vintage, explaining why things tasted the way they did. Far from a hands-off owner, Greg planted himself firmly in the winemaking, though he defers to the knowledge of Sean McRitchie, a second-generation winemaker from McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, whom he recruited to lead the process.

Halfway through the tasting, Greg had to leave to attend to his other business, but his tasting room partner and best friend Aaron continued the customer service. With a sleeveless shirt, tribal bicep tattoo, and a deep tan, Aaron struck me more as a rugged, outdoorsy type than a tasting room attendant, but he quickly demonstrated his passion for and knowledge of Cellar 4201’s wares as he poured the last wines. Aaron described how, after a long friendship spanning decades (“We’ve never had cross words for each other,” he proudly told us), Greg recruited him to help follow his dream and create the vineyard. They attended classes together, conducted blind tastings, and otherwise educated themselves on the varieties they planted. Now, they harvest the grapes, make the wine, and pour the wines together as a seamless duo.

Gotta stop before I write too much again. How about the wines? None are over $15, and all are absolutely fantastic. Small lots are maintained from 5 total acres of vines, and their wines are 100% estate-grown, meaning all the wine gets plenty of attention throughout the process.

Cellar 4201 is a winery after my girlfriend’s heart. She’s a big red drinker, lover of Bordeaux, and very particular about her white wines. Completely flying in the face of the typical North Carolinian palate, Cellar 4201 offers only two whites (neither of them sweet), and the rest of their wines are classic left-bank Bordeaux reds and an Italian red and off-dry Rosé, both single varietal Sangiovese.

09 Stainless Steel Chardonnay – Offers a bright nose of citrus, primarily pineapple, with a surprisingly full flavor of citrus and tropical notes and a very light perceived sweetness balanced by a superb, soft acidity. Finish is medium-long and tastes like lemons. 7/10

06 Barrel-aged Chardonnay - Spent 9 months in older French and American oak, imparting a very light oak on the nose and flavor. Tropical notes still come through on the nose, and the flavor introduces a slightly buttery characteristic as well as tropical and spices. The wine has a beautiful mouth-soaking texture, incredibly smooth and firm. 7/10

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

NV Sangiovese – A quick note about the non-vintageness of this wine, straight from Greg: in 2007, frost killed almost all of their Sangiovese, leaving them with just 100 gallons after winemaking. Rather than bottle this as is, Greg decided to barrel-age the whole lot for an additional year, 2 years total, blending it with the 2008 Sangiovese after it had aged for a year.

The result is, in my opinion, the best wine they currently offer. A deep reddish-purple color like the skin of a black cherry, offering a light pepper and smoke that gives way to a rich black cherry flavor. The oak provides an incredibly nuanced, velvety texture while hardly encroaching on the pure flavor of the grapes. The tannins are chalky and delicate, offering a surprisingly smooth red wine that was perfect for sipping out in the sun. 8/10

Also, why Sangiovese? From the about us section: “After traveling to Italy, Donna developed a passion for Sangiovese. While admitting it is difficult to grow, it is currently our signature wine.” Simple.

2006 Merlot - With a nose of brisk cherry and black pepper, the Merlot hardly exhibits the 10 months it spent in French oak. It has a great structure, perhaps a bit lighter than a typical Merlot, but the flavors and texture are simply delightful. 7/10

2006 Reserve Merlot - With their Merlot, they split the vintage, oaking one twice as long as the other. Thus, the Reserve Merlot has all the characteristics of its purer brother, but with a palpable, pleasant oak characteristic. The flavor is fuller, darker, with cherries and pepper just bursting onto the palate. The texture is fuller as well, coating the mouth very nicely. Both styles are equally delicious and affordable, so choosing a Merlot is as simple as figuring out how full you prefer your reds to be. 7/10

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Very smoky nose. Complex flavor of dark fruits, tobacco, and wood with a smoky finish. Beautiful full flavor and texture. 10 months in French oak softened it without masking the flavor. 7/10

2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon - With a fuller dark fruit flavor, light oak on the nose and palate, remnants of the smoky and woody character of its lighter brother, and a raisin quality on the finish, the 2006 Reserve Cabernet takes 20 months in French oak in stride. Great texture on this one. 7/10

2006 Sweet Native - The one concession Cellar 4201 has made to the sweet-drinking crowd, the Sweet Native is an off-dry Rosé from 100% Sangiovese with 3% sugar. The flavor is an array of citrus and red fruits, with a pleasantly crisp acidity and a decidedly non-syrupy texture. As Mr. Drink Pink, I approve. 7/10

This post accompanied by a bottle of the Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I made it almost 4 days without opening it.

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/

Virginia Wine Tour: Breaux Vineyards

It’s not often that a place I’ve never been to before makes me homesick.

Breaux Vineyard

The Vineyards at Breaux

Not that I’m homesick for Northern Virginia, but for Virginia in general. I spent pretty much my entire life (other than a few months in Northern Europe) in the state, and I left rather abruptly last year in the name of my career, leaving behind all of my life-long friendships and my comfort zone for a brand new area. It was a passing sensation, missing where I used to live, but the fact that it even happened, considering the amazing circle of friends I’ve already developed in North Carolina, speaks volumes.

More than anything that I want to drive home with this post is that these wineries made me feel like I was home. I never felt like I was sitting on the deck of a business. I felt like I was sitting in someone’s home, someone’s life, somewhere that I had been invited.

Every winery I visited this week was both beautiful and hospitable. It was the perfect combination of gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, and fine wine. I’ve got tasting notes from three of the vineyards, and accompanying each one will be photos and a little bit of background. I don’t need to rehash the history of each one… I can link to their website, and each winery can tell it better in their own words than I. I simply want to give you my experience as a first-time visitor to the wineries, to explain what makes this area the next big thing in wine.

Today’s post is on my first stop on my trip: Breaux Vineyards.

Breaux Vineyards tasting room and winery

At the Entrance to Breaux Vineyards

I actually attended Breaux on two separate trips with fellow wine Tweeters/bloggers, once with @TLColson (of Southern Wine Trails) and the other with @SuzieLin (Running Wine Girl).

The first time was a late afternoon visit, merely an opportunity to taste their wines for the first time. We showed up after most of the crowd had left, waiting for a spot to open up at the tasting counter. I lucked out on this trip because @TLColson and I had been tweeting with Jen, the Tasting Room Manager and social media mind behind @BreauxVineyards, so when we arrived she came out to the tasting room to meet us. This was a fantastic opportunity to chat with her about the wines, about the winery, the history, everything that I would have wanted to know about the facilities.

In fact, before she closed up, I got a brief tour of the winery as well some great info about current and future wines and events. Jen’s one-of-a-kind when it comes to customer service; she thrives in the social role, inviting people to follow her on Twitter and Facebook so she can keep up with them after they leave the winery.

Breaux barrel room

Inside the Winery at Breaux Vineyards

The second time I visited, with @SuzieLin, was for a Face to Facebook event hosted in the outdoor pavilion. It was a much less official visit marked mostly by just sipping a Reserve Cab, conversing, and taking in the atmosphere. Later in the afternoon we met a friendly couple from D.C. who offered to share a picnic and some wine with us. I meant to head out by 4 for another event, but I think we ended up heading out sometime around 7:30. It’s easy to lose track of time there.

Before I get too long-winded, let’s do a rundown of their wine, shall we?

White / Rosé

2007 Jolie Blond – Made from Seyval Blanc. It’s citrusy, with a high acidity, dry, slightly hot on the alcohol. Stark flavor of grapefruit. For $14.00, it’s a good entry-level Virginia white. 6/10.

2008 Viognier – Very ripe, exotic tropical nose. My tasting notes say “fantastically dry,” to the point but perfectly accurate. Flavors of passionfruit and honey with a beautiful sweet pineapple finish and a lush, full mouthfeel. At $23.00, this easily rates an 8/10.

2009 Madeleines Chardonnay – An unoaked Chard is a way to my heart. It has a very unusual dark floral nose and flavors as well as tangerine, and the finish has a very clean kiwi flavor. Great balance. For $19.00, I’d say it’s a 7/10.

2008 Syrah Rosé – Strong nose and palate of cranberry with a strawberry candy finish. A little bit thin, but the finish is great and clean. 6/10

Dessert

2008 Jen’s Jambalaya – Ripe tropical nose and flavors, hints of honeysuckle and peach. It’s fairly sweet, and it honestly reminds me of a Moscato. It’s a blend of 7 grapes that I neglected to write down. Sorry about that. I wasn’t crazy about it in the tasting room when I first had it, but the second time I was around, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For $18.00, it rates a 7/10.

2007 Chère Marie – Created from Vidal Blanc, the Chére Marie is a simple, sweet, basic tropical wine. Fairly non-descript, but there’s nothing wrong with it. For $12.00, it’s a 5/10.

2008 Nebbbiolo Ice – Color me surprised. This wine has ridiculously clean flavors of pineapple, banana, and orange. I wrote “lush fruit,” and every positive thing that can mean should be implied here. It’s only the slightest bit syrupy, at 10% sugar, but damn if it isn’t satisfying. $24.00 for a half bottle, and I’m giving it an 8/10.

Breaux wine line-up

The victims of the evening's after-hours wine consumption

Red

NV Equation – Thin but sharp tannins, a medium finish of spice and redfruits. Notes of blackberry and plum. A very good under $20 Merlot. 6/10

2005 Marquis De Lafayette – I had more than my fair share of this that first night. 100% Cabernet Franc, which is my regional guilty pleasure. Plummy and peppery, a fairly light structure with pleasant, subdued tannins. A fantastic summer red, especially at $19.00. 7/10

2006 Meritage – Blend of 38% Merlot, 24% Petit Verdot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, and 6% Cabernet Franc. Aggressively tannic, with flavors of coffee, red fruit, and dark chocolate. Very luxurious, with a long chocolate finish. You better believe I brought a bottle of this back with me. At $28.00, it’s a good bargain that could cellar for a decade. 8/10

2004 Merlot – Flavors of tart cherry and baking spices, with a ripe plum on the finish. Fairly simple, medium-bodied, not terribly tannic. Like the Meritage, a great value at $28.00. 7/10

2005 Nebbiolo – A very light red in the glass, Strong tobacco and smoke. I personally have a problem getting past strong tobacco and smoke in any wine, so I can’t give a good estimate of this wine’s flavor components beyond red fruits and floral. The balance, texture, mouthfeel, everything was well rounded. It was a fantastic wine to sip on in the sun. Well worth it at $48.00. (no rating)

2007 Double Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – A rare treat that I got to sample, it has a fantastic balance. Deep ruby color. Very complex with red fruits, spices, tobacco, and a bit of smoke. Long black cherry finish. 7/10

Essentially, this is one of the best all-around line-ups I’ve ever been able to taste through. If you ever find yourself in Virginia northwest of D.C., you owe it to yourself to make the detour out to this countryside winery. Even if they’ve got a crowd (and they often do), you’ll have a phenomenal time.

Along for the Ride: United Slurps of America

Today, I have the distinct honor of joining Swirl Smell Slurp for their United Slurps of America tour. Representing the great state of North Carolina is McRitchie Vineyard, a winery from Yadkin Valley AVA. Come to think of it, I should have just called this Yadkin Valley Week. If nothing else, I hope this week on Wine(Explored) and this collaboration proves that North Carolina is capable of producing a premiere wine-growing region.

Make sure you head to check out the full post at Swirl Smell Slurp. They’re the ones who conceived and organized the idea; I’m just along for the ride.

Onto the wines!

McRitchie 2009 Yadkin Valley Fallingwater

The Fallingwater has a very light yellow color, with just a tinge of green, and it has a lower viscosity than I would have expected. The nose consists of overly ripe tropical notes, apricot and a sweetness like honey, and a bit of vinyl. Rather dry, with a detectable alcohol flavor and a hot scent. Flavor of apricot preserves, pineapple, and there is that slight vinyl flavor. It’s got a very luxurious, tropical medley on the finish that’s hard to pin down but still very enjoyable.  Has a very strong acidity that becomes prominent on the finish. Balance isn’t quite there for me. 5/10.

McRitchie Apple Cider

McRitchie North Carolina Dry Hard Cider

It’s much, much lighter than most hard ciders I’ve seen. I cheered inwardly a bit when I noticed the carbonation in the glass. It’s very fine, frizzante, not aggressive like the more common hard ciders. It has a musty, Champagne-like nose with a very subdued apple scent. I honestly don’t know what to expect just from the smell. The flavor is very subtle, and, as the name states, very dry. The apple flavor is pure, but not sweet, like apple juice. If it weren’t for the warming sensation in my throat and stomach, I wouldn’t even be sure there was alcohol here. It barely comes through on the finish, but there’s just enough there to give it a bite. Its got a great balance. 7/10.

McRitchie 2008 Yadkin Valley Merlot

Before I even get to the color, I can smell the chocolate. My exact words: “mmmm, chocolatey.” Anyway, the color is a wonderful, deep, rich red with a very, very light purple tint that becomes noticeable on the swirl.  In addition to the chocolate on the nose, there’s a jammy cherry scent. I also, and I think I’m a bit crazy, get a hint of both burlap and maple syrup. Was this aged in French oak? I can definitely detect the oak influence in the flavor, contributing a powdery vanilla-sugar flavor. I also get a tart cherry and coffee and a bit of chocolate on the finish, which is long and clean. There’s also a certain sort of baking spice flavor like cloves or cinnamon. Mouthfeel is a bit stringy and the alcohol/acidity balance is a bit harsh, but the overall experience is a clean, medium-bodied, classic Merlot flavor. 6/10.

McRitchie Ring of Fire

McRitchie 2008 Yadkin Valley Ring of Fire

Color’s a very deep, almost opaque reddish purple. Rich scent of redcurrant and coffee. It has a very smooth, very full texture, evidence of a very good amount of time in oak. Flavor is a very rich mocha with a bit of cherry. Tannins are chalky, not quite chewy, and the sensation lingers on the finish. Good balance on the alcohol here; it contributes to the structure without coming forward. This one is my favorite of their wines. 7/10.

If you’re looking to get your hands on some of their wine, just drop by http://www.mcritchiewine.com. They’ve got all the info you need to start experiencing their wines for yourself!

Note, these wines were provided by the winery as a sample for review.

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine Week 9

The Back Story:

The boxed wine we’re covering this week, Seven by Bodegas Osbourne, is a fascinating study in terroir and structure. We’re familiar with that famous French / Aussie blend, GSM, comprised of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, and the qualities that each component brings to the table. Syrah is the big, meaty, aggressive wine, contributing massive tannins and dark fruits to the wine. Mourvèdre, with its delayed ripening, brings a higher acidity and more nuanced structure to the mix. Grenache, a lighter, sweeter, and soft wine, craves the structure and tannins the other two provide. It’s an example of a basic, well-reasoned and -tested formula for a successful blend.

If GSM is an algebra equation, Seven is calculus integration. Though not nearly as staggering as the Big House Red’s array of varietals, this wine still has an extensive list of varietals to sift through. It consists of 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 18% Shiraz, 8% Tempranillo, 8% Garnacha (Grenache), 8% Petit Verdot, and 8% Graciano.

The wine begins with the potent structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz, and the dry, red fruit profile these grapes bring to the table are tempered by the earthiness and softness of Spanish stalwarts Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Graciano. These grapes all take on the terroir of Spain incredibly well, and the combination of aggressive tannins in the big reds, softer, gentler profile of the Grenache and Tempranillo, and high acidity of the Petit Verdot and Graciano should make for an interesting experience.

The Results:

Seven wine boxThe appearance of the wine is a deep red with a slight ruby tint and a pure translucency. It appears to have an average viscosity.

The nose of the wine is a bit hot, featuring mainly red-fruit and spice with a distinct milk chocolate scent and a note of leather. Smells rather like a cordial cherry.

The mouth feel of the wine is fairly medium-bodied, very smooth. The tannins are palpable but not very prominent. The alcohol is very detectable here, lending the wine its light and airy smoothness.

The flavor of the wine is, like the nose, a simple red-fruit and spice affair. There are simple, broad flavors of cherry and cinnamon. It’s slightly earthy, leathery, with a metallic tinge, and there is a detectable oak. The finish is medium, a bit shorter than expected, accompanied by chocolate. There’s a bit of sweetness offsetting a surprisingly tame tannic profile. It has a very good balance, though the alcohol comes through quite a bit, especially on the finish.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a nice, tame, simple red wine with a very agreeable flavor profile. Not too big, not too tannic, not too sweet, this is a crowd-pleaser. The chocolate and cherry flavors will suit most palates, and the lack of “chewy” tannins should make this at least acceptable to white wine drinkers. It’s a bit tame, so keep it away from overly spicy meals, especially tomato-based soups and sauces. Most red meat, though, is fair game.

The Conclusion:

The massive varietal blend equals out to a relatively simple fruit- and chocolate-centric wine. For a red wine, especially boxed, this is pretty good. 6/10

Current Line-up:

Bodegas Osbourne Seven NV

  • Week 0 – 6/10 – Red-fruit, spicy, slightly earthy. Bit imbalance in the alcohol. Very smooth and well-rounded.

Silver Birch Sauvignon Blanc 2009

  • Week 0 – 6/10 – Tropical, citrus, herbal flavors and nose. Slightly imbalanced acidity and alcohol.
  • Week 1 – 6/10 – Very similar to last week. Possibly

Double Dog Dare Chardonnay, California NV

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – Very off-putting nose, dull, listless color, rough mouth feel, apple and oak flavor, imbalanced acidity.
  • Week 1 – 2/10 – Flavor and balance have taken a dive. The chemical from the nose is noticeable on the flavor
  • Week 2 – 2/10 – Consistent from the last week. Weak flavor and nose, imbalance.

Big House Red, California 2008

  • Week 0 – 7/10 – Lean, light texture, floral and red-fruit flavors, good balance, slightly hot nose, medium finish
  • Week 1 – 6/10 – Flavor has deteriorated a bit, and there’s a harshness that I possibly didn’t detect before
  • Week 2 – 5/10 – Harshness has intensified. The flavors are still good, just slowly fading.
  • Week 3 – 4/10 – Alcohol is detectable in the mouthfeel, finish, and nose. Flavor is a bit rougher.

Wine Cube California Vintner’s Red Blend 2008

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – Weak structure, heavy oak nose, red-fruit profile, heavy vanilla oak flavor, light-bodied, very short finish.
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – Exactly the same as before. Somehow, and I don’t know how, this sweet vanilla red wine manages to be drinkable.
  • Week 2 – 3/10 – Nose is a little bit off, but the flavor is still the same as before.
  • Week 3 – 3/10 – Same flavor, just a bit weaker. Odd buttered popcorn scent on the nose now.
  • Week 4 – 3/10 – Alcohol is becoming prominent on the nose and flavor. Other than that, it’s holding up well

Retired 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.
  • Week 1 – 5/10 – Still as fresh as when it was opened. Similar earthiness, red fruits, short finish, slightly imbalanced acidity.
  • Week 2 – 5/10 – Still tasting pretty fresh. Still balanced. Flavor tastes on par with previous tastings.
  • Week 3 – 4/10 – Flavor is beginning to diminish, causing the alcohol flavor and metallic taste to come through more.
  • Week 4 – 4/10 – Holding steady from last week. Still a slightly off flavor, but it hasn’t diminished since.
  • Week 5 – 4/10 – Nose is a bit more harsh. Cherry flavor is strangely more prominent.
  • Average score: 4.5/10. Length of stay = 5 weeks. Final score is 5/10. I would completely recommend this wine as a stalwart backup for any occasion as well as a decent sipper on its on right.

Monthaven Central Coast Chardonnay 2008

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – Imbalanced (high) acidity, balanced alcohol, apple, tropical, oaky flavors and nose, medium-bodied, way too bitter finish.
  • Week 1 – 5/10 – Similar balance in acidity and alcohol, similar flavors and nose, similar bitter finish
  • Week 2 – 5/10 – Starting to taste a bit more imbalanced, flavors and nose have faded slightly, finish is less bitter
  • Week 3 – 4/10 – Odd caramel scent on the nose. Flavor has deteriorated and the balance is still off.
  • Week 4 – 3/10 – Flavor has deteriorated further. Alcohol flavor is starting to take a prominent feature.
  • Week 5 – 3/10 – Held steady for the final week. Still drinkable, and the flavor’s still partially there.
  • Average score: 4.2/10. Length of stay = 5 weeks. Final score is 5/10. Though it didn’t finish strongly, this boxed wine is good for a few weeks of very tasty drinking.

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
  • Week 2 – 3/10 – Still imbalanced, same texture, flavor, and nose. Holding its meager flavor well.
  • Week 3 – 3/10 – There’s something a little off on the flavor, but it’s not enough to drop the score. Still mostly the same.
  • Week 4 – 2/10 – Tastes very soft now, like the structure is beginning to deteriorate. Weak flavor, alcohol is strangely no longer prominent in the flavor
  • Week 5 – 2/10 – The flavor profile is very different. Very soft, very meek, hardly representative of the big fruit that preceded it.
  • Average score: 2.6/10. Length of stay = 5 weeks. Final score is 3/10. Had a pretty decent stay, though it came from humble beginnings. If nothing else, you’ve got over a month to drink it.

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
  • Week 3 – 1/10 – Nose and flavor lost distinguishing characteristics. Taste mostly of acid and alcohol. Flavor is officially wince-inducing. Consider this guy retired.
  • Average score: 2.5/10. Length of stay = 3 weeks. Final score is 2/10. Started off all right, but deteriorated too quickly to make it a contender for the best boxed wine.

Washington Hills Merlot NV

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – Imbalanced (high) alcohol, decent acidity, red fruit, blueberry, oaky flavors and nose, short finish.
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – Still hot on the tongue, balanced acidity, flavors are all holding true. Nose hasn’t changed.
  • Week 2 – 3/10 – Nose and flavor are still the same, mediocre but not any worse.
  • Week 3 – 2/10 – A slightly unusual, chemical flavor is starting to come forward. It’s really affecting the flavor.
  • Week 4 – 0/10 – Nose consists entirely of alcohol now. Flavor is unrecognizable. This guy is retired.
  • Average score: 2.2/10. Length of stay = 4 weeks. Final score is 1/10. Started poorly, and the wine was essentially undrinkable after 3 weeks. Not a good trait in a boxed wine.

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 3

The Back Story:

My first wine love

For this week’s search for the best boxed wine, I’m returning to the roots of my wine snobbery. As I was growing up, I always had the impression of wine as that inky stuff my parents would drink that smelled like Easter egg dye and cost as much as a fifth of bourbon or a case of beer. In other words, it wasn’t an investment that was high on my list. That all changed when, as I moved into yet another college apartment, my parents sent, along with a truckload of pack-rat resultant clutter, a few bottles of Washington Hills Late Harvest Riesling. As a sort of celebration for my hard work in hanging a few tattered posters, I popped the cork on one of the bottles. I couldn’t believe the sensations! So this is what wine tastes like when you’re all grown up and avoiding Sutter Home!

Ever since then, I’ve looked at wine not as a weak sauce, expensive option when you’re drinking to get drunk but as the journey that it should be. It changed my perceptions of what consuming alcohol should be. I know, I know, it’s a sub-$10, rather simple Riesling, but damn if it didn’t taste like heaven to a college scamp weaned on bargain schlock. With this experience in mind, when I saw that Washington Hills was now selling wine in a cask, I absolutely had to add it to my queue.

I want to make note of a difference between the cask Merlot and the bottled variety: They’re two completely different wines. The bottled Merlot has a vintage (the recent ’06 non-reserve for a fairer comparison), breaks down 76% Merlot, 14% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Cabernet Franc, and has a higher acidity with a pH at 3.32. The cask wine is non-vintage, breaks down 75% Merlot, 20% Sangiovese, and 5% Cab Franc, and has a pH of 3.68. If you’ve had either that ’06 non-reserve or the ’07 Reserve, which is 100% Merlot, be aware that you’re getting a different wine.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a deep cherry red, just a hint of violet, translucent, and has a medium viscosity.

The nose of the wine is a combination of blueberry, oak, vanilla, and cherry. It smells an awful lot like blueberry yogurt, to be perfectly frank. For 13.5% alcohol, the nose isn’t too terribly hot, but it’s carrying the aroma very well.

The mouth feel of the wine is rather thin for a Merlot, though it’s a little tangy, and there’s enough substance there to keep it from being flat-out flabby.

The flavor of the wine is utterly unimpressive. It’s just all-around weak with a red-fruit base. Very oaky, a little spicy, with a slightly short finish of blueberry. The finish is the only part where the flavor truly stands out. The alcohol comes through too much, very hot. The wine is off-dry with a palatable sweetness that comes through more because of the lower acidity.

For the Casual Drinker:

It’s pretty much a cheap, drinkable red wine. I can’t say that it’ll knock anyone’s socks off, and I definitely would recommend putting off serving this wine until after a good, hearty red has, shall we say, dulled the senses of those involved. It’s a back-up wine through and through. The flavors certainly won’t overwhelm anyone, and the alcohol flavor is muted enough to keep it from offending sensitive palates. The acidity is relatively low as well, keeping it from reaching heartburn-inducing levels.

The Conclusion:

I should have researched this wine before I purchased it. If I’d known it wasn’t the same Merlot that Washington Hills has been bottling, I probably would have tried a different box. For $20, it’s a solid 3/10, if you can call that solid.

Current Line-up:

Washington Hills Merlot NV

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) alcohol, decent acidity, red fruit, blueberry, oaky flavors and nose, short finish.

Pinot Evil Pinot Noir NV

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – slightly imbalanced acidity, balanced alcohol, earthy nose, red fruit flavor, short finish, slight metallic undertaste.
  • Week 1 – 5/10 – Still as fresh as when it was opened. Similar earthiness, red fruits, short finish, slightly imbalanced acidity.

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
  • Week 2 – 3/10 – Still imbalanced, same texture, flavor, and nose. Holding its meager flavor well.

Retired Line-up:

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
  • Week 3 – 1/10 – Nose and flavor lost distinguishing characteristics. Taste mostly of acid and alcohol. Flavor is officially wince-inducing. Consider this guy retired.
  • Average score: 2.5/10. Length of stay = 3 weeks. Final score is 2/10. Started off all right, but deteriorated too quickly to make it a contender for the best boxed wine.

The 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit – Part 2: The Great Tasting

Looking for part 1 of the 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit? You can find the Dawn of Cooperation here on Vinotology.

Chairman: Welcome to the second session of the 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit. Our participants are Joshua Sweeney, Virginia born-and-bred and host of today’s venue, Wine(Explored), and Ben Simons, native son of Texas and the man behind Vinotology. In our first session, we laid the groundwork evidence for Virginia’s and Texas’s credentials as major wine-producing regions. Today, we will accept one wine from each state as physical evidence. Virginia, please present your wine to the chamber for review.

Chairman of the wine summit

Josh: As evidence of Virginia’s worth as a major wine-producing region, I submit for review the 2008 West Wind Farm Rosé. I have selected this wine because it showcases both the abilities of Virginia wine growers as well as the creativity inherent in Virginia wine culture. When you think of a Rosé, what wine characteristics come to mind? What would you consider to be the typical Rosé? *pause for dramatic effect*

Close behind the argument of red wine drinkers versus white wine drinkers is red AND white wine drinkers versus Rosé. Bastard child of the red wine, white wine wearing the makeup of an incorrigible trollop, a blush wine for people who can’t handle their tannins, Rosés have suffered many slights in the minds of drinkers with a wine superiority complex. In actuality, a pink wine is an art unto itself, a beautiful, shape-shifting creature that can embody the crispness and sweet nature of a white or the aggressive acidity and tannic bite of a mature red. The trick is, as with any wine, in the respect and dedication of the wine maker.

When I first tasted this wine, I had no idea what I was getting into. The color was rich but light for a Rosé, a pure pink that betrayed only the slightest hint of red. The nose was dry and pungent, fruit-forward but rather tame. I was ready for the standard pink experience. Fool me once… The thing is, Merlot grapes aren’t the standard grape for a Rosé, and if I had bothered to read the tasting notes, I would have known the wine, 100% Merlot, was allowed a little under a day’s worth of skin contact to get that deep pink color.

Putting that first sip on my tongue was like dropping a bomb of dryness on my palate. After I figured out that no, I hadn’t utterly lost my mind, I was absolutely in awe of the characteristics of that wine. So crisp, so dry, balanced so well, and with a beautiful red fruit flavor that faded to a ripe strawberry finish, I was duly impressed. Unusual innovation like that is one of the benefits of living in an “up and coming” wine region, as there are no traditions to buck or expectations to meet. An additional benefit of the lesser-known region is the lower price point on these wines. The Rosé sells directly from the winery for $14.

I’ll now yield the floor to my colleague from Texas before I encroach upon his rebuttal. Your thoughts on this wine, Mr. Simons?

West Wind Farm emblem

Ben: Josh, I have to say that I admire the courage of choosing something unconventional like a Rosé.  I admit that I was intrigued when I heard that you would be presenting this wine.  As a resident of a state that is making some interesting wines from some unusual varieties, I can appreciate the creativity shown with this wine.

I really like the color of this wine, most definitely somewhat lighter than you generally see, but an interesting pinkish hue. * sniff- Hmm, the dryness of this wine is surprisingly evident even on the nose.  I do smell a bit of red fruit, but I wouldn’t say that the nose is overly fruity.  I also wouldn’t call the nose overly friendly or inviting, but it is interesting.

*sip – Wow, very interesting flavors. Surprisingly dry, and surprisingly big on the palate. The flavors of crisp cherry and citrus stand out. This wine feels like a walking contradiction. I’m getting citrus, but not a ton of acidity. I get something that seems slightly like cherry candy, but the wine is by no means sweet. The lingering flavor of strawberries and a touch of apple finish are like a nice hug goodbye.

Chairman: Thank you, Texas. The chamber now calls on you to present your wine for review.

Ben: Mr. Chairman, as evidence for the quality of Texas as a wine region, I submit the 2006 Pheasant Ridge Pinot Noir. I selected this wine for a number of reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that Pinot Noir is a grape that most people would assume cannot be grown successfully in Texas. In fact, I have even been told by a Texas winemaker that Pinot Noir can’t be grown here. This wine shows the amazing versatility of Texas viticulture.

This wine was produced in the High Plains of Texas, in my hometown of Lubbock. The winery operates under a philosophy of minimal intervention, trying to do their best to let the grapes speak for themselves. The High Plains is probably the only place in the state where Pinot Noir could be grown, as the nights get cool enough to support these thin skinned grapes. Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grown, and an even more difficult one to do well, but I think this winery has done an excellent job.  There were only 70 cases of this wine produced.

The color of this wine is what you want a Pinot Noir to be, not dark and inky, but a somewhat light shade of garnet red. There is no doubt that this is a true Pinot Noir. The nose has beautiful red fruit notes of strawberry and cherry, with just a touch of earthiness. When I sip on this wine, I love the acidity that leaps out, with tangy fruits like sour cherry and cranberries standing out. This wine practically screams for a pork tenderloin to pair with it, which we just happen to have to serve the Chairman and each of the panelists after the evidence presentation is complete.  One final note, this wine costs only $15, which is a remarkably low price for a Pinot Noir, especially one made from a small production winery.

I now yield to the gentleman from the state of Virginia, Mr. Sweeney…

Pheasant Ridge logo

Josh: Thank you, Ben. Like that misinformed winemaker, I had never considered that Pinot Noir could be grown in a state so far south as Texas. Consider me enlightened. It would seem that Texas, like Virginia, has an interesting array of growing areas. I had known about how Texas was well suited for Mediterranean varietals such as Tempranillo and Sangiovese, but Pinot Noir? It will be very interesting to see how this pans out.

I can see what you mean about the color of this wine. That is a very rich red, though still light enough for a quality Pinot Noir. *sniff – Those red fruits really jump out at you. The cherry smell dominates for me, but I still get that undertone of earthiness that seems to me an appropriate expression of the terroir. It’s a little bit spicy and floral, but just enough to accent the red fruit, nothing overpowering. Its aroma is powerful, too. I can smell it from across the table.

*sip – Oh my. That is an incredibly harmonious wine. Fantastic acidity, and it’s well-balanced, off-dry. A very easy drinker. Again, massive red-fruits on the palate, raspberry, cherry, and, yes, cranberry. The mouth feel is velvety with a pleasant bite. I’m even getting something a little like cinnamon and pepper on the mid-palate, which transitions nicely to a long, dry, cherry finish. I probably would not have placed this as a New World wine in a blind tasting. It’s only 15 dollars, you say? I would have pegged this wine for at least $20. Chairman?

Chairman: We will now take a recess. I would like to thank our participants, Mr. Ben Simons representing Texas and Mr. Joshua Sweeney representing Virginia. We will pass preliminary deliberations onto you, the panelists. Pass the pork tenderloin, please.

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