Music Monday: A Diet of Blues and Pinot Noir

The Music

This weekend, I hosted a dinner party for a few close friends. The meal we’ll get to later. The music, however, was a mix of two blues-influenced bands, The Black Keys and Minus the Bear, and two jazz- and funk-influenced hip-hop artists, Ohmega Watts and Othello. I wanted something energetic that wouldn’t be annoying playing quietly in the background, and these bands fit the bill. The Black Keys features an incredibly talented blues-trained guitarist and vocalist in Dan Auerbach and an equally talented blues-trained drummer and producer in Patrick Carney. They are especially notable for their lo-fi recording style, using very basic equipment and minimal production. It gives their music a garage-rock kind of edge that really suits Dan’s guitar and voice.

2008 Hamilton-Stevens Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

2008 Hamilton Stevens Russian River Valley Pinot NoirThe wine was a bright, deep red with just a splash of purple in the mix. It threw off some pretty appetizing hues as it swirled in the decanter.

The nose was rich, juicy and very aromatic. I served it in a decanter, mostly for aesthetics, and every swirl released rich dark fruits, spice, and chocolate scents into the air. The flavor was exactly what you’d expect from a California Pinot Noir. It gave a light plum and strawberry fruit attack matched with a fairly intense acidity, a decent amount of earthiness and spice, and an aggressive cinnamon-spice finish. Great balance, with an alcohol level of 14.5% matched with a very full flavor.

It paired very well with stuffed pork chops, though there was just a bit of alcohol heat on the finish. If the pork had been prepared with similar spices (ground rosemary, thyme, dried garlic, sea salt, and just a pinch of celery seed) and without the added salt and savory seasoning of the stuffing, I think it would have been a fantastic pairing. The mushroom cream sauce that was baked over the whole thing worked with the wine very well.

We also paired it with a tray of chocolate bits for dessert. While the milk chocolate was an okay pairing, the dark chocolate really brought out the best of this wine. With the chocolate, an intense earthiness developed, giving off rich flavors of mushrooms and earth that came forward with the spices and fruits of the wine. It was so good that I opted for another glass of the Pinot for dessert rather than the port that I’d served with the chocolate.

This wine is a phenomenal value, certainly a higher quality than the $10 price tag would suggest. 8/10

For another take on this wine, check out the review from Jason’s Wine Blog.

The Wine: Pinot Noir

Producer: Hamilton-Stevens

Vintage: 2008

Region: Russian River Valley, California, US

Varieties: 100% Pinot Noir

Alcohol: 14.5%

Price: $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: 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 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.

Louis Latour: The Lighter-Bodied Side of Burgundy

Louis Latour 2006 Pinot Noir
Louis Latour Pinot Noir Bottle

Louis Latour Pinot Noir (from http://www.bennettswine.co.uk)

Louis Latour is a family-run winery located in the Burgundy region of France. They’ve been in the business since the 17th Century, and though they have 125 acres of land, they themselves only grow two grape varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winery is noted for reaching outside Burgundy to many different regions and grapes, experimenting with varietals from Gamay to Viognier, depending on what other villages are producing at that time.

The first time I tasted this wine was a couple years ago at Boudreaux’s, a cajun restaurant in Blacksburg, VA.  We were in a group of 6, and the three of us most experienced in wine were selecting the bottles. I had selected a Cabernet Sauvignon for the first bottle, and the guy who had the second pick selected a Pinot Noir to follow a very, unexpectedly full-bodied wine. The Pinot Noir ended up being sandwiched between a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon, which should have doomed it to obscurity on our palates and in our minds.

What surprised me about Louis Latour’s offering was that even after a wine as powerful as the Cab Sauv, the flavor managed to hold its own. The wine was fairly light-bodied, yet I could still detect a strong berry flavor, slightly tart, and smoky overtones. It was rather on the sweet side, too. The flavor wasn’t complex by any means; this is a robust, yet easy-drinking wine, and it serves its purpose well. The nose was a bit weak, though, slightly floral, offering mostly a bouquet of strawberry, blackberry, and possibly some other subdued red-fruit. The texture wasn’t anything all that spectacular, either. I wouldn’t call it flat by any means, but the acidity and tannins were not ideal. This is definitely a wine that would benefit from aging. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to sample an older vintage.

The wine also coincidentally arrived with our dessert, a milk-chocolate-based fudge lava & whipped cream cake, and the flavors matched pretty well. It would probably go better with a lighter chocolate dessert. As far as other food pairings, I’ve had luck with more flavorful or heavily spiced chicken dishes such as chicken marsala or rotisserie-style chickens, hens, whatever. Due to the crisp taste and lack of dryness, I might also pair it with seafood.

Any other drawbacks? Well, I’ve heard some say that the wine is a little too smoky for their taste, but I didn’t think so. It doesn’t keep well, so once you’ve opened it, you’ve only got about 24-48 hours before it’s rendered undrinkable. Unlike most reds, it doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of benefit from aeration.

I’ve also seen some people online complain about the price, being closer to 20 dollars than 10. Even now, in early 2010, I can find a bottle of the 2007 vintage at CostCo for just over 10 dollars. It’s probably not worth 20, but if you find it under 15, I recommend getting it.

I’m not as enamored with this wine as I was when I first had it, mostly because I’ve learned a lot more since then. It’s certainly no world-beater, but if you can find it on the cheaper side, and you know what to expect from a Pinot Noir, I’d recommend giving it a shot. 6/10

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