Rhone lovers benefit from unique partnership

PASO ROBLES – The signpost pointing to the entrance of the tasting room reads 9 yards away. Pointing in the opposite direction, the sign reads Domaine de Beucastel, 9,009 kilometers away.

The two locales seemed much closer in proximity after sampling some of the Rhone varietals at Tablas Creek Vineyard in West Paso Robles. One of Paso’s most renowned wineries sits high in the Santa Rita Hills, and the drive along the tree-lined, winding and undulating Adelaida Road offers some spectacular views.

“French connection to a California wine,” is how Tablas Creek’s Russ Frank describes the goal behind the partnership of Robert Haas and his family from California and the Perrin family from Chateau de Beaucastel in France. In 1989, the families purchased a 120-acre former alfalfa farm and cattle ranch after searching four years for a site similar in composition to Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhone Valley in France.

Their dream was to create in California the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which roughly translated means “the Pope’s new castle.” Chateauneuf-du-Pape is one of the most renowned wine appellations in southeastern France and its top wines are some of the most sought-after in the world with prices to match. Most of the wine produced in Chateauneuf-du-Pape is red and Granache Noir, which can be sweet and jammy, takes the lead in many of the blends with Syrah adding color and spice and Mouvedre supplying structure and elegance.

Paso’s combination of limestone-rich, calcareous clay soils that retain water, large diurnal temperature swings and hilly terrain have proven suitable for Tablas Creek to grow many of Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s 18 permitted grape varieties, including Mouvedre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne.

Tablas Creek has been organically dry-farmed farmed since its inception. Dry-farming limits yields and emphasizes character of place, elements essential to winemaker and vineyard manager Neil Collins.

“I just do as little as I can to make those wines be an expression of the soil,” said Collins in a video by Marc Weisberg, “so when you taste a Tablas Creek wine you’ll taste minerality but every wine will be different from the previous wine, but there will be a thread of similarity.”

Here are a few Tablas Creek wines that stood out:

Grenache Blanc 2014 ($27)

This important variety in Chateauneuf-du-Pape white wines has crisp acidity with green apple and fennel flavors. The minerality is super pleasing in this easy-to-drink alternative to over-oaked Chardonnay.

Cotes De Tablas 2014 ($35)

Tablas Creek’s showcase for Grenache Noir has cherry lollipops on the nose with high acid and medium-plus tannin. This has nice fruit character but enough structure to lie down for a while. Grenache Noir (44 percent) is dominant in the blend with Syrah (36 percent), Counoise (12 percent) and Mouvedre (8 percent) filling it out.

Esprit De Tablas 2013 ($55)

Tablas Creek’s flagship red has Mouvedre (40 percent) as the dominant grape in the blend with Syrah (28 percent), Grenache Noir (22 percent) and Counoise (10 percent). The Mouvedre gives off meaty aromas and flavors. This is an intense, lush wine with pleasing minerality and ample structure.

Tablas Creek brings the Rhone to California and is popular on restaurant wine lists and available in fine wine shops and markets with good wine sections.

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Rias Baixas Albarino is a vacation in a glass

Rías Baixas is an area tucked away in the region of Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain.
The climate there is much different than the arid plains many associate with Spain. Rías Baiaxs’ proximity to the Atlantic Ocean means it receives plenty of humidity and rainfall, but it also soaks up gobs of sunshine during the critical growing and ripening phases.
As for the landscape, think Ireland’s Emerald Coast.
Rías Baixas is renowned for the Albariño grape, a thin-skinned white variety that comprises 90 percent of the plantings in the region, which formally received Denominación de Origen (DO) status in 1988. Rías Baixas has five sub-zones each with unique characteristics. The soils are fairly uniform with granite being the mother rock beneath mineral-rich alluvial top soil.
Many vineyards in Rías Baixas are pergola trained. The vines are suspended above the ground to allow better air circulation in an effort to prevent rot. It’s an especially necessary practice in areas like Rías Baixas that receive a hefty amount of rainfall.
Albariño is delightfully crisp, aromatic and easy to drink. It’s perfect when served chilled on a warm day or paired with chicken, paella, shellfish, seafood, salads, cheese or tapas.
Lodi growers are planting Albariño, and several area wineries are putting out really nice expressions of the varietal, including Oak Farm, Klinker Brick, Harney Lane, Jeremy, and Bokisch. Lodi’s climate and soils make a nice home for the varietal. I’ve enjoyed many Lodi Albariños over the years but had not played with any Spanish versions until recently when I sampled two from Rías Baixas.
Sin Palabras 2014 (SRP $13)
Sin palabras translated into English means astonished, speechless or amazed. Castrobrey Adegas (Cellar) crafted this special selection of Sin Palabras to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the winery founded by Jose Castro Brey and Isabel Pereiro. The grapes were carefully selected from old vines situated in the high area of the Ribera de Ulla sub-region, and the wine was aged in stainless steel and bottled late, so it could age well.
This 100 percent Albariño is pale lemon green in color and slightly frizzante. The aroma intensity is medium with citrus fruit, especially lemons. There also is salt spray, suntan lotion and minerality on the nose, aromas that take you to the beach, where you’re kicking back in a folding chair, digging your toes in the sand, breathing the sea air.
The palate is dry, the flavor intensity is medium, again with citrus fruit, salinity and minerality; but now there is a definite pineapple, apricot and white peach thing coming through. The acid is high, mouthwatering, and the body is light, as is the finish.
Sin Palabras could pair with tidbits such as olives, Marcona almonds, manchego cheese and roasted red bell peppers drizzled with olive oil, or main dishes like yellowtail, oysters, crab or chicken.
Albariño Tomada de Castro 2014 (SRP $14)
The color is pale lemon, slightly lighter than the Sin Palabras. It’s a bit fizzy, too. The Atlantic Ocean influence is evident on the nose in the form of salt air, sand and minerality. The overwhelming fruit characteristic initially on the nose is lemon. But after a few swirls, the wine reveals white peaches, pineapples, salt water taffy, caramel candy and Juicy Fruit gum.
The palate is dry, the acid is medium-high and the body is light. The flavor intensity is medium. The saline, sand, citrus fruit and pineapple flavors hung around and found room on the couch for green apple and pear. The caramel candy, taffy and gum got tired of watching TV and took a hike.
The finish is longer than the Sin Palabras but would best be described as medium with the pineapple lingering like the house guest who wouldn’t leave.
This wine really whets the appetite. It would be fantastic as an aperitif and would go well with shellfish, oily fish and lighter dishes.
The Rías Baixas Albariños have more salinity and minerality than Lodi Albariños, which only makes sense given Rías Baixas’ relationship to the Atlantic Ocean. Stock this varietal for your next springtime party or picnic. You and your guests might really enjoy it.

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Discovering the wines of Yolo County

YOLO COUNTY — Judy Simas swears she hasn’t lost her mind.
And her husband, Bob, a jovial sort, seems to possess his full mental capacity.
But their plunge into the wine business, some might say, was a tad insane.
The Simases had worked hard their whole lives — Judy as a high school English teacher and administrator and Bob in the Department of Plant Science at University of California, Davis, and other universities. When their son Chris, a table grape viticulturist in the San Joaquin Valley, asked for their help to purchase 25 acres in the Capay Valley, Judy and Bob put their retirement aside, and their sanity and bank account on the line.
For more than a decade, Chris and his wife, Bonnie, and their four handsome sons have grown wine grapes and raised hogs on an absolutely gorgeous ranch set just east of the Mayacamas Mountains. In such beautiful surroundings and solitude, it’s no wonder why Judy and Bob helped their son and his family. The first vintage of Simas Family Vineyard wine was released in 2008, and they’ve done so well, they plan to build a tasting room on their property.
The Simas family is just one of dozens of passionate farming families with deep roots in the area who recently have gone into the winemaking business. Yolo County, which includes Capay, Clarksburg, Davis, Winters, Woodland, Zamora and Dunnigan, to name several towns, has tremendous potential with growing conditions right for Rhone and Spanish varietals, and a number of entrepreneurs ready to take a stab at it, such as the Simas family.
Roots to Wine, a group of eight small, mostly family-run wineries in Yolo County, put together a vineyard and winery tour for wine bloggers and writers last month that opened my eyes to the bounty, beauty and possibilities of this untapped treasure.
On a soggy Sunday, the tour began at the 500-acre Yolo Vineyards’ Hucke Ranch in northwest Yolo County, where vineyard manager Gio Ferrendelli offered samples of Route 3 Wines: The delightful, light, crisp Greco di Tufo, the Detour red blend of barbera and merlot, and a spicy, flavorful head-trained Grenache that carries faint aromas of the Eucalyptus trees bordering three sides of the vineyard.
Over bumpy numbered roads, past cattle and horse pastures, fruit orchards, and rolling hills that were a fervent green from the recent rain, we ventured into northern Yolo County — the Dunnigan Hills American Viticultural Area — where Matchbook Wine Company owners Lane and John Giguiere showed off their sleek tasting room that overlooks acres of rolling hills under vine.
The Giguieres started as wheat farmers and went into the winegrape business in the early 1980s. Their first winery, R.H. Phillips, took off in the late 1990s with the release of Toasted Head Chardonnay. They sold R.H. Phillips in 2005 and started Crew Wine Co., which has four brands including Matchbook. The Arsonist red Bordeaux blend and chardonnay are Matchbook’s featured wines with a logo that plays off the Greek titan Prometheus, who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to man.
Giguiere is focusing on the future, planting varietals that he believes will best reflect the region, including tannat and graciano to add structure to his tempranillo, and petit verdot and malbec to add complexity to his Bordeaux program.
From Matchbook in Zamora, we were driven to the beautiful Capay Valley and Taber Ranch. This popular spot for weddings and events soon will have a tasting room to showcase its merlot, tempranillo, sauvignon blanc and red blends of syrah and tempranillo, and syrah and merlot. The property’s centerpiece is a restored barn where a grand lunch was served that included locally sourced pork tenderloin, butter lettuce salad with Meyer lemon olive oil, grilled asparagus with spring onions and avocados, and olive oil cake with roasted strawberries.
The final stop was the nearby Simas Family Vineyard, the property Judy and Bob purchased with their son and family. Chris grows Rhone varietals and custom crushes at Urban Legend in Oakland. Of particular note is his Rhone white blend and wonderful, earthy Mouvedre.
Yolo County has much to offer. It’s a secret that won’t be kept for long.

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Sangiovese satisfies in all its forms

Sangiovese is one of the main grapes in some of Italy’s most popular and prized wines.
Chianti, Brunello di Montalicino and Vino Nobile de Montepulciano all are Italian wines made from Sangiovese. They are deep ruby in color with dark fruit flavors and perfect with red sauced pastas, slow-cooked meats and pizza.
Super Tuscans, a relative new category of red blends, typically are comprised of Sangiovese and other international varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Merlot and Syrah. Sangiovese’s roots run deep in central Italy but the varietal also has gained traction in the New World. The grape’s exceptional drought resistance and prolonged ripening cycle make it a nice fit for the San Joaquin Valley
and Sierra Foothills.
Sangiovese’s aroma and flavor profiles vary greatly depending on where it’s grown. For instance, Brunello stipulates a minimum of five years aging, the longest in Italy. The terroir there is a unique maritime-alpine hybrid. In Montepulciano, the grapes mature quickly and the wines lack the finesse of Brunello, which tends to be more acidic and lower in residual sugar than Sangioveses from Lodi or the Sierra foothills, where the varietal responds well to sandy, loamy soils and sunshine.
The 2008 Puro Brunello di Montalcino received 90 points from wine critic James Suckling last year. Tony Sasa started making Brunello in the early 2000s when he leased a few acres of vineyards in the southern part of the appellation. His wine is complex and layered with aromas and flavors of red cherries, spices and earth.
Klinker Brick Winery in Lodi recently released its 2013 Sangiovese from Amador County. The color is deep ruby and intense, almost inky. The aromas are fruity: Blueberry, blackberry, black cherry and rose petals. There is some oak on the nose, as well as baking spices and some heat from the alcohol (14.5 percent). The tannin is high, chalky, and the acid is medium high. It’s a wine meant to be enjoyed with food and in that regard, it’s a winner.
Sangiovese in its blush form is executed beautifully by LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards. Their light pink, dry rose has fresh acidity and a slightly petillant texture with bright red fruit and rose petal aromas. The flavors scream fresh-picked strawberries. Though dry on the palate, there is a crowd-pleasing touch of sweetness. This is a perfect spring and summer sipper that goes well with tangy goat’s milk cheese.
Lauren O’Leary’s Nipote Wine Imports has the Brunello (nipotewineimports.com). Information: Klinker Brick Winery (klinkerbrickwinery.com), LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards (langetwins.com).

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King helped put Lodi in the winelight

When Randy Lange goes into the marketplace outside of California, he doesn’t need to explain where Lodi is as much anymore.

The region has gained national recognition.

“It’s not, ‘Where’s Lodi?’” Lange said. “It’s, ‘Oh, yeah. I know Lodi.’ So, it’s happening.”

Randy and his family at LangeTwins have much to do with that, as they and hundreds of growers and scores of wineries have pounded the pavement, spreading the word not only about their work but about the Lodi area in general.

And so has Camron King.

King oversaw the marketing, promotion, strategic planning, regional branding efforts and constituent relations as executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. On Thursday, King will step down after four years to work as the president of the National Grape and Wine Initiative in Sacramento.

“It’s been very busy,” King said. “Some of the things I’m most proud of are helping to bring the region to a point of recognition that it deserves. There’s been a lot of work done by a lot of folks for generations and I was just happy to do my small part to help them get the recognition they deserve.”

King’s tireless efforts to elevate Lodi’s profile from bulk wine producer to world-class wine producer were rewarded in November, when Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Lodi the 2015 Wine Region of the Year. Such recognition took years of hard work, and King and his staff were at the center of much of it. Besides branding the region with the LoCa logo, King helped attract outside decision makers and media to Lodi so they could see for themselves just how progressive, committed, creative and talented its growers and winemakers truly are.

“When he arrived four years ago, he brought fresh ideas into the whole organization,” said Markus Niggli, winemaker for Borra Vineyards and his label, Markus Wine Company. “You could feel the energy flowing through the team. He opened a lot of doors. He looked at things from a different perspective.”

King enjoyed nothing more than changing the perspective of people who thought they knew what Lodi is all about. In September, LoCa and the Somm Journal invited more than 20 restaurant sommeliers and wine buyers to Lodi for a three-day intensive tour called Somm Camp. They picked grapes, walked through vineyards, spoke with vineyard managers and winemakers, attended lectures, ate great good and drank great Lodi wine. And they went home impressed.

“I’m realzing how special Lodi actually is. Some very cool wines coming out,” said Troy Grenstiner, sommelier at Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in Las Vegas. “I knew Lodi had some really nice wines. Zin was always at the forefront for Lodi. I knew Lodi was a bulk wine producer, but they kind of have some nichey little things. I’m realizing they actually have some high-quality producers trying to change the perception of it.”

King tried to change perceptions abroad, as well. His vision was global. He traveled near, far and wide to promote Lodi, the country’s most widely-planted grape growing region, an area steeped in tradition yet relatively new in the winemaking scene.

King helped bring Lodi’s growers, winemakers and the wine-loving public together. Lodi’s big events, such as ZinFest and the Wine and Chocolate Weekend, were well-attended and drew people from around the country.

King said he enjoyed his time in Lodi and looks forward to assisting the NGWI impact all grape growers and producers. Lodi now has another ally at the national level.

“It’s an opportunity to continue to share the story about Lodi and help our grape growers sell their premium wine grapes around the country,” King said. “The winegrape commission is such an amazing group of folks that are so intelligent, hard working and inspiring. They will continue to work tirelessly for what’s been going on for years.”

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Broke or rich, there’s a wine for that

Whether you wrote Uncle Sam a big tax check or are in line for a refund, wine might just be the ticket to soften the blow or celebrate a windfall.

Here are some suggestions to satisfy either budgetary state:

2014 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon ($10)
Cabernet sauvignon is the king grape of Chile, and this stunner from the Colchagua Valley is an absolute steal at 10 bucks. The Los Vascos has a deep ruby color with aromas of blackberries, black cherries and red fruit with a touch of smokiness. It’s fruit-driven but restrained, more Bordeaux-like in style than California, which isn’t surprising because Los Vascos is crafted under the supervision of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), one of the five premier first growth grand crus in Bordeaux. How many wines for 10 bucks have a Rothschild seal on them? I’ve had good luck finding this wine at World Market.

2014 Sand Point Sauvignon Blanc ($12)

This award-winner is another example of the crisp, exciting white wines coming out of Lodi. The Sand Point Sauvignon Blanc took a gold medal at the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and silver medals at the 2015 Sunset International Wine Competition, the 2015 Los Angeles International Wine Competition, the 2015 Orange County Wine Competition and the 2015 San Francisco International Wine Competition. Also in 2015, Wine Enthusiast awarded this wine 90 points and ranked it 29th on its list of the Top 100 Best Buys. Delightful citrus aromas, white pepper and dried herbs. Great every day white, perfect for spring and summer.

2012 Kirkland Signature Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($13)

This needed a couple hours to soften, as it was a bit rough straight out of the bottle. But once it got some air, the tell-tale Russian River Valley floral and red fruit character came through on the nose and the palate. It’s a nice pinot for the price. This wine and others with the Kirkland label, as well as many other inexpensive and luxury brands, are available at Costco, the 2015 Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Retailer of the Year.

Stama's award-winning wines, including the 2012 Chardonnay, are on display inside its new tasting room on Davis Road. BOB HIGHFILL/THE RECORD

2012 Stama Chardonnay ($16)

The 2012 Stama Chardonnay won a gold medal at the 2013 San Francisco International Wine Competition, a deserving accolade for this stellar Lodi white that has been kissed with just enough oak to round out the mouth feel without going overboard. It’s nicely balanced with fresh hints of citrus up front and crème brûlèe on the finish. During a recent visit to Stama’s new tasting room on Davis Road, owner Konstantino “Gus” Kapaniaris was selling the 2012 chardonnay and 2012 zinfandel rose for $75 a case (12 bottles) — a budget-friendly bargain for two nice wines.

2012 LangeTwins Midnight Reserve ($30)

LangeTwins’ best lots of Bordeaux varietals comprise this blend, which won double gold at the San Francisco

LangeTwins' Midnight Reserve Bordeaux blend from Lodi is a wine for celebration, like being in line to receive an income tax refund. BOB HIGHFILL/THE RECORD

International Wine Competition. The 2012 Midnight Reserve is 52 percent petit verdot, 41 cabernet sauvignon and 7 percent malbec aged 24 months predominately in French oak barrels. The cabernet sauvignon portion comes from as many as three estate vineyards. This wine is a beautiful reflection of a great vintage.

2012 Lucas ZinStar Vineyard Zinfandel ($45)

From the 3.3-acre ZinStar vineyard located behind the Lucas Winery tasting room, this zinfandel has all the makings of a classic with its opulent aroma and flavor profile. Aged 11-14 months in French oak and an additional three to four years in the bottle, this wine is soft and luxurious, and versatile with food.

Harney Lane Patriarch’s Promise ($50)

This homage to the late George Mettler is a non-vintage proprietary red blend with complexity and structure. It’s deep and dark with anise, blackberry and sage aromas. Black cherries, plums and a touch of cedar marry on the palate. Truly outstanding wine from one of Lodi’s stalwart growers.

Hope these suggestions help whether the tax man was naughty or nice.

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Fun and education make for a great pairing

Lauren O’Leary talked about pairings.

The certified sommelier from Stockton and owner of Nipote Wine Imports said there are contrast pairings, mirror pairings and pairings from the same terroir.

Stockton's Lauren O'Leary, owner of Nipote Wine Imports, leads a wine and cheese pairing class with John Fujii, right, and 10 more wine enthusiasts at the home of Barbara and Bill Highfill in Stockton. BOB HIGHFILL/THE RECORD

She recently led a group of 11 people at my parent’s home in a blind wine tasting and cheese pairing class. O’Leary, who also works part-time as a cheese monger at The Rind in Sacramento, enjoys educating others about wine and cheese, two ancient foods that are similar biologically and go great together.

In a blind tasting, the bottle is covered to hide its identity. The tasters analyze the color, aromas and flavors of the wine, and use those clues to guess what it is. Blind tasting is a fun way to learn about wine.

As part of her certified sommelier exam, O’Leary blind-tasted four wines and used her deductive reasoning skills to correctly identify the varietal, the place of origin and the vintage of each wine. It’s a tough test with a high rate of failure. O’Leary passed the exam, which includes written theory and service portions, a testament to her passion and dedication.

For our group of tasters, O’Leary blind-poured about 2 ounces of wine in each glass and instructed the group to tilt the glass at an angle. She asked what colors were present? Was the core bright, suggesting a younger wine? Was it brown on the edges, suggesting an older vintage or a grape variety that gives a brownish hue?

Next, we smelled the wine. What aromas did we pick up? Did it smell like fruit? Did it smell like flowers or earth or spices? Then, we tasted the wine, taking in air as we swished it around to coat the palate and taste buds. What were the flavors? Was it acidic, did it make the mouth water? Was it tannic? Did it make the mouth pucker?

The next step was guessing the varietal and origin. Was it from the Old World (Europe) or the New World (everywhere else). Old World wines generally are more earth-driven, higher in acid and lower in alcohol than New World wines, which tend to have more oak aromas and flavors.

Wine 1 was a white sparkler that O’Leary paired with Marin French triple-cream brie. The wine was pale yellow with green flecks and had pear and green apple aromas and flavors. The acidity of the wine and the bubbles cut through the fat of the cheese and refreshed the palate. The classic contrast pairing of bubbles and brie works beautifully. Several in the group knew they were drinking Prosecco, and sure enough, they were: Zonin Prosecco DOC Spumante ($13).

Wine 2 was a still, white wine that O’Leary paired with creamy chevre goat’s milk cheese. The wine was pale gold, and had green pepper, lemongrass and fresh-cut grass aromas and flavors. The acid in the wine was high and mirrored the tangy cheese. The acidic cheese brought out the fruit in the wine.

No other wine in the world tastes like a varietally correct New Zealand sauvignon blanc, so this one was easy to peg: 2014 Kono Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc ($8).

Wine 3 was a still, red wine paired with Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, Idiazabal, which O’Leary described as “Manchego’s cooler, older sister.” The wine had a light ruby core and a pinkish rim. Blue fruit, cherries and violets were present on the nose, and the flavors were concentrated and deep. The acid was medium-minus and the tannin was medium. The smokiness of the cheese matched the smoky quality in the wine, another mirror pairing. Only one person in the group correctly guessed the varietal. Others deduced it was syrah from the Old World or malbec from South America, when it actually was the 2012 Stellina Old Vine Zinfandel ($32) from Ali and Bob Colarossi’s vineyard in Lodi, vinified at Lodi Estate Crush.

Wine 4 was a still, red wine paired with Beecher’s Flagship Cheddar Reserve from Seattle. The wine was deep ruby in color with no rim variation. Blue fruit, red fruit and earthy aromas and flavors were present in this medium-bodied wine that had medium-high alcohol and medium-minus tannin. The nutty, salty, fatty cheese worked well with the fruit, acid and tannin in the wine. Some were leaning toward cabernet sauvignon and they were correct: 2013 BMF Cabernet Sauvignon ($60). The Barkett, Michaels, Flaherty trio sourced fruit from Napa and made the wine at Lodi Estate Crush.

Wine 5 was a still, red wine paired with salty, crumbly pecorino from Tuscany. The wine’s core was light ruby with brown edges, which could have indicated advanced age. However, the wine didn’t smell oxidized, so the brown edge provided evidence of the grape variety. The aromas and flavors included tar, rose petals, violets and cherries. The tannin and acid were high. To say the wine was dry would be an understatement. It paired well with the dry, salty, crumbly cheese. The wine’s color, aromas and flavors were consistent with a nebbiolo-based wine, and sure enough, it was the 2010 Belvedere Barolo (2010 is a collector’s vintage).

O’Leary paired wine and cheese, as well as fun and education.

Nipote‘s portfolio features Italian wines, including Barolo, Rosso di Montepuliciano, Vino Nobile di Montepuliciano, chardonnay and pinot grigio from Friuli and several others. There also is a wine club. O’Leary hosts wine classes, as well as wine-dinner parties through Eat This. Information: (209) 712-0836, lo@nipotewineimports.com, nipotewineimports.com.

O’Leary will be featured in the next edition of The Current, coming out April 17.

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Red blends bring flavor from around the world

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The quote attributed to Aristotle can apply to wine.

Start with a base varietal and add a bit of this and a dash of that and you have, in theory, a “super” wine.

Blends, especially red blends, are growing in popularity. In 2014, 40 percent of new entries in the market were red blends, according to Nielsen. In the United States, a wine labeled by its variety, such as chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon, must contain at least 75 percent of that grape otherwise, it’s a blend.

These red blends from different parts of the world showcase their terroir.

Recently, I sampled four red blends from various parts of the world:

2012 “Leviathan,” California Red Blend ($48)

As its name might suggest, the Leviathan is a monster, but more in the Shrek sense than, say, the Big Bad Wolf. It’s big, but it won’t blow your house down.

Andy Erickson melds components from Annie Favia’s small-production portfolio to create a singular blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and syrah that showcases each vintage.

The 2012 Leviathan (45 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent cabernet franc, 16 percent merlot and 14 percent syrah) has a deep ruby color and a medium-plus aroma intensity of loam, dust, earth, dark wood, blackberries and blueberries.

It’s dry with medium-plus tannin, medium acid and medium-plus alcohol (14.5 percent ABV) with flavors of blackberries, blueberries, plums and leather. The finish is medium-plus. The Leviathan aged 23 months in 50 percent new French oak and could be consumed now or rest in the cellar for 3 to 5 years. It would pair with a big, salty slab of red meat.

2013 “The Trinity,” Trinity Hill, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand ($16.99)

The proportions of this merlot-dominated blend that also includes tempranillo, malbec and other alternative varietals from the Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle vineyards in Hawkes Bay are not specified, but this juicy, ripe and balanced wine has flavors of plums, blueberries and leather. Somewhere in there is a vegetable component that’s hard to pinpoint. The color is ruby, and the acid, tannin, alcohol (13.1 percent ABV), body and finish are medium.

This is ready to drink now and would go well with almost any type of food.

2013 “Faithful Hound,” Mulderbosch, South Africa ($25)

The five Bordeaux varieties play nicely in this blend from the Western Cape with cabernet sauvignon playing the lead role (39 percent), supported by cabernet franc (22 percent), merlot (16 percent), malbec (14 percent) and petit verdot (9 percent).

The color is deep ruby, and the aroma intensity is medium of blackberries, anise, cedar and tobacco. The flavor intensity and body are medium. The alcohol (14.22 percent ABV), tannin and acid are medium-plus. There’s a chalky, earthy element to the texture, but red and blue fruit come through big time. The tobacco is undeniable. Really good structure, leading me to believe this could lie down for a few years.

Roasted chicken or pork would pair well.

2011 “Mormoreto,” Marchesi de Frescobaldi ($44)

Fans of Barolo and Barbaresco might enjoy this densely textured blend of cabernet sauvignon (64 percent), cabernet franc (26 percent), petit verdot (5 percent) and merlot (5 percent) that brings enticing cherry and violet notes to the nose and a powerful right cross of tannin and acid to the chops. This is a silent assassin of a wine that flashes a smile, draws you close and then tears out your heart.

The seductive, deep ruby color leads to a floral, blue-fruit nose. The medium-plus flavor intensity offers an array of possibilities: blueberry, black cherry, saline, balsamic vinegar, mint and eucalyptus. The alcohol is medium-plus at 14.5 percent. The tannin and acid are off the charts, and some spices linger on the finish.

This has the structure to sit for years, but it’s a beast of a good time right now. Anything braised, marinated or stewed would be a perfect match with this wine.

Just another trip through the wonderful world of red blends.

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Lodi vintners dare to be different

Fast food chains strive for consistency.

Big Macs taste the same in Poughkeepsie as they do in Stockton.

But real food, wine included, takes on flavors from its place of origin. For instance, an oyster plucked from the Gulf of Mexico tastes different than an oyster from Tomales Bay. Same creature, but then again, they’re not exactly the same.

How boring would life be without variety, even within species?

The French have a word for it — terroir — defined as the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s qualities when it’s grown in a specific habitat.

As with mollusks, terroir means everything in wine. Even though it’s just fermented grape juice, pinot noir from Burgundy is a different beverage than pinot noir from Santa Rita Hills. Same grape, but then again, they’re not exactly the same.

For winemakers, staying true to the terroir and meeting consumer expectations can be challenging.

Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph speaks with a group inside the barrel room last summer at Harney Lane Winery in Lodi. In the barrel is cabernet sauvignon the winery hopes to release sometime this year. BOB HIGHFILL/THE RECORD

Lodi winemaker Chad Joseph has a first-release cabernet sauvignon doing its thing right now in the barrel at Harney Lane. For decades, Lodi growers have supplied Napa and Sonoma with cabernet sauvignon grapes, but not many of the boutique wineries in the Lodi area have made their own version of the noble variety. Folks in these parts generally are familiar with cabernets from Napa and Sonoma, which tend to be big, bold and tannic. So, should Joseph craft a cab true to Lodi’s terroir or manipulate it so it resembles a cab from Napa or Sonoma?

“It is an issue,” said Joseph, also the winemaker for Dancing Coyote, Maley Brothers and Oak Farm Vineyards. “That’s a great challenge when you take a variety like cab and you’re doing it in an area like Lodi that doesn’t have a definition of Lodi cab.”

Joseph associates Napa cabernet with those from the Rutherford American Viticultural Area, which generally are dusty, loamy and mineral-driven. Cabernet grown in Lodi’s sandy, stony and clay soils not only has loamy characteristics, but also floral and savory aromas and flavors, and softer tannins.

Joseph said Harney Lane’s finished product truly will represent Lodi.

“I don’t think we made a Napa or Bordeaux style cab. I like to think of ours as a Super Tuscan — a little more elegant, a little more refined,” Joseph said. “We’re not trying to mimic anybody. That’s the essence of terroir. You don’t want to cover up or do stuff to hide what’s intrinsic to the grapes you were given.”

Harney Lane’s owner and grower, Kyle Lerner, is steadfast in his commitment to champion Lodi, Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Wine Region of the Year.

“We are not afraid to go out and attack the market and show people what we are capable of doing,” Lerner said. “There’s so much consumers are going to see coming out of this region that’s going to be great.”

Randy Caparoso, a noted wine writer based in Lodi, has long believed wine should reflect its terroir. Caparoso helped spearhead the Lodi Native Project, in which six winemakers produced zinfandels that showcased distinctive vineyards through a strict protocol of minimal intervention. The six wines proved just how complex, diverse and delicate zinfandel can be.

“I’ve been working with the local producers trying to get them to glorify the natural qualities that come out of the vineyards,” Caparoso said. “That way Lodi becomes more respected as a region and to me, commercially, it makes sense because if you want this style, you have to come here.”

Though plans still are in the works, Lerner said Harney Lane’s first proprietary cabernet sauvignon likely will be released this year through its wine club.

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Tannat brings big-time flavor, intrigue

Tannat is a red grape variety grown in Southern France and South America.
It’s the national grape of Uruguay, used mostly as a blending grape. Plantings have been successful in other parts of the world, including Lodi (Layne Montgomery has some tannat planted at m2 winery in Lodi).
Though tannat can take on different nuances depending on where it’s grown, the grape typically produces a deep, dark red wine high in tannin, the stuff that makes your mouth pucker, with dark blue fruit aromas and flavors. It’s not for the tame of heart.

The 2008 Akin Estates Reserve Tannat from the Christensen Vineyard in Lodi is a rustic red wine. BOB HIGHFILL/THE RECORD

I had never tried tannat, but I had a bottle of 2008 Akin Estates Reserve Tannat from the Christensen Vineyard in Lodi in my wine rack for some time. On Sunday, I had a craving for pizza and thought it might go well with the tannat.
I uncorked the bottle and let the wine get some air as I rolled out some ready-made pizza dough balls. I looked at what I had in the fridge and found some bacon, leeks and spinach. I browned the bacon and added sliced leeks and spinach leaves. When the vegetables had wilted, I added a healthy tablespoon of garlic and about a quarter cup of light alfredo sauce. I stirred the mixture over high heat for about 5 minutes then took it off the flame.
When the mixture had cooled, I spread it onto the rolled-out dough and topped it with sliced dates, grated parmesan cheese and blue cheese crumbles. After 18 minutes in a 425 degree oven, it came out all golden brown, bubbly and looking really delicious.
As the pizza cooled, I poured myself a glass of the tannat. It had a pungent, barnyard aroma, which I enjoyed. The color was ruby, not as dark as I thought it would be. In time, the barnyard aroma blew off and the aromas took on more complex characteristics, including fruit, such as blackberries and bing cherries. There also was a huge floral component to the nose.
Bracing for the tannin, I was amazed how delicate and soft it was. The body was light-medium with medium acid and medium alcohol (13.9 percent). The palate was dry with flavors similar to the fruit and flowers on the nose with some of the loamy, earthy qualities of a zinfandel from the west side of Lodi. The fruit was juicy, not jammy, and the finish was medium in length.
The pizza and tannat paired nicely. The smokiness from the bacon, the fresh flavors from the leeks and spinach, the creaminess from the alfredo sauce, the chewy, sweet dates and the bite from the blue cheese blended with the fruity, earthy wine.
I did some digging about Akin Estates in Lodi and was sad to discover its founder, David Akin, passed away last year. According to his obituary in the Lodi News Sentinel, Akin was a multi-sport athlete in San Jose and was drafted by the Oakland A’s organization. He played some semi-pro baseball and served in the military. He earned a degree in biochemistry at University of California, Berkeley, and was a winemaker at Paul Masson in Saratoga and Barengo in Acampo. Akin later sold filtration equipment and started Akin Estates in 2002.
I’m so pleased to have tasted the fruits of Akin’s labor and now feel connected to him.
Tannat is an interesting variety for the adventurous wine drinker. It’s rustic and different and challenging and delicious. If you have the chance, give it a try and give a toast to Akin.

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      Bob Highfill

      Record Sports Editor Bob Highfill is a wine enthusiast and has earned Level 3 certification with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust of London through the Napa Valley Wine Academy. Bob will share some of his experiences from his travels to Lodi and other prime wine locales in his blog and welcomes your suggestions, reviews and wine speak.
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