Archive for August, 2010

This is the lastest in my series of TJ Tasting – the follow up to my enormously popular search for the everyday red.  After those tastings, I can definitely recommend the Archeo Nero d’Avola for $5 and your feedback so far has been great! [I noticed an empty bottle of it at my friend Dr. Feelgood’s house just the other day].  I thought I’d do the same with white wines today, but this time with a twist.  I realize that I need to start reviewing wines that I probably wouldn’t otherwise buy for myself.  Each of us carries our respective knowledge, preconceptions and prejudices into a wine store.  I’m especially critical at Trader Joe’s where my wine knowledge conditions me to believe that 80% of the wines will be awful, based on low price and mass-production.  But this clearly isn’t true – there are a number of TJ’s wines I very much enjoy.  So, to keep my purchasing and tasting bias out of the equation, I’ve called in the reinforcements.

For this post I have enlisted the services of my good friends Sir Benjamin of Bloomington, Michael “The Quencher” Ducca and Audrey Gibbs.  I gave Sir Ben $20 and simple instructions – go to Trader Joe’s and buy three different bottles of white [The tab came to $20.27].  All the bottles were kept in paper bags and marked A, B and C.  After an hour of fridge time, the tasting was on.  I had all of us consider each of the three wines based on color, smell and taste, and to give an overall rating of 1-20 based on whatever criteria we chose.  Only Ben knew the identity of the wines – though I’m not sure that he knew which was which during the tasting.

Here they are, in order of consensus overall points rated, from worst to best of tasting:

The Clear Loser: 2009 Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio – 46 total points, $7.99.  Wow, was this a bad wine.  When you think of good Pinot Grigio, yout think citrus, herbs, grass, stone – fresh clean bright flavors.  All four of us got hung up on the nose of this wine.  It smelled like bad movie theatre popcorn butter from a cinema like the Hopkins Mann 6 that already smells like elk urine.  Consensus tasting notes – cheap, bland, flabby.  Before the reveal, I guessed this one to be a cheap Chardonnay – which does not speak volumes.  To make it worse, it was the most expensive bottle of the lot.  This is a wine to be avoided at all costs.

The Runner Up: 2008 Camelot Chardonnay, California. 54 total points, $5.49.  This one wasn’t horrible.  To me, it had the nicest color.  It had a decent fruit component to it, apples and bananas were common notes during the tasting (as was ‘baby food’).  Everyone said they would buy this again for the price, but I suppose I can’t recommend it just because there is much better Chardonnay to be had at just a few dollars more (I believe that’ll be an upcoming topic here).

Best Of Tasting: 2009 Tres Pinos Three Pines Cuvee, San Louis Obispo County, CA – 59 total points, $4.99.  What!?! Redemption for Tres Pinos!  In my previous post about Trader Joe’s reds, I was none too kind about Tres Pinos, the TJ exclusive from the San Antonio Winery.  This tasting proves my need for a surrogate shopper because based on the red, I never would have bought the white.  It’s not a stunning wine by any means. This blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Viognier has a light straw color and a very light floral nose.  The sip shows off the Gewurztraminer part of its constituency, with that lychee-heavy middle of the sip, not much of a finish, but the flavors are clean and tasty. Consensus notes – apricot, floral, melon, better as it warms up. After the reveal, all four of us agreed we would buy this again for $5.

So, for those keeping score, the Tres Pinos White goes on the list of G Sheaves approved wines at Trader Joes – though in third place behind the Epicuro Salice Salentino and Archeo Nero d’Avola.  Oh, and tasting note of the evening goes to Michael on the taste of the Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio “bland, but liked it better with each taste – is that a sign of alcoholism?”  Not unless you actually finished the glass of that plonk.

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August has been pretty busy for G Sheaves.  A few mini-vacations, baseball games, concerts – enjoying summer before it’s gone.  So, I do apologize for the lack of posting, but I have been using my time well.  I’ve been developing some new forums and ideas to bring you more of the best wine in the Twin Cities.  I have a bunch of articles in the works – a return tasting at Trader Joe’s, an interview or two, and a profile on the wines of Iowa [no, they don’t make corn wine, I don’t think anyway].  I popped open one such bottle during a recent excursion on Lake Minnetonka with my good friend Dr. Feelgood [below].  Summerset Winery sits on a beautiful tract about 10 miles south of Des Moines.  You’ll hear more about them later.  Their Vidal Blanc is full of herbs and melons, encased in an off-dry medium body – perfect for a thankfully mild evening on the bay.  Pair with SJ’s calzones and ukulele music.

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[Part 3 of my continuing series to track down the seven wines I noted as “standouts” from the Minnesota Monthly Food & Wine Experience in February.  Read Part 1, the Tygerberg Gewürztraminer and Part 2, the Tre Monti Albana].

I’ve gotten away from this series lately.  It’s August and I’m only on part 3 of 7.  And I fear I may only get through part 5 considering I have no idea where to get the Maple River Dandelion wine without driving to North Dakota [other than the online store, complete with $10 shipping for a 375ml], and Mercer Estates doesn’t distribute in Minnesota.  But I picked up wines 3 and 4 today shopping France 44’s sale, which is going on through August 28th.  Of all the wines I had that day, I can best remember how today’s wine tasted.  It’s a grape I don’t drink much of and one that hardly anyone’s even heard of. Whenever a wine writer opines on obscure varieties you should get to know [exhibits A, BC], it invariably makes the cut.

Blaufrankish doesn’t have a very marketable name.  It’s a popular grape in Eastern Europe – Hungary (ever had Bull’s Blood?), Slovenia, the Czech Republic and some Balkan countries grow it widely, though Austria may have the most famous examples in Europe.  It is grown in essentially one place in the US – Washington State.  It’s a late ripening grape often with good amounts of acidity and spicy tannin.  It usually has lightish-medium body, and would be nice served with duck, game birds, and grilled veggies.  Other names for the grape include Kekfrankos, Lemberger, and Blauer Limberger.  I’ve only had one Blaufrankish so far this year, the 2007 Glatzer from Carnuntum in Austria.  It was kind of thin, with not much palpable tannin, and more vegetal tasting than anything.  Not my fave, but not a bad wine.  It’s one I’d definitely recommend to the committed Merlot drinker (if they exist, post-Sideways).

The Kiona Lemberger [$15.99 at France 44, I believe they have it at a few Haskell’s locations and Sorella as well] is the first commercially produced Lemberger in US.  The 2005 has a clear, deep maroon color and a powerful nose of dried fruit, some cranberry, spice, a little mushroom, and alcohol.  The sip starts out with a tart dark-berry profile, but is slowly overtaken by a black-peppercorn backbone that eventually consumes the finish.  The spice comes on like an old dam about to break – a few drips here and there, then a deluge.  The body is a shade lighter than medium, the tannin is moderate and well incorporated.  The Syrah/Shiraz drinker will particularly like this one.  It’s just got a nice rounded dark berry flavor with some pep in its step.  Hard not to like.  Of my list of seven ‘standouts’, this is the standout so far.

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I can’t believe I’ve been tending to this forum for a few months now, whilst completely ignoring wines from my own backyard.  While making no claims about the prowess of our wines on a national scale, Minnesota grows some fine vino, thanks to a state university committed to engineering cold hardy grapes.  Those and other advances helped what was an almost non-existant industry in 1990 grow to over 600 vineyards across the state with 1,000+ total acres under vine.  With such an inspiring local produce movement really having taken hold, G Sheaves pledges to you renewed effort to focus on Minnesota wines and wineries commencing immediately.  Today, a great selection from Minnesota’s oldest winery.

Seyval Blanc is a hybrid grape developed in France during WWI.  It’s widely grown in England, New York’s Finger Lakes region, and all along the eastern seaboard from Virginia to Maine, as well as in Canada where it can make nice sparkling wine.  As a cold-resistant variety, it is widely planted all over the upper Midwest.  It takes well to oak aging as well as malolactic fermentation, though many producers choose not to do the malo so as to retain the grape’s high natural acidic flavors.  Chardonnay is also a common blending partner.  It tends to produce dry and minerally wines with fresh citrus flavors, somewhat like heavier Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs, though much Canadian Seyval Blanc is destined for dessert wines, especially Icewine.

The 2009 Alexis Bailly Seyval Blanc [$14 at the Cork Dork Wine Co] is the premium white wine of the Alexis Bailly Vineyard, located just south of Hastings.  It has a wet straw color with a wonderful nose of sweet melon.  The sip starts with juicy bright grapefruit citrus, with a somewhat viscous texture – like a lighter Gewurtztraminer but with nice acidity.  Medium bodied, the finish is dry with those aforementioned minerals that sit on your tongue.  It’s just a well-rounded, juicy, clean flavor.  I can’t imagine every MN wine I taste this year will be this good [in fact, I remember a few at the Food & Wine Expo that were pretty nasty] but this is a pretty darn good start.

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What does the phrase ‘Table Wine’ conjure for you?  Maybe a gigantic vat of grapes, pressed by foot, run off into 1 gallon growlers?  Lucky for us, the ‘Table Wines’ [the appellation affixed to bottles that don’t conform, either geographically, technically, or content-wise to a more specific region] that make it to your local wine seller often do so because they are great values.  I am certainly not the first blogger to comment on today’s gem [Read the wine’s write-up at Bigger Than Your Head] and I will doubtless be the last.

The 2007 Bodegas de Alto Almanzora Este [currently $12.49 at Haskell’s Summer Sale] is a Vino de Mesa made from Monastrell, Tempranillo, Syrah, Garnacha, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – some of it grown on site, some of it purchased.  Doesn’t this sound like a recipe for cobbled-together disappointment?  But Alto Almanzora has expertise and technology on their side, and it shows here.  There may be no better country from which to find great values in wine right now than Spain [see: Protocolo or Las Rocas] and further proof is in the Este.  This wine has a deep brick-red/purple color with a smoky blackcurrant nose.  Its flavor is deep and rich, fuller bodied, with juicy dark berry fruit and very pleasant spice throughout.  The finish sticks to your palette begging for a follow up sip.  This wine is not complex, it doesn’t have intriguing nuanced aromas or evolving flavors – it’s just a straight-forward, gutsy, full flavored wine with great punch for the price.  Wine Advocate scored it a 90, if that influences you at all.  Food pairing; it’s a perfect companion for the above pictured Mexican Hot Pockets.  Muy bueno.

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[Photo via YMFY]  “Hey Lenny, you care for some Chateau La Mondotte Saint-Emilion?”  A few links for your consideration to help you wash down that Jeroboam;

  • Producers in Australia adopting a style spectrum to guide consumers to the Pinot Gris that’s right for them [via Wine Enthusiast].  The article mentions the similar scale used by the International Riesling Federation to display sweetness levels.  This is a common sense step to help wine buyers, I hope to see this trend continue.
  • A Minneapolis Federal Judge rules that Cristalino [the $8 Spanish sparkling wine] is trademark-infringing on Cristal [the $300 Roederer Champagne] [via Pioneer Press].  Were people seriously confused about this to begin with?
  • Gluek brand beer will be phased out by the Cold Spring Brewing company this fall, ending a 153 year run [via Stuff About Minneapolis].  It will be fondly remembered by everyone as that beer you drank that one time in high school when your older sibling who just turned 21 got you a twelve-pack even though you gave them $20 and they didn’t give you any change.
  • 2009 is being hailed as one of the best vintages for Beaujolais in decades [via Bigger Than Your Head].  Read this round-up of Cru Beaujolais from Georges Duboeuf, I’ll be tracking some of these down in the coming weeks.

Have a great weekend!

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Are you an ABC wine drinker [Anything But Chardonnay]?  I’ll admit, it’s all too easy to hate on that grape.  This is unfortunate considering it’s [arguably] the most important wine grape in the world.  Since it’s so pliable in the vineyard, it grows essentially everywhere.  Plus it can be manipulated in the vineyard and winery very easily, making its range of styles as large as any other grape.  Yes, it may be the Coldplay of the wine world but that’s no reason to dismiss it.  It’s a great grape for Autumn, and I’ll be bringing you my favorites in a couple weeks.

But today I thought I’d go for a grape that many ABC drinkers imbibe as an alternative – a grape that [in my opinion] should be much more popular than it is.  Viognier [pronounced VEE-own-yay, not like the last name of composer Richard Wagner like my Mom used to pronounce it] is like Chardonnay with a little more bite.  Its spiritual home is in the Northern Rhone Valley district of Condrieu [the haunting aromas of which are indelible in the minds of anyone who’s had it] but there are very good examples coming out of the South of France where a lot of it was planted in the 1990s.  Viognier is the botanical opposite of Chardonnay – disease-prone and unreliably ripening.  But the Languedoc, where today’s wine is from on the Mediterranean near the Rhone delta, experiences reliably hot and dry summers, making a multitude of varieties easier to grow.

The 2009 La Forge Estate Viognier [currently $12.99 during Haskell’s summer sale] is one of those great examples.  It sports a light white gold color with a standard Viognier nose of apricot/peach with some nice floral backing.  The body is full, creamy, with a very well incorporated oak component – lots of nice toast flavor.  Beck’s Peaches & Cream played in my head throughout the sip.  The finish is slightly tart and refreshing.  This is a winner, for sure.  My folks first experienced this wine thanks to John Farrell III of Haskell’s during an event at Wayzata Country Club.  They were raving about it and they were right to.  For the perfect food pairing?  A $5 rotisserie chicken from Lunds, a cold salad and a warm baguette.  Now that’s summer dining.

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Whenever I come across stories about people growing up in Southern Italy in the 60’s and 70’s, I marvel at how they all invariably contain versions of the same story; going to the local co-op winery with a ton of empty bottles, filling up on the non-descript blend, and attributing to its consumption almost mystical properties.  I think it’s true – there’s definitely an extra level of enjoyment about good cheap wine.  It feels to me like a victory against the system – a big I-told-you-so to an industry that all too often sneers at the bottom shelf.  Sure I’d love to drink Barolo every day of my life, but as the Italians say, e Cosi – basically, it is how it is.  And it’s in that spirit I continue my penurious treasure hunt.

Is it possible to get decent wine for $5?  That certainly depends on your definition of decent. I believe it is possible and that every wine drinker should have a go-to $5 bottle – a house wine, a Tuesday wine, a “this recipe calls for 1-1/2 cups of red and I want to throw back the rest” wine.  Cheap white wine usually tastes neutral, but not offendingly awful [I’ll post about cheap whites later this month].  Cheap reds, because of the extra winemaking steps involved, make cutting corners a little harder and cheap examples notably worse when they do.  So the only reasonable thing to do is for me to taste a bunch of them to find the needle in the discount haystack.  For a super-wide selection of bottles almost entirely under $10, where else to look but my local Trader Joe’s? [Excelsior & Monterey in St. Louis Park]  They carry the Epicuro Salice Salentino that I’ve written about before which is a very good choice at $5.99.  Today, I present three more contenders for the title of G Sheaves’ new house red:

2008 D’Aquino Gaetano Sangiovese di Toscana [$4.79]  This one doesn’t do it for me.  It had a stuffy nose with not much fruit, or really much of anything.  It comes across as way too thin, not much structure, rather pallid flavor and kind of bitter at the end.  I’m not trying to exact heavy-handed wine criticism on a $5 bottle, I just know of 10 times better Sangioveses to be had at around $8 or $9. Pass.

2009 Tres Pinos Three Pines Cuvee [$4.99] is a Trader Joe’s exclusive made by LA’s San Antonio Winery who doesn’t even list the wine on their website.  The grapes are Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from San Luis Obispo county – basically the leftovers from their better labels.  This is a step in the right direction, but it’s still not what I’m looking for.  There’s some nice dark berry fruit on the nose, but it smells faintly like the trunk of my car after I let a pair of socks I’d played golf in sit there for three weeks.  The attack is tart and fruity, with some pepper and blackberry jam, but as soon as the tannin kicks in on the mid-late sip it turns woody, astringent, unbalanced.  The grape flavors aren’t too compelling, the finish is mostly alcohol and doesn’t leave you wanting more.  Strike Two. [Again, I see the pretension in these kind of tasting notes for a wine that is clearly not intended as a serious effort, just take that as a detailed ‘pass’].

2008 Archeo Nero d’Avola Ruggero di Tasso [$4.99] Yes!!  I was hoping this would turn out a winner and it delivered.  Sicily has a long and storied history of turning out indifferent plonk by the barrel-full, but that reputation has turned the corner and it’s even noticable on the low-end.  This wine has an opaque maroon color, with a dusty, leathery, black cherry nose.  The sip is everything a good cheap wine should be – slightly fruity, smooth and simple.  Starts with cherries and nice astringent woody tannin that envelops the whole sip of jammy dark fruit and earth.  The body is on the heavier side of medium, acidity is pretty low.  The finish is short and dry with lingering mild spice.  Drink this with any red-sauced pasta, steak, or ideally a Maximus from Pizza Luce.

Trader Joe’s tastings will become a regular feature here.  I promise to find you the best bottle under $10 in that store.  Right now, the Epicuro Salice Salentino holds a slight edge over today’s winner.  For further TJ study, read this blog for a guy who has been on a Trader Joe’s wine search for quite a while – I like his style.

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