Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Portuguese Embassy Hosts Masterclass on the Vinho Verde Demarcated Region

Some say that the designation "Verde"(green) is due to the acidity and freshness characteristic of Vinho Verde and that it reminds one of unripe fruit. Others say that the origin "Verde"(green) is explained by the fact that the wine is produced in a region very rich in vegetation and is therefore very green even in winter. -- Wines of Portugal

Originally defined on September 18, 1908, the demarcated Vinho Verde Region extends across the northwest of Portugal, in the area traditionally known as Entre-Douro-e-Minho. The Minho River is its northern border, forming part of the border with Spain, its southern border is formed by the Douro River and the Freita, Arada and Montemuro mountains, to the east it's bordered by the mountains of Peneda, Gerês, Cabreira and Marão, and the western border is the Atlantic Ocean. In terms of geographical area, it is the largest Portuguese demarcated region, and one of the largest in Europe.  --  Vinho Verde Wines

I was one among a crowded field of trade professionals able to attend this masterclass on the Vinho Verde Demarcated Region presented by Ambassador Brent Kroll (fresh off presenting a class on Wines of Sicily at the Slow Wine Expo). Brent walked us through an overview of the region, its major wine grapes, climate and geographic conditions all the while presenting us with a dozen wines showcasing newer styles. These styles are considerably different from the super market "green" wines infused with CO2 to mimic the more historical secondary fermentation produced by small family operations. 

According to Wines of Portugal, "the denomination is divided into nine distinct sub-regions, Monção e Melgaço, Lima, Basto, Cávado, Ave, Amarante, Baião, Sousa and Paiva. Monção e Melgaço are the most singular of the sub-regions, the only one protected from the direct Atlantic influence, with a maritime and continental climate, producing fuller-bodied wines with higher alcohol content...The vineyards are concentrated along the valleys of the main rivers. The soils are homogeneous and mostly granite, fertile to very fertile, with high acidity.

Vinho Verde is characterized by unusual vineyard management techniques, from the unique "enforcado vine" layout, with vines intertwined in the trees, to the pergola system, also known as "latada", passing through the "cruzeta", to the nowadays more usual simple cordon system." This system alleviates the higher chances of fungal diseases caused by high rainfall and humid summers due to the region's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean".

The vineyards are concentrated along the valleys of the main rivers. The fertile soils are mostly granite with high acidity. Inland from the coastal areas, the majority of vineyards are planted along the numerous river valleys and the major waterways of the Minho and Douro rivers (and their tributaries).

The wines we sampled where a combination of coastal and inland and represented the major grape varieties of Alvarinho, Arinto, Avessa, and Laureiro, as well Espadeiro and the sole red grape, Vinhao (also known as Souzão in the Douro Valley).  This last grape variety was presented through the Casa de Vila Pouca, Vinhao Reserva 2021. Surprisingly, this was perhaps the most acidic wine of the group. The grapes come from an inland estate at a high altitude and planted in granite soils. Expect dark colors and racy black currents. 

Not surprising, we sampled several expressions of Alvarinho -- the most popular grape of northern Vinho Verde. Not surprising also since the northern Vinho Verde shares most of the same geographic features as its northern Spanish neighbor Rías Baixas. Alvarinho wines are made to be consumed young or aged and are richer with higher alcohol than its Vinho Verde contemporaries. An aged expression was represented by the Anselmo Mendes Parcela Única 2015 which was fermented in new 400-litre French oak barrels and then aged 9 months in barrel on the whole lees. Slightly oxidized after so many years aging in the bottle and very complex with semblance of minerality and acidity and wet stone fruit.  A coastal Alvarinho was attested by the Quinta das Arcas Alvarinho Reserva 2021 which showed racy minerality and lively citrus fruit. There were also two inland expressions starting with the  Adega de Monção Muralhas de Monção 2022 showing mouthfuls of velvety tone fruit. Of all the Alvarinho expressions I preferred the Quinta da Raza Alvarinho 2022 which shows considerable depth from 4 months on lees and also shows saline and string floral and citrus notes. 

The Loureiro grape originated in the north of the Vinho Verde region but is now planted throughout the overall region. "Loureiro" means "laurel" or "bay" and the aroma of Loureiro wines is said to resemble that of laurel flowers and are known for their refreshing, well-balanced acidity. This was seen in the four-year-old Quinta d'Amares Vinesa Loureiro 2020 that comes from a cooler sub-region and is herbaceous with a full mouthfeel, some funk, and refreshing acids. We tasted an even older expression in the Adega de Ponte da Barca Loureiro Reserva Sócios 2018 made in the grape's original location - the Lima River Valley.  Very complex with orange blossom and balsamic aromas and toasted honey and dried fruits on the palate. Rather pleased with this option. 

Avesso wines are typically quite low in acid and high in potential alcohol - quite the opposite of the other Vinho Verde grapes. It is this particular quality that earned the variety its name; "avesso" being Portuguese for "reverse" or "opposite".  That being said, the Manuel Costa & Filhos Magnate Colheita Selecionada Avesso 2022 shows clear acidity along with pear, white peaches and melon notes. The older Quinta da Lixa Colinas do Avesso 2018 shows a little petrol and nuttiness with less acidity and more funk.

There were many other wines we tasted during the masterclass and reception afterwards. I look forward to continue this exploration into Vinhos Verdes -- particularly through a pilgrimage along the Portuguese Camino.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Grape Spotlight: DO Costers del Segre Danaus Red Wine

Costers del Segre is Catalonia's most inland wine region and generally speaking, this region is harsh. It's semi-arid, with a climate of extremes. Although its seven fragmented districts do represent a varied mix of soil and climatic conditions. -- wine-searcher.com

DO Costers del Segre is a Denominación de Origen (DO) wine region located in Catalonia, on the northeastern coast of Spain. The name means 'Banks of the Segre' – a river which originates in the Pyrenees mountain ranges and meets the Ebro River just south of the city of Lleida.  The DO was established in 1988 and is a collection of subregions clustered along the Segre river valley. It has a dry, semi-arid Continental climate featuring limestone and clay spoils. The DO is comprised of seven sub-zones, four of which are considered "mountain viticulture".  It also experiences a high diurnal temperature variation (70 degrees F) producing aromatic and structured wines.

The subregions, from north to south, are Pallars Jussa, Artesa de Segre, Segria, Raimat, Valls del Riucorb, Les Garrigues and Urgell. As a result of these scattered subregions, this DO boasts one of the most versatile wine portfolios in Spain. The cooler vineyards produce grapes for Cava (Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo), while the drier areas are suitable for growing red grapes, especially Tempranillo, Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Trepat, Monastrell, Pinot Noir and Syrah. Varietal white wines are also produced based on Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.

One wine we recently received is made from the three most predominate grapes within the drier regions. The Danaus Organic Red Wine 2022 ($13) is a blend of 45% Tempranillo, 45% Garnacha, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and made exclusively for Origins Organic Imports. This is a company founded by Labid Ameri and Anne Bousquet initially as the U.S. importing arm for Domaine Bousquet -- but has expanded to include organic wine producers worldwide

The wine is made by Bodegas Costers del Sió a twenty year old operation where the first vines were handplanted in 1998 and the first wines released in 2005. Their estate is named Finca de Flix and is poor in organic matter but rich in loam and mud. It is located in the Artesa de Segre subregion at an altitude of 1,000 feet (310 meters), where the estate is influenced by the Mediterranean with continental influences.

Danaus refers to Danaus Plexippus (i.e., “sleepy transformation” in ancient Greek) -- the scientific name for the monarch butterfly (named for the monarch King William III of England). Each of the three grape varieties were harvested separately and after fermentation, bended and aged for four months in 300 liter French oak barrels. This is a fantastic wine for a number of reasons, starting with the retail price. Not many wines under $15 have this balance between fruit flavors and oak influences and an uninterrupted flow from the nose to the approachable finish. Layers of red berries and light smokey tannins. 

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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Rain, Hail, and Sunshine at Grace Estate Winery

Lately, we having been avoiding traveling through Charlottesville on our passages to Waynesboro and Staunton and bailed at the airport to take back roads to Route 64 at Crozet. This has lead us to Oakencroft Farm & Winery and finally, Grace Estate Winery. The winery was established in 2013 and releases wine from grapes grown meticulously on the 50-acre Mount Juliet Vineyard. This estate vineyard is a small portion of the 450 acre Grace Estate the surrounds the mansion. 

Their wines are branded into three labels which honor the Grace family history. The Odo Collection is named after "Odo, the Count of Champagne and Aumale (later Albemarle) who lived from c. 1030-1115. He famously accompanied his brother-in-law, William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England".  Within the Alice Collection, all the wines are named Le Gras which reflects Odo's son William who was the first to take the name Le Gros, which over the centuries evolved to Le Gras, Gras,  and, eventually, to Grace. Finally, the Sheffield Collection highlights notable members of the Grace family tree throughout history.

For instance, the 2021 Aviator Petit Verdot is named after Cecil Stanley Grace (1880 – 22 December 1910) who was a pioneer aviator who went missing on a flight across the English Channel in 1910. The wine is spontaneously fermented using whatever native yeasts are hanging around the winery and aged 21 months in a large format oak vessel. The oak is restrained allowed for a full representation of the fruit.  

The 2017 Earl William Cabernet Franc provides similar fruit expression with more bright cherries and spice. The wine is named after the aforementioned William Le Gros (1115-1179) and is made from grapes grown on the south facing upper slopes of Mount Juliet. 

Our final wine was the 2022 Le Gras Cuve -- a blend of Chardonnay and Petit Manseng. Lots of floral, citrus, and peach notes that we originally thought would be ideal sipping on the deck, overlooking the estate, with our dogs at our feet.  However, an odd front rolled in -- and while the sun was still shining -- rain and then hail doused our outside outing.  But even though the tasting room's windows, the view of the estate and Shenandoah Mountains provide a scenic environment during our visit. 

There are two other pressing incentives to visit Grace Estate and the other wineries in Crozet, the Monticello AVA, and - in general - the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because the 2021 Aviator Petit Verdot was awarded a Gold Medal in the 2024 Governor's Cup Competition, Grace Estate is included in the Virginia Gold Medal Wine Trail.  The passport directs uses to the award winning wineries and provides discounts on tastings and bottle purchased. In addition, April 26th - May 3rd 2024 is Monticello Wine Week -- with numerous events scheduled within the Monticello AVA.  And, as always, the recommend theCompass Craft Beverage Finder

Update; This post was updated to reflect that the 2022 Le Gras Cuve is a Chardonnay - Petit Manseng blend and not 100& Vidal. I think my notes were soaked from the weather. 

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Steak and Eggs with Domaine Bousquet and Wines with Altitude

I am continually blessed to receive multiple shipments of Argentinean Wines with Altitude from Domaine Bousquet. Their estate vineyards are located 4,000 feet above sea level in Gualtallary within the Tupungato mountain range. In this environment, rainfall is scant, sunshine is plentiful, and the desert-like climate creates a massive 59° F day/night temperature differential. The area also has poor stony and alluvial soils that are interlaced with layers of sand and limestone. This diverse combination creates free-draining soils that, due to the already mentioned limited water availability, stress the vines. The grapes react to these conditions by increasing skin tannins, concentrating flavor, and retaining acidity and aromas.

The two new samples that I received fall within the Domaine Bousquet Cameleon label which "symbolizes the story of the Bousquet family, a fourth generation that left their native France after a long worldwide search for an idyllic wine growing region".  The grapes are grown within the Tupungato mountain range described above and benefit from that particular geographic terrior.  On the surface the Cameleon Signature Organic Chardonnay 2022 ($15)  and Cameleon Signature Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($20) were pleasant wines where the chardonnay provided peaches and green apple flavors within a medium texture whereas the cabernet showed fresh blackberries, earthiness, slight mint,  and firm tannins.  But on their own they were slightly underwhelming.

That was until I paired each with steak and eggs and the wines rose to a new level. The Chardonnay's texture and acidity worked very well with the cayenne pepper and paprika laced scrambled eggs. They just seemed to integrate effortlessly. An even better pairing occurred with the Cabernet Sauvignon and herb seasoned flank steak where the tannins and acidity broke into and cut through the fat creating a savory plate.  Both the meat and wine exploded in the mouthfeel creating lasting  bites.  

The lesson here is not to dismiss wines after the first sip and find creative ways to enjoy them.  Cheers.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Re-discovering Oakencroft Farm & Winery

After perhaps a 15-year hiatus we finally returned to the 250-acre Oakencroft Farm & Winery as the winery has re-opened and still making wine from some of the oldest vines in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The property is located just outside of Charlottesville and is a relaxing destination with estate and other wines available for purchase along with spreads and charcuterie. The winery first opened in the early 1980s under the ownership of Felicia and John Rogan -- who are considered one of the founding families of the modern Virginia wine industry. The winery closed in 2008 when Mrs. Rogan retired after 25 years in the industry. Over that period she worked with viticulturist  Lucy Morton to transform the Rogan farm into a Vineyard and Winery.  And most importantly, she spearheaded the effort to establish the Monticello AVA, started the Jeffersonian Grape Growers Society, and was chairwoman of the Virginia Wine Growers Advisory Board for a several years.  

Even though Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery had officially closed, the farm continued to operate and the original grape vines were maintained.  A decade later Dorothy Batten purchased the farm and championed many of the sustainable practices currently implemented. One practice is the continued use of hybrid grapes (Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin, De Chaunac, and Merlot Kanthus) which provides broader genetic diversity and requires less pesticides and other chemicals. Former winemaker Phil Ponton spent 40 years maintaining the estate's vines and still shares his wisdom with current Farm Manager Logan Collins. This wisdom included combatting pests by using an integrated pest management system of beneficial plants, animals and insects as well as compost to reduce chemical sprays and industrial fertilizers. Jessica Trapeni is the current winemaker and came to Oakencroft after completing the UC Davis Winemaking Certification program and working at Virginia Wineworks where she was both Lab Manager and Production Manager. 

During our visit we dabbled into two of their estate releases, their 2021 Albemarle County White Wine and 2020 Albemarle County Red Wine. Both were very pleasant expressions of Seyval and Chambourcin and easily pass as more traditional vinifera wines. The Seyval Blanc was fermented under cool temperatures and on its lees, which both preserved the fruit characters and added texture to the body. Lots of racy acidity and minerality. Production of the red wine was more complicated as it is a blend of 64% Chambourcin co-fermented with 11% Vidal Blanc, and the remaining 25% a combination of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine also has bright acidity and ripe cherries leading to very approachable tannins and a long finish. An easy sipper with charcuterie.

The winery also offers several Virginia and international wines and ciders. On our next trip I would be interested in sipping the White Wine next to an Austrian Gruner Veltliner and the Red Wine with a Provence red. 

Finally, the Monticello Wine Week runs from April 26th to May 3rd. Check the Monticello Wine Trail for specific events. 

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Grape Spotlight: Sicilia DOC Grillo

"Beginning with the Greeks, who arrived on the eastern part of Sicily in the 8th century BCE, the idea of methodical grapegrowing practices for the purpose of quality winemaking firmly took root on the island. As the centuries passed, Phoenicians and Romans traded Sicilian wines based on their power and their distinctive qualities. The best vines were propagated, viticulture developed, and thus Sicilian wines were promoted on and off the island. Today, we see the fruits of these labors. Though many things have changed, most of Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties and time-honored winegrowing traditions continue to play an important role. Thanks to meticulous vineyard tending and gentle grape handling in Sicily’s wineries, Sicilia DOC wines feature the medley of flavors that Sicily has been known for since ancient times and which represent some of the best wines of Italy." -- Wines of Sicily DOC

Sicily is Italy's southernmost wine region and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea It is blessed with consistently bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, Sicily's classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of wine grapes. This is because the warm, dry climate means that mildews and rots are kept to a minimum, particularly in well-ventilated areas that benefit from coastal breezes. This low disease pressure means that chemical sprays are hardly needed, and much Sicilian wine is produced from organic grapes.

There are a number of denominations spread throughout the island with the broadest being Terre Siciliane IGT and Sicilia DOC. As of 2017, all varietal wines made from either Grillo or Nero d'Avola must be classified as Sicilia DOC.  According to wine-searcher.com, "Sicily's soils, and the mountains from which they came, are of particular interest when it comes to studying the island's viticulture. Mount Etna, the towering stratovolcano, dominates the island's eastern skyline, and is responsible for the mineral-rich, dark soils that characterize the Etna DOC vineyards. Vines are now being planted higher up on the volcanic slopes, to capitalize on the cooler air and richer soils there. Fifty miles (80km) south, the Iblei Mountains stake their place in eastern Sicilian wine. On their lower slopes and the coastal plains below them, the DOCs of Siracusa, Noto, Eloro and Vittoria sweep from east to west, forming a crescent that mirrors the arcing coastline. In western Sicily, the volcanic hills are less individually dramatic but just as influential to the soil type".

Apparently the origins of Grillo are still being debated, but what is clear, is that this grape is well suited to the hot, dry Sicilian climate. Traditionally Grillo has been used in the popular Marsala fortified wines because of its high levels of sugar and the ease with which it oxidizes. More recently, winemakers have tuned their processes to use Grillo to make fresh, light white wine with nutty, fruit-driven flavors.  Some winemakers have started using lees contact to create deeper, fuller-bodied expressions of the grape, with aromas and flavors that resemble ripe citrus and spice. 

During last month's Slow Wine tour in Washington DC, I attended the From Vine to Glass: Sicilia DOC's Native Varietals seminar sponsored by Wines of Sicily DOC.  This seminar featured a trio of very distinct Grillo wines.  

Baglio Bonsignore "OI" Sicilia DOC 2022 Grillo
The winery farms 13 hectares of grapes near Naro, in Southwestern Sicily, with four hectares planted with 10 year old Grillo vines.  The vineyards are planted at about 1,000 feet in limestone and clayish soils. We started with a very complex wine, tropical and nutty aromas that follows with loads of character. Fresh and mineral driven with some creamy depth.  

Bagliesi "Terre Di Toto" Sicilia DOC 2022 Grillo
The winery is also located near Naro and the estates are spread over twenty-five hectares in the province of Agrigento and also planted around 1,00 feet and similar calcareous-clayey soils.  This wine is a blend of  Grillo grapes from the estates and is leaner with bright green apples, slight grass, and salivating salinity. This is a patio consumer -- it won't last long.

Di Giovanna "Helios" Sicilia DOC 2022 Grillo
This winery is located in the mountainside of Monte Genuardo, a protected nature reserve and situated on the western side of Sicily,  They operate five family estates of almost 100 hectares -- composed of 65 hectares of vineyards, 14 hectares of olive groves, and 21 hectares of wheat fields and forests. These vineyards are  located in the small DOC of Contessa Entellina within the Sambuca di Sicilia DOC and most are planted on the limestone and ancient marine slopes of Monte Genuardo up to 2,700 feet above seal level.  This is an interesting wine, both refreshing and funky featuring  ripe citrus and spicy aromas and flavors. There's also significant structure with appreciable tannins and minerality on the finish. 

Monday, April 1, 2024

Open Road Distilling Opens in Reston

We've been trying to make the rounds visiting Mid-Atlantic distilleries and ventured to the closest to us -- Open Road Distilling in the Reston Town Center, Virginia. The establishment is part of a restaurant group and this location fields a tremendous restaurant and bar that is worth visiting just for the entrées. While developing cocktails for their bar and speakeasy-influenced concepts, they decided to develop a range of spirits which lead to the operational distillery, tasting room, and bonded store. Currently they have four expressions: in-house distilled American Vodka and American Gin as well as in-house blended Eagle Eye Rye and Independence Bourbon. 

Eagle Eye Rye ($34.99)
This whiskey is a blend of various casks obtained from distilleries across the U.S. - including MGP. This slightly spicy and approachable whiskey begs for a flask to enjoy in outlawing style.  

Independence Bourbon ($34.99)
The Bourbon is a blend of bourbons sourced from four distilleries within the United States and aged together after blending.  A pleasant firepit sipper with baking spices and soft tannins. 

American Vodka ($19.99)
This spirit begins as corn-based neutral spirit which is combined with pure water and then distilled in their traditional pot still. This is a very suitable vodka for all your bar needs. 

American Gin ($23.99)
This gin is crafted by first soaking botanical herbs (Juniper, Coriander, Angelica, Bitter Orange, Citron) in neutral spirits overnight, then distilled over a slowly increasing heat source . There is a nice balance between the London Dry profile and an American profile where the juniper and citrus are intertwined.