What defines a wine region? Questions following TasteCamp in the Hudson Valley

The view at Millbrook Vineyards, in the lower Hudson Valley

Defining the identity of a wine region is a tough thing, especially with young and emerging wine regions – which means a lot of them, in the New World. Over six editions of TasteCamp, since 2009, in Long Island, the Finger Lakes, Niagara, Virginia, Québec and now the Hudson Valley, last weekend, that has been a question recurrently hanging in the air as the group of bloggers and writers present sought to draw a portrait of the region they just visited. And as the end of TasteCamp 2014 coincided with the beginning of Drink Local Wine Week, the question seems even more pressing this time around.

Can it be a single grape variety or a limited number of varieties with a starring role in a region? Although that can be an important component, it doesn’t provide the whole answer. For example, riesling is a central element of what makes the Finger Lakes a great wine region, of course, but there is also great pinot noir and cabernet franc and… well, Red Cat and other sweet wines made from hybrids that are remarkably popular. In the same way, one can’t think of Piemonte, as a wine region, without evoking Barolo and Barbaresco and the nebbiolo grape, but one can’t forget the barbera and dolcetto that satisfy a great number of drinkers, or the excitement found in freisa, grignolino, pelaverga or arneis.

One thing is for certain, however, a region should be defined by what it produces itself, within the region itself.

In that regard, defining the Hudson Valley, in terms of wine, is not made any easier by the fact that many of the wineries – and often some of the best – produce a lot  (and in some cases, the great majority) of their wines from grapes harvested outside the region.

Granted, growing wines in the Hudson Valley is a bit tougher than in the Finger Lakes or Long Island, but it clearly is possible. Notably, during the weekend, we tasted a number of very nice cabernet francs from Whitecliff, Millbrook, Tousey and BenMarl, to name a few, showing that you can produce something solid and consistent in the region. However, alongside those wines, almost inevitably, were bottlings of pinot and riesling (or even cayuga white) from the Finger Lakes, or Bordeaux blends from Long Island. The wines were good, sometimes excellent, but they always drew the same question in my mind: why would I bother visiting vineyards in the Hudson Valley if I’m going to taste the same wines that I can get in Long Island or the Finger Lakes? What makes it worth the trip? The answer is not just about quality, but also about focus.

The very first Hudson River Region wine I tasted was a chardonnay from Whitecliff Vineyards, almost fifteen years ago. I was impressed to find such a well-made wine from this beautiful region, and that stayed with me. However, tasting “Hudson Valley” wines and getting told they are actually from the Finger Lakes does less to impress me.

Personally, if I’m traveling all the way to the Hudson Valley to visit vineyards, I’m much happier tasting the tasty, clean and balanced wines made from Maréchal Foch and Marquette by Victory View Vineyard, a small producer located near Saratoga Springs, so far north of the region that he’s actually outside of the Hudson River Region AVA. Their labels bear the New York AVA, but not because they get their grapes from all over the state. There is something distinctive in those wines that I had more trouble finding, when tasting so many other producers, simply because their sense of place was diluted along the whole breadth of the state of New York.

It’s in the apples and in the grain

Overall, TasteCamp Hudson Valley gave me a clearer sense of place when I was tasting cider (apples have been an important agricultural product in the region for a long time) and, more surprisingly, whisky. (Not to mention the cheese, notably the raw-milk versions made by Chaseholm Farm.)

On the apple side of things, I liked the bone-dry, tart hard cider from Bad Seed, the stronger and pleasantly sparkling version from Hudson-Chatham Winery, and some offerings by Naked Flock and Doc’s Draft (though not their pie-in-a-bottle pumpkin cider). And I was especially interested by the explorations of Aaron Burr cider, a producer that goes along the valley foraging forgotten and wild apple trees to produce unique and idiosyncratic cuvées with very precise profiles. It was very interesting to taste, side-by-side, two cuvées coming from two nearby sites, one lower and closer to the river, the other on poor soils, higher up on a hill, and see how the two differed. Yes, there can be terroir in apples, clearly.

Craft spirits have been on a quick rise, in the Hudson Valley, these last few years, and there were a number of great things to be tasted on Saturday morning, from buckwheat whisky to apple vodka, sugar wash moonshine, delicious pear and peach spirits, bourbons, gins and others. Inventive and distinctive products from Tutthiltown, Black Dirt, Dutch’s Spirits, Coppersea and, in particular, Hillrock Estate Distillery, which hosted the spirits component of the weekend.

Dave Pickerell, former master distiller of Maker's Mark, now heading the field-to-glass program at Hillrock Estate Distillery

At Hillrock (which is worth a whole post, in and of itself), we tasted bourbon, single malt whisky and rye whisky that was, frankly, out of this world. The owner, Jeff Baker, and master distiller Dave Pickerell (along with distiller Tim Welly) have been crafting remarkable field-to-glass drinks that are as refined as they are unique in taste and aromas. The rye and barley are grown on the farm, the malting takes place on premises as well as the smoking and, of course, distilling. It is unique in its approach and ambition, for sure. “Our fields write their name in clove and cinnamon, here”, said Pickerell, describing the baking spice notes that showed throughout the three whiskies, even though each had a very distinctive signature. Again, terroir showed through, and something truly unique emerged.

Those unique things, found only in the Hudson Valley, are what will keep me coming back. Whether they are wines, ciders or spirits, they are what makes the region shine. My two cents, for local producers: make more of that, please!

Malting at Hillrock Estate Distillery

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Visiting a Winery in Argentina : the Standard Version

Hello and welcome to Bodega Denada. My name is Maria Luz, and I am the hospitality manager for the winery. Denada is an indian word that means « created out of nothing », which reflects our American/French/Argentinian owner’s dream, when he started the winery in the mid-1990s.

We are a relatively small winery, for Argentina : our production is about 1 million bottles a year. We do mostly malbec, as well as some cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, as well as a little torrontès and chardonnay for whites.

Our grapes come from our own vineyards, although we also purchase some grapes from other producers to bring quality to some of our blends. Most of our vineyards are about 15-20 years old, but we do have a small vineyard – about 20 hectares – that is 70 years old.

The climate

Now, what makes our wines great, here in Argentina, is the climate. Here in Mendoza/San Juan/Salta, it is very, very dry. We have 300 days of sunshine, and we only get 200 mm of rain per year, so all our water for the vines come from the Andes. We have started working with drip irrigation, although the old vineyard still uses flood irrigation. Irrigation allows us to make sure the vines get exactly the water they need and control the yields and the maturity.

What is great about the dry conditions is that it keeps the vines very, very healthy. We are not certified organic, but really, there is no need to spray, around here. Only two times a year, and using copper and sulfur, which are accepted for organic.

The other advantage of our climate is thermal amplitude. It means that there is a big difference, almost 20 degrees Celcius, between day and night. The warm days help develop maturity in the grapes, and the cold nights preserve the acidity and the freshness.

The winery

Here, in the winery, we use a portion of temperature-controlled concrete tanks, as well as large concrete tanks lined with epoxy. We also have about 300 oak barrels, some French, some American.

We rely on good technology, we have all the latest equipment – but of course, winemaking starts with good grapes, because without good grapes, you can’t do anything.

We also acidify all the wines : with the hot climate, here in Argentina, you need to do that to ensure the wines have freshness.

Our head winemaker, Luis, is not here today, as he is traveling in the United States to present our wines. We also work with a well-known consulting winemaker, Paul-Michel Hobbsland, who has helped us improve quality in our wines.

The wines

Today, we will taste five wines. A white wine and four reds : an entry-level, a premium, a super premium and an ultra premium.

First off is our torrontès, which we make in a crisp, fresh style. Torrontès became less popular, in the 80s and 90s, as it used to be made in a very heavy, oily, oxidative style. Now, we make it fresh and crisp, with nice citric notes. This wine is well-liked in export markets.

Our first red wine, Nada Puro Malbec, is made to show the varietal quality. It is very ripe, very fresh and – how you say -  very froooty. 60% of the wine goes into oak barrels, some first use, some second use, some third use, half American, half French, for six months. We use malbecs from different parts of the region to give different characteristics to the final blend. There is a little residual sugar, but not much : only 3, 3.5 grams per liter. It is a very popular wine.

Our second wine, Nada Reserva, shows the fruit of malbec, but also some spicy notes. All the wine is aged for eight months in oak, 80% French and 20% American, with some new oak, but mostly second and third use. We never use barrels older than third use. It offers a good quality-price ratio.

Our third wine, Nada Mas, is more concentrated, more complex. It is from vineyards that are higher in altitude, which gives the wines more balance and freshness. You can really smell the spicy character that malbec from that area is known for, as well as the oak. It has concentration and really smooth tannins. It is aged 12 months in oak, all French, half first use, half second use. It recently was awarded 91 points in Wine Auditor.

Our ultra premium wine is called Muchanada. It is a blend of 70% malbec with 30% cabernet sauvignon. This is where most of the wine from our old vineyard is used. It is aged in 100% French oak – all new oak, of course – for 15 months. You can feel the power and concentration of the wine, as well as the soft tannins, but also complexity and freshness. It has 15% alcohol. The 2006 was called one of the top 10 malbecs in Argentina by Wine Amateur magazine.

What do you think of the wines?

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Return from Niagara: wine, food and – surprise! – beer

I just spent a terrific, busy, fun and serious week in Niagara, judging at the National Wine Awards of Canada, newly organized by WineAlign, this year. It was mostly about wine, of course, because of the awards, but the evening program organized by Wine County Ontario, to showcase the region’s best for the coast-to-coast group of judges, allowed us to sample solid food and also, more surprisingly, excellent beer.

In terms of wine, the judging and the evening programs allowed us to confirm that Niagara (and Canada) can offer value, originality, high quality and ageability. Off the top of my head, a 2007 Wood Post Riesling from Thirty Bench, a 2008 Sauvignon Blanc sparkling wine and a 2002 cabernet franc from Angel’s Gate, the 2005 and 2006 Nuit Blanche from Hidden Bench, 2006 and 2007 syrahs from Lailey Vineyards, older Malivoire gamays, a remarkably fresh magnum of 2002 Cabernet Franc from Tawse (made by Deborah Paskus) a 2000 Trius Red, as well as a 1991 Klose Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon pulled from the Inniskillin library by Niagara founding figure Karl Kaiser showed just how great the region can be, and how much life the best Niagara wines can have over the long run. And that’s naming but a few.

About the food, I have to point out how Treadwell Farm to Table restaurant and Ravine Vineyards both knocked it out of the park, in very different but equally delicious style, that week. Every time I return to Treadwell, it ranks among my favorite gastronomical experiences from any region: the cuisine is extremely refined, the dishes remarkably balanced and showcasing local fare extremely successfully. Ravine’s cooking, in a more laid-back style, is very satisfying as well, and the location overlooking the estate vineyards is just wonderful. If you can get there when Paul Harber and crew are going whole-hog (by which I mean, doing a whole pig roast), please do. (Tawse and Hidden Bench wineries also provided remarkable meals showcasing local fare, but since those were private dinners and not locations generally accessible to the public for dining, I will avoid rubbing it in and limit my comments to expressing gratitude for the hospitality and thank all our evening hosts for great opportunities to talk shop in a relaxed fashion with local winemakers.)

Winemakers often joke that it takes a lot of good beer to make wine. That could be transposed to wine judging, as well: the hoppy and bitter notes are a great way to reset your palate, after tasting through 90-some-odd wines a day. But beyond the palate cleansing aspect of an evening suds, the week yielded some fantastic discoveries that would satisfy the most demanding wine aficionados.

I’d had previous opportunities to sample local brewing talents at The Merchant Ale House, in St Catharines, but this year yielded new favorites, like the Silversmith Black Lager, which shows how beer can be at once dark-colored and refreshing, but even more the offerings by Oast House, a brewery that leans on the belgian side of things with truly remarkable results – and in particular, balance. Oast’s Barn Raiser is hefty and satisfying but still fresh, and the Bière de Garde is indeed a complex brew that one would love to lay down.

My overall favorite, however, was Oast House’s Saison, a beer style that strikes the perfect note, for me, between the sweet and rich complexity of Doubles and Triples, on the one hand, and crisp freshness you’d expect in a summer lager. Their take on the style is, to me, one of the most successful I’ve tasted outside of the Dupont and Fantôme Saisons from its country of origin. It kept me wanting more.

I’m always happy to return to Niagara for rieslings, chardonnays, pinots and cabernet franc – and the occasional, too-rare gamay. Now, I might want to drive down for a beer, too!

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What to do when you get a bad bottle of wine

I’m not a very happy camper, right now. It’s the middle of the night, and I’m not sleeping. All that because of a bad bottle of wine I got at a restaurant.

It’s not a question of how I’m digesting the wine, but rather of how I’m digesting what happened after I sent it back.

The scene takes place at Fore Street restaurant, one of the institutions of dining in that new darling of foodie cities, Portland, Maine.

My friend and I were having, at that point, a really wonderful dinner. Fantastic Maine oysters with verjus mignonette (my favorite thing to put on oysters, and a rare occurrence in restaurants), including some Pine Points, which I’d never tasted before and were particularly delicious to me because Pine Point is also my favorite beach in the world, a place that’s been part of my summers since childhood. With that, we were having a Domaine de la Louvetrie 2011 muscadet, which paired remarkably well with the oysters, and did so as well with some well-made, oven-grilled razor clams, right after that.

After that, we decided to move to meatier courses, and to splurge with a bottle of 1999 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which we’d spotted on the list, earlier on, noting that its 120-dollar price tag was very reasonable, for that particular wine (in the US younger vintages of Beaucastel generally sell for around 80$ per bottle, retail, and the 1999 is generally sold for at least 120 dollars). I’d had the wine before,  about three years ago, and it had been superb and still fairly youthful, so I was very excited to taste it again. The waiter looked happy as well and informed us that the wine had been added to the list that very day. Looked like we were on the lucky side.

The waiter came around with the bottle, moving it around a bit energetically, for an older wine, opened it and poured me a sip. On the nose, there was an oxidative, bullion-cube/bovril edge to the wine, but at first taste, it seemed to still have some stuffing behind it. Older châteauneufs, in part because of the nature of grenache, can have some of that on the nose while still being quite pleasant, so I agreed to it, and when the waiter asked if he should decant it, I declined, figuring it didn’t need any more air. However, as he asked that, I had a second sip and had doubts about just how oxidized the wine was, so I asked my friend to taste it and asked the waiter to only pour her a sip.

When she tasted it, I saw the doubt on her face as well. On further tasting, the wine was dominated by oxidation, which showed more and more aggressively. We debated it, smelled the little bit left in our glasses and decided to send back the bottle. I explained to the server that I knew that wine, which I love, that I really wanted to like it, but that it was unfortunately off, and that I was very sorry, but could we get another bottle.

It took the server a while to come back, but when he did, while I had gone to the restroom, he plopped a wine list at my place and informed my friend that the bartender who’d bought the wine had decided that the bottle was fine, and that we should pick something else, “because they weren’t going to open another 120-dollar bottle for us”. Now, this is not a misinterpretation on my part, because the waiter essentially repeated the same message when I sat back down at the table.

I was a bit shocked, frankly, and told the waiter I needed a couple of minutes. I was trying to process what had just occurred, and actually trying to calm down a bit, but I really couldn’t, because:

a) I’d just been told I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about (thanks!)

b) I’d just been told that this was a price issue, or in other words that, as a customer, I wasn’t worth replacing a defective bottle of wine (even better!).

So much for the customer always being right, eh?

Now, my friend is usually the one who will calm me down, when annoying things happen. But as she thought about it, she actually became more annoyed as well.

So when the waiter asked if he could do anything else for us, I said that I would need to see the bartender.

The bartender – is there no sommelier at Fore Street? – never showed up. Instead, the manager (or at least, the person who had been managing reservations and attributing tables, at the door) showed up to discuss the matter. Frankly, I don’t remember the discussion word for word, but somewhere in there, she put the idea forward that we had rejected the bottle because we just didn’t like it. So I explained to her that it wasn’t the case, that this was a wine that was faulty, that I knew that producer well, had actually tasted Beaucastel with the owner, and had tasted that vintage before, and added that I actually taste wine for a living, so that this wasn’t just a whim or simply a question of personal preference.

Frankly, I shouldn’t have had to explain this. A customer doesn’t like a bottle, you bring him another one. Period.

In any case, she finally asked if I indeed wanted another bottle of the same wine or something else. I hesitated, actually, wondering if the whole batch could be in the same condition. But then a mix of feelings came through me. First, I really, really wanted a good bottle of 1999 Beaucastel: when that wine is on, it is absolutely gorgeous. Second, I have to say with a certain amount of regret, this was becoming a matter of pride. Because of the way this had been formulated, because I had been told that I was wrong, I couldn’t help thinking that if I gave up, it would be admitting I’d done something wrong. Whereas I hadn’t: this wasn’t a question of personal preference, it was a question of a rather obvious problem with the wine.

So I said yes, please do bring another. Which the visibly annoyed waiter brought back, moving it around as energetically as the previous one, and opening it in midair, with a great twisting motion. (If there was sediment in that bottle, it sure wasn’t at the bottom anymore.)

The bottle, still, was better. Not great, but better. It had better color, a better bouquet. It still had a fair bit of that oxidative edge, but also some spice and herbal notes, and just a fuller mouthfeel than the previous one. The bullion cube/bovril was still rather present, but not as aggressive. So I accepted the bottle, saying that it wasn’t great, but that it was acceptable.

The waiter asked if he could decant it, I said yes, and then saw him pour it vigorously into the carafe. (Dude, that’s not decanting, that’s carafing, if you ever take a sommelier course, and it should be done with young wines, not old ones). Sediment was all over the side of the carafe. This felt like a bit of a lost cause.

The wine did go okay with a nicely roasted quail, in particular, but I still felt bad. Bullied, mistreated, frustrated and – perhaps mostly – foolish.

Why, oh why, for crying out loud, didn’t I just order the 2006 Vacqueyras Le Sang des Cailloux, which in the end would have done a much better job at a lesser price? Or even the 2000 Guigal Hermitage that was right above the Beaucastel?

Foolish pride, really. I’d been treated like crap, by any restaurant standard (I reviewed restaurants professionally for eight years, and this is a matter that I still give very serious thought to, as a food and wine writer), and that had royally screwed up my decision-making process. Telling your customer that they are wrong and you won’t provide them with what they asked for is a pretty basic no-no, in my book.

Now, had the waiter asked me if I would consider another bottle, said something like “we think the other bottles will probably taste similar, so would you rather try something else?”, this likely wouldn’t have turned into the frustrating mess it became. Instead, he let us know we were wrong and not worth the trouble.

Gee, waiter dude, sorry we ruined your evening…

I have to say I gave a bit of an earful to the host and manager, on the way out, explaining that the bottle was still not great, and that maybe they should talk to their supplier. I didn’t curse (at least, I don’t think so), I tried to explain my position, but I also expressed a fair bit of anger about the way this had been handled, that I had been made to feel like a jerk, and that it was a shame that a delicious meal (the food was, indeed, great) had been spoiled by this behavior. She did apologize, saying that the waiter certainly hadn’t meant it that way. And she did remain calm, though I don’t think I ever felt she truly thought a mistake had been made on their end.

Whatever the case may be, this certainly doesn’t make me feel like returning there, ever again. Which is too bad: I really would like to have those razor clams again…

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Generation Seven 2012 Nouveau: A Wine Review and Further Thoughts on Nouveau Wines

I’m a little late to the party, with this, but I really liked the Generation Seven Nouveau, a young, 2012 gamay produced by the Bosc family, the folks at Château des Charmes. It was released on November 15, the Thursday on which Beaujolais Nouveau is also unleashed on the wine-drinking world.

Why produce a Nouveau when Beaujolais Nouveau has been getting such a bad rap, these last few years? Well, for one thing, with such a sunny vintage, this year, it’s surely tempting to have people taste its fruit as soon as possible. And second, nouveau wine is fun: it is great to taste wine as it has just finished fermentation and is in its earliest, most primal form, all fruit-forward and fresh.

This is precisely what the G7 Nouveau delivers. A burst of bright red fruit, clean and precise, ripe and fresh, with just a tiny smidgeon of that pepper character that can also be such a nice component of gamay. It’s fun, quaffable stuff, and at $11.95 a bottle, that’s exactly what you want in a wine. Better that than loads of cheaply-done acid and oak additions, as far as I’m concerned.

It’ll put a little bit of harvest sunshine into any winter day, and if you’re lucky enough to be in Ontario, you can still buy some at the LCBO.

Perhaps the hype around Nouveau Day has just had a bit of a boomerang effect. Maybe it made that fun wine seem like too much of a serious thing. Whatever the case may be, I think the pendulum against bojo nouveau may just have swung too far to the negative.

When I was in New York City, a few days ago, I stopped by my favorite wine shop in the city, Frankly Wines, and owner Christy Frank had a couple of Beaujolais Nouveau open (by Maison PUR and Dupeuble), which I gladly tasted. They were bright and delicious, showing a lovely, sunny disposition. Real wine, though in an über-youthful form. Which should be nothing to frown at.

Maybe we should care more about the contents of the bottle – which, when good producers create them, will be truly good – and less on the release day and all the hype that goes around it. Generally, wine is better that way – whether nouveau or patiently aged.

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