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Wine review: Rodney Strong Merlot 2011

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Rodney Strong merlotRodney Strong is an example of how sophisticated the California wine business has become. It makes $15 wine that is sold in grocery stores, but is of better quality than most grocery store wine. It has a line of very high-end reds, aimed at the Winestream Media and the people who read it, and which are about as different from its $15 wines as possible. In all of this, Rodney Strong produces more than 800,000 cases a year, making it the 20th biggest winery in the U.S., according to Wine Business Monthly.

That Rodney Strong can do all three of those, and do it mostly well, speaks to California’s dominant role in the wine world. It’s not only the best place to grow grapes, but its business model is the best, too. The idea is to make wine the way Detroit makes cars, with something for grocery store consumers, something for people who want to spend more, and then the very high end stuff.

The trick to this approach is not sloughing off. The quality/value ratio at the bottom has to be as impressive as at the top, or you’ll never get anyone to trade up. The  2011 Rodney Strong merlot ($17, sample, 13.5%) shows how much care goes into the wines. The 2011 California vintage was one of the coolest in decades, but that didn’t stop a lot of producers from making their usual over-extracted, over-alcoholic, over-oaked wines — even though, thanks to the cool vintage, they had to use a fair amount of sleight of hand to do it.

But not the Rodney Strong merlot. It tastes like it came from a cool vintage — fresh and juicy, no cloying red fruit, a touch of oak at the back that makes the wine better and not like caramel candy, and almost spicy in a French sort of way. It’s about as honest a California merlot as I’ve had in years, in which the winemaker makes what the grapes give him or her, and not what the focus groups want (“smooth,” “sweet fruit”).

Highly recommended, and not just for dinner (beef and lamb almost certainly). This is a gift wine, to show someone you want them to drink interesting wine, and that you found a very interesting one for them to drink.

Vinho verde review 2014

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vinho verde review 2014Vinho verde keeps getting stranger and stranger, but that’s the wine business for you. What’s the first thing it does when it has a drinkable, $6 wine? Confuse the issue, of course.

This year, there are varietal vinho verdes, something I’ve never seen before. Vinho verde, a Portuguese white wine that’s actually kind of green, is supposed to be an inexpensive, non-vintage, simple wine served ice cold, and even with an ice cube. But, in a trend that started last year, producers are trying to take vinho verde upscale, and one bottle I tasted (I did eight this year) cost $13. This baffled my friend Jim Serroka, a vinho aficianado: “Why, when you get something right, do you have to change it?” he asked.

Blended vinho verde, made with three grapes that most wine geeks haven’t heard of, is slightly sweet with lime or green apple fruit and very low alcohol, plus some fizz that’s more like club soda than sparkling wine. You buy it, drink it, and forget about it. It’s the quintesstial summer porch wine, which isn’t surprising given the region’s 100-degree summer temperatures.

Most of the single varietals that I tasted, made with one of the three grapes used in the blend, were sour and not in a good way. The one that stood out and was worth the extra money was Anjos ($10, sample, 9.5%) — a little sour, a little sweet, some bubbles, and very fresh.

Otherwise, stick with the $6 versions. The Sonalto ($6, purchased, 9%), known for its crab label and also called Santola, was much as always:  Fresh, limey and effervescent, without too much sweetness or the warm beer taste that sometimes shows up. The Famega ($6, purchased, 10.5%) went in a slightly different direction, with more apple, but is still enjoyable.

For more on vinho verde:
Vinho verde review 2013
Vinho verde review 2012
Vinho verde review 2011

Wine of the week: Carmel SelecteD Sauvignon Blanc 2013

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Carmel Selected Sauvignon BlancIsraeli wine has a long and mostly obscure history; if it’s known at all, it’s for kosher wine, which has not traditionally been something one wants to be known for. The Israelis want to change that, and made a U.S. tour — with a stop in Dallas this spring — to tell consumers and critics that they’re a wine region, just like any other, and that kosher is not all they do.

In this, the wines we tasted from Carmel and Psagot reminded me of U.S. regional wine from one of the top couple of states. Some were terrific, with varietal character and terroir, but others weren’t far enough removed from the old kosher days. In addition, price — $25 for an ordinary California-style chardonnay? — was as problematic as it is for U.S. regional wine.

Carmel’s SelecteD sauvignon blanc ($12, sample, 12.5%) was one of the former — lots of sauvignon blanc grassiness, some tropical fruit in the middle (melon?), and enough citrus to be noticeable but not so much that it gets in the way. It’s a professional, eminently drinkable wine, and among my two or three favorites of the dozen or so we tasted. That’s not because the SelecteD was one of the least expensive, but because it was one of the best made, regardless of price. The winemaker didn’t try to impose his or her will on the grapes, forcing the wine to be something that it wasn’t. That’s another common problem with regional wine, where winemakers get a style in their head and try to replicate it even when the grapes are best suited for something else.

Serve this chilled, with or without food (grilled shrimp with garlic and parsley? spaghetti with basil pesto?), and enjoy it on a hot summer day. It’s California in style, as many of the wines were, but that’s not a problem with the Selected.

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