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Taste Washington: Pouring Wines Galore

1994 Hedges Three Vineyards
Shocking confession time: Sunday was my first ever Taste Washington. And I hit it with a vengeance. When the trade/press gates opened at 12:30, I was there. And I didn’t leave until they were shooing me out with push-brooms at 7. How did I manage to stay so long and be upright? The answer is below:

Hip to Spit Bucket
I did, however, drink the wine at the top of the post. Christophe Hedges poured some of the 1994 Three Vineyards into my glass from a nondescript plastic water pitcher. It was fantastic! Wine. Of. The. Day. I think you can get the current vintage (now called Red Mountain) for less than $25 a bottle; I’d buy a case of it and forget about it for a decade and see what happens. If you get a chance to meet Christophe, don’t pass it up. He’s hilarious, high-energy, and bit of a contrarian. I had loads of fun running around the event with him for a bit. Be sure and ask him about the 100 point wine-rating scale.

Naturally there were winemakers galore, like Brennon Leighton of Efeste:

Brennon of Efeste

And Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery, along with proof that he poured a bit of wine:

Mark McNeilly

The Gorman Winery crew (Chris on the right) was sporting a look I think was some kind of Top Gun tribute. And drinking beer. Plus they brought a barrel sample of a new wine coming in September, Behind the Black Curtain:

Gorman Winery Crew

Buty raided their cellar to bring out two whites from 2006. (The Chardonnay was poured from magnum.) The reds were special exclusive restaurant wines. I am still waiting for them to offer to make an Esquin wine. Ahem.

Buty

I ran into some of my favorite winos, Doug and Josh from WINO Magazine, at the Whidbey Island Winery table:

Wino and Whidbey

And what’s wine without some cheese? I had probably the strangest cheddar ever, hand-rubbed with coffee and lavender. Yes, lavender. And coffee. Together. You know what? I thought it was great. Behold the Barely Buzzed cheddar:

Barely Buzzed Cheese

And after all that wine, enjoyed the palate-saving refreshment of beer from Pike Brewing and a crazy good hard apple cider from Finnriver with a touch of blueberry juice added:

Beer-n-Cider

And when it was all over, my chauffeur drove me home in the Official Esquin Taxi, conveniently parked inside:

Maserati

So what were your highlights of Taste Washington?

Chandon: Sparkling in Australia

Chandon View
I love bubbles. Champagne, Cremant, Prosecco? Bring it on. I purposefully strode through the (automatic) doors at Chandon’s outpost in the Yarra Valley of Australia, ready for something sparkling. The full lineup of bubbles had nary a disappointment. (To my eternal surprise, I even enjoyed the Pinot/Shiraz, which is Thanksgiving-worthy. Is is wrong to be thinking about Turkey Day pairings in March? In Australia?)

Zero Dosage

The 2006 “Z*D” (Zero Dosage) Blanc de Blancs was the star of the show for me. Most sparkling wines made in the traditional or Champagne method have a bit of a sweet liqueur (dosage) added to them just before corking that tames its acidity. The Z*D is devoid of this so it is super-dry. (I wish I could find and cite the page that described zero dosage as “ferociously” dry. Love that.) This 100% Chardonnay sparkler just screams for oysters or (at least) a seat in one of the green chairs on the patio at the top of this post.

One other thing I like about the Z*D is that it’s sealed with a crown cap rather than a cork and cage. It’s distinctive and unusual:

Crown Cap

Before leaving I had to indulge in an ubiquitous “I Was Here” photo:

"I Was Here" Photo

If you need to find me, I’ll be under this tree, with a bottle of Z*D, watching the clouds blow off as the day turns sunny and sparkling.

View

Yarra Yering: Classic Australia

Yarra Yering
I really did a poor job planning any tastings in Australia’s Yarra Valley. I had a lunch appointment that I had scheduled but the rest of the day was embarrassingly free. A mad google search reminded me that one of my favorite old-school producers would be open for tasting: Yarra Yering, where they’ve been making wine since 1973.

Yarra Yering Underhill

I was giddy with anticipation when I saw the amount of wines available for tasting, but quickly honed in on one bottle in particular: the 2001 Underhill Shiraz. Beyond pleasantly surprised to see an older vintage offered for consumption, my lofty expectations were met: this was a lovely wine with wonderful, subtle fruit and completely integrated oak and tannin. Perfectly balanced and lovely. And in a climate of supercharged Aussie Shiraz (though certainly the Yarra Valley is home to many exceptions), it was nice to sample a bottle with a modest 13% alcohol.

My reverential mindset in the tasting room was provided with some levity by a rambunctious kitty and companion:

Tasting Room Cats

Thank you Yarra Yering for wines as inspiring as the view:

View from Yarra Yering

Seafood and Wine Perfection in Melbourne

Queensland Prawns
Touched down in Melbourne and stayed at the Crown Promenade Hotel, where lunch was the first order of business. Connected by a tunnel are a casino and, more importantly, the restaurants of the sister Crown Towers Hotel. I was about to heed the siren song of Nobu when I was distracted by two words: wine bar. Hello, Number 8.

I decided my theme would be seafood and it served me well. The first course pictured atop this post:

  • Sautéed Queensland prawns with garlic, fennel purée, lemon peppered chive sauce

What can I say? It tasted as good as it looked. Perfectly cooked, tender shrimp (which is no mean feat as shrimp go from tender to rubber in nanoseconds) with a light sauce set off with some peppery arugula. (Or “rocket” as they call it here, which just sounds cooler.)

And here’s the follow-up act to my prawns (aka shrimp):

Roasted Cone Bay Barramundi

  • Roasted Cone Bay barramundi, crisp baby calamari, à la grecque dressing

Barramundi is a fish extremely common in Australia; it has a medium firmness and some oily richness but flakes nicely with some gentle fork-prodding. The dressing was a Greek-inspired Mediterranean medley with an undoubtedly tomato base. And note the nicely crisped skin on top that was like the most holy alliance of fish and chip.

The icing on the cake? Naturally, the wine I had to accompany both courses. I was doggedly determined to drink Aussie and something I never had before. Hello Riesling from Tasmania! How cool is that? The 2010 Freycinet drank just like its counterpart from the continent: dry and refreshing.

Now that’s what I call an auspicious beginning to my food and wine adventure in Australia! Bravo, Melbourne.

Seresin: Biodynamics on Display

Rows
I was very excited to visit Seresin Estate in the Marlborough region of New Zealand to get a fuller understanding of biodynamics. What is biodynamics? It’s an approach to agriculture, the earth, and the role of people on this planet that’s a blend of science, organic farming, sustainability, and (frankly) a bit of mysticism. As more and more wineries convert from interventionist and chemical-based agriculture to biodynamics, I’m reading a lot about it but haven’t seen it in practice. I know that some of the world’s top wines are made from vineyards farmed on biodynamic principles, so there must be something to it.

Colin at Seresin

My guide for this journey was Estate Manager Colin Ross. A perpetual source of enthusiasm, knowledge, passion, and good humor, I could not have asked for a better host to lead me through Seresin. We just toured around the vineyard while Colin showed me one of their piles of composted manure, as well as a Clydesdale that pulls a sprayer behind him full of natural rather than chemical treatments for the vines.

A big part of biodynamics is treating soil and vines with various preparations that might be based in a combination of composted elements and teas that put back vital nutrients in the soil, maintain a balanced ecosystem, and treat/prevent pests and disease. Rather than spray with chemicals to keep things out, biodynamics strives to work with natural ingredients that promote health and balance. Probably the biggest snickering and scoffing about biodynamics concerns the practice of burying cow horns filled with preparations; most critics hone in on that one point because it’s an easy target. Yeah, it sounds a little crazy, but it’s a small part of a whole system of stewardship of the land that has some tangible and concrete applications to all types of agriculture.

Cow Horns.

What really struck me is the distinction that Colin is an Estate Manager, not just a Vineyard Manager. Chickens, pigs, vegetables, and fruits are all over the place. (Staff meals must be pretty incredible here. Just check out all the garlic, shallots, and onions! Wowzers!)

Garlic

Seresin gets most of its compost form one source: Olga. This cow also provides a bit of milk for cheese-making. Yours truly even helped in the process, milking a cow for the first time:

Me Milking Olga

So after working my ass off, I was rewarded with some wine tasting. Special mention has to go to the Rachel and Leah Pinot Noirs, which were fabulously pure, balanced, and complex. Damn hard to spit while tasting. (So I opted to drink them.)

Seresin Pinot Noir

So while biodynamics has its detractors, it’s hard to argue with the results in the bottle. I’m willing to take that leap of faith.

View from Winery

Yealands Estate: Endless Views, Vines, and Wines

Rolling Hills
Spent a wonderful long afternoon tasting wines and touring the impressive property at Yealands, outside of Seddon in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. I was truly awestruck by the amount of vines planted here; the above view just hints at what’s going on. Driving into the winery, it’s an unbroken, endless vista of vineyards as far as the eye can see.

The Winery

This is your first view of the winery. What’s more impressive than the structure is what’s going on inside and out. “Sustainability” is buzz word thrown around a lot in the wine business, and business in general, but I’m not sure there is a winery with a bigger commitment than Yealands. I won’t bore you with details, but just illustrate a few small examples:

Yealands Trio

Wetlands to capture rainfall, 350kg-worth of bailed vine prunings burned for fuel, and sheep instead of tractors to “mow” between rows of vines. (Note that these are a special miniature breed of sheep that are not tall enough to reach the grapes!)

Once again I have been distracted by the scenery in New Zealand (don’t worry, more photos to follow), but allow me to focus on the wines. While I tried a myriad of bottles, I want to focus on my two favorites that also happened to be the most intriguing as well. (Honorable Mention goes to the Tempranillo.)

Duo of Yealands

The Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc was a revelation. Take everything you love about zesty, lively, thirst-slaking Sauvignon Blanc and add bubbles. I could drink an ocean of this stuff! This needs to make its way to the States, posthaste! Great Gewurztraminer, too. I couldn’t get over the gorgeous ginger aromas and flavors; light and fresh without that oily bluntness of some Gewurtz.

And now back to the views. Here’s a shot looking back at the winery:

Looking Back on the Winery

And when you turn around, it’s the ocean:

The Ocean

Now where’s my well-chilled bottle of Sparkling Sauv Blanc?!?

Yealands View

New Zealand: Stunning Views, Wines to Match

Te Whau Vineyard
Greetings from New Zealand! The guy who picked us up from the airport in Auckland has become like a God to me. First he recommends we have dinner at the O’Connell Street Bistro in downtown Auckland, which was charming, cozy, and delicious; a restaurant staffed by a friendly and quietly brilliant lot who steered me towards excellent wines from Hawkes Bay. (More on that meal and those wines to come.) Second he tells us to check out the wines on Waiheke Island. Huh? Sure I’ve heard of Marlborough and the Otago, but drawing a blank here. Since it involved a ferry ride to an island, how bad could it be? Turns out it was aces.

The first two wineries we visited had some wines that ranged from ho-hum to adequate. Fortunately, the best was saved for last: Te Whau Vineyard. Can you believe how gorgeous this place is?!? The top photo is a shot of the steep vineyards planted to Bordeaux varietals. The slope is so perilous that the grapes must be hand-harvested as, even in 2011, there is no machine that could do such a job. (Though if I had to turn my back on that view to pick grapes, I’m not sure how much progress I’d make.) And if you’re wondering about the netting, it keeps grape-decimating birds away from the fruit. Anyway, let’s go inside and check out the restaurant and tasting bar, shall we?

Always nice to pull up a stool and gaze out at this:

View from the Bar

Or maybe you’d rather sit down at a table with someone special. Hell, with this view, even someone not-so-special:

View from the Cafe

Get to the wines already! Sorry, distracted.

The Point

We tasted two vintages (06, 07) of Te Whau’s signature Bordeaux blend, The Point. It’s a Cab-heavy mix of Merlot, Cab Franc, and Malbec. Both were very, very good. The 2006 was a little riper and richer than the more finessed 2007. If I was served these wines blind I would have said Bordeaux. Though I would have been wrong (nooooooo!), I took solace in noting the surrounding evidence suggested that I was at least philosophically on the right track:

Mouton Fan

And big cheers to proprietor Tony Forsyth. He gave the most informative, educational, humorous, down-to-earth, and passionate talk about wine and Te Whau, specifically.

Tony Forsyth

From now on when someone mentions how so-and-so is “Living the Dream”, I am going to think of Tony. He’s probably sitting out on the patio, enjoying some food, some wine, and life right about now.

Restaurant Deck

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