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Eroica Riesling: A Retrospective

eroica riesling washington wine

Had the opportunity to take part in tasting a vertical of Eroica Riesling at Wild Ginger. This collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Ernst Loosen from Germany is a benchmark for Washington Riesling. What started as a handshake deal between two winemakers has become a great partnership showcasing the potential for great Riesling in Washington State. We tasted the 2005, 2007, and 2010. I preferred the 07 as it (to me) had the most acidity. And thought it’s kind of a duh to say that Riesling is great with Asian cuisines, the wines really shifted to another level with the food. Especially noteworthy was the green papaya salad; it was put on this Earth to be enjoyed with Riesling!

The real show-stopper, however, was getting to try two vintages of the Eroica Single Berry Select. A TBA-style dessert wine of miniscule production, it’s a treat to try one let alone two vintages. (BTW, TBA is German for delicious, rare, nectar-like Riesling that’s picked berry-by-berry.) The 2001 (seen on the right in the above photo) was poured first and I have to say I was astonished by the color. It had already taken on a much deeper, darker color than the 2007 poured next to it. It was the Wine of the Day for me.

This special event was part of a larger, summer-long celebration of Riesling. Whether it’s from Washington or anywhere else in the world, I cannot recommend Riesling highly enough as one of the finest, most age-worthy, food-friendly wines.

Full Disclosure: This tasting and lunch was provided by the winery.

A Twist on Washington Red Wine: Comparing Cork and Screwcap

Hogue Genesis Merlot 2003
The cork versus screwcap debate gets most contentious when talking about how red wine will age when sealed under one closure versus the other. So it was a rare treat to be invited to attend a seminar hosted by Hogue Cellars to taste five bottles of 2003 Hogue Genesis Merlot, each sealed under a different closure. How, at 8 years of age, would each red wine fare? (Read my previous post to see how Hogue’s screwcap-sealed Riesling performed starting with the 2004 vintage.)

After sampling the red wine in glasses A-E we found out what kind of closure was used to seal the bottle:

  • A: Saranex* screwcap (with nitrogen dosing)
  • B: Saranex screwap (no nitrogen dosing)
  • C: Synthetic cork (low oxygen ingress)
  • D: Natural cork
  • E: Synthetic cork (moderate oxygen ingress)

*Saranex is a barrier film that is more oxygen-permeable than a tin liner.

My favorite? The Merlot in D, sealed with a natural cork. As Co Dinn, Director of Winemaking for The Hogue Cellars, stated, it showed “how well cork can do when you get a good one.” Even though we were discussing Hogue’s shift to 100% screwcap closures with their 2009 vintage, this was not an exercise in cork-bashing and Co’s respectful attitude and thoughtful critique of a variety of closures was much appreciated.

My least favorite was the Merlot in Glass A.  It just tasted flat. Which seemed to confirm Hogue’s decision not put any nitrogen in the headspace (area between wine and closure). The red wine needs that extra oxygen for development of secondary characteristics over time. As far as B, C, and E, they all had qualities I enjoyed and good balance between tannin and fruit; D and A just happened to stand out for reasons good and not-so-good, respectively.

Rather than looking at this issue as a battle between cork and screwcap, I found myself most intrigued about the research that Hogue did into finding the right screwcap and accounting for variables (such as sulfur level, addition or omission of nitrogen, and measuring oxygen ingress) to fine-tune the process to enable a red wine to age properly. If you really want to nerd out, there is much more information about Hogue’s screwcap study. (Including spider graphs! Which just sound cool.)

So how do you feel about putting reds sealed with a screwcap in your cellar?

A Hogue Riesling Vertical

Hogue Riesling Vertical
When you get a chance to taste a vertical of wine, normally images of something very fancy-pants, precious, and expensive come to mind. But at Hogue’s presentation/tasting detailing the results of a new study about alternate closures (and switch to 100% screwcaps starting with the 2009 vintage), their humble Riesling shined. We sampled a vertical from 2004-2009, all sealed under screwcap. The 2004 was still lively-tasting, showing some secondary characteristics and a little bit of a funky, earthy finish; one to guzzle-up in the near future. (Maybe I’m splitting hairs a bit about the finish; keep in mind this is a sub-$10 Riesling. The 05 is still going strong; I don’t think it’s even plateaued yet.) All the Rieslings had good balance between sweetness and acidity; much more refreshing than cloying. This is the second time I’ve taken part in this tasting and I’ve walked away with the same thought: “Why am I not stashing away a case (or more) for a few years?”

Director of Winemaking Co Dinn gave us an interesting background in all the trials and tests to determine how wine ages when sealed under screwcap. This was especially daunting as, he explained, “People who make screwcaps are capmakers, not winemakers.” Co’s team at Hogue had to do a lot of research into how the wine in the bottle was affected by oxygen transfer. It was also great to have Gary Hogue in attendance. He spoke of his farming background, and how when his family went into the wine business he “couldn’t even pronounce Gewurztraminer.” Gary also talked about the reason the company started experimenting with alternate closures: “When you have your name on a product and there is a problem, you’re embarrassed.”

After the round of Rieslings we got into the reds. Five glasses of 2003 Genesis Merlot–each from a bottle sealed with a different closure–were set in front of us. We would find out after trying the lot which was which. Now this was really interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I think it deserves a separate  post. (Stay tuned.)

So what’s your take on wines sealed with a screwcap?

Long Shadows Riesling Forever

Poet's Leap
The red wines produced by Long Shadows, an innovative program started by Allen Shoup, brings together some of the heaviest-hitting names in winemaking from all over the world to produce wines made with Washington grapes. As Gilles Nicault, Director of Winemaking and Viticulture (who was our guest for a recent tasting of Long Shadow’s releases) explained, visiting winemakers “come to Washington and bring their savoir-faire.”

While the reds seem to get the lion’s share of the attention, I was truly impressed with the quality of the Rieslings. The Long Shadow’s “Poet’s Leap” is a collaboration with Armand Diel of Germany’s Schlossgut Diel. Its refreshing qualities and nice, zippy acidity on the finish were so pleasing. The 2009 is the best version of this Riesling I’ve tasted. A definite porch-pounder for those hot summer months. Grab some sushi or some spicy Asian fare. (Then call me; I’ll be right over.)

The real stunner, however, was the 2008 Botrytis Riesling, a dessert wine. Botrytis is often called “Noble Rot” as grapes affected by it make arguably the world’s most famous dessert wine, Sauternes. All other kinds of rot, however, just make a wine that is…rotten. Botrytis helps concentrate the juice and flavor of the grapes so that by the time you harvest it, you get a juice more akin to nectar. As Gilles commented, the sugar levels are so high for this wine that when it gets into the tank it “ferments like maple syrup.” In some logic-defying manner, while there is an insane amount of sugar crammed into every slender bottle, it’s not cloyingly sweet. (Like, for example, a Jolly Rancher.) There is enough acidity on the finish (the looooong finish) to provide a bit of refreshment. Add this to gorgeous aromatics and you have a dessert wine that is one to sip, savor, and repeat. Just get some blue cheese and some thin slices of apple. (And, seriously, get a hold of me via phone, fax, text, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, carrier pigeon, whatevs. I will totes be there.)

Here’s my real-time reaction to the Botrytis Riesling on Twitter:
http://twitter.com/#!/Esquin/status/65964123455881216

Apparently I wasn’t the only one impressed; Annie, a Washington wine enthusiast (to put it mildly) who was also attending our Long Shadows seminar, responded:

http://twitter.com/#!/BlackPearlSEA/status/65978357514379265

So enjoy those Long Shadows reds, but don’t sleep on the Rieslings!

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?

Drinking Local: Whidbey Island Winery

cochon whidbey 197
There is an unbridled enthusiasm here in Seattle and beyond for local eating and drinking. If you’re living in these parts and really want to drink local, look no further than the wines made from grapes grown right on Puget Sound at Whidbey Island Winery. Though the grapes may have unfamiliar names (Sigerrebe, Madeline Angevine, Madeline Sylvaner, anybody?) the wines are light, refreshing, and full of charm. A good place to start is with the Island White, a blend of Madeleine Sylvaner and Madeleine Angevine. The Siegerrebe offers a little more complexity and richness. And though both of these whites have a touch of residual sugar, they are thirst-quenching and not cloying. If you’re looking for something completely dry, check out the Madeline Angevine; it’s the liveliest of the bunch. This trio of whites would all go great with seafood and spicy fare. Try steaming up some local Penn Cove Mussels with Madeline Angevine.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that the winery makes a full compliment of reds from grapes brought in from Eastern Washington; stylistically they are light on oak influence and moderate in alcohol. The Italian varietals are especially promising; don’t miss out on the Dolcetto. And the unfortunately named Lemberger is a must for any Pinot Noir fan; serve it blind and you will win converts. I also got a tank sample of a rosé made from Lemberger and Sangiovese (!) that was dry and delicious.

Not only are the wines charming, but the location is idyllic and contemplative. Let’s take a tour!

Here’s the winery:

whidbey 216

The vineyards:

Whidbey Island Winery Vineyards

The entrance gate to the vineyards:

cochon whidbey 215

Some pruning work:

Pruning

Winemaker Greg and Assistant Winemaker Leah posing for the camera:

cochon whidbey 239

Future bottlings of Merlot and Roussanne:

Barrel and Tank

Winery Cat Sangiovese scares the hell out of poor Dioggi:

Winery Cat and Dog

Good use of leftover wine barrels:

whidbey 228

So have you had any Puget Sound whites before? Check out the information for a whole host of wineries courtesy of the Puget Sound Wine Growers Association.

Cochon 555 Seattle: Wine and Pork Galore

Buty and Bacon

What can I say about Cochon 555 in Seattle? A lot. But I’ll let the photos do most of the talking. Not only was there Buty and bacon, but also delicious wines from K Vintners, Domaine Serene, and Syncline:

Cochon 555 Wines

Charles Smith of K Vintners was on hand to pour the Phil Lane Syrah:

cochon 555 032

The hacksaw came out for a butchering demo courtesy of Tracy Smaciarz from Heritage Meats:

cochon 555 084

The menu of Spinasse and Chef Jason Stratton plating:

Spinasse at Cochon 555 Seattle

Here’s the skin and ear salad with cherry bomb chiles:

cochon 555 157

The trio of offerings from Lark:

Lark Trio of Pork

And here’s what they looked like. Are you hungry yet?

Lark

There was palate-cleansing beer courtesy of Charles Finkel from Pike Brewing. (Where do I get one of those beer-dispensing backpacks?)

cochon 555 137

Cafe Juanita had a menu both instructive and delicious:

Cafe Juanita

Of course there was dessert:

cochon 555 144

How did Ethan Stowell color his ravioli dough? The secret was pig blood.

Ethan Stowell Ravioli

Joule had wonderful sauces to accompany their roasted pork. I had the one on the left with serrano chiles and fish sauce. (At least that’s what I thought it was. Regardless, it was fantastic.)

Array of Sauces by Joule/Revel

Thanks for being awesome, Cochon 555. See you next year?

Cuts of Pork

Full disclosure: Cochon 555 provided me with a ticket to this event.

Mark Ryan Winery: Black and White Photo Love

1928 Indian Scout

While Mark and I sure had fun eating pizza, drinking beer, and talking wine at Big Mario’s, there was a lack of tasting wine. So on a recent trip out to Woodinville I was determined to rectify that situation.

First, a little bad news:

Last Vintage

Noooooooooo! I knew this was coming, but seeing that 2009 will be the last vintage of Chardonnay was a serious bummer; it was probably my favorite from Washington. I loved how the oak provided richness and structure, without turning the wine into a liquid 2×4.

Tasting at Mark Ryan

Rolled through an impressive lineup post-Chardonnay trauma. I have a similar, though not as fan-boy, fondness for the Viognier for the relatively light-handed style of production. (Brief rant: too much domestic Viognier just tastes like oaked-up, super-heavy, oily Chardonnay. And nothing stateside comes close to Condrieu, the supreme ruler of aromatically sumptuous Viognier.) My favorite reds were the accesible-now 2008 Dissident (a Columbia Valley Cab/Syrah/Merlot blend) and the 2007 Water Witch (a Klipsun Vineyard Cab/Merlot blend).

Dead Horse Club

I was then unfairly teased by these wooden six-packs containing wines only for the lucky few members of the Dead Horse Club. (Sounds like a biker gang name or something.) Contact the winery if you want to get on the waiting list.

1928 Indian Scout

And here’s a ubiquitous shot of me posing in front of this ultra-cool 1928 Indian Scout. Don’t worry Mark, I didn’t touch it. Nor did I spill any wine on it. (None that didn’t wipe up pretty easily.)

Special thanks to Joan for being a lovely and gracious host at the tasting room.

Woodinville Wine Tasting: Pictures of Ross Andrew (and Bud Light)

Ross Andrew Lineup

What a pleasure to taste through a lineup of very understated* wines from Ross Andrew Mickel. Though only slightly visible on the left in the above photo, I have designated porch-pounding status upon the 2009 Pinot Gris. More Pinot Grigio (light, fresh, gulpable) than Pinot Gris (oily, heavy), it’s a Washington wine that should be on hand, and well-chilled, in your residence at all times.

Other charming touches at Ross Andrew? I enjoy the unwavering enthusiasm for the consumption of large bottles, especially when full of the excellent 2008 Boushey Syrah. There is a great program in place to encourage drinking those big bottles rather than tucking them away in some deep, dark cellar never to see the light of day or to fill a glass:

Ross Andrew Growler

Oh, and maybe you would be concerned how to safely pour such a giant bottle? On display is a custom-made (though not for sale) apparatus of a certain genius. Not only an engineering feat, and an example of DIY ingenuity, this invention uses leftover wine barrel parts for its construction. You can see how the wine seeps into the staves: functional and educational!

Ross Andrew Wooden Pourer

Wait, I haven’t explained the Bud Light! If you recall a scorcher of a summer a few years back, a birthday party for one of Ross’s friends not only demanded well-chilled Meadow, but light beer as well. And, naturally, like all winemakers, Ross realizes that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine. Therefore, a photograph to immortalize that event and a reminder to all who pass through the door that the people who make and drink wine don’t have to be so serious.

How To Stay Cool In Woodinville

So now that I’ve crossed Ross Andrew off my list, where next in Woodinville?

*I must give credit to Kirsten at the tasting room for providing me with the one word that I though perfectly and thoughtfully summed up the wines.

Pizza, Beer, and Mark Ryan Winery

Mark McNeilly at Big Mario's
Mark McNeilly at Big Mario's. He's smiling because the pizza was so good.

I sat down with Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery at Big Mario’s Pizza to ask him how he went from making wine in a garage in Greenwood to half of his parent’s two-car garage to having his own winery in Woodinville. (And frankly, we’re always–always–looking for an excuse to go to Big Mario’s. And Mark’s conference room in the winery was already booked.)

Rather than going the UC-Davis enology route to winemaking (though he did eventually take a class at the famed school), Mark’s wine education began in restaurants. “Waiting tables led me to be exposed to wine. I got into selling wine because I wanted to make it.” With no experience at all, Mark picked up a kit and took a stab at making a white wine. The next thing he knew, through connections, chance, and fate, he had two tons of Ciel du Cheval fruit to work with. Able to rely on relationships with winemakers cultivated through working for a local distributor, and with Jim Holmes (vineyard owner) on speed dial, Mark made his first vintage. There is a lot of self-deprecation going on as Mark describes the entire process, but, on the serious side, what I gleaned from his story is that sometimes you have to learn by doing and not be afraid to make mistakes (on the small scale). It helped that Mark “read a lot and asked questions.”

Like many Washington winemakers, he started out making exclusively reds and later added whites to his roster. I asked him what the challenges of making whites versus reds were, and he told me that “making wines at other people’s places make me realize I needed my own equipment.” Whites require “more control” as people expect them to be “aesthetically perfect” in appearance, aroma, and flavor. In other words, people are less forgiving of whites. He also gave credit to the work of Enologist Erica Orr in making his whites especially successful. (The 2009 Chardonnay is an Esquin staff favorite and, trust me, we don’t often agree on wines.)

I wanted to know more about the idea behind the Board Track Racer The Vincent, a 2008 Columbia Valley Cab/Syrah blend. Mark told me that wines like his have become “special occasion wines” and he wanted to be able to offer something in a price range that could be enjoyed on a more regular basis. (It’s around twenty bucks. And look for a Board Track Racer white, a Chardonnay/Viognier blend, coming in the future.)

Probably my favorite of his reds, the Crazy Mary, is made from Mourvedre so I thought I would ask if he’s playing around with any other grapes that aren’t among the heavy-hitters in Washington. While no new single-varietal wines are on the current docket of releases, Mark added some Malbec to the new vintage of Dead Horse. It “enhanced the non-fruit side” of the wine, which he thinks is a great attribute. The structure it adds prevents his reds from becoming what he calls “fruit cocktail wines.” (I am going to adopt this phrase to describe all syrupy reds that are overly sweet with oak; I love it.)

Big Mario's Pizza
Sausage, Pepperoni, and Mushrooms please.

Oh, and one last important question. Which of his wines would go best with our pepperoni, sausage, and mushroom pizza? The 2008 Lost Soul Syrah, because, like our pizza, it’s “meaty.”

It’s hard not to root for a guy like Mark who not only makes great wines but also is genuine, funny, and enjoys reminiscing about the late 80’s and early 90’s (my salad days as well) while the music of the era streams over Big Mario’s sound system.  (So it’s not surprising he named a wine after the Afghan Whigs album, Black Love. Dude, you’ve got to send Greg Dulli a bottle!)

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Full disclosure: Mark picked up the tab for lunch.

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