Stag’s Leap Merlot

I’ve never particularly cared for the movie Sideways. It was well done and entertaining enough, I guess, but it never really resonated with me. The main character of Miles, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, was just not my kinda guy and as a beer nerd, he represented one of the foolish reasons why beer and wine shared some sort of supposed enmity. Or something. I never really got it, and real beer and/or wine enthusiasts are pretty comfortable with both worlds. Not being particularly knowledgeable in the world of wine (as has been frequently established during the tenure of this website, I’m the worst), I never really picked up on how insecure and ignorant the character was. It turns out that Miles isn’t nearly as much of an expert on wine as he wishes he was.

So his exhortation that he will not be “drinking any fucking Merlot!”, while apparently swaying the entire country from drinking Merlot for, like, 5 years, never really held much influence with me. It appears to be one of the key components in Bordeaux wines (which seem to be the most highly sought after wines in the world, commanding ridiculous prices, etc…) and wines like Pétrus (which is all Merlot) certainly didn’t suffer from Miles’ wanking. So when a buddy of mine recommended this particular wine to me, I was totally on board.

When I bought it, the guy at the store seemed impressed by my selection, noting that Stag’s Leap was a venerable producer. Looking into it now, it seems this particular wine is not made at their vineyards, but sourced from other Napa Valley producers. Whatever the case, it turned out well enough that I’d be curious to try more from them, and it was so different from the Sagrantino I had the night before that it made for a really nice contrast.

Stags Leap Merlot

Stag’s Leap Merlot – Pours a deep, dark red color, beautiful reddish purple highlights and some decent legs on it. Smell is fruit forward, lots of jammy blackberries and raspberries, maybe a hint of something herbal or spicy, a very nice oak and vanilla opens up after some time. The smell reminds me of something that I can’t quite place; it’s quite nice though. Taste has a sweet richness to it that is very nice, lots of fruit jam again, blackberries, raspberries, jammy, plenty of oak and vanilla character, hints of spice and low tannins in the finish. Mouthfeel is silky smooth, a little rich, full bodied, sweet. Not much in the way of dryness at all. Overall, this is pretty fantastic! Perhaps not as complex as last night’s Sagrantino, but it’s a very well balanced and delicious wine, and it’s also something that can work well on its own (i.e. doesn’t need to match with food and can be drunk by itself, though it does so just fine). I’m really glad I tried two wines that just happened to be so very different. I actually finished the whole bottle, which I think says something! A- though, again, what the hell do I know?

Wine Nerd Details: 13% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/14/15. Vintage: 2011.

Food Pairing: I actually spent much more time working on the pairing with this than I did with the Sagrantino (though I think I probably could have reversed the wines for each meal and done just as well). I made a pan seared duck breast and hot wet rice (aka risotto), and the Merlot did an admirable job matching with the meal, though as noted above, it worked just as well on its own (no need to pair this with food) and went down quite easy.

Beer Nerd Musings: Merlot barrels have been used for a few sour beers, notably BFM’s Abbaye De Saint Bon-Chien beers (which include a large variety of barrels). Merlot grapes were used in Cantillon’s Saint Lamvinus, along with Cabernet Franc, all aged in old Bordeaux barrels. Both European beers, but also both tremendous and well respected in their own right (seriously, just try to find a bottle of Saint Lamvinous for less than $50 in the states). I don’t know of any American beers that are specifically called out as using Merlot barrels, but I wouldn’t be surprised (still, I tend to see a lot more Cabernet or Chardonnay barrels than anything else). Obviously, many sour beers have a sweet, fruity vinous feel to them that matches the experience here.

So there you have it. Miles is full of shit, and that was kind of the point. That being said, I’d love to try one of the Cabernet Sauvignons from Stag’s Leap (alas, they seem prohibitively expensive)…

Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino

Non-beer drinking continues with a weekend full of wine, but since my wine knowledge is minimal, I looked around for recommendations. This particular selection has its origins in a Beer Lover’s Guide to Wine that was posted by a friend of mine right after last year’s Philly Beer Week. It seems to be a great overview of wine from a beery perspective. When he recommended a bunch of wines based on local beers, and one of the options was “Whatever’s on draft at Tired Hands”, I knew I had to check it out. The particular bottle recommended was, of course, no longer available, but when I spoke with the author, he mentioned that it was really about the grape: Sagrantino.

It’s a pretty rare grape, only cultivated in the village of Montefalco and its surrounding areas, and is little known outside of the region of Umbria in Central Italy. It seems to be a somewhat common component in blends, but wines like this particular bottle are produced exclusively from Sagrantino grapes and feature a DOCG status designation (basically noting that the wine is produced within a specified region using defined methods and meeting a certain degree of quality). The vineyards are located in a bowl surrounded by mountains, and the soil is primarily comprised of clay with limestone and sand. The weather tends towards extremes, heat in the summer and cold in the winter, but the hardy soil protects the grapes from extreme heat and the mountains provide a cool breeze at night. The grape fell into obscurity for a while, but has received a renewed interest in the past few decades.

Sagrantino is known as an exceedingly tannic, astringent red grape. For the uninitiated, tannins in wine are derived from the grape skin and provide a certain amount of bitterness and mouth-drying feeling (similar to how hops provide bitterness to beer, though in this case the tannins are built right into the grape itself). This generally yields a very dry wine with a full body that matches well with hearty meals.

Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino

2008 Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino – Pours a deep, dark red color, beautiful highlights when held up to light, moderate legs. Smells fantastic. Sweet, dark fruit, plums and the like are certainly present, but there’s something earthy and rustic that really sets it apart. Leather, tobacco, oak, maybe even chocolate. Taste starts with all those earthy notes, quickly movies into dark fruit territory, plums, cherries, blackberries and the like, then a wall of tannins hit in the dry finish along with the return of those earthy flavors. Mouthfeel is full bodied, extremely dry, and a little astringent. It goes fantastic with rich foods, but is a bit too much to handle on its own. Overall, this is indeed quite funky and the Tired Hands comparison is not entirely unwarranted. Rustic, funky, robust, and complex, I quite enjoyed it. A- I guess, though I don’t know where I get off rating wines. I’m the worst.

Wine Nerd Details: 14.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/13/15. Vintage: 2008.

Food Pairing: I didn’t quite realize how important the food pairing would be with this wine, but I did have two separate things that went reasonably well. The first was a stromboli with Italian sausage, green peppers, and basil (along with the typical red sauce and mozzarella) that was quite hearty and matched well with the wine. Later, I had some charcuterie of wild boar that actually worked well too (supposedly, wild boar is a regional pairing, so it seems I chose well on this particular occasion). From what I can understand, this wine would go very well with various grilled red meats, so that’s also an option.

Beer Nerd Musings: I don’t know of any beers aged in Sagrantino barrels, though I’d be really curious about the result of such an endeavor. What effect would the high tannins have on the finished beer? I could see these barrels working for both sours and non-sour beers (though given the relatively exclusive nature of the grape, I imagine access to the barrels would be somewhat limited – perhaps there’s some enterprising Italian brewers taking advantage of the situation). Obviously there’s a parallel between tannins and hops, though it’s not really a one to one comparison. Still, the earthy, funky components of this wine do really demonstrate just how extreme the differences in red wine can actually be (it wasn’t quite so clear until Saturday, when I opened a Merlot that was exceedingly different from this wine – more details on Thursday).

So there you have it, a very interesting wine. I’ve already snagged a couple bottles for my cellar and plan on aging them a while (supposedly the high tannin content is actually very conducive to this sort of thing).

Landmark Vineyards Grand Detour Pinot Noir 2011

My short yet Grand Detour (pun intended!) to the swanky world of wine continues with this well-regarded Sonoma Pinot Noir from a veteran producer. As mentioned yesterday, I know very little about wine, so to make this choice, I relied heavily on the fine folks over at PA Vine Company, who reviewed this a while back and clearly steered me in the right direction. Once again, please excuse the beer nerd simplifications I’m about to subject you to, I’m just not as familiar with this world as I am with some of the other detours I’ve been taking lately.

Pinot Noir is a red wine grape originally associated with the Burgundy region of France, though it’s obviously caught on elsewhere, notably in northern California and the Willamette Valley in Oregon (also known to beer geeks everywhere as home to some of the finest hop farms in the country). By all accounts, Pinot Noir is a finnicky variety, thriving in cooler climates, but sensitive to wind and frost and vulnerable to several viticultural issues. Wikipedia has a great quote from a famous winemaker saying “God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot noir.” Well, to be fair, it seems that the devil knows his stuff, as Pinot Noir is very popular. While it is difficult to cultivate, it can yield some of the “finest wines in the world.” I’m also told that it is highly reflective of its terroir, sometimes producing very different results depending on the geography and weather.

This particular bottle comes from the Sonoma Coast in northern California. It seems the proximity to the Pacific Ocean presents a favorable environment for Pinot Noir ripening. There website includes some notes on the fermentation process that made this beer dork raise his eyebrows:

All of the pinot noir grapes are hand-harvested into half ton bins and sorted in the vineyard. They are then re-sorted at the winery to ensure only the perfect clusters make it to the wine. The clusters are destemmed with 15% left whole cluster, which imparts a complex structure and spicy notes to the wine. The must is then cold soaked for five days in open top fermentators to enhance the color and flavors.

That last bit caught my eye, as it sounds like a spontaneous fermentation. Indeed, the label on the bottle sez that it is fermented “using only wild yeasts.” To the beer nerd, this screams Brettanomyces, something I know winemakers consider an anethema (cue stories of winemakers refusing to visit the Russian River brewery for fear that hardy Brett beasties will attach themselves to clothing and hitch a ride back to the winery, where they can infect the wine with reckless abandon). Of course, that’s not strictly the case, as it appears that some vinyards often try to cultivate more favorable wild yeasts, including “ambient Saccharomyces” and the like. I have actually wondered if there were any winemakers who dare to play with Brett. It seems that some beer brewers are able to tame it, but then, there is certainly a consistency issue with those beers.

This was another Chairman’s Selection, and while I wouldn’t consider it a cheap bottle (around $25), it certainly seems like a value when compared to the triple digit prices of Pinot Noirs from Burgundy. Still, given that I’m only really spending one week on this stuff, I figured it was worth a stretch. Let’s see if it paid off:

Landmark Grand Detour Pinot Noir 2011

Landmark Vineyards Grand Detour Pinot Noir 2011 – Pours a deep, dark ruby color with beautiful highlights. Smells of bright fruits, strawberries, cherries, and (naturally) grapes, maybe even some oak and something earthy way down there. Taste has a nice sweet jammyness to it, bright fruit up front, again with the strawberries and cherries, that oak and vanilla emerging in the middle, with something earthy, like tobacco, towards the finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, a nice creamy richness, not super dry, a little pleasant acidity, and some welcome alcohol heat. Overall, this is one damn fine wine, really happy I splurged on a bottle. Again, giving a rating at this point seems rather unwise, but hey, let’s say A-

Wine Nerd Details: 14.2% ABV bottled (750 ml corked, slightly higher than cellar temp). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/22/14. 2011 Vintage.

Food Pairing: I made one of my favorite winter dishes (a little late in the year, to be sure, but cut me some slack, it’s still in the 30s this week), Beef Bourguignon. I tend to not follow that recipe exactly (for instance, usually less beef, more mushrooms, and a few other proportions are off), but you absolutely need to do the overnight marination step, and for this particular batch, I used a cheap bottle of Pinot Noir I had laying around (it was a 2012 Cartlidge & Brown). I even made a Vine of the process, if you want to watch some hot wine on beef action. The dish turned out very well and the Cartlidge & Brown worked well (this may not be the best batch I’ve made, but it is a damn sight better than that time I used a Coppola Malbec, which was clearly not up to the task, though it’s not like it was inedible or anything). Anyway, it was a nice dish to pair with the Landmark Pinot Noir. 5 stars, would do again.

Beef Bourguignon

Beer Nerd Musings: While not the same thing, I sensed a very strong correlation with this Pinot Noir and oak-aged Flemish Reds. I kept thinking how this reminded me of various Rodenbach expressions (mostly the Grand Cru or Vintage versions, not so much with the Caractère Rouge), though obviously stuff like Red Poppy and Oude Tart are similar. I mused yesterday that sours might be a good entry point to good beer for wine lovers, and indeed, I think that the easily found Rodenbach Grand Cru would be an ideal choice for that purpose.

As you might expect, there’s no shortage of beers aged in Pinot Noir barrels. Like with the Chardonnay barrels mentioned yesterday, these often skew sour. Notably, my favorite Russian River sour, Supplication, is aged in old Pinot Noir barrels (along with cherries). Well worth seeking out (and if you’re looking for a pairing, it goes exceptionally well with BBQ brisket, ribs, and the like). To my mind, Pinot Noir seems to also work equally well for non-sour beers too. Deschutes likes to blend small proportions of Pinot Noir aged beer into The Abyss (a big RIS) and The Stoic. Local brewers from Dock Street used Chadds Ford Pinot Noir barrels for their barrel aged Barleywine and Imperial Stout, to great effect (they had a fantastic barrel character, but I should say that I wouldn’t have picked them out as wine barrel aged).

So that just about wraps up the wine I’ll be writing about, though there’s still a few weeks left in my little detour from beer, and who knows where that will take me.

Aviary Chardonnay 2012

This is a beer blog, but as explained recently, I’m going to be spending some time getting to know other beverages. So far, I’ve covered Bourbon and Port Wine, both of which I’m reasonably familiar with. What’s more, they are both reasonably approachable in terms of what they are and what is available. Last weekend, I pulled the cork on a few wines, which is probably the subject I’m least familiar with. It’s not like I’ve never had wine before or anything, but I’ve never really nerded out on wine the way I have on beer, and looking at it now, it’s a bit overwhelming.

To drastically simplify Bourbon, it’s all about the malt bill and age. Port Wine has elements of terroir and grape selection, but is also very much about the aging process. Wine appears to be all about the grapes and the terroir. As a beer guy, Bourbon and Port Wine are approachable, but Wine’s focus on terroir is somewhat new territory. To be sure, there is terroir involved in beer, most notably with hops. Once again I find myself reaching for a simplification, but if you plant the same hop in different places, you will get slightly different results, and the terroir matters too (a good year in the US Pacific Northwest may not be very good for UK or Czech Republic or New Zealand). Indeed, a couple years ago Victory planned an event called Terroir des Tettnangs, wherein they took their Braumeister Pils recipe and made five batches using German Tettnang hops. The only variable that changed in each of the five batches: the specific field in which the hops were grown. I had a couple of these and, sure, there were not dramatic differences, but there were differences. And one only need look at the US focus on citrus and pine hops, as compared to the more woodsy, earthy, herbal, spicy hops of Europe or the juicy tropical fruit notes in New Zealand and Australian hops (again, dramatic simplification here).

So the concept isn’t completely foreign to me, but it is still something of a mystery. What I know about this particular wine is that it comes from the Napa Valley (and it looks like Aviary contracted out to several vinyards for the grapes – the contract brewer of the wine world?) and uses the Chardonnay grape variety, which appears to be nearly ubiquitous. According to their website, 2012 was a good year weather-wise in Napa, and this was aged for 5 months on oak. I picked it mostly on a whim, only noting that it’s a current Chairman’s Selection in PA (I guess the PLCB does some things right, as these are apparently pretty good deals). I could certainly see myself getting into wine at some point, but given the depth and breadth of selection (all those grapes and geographies and vintages!) I think it would take me a while to get up to speed in terms of true nerdery. On the other hand, perhaps I don’t need to geek out on everything I’ve ever drank. For now, let’s drink some wine:

Aviary Chardonnay 2012

Aviary Chardonnay 2012 – Pours a very light, crystal clear yellow color. Smells of vinous fruit, pears, and the like, maybe some vanilla. Taste starts off sweet, quickly moves into a fruity realm, pears, banana, grapes and the like. I don’t get oak, though from what I understand, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, I do get a hint of vanilla here, which may very well be from that oak aging. Mouthfeel is light and refreshing, bright, maybe a hint of richness, but on the dryer side in the finish. Overall, it’s a nice, solid white wine (sez the beer guy). I probably shouldn’t be rating these things, but hey, let’s give it a B

Wine Nerd Details: 13.6% ABV bottled (750 ml corked and chilled). Drank out of a wine glass. 2012 vintage.

Food Pairing: The other thing people always talk about with wine is pairing it with food. I know the general rule of thumb is white wine with fish, red wine with meat, but I’m sure that’s dumbed down for the likes of me. Still, I drank this with a meal of sushi and it worked really well, with one possible exception. Nothing dramatically bad, mind you, but Eel (Unagi) was maybe not the perfect match. Eel comes grilled, and it’s a fatty, rich fish, you might even say meaty, and it comes drizzled with sweet and salty eel sauce, so I’d be curious to see how it matched with a red wine rather than the white (which got the job done just fine, though maybe the red would be better?)

Beer Nerd Musings: I’ve already gone off on beer terroir, so I’ll note that there are many beers aged in old Chardonnay barrels. Most of these tend to skew to the sour side, as barrels provide a good environment for the wild yeasts and bacterial beasties that are key to those beers. A great example that is usually available in the Philly area is Russian River’s Temptation, which is delicious. Some of Cisco’s Lady of the Woods occasionally makes its way down here as well, and that is well worth seeking out. There are some beers aged in Chardonnay barrels that don’t go the sour route, like Victory’s White Monkey, which is solid, but perhaps not really my thing.

One other thing I’ll mention is that it took me a while to get into sour beer, but on the other hand, I seem to have great luck blowing people’s minds with sour beer at beer club. I suspect sour beer would make a good entry point to the world of beer for wine drinkers.

So there you have it. Stay tuned for a look at a rather nice Pinot Noir (both in my glass and in my meal).