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Wine Reviews: ICAN wines in a can

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I have absolutely nothing in principle against wine in cans, especially white wines and rosés that need to be refrigerated. There’s no reason not to put such wines in cans. Aluminum cans are recyclable; they reduce your carbon footprint; they help, in a small way, to heal our planet. Only snobs would object to a good wine just because it’s in a can, instead of a bottle.

I’ve always been in favor of alternative packaging. I remember when screwtops were introduced. Tangent, a Central Coast producer, was one of the early adapters, and I loved their white wines. I was glad to see an important winery making the argument for alternative closures, and I was glad when ICAN Wines asked me to review two of their wines in 375 ml. aluminum cans.

ICAN is from Mercer Family Vineyards, in the Horse Heaven Hills of Washington State. I’ve never had any of their wines (since California was my bailiwick), but I looked their scores up on Wine Enthusiast’s website, and saw that the Washington reviewer has consistently given Mercer scores in the mid- to high Eighties, which, considering their price, isn’t bad.

ICAN’s wines, according to their website, also are sourced from Horse Heaven Hills vineyards. I’ve traveled through that area: located midway between Portland, on the coast, and Walla Walla, it’s part of the huge Columbia Valley appellation, and received its own AVA status in 2005. It’s home to some very prestigious wineries, including Quilceda Creek.

ICAN sent me two wines, a Chardonnay and a Rosé. Here are my reviews. I wanted to like the wines more than I did, unfortunately. If Mercer can boost the quality of these wines, they’d really have something!

ICAN Non-Vintage Chardonnay (Washington State); $5.95/375 ml. The winery chooses to list the appellation as “Washington State,” despite their assertion that the grapes are from Horse Heaven Hills. That’s cool: few people have heard of Horse Heaven Hills, and everyone’s heard of Washington State, so I get it: but if wineries in these smaller AVAs don’t promote them, the public will continue to be ignorant of them.

Anyhow, as for the wine, it’s pretty bland. Vaguely fruity, it shows candied pineapple and peach flavors that thin out on a watery finish. It’ll do in a pinch, but I can’t really say it’s a good value, since the 750 ml. equivalent is nearly $12. You can do better at that price. Score: 83 points.

ICAN Non-Vintage Rosé (Washington State); $5.95/375 ml. Like the Chardonnay, the can bears a Washington State appellation. It has a very pale, partridge-eye color. There’s not much of an aroma. Taste-wise, there are strawberry and orange Lifesaver flavors, with a nice spiciness, and a refreshing bite of acidity. The finish is dry, but watery. The wine is clean, but simple. As with the Chardonnay, I wish the price was lower. Score: 84 points.


New Wine Reviews: Cameron Hughes

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I don’t know if Cameron Hughes invented his California business model, which is to buy wine from other wineries who, for one reason or another, need to get rid of it for immediate income. Then Cameron slaps his own label on it, gives it a Lot number, does some publicity, and sells it, at a fraction of the original purported price. (Wineries, including some very famous, expensive ones, get rid of unwanted inventory more frequently than the public is aware of; this is perhaps the industry’s, or at least Napa Valley’s, most closely-guarded secret.) But if Cameron didn’t invent this model, he perfected it and gave it a face; and I have to assume it, and he, are doing well.

I remember, shortly after he launched, Cameron invited me for lunch here in Oakland (at Oliveto), where, over several glasses of wine, he explained his business model. I was impressed. He never reveals which wineries the wines are from, but he hints at top vineyards and famous wineries. Although I never had any reason to doubt this, as a journalist, it bothered me: the real source of the wines was unsubstantiated, so we’re left to take Cameron’s word for it. That left the wines to speak for themselves—and I must say they often spoke eloquently. As I was to find out over the years, Cameron Hughes’ wines could be amazing values.

The winery recently sent me some new releases for review, which I’m happy to share with you.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 683 Zinfandel (Sierra Foothills): $10. The Sierra Foothills, a vast swath of eastern California running down from the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of the great growing regions for Zinfandel. With very hot summer days, the grapes get ripe, but cool nights, from downdrafts off the snow-clad peaks, preserve vital acidity. You’re always going to get fairly high alcohol in a Foothills Zin; this one’s 15%, which not only results in an enormously fruity wine but also gives it some heat. Raspberries, cherries, roasted coffee, raisins, vanilla and a fabulous range of spices—what a delicious Zin. Yet it’s not at all heavy; you can almost read through the ruby translucence. And the tannins are soft and silky. Lots of charm here, and lots of Zinny character. I think of all sorts of foods: barbecue, baked ham, roast lamb, pasta in a creamy tomato sauce, pizza, broiled chicken—the possibilities are endless. This is easily the best of the new Cameron Hughes releases. (Note: The winery paperwork said the price is $10, but on the website it’s $12. Either way, an amazing value!) Score: 93 points.

Cameron Hughes 2018 Lot 673 2018 Russian River Valley ($15). Hits all the right notes for a Russian River Pinot Noir: brilliant, translucent ruby color, bright aromas of strawberries and mushrooms, mouthwatering acidity and a dry, spicy finish. Although the flavors could be more concentrated—the wine is a little on the light side—they’re pleasant enough. It’s not a blockbuster, but elegant and clean. I’d drink this wine with lamb above all other meats, especially if you can sneak some bacon in there. Score: 90 points.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 689 Chardonnay (Sonoma Valley); $13. This Chard plays it right down the middle, appealing to the American palate with tropical fruit and oak flavors, wrapped in a creamy texture. It’s simple, but satisfying in a California Chard way. Will drink nicely with almost anything; if it were up to me, it would be cracked crab and sourdough, with a great EVOO. Score: 88 points.

Cameron Hughes 2016 Lot 686 Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $15. This is textbook Alexander Valley Cab, based on everything I’ve studied and known for 40 years. The tannins are soft and sweetly mellow, making for easy drinking now. The acidity is just fine, providing a pleasant lift to the fruit. And the flavors! Oodles of ripe, sweet summer cherries and blackberries, mouth-tingling spices, a touch of herbaceousness, and a kiss of smoky oak. You don’t want to put bottle age on this lovely wine, you want to pop the cork and drink it. Barbecued steak while the hot weather is here is a natural. By winter, it’ll make a fine companion to beef stew or short ribs. Score: 88 points.

Cameron Hughes 2017 Lot 674 Field Blend Syrah-Petite Sirah (Mendocino County); $13. Rugged and simple, this old-style wine has bigtime flavors of raspberries, beef teriyaki, sweet tobacco and baking spices. It’s tannic, but the tannins are smooth and silky, making it easy to drink now. I’d have this fairly rustic wine with just about anything calling for a dry, full-bodied, fruity red where the food, not the wine, is the star. Score: 87 points.

Cameron Hughes 2015 Lot 641 “Paicines” Merlot (Central Coast); $10. The Paicines Hills are in San Benito County, northeast of the Salinas Valley, and warmer due to the inland location. The grapes certainly got ripe; the wine brims with the silky essence of Beaujolais-like black cherries. Deliciousness goes a long way, especially in such an affordable wine, and it really is easy to drink and enjoy with simple fare: a cheeseburger, beef or pork tacos or, for something more offbeat, Chinese restaurant Peking duck. Two other things stand out for me: the overall softness, a result of melted tannins and low acidity, and an aged quality. Even though the wine is only 4 years old, the fruit is maturing, picking up secondary dried fruit features. For ten bucks, this is a good deal. Score: 86 points.


New wine reviews: En Garde

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I’ve always liked the wines of En Garde, which I believe are nearly as good as anyone else’s in Napa Valley, although En Garde’s name isn’t as well known. If I have a quibble—and it’s not just with En Garde, it’s with Napa Cabernet in general—it’s that there’s a sameness across the board. At these ripeness levels, with high alcohol and extensive new oak, terroir tends to be obliterated. There is a certain Napa Valley Cabernet description that can be applied to almost all of them, regardless of where they’re from: east or west, north or south. The best, which include En Garde, tend to be from the mountains, but wineries like Screaming Eagle and even Dominus and Mondavi Tokalon prove that’s not a hard rule. One note: I’ve pointed out before that I don’t understand why En Garde has so many different Cabs under their label. It’s confusing for the consumer, and there’s no reason I can see why they don’t stick to a regular and a reserve. But hey, that’s just me. As for En Garde’s current prices, caveat emptor.

En Garde 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $200. It’s always exciting to taste an older wine, and particularly one you reviewed when it was younger, as I did this wine. At the time, I wrote “It screams Age me more!” The tannins then were “hard-edged”; I suggested drinking it into the 2020s. Well now, here we are, less than a year short of 2020, and what do we have? The tannins are still evident: vigorous, firm and, yes, hard-edged. The fruit, then ripe in blackberries, is still enormous, a black hole of cassis and currants. The oak—which nearly dominated the wine back then (60% new French for 28 months) remains aggressive. But its evolution is clear. There’s more orange around the meniscus, or rim. The fruit is more mature, going from freshly picked to slightly stewed. The alcohol (14.9%) is more evident. The wine, in other words, is aging, a grande dame who refuses to admit to the ravages of time. Where does it go from here? Downhill. I would drink this now. If you do open the bottle, consume it all; it won’t last after the air hits it. Score: 93.

En Garde 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $300. I had high expectations for this wine. After all, it’s En Garde’s most expensive, and when I initially reviewed it, in 2014, I gave it a pretty high 95 points. (Incidentally, the price then was “only” $118!) I wrote that it was drinkable now, but “try giving it six more years to really show its stuff.” Well, here we are, not quite six years later but close, and what do we have? The aroma is delightful, that of an aged (but not tertiary) Cabernet Sauvignon, and from Napa Valley at that. The fruit is aging, too, with dried currant and blackberry tapenade notes, with still-plentiful toasted oak and a savory herbal edge. As for the tannins, they’re as mellow as a velvet glove. The alcohol—14.9%–makes it a little hot, and you’ll want to decant it, to judge by the deposit of sediment at the bottom of the glass. It’s better than the regular 2007, not by much, and not enough to justify the price, but still, it’s a flashy bottle to drink now. And, as with the 2007 regular, you don’t want to leave any of it in the bottle overnight (unless you have some sort of protection against the air), because it will deteriorate rapidly. Score: 95.

En Garde 2015 Adamus Proprietary Red Wine (Diamond Mountain); $100. In certain past vintages Adamus had a Cabernet Sauvignon designation, but this year the blend is only 45% Cabernet, with the rest comprised of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, so it doesn’t qualify for varietal status. Nevertheless, the Cabernet Sauvignon dominates, as it always does, offering powerful waves of blackberries and black currants. The other varieties contribute delicious complexity: ripe cherry pie filling, red licorice, and a wonderful green olive tapenade richness. Meanwhile, aging in 50% new French oak for 27 months brings a lot of smoky vanilla and barrel spice, but the underlying wine is so powerful, it easily handles all that wood. As usual, Adamus is absolutely delicious from the get-go. Sourced from the Sori Bricco (“sunny hillside” in Italian) Vineyard, at an altitude of 2,000 feet, it shows Diamond Mountain’s tannins; in years past they used to be hard as nails, requiring aging, but modern methods make them soft, intricate and sweet. I would drink this wine now and over the next six years. Score: 92.

En Garde 2015 Le Bijou du Roi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Diamond Mountain); $120. From the Sori Bricco Vineyard, this is almost entirely Cabernet Sauvignon, with a half-percent of Cab Franc. It is the essence of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a deep dive into black currants and cassis. Inky black in color, it’s a young, tannic wine; the tannins give it astringency. But the fruit is so powerful, it smashes right through, dominating the palate with richness. There’s a ton of new oak but, of course, these gigantic Cabs—from Napa or Bordeaux–easily handle it. Flashy and opulent, it’s high in alcohol (15.5%), with perhaps a little volatile acidity. It might age for a decade; it might not. To be on the safe side, drink now and through 2023. Score: 92.

En Garde 2015 Touché Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $180. This doesn’t have a Diamond Mountain appellation because the grapes come from there as well as Mount Veeder and, across the valley floor, Howell Mountain. It’s mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, with a splash of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and has been heavily oaked: 100% new French barrels for 27 months. I have tended to give Touché high scores in the past because I love the decadent lusciousness that is balanced with fine acidity and tannins; and so it is again with this 2015. The wine is what the world expects from Napa Cabernet: enormous in fruit, spice, herb and oak complexity. Few wines in history can have been this spectacular, although to be fair, it is somewhat wounded by a surfeit of richness. I would have loved to taste this blind against, say, Shafer Hillside Select or Colgin. The alcohol is high, 15.6%, but it’s not hot, just comforting and rich. I don’t think the wine shows aging potential, but for sheer grandeur, it’s hard to beat. Score: 93.

En Garde 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County); $65. It’s not clear why En Garde chooses to make a Sonoma County Cabernet, since they’re such a Napa Valley-Diamond Mountain specialist. Maybe it’s to have something under $100 to sell. Whatever, this very good wine shows the En Garde signature: ripe, opulent fruit, plenty of oak, refined tannins and a voluptuous mouthfeel that makes it instantly ready to drink. The flavors veer towards sweet summer blackberries and cassis, with a mocha-choca richness and savory spiciness. An elegant, delicious Cabernet of style and substance. Score: 90.


Reviews: Two Pinot Noirs from Perfusion

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I first came across Perfusion’s wines a couple years ago through a friend, and was fascinated by where the grapes were grown. The official appellation is San Francisco Bay, a huge appellation (1.5 million acres), about seven times bigger than Napa Valley. So big is this growing region, which extends from Santa Cruz County in the south to Contra Costa County in the north (and includes Silicon Valley and San Francisco) that it is effectively meaningless.

But Perfusion’s owner, vascular surgeon John Bry, had little choice but to use this fatuous appellation on the label since he had few other options. The grapes actually hail from 200-250 feet in the hills above the city of Richmond, a Bayside working-class community north of Berkeley, not known for vineyards. Bry sources his grapes from the area known as Wildcat Canyon. The climate is cool-coastal, similar, I think, to the Carneros, which makes it ideal for Pinot Noir.

Perfusion 2017 Pinot Noir (San Francisco Bay). The vintage was not great, by California standards; the long drought finally broke, but there were early heat waves, and, of course, lots of smoke from the horrible fires. But I detect no smoke taint in this wine. On the contrary, clean, ripe aromas and flavors, of the kind you’d expect from cool-climate Northern California Pinot Noir: raspberries and cherries, exotic baking spices, a hint of bacon, and smoky-rich vanilla from oak barrels; and a silky texture.

The wine is modest in alcohol (14.2%), and thoroughly dry. There are no obvious defects. The acidity is pronounced; it reminds me of certain Volnays, which gives the fruit a tartness that begs for rich food: steak especially, of if you’re not into meat, a rich, buttery wild mushroom risotto. I don’t think there’s ageability here, so I would pop the cork and drink up over the next three years. Score: 91.

Perfusion 2018 Pinot Noir (San Francisco Bay). The word “tight” is sometimes used to describe a very young wine, recently bottled. It means that everything about the wine—its aroma and flavor, the way it feels in the mouth—is occluded: shut tight, wrapped up, like a painting concealed in bubble wrap. The critic’s job is to discern past, or through, that concealment and see what’s really going on. The wine’s flavors are what I’ve come to expect from Perfusion: concentrated and intense in raspberries and cherries, with a touch of bacon, cola and smoky complexity from oak barrels. The wine seems balanced, with brisk, almost tingly acidity and fine, lacy tannins. The alcohol, at 14.3%, is modest: there’s no heat, just a gentle warmth. A very nice wine, super-drinkable with lots of charm, on a par with the 2017. I’d give it until early 2020 to begin to open up, and it should then drink well through 2024. Score: 91.


New Reviews: Quady

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Back in the day I used to taste a lot of Quady. It’s been a few years now, and it’s good to see they’re right on course. Quady got their start in the late 1970s when they began specializing in the fairly arcane area of sweet dessert wines. They’re still at it. I’ve always had a soft spot for underdog wineries, of which Quady is certainly one: Americans aren’t drinking many dessert wines these days, for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, Quady persists, and more power to them. These are wonderful wines; the whites in particular are very low in alcohol and delicious.

NOTE ON THE 3 ELECTRA MOSCATOS: I enjoyed these on their own, but I also tried adding some sliced ripe strawberries, and some good sparkling water, along with a couple ice cubes. Very refreshing!

Quady 2018 Red Electra Moscato (California); $15. This is the red version of Quady’s Electra Moscato, which includes the white and rosé bottlings. It’s just as sweet as the others, with residual sugar of 17.6%. The color is ruby-garnet, and translucent. Like its siblings, it’s utterly delicious, with cherry, raspberry, fig, vanilla cream and white pepper, accompanied by a bit of fizziness. Very high acidity provides a cleansing finish. A great success at this price. I have to say how much I enjoy all three of these Moscatos; they’re super-drinkable, at low alcohol (5.5%). Score: 92 points.

Quady 2018 Electra Moscato (California); $15. This white wine pours clear and straw yellow. It looks dry—but it isn’t! One sniff tells you it’s a sweetie. Honey, orange blossom, apricot preserve and a subtle clover-leaf aroma make you want to taste it immediately. It is sweet enough to drink as a dessert wine with, say, vanilla butter cookies, or even on its own. The sweetness is balanced with refreshing acidity (the total acidity is a high 9.2). All in all, a bright, clean, satisfying wine whose low alcohol—a mere 4.5%–may inspire you to drink a lot of it. It’s also just a little fizzy. Food-wise, I like the winery’s recommendations, which range from fruit salad to Indian food to spicy Asian. I’ll give this wine 91 points for its sheer likeability.

Quady 2018 Electra Moscato Rose (California); $15. Same  price as the white Electra Moscato, a percent higher in alcohol, but still, at a mere 5.5%, pretty low. The blush color is a pretty salmon-pink. It’s a bit sweeter, but the main difference is the range of flavors: deeper, fruitier, more flowery, more honeyed. With lower acidity than its white sister, it’s also more mellow. Both wines are just fine. Tremendously versatile at the table, and a perfect warm-weather sipper. Tasting this rosé on a warm summer day, I think of beaches, pools, gardens. I think of watermelon, ham, fried chicken, pot stickers, Chinese roast pork, sushi, prosciutto-wrapped melon, cheesecake, vanilla ice cream, butter cookies. Score: 91.

Quady 2017 Essentia Orange Muscat (California): $23. In this sweet wine, you’ll find delicate flavors of Mandarin orange, apricot and honey. The residual sugar, for you factoid freaks, is 17.4%, which is high, but the acidity (8.6%) also is very high, which balances the wine, so it’s not insipid. There’s a wonderful creaminess, which I suppose comes from brief oak barrel aging, and also from the nature of the Orange Muscat grapes from which the wine was made. Alcohol is high—15%, due to some fortification with a brandy-like spirit, which stops the fermentation so that some residual sugar remains. I would certainly enjoy this wine with cheesecake. Score: 90 points.

Quady NV Palomino Fino (California); $32.  Most Americans are unfamiliar with sherry-style wines, which of course originate from Spain but have been reproduced successfully here in California. This bottling was made from the Palomino grape variety—the real sherry grape in Spain–grown in the Central Valley city of Fresno, a hot area where Palomino thrives. It’s made in the authentic sherry style, using flor yeast and a solera system. The alcohol is fairly high, 17.5%, but it has to be with sherry, which is fortified with a little brandy. The wine, darker than a regular fino, is absolutely dry, with a yeasty, nutty flavor and elusive notes of macaroons, orange marmalade and spices. The oxidative taste is delicate; the freshness won’t last long after the bottle is opened. This is an acquired taste, but once you understand it, it’s addictive. I would drink this with classic Spanish aperitifs, such as garlickly potato salad, roasted almonds, grilled shrimp and sausage, olives, scrambled eggs, croquettes, calamari. Score: 90.

Quady NV Starboard Batch 88 (California); $25.  Proprietor Andrew Quady turns to sweet red wine for inspiration. This is made from traditional Port varieties. It’s deeply colored, but an orange rim at the edge is a good sign, suggesting immediate gratification. Your first impression of the taste is intense sweetness, the result not only of the residual sugar (13.6%) but of soft acids and mellow tannins. There’s a lot of deliciousness here: blackberry jam, sugared espresso, plum sauce and chocolate-raspberry truffle. There’s also a pleasing heat from high alcohol (20%). It’s basically a California tawny port: no need to age, just drink up now. I could see sipping this on a cold winter evening with chocolate brownies. Score: 91.


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