Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wine Tasting in Illinois?

In the pursuit of furthering my wine education and expanding my palate, I’m always looking for something different… something I’ve never tried before such as experiencing a different varietal, vintage or appellation.

Exploring wines isn’t just about finding wines I like, but trying something new just for the sake of the experience and having better understanding the world of wine. So, if I try something exotic but it turns out I don’t like it I chalk it up to a new educational experience so that I can say, “I’ve learned something new about wine!”

While every state in the union produces wine most of the American wine you find at your local store is from California, followed by Washington and then perhaps Oregon. While some great wines are produced in New York and elsewhere they don’t have has wide a distribution and it can be near impossible to find them in California.

In a recent trip to Harvard Illinois I looked for a winery to visit but there wasn’t one within reasonable driving distance so I searched a local wine shop with the intention of trying something local. The store’s shelves were filled with wines from California, Australia, Chile, Italy and France but I couldn’t find one from Illinois.

So, I inquired of the store manager, “Have you got any local Illinois wines?”

He then pointed me in the direction of the only local wine in stock which sat rather isolated on a bottom shelf – “Velvet White” from Illinois Cellars. There was no indication on the label what grapes this wine was made from, only that it was sweet and had an alcohol of 12%. It sold for about $8 so I figured even if I didn’t like the wine it would be worth the cash just for its educational value.

I put the wine in my hotel refrigerator to put a chill on it and later that night I opened it with a friend I invited to share the experience. Then with pen and paper in hand I coached this wine while swirling, sniffing, swirling and more sniffing…

It had a unique aroma of what seemed to me to an overwhelming musky-radiator antifreeze (glycol) odor, followed by honeydew melon, dried fruits, pineapple, a mild pine note and a hint of jasmine. On the palate it had a somewhat syrupy consistency with an obvious sweetness but lacking in acidity. I made a guess that perhaps it might be a Riesling blended with a Native American grape varietal which might be giving what is referred to as a “foxy” smell I’ve read about (but never tasted) in wine books. After sampling a single glass of the wine I then replaced the cork, deciding to try it again the following day.

The next night I pulled the cork and it was quite clear that the musky smell had for the most part dissipated and the wine seemed even more like a Riesling. I kept the bottle as a souvenir, deciding to do some further investigation of the wine on the internet when I got back home in California. 

According to Illinois Cellars’ web site, “Velvet White” is made from the Niagara grape and it is cold fermented on Sauvignon Blanc yeast for 10 weeks. As I had guessed, the wine is made from a Native North American varietal – the Niagara grape. Wines that are of European origin (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir etc.) come from the species Vitis vinifera, so unless you have had a Native American wine grape varietal youve probably never tasted a wine from this species.

The Niagara grape is from the species Vitis labrusca and are usually used as table grapes as well for making jams and juice. Niagara is the leading green grape grown in the United States. The Niagara grape was created in Niagara County, NY in 1868 when C.L. Hoag and B.W. Clark cross-bred Concord grapes with white Cassady grapes. It was first sold commercially in 1882. They are most commonly found in the United States in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington, and Ohio, and are also grown in Ontario in Canada, as well as in Brazil, and New Zealand. While only rarely available fresh outside of these areas, Niagara grapes are well known to most American consumers as the source of most white grape juice.

While I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to buy this wine again, it was an interesting experience and I hope to try other wines made from the Vitis labrusca species in the future. To learn more about Illinois Cellars and their wines, check out their web site:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Exploring FINE Pinot Noir at Roessler Cellars - Sonoma

A few years back I remember having conversations with a couple friends of mine who are big fans of fine Pinot Noir. They raved about the wonder of its complexities and subtle nuance of aromas and flavors but to me Pinot Noir seemed to me too light, weak, too soft and lacking tannin. At the time I was into BIG Zinz, Cabs and full mouth-filling Syrahs so to my palate Pinot Noir seemed “wimpy.”

Then one day I tried a fine Pinot Noir with smoked salmon (a classic paring) and suddenly the light came on and then I “got it” as this perfect food and wine marriage converted me to becoming a Pinot Noir lover.

I am convinced that a fine Pinot Noir is the most intriguing wine which requires a great deal of reflection particularly paying attention to the nose of the wine and in order to do so you must have it in the proper stemware – a Riedel Pinot Noir glass.

Later, as I then began exploring Pinot Noirs from the grocery store as well as at various wineries throughout California, I soon discovered a sad fact. While I can name a number of value priced Cabernets, Chardonnays, Zinfandels, Syrahs and others varietals in the $10-$20 range I have yet to fine a satisfying Pinot Noir for under $30 and most of the ones that really “hit it” for me are $45 and up. To make matters worse, 99.99% of the Pinot Noirs under $20 are not only not enjoyable they seem to be either watery-weak lacking any real complexity of depth or just simplistic plummy just plunk that do not deserve to be given the name that I now associate with “Pinot Noir.”

So, for me Pinot Noir that is truly enjoyed is more of a special occasion wine because I can’t justify spending $45 on an everyday casual dinner wine and I just don’t want to waste my time or money on a wine that will be just another disappointment. So, for the under $15 range of wines I’ll buy a value priced Chardonnay or a Zin and stay away from the Pinots in that same price range. If the only Pinot Noirs you have ever tasted are in that price range and you made the judgment that “they ain’t all that” then I HIGHLY suggest tat you take the time and spend a little money for a fine Pinot and try it with a classic food pairing such as salmon or stuffed portobello (portabella) mushrooms.

Having said all that, if I am going to spend $35 or more for a Pinot Noir, the wine better deserve dishing out that kind of cash.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pinot Noir is that not only does it have some of the most interesting subtleties of character, but it is also the most reflective of its terroir of origin (the climate, soil, terrain etc. of a region in which it is grown) such that a Pinot Noir from various areas of California, Oregon or Burgundy France are very distinct and easily recognizable once you become familiar with these wine growing regions.

A few months ago while exploring the internet, looking for Pinot Noir producing wineries in the Sonoma area, I came across Roessler Cellars. Perusing their wine selection on the web site really got me excited and I was very eager to pay them a visit. Unfortunately, at the time my allergies were killing me and my nose and palate were just about worthless. We were also experiencing one rain storm after another and so I was going to have to wait for some time for everything to clear up so that I could be in just the right state of mind to explore the winery.

Well, a couple weeks ago on a sunny Saturday I made the trek up to historic old town Sonoma to visit Roessler Cellars’ tasting room which is just a round the corner from the park in the center of town.


Before I get into all the details of their wines, let me just say that Roessler Cellars not only makes awesome Pinot Noir, they make a variety of Pinot Noirs from up and down the California Coast (various sub appellations of Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sonoma) and Oregon. Each of these wines is an excellent representation of these regions such that when you taste one of the wines, you are experiencing the distinctive terroir of that region. The result is a Pinot Noir wine tasting at Roessler Cellars is a virtual exploration of California itself through the nose and palate. 

While I have found many fine Pinot Noirs throughout California I have never come across a line up like this one. So, whether you are a Pinot Noir lover or you want to learn more about this fine wine – THIS is the place to do it!

Roessler Cellars’ total production is about 6,500 cases including 16 different Pinot Noir wines and 12 vineyard-designate labels from the North Coast, Santa Barbara and Oregon. While the primary focus is on Single Vineyard Pinot Noir, they also produce a number of small lots of Chardonnay.

So, my first wine was the only white being served, the 2006 Alder Springs Mendocino Chardonnay. The wine has beautiful density and palate tension with concentrated aromas of apple pie crust, honey, dried apricot, peach and pineapple. On the palate it is has a full mouth feel, textured with intricate stone-fruit flavors and fine minerality followed by a lingering finish. While this is a fine Chard, at $38 a bottle it is a little steep for me.

The second wine, the first Pinot for the day, was the 2008 La Brisa Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. This is a lighter style of Pinot Noir which with subtle fruit-forward nose of cherry cola, spice, raspberry, wild strawberry and pomegranate, a slight herbal quality of thyme, with underlying notes of unsweetened cocoa powder and forestry floor. While this wine sells it for $38 at the winery you can find it for only $25 at K&L wines.

The second Pinot was one of my favorites of the day, the 2006 Hein Family Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. This is a fruit forward style Pinot with loads of fresh red plum, light mushroom and hints of cigar box. On the palate, there is a great deal of red plum and strawberry jam followed by cherry cream. On the finish there is a texture and aroma of cocoa, light oak and dried cinnamon stick on the return. This wine definitely needs time to open up in the glass as it continued to evolve in the more I patiently swirled the glass and continued to return to the nose. This wine sells for $38 a bottle and I brought two of them home.

The third Pinot for the day was the 2007 La Encantada Sta Rita Hills Pinot Noir. A bigger Pinot than the previous two, this wine is spicier and brighter on the initial attack and the first impression is what is most memorable. It is also very apparent that that it is deeper in color; and on the nose it has complex plum aromas with dried meat and earthy notes; on the palate it has layers of plum and black cherry; earthy with some tannin and toasty oak; good structure and balance; long finish. Keep swirling the glass as it needs time to fully develop. This one sells for $46, I preferred the previous wine over this one.

The fourth red wine in the line up was the 2007 Brosseau Chalone Pinot Noir. This is a deeper and more rich Pinot than the others. It has darker fruit in the nose with a dominating character of root beer followed by bold red plum and a darker earth character with higher acidity. Needs time to integrate and open up in the glass but it was among my top two favorites of the day. This wine sells for $42 at the winery and I brought two home with me to share with friends

The fifth wine was not on the menu, the 2008 “Black Pine” California Cuvee (Sonoma Coast/Santa Lucia Highlands/Anderson Valley) is the result of saving the fruit that experienced the results of a record breaking amount of lightening strikes that caused a forest fire. This wine is “interesting” for $24 but needs some charred barbeque meats to accompany in order to enjoy it.

The final Pinot of the day was the 2006 Ridges “Estate” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. This is the flagship wine of Roessler Cellars. A bigger and bolder version of the previous wines with more tannin, a bit hard and brash for a Pinot but I am willing to bet that this wine needs a lot more aging and it will come unto its own in 5-10 years. A bit steep into the pocket book for $56 a bottle.

Although they were not pouring this wine, I also brought home a bottle of the 2007 Laurelwood Wiliamette Valley Pinot Noir as I was looking for an Oregon representative from Roessler Cellars. It sells for $34.

Roessler Cellars is located at 380 1st Street West Sonoma, CA 95476-5631. If you plan to pay them a visit tell them you read about them on California Wine Tasting Adventures. You can contact them at: (707) 933-4440 or check out their web site: