Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

White Wine Review: Estancia Sauvignon Blanc

Estancia Sauvignon Blanc Pinnacles Ranches | Monterey County, California

Sauvignon Blanc means different things to different people. For some, it means grassy, herbal aromas. For others, it means tropical fruit character. And, there are people expecting musky aromas and strong mineral notes (i.e., Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre). For me, it means all of those things, and then some — what I’m expecting is for the grape to reflect its origin in some way.

Estancia is one of my “safe” brands — meaning, it’s a widely available name that I trust to provide solid quality for value and at least a hint of “sense of place,” regardless of grape variety. Do I expect to have my socks knocked off? Not necessarily. Do I expect to get what I pay for, and maybe a little more? Yes. Did this wine meet that expectation? Yes.

Clean, bright nose emitting lemon and lime citrus fruit and a distinct green element that most people associate with gooseberries — a strong, unripe, sour fruit odor that is typical of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. Some describe the smell as “cat pee,” and since I have yet to see/smell a gooseberry, but have known many cats, well … you can guess which description relates to me. It’s something you either appreciate or don’t like at all. Me, I appreciate that smell.

In the mouth, Estancia Sauvignon Blanc is clean, fresh, and expressive, with ample acidity. Flavors are similar to the nose, but dominated by fresh lime upfront and finishing with lemon peel on the back end. It has a zingy character on its own, and is much more enjoyable with food. I enjoyed it with broiled flounder and scallops; it will be similarly well-matched with other white fish, sushi, mildly seasoned chicken and pork dishes, salads, and vegetarian cuisine.

I picked this up for under ten bucks and for me, that’s a good deal. A good food wine.

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Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Going on 15 years now, Chile has been my “go to” for unearthing great wine values. A long time ago I discovered Casa Lapostolle’s “Cuvee Alexandre” line of wines, finding the Merlot particularly enjoyable — and fairly easy on the wallet. That said, when I happened upon this “Casa” Cabernet Sauvignon, my expectations were high — and I wasn’t disappointed.

If you went through Spanish 101 — or at least knew someone who had — then you know “casa” means “house.” My guess, then, is that the “Casa” line from Lapostolle refers to what they believe are “house wines.” If so, the moniker fits. For me, this supple, earthy, yet easy drinking Cab is a wine that I’d be very comfortable serving as my “house wine” (if such a thing existed under my roof).

On the nose you get typical Cabernet aromas: black berry, earth, some leather and tobacco. In the mouth the berry fruit is plump but just shy of “jammy,” and is well-balanced by ample acidity and mild tannins. There is a hint of vanilla sweetness that Americans love, which makes it appealing on its own, yet thankfully doesn’t get in the way of food matching. I successfully paired it with simply broiled filet mignon, and to me, the meat brought out the juicy fruit of the wine — I enjoyed it much more next to my plate than I did after my last bite.

These days, many “new world” Cabernet Sauvignons taste like they can be from anywhere, formulated in a laboratory of micro-oxygenation and oak chips. Thankfully, this Cab retains a sense of place. No, it doesn’t scream Rapel Valley (what does?), but if it were part of a blind tasting, I’m fairly confident I’d identify as Chilean. Perhaps that’s due to the touch (6%) of Carmenere and the slight hint of brooding Petit Verdot (1%) that helps fill out the blend (the wine is 89% Cabernet Sauvignon; bits of Cabernet Franc and Syrah also are involved). In short, this is what Cabernet from Chile is supposed to taste like. And at under ten bucks, it’s a steal, and the fact it comes with an easily resealable screwcap makes it all the more appealing. Pick up a bottle — or three — for your “house.”

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Disclosure: At the end of a wine tasting that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, this was three-quarters of a leftover bottle gifted to me by a generous brand rep. No wines shall go to waste!

Wine Reviews: Big House Red and White

Big House White and Red WinesThese were sent to me as samples by a nice PR person, but it took me a long time to get around to tasting both of the “Big House” wines, mainly because I saw them as gimmicky and figured they weren’t terribly interesting.

As it turned out, both wines mildly surprised me — they are easygoing and simple but enjoyable and have enough structure to match with a variety of foods. That’s the nice thing about having no expectations — it’s hard to be disappointed.

The name “Big House” came about because the winery is located “an ankle iron’s toss” from the Soledad State Correctional Facility in Soledad, California (Monterey County). It was founded by Randall Grahm — better known as the founder/winemaker at Bonny Doon — and the brand’s focus is to appeal to the “non-snob” by making wine less complicated and more fun and easy to enjoy (hey, just like this website!). I have to admit the branding is clever and appealing, if a bit corny. But, I’m corny myself and therefore have an appreciation for their efforts.

Big House White is a fruity summer sipper with a faint hint of sweetness that makes a good foil for spicy hot foods. I paired it successfully with Indian cuisine as well as buffalo wings and BBQ ribs. It’s also thoroughly enjoyable on its own, with a good chill. For those who care, it’s made from a “kitchen sink” blend of 22.7% Malvasia Bianca, 15.9% Gruner Veltliner, 15.7% Sauvignon Blanc, 9.2% Gewürztraminer, 7.9% Riesling, 7.3% Chenin Blanc, 6.1% Muscat Canelli, 5.2% Viognier,4.5% Verdelho, 4.4% Albarino, and 1.1% Pinot Gris. If nothing else, all those grapes in there make for a good conversation starter.

Big House Red was similarly friendly with food, but completely dry. It has an attractive, expressive nose full of black cherries and a hint of earth. On the palate there are similar flavors — cherry, red and black berry fruit, mild earth, touch of tobacco. There is plenty of acidity and very mild tannins. It finishes somewhat quickly and with tart, sour cherry. Overall it kind of reminds me a Beaujolais Villages, and is similarly easy to pair with just about anything — particularly lean meats (chicken, turkey, pork), vegetarian dishes, and pasta with red sauce. And yes, this one is made with myriad grape varieties as well: 27% Petite Sirah, 14.5% Syrah, 8.6% Montepulciano, 8.2% Barbera, 6.4% Nero d’Avola, 6.1% Tempranillo, 3.3% Malbec, 2.4% Aglianico, 2.4% Souzao, 2.3% Charbono, 2.2% Petit Verdot, 2.1% Cabernet Franc, 2% Tannat, and 12.5% Other Esoteric Reds. I’d love to know what those “other esoteric reds” might be, and why they’re not listed. Ah-ha! Another conversation starter!

At under $10 for a 750ml bottle, these wines are a steal — but it isn’t the kind of theft that will get you sent to the “big house”. And both wines also come in snazzy, convenient, party-friendly bag-in-box packaging as well.

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If you want to learn more about Big House and some of their other wines, visit my good friend Charles Scicolone’s site to read about the Big House “warden” Georgette Dune. You can also visit the Big House website and/or follow the brand on Twitter @BigHouseWines

Merlot Wine Review: Dante

Dante Merlot 2006 · Michael Pozzan Winery

I have to admit, I purchased this wine based on its label — one of my best friends became a father recently, to a son named “Dante”. So it was an added bonus that the juice behind the label turned out to be pretty good — and well worth the price.

Dante is made by the Michael Pozzan Winery, and ironically (to me, anyway), is named after Michael Pozzan’s eldest son. The wine itself is purportedly inspired by Michael’s trips to Italy — per the the Pozzan website, the wines labeled with “Dante” are: “hearty but approachable wines are reminisant [sic] of your fravorite trattoria in Italy”. At around ten bucks, that’s enough story for me.

I’ve enjoyed the soft, supple, accessible wines from Pozzan for several years, and this bottling fits in with the winery’s style. Unlike other wines from Pozzan, the grapes come from outside Napa — but again, when I’m spending about ten bucks, vineyard location is a moot point. Just give me a decent wine I can enjoy with a simple meal and make me feel like I got my money’s worth. For that, this wine delivers.

Tasting Notes: Dante Merlot

The nose is full of ripe red raspberry, ripe strawberry, and black cherry, with hints of vanilla, spice, earth, and smoke. In the mouth it is borderline jammy upfront, with lots of ripe red berry fruits, vanilla, and white chocolate flavors. The finish is pleasantly tart, with ripe black cherry and red raspberry notes. Acidity is mild to medium, tannins are mild to medium, alcohol is just a touch warm on the finish. All three elements are in good balance with the high fruit level. Enjoyable alone, also good with a variety of foods. Drink it with lean meats, Mexican fare, lean sausage, mild cheeses, vegetarian dishes.

a-8 t-8 b-8 fc-8 v-8 ~ 90 Points

Bottom Line

A soft, warm, approachable Merlot that is enjoyable alone or with simple dishes based on lean meats or mild cheeses. Fine as an everyday drinker and a great value.

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Learn more by visiting the Michael Pozzan Winery website

Cabernet Review: Kaiken

Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

kaiken_cab.jpgKaiken is a somewhat unknown wine brand from Argentina, which is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a good thing, because it hasn’t yet been discovered and “taken off” in popularity, so the prices are still affordable (around ten bucks or less). It’s a bad thing, because 1) it can be hard to find on retailer’s shelves; and 2) since people don’t see it at their retailer, restaurants are able to mark it up ridiculously. For example, I paid $9.99 for this bottle at my local wine shop, after tasting it at $11 per glass at a local restaurant. Hey, I’m all for restaurants marking up wine to make money — they do have to store it, provide glassware, educate their staff, and make a profit. But there’s a point where markup can become obnoxious.

Anyway, on to the review:

Tasting Notes: Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon

Rich nose of ripe black berry fruit, spice, touch of earth, leather, and something slightly meaty, animal / barnyard — which, to me, is appealing. Very smooth, almost creamy texture in the mouth, with plenty of ripe berry fruits: blackberry, plum, black cherry, blueberry, boysenberry. Hints of spicy vanilla, earth, sweet tobacco, chocolate licorice. Acidity is mild to medium, tannins are medium. This has a bit of rustic character in the nose, but is obviously new world on the palate — wide open, fruit forward, and inching toward jammy. Tasty on its own, better with simple red meat dishes — meatloaf, burgers, swedish meatballs, skirt steak.

a-8 t-8 b-8 fc-7 v-10 ~ 91 Points

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By the way, Kaiken also makes a great Malbec.

Cabernet Sauvignon Review: Rayun

Rayun Cabernet Sauvignon wine labelIn these difficult economic times, we wine geeks with short pockets must do a better job of hunting down the great values. Traditionally, I have looked to South America for dirt cheap deals on deliciously drinkable wines.

At one time, Chile was a great place to find fantastic values. Then the secret got out, and Chilean bottles went up in cost — allowing Argentina to arrive as an affordable area for the adventurous. But of course, eventually enough people discovered Argentina, driving the prices up. While the see-saw continues today, I’m happy to report that nicely priced daily drinkers are still available from both countries — but they take a little more time and effort to unearth.

In this case, you need to look away from the better-known producers and toward the Rapel Valley, an area which has a history of producing fine red wines based on the Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The winery is “Rayun” and it’s not always found on the eye-level shelves of the wine shop — so stoop down and check the lower levels and the bargain bins (use your knees, so you don’t hurt your back!). At around seven or eight bucks, it’s a good value.

Tasting Notes: Rayun Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Open nose of dirty earth, tobacco, green bell pepper, some black fruit (cassis, blackberry). Smooth texture, almost creamy mouthfeel. Good ripe black fruit flavor — blackberry, cassis, black raspberry — with a hint of spice and mild earth. Acidity and tannins are about equal, both mild to medium and in fair balance to the fruit level. A nice, soft, red wine that is a decent choice as an everyday drinker. About what you would expect from an under-$10 Chilean Cab — tastes more like a Merlot. Enjoy it alone or with mild cheeses, pasta in marinara, turkey burgers, simple “bistro” fare.

a-7 t-7 b-9 fc-9 v-8 ~ 90 points

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Red Wine Review: Pannotia Garnacha

Pannotia Garnacha Spanish Wine bottleImported wines can be tough to purchase, because there are so many wines brought in from so many areas of the world, with labels that you likely have never heard of, nor seen, before — particularly in the under-$15 range. Additionally, there are a ton of wines brought in for no other reason than the fact that the label says “Pinot Noir”, “Pinot Grigio”, “Chardonnay”, or whatever this month’s “hot varietal” might be.

Even a fairly well educated geek like me has trouble deciding whether an unknown imported wine is worth the few ducats in pocket (and those spare dollars are dwindling by the day!). As protection against buying a dud, I tend to rely on specific importers that have, over the years, consistently delivered wines with a strong price:quality ratio. However, it takes some time to find wines from specific importers — most of them stamp their name in small print on the back label of bottles. As a result, I often spend far too much time in wine shops pulling out my reading glasses and scrutinizing back labels, one after the other.

To save my eyes, Pannotia Vineyards has instituted a somewhat novel idea: to put the importer on the FRONT label; in fact, to make it the brand name. Because you see, there are no vineyards anywhere in the world called “Pannotia” (OK, maybe there are, but wines from such a place won’t be labeled as such). The literal meaning of “Pannotia” (puh-NO-shah) is “all the world is a single continent”. In other words, a wine with the Pannotia label can come from just about anywhere.

It’s an interesting concept brought forward by founder John Fawcett — find quality wines from different parts of the world, and brand it with the importer name, rather than the winery. Of course, this type of branding is not new — Opici comes to mind as one of the obvious, as does Ole Imports — but it is nonetheless intriguing (and saves my eyes).

Helping to establish the Pannotia brand are the distinctive, artsy, colorful labels, created by artist Gary Kelley. The bottles are indeed an attractive package, and the juice inside is pretty good, too. This particular wine is from Castilla, Spain, and made from the Garnacha (aka Grenache) grape.

Tasting Notes: Pannotia Vineyards Garnacha

Black and bell pepper aromas mix with black fruits and earth on the nose. Flavors of black raspberry, cranberry, and black cherry, and hints of vanilla and earth. Texture is glassy smooth. Tannins are mild, acidity is somewhere between mild and medium. The acid, in fact, is slightly tart when this wine is drunk alone, but is the perfect level to match with most mild dishes. For example, it was a good pairing to pasta with sausage marinara, and it would be equally complementary to leaner dishes such as turkey, chicken, and vegetarian. A good daily drinker. At around ten bucks, this is a good value.

a-7 t-7 b-8 fc-9 v-8 ~ 89 Points

Website: Pannotia Vineyards

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Rose Wine Review: Artazuri

artazuri_rose.jpgIt’s not too late to drink rose wine — in fact many of this year’s releases are still fresh and vibrant. Which is a good thing, since pink wines tend to be enjoyable on their own and match with a wide variety of foods.

This particular rose comes from an importer I respect highly — I have yet to be disappointed with the price/quality ratio of an “Eric Solomon Selection”. Finding his name on the back label of a wine I’ve never seen before is often the deciding factor in whether I’ll purchase the bottle.

But in fact I’ve already enjoyed roses from Artazuri in the past, so seeing this was a no-brainer. It’s made in Navarra, Spain, from the Garnacha grape — a.k.a., Grenache. If you’ve never been to Navarra, you might want to consider taking a trip one July for the San Fermin festival in Pamplona, where you can see “encierro” (the running of the bulls). Don’t look for me, though, I’ll be watching it on youTube from the safety of my home.

But I digress … how about we discuss the wine, which (how timely?) would be a nice match for a spread of bagels and lox, among other things.

Tasting Notes: Artazuri Rose 2007

Ample fresh strawberry on the nose, with hints of red raspberry, cherry, and vanilla. Smooth, almost creamy texture on the palate, with fresh, clean watermelon, red cherry, and strawberry flavors, accented by a touch of zesty citrus and a hint of vanilla. Acidity is on the low side, but there’s just enough to help the wine pair with mildly flavored appetizers or hot and spicy dishes. Drink it alone (chilled) as an aperitif, with spicy sausage sandwiches, barbecued chicken, spicy Indian cuisine, salads, cold cuts / antipasti, smoked salmon. Don’t over-chill it or you’ll miss a lot of the flavor.

a-8 t-8 b-8 fc-8 v-8 ~ 90 Points

US Importer: European Cellars – Eric Solomon Selection

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White Wine Review: Antinori Bianco

Villa Antinori Toscana Bianco 2006 IGT

Villa Antinori Bianco Italian white wine bottleA few years back, Pinot Grigio replaced Chardonnay as the number-one selling white wine in the USA. As a result, prices for established, reliable Pinot Grigio skyrocketed, and a slew of unknown Pinots — of varying degrees of quality — flooded the market. The popularity of the wine became so great that many California wineries have renamed their wines made from Pinot Gris as “Pinot Grigio”. Today, there are shelves filled with that popular Italian white wine, some very good, some not so good, most of them overpriced. Which is too bad, because Pinot Grigio tends to be an easy drinking, food friendly wine.

But hey, there’s plenty more white wine flowing in Italy that tastes great, matches well with a variety of foods, and can be had at reasonable prices. One of them is this wine from Tuscany, Antinori Bianco.

This Bianco (Italian for “white”) is a blend of four grapes: Malvasia, Trebbiano, Chardonnay Toscano, and Pinot Bianco. You may have heard of some of these grapes before, as they are commonly found throughout Italy. If you are not familiar with them, don’t worry — you don’t need to know anything about them to enjoy the wine. All you need to know is that if you like Pinot Grigio, you’ll probably like this wine as well.

Tasting Notes: Antinori Bianco

Clean, simple nose of citrus and white fruit. Clean, fresh, and zesty with citrusy flavors of lime and lemon. Also touches of pear, apple, and mineral. Acidity is medium to medium-high, plenty for food matching but not too much to enjoy alone. This is a simple white that has advanced polish and a surprisingly lengthy finish. Have it as an aperitif, match it with all kinds of apps, pair it with simply broiled or lightly battered / breaded white fish, chicken breast, sushi, pork. A fine alternative to Pinot Grigio. The suggested MSRP is $12, but I’ve seen it at less than ten bucks in some stores — which makes it a great value and a good everyday drinker.

a-7 t-7 b-9 fc-10 v-8 ~ 91 Points

Website: Villa Antinori

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Rose Wine Review: Belleruche

M. Chapoutier Cotes-du-Rhone “Belleruche” Rose 2007

M. Chapoutier Belleruche Rose wine bottleAutumn is almost upon us in the US, but it’s still warm enough to enjoy pink wines. This one comes from the Cotes-du-Rhone in France, an area that’s better known for red wines that some describe as “bistro wines” for their ability to match with a variety of dishes found on traditional bistro menus.

Similarly, this rose is made from the same grapes as its red wine cousin — Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault — and shares its versatility.

Tasting Notes: Chapoutier Cotes-du-Rhone “Belleruche” Rose 2007

Nose is mildly aromatic, expressing citrus, strawberry, and a hint of cherry. Very clean on the palate, with mild strawberry and citrus flavors. Acidity is somewhere between mild and medium. The finish is pleasant and balanced. This is an enjoyable, refreshing wine on its own, with enough structure to match with food. I matched it successfully with spicy turkey sausage with sauteed peppers and onions; it should be equally good with other lean and spicy dishes, as well as chicken and pork, and vegetarian cuisine. At about ten bucks (under ten in some places), this is a great value.

a-7 t-7 b-8 fc-9 v-9 ~ 90 Points

Imported by Terlato Wines International

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