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

Red Wine Review: Concannon Syrah

Concannon Syrah 2005 · Livermore Valley

Concannon Syrah wine bottle from Livermore Valley CaliforniaFor whatever reason, I’ve always associated Concannon with Petite Sirah — perhaps because they were the first California winery to varietally label the grape back in 1964. And their Petite Sirah generally rocks.

So it was with a little hesitation, overcome by curiosity, that I plucked this bottle from the shelf.

For those unaware, Petite Sirah and Syrah are completely different grapes. Syrah rootstalks were imported from other parts of the world (probably France), while Petite Sirah (which is neither small nor Syrah) is thought to be indigenous to California. We’ll discuss Petite Sirah at greater lengths another time — there’s actually an interesting story and some controversy surrounding its origins. For now, we’ll concentrate on Syrah — the one made by Concannon.

The vintage stocked at my local wine shop is 2005, and it’s drinking very nicely. You may be able to find the 2006 or the 2007 in your area; if so, and you’ve tasted it, please share your notes in the comments.

Tasting Notes: Concannon Syrah 2005

Open nose of mature, overripe black fruits — blackberry, blackcurrant, black raspberry, with hints of tobacco and earth. In the mouth it has a smooth, almost syrupy texture, ripe blackberry and black raspberry flavors. Acidity is mild, tannins are mild. Flavors evolve into a finish of blackberry, blueberry, mild tobacco, and a hint of dark chocolate that is held up with drying acidity. The alcohol is barely noticeable, which is pleasantly surprising for a wine with this much upfront, ripe fruit. OK on its own, perfect with lean-beef burgers, mild cheeses, blackened chicken, sloppy joes, tacos, swedish meatballs.

a-8 t-8 b-8 fc-7 v-7 ~ 88 Points

Bottom Line

A soft and jammy Syrah with enjoyable black berry flavors and perfect match for lean meat dishes. At under $10, a great value.

Where To Buy It

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Learn more at the official website: Concannon Vineyards

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.

Red Wine Review: Penfolds Shiraz-Cab

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz-Cabernet 2007

Every once in a while I get in the mood for a big, jammy, New World style red wine — something bursting with sweet red and black berry fruits — but at the same time, something that I don’t have to think much about. In other words, a bottle that I can pick up for around ten bucks or less and not feel guilty about drinking with a hamburger or cheap cut of steak.

When those moods strike me, I usually go either for a Ravenswood red or an Aussie Shiraz. In this case, I went down under, to Penfolds, which offers a nice range of jammy reds that are easy to find anywhere and won’t hurt your wallet. For the ten-buck budget (give or take a ducat or two), I recommend their Rawson’s Retreat, Thomas Hyland and Koonunga Hill lines for their consistency from year to year. In other words, you don’t have to be a serious connoisseur or have a vintage rating chart in your wallet to wonder what the wine will taste like. And often, even a geek like me doesn’t have the patience to put a lot of thought (or money) into a wine purchase.

Tasting Notes: Penfolds Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon

Open nose of ripe black and red berry fruits, along with some tar and earth. Similar elements on the palate: black raspberry, black cassis, plum, black cherry, sweet tobacco. Good weight in the mouth. Smooth texture. Tannins are ripe and medium, but not overbearing. Acidity is at an appropriate level for food matching. This is OK alone, but better with food. Drink it with protein — a burger, cheap steak, or cheese.

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

Buy Penfolds Shiraz-Cabernet direct from Wine.comicon

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Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz

Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz wine bottleYowza. And I feel it’s OK to use “yowza” as a descriptor for a wine called “Jip Jip Rocks”.

When I spend 12-13 bucks for an Aussie Shiraz, I expect to get a fruit-forward, jammy, flabby, cocktail wine which may or may not have a quick finish. And that type of wine is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, it’s a profile that I occasionally am in the mood for. So when I picked up this bottle for $12.99, I wasn’t expecting much other than a big glob of black berry fruit.

Suffice to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

This under-$15 surprised me because it is a beast. It’s huge – huge in nose, huge in flavor, huge in structure. I call it a beast because it is surprisingly big and has a distinct feral or animal character – something you generally don’t get with an inexpensive Shiraz. It reminds me more of a Rhone Syrah or a South African Pinotage, than a typical Australian Shiraz.

Tasting Notes: Jip Jip Rocks Shiraz

The nose exudes a complex aroma of ripe black fruits, tobacco, menthol, tar, earth, eucalyptus, and band-aid. In the mouth it is meaty – in weight, texture, and flavor. It has a smoked meat element, along with dried or cooked fruit (prune?), black cassis, tobacco leaf, and blackberry. Tannins are bold, acidity is medium. There is a bit of expected hotness in the tail end of the finish – but that’s what you get with a wine of this ripeness. Finishes bone dry with dried black fruit and spice flavors lingering. Tasty on its own if you like bold wines, better when matched with protein – burgers, cheese, roasted meats.

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

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Rocca delle Macie Morellino “Campomaccione”

Rocca delle Macie Morellino di Scansano “Campomaccione” 2005

Rocca delle Macie Morellino di Scansano wine bottleDo not be intimidated by the long, somewhat threatening words on the label of this wine. It’s nothing to be afraid of — in fact, it’s something with which you’re likely very familiar.

Morellino di Scansano seems difficult to pronounce on first glance. It’s not — it sounds the way it looks, just say it slowly the first few times (alone, in a dark room, of course). And remember Vino Joe’s general rule of thumb: any wine with five or more syllables HAS to be good (and this one has eight!).

Seriously now, a little background. Morellino is a grape grown in Scansano, which is a hilly village inside an area called Maremma, which is sits partly in the Italian region of Lazio, and partly in the southern part of Tuscany. Geography lesson complete, and we mentioned Tuscany, a place you may have heard of before.

It gets better. Morellino is what the people of Scansano call Sangiovese, which you may know is the main grape of Chianti wines. That said, if you enjoy Chianti, there is a good chance you will also like Morellino di Scansano.

Since it’s not a trendy wine (yet), it doesn’t make sense for an importer to bring in any old plonk from Scansano — so if you see a Morellino di Scansano on your wine shop’s shelf, chances are very good that it’s a quality bottle. This example is no exception. It comes from an estate called “Campomaccione”, and is made with 90% Morellino, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Merlot.

Tasting Notes: Rocca delle Macie Morellino di Scansano “Campomaccione”

Nose is open, rich with ripe black cherry, some stemmy vegetal or herbal aroma, earth, and a hint of vanilla spice. On the palate the texture is glassy smooth, carrying ample black cherry and red raspberry fruit. Tannins are mild but firm, acidity is medium. The wine finishes with good red fruit flavors mixed with earth and hints of bell pepper and spice. This is a wonderful alternative to Chianti – at about 14 bucks it’s as good or better than most Chianti at five dollars more. Don’t drink it alone – have it with pasta in marinara and meatballs, sausage and peppers, pecorino, grana padano, or anything else you’d normally eat with Chianti. At around twelve bucks, a great value.

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

Importer: Palm Bay Imports

Winery: Rocca delle Macie

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White Wine Review: Clean Slate Riesling

Clean Slate Riesling wine bottleToo often people walk right by that section of the wine shop where all the tall and skinny green bottles are shelved — also known as “Germany” and/or “Alsace”. Those confusing-looking labels with long, unpronounceable names like “Trockenberenauslese” and “Gewurztraminer” are too intimidating for the average wine buyer. And if that description fits you, don’t feel bad — those foreign marketers could do a much better job of making it easier for you.

One importer who is doing a pretty good job of making German wine more accessible is Peter Click. Thanks goodness, because there are some wonderful white wines from Germany that would otherwise be undiscovered by the masses in the USA. For the uninitiated, allow me to enlighten you: not all German wines are “sweet”, and not all Riesling is sweet, either. In fact, many of the better wines from Germany (and Alsace, for that matter) are bone-dry, and fantastic for food pairing. Case in point: Clean Slate Riesling from Mosel, Germany. Not only is it tasty, but it’s easy to say, easy to spell, and comes in a more common-looking, clear white bottle.

Tasting Notes: Clean Slate Riesling 2007

Nose is — you guessed it — clean, with sharp, pleasant aromas of ripe granny smith apple, pear, and spice. In the mouth it is similar, with flavors of ripe, bright granny smith apple, honeydew melon, sweet pear and peach. Acidity is about medium, with a mild tartness pushing the fruit through a longer than expected and flavorful finish. Texture is creamy smooth, perhaps described as oily. It’s like biting into a fresh apple, with some fruit salad elements finding their way into your mouth as well. A refreshing quaff on its own, is also a great partner to an array of dishes — particularly spicy foods and Asian cuisine. I matched it successfully with sushi, general tsao’s chicken, shrimp fried rice, barbecued ribs, lamb rogan josh (Indian), and buffalo wings. I imagine it would be equally successful with other Indian and Chinese dishes, Thai cuisine, similarly hot and spicy foods, pork loin, pork chops, and fresh ham. Of course, it’s a no-brainer with traditional German dishes such as bratwurst, knockwurst, and weisswurst, or anything in sauerkraut or red cabbage. At $12 — in some areas closer to $10 — this is a great value. Try this on your beer-drinking friends.

a-8 t-9 b-8 fc-9 v-10 ~ 94 Points

Importer: Click Wine Group

Brand site: Clean Slate Wine

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