Pennsylvania Wine enthusiasts often suggest the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board system keeps Pennsylvanians from the great retail sale prices available in other states. Debate over the PLCB’s efficacy will go on… and on. In the meantime, we consumers can walk into many of the state’s specialty stores this holiday season and find some high quality “Chairman’s Selection” wines at very competitive prices (brought to us by the Chairman’s Selection program leader Steven Pollack and his team, who take advantage of the PLCB’s market heft to locate and bring to our market, wines that would otherwise never find their way here at these prices).
Through undeniable good fortune I was invited, to be among PLCB wine specialists and a handful of press (including Elizabeth Downer of the Post-Gazette), to taste through 40+ upcoming Chairman’s Selection wines. Below are my favorites of this tasting with a few additional selections included, with wines divided into several categories. Additionally, I’ve added my own numerical score to help give perspective on my impressions vis-à-vis other tasting publications.
Screaming good deals – solid quality wines under $10 per bottle – serve these wines before revealing the price (and prepare for a pat on the back!).
Cultivate the Feast Red California 2010 $7.99 (PLCB Code 33578 – In stores early December) – This wine started life as a California red blend exclusive to a large national restaurant chain – but corporate desire shifted away from this wine and now Pennsylvania has several thousand cases to sell. And sell it will (if purchasers aren’t put off by the unattractive label, but isn’t quality wine always more important than quality label art?). The 2010 California vintage produced high quality grapes for many wines and this blend (78% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec, 5% Syrah) is certainly a quality wine with aromas of raspberry, blueberry and spices followed by a dense but balanced and lush mouthful of dark fruits backed up by some oak in the long finish. I could not find ratings on this wine, but I award it a solid 90 points and I expect to purchase a case of it! Information for this wine provided by the Chairman’s team states an original price of $25 which seems plausible – but for $7.99 this wine is a Screaming Good Deal!
Victor Vineyards Roadside Red California 2011 $8.99 (PLCB code 33629 – In stores mid-December). California Zinfandel is known as one of the most jammy red wine varietals which invites both detractors and admirers. Combine a super jammy grape with a cooler than usual 2011 growing season and the super ripe characteristics are tempered slightly, which in this instance works out well! The Roadside Red combines a heavy dose of Zinfandel (65%) with smaller amounts of Merlot (18%) and Petit Syrah (9%) – the result is a big, but not lopsided, wine full of red fruits and a little spice (possibly thanks to the Petit Syrah) in the finish. The Wine Enthusiast called this wine a “great bargain” and awarded 88 points, but I feel like the additional time in the bottle has benefited the wine and I feel it is worth 89 points. Original pricing for this wine is said to be $16, but discounted in PA to $8.99 which makes the Roadside Red a Screaming Good Deal!
Evening Land Bourgogne Blanc 2011 $9.99 (PLCB Code 33575 – In Stores now) – A white burgundy (100% Chardonnay) from an un-typical producer… Also an un-typical wine in that the fruit is somewhat more pronounced than the acidity, possibly a nod to the American Chardonnay style – a hint of oak along with apple pie and pear flavors get bigger as the wine warms in the glass. 87 points from me. This wine provides a lot of sophisticated flavor without charging a lot of money – and at $9.99 this wine is a Screaming Good Deal.
Solid values – wines that deliver interesting and compelling taste/flavor experience without breaking the bank.
Peltier Station Viognier 2009 $6.99 (PLCB code 33661) – Party white! Hailing from California’s super warm central valley Lodi wine appellation, this is a nearly heavy, tropical fruited, spicy white. While some might suggest higher acidity would better counter the fruit, I might argue the fruit is nice by itself (additionally I might argue that Lodi is not famous for producing crisp white wines, so it is likely that this Viognier never expected to be crisper than it is!). A great party-white especially for guests who love the dense fruit of California Chardonnays – at this price you can serve at a holiday party and feel no remorse! Drink soon. 86pts
Goose Ridge Vineyards Riesling, Columbia Valley Washington 2013 $7.99 (PLCB code 33574) An interesting wine. The folks at Goose Ridge delivered a Riesling that straddles the range between fully sweet and dry. The fragrant aromas suggest floral and honeysuckle but then a taste delivers succulent peach and tangerine flavors finishing with some mineral and savory notes. If serving turkey for the holidays this Riesling could be the right match at $7.99. 86pts
Paul Dolan Gewürztraminer Revolution, Mendocino County California 2013 $9.99 (PLCB code 33570) An American Gewurztraminer is an unusual wine, but next time I order Indian take out it will by my choice! Aromatics include pear and floral notes with a soft mouth feel followed by flavors of citrus, pear and a mineral-tinged finish. 87 pts
Signae Grechetto IGT Umbria Italy 2013 $9.99 (PLCB code 33608) – Crisp White! Produced in central Italian region of Umbria from a blend of Grechetto, Sauvignon, and Malavasia di Candia. This is a light, bright white wine with a citrusy nose and nicely composed bright tropical/citrus fruit flavors – slightly similar to a Pinot Grigio, but slightly more interesting! 88pts
Stone Forest Chenin Blanc South Africa $11.99 (PLCB code 33658 available mid-January) – South Africa is famous for light, crisp styles of Chenin Blanc (sometimes referred to by the name “Steen”). In France’s Loire valley, the heart of Chenin Blanc wine making tradition the styles are can range from crisp to slightly softer, somewhat sweeter style. The Stone Forest Chenin Blanc is a lovely example of the refreshingly crunchy South African Chenin Blanc with tropical, crisp white with floral hints that soften the crispness. 90 pts
Terra da Vino Masseria dei Carmelitani Gavi di Gavi DOCG Piedmont Italy 2013 $12.99 (PLCB code 33699 available mid-December) A dry but deeply juicy wine from Italy’s most northwest region of Piedmont. Gavi di Gavi whites are highly sought after, so when a good example comes available for only $12.99 a careful look is warranted. This Gavi di Gavi from Terra da Vino Masseria dei Carmelitani delivers a juicy, medium-bodied, floral-tinged but dry mouthful of light fruits. Lightly sauced fish or shrimp will match nicely. 89 pts
Villa Montignana Chianti Classico Riserva Tuscany Italy 2009 $12.99 (PLCB code 33694) Possibly the most recognized Italian wine term is “Chianti” – and maybe this is because the wine is so much a part of the Italian food culture. With this in mind, everyone should make an effort to try some of their favorite Italian red-sauce-based foods with some Chianti wine and enjoy the experience! This Chianti Classico Riserva (designated for steps upward in wine-making and ageing from the simpler Chianti wines) is 85% Sangiovese with 10% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The small portion of Bordeaux grapes makes a difference in this wine by adding heft and slight blueberry and blackberry flavors, but the trademark intense red fruits from Sangiovese still take center stage. Many Sangiovese-based Italian reds require hours and hours of decanting to arrive at a reasonable drinking point, but as this wine already has a few years bottle age, it may be easier drinking sooner. A good price for a nice, if untraditional, Chianti. Wine Enthusiast awarded 89 pts, I rate it 89 pts too.
Colli Ripani Pharus Rosso Piceno Superiore Castellano DOC 2010 $13.99 (PLCB code 33670 available January) Rosso Piceno wines are produced in the Central-Eastern Marche region of Italy – these wines are required by law to have at least 60% Sangiovese with the remainder filled out by Montepulciano grapes (not to be confused with the Italian region and wines that are called Montepulciano). Interestingly, this Rosso Piceno showed typical red fruits in the nose and flavors of red and black fruits packed over a richer than expected frame – if tasted blind I might have suggested it were a new world, modern style red. Either way, a nicely balanced, food friendly wine for a competitive price. 88 pts.
Impressive wines – Wines that impress, regardless of price
Vignamaggio Castello di Monna Lisa Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG $24.99 (PLCB code 33606) Another modern feeling Chianti Classico Riserva and despite the seeming contradiction in terms this wine is quite polished and refined. Sangiovese content hits the minimum 80% threshold to keep the Chainti Classico DOCG designation with the remaining 20% filled out my (unsurprisingly) Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Other Chiantis may provide a more rustic and traditional experience, but in this wine there is quality wine-making and quality fruit to carry the modern wine forward. There is good depth in the traditional Sangiovese notes of violet, cherry and leather yet the refined tannins suggest the wine will become more complex in the next few years (or after several hours of decanting!). Wine Advocate awarded 90 pts and I agree with 90 pts now, but would anticipate a higher rating (91-92 pts) a few years into the future.
Archaval Ferrer Quimera Mendoza Argentina 2011 $28.99 (PLCB code 33644) – A high end wine from one of Argentina’s most highly respected producers. Produced with a blend of all five traditional Bordeaux grapes (38% Malbec, 26% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot), this wine is dense and opaque, but delivers floral and violet notes on the nose. Flavors are intense, savory, cherry and black fruits with uplifting juicy acidity, leading to a long finish with cassis and hint of tea and tobacco. Tannins are sturdy, but fine grained – I suggest some decanting, or simply keeping a bottle for a year or two, you will definitely reap a reward on this one. Wine Advocate awarded 90 pts, Wine Spectator awarded 92 pts, I fall in line with the Spectator and rate this wine 92 pts.
Emblem Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 2009 $34.99 (PLCB code 33622 – available mid-December) Here is another example of the interesting deals that only a program like the Chairman’s Selection program can provide. Emblem wines are produced by the Mondavi family who have more than a little experience making high end Napa reds. In this case it appears the Rutherford Cabernet is being discontinued and the remaining stock sold off to PA wine consumers. This Rutherford Cabernet displays all the wonderful attributes typically associated with Napa Cabs, warm cassis, cedar overlay some dark fruits while aromatic camphorwood notes float over top. The familiar, dusty, Rutherford tannins are quite apparent now, but should settle nicely with some decanting or another year or two in bottle. This Emblem Cab tastes like a much more expensive wine… I will certainly find a few of these for my cellar. I rate it 92 pts.
Clarendon Hills Syrah Brookman Australia 2008 $36.99 (PLCB code 33612) Clarendon Hills was founded in 1990 by a South Australian biochemist pursuing his passion to produce vineyard-inspired wines. Since then Clarendon Hills has enjoyed countless accolades and high prices for big, heavy, impressive Aussie Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, Mourvedre and Grenache wines, all from single vineyards and single grape varietals. As fashion in America (and Australian Dollar exchange rates) shifted away from the big Australian Shiraz styles, Clarendon Hills has pressed on, continuing to make their trademark big reds although prices have dropped – which is good for the consumer! The Brookman is a great example of trademark Clarendon Syrah style. Nothing here is subtle, but despite the power there is plenty of complexity and refinement. Mouth feel is dense with rich smoky plum and blackberry flavors over a strong but not over-bearing backbone of oak and tannin. With a little breathing this wine will impress big red wine fans now, but should keep improving for a few years to come. Wine Spectator awarded 90 pts, Wine Advocate 92 pts, I agree and rate the Brookman 92 pts.
Champagne! (no description needed…)
Herbert Beaufort Brut Champagne Bouzy Grand Cru Carte d’Or NV $32.99 (PLCB code 33675 – available mid-December) Source grapes for this Champagne came from the historic Grand Cru Bouzy appellation which is famous for Pinot Noir, so it is hardly surprising that this Champagne is a blend of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay (bearing in mind that inclusion of the third Champagne grape, Pinot Meunier would render the sparkler a non-Grand Cru as there are no Grand Cru Pinot Meunier vineyards in Champagne). As often expected from Pinot Noir dominant sparklers, the wine taste comes through the mouth feel of rich frothy bubbles. In this Herbert Beaufort medium-rich Champagne we find notes of almonds, peaches and pears with dried fruits blended together followed by a taut grip at the finish –Robust enough to match a buttery lobster dinner! 91 pts.
Pierre Legras Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut NV $34.99 (PLCB code 33274 in stores now) A Grand Cru Champagne for less than the big corporate, well-known, highly marketed blends – worth investigating to be sure, and rewarding in this case. To those who enjoy the delicacy and finesse of a Blanc de Blanc Champagne (100% Chardonnay), this example, for which the grapes were sourced only from designated Grand Cru vineyards, hits the target. Although light in weight, the bead is intense and flavors are a concentrated-yet-refined blend of apple, yeasty biscuit, and chalk – seamless throughout and finishing cleanly with mineral hints. No bad flavors or hard edges. If you have Champagne-loving friends, impress them with this Blanc de Blanc! Wine Spectator awarded 91 pts, I rate it 93 pts.
Alfred Gratien Brut Champagne NV $39.99 (PLCB code 33609 specialty stores) Champagne is a great pleasure for many – and this Alfred Gratien Brut will surely provide pleasure to all who try it! Persistent, lively mousse does not cover over the nicely integrated flavors of hazelnuts, dried fruit and citrus which slowly give way to a clean, slightly chalky, crisp finish. Even though oak is used in production there is little evidence in the flavor. This is a lighter style of Champagne that recalls a Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) with great finesse and delicacy, despite the blend of all three traditional Champagne grapes (45% Chardonnay, 43% Pinot Meunier, 12% Pinot Noir). Sip on its own or try with shellfish and light appetizers. Wine Advocate awarded 90 pts, Wine Spectator awarded 92 pts, I rate it 92 pts!