New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs – all the same?

New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs – all the same?   Some colleagues of mine suggest that New Zealand (Marlborough at least) are interchangeable. The suggestion goes that the flavor profile is so similar in these increasingly easily available NZ SBs, that one becomes another and the brand and winemaker do not matter – therefore, unless one wants to part with nearly $30 for the upper end Cloudy Bay Sauvingon Blanc, the wine that helped put Marlborough on the SB wine map, the less expensive the better in this category.

Currently for sale in the State of Pennsylvania are two discounted Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs – one from Omaka and one from Framingham. Each is from 2009 vintage and each are widely available. But after tasting them, I suggest that while there are some similarities, the wines are clearly NOT interchangeable but rather have their own characteristics.

Omaka Springs Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($8.99 in PA)   Citrus nose, immediately tart and snappy with upfront grapefruit and lemon/lime flavors over top of an undercurrent of tropical fruits and grassiness. The blend of 90% Sauvignon Blanc is joined by 10% Semillon which adds a brightness to the wine. The finish is taught and light, with a slight minerality that broadens as the wine warms. A great value at release, made even better at a lower price.

Framingham Marlborough NZ Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($11.99 in PA)   Nose is soft and lightly tropical. Mouthfeel is surprisingly supple and richer than expected. Flavors are bursting with tropical fruits followed by grapefruit and grapefruit pith. Finish has length and depth with typical minerality. Overall a nicely balanced wine and great value.

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A California-style white… from Portugal!

A California-style white… from Portugal!    What a fascinating wine discovery!  The 2008 Dona Ermelinda White ( is a blend of several native and often unfamiliar Portuguese grapes (Fernao Pires, Arinto, Antao Vaz) and 30% very familiar Chardonnay, the grape responsible for white Burgundies and countless world famous white wines from around the globe. The color is golden while the nose is immediately pungent and rich with strong foreshadowing of oak and fruit flavors to come. The mouth-feel is surprisingly heavy for a white wine from the ‘old world’ of Portugal where white wines mainly expected to be light and taught. At first sip, tropical fruit flavors burst forth, followed by a succession of oak and spice with hints of honey and peach. Overall, this wine reminds me much more of a California Chardonnay than a traditional Portuguese white. And while Chardonnay is only 30% of the cuvee, I imagine many unsuspecting palates in a blind tasting might mistake this wine for a Napa Chardonnay! This is a well balanced, well made wine that surprises with its richness and oak flavors. This white is recommended for those who enjoy rich California whites but like to try new wines from lesser known grapes. You won’t be disappointed.

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Fish Dinner with White Wines

Fish Dinner with White Wines

 A recent dinner put on by “Off the Grid” ( combined the fish-based culinary talents of owners Henry and Angela of Penn Avenue Fish Company ( ).   The idea of a five course fish-only dinner paired with five white wines was interesting, since variety is the spice of life, and restricting the choices to only whites and only fish might cause a boring dinner – fortunately this was not the case!   Penn Avenue Fish Company’s main business is selling fish to restaurant and public customers, along with a casual lunch/sandwich/sushi menu, so they typically close by 4pm.   Lucky for us, Henry and Angela agreed to open up on a Sunday evening and converted their casual lunch space into an upscale dinner setting with table cloths and dimmed lights.

The group of 30+ attendees enjoyed five distinctly diverse courses, ranging from sushi to cooked Cobia, and the white wine pairings worked nicely to compliment the well executed food.   While I enjoyed all the pairings, my favorite was the main course (Ancho dusted Cobia) with the Portuguese Esporao Reserve 2008.  The delicate spiciness and smokiness of the fish, with the wine reduction sauce was well complimented by the full bodied Esporao, which is an unusual wine for the American Palate but might be compared to a Rhone blend white.  I am a huge fan of this wine and recommend it to any fan of big, rich white wines.   One element that I especially appreciate about this gem is that the winemaker (David Baverstock of Esporao – an Australian winemaker who has enjoyed many successful years in Portugal) did not over-embellish any particular element of the wine – the fruit is intense, but balanced by oak, which is strong like the fruit, but not so much as to get in the way – all nicely balanced, despite the ‘bigness’ of the wine.

The menu and wines:

Off the Grid Sunday Supper Series

Swimming with the Fishes at Penn Avenue Fish Company !!!

First Course – Typhoon Roll & Spicy Hawaiian Roll

Cremant de Bourgogne Brut NV  (Cave des Vignerons de Mancy, France)

Second Course – Smoked Trout Napoleon

Bordeaux Blanc – 2008  (Château LAMOTHE de Haux, Bordeaux, France)

Third Course – Grilled Romaine Salad, White Anchovies / Shaved Parmesan / Cherry Tomato Vinaigrette

Jongieux Vin de Savoire – 2009  (Eugene CARREL & Fils, Jongieux, Savoire, France)

Fourth Course – Ancho-dusted Cobia, Crispy Potatoes / Grilled Plantains / Roasted Corn Sauce

Esporao Reserva White – 2008  (Herdade do Esporao, Alentejo, Portugal)

Fifth Course – Humbolt Fog and Toscano Pecorino with Turkish Apricots and Marcona Almonds

Dry Muscat – 2009  (Adega De Pegoes, Portugal)

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Four French Values from recent Wine and Cheese Cruise

Four French Values from recent Wine and Cheese Cruise

Recently a cheese-expert friend of mine, David Bennett, presented an opportunity to pair wines and cheeses, with the additional treat of discussing these pairings as we floated on the river in a fabulous private yacht, watching the sun set against the skyline of Pittsburgh.   Who am I to say ‘no’ to such an opportunity?   The result was a two hour floating event in which 30 people enjoyed French wine and cheese put together specifically to compliment each flavor-set.   

Our decision to pair French wine with French cheese is an understandable goal, since French wine and cheese are important parts of French culture, but any pursuit like this would be difficult because the State of Pennsylvania in which we live controls all wine distribution and choices, and Pittsburgh’s cheese choices are far fewer than a typical Parisian market.  Adding to the challenge was our budget, which was somewhat tight.   But I like to think that we prevailed and presented four good pairings – below are the chosen cheeses and wines we paired together: (each wine is followed by the cheese)

Cremant de Bourgogne NV -France   Made with same process as Champagne, but in Burgundy region a few miles to the south of Champagne, this Cremant is fresh and crisp with tightly focused flavors – a great starter.

Fleur Verte    A fresh goat’s milk cheese that is smothered in fresh herbs and juniper berries.  It’s the perfect summer cheese, made in Périgord, the same region of France that produces truffles and froie gras.

2008 Jean Touzot Macon-Village France   This 100 percent Chardonnay wine is made ‘un-oaked’ and fermented in stainless steel.  Flavors are fresh and crisp with apple and pear nuance followed by crisp acidity at the finish.

Ossau Iraty   A fabulous sheep’s milk cheese made in the French Pyrenées.  It has a creamy texture, a complex and mildly nutty taste, with a smooth refined finish.  This cheese has ancient origins, originally made by shepherds living in the region.

2005 Le Giron Bordeaux France   Light to medium bodied wine, this is an ‘old-school’ Bordeaux with dark berry and plum flavors mixed through a fleshy, earthy structure – Merlot dominant wine.

Comté   This cheese has been made since the time of Charlemagne in the Jura Moutains of France.  Each wheel of cheese is 110 lbs.  The main characteristic of Comté is its exceptional aromatic diversity. A study carried out in 1993 by a professional tasting jury identified more than 200 aromatic components

2005  Chateau Haut Gacherie Bordeaux France   Medium bodied Bordeaux with red fruit notes and creamy elements, along with hints of vanilla and cocoa in a nicely structured body followed by a spicy finish.

Bleu d’Auvergne   This is an extraordinary blue cheese made in the Auvergne region of south-central France. The veining is created with Penicillium glaucum, rather than Penicillium roqueforti, which gives it a more pleasant and milder taste than most other blue cheeses.

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Boutique-style California wines for value-style budget

If you drive north through the northern most vicinity of Napa Valley, a few minutes past Calistoga, you will arrive in the AVA (American Viticultural Area) known as Knights Valley.   Although not the most recognized wine region in California, this AVA is considered by many to be a gem in the hills north of Napa.   Many winemakers in Kights Valley grow grapes and make wine with traditional values in mind.   Dave and Kathy Burton reflect this notion and believe the traditional wine making expression that good wine is made in the vineyard.  

The Speedy Creek journey began in the 1990s when Dave Burton, a biochemist with a dream to own a vineyard, continued to work in the biotech industry while developing Speedy Creek vineyards, a project that he initially intended to be a grape supplier.   Those goals were met quickly and in recent years Dave and Kathy have planted multiple red varietals.  While they continue to sell grapes to other (critically successful) boutique wine-makers, Speedy Creek’s own-label wines are now becoming a significant part of Dave and Kathy’s operation.   And it is mainly Dave and Kathy who personally operate the vineyard – and live in it.   Constant proximity allows them to pay as much attention as possible to the health and development of the grapes throughout the season.   In some way, it is possible that this personal attention and care finds itself into the quality and character of the grapes and eventually the wines made by these hard-working people.

I am happy to recommend these wines for those seeking California wine of boutique-style character, with the added bonus of non-boutique-style pricing.

2007 Speedy Creek Cabernet Sauvignon ($30)    The nose on this Cabernet is earthy, with hints of cherry.   Flavors are intense, but balanced, with dark blackberry and cherry flavors giving way to a rich earthiness, then finishing with dark fruit and caramel-oak flavors.  Not a thin or weak wine by any stretch, but this wine displays a unique rustic character that sets it apart from many others in the price category.  

2006 Speedy Creek Sangiovese ($22)    This wine delivers aromas of dark fruits and slight floral notes.  Mouthfeel is much richer than expected if one is anticipates an Italian-style Sangiovese, but the richness is quite typical for a hearty Californian red.   While the flavors are richer than Italian counterparts, this wine maintains food-friendly acidity that marks the Sangiovese varietal as a food-lover favorite.   Dark cherry and Plumy flavors draw through to a dark, spicy finish.

2007 Speedy Creek Zinfandel ($26)    Aromas of spicy fruit and a hint of smokiness mark the nose of this wine.  The flavors are fruit-forward with a mid-palate punch of intense blackberry fruit.   Many California Zinfandels in recent years have displayed heavy fruit flavors bordering on sweetness, but this Speedy Creek Zinfandel is a satisfying, smooth, fruit-forward wine.

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Great Value White Wines for Summer!

As the cold of Winter gives way to warmer temperatures of Spring, many wine enthusiasts and restaurants start thinking about warm weather wines.   For me, this group of warm weather wines comprises mainly whites, although rose is a favorite of mine for the summer, but that is a topic for a future post, so for the moment I will talk about whites.   Within this “warm weather” classification, I am constantly on the look out for wines that present an easily accessible price point, while providing a desirable flavor and taste profile.   Below are a couple of recently tasted white wines that I recommend because they provide a great value for their types:

Herdade do Esporao, Monte Velho White 2009  ($10)    The nose is full of floral aromas, citrus and peach, with a slight hint of papaya in the background.   The mouth feel is medium bodied and richer than expected, with intense flavors of peach and tropical/citrus fruits balanced toward a stony mineral-ish finish.   Cold fermentation in stainless steel tanks maintains flavor freshness in this wine that could do nicely with seafood, Asian fare– or simply as a refreshing aperitif.

Domaine Bernard Moreau White Burgundy Chardonnay 2009  ($16)    The nose is clean and slightly citrus while not overpowering.   The wine has a medium body and luscious mouth feel with flavors of tart green apple, pear and a hint of lemon zest mid-palate.  All flavors are beautifully balanced throughout and the finish has an inviting crispness that provides reason to keep sipping the wine, just to experience the finish again…A lovely example of a high value white burgundy.

Chateau Lamothe de Haux Blanc 2008 ($15)    This is a standard Bordeaux Blanc blend of Sauvignon Blanc (40%), Sémillon (40%), and Muscadelle (20%).   The nose is light and fresh, immediately floral with citrus followed by a hint of pineapple.   Solid medium bodied wine.  Mouth-filling flavors of lemon, green apple with a touch of melon and honey, finishes with complex mix of citrus and minerality – all very well balanced throughout.  Would pair well with shrimp, lobster or goat cheeses.  A great value Bordeaux Blanc.

Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay 2008  ($9)    Nose is pungent and juicy with aromas of grapefruit, mandarin orange and lemon.  This wine is medium to full bodied, with intense flavors of citrus, melon, grapefruit combine with a hint of toastiness that nicely balances the wine.  These broad creamy flavors are followed by a slightly mineral finish with a hint of oak, but only a hint, not overpowering.  Overall there is a surprisingly fine balance throughout that suggests a more expensive wine.   As a category, Australian Chardonnays have been somewhat maligned in recent vintages for tasting ‘over-manufactured’, but this Jacob’s Creek Chard is representative of how great the Aussies can be, even at a mass market price point.   If you enjoy full flavored New World Style chardonnays, give this fruit-driven example a try.

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Australia Day Wines!

Australia Day wines

Australian wines are close to my heart.   When I was barely 21 years old, my great uncle Mick (who lived in Adelaide South Australia) sat me down to explain why he enjoyed the “Beef and Burgundy” club so much and why his native Australian wines were so interesting to him…   Uncle Mick was a noted scientist in his day, so he had a very precise and specific way of walking me through the origins and flavor profiles of various varietals.  All this, combined with the Australian wine industry’s massive expansion during the past 20-30 years, brings me to my recent “Australia Day” wine dinner. 

Australia Day is the 26th of January and for us in the United States is most closely compared to the 4th of July, in that it marks the founding of the country, and includes much summer time celebration.  Since summer is in January in southern hemisphere, it makes sense to have outdoor barbeques and parties, while here in North America we made due with yearning thoughts of beaches while inside the warm confines of a cozy restaurant.

My challenge was to match five wines to a multi-course menu prepared by a generous and talented chef/friend.

The opening course was handmade mini quiches and spiced nuts.   Guests socialize before seating so I sought a light bubbly.   Australia is the proud producer of many sparkling wines, including a number of world-class sparklers from the southern most Australian state of Tasmania (topic to be explored in a future post), but we went for a good value in the DeBortoli Sparkling Brut NV.  This sparkler has a fresh citrusy nose that foreshadows flavors that are equally crisp and dry with some hints of apple flavors pulled together by a clean finish.  Everyone agreed that the sparkler did a wonderful job of ‘waking up’ our palates.   Many inexpensive sparkling wines are sweet but this $10.99 DeBortoli was dry, providing a fine foil to the appetizers.

Second course was shrimp.  But not just regular shrimp – our chef friend demonstrated a technique of cooking the shrimp with the tail and shell to impart richer flavors and served them split much like a lobster.  This was topped with a white wine reduction containing a touch of kiwi fruit.   The kiwi was light enough to impart a slight fruitiness without becoming sweet.   The wine pairing was Pirie Tasmania South “Estelle” 2007, a blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris.   While these grape varietals typically suggest a sweetish wine like those from Alsace region, our “Estelle” was bursting with fruit, but with an accompanying acidity which made the finish more like an Australian dry Riesling (many of which can make you pucker).  This wine, like the first one was a bargain at $14.99.

Our main course was lamb chops (or as I like to call it: lamb-cicles) with a red wine macadamia reduction.   If my great uncle Mick were still around, he would be embarrassed if I matched lamb with anything other than shiraz, so we made sure to have good examples!   There is no better way to compare wines than to have them next to each other, so we provided everyone with two wines (and initially we didn’t tell them which was which!).  The two reds were Peter Lehman Clancy’s 2006 (a blend of mostly Shiraz with some Cabernet and Merlot – a very uncommon blend outside of Australia $15.99) and the Two Hands “Bella’s Garden” Shiraz 2004 (100% shiraz typically $60 but we got a sale price of $34.99).   As you might expect the more expensive “Bella’s Garden” was a favorite.  This powerful wine has trademark Shiraz characteristics, including dark purple color, rich dark berry and smoky flavors accompanied by a long, spicy, lingering finish.  This wine could be too powerful for many foods, but with our dinner it was a fine experience.   The “Clancy’s” shiraz blend, despite being a less expensive wine showed admirably in the shadow of the more expensive Australian cousin.  The blend of Shiraz with smaller amounts of Cabernet and Merlot creates a wine of great richness, yet with enough tannic backbone to balance the flavors and complete the experience.  Overall “Clancy’s” is more approachable compared to the “Bella’s Garden” and considering the price, “Clancy’s” is quite impressive.

No meal is complete without dessert.  Some years ago our chef friend made a pavlova for the Australian Ambassador and Embassy Delegation – so we were happy for him to prepare the same dessert for us ‘normal people’.   Since the pavlova is light and airy with fruit and cream involved, I knew a typical Australian Port or Muscat would be too heavy (although there are many that are tasty and complex on their own) so we sought out a lighter dessert wine alternative in the d’Arenberg Stump Jump “Chardonnay Sticky”.  This wine is produced by late-harvesting chardonnay grapes that have given up much of their moisture, thus the drier grapes late in the season contain high levels of sugar, creating a lightly sweet wine.   The flavors typically associated with Chardonnay; of tropical fruits and apple are present, but additional layers of sweet butterscotch and orange round out the flavor package.  Altogether a fine accompaniment for the dessert that left us all satisfied.

Wine summary:

DeBortoli Sparkling Brut NV ($10.99) – 3 starts out of 5 stars – a fine sparkler to kick off a meal and ‘wake up the palate’.  If you can find it, drink it now.

Pirie Tasmania – South – “Estelle” 2007 ($14.99) – 3.5 stars out of 5 stars – a blend of 50% Riesling, 30% Gewürztraminer, 20% Pinot Gris.  Spicy, succulent lime and citrus flavors, crisp finish.   Drink it now.

Peter Lehman “Clancy’s” Blend 2006 ($15.99) – 3.5 starts out of 5 stars – Shiraz is the dominant grape, but lesser quantities of Cabernet and Merlot add structure and richness to this great-value red.  Drink it now.

Two Hands “Bella’s Garden” Shiraz 2004 ($35.99, normally $60) – 4 stars out of 5 stars – This 100% Shiraz is a huge and impressive wine, not for the feint of heart.  Drink it now or wait another 2-3 years.

d’Arenberg “The Stump Jump Sticky Chardonnay” 2008 ($9.99) – 3.5 stars out of 5 stars – an intriguingly different ‘sticky’ made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, lots of flavors like apple and tropical fruits but with rich layers of dried apricots and sweet oranges.  Drink it now.

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