Here’s How You Can Spring Into Great White Wines

spain_245I prefer to  post only things that I’ve written, but every once in a while you run across a piece of wine writing that needs to be shared. That’s how I feel about Jon Bonné’s piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. There are too many of my friends who love to cook but claim that white wine has no place in their world. I think a few of the wines listed here could help them step out of their comfort zone and start enjoying a wider, more exciting roster of wines. Cheers!

http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/For-spring-flavors-10-wines-that-see-green-5414004.php

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So Few Places Like Jordan

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If you set out to visit Jordan Vineyard and Winery expecting it to be like some of the other wineries you’ve been to, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Jordan doesn’t have many of the same things that most wineries offer.

Jordan doesn’t have crowds. They don’t have guests two and three deep at a long tasting bar. Nor do they have a high-pressured “hospitality” staff pushing you to join the wine club or have you walk out with wines you hadn’t planned to buy. If you’re looking for that sort of experience, then Jordan is not for you.

To read more, just click here. Cheers!

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Geek Of The Week — Assyrtiko

IMG_2368For many wine lovers, this white wine of Greece, principally from the volcanic island of Santorini, is a mainstream varietal, one they’ve been enjoying for years. That’s all well and good, but for the purpose of today’s lesson I’m not interested in those folks. It’s the rest of you who need to listen up.

Summertime is coming. The weather is getting warmer. Meals will get lighter, and people will spend more time in the fresh air. Patios and backyards will shrug off winter’s detritus and become, once again, the places to be. This is where assyrtiko comes in.

Looking ahead to summer meals, do you think you might be grilling some fish, maybe vegetables? How about putting together some hearty salads? If your summer wines don’t venture much past chardonnay, pinot grigio, and sauvignon blanc, you owe it to yourself to open a bottle of assyrtiko. Here’s a tasting note from a few months imagesback on one of my favorite labels, Sigalas (above), one of Greece’s finest producers: “What’s there not to like? Brilliant pale lemon yellow, almost clear. Whiffs of cool ocean breezes, with lemon and honey on the nose. Medium-plus body with some earthy minerality and mouth watering acidity. Medium to long finish. I hear this wine can age. Maybe. Just not in our house.”

But don’t take my word for it. In his authoritative and popular Pocket Wine Book, British wine writer and critic Hugh Johnson has this to say about assyrtiko: “One of the best grapes of the Mediterranean, balancing power, minerality, extract, and high acid. Built to age. Could rule the world…” Not your run-of-the-mill white wine.

Assyrtiko offers a great example of what the French call “terroir.” It tastes like the place it comes from. It has a bit of brininess like the sea that surrounds Santorini. It conjures Unknownfeelings of warm sunshine and the flavors of fresh seafood grilled over a crackling fire. Its citrus flavors, bright acidity, and earthy minerality combine to let you know that this is not some simple white quaffer, but a varietal that stands among the best the wine world can offer.

Like all of the world’s great wines, assyrtiko has elements all its own, things that make it unique. While this grape does grow in other places in Greece, Santorini is its home, and where it thrives. On that island it accounts for a dominant 70% of the land under vine. It’s a vine that can reach remarkable ages, for two significant reasons. One, the vines are ungrafted, meaning they grow on their own roots, which contributes to longevity. And, two, the vines are trained often into basket shape and grow very close to the ground, which protects the foliage and fruit from the constant island winds. Some reports allege that many vines (roots) are at least 500 years old.IMG_2504

A good teacher should never ask students to do something he’s not willing or able to do, so this afternoon I headed over to Craft Beer & Wine, formerly Du Vin Fine Wines, in Alameda to do some shopping. The general manager, Dan Marshall, oversees one of the best Greek wine inventories in the Bay Area, if not all of California (which really means the entire west coast). He had six assyrtikos in stock and I grabbed them all, and not just for research. These wines are for drinking. Do you think I’m kidding about this being a great summer wine? I’ve had a few of the labels many times before, but a couple of the wines are new to me and I can’t wait to dive into them. I’m especially eager to try the Nikteri from Hatzidakis, which is made from late-harvest assyrtiko and aged in oak. From what I hear it’s a unique throwback to a IMG_2505more traditional style, with fascinating complexities of flavor and texture.

So, do your homework. Get on Wine-Searcher.com and see what shops in your area carry assyrtiko. Then hustle over to grab a couple (best to start small), all the while planning the menus for your summer cookouts. Assyrtiko is a special wine from a special place, and it’s time you found out for yourself just what you’ve been missing.

Class dismissed.

 

(sources: Wine Grapes, Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz; Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2014; WinesofSantorini.com; Chasingthevine.com)

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Let’s Go Shopping — Back To The Bargain Aisle

DSC_0933In the coming months I’ll again be beating the drum of “try something new!” Remember, one of the nice things about making attempts to climb out of your wine rut is that you don’t have to go broke doing so. A recent listing in one of my favorite wine mags proves this point convincingly. What I like most about this list, apart from the great prices, is that it provides an on-ramp for my encouragement to take risks with your wine purchases.

In the April 2014 issue, Wine & Spirits‘s critics pull together a short list of what they call The Best For $10 or Less. Collectively they tasted more than 3300 wines for the April issue, but the eight listed below struck them as being especially worthwhile. Along with a few of the usual suspects, there are also three picks from Portugal, one of the current hot spots in the wine world, that are worth checking out. So, when you go shopping in the next couple of days, take this list with you. Give yourself a break from the same old, same old. Wake your palate up with something new. Is there a better way to spend money than finding a new wine, or two, to enjoy? No, I don’t think so either. Happy shopping!

$8 2012 Round Hill California Chardonnay “As rich as much pricier wines, balance with flavors of wildflower honey and Meyer lemon. ” Round Hill Vineyards, St. Helena, CA

$8 2012 Oak Grove Pinot Grigio Reserve “A zippy, lemony wine to cut through fried calamari.” Oak Grove Vineyards, San Martin, CA

IMG_0723$9 2011 Melini Chianti Borghi d’Elsa “Sunday Chianti for rump roast, with soft, violet-scented red fruit.” Frederick Wildman and Sons, NY

$10 2012 Stonehedge California Sauvignon Blanc “This intense beam of passion fruit flavor is fresh and ready for littleneck clams.” Stonehedge Cellars, St. Helena, CA

$10 2011 Visconde de Borba Alentejo “Lean and spicy, a light red to serve with pork roasted with apricots.” Aidil Wines & Liquors, Newark, NJ

$10 2012 Ravenswood California Vintners Blend Zinfandel “Syrah, petite [sirah] and other mixed blacks [red grapes] build meaty savor into this warming, heady red.” Ravenswood, Sonoma, CA

$10 2011 Quinta do Portal Douro Mural “Scents of mint and flowers on ripe, purple fruit — for casual dinners around the grill.” M. Imports, Fairfield, CT

$10 2012 Caves Velhas Tejo Casaleiro “Simple and welcoming tart cherry and strawberry flavors for roast duck.” Vison Wine & Spirits, Secaucus, NJ

If you happen to pick up one or more of these selections, let me know how they treated you. It’s important to keep The Grape Belt staff on its toes. Thanks!

DSC_1192 **Wine list and tasting notes from Wine & Spirits April 2014

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The End Of The Road

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Once we arrived in Nelson, we had only a few days left before it was time to head for home.  We had begun to feel the tug of the familiar but were determined to squeeze the last few drops of fun out of our time away. We still had to get over to Marlborough to visit some wineries there, and we were excited about the day we had planned for a visit to the Abel Tasman National Park. In between these two mini adventures, we left time to stroll the quiet streets of Nelson, visit local producers, grab a few last dinners out — we promised ourselves we wouldn’t go near a restaurant for a very long time once we got home — and, in general, enjoy knowing that we were still having, as Mary called it, “the vacation of a lifetime.”

One of the finest restaurants in Nelson. Every bite a delight.

One of the finest restaurants in Nelson. Every bite a delight.

Lamb? Did someone say lamb? My, what a surprise!

Lamb? Did someone say lamb? My, what a surprise!

After weeks of various meats, Mary opted for some delicate raviolis. Filled with meat.

After weeks of various meats, Mary opted for some delicate raviolis. Filled with meat.

The crowd forms early for the shuttles to various parts of Abel Tasman National Park.

The crowd forms early for the shuttles to various parts of Abel Tasman National Park.

Here comes our boat that will ferry us to the start of our hike.

Here comes the boat that will ferry us to the start of our hike.

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The morning air was a bit chilly but we were eager to get underway.

The morning air was chilly but we were eager to get underway.

Leaning on the sign made me think I was conserving energy, which I was going to need for our hike. When we weren't going up, we were going down. Not a flat spot in sight.

Leaning on the sign made me think I was conserving energy, which I was going to need for our hike. When we weren’t going up, we were going down. Not a flat spot in sight.

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The Kiwi symbol.

The Kiwi symbol, ubiquitous.

Taxi!! Time to head back to civilization.

Taxi!! Time to head back to civilization.

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Rush hour in Nelson.

Rush hour in Nelson. Not really. This is a major side street, but Nelson is, for the most part, a very quiet town.

One of our best winery stops of our entire vacation was at Neudorf, about 10 miles outside town. Owner Judy Neudorf gave us the royal treatment during a personal tour and tasting.

One of the best winery stops of our entire vacation was at Neudorf, about 10 miles outside town. Owner Judy Finn gave us the royal treatment during a personal tour and tasting.

Their winery, which Judy and her husband Tim have been working on since the late 1970s, could not have been more welcoming and comfortable.

Their winery, which Judy and her husband Tim have been working on since 1980, could not have been more welcoming and comfortable.

Judy is proud of the fact that she planted all the vines in the original block of the Neudorf vineyard.

Judy is proud of the fact that she planted all the vines in the original block of the Neudorf vineyard.

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Following Neudorf, we drove a few miles to Woollaston, a popular newcomer to the Nelson area wine scene. The reds at Woollaston were good, but their whites were stunning.

This is the view from the back lawn at Woolaston Vineyard, about five minutes from Neudorf.

This is the view from the back lawn at Woollaston. Not too shabby.

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Our drive to Marlborough started cloudy and got worse.

Throughout New Zealand, every where you went you could count on finding clean, well-maintained public restrooms. Gas stations and fast food joints, the typical go-to spots in the States, paled in comparison to these public facilities. America could learn a few things from the New Zealanders on what really matters.

Throughout New Zealand, everywhere you went you could count on finding clean, well-maintained public restrooms. Gas stations and fast food joints, the typical go-to spots in the States, paled in comparison to these public facilities. America could learn a few things from the New Zealanders on what really matters.

On the road to Marlborough. The rain and low-hanging clouds were unable to dampen our excitement as we drove over the hills separating the Nelson area from Marlborough.

On the road to Marlborough. The rain and low-hanging clouds were unable to dampen our excitement as we drove over the hills separating the Nelson area from Marlborough.

Our first stop was at Fromm, where we began our day of tasting with an in impressive lineup. Both their sauvignon blanc and pinot noir were in fine form.

Our first stop was at Fromm, where we began our day of tasting with an in impressive lineup. Both their sauvignon blanc and pinot noir were in fine form.

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Next up was Te Whare Ra, an 11 hectare vineyard and winery started in 1979. Their sauvignon blanc vines, which date to that year, are the oldest in Marlborough.

Next up was Te Whare Ra, an 11 hectare vineyard and winery started in 1979. Their sauvignon blanc vines, which date to that year, are the oldest in Marlborough.

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When we planned our NZ trip, I imagined I'd stop in at Allan Scott, whose sauvignon blanc was the first Kiwi wine I can remember having. I felt a little bit guilty as we drove past and pulled in across the road at Cloudy Bay.

When we planned our NZ trip, I imagined I’d stop in at Allan Scott, whose sauvignon blanc was the first Kiwi wine I can remember drinking. I felt a little bit guilty as we drove past and pulled in across the road at Cloudy Bay.

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Founded in 1985, Cloudy Bay is one of the largest and most important wineries in the region. Exporting on a global scale, they have helped to raise the Kiwi profile around the world. They are now owned by The LVMH Group (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), the world’s largest luxury goods company).

The next day was an early start. We left Nelson at 7 am to fly to Auckland, then to Hong Kong, and on to San Francisco, where we landed at 8 pm. A seemingly normal day that was more than 30 hours long. Now, it’s time to start talking about wine and grapes and all those fantastic and fascinating things that go along with them. Time, that is, to get back to what The Grape Belt is all about. Thanks for traveling with us. 

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North To Nelson…The Scenic Route

Mt. Cook, our halfway point for the first day’s drive, was in our crosshairs from the beginning of our journey north.

Our original plans called for us to make the one-hour flight from Queenstown in the south to Nelson in the north, but after some “what the hell are we thinking” deliberation, we decided to rent a car and drive. A little bit of research and some chatting with the locals in Q’town convinced us that we’d be fools to miss the chance to see more of the southern island. In the brief debate between convenience and getting the most out of our time in New Zealand, there wasn’t much a debate. As soon as we understood what was in store, we could hardly wait to hit the road.

Great to look at alongside the road. Even better to eat.

Great to look at alongside the road. Even better to eat.

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Homage to one of the great Kiwis of all time.

Homage to one of the great Kiwis of all time.

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The brilliant blue of Lake Pukaki, with Mt. Cook towering in the distance.

The brilliant blue of Lake Pukaki, with Mt. Cook towering in the distance.

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One stop shopping.

One stop shopping.

Lupins, a ubiquitous sight along the roads of New Zealand.

Lupins, a ubiquitous sight along the roads of New Zealand.

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They're not kidding.

They’re not kidding.

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One-lane bridges are a commonplace as you drive the southern island.

One-lane bridges are a commonplace as you drive the southern island.

I think American's could learn something here.

I think Americans could learn something here.

We stopped for the night in the small town of Hanmer Springs, and enjoyed a beautiful meal at a restaurant called No. 31. This is a starter of pork belly with coconut rice cake.

We stopped for the night in the small town of Hanmer Springs, and enjoyed a beautiful meal at a restaurant called No. 31. This is a starter of pork belly with coconut rice cake.

Another delicious starter of scallops over saffron risotto.

Another delicious starter of scallops over saffron risotto.

Our dinner wine, a terrific match for both our entrees. Sleek, full-bodied, elegant, balanced. And, not a wine to break the bank. Maybe it being local helped a bit.

Our dinner wine, a terrific match for both our entrees. Sleek, full-bodied, elegant, balanced. And, not a wine to break the bank. Maybe it being local helped a bit.

Merino lamb rump with slow cooked lamb croquette on French onion puree and potato gratin, with braised red cabbage and thyme jus. Killer!

Merino lamb rump with slow cooked lamb croquette on French onion puree and potato gratin, with braised red cabbage and thyme jus. Killer!

Pork fillet wrapped in streaky bacon on roast kumara puree, with grilled apple, kumara crisps and rosemary cream. Another ace from the kitchen.

Pork fillet wrapped in streaky bacon on roast kumara puree, with grilled apple, kumara crisps and rosemary cream. Another ace from the kitchen.

Our night cap back in the motel. Despite the fellow at Brennan being a knot head, Mr. Brennan makes good wines.

Our night cap back in the motel. Despite the fellow at Brennan being a knot head, Mr. Brennan makes good wines.

The drive the following day from Hanmer Springs was a pure delight. We could not have asked for more beautiful skies and scenery.

The drive the following day from Hanmer Springs was a pure delight. We could not have asked for more beautiful skies and scenery.

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The wide beaches and sky blue water of Tasman Bay told us that we had reached our destination. Despite not knowing what to expect, we were eager to enjoy our remaining time in New Zealand.

The wide beaches and sky blue water of Tasman Bay told us that we had reached our destination. Despite not knowing what to expect, we were eager to enjoy our remaining time in New Zealand.

Next, we spend our final days in NZ enjoying the treats of Nelson and the nearby Abel Tasman National Park.

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A Mad Dash Through Central Otago

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This was outside the building where we picked up our rental car. A bit of Kiwi humor perhaps, as driving to any of these places is pretty much out of the question.

One of our main objectives to visiting New Zealand, apart from enjoying the wild splendor of the south island, was to visit the heart of Central Otago and learn as much as we could in the little time we had. So, I polled some social media connections in the States, Australia, and New Zealand, and came up with four very different wineries for us to visit on the one day we had.

The drive from Queenstown to Cromwell is only 30 miles, but the winding secondary road (there are no interstates in this part of New Zealand) makes it nearly an hour’s drive. Our first port of call was at Quartz Reef, in the town of Cromwell itself. In all my excitement at visiting our first NZ winery, I must have left my journalism skills at home, as I failed to take any decent pictures while there. Happily, I was a bit better, not much but a bit, during our other stops. Without further adieu, our day in Central Otago.

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A glimpse of what might have been. Okay, that’s a lie. There was no way that Mary and I were going to throw ourselves off a bridge attached to life by only a giant rubberband. That being said, we weren’t oppposed to watching others put themselves in harm’s way.

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Watching this couple go hurtling through space was more than enough adventure for the early morning.

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The town of Cromwell takes great pride in being the one of the agricultural linchpins of Central Otago.

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The stark simplicity of the tasting room at Quartz Reef lies in complete opposition to the elegance and complexity of the wines poured there. We tasted through the entire lineup and came away as very big fans.

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Our second stop of the day was at Northburn Station, where, following our tasting, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch, al fresco, in the shade of the patio. Our roasted lamb dishes were superb, and having a glass of their wonderful ’09 reserve pinot noir, which we did not see during our tasting, certainly didn’t hurt.

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Following lunch we headed back down past Cromwell to Bannockburn for a stop at Felton Road. Several people in the wine business encouraged us to visit here, but their encouragement was unnecessary. We had already tasted Felton Road wines. We knew it was a must-see producer. I’m still thinking about joining their wine club.

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We enjoyed many fine wines during our time in the Queenstown area, but these two that we tasted at the winery might have been the best.

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The walls of the bathroom at Felton Road are covered in wine boxes from some of the top chateaux in Bordeaux. An editorial comment on French wine, perhaps?

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Our final stop of the day was Brennan’s. One interesting component of our tasting was comparing the two different styles of pinot gris/grigio that they make. The pinot gris is in the New Zealand style, while the pinot grigio is more akin to the wines you’d find in northern Italy. We would have enjoyed our time more had the fellow pouring for us, who we later found out is the winery’s marketing manager, not insisted on parading his ignorant dislike for all things Napa Valley. His boorish remarks came after he found out that the two couples he was entertaining were Americans who knew Napa well and had some favorite producers there. I won’t be looking for Brennan wines anytime soon.

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Next up, we take two days to drive the length of the south island, stopping along the way at Hanmer Springs, before finishing our trek in Nelson on the north shore. 

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