Archive for August, 2011

Hybrid varietals a growing factor in Colorado’s wine future

August 31, 2011 Leave a comment

When I die …,

Chances are things won’t be this good.

Telluride Ski Resort and Rodney Strong Vineyards of Sonoma County have teamed up, bringing together world-class skiing with world-class wines. What’s not to like?

According to Telluride spokesman Tom Watkinson, Rodney Strong Vineyards and Telluride will partner for special events at Telluride’s flagship restaurant Allred’s and at the “who-needs-alcohol-when-you’re-already-this-high” Alpino Vino wine bar, located at 12,000 feet near the top of Gold Hill. Other events and activities are still being planned, Watkinson said.

“We’re looking at special events for our Ski & Golf Club members as well as some public events such as the local winefest and public wine tastings,” he said.

Rodney Strong Vineyards is perhaps best known as the first Sonoma County winery to release a single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon and the first to plant pinot noir in the Russian River Valley. Under the direction of winemaker Rick Sayre, the winery’s Alexander’s Crown Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Chalk Hill Vineyard Chardonnay have become well-known favorites.

We likely won’t see a Telluride appellation, but that leads us into the next subject.

What do Baco Noir, Marquette, Marechal Foch and Vidal have in common, other than you don’t know them as wine grapes?

Picking Chambourcin grapes at Leroux Creek Vineyards near Hotchkiss. Chambourcin is a French-American hybrid varietal introduced in 1963 and better known along the East Coast and mid-Atlantic states.

You’re forgiven for not recognizing these grape varieties. They’re hybrid varietals, crosses between native North American grapes and better-known European vinifera varietals. For now, the hybrids are more familiar to Midwest and East Coast wine drinkers, but that’s going to change.

The secret to hybrids’ success is their disease-resistance and cold hardiness, in some cases down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit and lower. Colorado’s climate protects us from the bugs and diseases you’ll find in California, France or other moderate grape-growing regions. But those cold winters also make a grape grower’s life a nightmare. Colorado grape growers have much in comon with grape growers in the Midwest and Atlantic states when it comes to needing a grape that survives bitter cold and still makes a decent wine.

State viticulturist Horst Caspari, who long has preached the economic benefits of raising hybrid grapes, has several rows of hybrids at the Rogers Mesa Research Center near Hotchkiss. Among those hybrid is auxerrois, a white grape from the cooler regions of France and Switzerland. Pinot blanc wines from Alsace commonly are a blend of pinot blanc and auxerrois.

“It’s been called a poor man’s chardonnay,” Caspari said. “It makes good wines, but it’s difficult to sell if you’re not familiar with it.”

That lack of familiarity is a marketing problem common to most hybrid varietals. Among the few local winemakers producing wines from hybrids is Yvon Gros at Leroux Creek Vineyards, who makes a Chambourcin (red) and Cayuga (white), grapes more familiar with East Coast drinkers.

“I’ve had guests from New York come here and when they see the Cayuga, the say, ‘That’s my favorite wine,'” Gros once told me. “Colorado wine drinkers just say, ‘What’s that?'”

Similarly, Guy Drew of McElmo Canyon near Cortez is turning to hybrids in an effort to have a full crop every year. Drew has a neighbor growing Bacon Noir, and recent blends of Baco Noir with Cabernet Sauvignon have proven not only tasty but marketable.

Drew and Gros are believers in what Caspari has been telling Western Slope and Front Range winemakers for several years: That growing hybrids, not vinifera,is the key to ensuring a crop in Colorado’s borderline grape climate. Caspari and others hybrid growers were able to produce a crop of grapes in winters when other growers were wiped out.

“The economics of the business say you need eight full crops in a 10-year period,” Caspari said. “With the current selection of varieties, they have three in 10 in Delta County, if they are lucky.”

Caspari, however, says his hybrids have produced a “crop every year since 2004,” when they were planted.

“In this valley you could (grow) vinifera and in most years get a decent crop and good quality,” Caspari said. “But along the Front Range it has to be hybrids.”

The major complaint is that hybrids as standalone wines don’t make good wines. But when blended with vinifera grapes, the wines can be quite good.

“Who says they have to be stand-alones?” Caspari asked. “With most of these hybrids, a few percent blended to something else changes it.”

The other argument is no one understands hybrid varietals, but since they do so well when blended with more-familiar grapes such as Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, a smart vintner won’t reveal what grapes are inside.

“You could label it ‘Colorado Red’ and if it’s good and it’s affordable, who will care what the grapes are?” Caspari said. “And do we really need another Chardonnay or Merlot?”

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A visit to the land of Freixenet

August 21, 2011 Leave a comment

It catches me by surprise to realize my July road trip through Spain ended nearly a month ago. The memories of friends made, wines tasted and roadside attractions we were too busy to stop for remain fresh and vital.
The week-long trip was made possible and paid for by the Freixenet Group, a name in winegrowing that dates back to the 16th Century and today is the world’s ninth largest wine company and the world’s largest producer of methode champenoise sparkling wines. I enjoyed every moment (except when a gypsy in Barcelona helped herself to my cell phone) and surely wouldn’t have had such a memorable nor educational trip without Freixenet (pronounced fresh-eh-net) sponsoring my travels.

The Freixenet 'bottle car' designed for the 1929 World's Fair in Barcelona. It begins your introduction into the fascinating world of Freixenet sparkling wines.

The last leg of the journey wound up in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, a colorful town in the Penedés region of Spain about 35 miles east of Barcelona. You first glimpse the Freixenet mother ship just off the Autopista del Mediterraneo and you take a roundabout way to get to the front door of the winery, where your first chore is to peer into the well-known black Freixenet bottle car created for the 1929 World’s Fair in Barcelona.
But it’s the immense building that gives you a sense of how extensive the Freixenet brand is. At anytime the eight-story building (including four storage and aging levels below ground) may be handling most of the 250 million bottles of sparkling wine produced every year.

The familiar red-capped Freixenet boy, another of the Freixenet promotional items initially introduced during the 1929 World's Fair and now recognized aroudn the world.

“And 75 to 80 percent of our business is during the Christmas holidays,” said Toni Domenech, Freixenet PR master and our tour’s do-everything handler, interpreter and all-around “Where-would-we-be-without-him.”
“You can imagine how busy this place is leading up to that.”
Domenech led us through the depths of the building where the bottom rooms, walls weeping from ground water seeps and a suitable feeling of ancient times, were hand-carved from limestone. The fortress, for that’s what it seemed, is so expansive that at one point we hopped aboard a small electric train to return to the ground floor.

There are machines made for riddling but Freixenet insists on retaining hand riddling. These racks hold some of the 250 million bottles of sparkling wine Freixenet prodcues each year.

A few facts about the Freixenet:
– Freixent still uses hand riddling, the practice of tilting and turning each bottle multiple times every day to move the sediment into the next. Yes, there are machines that do this faster and less costly but Freixenet holds on to the old ways.
Different cavas: Each of Freixenet’s cavas uses a different blend of grape and varying levels of sweetness. Among the samples we tasted was the Cordon Negro Brut ($12), the “black-bottle bubbly” most people associate with the name Freixenet. Cordon Negro, for example, is made from a blend of Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada grapes.
– Harvest: All grapes are hand-picked. This normally begins around the end of August (Macabeo) and runs through October when the Parellada is ripe.
– The place is huge: Nine levels of winemaking, including a new section holding six 1.2-million liter stainless steel, temperature controlled tanks. Those tanks are so big they were put together first and then the winery built around them. Along with some 600,000 liter tanks, the winery’s total capacity is 38 million liters.
– In addition to the Cordon Negro Brut, Freixenet also produces Vintage Brut Nature ($14); Cordon Brut Extra Dry ($12); the Carta Nevada Brut and Extra Dry (both $9); the Cordon Rosado ($12, Trepat and Garnacha);and a Spumante ($9, Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Malvasia). A special line called Elyssia – derived from the Latin terms for heaven – includes a Pinot Noir Brut ($18, Pinot Noir 85 percent, Trepat 15 percent) and Gran Cuvee Brut ($18, Chardonnay 40 percent, Macabeo 30, Parellada 20 and Pinot Noir 10).
The highlight of the visit was meeting during lunch Jose Ferrer Sala, son of Freixenet founders Dorothy Sala and Pedro Ferrer. He says he’s “semi-retired” now but it was under his 50 years of guidance that Freixenet became a world leader in cava production.

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Wines we’ve been drinking, including a California surprise

August 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Wines we’ve been drinking:
With the understanding that not all wines need an extensive post, these mini-reviews, as The Wine Curmudgeon calls them, cover a handful of recent tastings.
flipflop 2010 California Pinot Grigio; 2009 California Pinot Noir (samples) – These are part of the “inaugural release” for flip-flop wines (yes, they use lower case letters), a line distributed by Underdog Wine Merchants, the same people bringing you Cupcake (recently named the country’s top-selling wine brand), Fish Eye, and Big House, wines whose names you’ll remember even if the wine is forgotten.
The flipflop wines (the labels have an image of a beach sandal) are line-priced at $7. Both were light and enjoyable, with nothing too fancy. The Pinot Grigio had a hints of citrus and ripe fruit and just enough acidity to go with a light summer lunch. Ditto on the Pinot Noir, light-bodied, red cherries, certainly resembles a Pinot Noir, we had it lightly chilled on a day the temperature topped 95 and it held its flavors. Not very complex or deep but at $7, it’s pleasant and drinkable, you really can’t ask for much more.
Octavin’s Pinot Evil (sample) – A nonvintage Pinot Noir, available in a three-liter box ($24) and 750-mL bottle ($10). Speaking of Underdog Wine Merchants, this Pinot Noir is the latest offering in the Octavin Home Wine Bar’s line of international wines. We took this French-made Pinot Noir to a barbecue with some dedicated pinot-philes and most everyone was impressed by the ripe-cherry flavors, light acidity and decent finish. A value-priced and delicious Pinot Noir at a time when Pinot prices are skyrocketing.
St. Francis 2009 Sonoma County Chardonnay ($15, sample) – Summer rarely finds me drinking California chardonnay, which in the recent past all-too-often turned out to be oak bombs, for the same reason I dodge big, over-lush reds – they are uncomfortable to drink when the heat’s up. But this one from St. Francis, coming from top vineyards in the cooler climes of Sonoma County, surprised me. Lots of pineapple and green apple aromas on the nose with citrus, melon and more tropical fruits in the glass. A deft touch of oak brought out the nuances of this wine and there was a touch of honey on the lingering finish. Maybe I’m changing my mind about California Chardonnay.

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Salt this away: Boulder bistro big on Colorado wines

August 5, 2011 Leave a comment

The wrap-up of an intense three-day workshop in Boulder found several of us searching for a dinner place open on Sunday night, a task that can be fearsome in early closing Grand Junction but one that offered many entertaining options in Boulder. We ended at Salt the Bistro on the east end of the famed Pearl Street Mall. One of our small group recommended Salt, in the former Tom’s Tavern building, and we weren’t disappointed in the reasonable prices, wonderful food and a well-rounded and well-priced wine list.

A media shot of the dining room at Salt the Bistro

Our wine preferences were eclectic but on this sultry night after a day of thunderstorms we decided on a medium-bodied red. We were pleasantly surprised to find on the wine list the heading “Local Reds,” featuring a delightful selection of Colorado wines including the Reeder Mesa 2009 Petite Verdot. Reeder Mesa Winery is a few miles outside of Grand Junction and it turns out Salt is one of the few restaurants in Colorado featuring a Colorado-only section on the wine list.

“We sell a lot of Colorado wine,” acknowledged our server, Joey Burton, who doubled as our wine steward. “I think they’ve come a long way in the last five or six years and I don’t know if it’s the vines finally are getting some age on them or the winemakers are learning which blends and varietals work best for them.”

It was refreshing that Burton showed a strong interest in and knowledge of Colorado wines and we talked a little about the continuing progress of Colorado winemakers but cut it short because even Sunday can be a busy night for Salt.

When we finally ordered the Petite Verdot, Burton smiled and nodded in appreciation.

“That’s a great wine but it’s pretty much a hand-sell since not many people understand Petite Verdot,” he said. “Once I get people to try it, they really like it.”

As did our table. Dense, rich and dark but not overly so, with a great nose of blackberries and dark fruit, the wine paired well with our entrees of roast beet salad, wild sea bass and sweet pea ravioli. Reeder Mesa Winery owner and winemaker Doug Vogel said the wine has won three gold medals in various competitions as well as Best of Show at the Mesa County Fair.

“It’s 100 percent Palisade-grown Petite Verdot,” he said. “I made about 150 cases of it, there just isn’t much (Petite Verdot) around.”Reeder Mesa Winery owner and winemaker Doug Vogel

Vogel (pictured) said he crushes the grapes and then removes the seeds after three days to avoid the heavy tannins common to many Petite Verdots.

“That makes it drinkable much earlier,” he said. The wine spends 18 months in French oak barrels prior to release. He said 2009 was his first attempt at Petite Verdot and we’re all hoping for similar results from the seven barrels of the 2010 vintage sitting in his aging room.

The biggest surprise was to find the wine priced at $34, only a few dollars above the $28 price at the winery, something you rarely see with any wine, anywhere. Most restaurants mark up wines anywhere from 150 to 300 percent, a move that discourages many wine drinkers from tackling anything that’s different from the usual. When I spoke a few days later with Salt beverage director Evan Faber, I made sure to ask if the restaurant’s wine pricing was aimed at getting more people to have wine with a meal or to spark an interest different wines.

“It’s a little of both,” Faber said. “Not many people know about Colorado wines and we’re trying to educate them as much as possible. By keeping our margins low, we can introduce them to some wonderful wines they might not otherwise try.”

Those are words, I’m sure you’ll agree, every Colorado winemaker will love to hear. It’s unfortunate more restaurants don’t follow the lead of Salt.

According the Salt PR person Kuvy Ax, the Boulder restaurant has more Colorado wines on its list than any other place in the state.

“Which means any other restaurant in the world,” she said, laughing. “They are really passionate about Colorado wines. Everything on their list from out of state is on the ‘imported wine’ list.”

I had forgotten this when we were eating at Salt but Faber reminded me that he and Salt executive chef Kevin Kidd will be the headliners at the Colorado Mountain Winefest in Palisade Sept. 15-18.

They both are justifiably proud about serving Colorado wines and being a Farm to Table restaurant emphasizing local food sources.

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