Category Archives: Wine Knowledge

Getting Geeky with Davenport Ciel du Cheval Rosé of Sangiovese

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about Davenport Cellars’ 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese from the legendary Red Mountain vineyard of Ciel du Cheval.

The Background

Davenport Cellars was founded in 2006 by Jeff and Sheila Jirka. Alumni of the Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle College, the Jirkas were members of the very first Wine Production class–helping to pioneer a program that would go on to educate such award winning winemakers as Michael Savage of Savage Grace Wines, William Grassie of William Grassie Wine Estates, Charlie Lybecker of Cairdeas Winery, Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton Cellars, Tom Stangeland of Cloudlift Cellars, Jason Morin of Ancestry Cellars, Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellars, John Patterson of Patterson Cellars and Louis Skinner of Betz Family Winery among many others.

In addition to their studies at NWA, Jeff studied winemaking through the University of California-Davis Extension winemaking program while Sheila studied viticulture through Washington State University’s certificate program.

Located in the Woodinville Warehouse District, Davenport Cellars makes around 1000 cases a year from fruit sourced from some of the top vineyards in Washington State such as Les Collines, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla, Boushey and Sheridan Vineyard in the Yakima Valley as well as Ciel du Cheval and Kiona Vineyard on Red Mountain.

The 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese is 100% Sangiovese sourced from Ciel du Cheval. Around 25 cases were made.

The Vineyard

In his book Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, Paul Gregutt list Ciel du Cheval as among the Grand Cru vineyards of Washington along with Boushey Vineyard, Cayuse Vineyard in Walla Walla, Celilo Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain.

The author with John and Ann Williams of Kiona Vineyards who help plant Ciel du Cheval Vineyard with Jim Holmes.

Along with Kiona Vineyard, Ciel du Cheval was first planted in 1975 by Jim Holmes and John Williams, two engineers from the nearby Hanford nuclear site. The two were inspired to plant on the relatively barren scrubland near Benton City after reading Dr. Walter Clore’s report from Washington State University on the viability of grape growing in the area.

After purchasing 80 acres from Williams’ father-in-law in 1972 for $200 an acre, the men invested in bringing electricity to Red Mountain for the first time, constructed roads and drilled in search of an underground aquifer. Their funding was close to running out by the time the drillers finally hit pay dirt with a water source located 560 feet beneath the surface.

Those first acres of plantings would become what is today known as Kiona Vineyard. Soon after its establishment, Holmes and Williams began planting another 80 acres across Sunset Road with a group of investors that included David and Patricia Gelles (who would later establish Klipsun Vineyard). This second vineyard was called Ciel du Cheval, a rough French translation for the Horse Heaven Hills that were visible from Red Mountain across Highway I-82.

The early vintages of the new vineyard were sold to local wineries like Preston Winery and Quilceda Creek as well as Amity Vineyards from Oregon. In the 1980s, Andrew Will began sourcing Ciel du Cheval fruit and DeLille Cellars started a long term relationship with the vineyard in 1990.

The Horse Heaven Hills from which Ciel du Cheval gets its name as seen from Col Solare on Red Mountain.
Just behind the vineyards of Col Solare in the foreground are the vineyards of Kiona’s Heart of the Hill, Ciel du Cheval and Galitzine.

In 1994, Holmes and Williams amicably split up their partnership with Williams taking complete control and ownership over the original Kiona Vineyard while Holmes took over Ciel du Cheval. In the early 2000s, Holmes started planting adjacent plots next to Ciel du Cheval as part of joint ventures with Quilceda Creek (Galitzine Vineyard) and DeLille (Grand Ciel Vineyard).

Today there are 103 acres of vines planted at Ciel du Cheval broken up into 36 plots of Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cunoise, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvédre, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Pinot gris, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Syrah and Viognier. The vineyard is farmed sustainably with no herbicides used on the vines and low impact viticulture practiced for soil conservation and dust control.

In 2012, the Holmes family started Côtes de Ciel winery but still sell the majority of their vineyard’s fruit to an all star roster of Washington wineries such as Andrew Will, Betz, Cadence, DeLille, Fidelitas, Force Majeure, Januik, Mark Ryan, McCrea, Quilceda Creek and Seven Hills.

What Makes Ciel du Cheval Fruit So Highly Sought After?

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A sample of the sandy loam and rocky soils of Ciel du Cheval featured at Betz Family Winery which uses fruit from Ciel du Cheval for several of their wines including their La Côte Rousse Syrah and Clos de Betz Merlot-based blend.

The soils on Red Mountain were formed through a series of cataclysmic floods and glaciation during the Ice Ages which left an uneven dispersal of soils and cobblestones across the vineyards and even rerouted the ancient Columbia River around the contours of Red Mountain.

The soils that were deposited on what is now Ciel du Cheval are different from neighboring vineyards with more than 12 feet of sandy loam on top of a layer rich in calcium carbonate. The very high pH levels of the soils due to the calcium carbonate keeps a lot of the nutrients in the soil insoluble and inaccessible to the vines. This encourages the vines to struggle and dig their roots even deeper in search of nutrients.

This results in much smaller canopies and berry sizes compared to vines grown elsewhere. In Washington Wines, Holmes notes that while a typical grape berry grown in Napa Valley will weigh around 1.3 grams, from Ciel du Cheval the average weight is 0.88 grams.

These smaller berries develop fully ripe and intense flavors from the 2950 average heat units that the vineyard receives each year but maintain fresh acidity due to the wide diurnal temperature variation that can drop as much as 40-50 degrees from the day time highs in the 90s.

The balance of fresh acidity with intense flavors and ripe tannins is a trademark style of fruit from Ciel du Cheval.

The Grape

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

A cluster of Sangiovese from Alder Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Widely known as the dominant grape of Tuscany, one of the earliest commercial plantings of Sangiovese in Washington State was at Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima Valley in the 1990s though it is likely that Italian immigrants to Walla Walla in the late 1800s brought cuttings from their native land for personal cultivation.

By 1999, there were around 100 acres of Sangiovese planted in Washington. After jumping to 220 acres in 2002, plantings dropped to around 134 acres in production as of 2017.

As a red wine, the style of Washington Sangiovese is noted for its combination of red fruit flavors like cherry, currant and cranberry paired with spicy anise and herbal tobacco leaf notes. As a rosé, those cherry and cranberry notes are often complimented with strawberry aromatics. The grape’s trademark high acidity lends itself well to rosé production with a good portion of Washington’s approximate 75,000 cases of Sangiovese based wines being rosés.

One of the distinctions of Sangiovese is its propensity to develop clonal mutations when it is grown in different environments.

At Ciel du Cheval there are two clones of Sangiovese planted, VCR 6 and VCR 23, that were cultivated and studied at the Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of north east Italy.

Photo by Francesco Sgroi. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Sangiovese grapes growing in the village of Certaldo outside of Florence in the Chianti zone.


The VCR 6 clone was sourced from vineyards in the Brunello di Montalcino region of Tuscany while VCR 23 was sourced from Vecchiazzano in Romagna.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of strawberry and cherry notes with a little subtle spice that almost seems black pepper like.

On the palate this rosé has a lot of weight–more so than the WT Vintners Pinot noir rosé sampled the same night. Some noticeable residual sugar but amply balanced by the high acidity that gives the fruit a mouthwatering juiciness. Moderate length finish brings back the subtle pepper spice from nose and adds an intriguing savory/sweet element.

The Verdict

While no one would would confuse this for a bone-dry and minerally Provençal rosé, at around $18, the Davenport 2017 Rosé of Sangiovese is a refreshing and easy to drink rosé that is very crowd-pleasing and food friendly.

Quite enjoyable on its own, the bold flavor and touch of sweetness in this rosé would particularly shine with foods that have a hint of spiciness like ethnic Thai or Indian.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

August is Washington Wine Month!

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Yeah, I know it kinda feels like we just had a Washington Wine Month not that long ago.

Technically this past March was just Taste Washington Wine Month which highlights the big Taste Washington Event in Seattle that features over 225 wineries and 65 restaurants as well as activities (like seminars and The New Vintage Party).

But this month is the real Washington Wine Month. I swear! The Washington State Wine Commission even bought the domain www.winemonth.com to let the world know that August is Washington Wine Month.

Okay, it’s silly marketing but, hey, why waste a good excuse to drink and geek out about Washington wine? I’m in.

While throughout the month I’ll be highlighting Washington wines in my 60 Second Wine Reviews, I wanted to kick off the fun with a little primer of some of the great blogs, Twitter feeds and books that I used when researching my posts on Washington wine and wineries.

At the end I also feature a highlight of some of my favorite Washington-related posts and reviews that I’ve done here on Spitbucket. If you want to stay up to date with the fun be sure to subscribe so you can get posts sent right to your email.

Great Wine Blogs with a Washington-bent

Washington Wine Report (@wawinereport) — Though Sean Sullivan has moved up to the big leagues of wine writing being the Washington beat reporter for Wine Enthusiast, he still finds time for his Washington Wine Report that has been the benchmark standard for Washington wine blogging for some time.

Screenshot from Great Northwest Wines (8/1/18)


Great Northwest Wine (@GreatNWWine) — More of an online magazine than necessarily a blog but few cover the Pacific Northwest wine scene better than Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman.

VinoSocial (@VinoSocialNancy) — While not completely Washington-centric, Nancy Croisier does have a lot of experience and great insights to share about the Washington wine industry. She also wrote up a great post with all the relevant hashtags for folks wanting to promote and follow Washington Wine Month activities.

Wine Diva Lifestyle (@Shona425) — Shona Milne is one of the original bloggers covering the Woodinville wine scene that is now home to over 100 wineries.

Woodinville Wine Blog (@woodinvillewb) — With such explosive growth in the industry, it’s great to have multiple feet on the ground covering it. Written by a team of 3 friends who explore the food and events happening in Woodinville as well the wine.

Washington Wine Blog (@WA_WINE_BLOG) — A blog ran by 3 doctors who also share their love for the wines of Oregon and California as well.

Write for Wine (@WriteforWine) — Though Margot Savell’s blog has a global scope, she is another pioneer in the Washington wine blogosphere which she has been covering since 2007.

Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman — While Catie McIntyre Walker’s blog isn’t as active as it once was, she–like Shona–is one of the original pioneers in the Washington wine blogging scene with Catie’s focus being on the outstanding wines of Walla Walla. With over 140 wineries, there is still a lot of great stuff to discover.

Washington Wineries on Twitter Worth a Follow

Of course all wineries are going to want to promote their wines and events, but I like following these wineries because they will also give you behind the scenes peaks into the fun stuff of making wine instead of only posting promotions and bottle porn pics.

Lagana Cellars (@LaganaCellars) — Carmenere at bud break and just before veraison. Oh and robin eggs!

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Chris Figgins at the 2012 Taste Washington Grand Tasting.


Cote Bonneville (@cotebonneville) — Baby chicks!

Figgins Estate/Leonetti (@FigginsFerment) — This is more of Chris Figgins’ personal twitter account but it has great content and pics showing life in Walla Walla as well as the development of their new Toil vineyard (my review of one their wines) and construction of their Figgins barrel room caves.

Claar Cellars (@claarcellars) — Veraison on Pinot gris! Watch a bottling machine in action!

Maryhill Winery (@MaryhillWinery) — I’m okay with bottle porn when it is tied into mouthwatering and delicious food-pairing recipes but what I live for are retweets of aerial drone shots of their spectacular vineyards in the Columbia Gorge!

Books About Washington Wine

Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt — Still the magnum opus of Washington wine. Check out my review of the book here.

Wines of Walla Walla Valley: A Deep-Rooted History by Catie McIntyre Walker — Written by the original Wild Walla Walla Wine Woman, no one knows the valley, the people or the wines better than her.

Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest: A Guide to the Wine Countries of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho by Cole Danehower — Up until he passed away in 2015, Cole Danehower was one of the best authorities on the wines of the Northwest. Coupled with the beautiful photographs from Andrea Johnson, this book is something to treasure for multiple reasons.

Discovering Washington Wines: An Introduction to One of the Most Exciting Premium Wine Regions by Tom Parker — A bit outdated (2002) but super cheap on Amazon. What I found most fascinating about this quick and easy to read book was the compare and contrast between how the future looked for the Washington wine industry back at the turn of the century versus the whirl wind of success it’s seen over the last 20 years.

WineTrails of Washington by Steve Roberts — Also a tad outdated (2007) but still a quite useful tool to plan your winery tours in Washington. Just keep in mind that we have around 300 more wineries than we did when Roberts first wrote his book. Still my dog-earred and marked up copy gets pulled off the shelf from time to time as I compare the growth in his very well thought out “wine trails” that group wineries by locations. His WineTrails of Walla Walla (2010) is a smidgen more up-to-date.

The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History by Ronald Irvine and Dr. Walter Clore — A required textbook for my Washington Wine History class when I was at the Northwest Wine Academy because this truly is the textbook dictum of the people and moments that deeply impacted this state’s wine industry.

A Few of My Favorite Washington-related SpitBucket posts

The author with Bob Betz (right) and Louis Skinner (left) at Betz Family Winery

The Legend of W.B. Bridgman
The Mastery of Bob Betz
Exploring The Burn with Borne of Fire

Getting Geeky with Whidbey Island Siegerrebe
Getting Geeky with Bunnell Malbec
Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul
Getting Geeky with Savage Grace Cabernet Francs
Getting Geeky with Soaring Rooster Rose of Counoise

Quilceda Creek Release Party
Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar
Walla Walla Musings
It’s time to catch on to Passing Time
Making a Bet on Washington Chenin blanc

Loved the interplay of rich dark fruit and savory spice with mouthwatering acidity in this 2015 Hence Syrah from Walla Walla.


60 Second Wine Review — Hedges In Vogue Cabernet Sauvignon
60 Second Wine Review — àMaurice Viognier
60 Second Wine Review — Temper Red Blend
60 Second Wine Review – Gordon Cabernet Sauvignon
60 Second Wine Review — Hence Syrah
60 Second Wine Review — Lauren Ashton Cuvee Meline
60 Second Wine Review — Apex Catalyst
60 Second Wine Review — Sinclair Estate Vixen
60 Second Wine Review — Lost River Syrah
60 Second Wine Review – Browne Site Series Cabernet Sauvignon
60 Second Wine Review — Scarborough Stand Alone Cabernet Sauvignon
60 Second Wine Review — Tagaris Pinot noir
60 Second Wine Review — Woodward Canyon Artist Series

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 7/30/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out With in August

Photo is from DEM of the New Zealand from GLOBE (topography) and ETOPO2 (bathymetry) datasets, precessed with Arcgis9.1 by jide. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Elevations of New Zealand

A look at some of the some of new releases in the world of wine books.

The Wines of New Zealand by Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb (released July 30th, 2018)

While there has been a few other books written to cover the wines of New Zealand such as Michael Cooper and John McDermott’s Wine Atlas of New Zealand (2002) and Warren Moran’s New Zealand Wine: The Land, The Vines, The People (2017), as far as I can tell this 356 page book is the first in-depth and exclusive look into the wines of New Zealand that has been written by a Master of Wine.

While previous books were written by New Zealand insiders, I’m intrigued at the perspective that UK-based Gibb may add to the story–especially in light of the global worldview of wine that is required to attain MW certification.

This intrigues me because it seems like in many ways that the NZ wine industry has been suffocating under the weight of success for their Sauvignon blancs with the grape still representing a staggering 72% of New Zealand wine production (2016).

Now with producers in other regions of the world breaking down the science of thiols and their precursors as well as the role of methoxypyrazines to tweak their own approach to Sauvignon blanc, wine shelves are awashed in pink grapefruit and gooseberries.

Suddenly New Zealand’s “distinctive style” doesn’t seem so distinctive anymore.

Photo by B.muirhead. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

View towards the Southern Alps but it honestly wouldn’t be out of place in the Malbec country of Mendoza, Argentina.

Yet for a country that spans over 10 degrees of latitude from the Northland region of the North Island down to Dunedin south of the Central Otago district on the South Island (more than the latitude difference between Champagne, France and Naples, Italy), it feels like there has to be more to the New Zealand wine story that just their ubiquitous Sauvignon blanc.

I mean, come on, this is a land that was able to bring to life on screen the diverse terrains Tolkien’s imagination in the Lord of the Rings series. Certainly there has to be a treasure trove of unique terroir that can be married to different varieties in magical ways.

As a wine geek and consumer, I would love to learn more about some of the 50+ other grape varieties grown in New Zealand.

What about Albariño in Gisborne? Syrah from Hawke’s Bay? Pinot blanc from Central Otago? Petit Verdot from Waiheke Island?

I know those varieties probably won’t excite the patio pounders and cafe sippers who guzzle down Kim Crawford, Oyster Bay and Nobilo by the caseful but it is certainly an answer for the legions of drinkers who’ve grown fatigued of Sauvignon blanc as is the inevitable fate for every fashionable variety.

Perhaps Gibb’s book would not only answer that fatigue but maybe also give a reason to give New Zealand’s old standby of Sauvignon blanc a fresh look with new eyes?

How to Import Wine: An Insider’s Guide (2nd Edition) by Deborah M. Gray. (To be released August 13th, 2018)

Gray’s first edition of How to Import Wine from 2011 was an extremely valuable resource for me in studying for the business unit of the WSET diploma.

It laid out clearly a lot of the complexities behind finding clients, building brands as well as the licensing, regulations and expenses that go into importing wine and finding distribution for those wines. It’s a far less romantic reality than you would imagine after reading Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route.

And then there is the reality of a rapidly changing market–driven particularly by Millennials and our wanderlust tastes. The second edition of Gray’s book looks to tackle some of those changes along with new laws and regulation that have emerged since the previous edition.

In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire (paperback) by Peter Hellman. (To be released August 21st, 2018)

Seems like folks love reading (and writing) about rich folks getting snookered on wine.

Similar to how Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar chronicled Hardy Rodenstock’s forgeries and scandals, Hellman takes a look at the build up and fall out of Rudy Kurniawan’s nearly 10 year con of infiltrating the big spenders clubs of the wine world and then blending his own fake bottles of legendary wines to sell to his buddies.

Hellman’s book was originally released in hardcover and audio book back in July 2017 and is a great read for folks who like historical non-fiction along with a peak into the gaudy wine drinking lifestyles of people who pop Petrus and DRC like a Sunday brunch wine.

Photo by Camw. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Why have mimosas when you can have La Tache? Assuming it’s real of course.

I also recommend checking out the 2016 documentary Sour Grapes which covers the Rudy Kurniawan from the perspective of those who knew Rudy as well as his victims and the people who brought him down.

That film also introduced me to the awesome work of Maureen Downey (aka ‘The Sherlock Holmes of Wine’) who was at the forefront in exposing Kurniawan. The day she releases a book on wine forgery, you better believe I will be snapping that sucker up on preorder.

The Wines of Eastern Europe by John Hudelson PhD. (To be released August 1st, 2018)

Photo by David Boyle. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Seriously, Pošip is a fantastic white wine! Kind of like a less green and pungent New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.

Admittedly the wines of Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, Croatia and the like are a bit of a blind spot for me. Sure I’ve had Tokaji before (including a huge jackpot score with The Somm Game on my last trip to Vegas) and my mind was blown away on my trip to Croatia with how incredibly delicious their whites made from Pošip, Grk and Maraština were.

I’ve also had an oddball Bulgarian, Georgian and Romanian wine but outside of flashcard WSET knowledge about Bull’s Blood, Fetească Regală, Saperavi and the like I don’t really have much in-depth knowledge about the wines and culture of this part of the world. And I doubt that I’m alone in sharing this blind spot.

But exciting things are happening in the wine industries of Central and Eastern Europe with new winemakers taking fresh approaches to their bevy of unique indigenous varieties–to say nothing of the Natural Wine Movement that seems to have its spiritual home here.

With 386 pages written by John Hudelson, the author of Wine Faults: Causes, Effects, Cures (which was super valuable to me during my winemaking studies), I can see The Wines of Eastern Europe going a long way towards filling in that gaping blind spot.

Though giving Hudelson’s previous work on wine faults, I’ll be really curious to see how he approaches the topic of sulfite use and natural wines.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geeking Out About Grape Variety Clones

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mike and Jonathan Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard

As part of the Wine Production Program at South Seattle College our instructor, Peter Bos, arranged for a private tour of the famed Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley with Mike and Jonathan Sauer back in 2012.

In Washington State, few vineyards are as legendary and influential in charting the future growth of the state’s industry as Red Willow. Working with both Dr. Walter Clore and Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery, the Sauers and Red Willow helped pioneer the commercial plantings of numerous grape varieties in the state like Viognier, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Syrah.

So it was very interesting when the question was posed to Mike Sauer about what the future focus should be for the wine industry–not just in Washington, but globally.

Without missing a beat he replied with one word–Clones.

What The Heck Are Clones?

Essentially clones are examples of grape varieties with a slight genetic mutation. These mutation could allow the vine to ripen a tad earlier, bloom a bit later, have tinier berries or thicker skin, absorb nutrients better, etc.

To best understand this, let’s take a step back to look at how grapevines are propagated in the nursery and vineyard.

Rather than plant seeds (which will produce a completely different grape variety), new vines of particular grape varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc are most often propagated via cuttings from an original mother vine. Here a branch with fruiting buds is removed from an active vine and then either planted to develop its own roots or, more commonly, grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock and planted. In theory, this new cutting is genetically identical to its mother vine.

Photo by scrumpyboy (Mark Shirley). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Grapevine cuttings

But sometimes differences are observed in the vineyard or the nursery among these seemingly identical vines. These are the clonal mutations with the most beneficial ones being selected for future propagation and eventual commercial use.

What Does This Mean For Winemakers?

Clones add another shade of color to the winemaker’s palette. Instead of just having one shade of blue (Syrah), you can plant multiple clones of Syrahs in similar terroir and end up with a multitude of shades like Cerulean, Azure, Cobalt, Zaffre, etc that help you paint a deeper picture and potentially make a more complex wine.

They also allow viticulturists and winemakers to narrow in on exactly which clones perform best on different kinds of terrior, essentially following the path of the natural self-selection that we’ve seen in varieties like Sangiovese. Over centuries of time, this grape has adapted and developed its own unique clones in the galestro clay soils of the Chianti Classico region (Sangioveto), the more limestone and schist based soils mixed with galestro in Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese Grosso) and the Pliocene-era sand and clay based soils of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Prugnolo Gentile).

Take one of these unique clones and plant them in a different soil type and you will end up with a different wine. Such is the magic and possibilities of clones.

A Few of My Favorite Resources On Clones

Photo by Stephan Ridgway. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the Hunter Valley of Australia.

*Pl@ntGrape Project (yes, it is spelled with that silly ‘@’) — a joint project between several French agencies to catalog all the different grape varieties and their clones in France. When you search for a particular grape variety, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page to see a listing of several of the popular clones, where they originated and characteristics.

For example, Syrah has over 600 clones studied with 12 approved for commercial propagation–clones 100, 174, 300, 470, 471, 524, 525, 747, 877, 1140, 1141 and 1188

Chenin blanc has over 200 clones studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation–clones 220, 278, 416, 417, 624, 880, 982 and 1018.

Riesling has nearly 190 clones that have been studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation–clones 49, 1089, 1090, 1091, 1092, 1094, 1096 and 1097.

Malbec (Cot) has around 220 clones that have been studied with 16 approved for commercial propagation–clones 42, 46, 180, 279, 353, 419, 592, 593, 594, 595, 596, 597, 598, 1061, 1127 and 1128.

*UC Davis Foundation Plant Services page on Pinot noir probably has the most extensive listing (in English) and description of Pinot noir clones I’ve found. Pretty impressive since Pinot noir is known to have over a 1000 different clones.

*The Science of Grapevines: Anatomy and Physiology by Markus Keller. Hardcore geeking here with this viticulture textbook that not only covers clones but also the science behind how the mutations happened as well as the broad spectrum of grapevine anatomy and physiology (disease resistance, nutrient utilization, etc) which obviously plays into the decision on how different clones are selected.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Hey Mama, Hey Mama, Hey Mamamango

While the history of the Muscat family of grapes dates back thousands of years, wine drinkers can be forgiven for thinking of “Moscato” as a relatively new wine.

With over 200 members, Jancis Robinson and her co-authors note in Wine Grapes that the Persians and ancient Egyptians may have been cultivating some Muscat varieties as early as 3000 BC.

Greek and later Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder and Columella described vines (Anathelicon Moschaton and Apianae) that could have been Muscat varieties which naturally ripen to such high levels of sugars that they attracted bees (apis) into the vineyard. According to legend, Cleopatra’s favorite wine was the Muscat of Alexandria grape variety from Greece.

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is likely the oldest known variety of Muscat. Over the course of the Middle Ages it spread from the Greek islands throughout Europe where it picked up numerous synonyms such as Muscatel (Spain), Muscateller (Germany), Sárga Muskotály (Hungary) and Moscato Bianco (Italy). In the New World, it was responsible for the legendary 18th and 19th century dessert wines of Constantia in South Africa while Italian immigrants brought Muscat Canelli from Piedmont to the United States sometime in the 19th century.

Yet despite this long history, not many people outside of the cafes of Europe paid much attention to the variety until the early 21st century when rappers and hip-hop artists embraced the sweet, easy drinking style of low alcohol Moscato. By 2017, more than 27 million bottles of Moscato were being cranked out of Italy with 80% of it sent to the United States to be consumed by mostly millennial wine drinkers.

In the US, growers rushed to increase their own plantings of Muscat Canelli/Moscato to compete with the Italian wave as new brands constantly hit the market.

What’s old was new again.

Oh but could Cleopatra have ever imagined anything like Mamamango?

Photo by Megan Mallen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Mamamango is made up of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes.


The Geekery

Made by Arione Vini, Mamamango is a non-vintage blend of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes sourced from the communes of Castiglione Tinella in the province of Cuneo and Canelli in the province of Asti in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. However, the wine does not qualify for any DOC or DOCG designation like other Moscato wines because of the addition of 5% mango puree of unknown origin.

For fruit-based wines like Sangria from Spain and Portugal, European laws mandate that both the wine and fruit additives must be from the same country of origin. However, it is not clear if other “aromatized wine-based drinks” like Mamamango need to follow the same guidelines. Mangoes do grow in Sicily and southern Italy, but most European mangoes are sourced from Spain. Unfortunately the Mamamango website is very vague on details–in contrast to Canella which makes a Bellini sparkling cocktail from peach juice that they note is source from the Veneto and Romagna.

At around 65 grams of sugar per bottle, it certainly has a fair amount of sweetness and calories though it is only 6% alcohol. However, from the mango puree, one 5oz serving will give you nearly a third of your daily vitamin C requirements.

According to the website Barnivore, Mamamango uses animal based gelatins in the winemaking as a filtering agent to make the wine stable so Mamamango is not “vegan-friendly”.

Instead of a cork with a cage used in high pressure spumante-style sparkling wines like Cava, Prosecco and Champagne, the frizzante-style Mamamango is sealed with twist off closure.


Like many Moscatos, the wine is lightly sparkling in a frizzante-style and while, again, Arione is vague on details it is likely the wine is produced via tank fermentation with the natural carbon dioxide produced during the wine’s brief fermentation being trapped and bottled with the wine.

While more fully sparkling spumante-style wines like Prosecco will have over 3 atmospheres of pressure (a little more than a typical car tire) and can get up to 5-6 atmospheres in Champagne, frizzante wines like Mamamango have only slight effervesce and pressure in the 1 to 2 atmosphere range.

The Wine

Mid-intensity nose. It really does smell like mangoes but you’ll hard pressed to pick up anything else. Maybe a smidgen of pineapple around the edges.

Those strong mango notes carry through to the palate with a smooth and creamy mouthfeel that is surprisingly well-balanced. With more sugar than doux Champagne (and far less bubbles and carbonic acid to balance), I was expecting this to be more noticeably sweeter. I did get a bit of a tangy tickle at the tip of the my tongue which suggests probably a fair amount of tartaric acid was added during winemaking to offset all that sugar.

Photo by Midori. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.

You could probably make at least 6 bottles worth of Mamamango with this cup of mango juice.


The short finish ends on the mango fruitiness.

The Verdict

I try my best to approach new wine trends (like aging wine in whiskey barrels or blending with cold brew coffee) with an open mind but I must confess that I was expecting Mamamango to be sickly sweet.

But it honestly wasn’t that bad. While it’s not something that I would buy a bottle of to drink at home, I can see myself enjoying a glass of this at a restaurant for brunch. It struck me essentially as a hipster’s mimosa–or at least the ready made “Hamburger Helper” version of one. You can tell that it needed a fair amount of manipulation and tweaking in the winery to get the recipe right but no one should buy this wine expecting a natural product.

Though tasting this wine made me wonder—why not buy fresh mangoes (or even mango puree and juice from the store) and make your own Mamamango?

Compared to a bottle of Mamamango costing around $12-14, you can could buy a 15 oz bottle of Naked Juice Mighty Mango for around $3 and have enough mango goodness to make 12 bottles worth of Mamamango.

Put a quarter oz splash of the mango juice in the bottom of your glass then pour your favorite sparkler–Moscato, Prosecco, Cava–over it and boom! Homemade Mamamango that is fresher, cheaper, better tasting and with a heck of a lot less sugar and additives.

Now that is something that Cleopatra would’ve Instagram’d.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Geek Notes 6/26/18 — New Wine Books for June/July

Photo by Serge Esteve sce767. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero A look at some recently released and upcoming wine books that intrigue me for various geeky reasons.

For last month’s edition looking at some of the new releases from May and early June check out Wine Geek Notes 5/9/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out Over.

How to Wine With Your Boss & 6 Other Tips To Fast Track Your Career by Tiffany Yarde. Released June 19th, 2018.

While not necessarily a wine book, the description and “look inside” preview caught my attention. Unlike other career advancing self-help books that tell you how “think rich”, “lean in” and develop habits of highly effective people, Yarde looks to be taking a different approach in utilizing wine education topics on tasting and varieties to apply them to business principles.

At least that is what the intro is describing, though the title How to Wine With Your Boss also seems to be advocating wielding your knowledge and confidence in the social lubricant of wine as a tool to advance your career. That is an approach that could be fraught with pratfalls with the associations of alcohol in the workplace in light of the #MeToo movement. While we, wine geeks, know that the point of sharing a glass of wine is not about nefarious intentions, I can’t begrudge a male manager or coworker from being reticent in accepting such an invitation.

Still, the idea of book teaching wine enthusiasts how to take their passion and knowledge of wine and apply it to business is intriguing–if that is such a book that Yarde has written. She does have a blog and website, Motovino, that describes more of her philosophy though, unfortunately, the blog is not frequently updated.

Practical Field Guide to Grape Growing and Vine Physiology by Daniel Schuster, Laura Bernini and Andrea Paoletti. To be released July 2nd, 2018.

This looks like some hardcore viticultural geekdoom here written by New Zealand wine grower Daniel Schuster, Tuscan viticulturalist Laura Bernini and winemaker Andrea Paoletti that will combine a mix of New World modernist and Old World traditionalist approaches to grape growing.

Oldies but goodies.


When I passed Unit 2 of the WSET Diploma level on Viticulture and Winemaking with Master of Wine Stephen Skelton’s Viticulture, Jeff Cox’s From Vines to Wines and the old school classic of A.J. Winkler and crew’s General Viticulture (under $15 used) were my primary study aids in the vineyard.

At around 146 pages, I can see the Practical Field Guide being an easily digestible compendium to the books I mention above and another great study tool for wine geeks seeking certifications in the WSET or Court of Master Sommelier programs.

Wine Marketing and Sales, 3rd Edition by Liz Thach, Janeen Olsen and Paul Wagner. To be released July 2nd, 2018.

I’ve had this book pre-ordered since February–so, yeah, I’m pretty excited.

While I was doing researching for my article Under the (Social Media) Influence, I realized that there was a dearth of resources for wineries and wine business students about how to effectively utilize social media. A huge reason for that is how quickly the industry and technology is changing so this updated edition of Wine Marketing and Sales was desperately needed. With how in-depth and perspective-driven the previous two editions were, I have no doubt that this and other modern topics and challenges of the industry are going to be addressed.

Dr. Liz Thach, MW is one of the most brilliant minds in the wine business whose writings in Wine Business Monthly and other publications are must-reads for anyone wanting to keep a pulse on the happenings in the wine business. In addition to Wine Marketing and Sales, Thach’s Wine: a Global Business is another resource that I’ve thoroughly gobbled up in highlighted notes and annotations.

The New Pink Wine: A Modern Guide to the World’s Best Rosés by Ann Walker and Larry Walker. To be released July 19th, 2018.

Has the “Rosé Revolution” jumped the shark yet? Who knows?

But The New Pink Wine is here to join a chorus of recently released rosé wine books in the last year and a half that includes Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine (you can check out my review of it here), Victoria James and Lyle Railsback’s Drink Pink, Katherine Cole’s Rosé All Day, Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay’s Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution and Julia Charles’ Rosé Cocktails that I highlighted in last month’s Wine Geek Notes.

If you want to go “old school hipster”, there is also Jeff Morgan’s 2005 work Rosé: A Guide to the World’s Most Versatile Wine which was on the Pink Train way back when Brangelina were still filming Mr. & Mrs. Smith.

What will the Walkers’ The New Pink Wine add to the conversation? At 224 pages, it’s not aiming to be a pamphlet. Both the Walkers do have lots of experience in the food and wine industry with Ann as a chef, educator, writer and frequent judge for the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Larry Walker has written for various food & wine magazine and is the editor for several of Williams-Sonoma’s Wine Guides.

I suppose as long as new bottles of rosé keeping hitting the wine shelves, we’ll keep getting new rosé wine books for the book shelf.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Wine Geek Notes 5/9/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out Over

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0Summer’s coming which for me brings visions of lounging in the sun with a nice glass of rosé and something geeky to read.

As I get my summer reading list in order, here are a few new wine books that are being released in May and June.

Rosé Cocktails: 40 deliciously different pink-wine based drinks by Julia Charles. Released May 8th.

Speaking of rosé, I must admit that I shudder at thought of “frosé” with its syrupy sweet slushie take on the Provençal classic. Soda-pop wine cocktails have never been my thing. But my curiosity is piqued at what talented bartenders can do crafting serious wine-based cocktail recipes. The popularity of Sherry cocktails has helped sparked new life and interest in the phenomenal wines of Jerez–taking Sherries out of your grandmother’s decanter and turning them into Adonis.

I fret that with the flood of really crappy rosés on the market, we may need to hit rock-bottom first with our brosé, frosé, 40 oz bottles and gummy bears before we’ll get a “renaissance” of taking rosé seriously again. Judging from the book’s description, Rosé Cocktails may not be a rudder steering us towards that seriousness (compared to say Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine and Elizabeth Gabay’s Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution which have thankfully less liberal mentionings of “frosé”) but I’m hopeful that Charles’ book will at least offer the bros 39 other options apart from turning their rosés into wannabe frozen margaritas.

A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where, and When Humankind Has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present by Mark Forsyth. Released May 8th.

Considering this is written by the same guy (The Inky Fool) who wrote the uber-geeky The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, I have a feeling that there will be a lot of fun word play and nerdy trivia in this 286 page “short history”.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Frankly a couple glasses of Madiera puts me in the mood more to cuddle with dogs than anything else.


In fact, I would LOVE to see a book focusing on the etymology of grape names and wine words. You can find bits and pieces of things in various books (like Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes) but even that doesn’t go quite into detail about things like how did the Esgana Cão (Sercial) grape of Madeira and Bucelas DOC get the name “dog strangler”?

Wine Grapes suggests that it was because of the grape’s “fiery acidity” but that makes more sense as an explanation for the Friuli red grape Tazzelenghe (tongue cutter) than it does for “dog strangling”. Then you have Mourvedre which has a similar synonym “Estrangle Chien” that is instead attributed to the grape’s high tannins and tough skins.

I’m not expecting A Short History of Drunkenness to clear any of that up but mostly I’m just excited by Forsyth’s foray into the world of wine and hopeful that he’ll keep applying his sharp wit and geeky gifts to more vinous volumes.

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine by Kevin Begos. Release date June 12th.

Wine wasn’t necessarily “invented” but its ancient origins and how civilizations accidentally discovered it, time and time again, is a fascinating topic. Two must-reads for those wanting to geek out about wine’s origins are Patrick McGovern’s Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture and Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: The Story of Wine.

From the book’s description, it looks like Tasting the Past is going to focus on Begos’ personal journey through the modern remnants of ancient wine cultures in the Mediterranean, Middle East, Caucasus and the Americas–probably intermingling with historical details of wine origins in those places. That is an interesting approach that will be different from McGovern and Johnson’s work or even Paul Lukacs’ 2007 book Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Most Ancient Pleasures.

I’m particularly intrigued by Tasting the Past’s promise to explore “distinctive wines from a new generation of local grapes” which suggests plenty of geeky fodder involving unique grape varieties and characterful wines that depart from the “same ole, same ole”.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Playing the Somm Game in Vegas

“Unicorns aren’t real, but the house advantage is.”

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas where I lost far more than I care to admit at the casinos.

Growing up in St. Louis with church bingo and riverboat casinos, I will always have soft-spot for the gambler’s heart.

But man does it suck losing.

However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve found one game that I love playing in Vegas where I’m a sure bet to come out a big winner–the Somm Game.

How to Play

It’s a simple game. You go to a nice restaurant with a thick, Bible-size wine list.

Give the sommelier your budget, what food you are ordering, let them know you are open to anything and then let them take it from there.

That’s it. That’s the game and the payoff is almost always better than anything you’ll find at the tables or slots.

Why the Somm Game works

First off, your objective is to have a great dining experience. You know who else shares that same objective? The sommelier. Their entire job is to give you a memorable experience so the house odds are already in your favor.

Just like I’m sure you perform best at your job when your clients let you do your thing, so too do sommeliers really get a chance to shine when you simply trust them to do what they are trained to do—which is far more than only opening bottles and pouring them into decanters.

And *spoiler alert* sometimes they have bottles like this just “lying around”.


Sommeliers are professionals and many have spent years honing their craft, studying, tasting and traveling the world of wine. With certification programs from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Wine & Spirits Education Trust, International Sommelier Guild and the like, the quality of wine education in the industry has never been higher. Why let that advantage go to waste?

And it is an advantage–one that even the most savvy and experienced wine drinkers don’t readily have.

Look I know my fair share about wine. I can open up a wine list and recognize most every name and region on it. I can hold my own rattling off producers, soil types, grapes varieties and facts. But I’ll tell you what I don’t necessarily know—how everything on the list is drinking now and what exactly will pair best with the particular flavors of the chef’s cuisine.

No matter how much a person knows about wine, the odds are that the sommelier team knows their own list and their own food at least a little bit better than you do. Especially at a restaurant with a good wine program that involves frequent tastings and pairing exercises, they’re going to have a leg up on you with what is drinking great right now and is pairing well.

“But Amber, I don’t want to get ripped off by restaurant mark ups!”

Okay, I know restaurant mark ups can be painful to swallow. Believe me, it’s even tougher when you’ve been in the business and know intimately what the typical wholesale and retail prices are of the wines you frequently see on wine lists.

But here’s the beauty of playing the Somm Game and trusting the sommelier to make the wine picks—most likely you’re going to avoid getting the crazy mark up wines and instead get the gems that the sommeliers themselves would pick for their own dinners.

By trusting the sommeliers you are far less likely to get “ripped off” by markups than you would be ordering on your own. They don’t need to sell you the crazy high mark up wines because your fellow diners are already buying those wines and paying the “Ego Tax” on them.

The “Ego Tax”

Restaurants are businesses and all businesses aim to make a profit. With margins on food being so tight, it naturally falls on the beverage side of the business to earn healthy returns.

In the wine industry, there are certain well known brands that restaurants know will sell off their wine list without any effort. These are your Jordan, Caymus, Rombauer, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, Opus One and Silver Oak type wines of the world.

There is no need for effort because wine consumers will order these wines on their own as frequently these are the only names on the list they recognize. Often their ego (either hubris or an irrational fear of looking helpless) keeps them from seeking the sommelier’s assistance so they retreat to the comfort of a known quantity.

But these “known quantities” are often the highest marked up wines on the entire list!

That hesitance to relinquish control and trust the sommelier to guide you out of the realm of the “the same ole, same ole” is not limited to just “regular wine drinkers”. It hits folks who “know wine” and have been around the industry. I mean come on! We don’t need help. We know how to order wine and what’s good!

General rule of thumb–if an average wine drinker would recognize the name on a wine list then you are probably going to pay an “ego tax” ordering it.

And that is why restaurants make bank off of the “Ego Tax”.

Which is fine, I suppose, if you are living off an expense account and paying with someone else’s dime. But most of us in the real world aren’t expense account dandies so it’s pointless to be paying the “Ego Tax” when all we’ve got to do is trust the somm and have some fun.

The Somm Game in Action

When I play the Somm Game, I start by introducing myself as a wine geek and telling the sommelier that all I want to do this evening is “geek out” a bit. Sometimes in the conversation that follows I will mention my wine industry background but that is rarely brought up. My approach is to present myself as just a geek that trusts and respects the sommelier’s judgement and expertise.

I give them a budget and tell them that I’m open to anything–glass pours, half-bottles, full-bottles. I recommend going a little higher in your budget than you would usually give yourself for ordering a single bottle because the more flexibility you give the somms, the more fun you can have. Trust me, it will pay off dividends.

I share with them what food I’m ordering–again emphasizing my openness in going with whatever the sommelier thinks will work best whether it be glass pours for each course or half/full-bottles, etc.

Then I sit back and have fun.

This weekend I had the opportunity to play the Somm Game at two restaurants–Lago by Julian Serrano at the Bellagio and at Aureole by Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay. Both restaurants have tremendous wine programs overseen by Master Sommelier Jason L. Smith, Executive Director of Wine for MGM Resorts International, and Mandalay Bay Director of Wine Harley Carbery.

When playing the Somm Game, it helps to increase your odds by playing with a stack deck.

Lago

At Lago, we were served by head sommelier Jeffrey Bencus, an Advance Sommelier who is on the cusp of achieving his MS. Talking with him, we found out that he has separately passed his theory and tasting exams for the Master Sommelier certification–just not within the same testing cycle.

On my own, when out for a nice dinner I usually aim for a bottle in the $250-300 range so I gave Jeffrey a budget of $350 and laid out the perimeters above. I told him we were geeks and opened to pretty much anything.

The style of cuisine at Lago is small plates so we started off with short rib cannelloni and red wine risotto. These were red wine heavy dishes but we were delighted when he brought out a half bottle of 2015 Jean-Philippe Fichet Meursault.

Granted, coming from the tremendous 2015 vintage this wine was already playing with a full house.

With plots in the enviable “second crus” of Les Chaumes de Narvaux (upslope from the Premier cru vineyards of Les Bouchères and Les Gouttes d’Or) and Le Limozin (flanked by 1er crus Les Genevrières and Les Charmes) as well as 65 to 75+ year old vine plantings in Les Clous and Les Criots, this village-level Meursault was delivering premier cru quality pleasure.

Textbook Meursault with subtle butteriness, hazelnuts and that liquid-rocks minerality that makes this place so special for Chardonnay. I don’t remember what the restaurant price was, but the Wine Searcher Average for the 2015 was $65. Well worth finding.

The following course was Italian sausage skewers with red pepper sauce and a filet with a Gorgonzola demi-glaze. Originally Jeffrey was thinking a classic 2012 Brunnello di Montalcino but decided to geek it up more for us with a 2012 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi from the legendary Campanian producer. I was quite familiar with Mastroberardino and their flagship Taurasi but my initial instinct was that a 2012 would be far too young.

But, again, here is where a somm’s expertise and experience with their own wine list pays off because with nothing more than a splash decant the Radici was absolutely singing with the savory floral and spicy undertones of Aglianico complimenting not only my steak but also my wife’s Italian sausage with its sweet roasted red bell pepper sauce.

Black olives and black fruit with a long savory finish. A masterful wine from Mastroberardino that was drinking surprisingly well for a young Taurasi.


The Wine Searcher Average for this wine is listed at $47 but that is skewed a little by some discount Hong Kong retailers. In the US, it is far more common to find it retailing for $55-60.

For dessert we had a creme brulee and citrus cannoli and boy did we hit the jackpot with the Somm Game!

My wife and I were flabbergasted when Jeffrey brought out a tiny 187ml split of 1993 Château Pajzos Tokaji Esszencia.

I don’t think this wine was even on the wine list!

While I’ve had Tokaji several times, this was my first experience trying an Esszencia because of how rare (and expensive) it is. Made from the free-run juice of dried botrytized grapes, residual sugars can go as high as 85% and take over 6 years to ferment because of how sweet and concentrated it is. Tokaji Esszencia is truly one of the wonders of the wine world.

This wine was the #3 ranked wine on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in 1998 and was described as “a perfect wine” with 100 pts from Robert Parker.

And it was just….wow! I think I finally found a wine that broke my mental 94 point barrier. It’s been over four days since I had this wine and I can still taste the amazing concentration of liquid figs, honey, cognac and lingering spice.

Folks….this is a WHITE wine!


Incredibly difficult to find retail due to its limited supply (only 165 cases made), the Wine Searcher Average for a 500ml of the 1993 Pajzos Esszencia is $698.

A stunning treat and life-long memory.

All together, the three wines were well around our $350 budget. As we were finishing up dinner while savoring that amazing Esszencia, I noticed the table next to us had ordered a bottle of 2006 Opus One which was $995 on the Lago’s restaurant list.

While I’m sure they enjoyed that bottle of Opus fine enough, I can’t help but think that we came out WAY ahead in our wine and food pairing experience by paying around a third of what they did.

Heck, all three of the wines we had which included one 375ml half bottle, one 750ml bottle and one 187ml split was less at restaurant mark-up than what one single bottle of 2006 Opus One averages at retail price.

That folks….is winning big with the Somm Game.

Aureole

The next night we visited Aureole at Mandalay Bay where we rolled the dice for the Somm Game with Kyran O’Dwyer, an Advance Sommelier since 2006.

While Kyran didn’t have an extra 187ml bottle of an uber-rare wine lying around, he had his own ace up his sleeve and delivered a remarkable and personalized experience that far exceeded our expectations.

We didn’t finish this bottle till just before dessert and it paired exquisitely with every dish we had.

Giving him the same $350 budget, the first roll came up sevens when he brought out a perfectly geeky Champagne–the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs featuring some of the rarest grapes in Champagne.

A blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay to round it out, the wine was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a dosage of 4 g/l. The Wine Searcher Average for it is $61 but most retailers in the US have it closer to the $120 release price noted by Wine Spectator. However it is incredibly difficult to find with most retailers (like K & L) getting less than a couple cases.

But oh is it worth the hunt! This is a “unicorn Champagne” like the ones I’ve been on the prowl for since I finished reading Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. High intensity aromatics that continually evolved in the glass with a mix of citrus lemon custard and orange blossoms with some creamy creme brulee action. Exceptionally well balanced between the creamy mousse, racy citrus notes and dry dosage, the long finish brought out intriguing salty mineral notes that lasted for several minutes after you swallowed.

For appetizers my wife got a black garlic Cesar salad while I had the foie gras du jour–which was seared foie gras with a balsamic berry reduction paired with a French toast concoction that had the chef’s homemade nutella filling. While we enjoyed the Champagne, he gave us each an additional 2-3 oz “taster pour” of the 2014 Braida Brachetto d’Acqui to go with the foie gras.

A seriously good sweet wine worth geeking out over.

The wine was lively and fresh with ample acidity to balance the sweetness. The wine tasted like you were eating ripe strawberries picked straight from the bush. In a market flooded with Moscatos, Roscatos and Stella Rosa, sweet wines often get a bad rap as overly simple but tasting a wine like the Giacomo Bologna Braida Brachetto d’Acqui is a great reminder about how joyful and delicious “simple sweet wines” can be. At a retail average of $18 a bottle, it is also a great deal for folks wanting to trade out of the same ole, same ole for something new to try.

For dinner I had braised short rib ravioli with a smoked tomato cream sauce while my wife had one of the most delicious vegetarian lasagnas that we had ever tried. It must have had at least 20 layers of fresh pasta, butternut squash, sage, spinach and mascarpone. My ravioli was great but her lasagna was outstanding.

Of course, these dishes were quite different and not necessarily the easiest to pair with the same wine. Truthfully, on my own, I probably would have “wimped out” and took the easy route of ordering a village-level Burgundy with the thinking of acidity for my tomato cream sauce while some earthiness could play well with the lasagna without being too big or tannic. Not a perfect pairing but a serviceable one.

But Advance Sommeliers do not settle for serviceable.

One of the tell-tale signs of a good restaurant wine program is when the wine list has gems like this Portuguese Douro on it. Few people are savvy enough to recognize or order them but the sommeliers know what’s up.

Instead, Kyran surprised me with a 2012 Prats & Symington Post Scriptum de Chryseia from the Douro. I was already very familiar with the Symington family’s stable of Port houses like Cockburn, Dow, Graham, Warre and Quinta do Vesúvio but wasn’t aware of this particular Douro red wine label.

A blend of 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and 2% other Portuguese varieties, the wine was remarkably “St. Emilion-like” with a beautiful mix of blue flowers, dark fruit and savory baking spice notes on the nose. Far from being “too big” or “too tannic” for the vegetable lasagna, the wine was beautifully balance with juicy medium-plus acidity and velvety medium-plus tannins.

If this was a blind tasting and I pegged it as a St. Emilion, I would have been expecting it to be in the $45-55 range retail for a bottle. But here is where the savvy of a good sommelier comes into play because this absolute gem of a wine from a very underappreciated region is a total steal at around $26 a bottle retail.

The wine list price for this bottle was $67 which, compared to the usual 3x retail mark up common in the industry, was a great deal in its own right. Frankly, you would be hard-pressed to find a better bottle than this on most restaurant’s wine lists for less than $80.

We would have been more than happy with only this bottle for both our main courses but Kyran also brought my wife out a glass pour of the 2015 Domaine Laroche Vielle Voye Chablis to compliment her vegetarian lasagna. Sourced from 70+ year old vines, this village-level Chablis way over delivered and is another great value at $36 a bottle (and probably a $20-25 glass pour, at least).

The wine….they just kept coming!

Then for dessert my wife went with a blood orange creamsicle parfait while I ordered a maple brown butter creme brulee (my favorite dessert if you haven’t guess yet). Once again Kyran decided to individualize the pairing for us with my wife getting a glass of the 2008 Jackson Triggs Vidal Ice Wine from Niagara that was chock-full of orange blossoms and apricot notes while I got a 2011 Kracher Beerenauslese from Burgenland that had amazing lightness in the mouthfeel despite its rich concentration.

And coming…..
Like a hot slot machine.


With Wine Searcher averages of $93 and $61 respectively, my wife and I rarely buy full bottles of dessert wines because we never finish them. For us, it’s worth paying a little bit of a premium to enjoy them by the glass pour at a restaurant with a nice dessert. Yet, I rarely ever feel like I am paying a premium compared to the amount of pleasure I’m getting with the pairing.

With an end total of 2 bottles, 3 glasses and two taster pours over the course of a fabulous dinner with a personalize touch made this another jackpot win for the Somm Game. There is truly no way that I could have spent my money better that evening than just letting Kyran run the table with his fantastic pairings.

That is the beauty of the Somm Game.

Yes, it’s still gambling

And the house is going to get its share.

Of course, I could have likely bought (assuming I could even find them) bottles of the wines I had at each dinner for less than $350 on the retail market but that’s the same truth when comparing the cost of the food ingredients if you cooked the meal at home versus what you paid at a restaurant for a dish.

No one should approach the Somm Game or buying wine at restaurants with the perspective of beating retail prices. It’s never going to happen. These restaurants are businesses with overhead and staff that deserve to be paid living wages and benefits.

I’m not advocating the Somm Game as a way of “beating the house” though I do wholeheartedly endorse it as a way of getting the most out your money and having a kick-ass experience.

There is really not a dollar amount that you can put on your own personal pleasure or the joy of trying something new. You “come out ahead” when you end up getting more than you expected with a tremendous evening of great wine, great food and great memories that happened just because you let the professionals do the very thing that they are really good at doing.

No, there is not guaranteed 100% success each time you play. Sometimes you may be at a restaurant that doesn’t have a serious wine program with trained sommeliers. Sure you can still roll the dice but, as with all forms of gambling, there is always a chance you will crap out.

I recommend checking out the wine list and asking questions of the staff to get a feel if this is the type of place that is worth playing the Somm Game at.

But in Las Vegas, with its high density of outstanding restaurants and sommeliers, I’ve found no surer bet.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Cinsault — The Black Prince of South Africa

As promised in my summary post about the 2018 Hospice du Rhône Weekend, I’ll tackle each of the four seminars with their own posts beginning with the first seminar on Friday — South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance.

I’m hard-pressed to narrow down which of the four seminars were my absolute favorite but, without a doubt, this seminar was the most eye-opening. In my Quick Take on Day 1, I commented how neither Cinsault nor South Africa tends to be on the radar of most US consumers. The trade organization WOSA (Wines of South Africa) reported in 2016 that the US receives only 3% of the wine exported from South Africa. In 2014, when US sales of wine (both domestic and exported) were around 370 million cases, wines from South Africa accounted for less than 0.33% of those sales.

But after attending this seminar moderated by Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast and reading about my friend Adrienne’s wine adventures drinking South African wines in Nambia, it’s clear that South Africa is a wine producer worth paying attention to—not the least of which for the country’s treasure trove of old vine Cinsault.

The seminar featured 9 Cinsaults and Cinsault-dominant blends from 7 producers with winemakers Tremayne Smith (The Blacksmith Wines), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), Danie Steytler (Kaapzicht Wine Estate) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis) on the panel.

I will get into my tasting notes on the individual wines in the moment but first some geeking about Cinsault.

Cinsault: The Mediterranean “Pinot noir”?

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that the earliest recorded mention of Cinsault was under the synonym ‘Marroquin’ in 1600 by the French writer Olivier de Serres. The modern spelling ‘Cinsault’ emerged in the 1880s as a likely derivative from ‘Sinsâou’ that was used in the Hérault department along the Mediterranean coast as early as 1829.

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cinsault growing in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

DNA analysis suggest this area is the probable birthplace of Cinsault due to its close genetic relationship to the Piquepoul varieties and the potential parent-offspring relationship with Rivairenc (Aspiran), the very old Languedoc grape.

Today some of the oldest vines of Cinsault in the Languedoc date back to 1900. While Cinsault suffered the same post-WW II image problem here it did in South Africa, it is also benefiting from renewed interest in the variety with even acclaimed Burgundian producers like Anne Gros (of the notable Vosne-Romanée family) and her husband Jean-Paul Tollot tending to 50+ year old vines in Minervois.

Outside of France, the grape is found in the Puglia region of Italy where it is known as Ottavianello and must make up a minimum of 85% of the red blends in the Ostuni DOC. In Morocco it is the most widely planted grape variety but that is largely because Cinsault is also a popular table grape variety.

Chateau Musar has long championed the grape variety in Lebanon, frequently blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Washington State, Paul Gregutt describes wines made from Cinsault as like a “good Beaujolais” and notes in Washington Wines that it can be found in Walla Walla in the Morrison Lane and Minnick Vineyards as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills at Alder Ridge.

Cinsault in South Africa

Tim James in Wines of the New South Africa notes that Cinsault was introduced to South Africa in the 1880s and quickly became a popular planting. By 1909, it was the most widely planted red grape variety and the third most popular grape after Greengrape (Semillon) and Muscat.

Originally known as “Hermitage” until the mid-1930s, Cinsault would eventually account for as much as a third of all vineyard plantings in South Africa and was used to make everything from dry reds to sweet fortified wines to even brandy. The rise in popularity of Chenin blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon after World War II would eventually signal the grape’s decline throughout rest of the 20th century but even as its popularity wane it was still frequently used as a blending grape to add perfume and acidity to some of the country’s top Cabernet Sauvignon.

By 2008, Cinsault accounted for around a tenth of all vineyards in South Africa with notable plantings in Paarl, Breedekloof and the ward of Malmesbury in Swartland. Roughly translated to “The Black Land” in reference to the renosterbos (“rhino bush”) shrubs that dot the landscape, it is somewhat poetic that old vine vineyards of the Black Prince in Swartland would be the source of some of the most delicious Cinsault at the seminar.

Seminar Wines

Most of these wines are limited releases and hard to find in the United States. But they are well worth the hunt if you can get them.

Color of the The Blacksmith Barebones. Note how you can read through the core to see the text underneath.


2017 The Blacksmith Barebones, W.O. Paarl (Wine Searcher Average $24)
Medium intensity nose with black cherry and fresh uncured tobacco.

On the palate, those black cherry notes come through and are quite juicy and fresh with medium-plus acidity. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the “Beaujolais” quality of the wine making it very pleasant and enjoyable with a moderate finish.

2017 The Blacksmith Prince of Bones, W.O. Swartland (No WS listing. At the seminar, Lauren Buzzeo priced it at $45)
Medium-plus intensity nose with lots of blue floral notes to go with the black cherry and tobacco notes exhibited by the Barebones.

On the palate, those fresh uncured tobacco notes from the nose change to more cured tobacco spice–not that dissimilar from Bordeaux wines. Medium-plus acidity maintains the juiciness of the cherry fruit with medium-plus tannins contributing to the medium-plus body of the wine. Long finish ends on the spicy note and mouthwatering fruit. Outstanding wine and probably my favorite of the tasting.

2017 Sadie Family Pofadder, W.O. Swartland (WS Average for 2016 vintage $42)
Medium-minus intensity nose. Light raspberry and some herbal notes. With some air a slight watermelon note (both flesh and rind) come out which is intriguing.

On the palate, the fruit flavors are similarly light. High acidity and chalky medium-plus tannins contribute to a thin and skeletal feel of the wine. Very short finish brings an earthy element that is hard to make out.

2017 Craven Wines Cinsault, W.O. Stellenbosch (WS Average $14 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $55)
Medium intensity nose with red cherry, rose petals and fresh forest earthiness.

On the palate, the earthy element becomes a little more herbal but also brings a savory black pepper spice note. High acidity and medium-plus tannins are balanced a bit better with the fruit than the Sadie Pofadder so the wine feels more firm and structured rather than thin and skeletal. Seems young but promising.

The Badenhorst Ramnasgras from Swartland was fantastic.


2016 A.A. Badenhorst Cinsault Ramnasgras, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $38)
Medium-plus intensity with black cherry notes and lots of spice and meatiness. A mix of Burgundian and Rhone notes on the nose that had my mouth watering before even taking a sip.

On the palate, the cherry and spice carries through with the mouthwatering continuing with the medium-plus acidity. High tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit of the wine really well and contribute to this wine feeling like a meal in itself. Another favorite.

2016 Kaapzicht Cinsault 1952, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $31)
Medium intensity nose with an intriguing mix of cherry pie spices and leather.

The Kaapzicht 1952. Note how much darker this wine is in the core.


On the palate, those cherry pie notes come through with a toasty graham cracker crust character as well. Juicy medium-plus and ripe medium-plus tannins gives the wine great structure and mouthfeel. Long finish keeps with the cherry pie note with some cured tobacco spice joining the party. Very delicious.

2015 Kaapzicht Cinsault Skuinberg, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $79)
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of minty menthol and coffee espresso with some undefined red fruits.

On the palate, the red fruits become more defined as cherry and raspberry but the menthol and espresso dominant. Like the 1952, the medium-plus acidity and tannins give the wine exceptional balance and structure. I just don’t know if I’m a fan of this flavor profile as much.

2015 Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault, W.O. Franschhoek (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $103)
Medium-plus intensity nose with black raspberry and blackberry notes. There is also a minty element here but it smells more like fresh mint leaves rather than menthol.

The black fruits carry through on the palate with the minty notes being more subdued. In their place some of that Bordeaux-style tobacco spice emerges which gives the wine a savory element with the medium-plus acidity. Medium-plus tannins balances out the full bodied weight of the fruit. Long finish lingers on the spice. Really well made wine.

2015 Silwervis Cinsault, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $26 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $50)
Medium intensity nose with coffee and cherry notes. With some air, a little floral mint and fresh tobacco leaf comes out.

On the palate, the coffee notes dominant with fruit present but struggling to emerge. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins have firm edges to them. Even though this one of the oldest wines at the tastings, it felt really young. Intriguing though.

Takeaways

Cinsault’s diversity is a joy for food pairing but a nightmare for blind tasting.

As I reviewed my notes I saw some patterns emerging (cherry and tobacco) but many of those notes overlap with styles familiar to Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter Bordeaux. A few examples even hit some of those savory meaty notes of a Rhone. Still, this diversity is exciting because here we have a wine that can be anything from a great picnic & BBQ sipper to something savory and complex that can hold up to robust dishes.

While two of my favorites (The Blacksmith’s Prince of Bones and A.A. Badenhorst’s Ramnagras) were from the Swartland–along with the intriguing but young tasting Silwervis–it was hard to pinpoint terroir characteristics. Considering how much I’ve liked other wines from these producers, I wonder how much of it is more producer style verses the region?

But a big takeaway, and one that the moderator and panelists frequently referred to, was the importance of older vines for Cinsault. The vine lends itself easily to overproduction and with its thin skins can be prone to producing thin flavors. While that may work for bulk rosé, it’s not ideal for making character driven wines.

With over 1600 acres of Cinsault vines over 20 years old (and many of the wines featured in this tasting coming from 40+ year old vineyards), South Africa does have a good bounty of older vines to work with. The really lovely Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault from Franschhoek was sourced from South Africa’s 2nd oldest red wine vineyard from vines that are 91+ years old. You can taste the added complexity and concentration from these older vines.

Remarkable stuff that is, again, well worth the hunt to find.

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!

Quick Thoughts — Day 1 Hospice du Rhone

I’m in Paso Robles this weekend attending the Hospice du Rhone. Look for a fuller review about the festivities and if I think the cost of a Weekend Pass (and travel to Paso) is worth it to be posted sometime next week.

But, in the meantime, here are a few quick thoughts from Day 1.

Seminars

Seminar One: South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance — Very eye-opening. Cinsault is not a grape on many folks’ radar and, especially in the US, neither is South Africa but there are exciting things going on here. The diversity in styles from light, easy drinking and fruity to meaty, spicy and deep reds is remarkable.

All the wineries featured were stellar but the star of the show was Tremayne Smith’s The Blacksmith wines–particularly his Prince of Bones Cinsault.

The author meeting Adrian Hoffman of Hoffman Vineyard.


Seminar Two: A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley — This was a particularly fascinating seminar for someone familiar with Washington State wines to sit in on. I was surprised at how similar Barossa was to Washington with numerous vineyard growers who only grow grapes to sell to wineries that do not own any vineyards. What’s different though is that apparently Barossa has a lot more “corporate vineyards” ran by vineyard management teams rather than small family growers.

This seminar focused on wines made by 4 wineries with fruit from Hoffman Vineyard and 6th generation Barossa farmer, Adrian Hoffman. Once again the wines were stellar but I was particularly impressed with Soul Grower’s Shiraz sourced from 100 year old vines at Hoffman and Chris Ringland’s Dimchurch cuvee.

Rosé Lunch

The Rosé Lunch included a very lovely memorial to the late Robert Haas of Tablas Creek and Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. It also featured some delicious food that highlighted rosé’s versatility in food pairing with everything from Chicken Provençal, pork cassoulet to olive oil cake pairing wonderfully with the assortment of dry rosés on each table.

Opening Tasting

There were a lot of hits and misses here. I’m a bit concern about the prevalence of volatile acidity (VA) in several domestic examples. Nothing was full-blown vinegar or nail-polish (which are the more obvious signs of VA) but several wines had the subtle oxidize fruit notes on the nose and prickly “tomato ketchup” acid note on the tongue that trip my VA detector.

Truly some remarkable stuff coming from Santa Barbara County.

Among the hits though were several wineries from Santa Barbara County including the aforementioned Kunin Wines, Potek Winery and Bien Nacido Winery.

This cool-climate area is well known as “Sideways Country” for their Pinot noir but the Rhone varieties from this region were some of the most exciting wines at the tasting.

Stay Up to Date With Spitbucket!

The next few months will be a busy travel season with upcoming trips to Las Vegas for the Wine Spectator Grand Tour, to Burgundy for 5 days touring wineries and vineyards and to the Vodka Belt of the Baltic Sea countries of Sweden, Finland, Russia and more.

I won’t be able to post as frequently to the blog during that period but I will still be posting updates and cool stuff on other social media channels.

So check Spitbucket out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to follow the fun and geekery!

Subscribe to Spitbucket

New posts sent to your email!