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  • Barrel Tasting at Maryland's Catoctin Breeze Vineyard

    Posted: 2018-03-21 09:57
    We returned to Catoctin Breeze Vineyard last weekend shortly after our ski visit in order to attend a club barrel tasting event. The session was led by winemaker Mike Lentini who had pulled barrel samples of four future releases. The first was an upcoming rosé made from gently pressed Chambourcin grapes grown by a grower in Maryland's St. Mary's County. This vineyard benefits from sandy soils and marine coastal influences and is in an area that Dr. Joe Fiola (Extension Specialist in Viticulture and Small Fruit for the University of Maryland) has championed for years. This Chambourcin rosé is already delicious and showcases the versatility of the fruit. It is light and fresh with plenty of acids and is no comparison to the Syrah rosé wine currently on display. Expect an early summer release.

    The tasting then turned to three reds starting with a Petit Verdot, sourced from the same St. Mary's vineyard. This will be a big wine, huge, with hoards of jammy dark fruit, abundant tannins, and juicy acidity. The current condition of the wine reflects the grape's thick skins and natural acidity and will benefit tremendously with additional barrel aging and bottle conditioning. Expect an early winter 2018-2019 release. A future estate grown Cabernet Franc is in a similar condition. It is big and raw with plenty of flavor and inherent pepper characters. Mike believes that Cab Franc is the future for Maryland red wine (I saw a similar pattern with their southerly neighbor) and the winery intends to capitalize on their productive estate vineyard. Expect the same release schedule as the Petit Verdot. The final red was the future vintage of Concerto, their signature Bordeaux blend -- which in this release will be majority Cabernet Franc, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. This wine is ready now, even out white wine preferring friends easily quaffed this delicious blend. Expect, I believe, a fall 2018 release.

    By chance during a tour of the events area, Mike happened to spot a floater in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc that was being stored for a spring-summer release. This is another wine that I preferred more than the current release available in the tasting room. It is fresh, citrus - but not lemongrass - with a nice saline character. Perhaps another sourced from St. Marys?

    After a round of sampling through their Sweet ($8) and Signature ($10) wine tastings I wanted to comment on the meads. The have three honey wines available, all from a large 2010 vintage and each has a touch of sweetness without any clawing sugary aftertaste. The Honeymmon ($25) is blended with orange juice and feels like fall whereas the Amber ($23) is spiced with Christmas flavors. Both are solid meads. However we came home with a bottle of the Dolce Vita ($24), a melomel mead made with blackberries. The berry flavors are prevalent with the sweet honey kicking in near the tail. Nicely done.

    When leaving we decided to also tour the three covered bridges in Frederick County all within 10 miles of the winery. In fact, the closest, Loy's Station, is only a half mile past the winery on Roddy Road. These are impressive structures which even Civil War soldiers respected while marching through the area. After theCompass Craft Beverage Finder navigates you to Orchard Cellars continue to these bridges. Cheers.
  • Lunch With The Hess Collection: Mount Veeder, Su’skol and Salta

    Posted: 2018-03-16 14:54
    "When I first saw these hills of Mt Veeder, I was attracted by its beauty", Donald Hess founder of the Hess Collection Winery

    But Hess also believed that good grapes were grown on hillsides as was his experience visiting the great wineries of Europe. And on Mount Veeder the vines are virtually clinging to the sides of the mountain and the AVA is the highest and coolest in Napa. Thus in 1978 Donald Hess, whose Swiss pedigree included generations of Bern brewers, acquired his first parcels on Veeder. These holdings gradually expanded to 900 acres plus 125 acres leased from the historic The Christian Brothers -- who had already been leasing several historic winery buildings to Hess since 1986. And in 1995 Hess planted the Su’skol Vineyard in Napa Valley closer to the cooling influences of the San Pablo Bay.

    I learned these facts and many more during a luncheon this week at BLT Steak that was sponsored by the Hess Collection Winery - with Nicole Carter (Chief Marketing Officer and ​Director of Winemaking) and CEO ​John Grant. Over several wines they discussed all aspects of the winery from its historical roots, current fifth generation leadership, sustainable viticulture, the Hess family's support of the arts, the Napa fires, and the entire Hess Family Wine Estates portfolio -- comprising The Hess Collection, Artezin, MacPhail Family Wines, Colomé and Amalaya. Here is the background of the wines poured at the event as well as more information concerning the portfolio. Cheers.

    2015 The Hess Collection Napa Valley Chardonnay ($22) - made from Su’skol Vineyard grapes where the vineyards are cooled by the morning fog and afternoon breezes generated by the San Pablo Bay -- located 10 miles away.  Only 30% of the fruit undergoes malo-latic fermentation in which the process provides a mild dose of creaminess and lift without becoming overbearing. Instead, the floral aromatics, green apple flavors, and bright acids dominate the experience.

    2015 The Hess Collection The Lioness Napa Valley Chardonnay  ($60) - the Hess Family crest and credo is “live each day with the heart and courage of the lion” and this wine was named to honor the Hess women. Sourced from the best lots in the Su’skol Vineyard, the juice was barrel fermented and only selected barrels participated in the final blend. This is a powerful, yet fresh Chardonnay where the texture derives from ample lees stirring. It also exhibits a minty character and finishes with considerable length. Wish it was in the weekly budget.

    2015 The Hess Collection Napa Valley "Allomi" Cabernet Sauvignon ($32)  - the grapes are sourced from the winery's Allomi Vineyard located in the warmer Pope Valley. The wine includes 6% Petit Sirah which Ms Carter states "keeps Sauvignon from going flabby". This wine is pure pleasure, full bodied dark fruit, structured, integrated tannins and persistent acids.

    2016 Colomé Autentico Malbec ($25) - represents even more Wines with Altitude from historic Bodega Colomé which was founded in Salta Argentina in 1831. The winery and estate vineyard are located at 7,545 feet above sea level and operates three other vineyards ranging from 5,750 (La Brava Estate) to 10,200 (Altura Máxima Estate) feet above sea level. This last could be the highest vineyard in the world. The Hess Collecton's original winemaker Randle Johnson is the consulting winemaker for Colomé and the team produces an "autentico" Malbec which translates to unoaked. This method showcases the fruit with it's cherry pepper nose, big flavor profile, subtle but noticeable tannins (thick grape skins) and dominating acids. Nicely done.

    2015 The Hess Collection Napa Valley Lion Tamer Red Blend ($45) - what a unique blend of Malbec (50%), Zinfandel (23%), Petite Sirah (11%), Cabernet Sauvignon (6%), Petit Verdot (4%), Merlot (4%), and Mouvedre (2%). The Lion Tamer refers specifically to Malbec as Hess utilizes the grape to tame tannins from other varieties. According to Carter, the secret ingredient was the Mouvedre which contributed just enough bright fruit to ignite the palate.  This is one juicy wine with the own rooted Malbec loaded with flavor and the other grape varieties adding additional nuances. So different, so very different.

    2013 The Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) - derived from the estate Vedder Hills Vineyard situated from 600 to 1,120 feet above sea level where several of the historic blocks had been replanted. The blend includes 18% Malbec which apparently is needed to tame the additional tannins from 22 months of predominately new French Oak aging. Peppermint greets the nose, followed by multiple layers of fruit, vanilla, and spices. And as all the wines, lively acidity lengthens the finish.

    2014 The Hess Collection The Lion Cabernet Sauvignon ($185) - this is the winery's highest end Cabernet Sauvignon and most likely out of a majority of our budgets. It surfaces only during signature vintages using selective fruit from their Mount Veeder vineyards. The blend includes 17% Malbec and 1% Petite Verdot and undergoes a similar oak treatment as the Mount Veeder Cabernet. This wine equals structure as the juice melts in the palate with a tail lift from spices and acids. No doubt, a special treat.
  • Doctor Wine's The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2018

    Posted: 2018-03-05 06:00
    To understand Italian wine you must study the regions -- Daniele Cernilli, aka DoctorWine
    Daniele Cernilli stressed this point at a luncheon at Maxwell Park in Washington D.C. celebrating the release of The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017 - his comprehensive guide book devoted exclusively to Italian wine. That's a huge undertaking as Italy is arguably the most diverse wine country in the world. You could say this quote also explains the rational behind such a comprehensive undertaking as it is delineated by region and also includes descriptions of hundreds of wines, most under $20 in the U.S. market.

    But why must you study the regions in order to understand Italian wine? "Because the same grape variety is made in completely different styles depending on those wine regions". This was evident during our lunch as Cernilli poured Sangiovese wines from four wineries representing four different wine regions.

    Torre San Martino is located in the Emilia-Romagna DOC, more specifically their 10 hectares vineyard is located in Tosco-Romagnola. The owners restored a Sangiovese vineyard appropriately named Vigna 2 and replanted ungrafted Sangiovese vines and the resulting Romagna Sangiovese Vigna 1922 Reserva DOC 2013 was excellent with multiple spicy sensations and noticeable tannins in it's lengthy finish. However, for our sample they poured the Romagna Sangiovese Superiore Gemme DOC 2013 which possesses dusty soft fruit and abundant acids. According to Cernilli, the acids are much more important to this wine than the tannins.

    The second Sangiovese in our sample was from Fattoria Le Pupille, a second generation family winery operating 12 hectares of vineyard in Morellino along the southern Tuscany coast of La Maremma. The family is mostly known for their Super-Tuscan Saffredi wine but don't overlook their Poggio Valente IGT Toscana Rosso 2015. This 100% Sangiovese wine comes from the Poggio Valente vineyard located 900 feet above sea level. Although the region is generally warmer than Chianti, constant breezes help prevent disease pressure. This is an elegant wine, predominately cherry with more tannin structure to augment the balanced acidity.

    Moving to Chianti, Querciabella is located in the historical demarcation of that region in Chianti Classico. The winery started farming organically in 1988 and was certified biodynamic in 2000. The estate vineyards are located 1,300 to 1,650 feet above sea level so the vineyards are even cooler than expected. The Querciabella Chianti Classico DOCG 2015 is aged in barrique casks for a year and the result is brighter fruit, slightly more spice, and lingering finesse.

    The final Sangiovese was the Le Macioche Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2010 from Famiglia Cotarella. The Cotarella is also known for their 100% Merlot Montiano Lazio, other wines from Lazio and Umbria, as well as the recently acquired Azienda Agricola Le Macioche estate in Brunello di Montalcino.  This Sangiovese holds a couple advantages over its companions starting with the obvious difference in age. Then there's the Brunello -- a strain of Sangiovese grown only on the slopes around Montalcino – the classic hilltop village in Tuscany that is located 20 miles south of Siena.  This is a magnificent wine - intense and powerful - spices and juicy tannins.

    Besides the above mentioned wines, there are a few others I'd like to highlight. First, my favorite of the afternoon was the Bertani Amrone della Valpolicella Classico DOC 2008 a blend of 80% Corvina Veronese and 20% Rondinella. Once again the wine was blessed by several years aging in barrel. This wine is intense, yet elegant; wild, yet restrained. An instant classic. The Vincho Vaglia Serra I Tre Vescovi Barbera d'Asti Superiore DOCG 2015 was another wine that wanted to be heard with it's zinging acidity, dirty texture, and fresh red fruit. Finally there were two other excellent wines from Querciabella, their feminine Mongrana 2013 ( 50% Sangiovese, 25% Merlot, & 25%  Cabernet Sauvignon) and more powerful yet sophisticated Turpino - an unexpected blend of Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Merlot.

    The tasting also including several sparkling and white wines. The former were well represented by Lombardy's Ca'del Bosco Franciacorta cuvées. The Franciacorta Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 2007 is named after Annamaria Clementi, who along with her husband Albano founded the winery in 1962. This sparkling wine spent over eight years on its lees resulting in a creamy textured wine - but with surprisingly zest. The Franciacorta Vintage Collection Brut shared a somewhat similar blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, and Pinot Nero and exhibits considerable finesse.

     Moving to still wines, the Vincho Vaglia Serra Il Griso Roero Arneis DOCG 2016 is an oddity in the since that the grape almost went extinct in the 1960s.  The wine's floral aromas leads to a soft stone fruit center and and slightly acidic tail. Very nice. Finally I was able to revisit the Fattoria Le Pupille Poggio Argentato 2016 ($21), a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Mensang, and Traminer fermented in neutral oak. This is a luscious wine: floral and silky with balanced acids.

    Cheers to Italian wine and Doctor Wine's The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine.
  • Route 15 Wine Road: Maryland Wine's Catoctin Breeze Vineyard

    Posted: 2018-03-21 06:44
    The 530 plus miles of Route 15 transverses through several wine regions at it helps transport people and products from Durham North Carolina to New York's Finger Lakes. This is not a recent conduit as there are many historical sites along it's path from Presidential birthplaces to Civil War battlefields. In fact, in Maryland General Meade used the thoroughfare to pursue Lee to and from Gettysburg. You can read a historical marker about this event at Catoctin Breeze Vineyard, a relatively new Maryland winery that has gained recognition for producing several distinguished estate wines.

    The winery was founded in 2010 when Voytek Leon Fizyta planted two blocks of vines along a hill slightly east of the Catoctin Mountains. These blocks consisted of  Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Viognier.  The well draining, loose, alluvial soil contains some quartz deposits which assist in preventing frost prevention as well as the ripening of fruit.  The estate also receives a consistent breeze from Owen's Gap - keeping the vines ventilated helping to prevent mold formation - which is also limited by abundant morning sun. Today there are 7,000 vines carefully maintained by Vineyard Manager, Larry Sipe. The winery also augments their portfolio with fruit grown from a vineyard in St. Mary's Maryland - a sandy coastal region.

    I paid a quick visit while heading to Liberty Mountain Resort - only 20 minutes away. For hikers, Cunningham Falls State Park is even closer, 10 minutes to the south. Visitors are offered three tasting packages: Signature ($10), Premier ($12), or Sweet ($8) - the later including three Mead wines. However, I chose the Premier tasting in order to sample their estate wines. For whites, this included the 2015 Serenade Sauvignon Blanc ($24) and the 2015 Estate Chardonnay ($24). And seeing my interest in their estate portfolio, the staff member provided a sample of the wine club only 2016 Estate Chardonnay ($24). The two Chardonnays exhibit completely contrasting styles as the 2015 is more full bodied (my preference) and the 2016 racier with cleaner fruit.

    For reds, the Premier tasting started with the 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc ($36) a relatively big Cabernet which was a little choppy with noticeable dark cherry fruit, tannins, and spices. I'd like to return to this wine after a few years in bottle. 2014 Concerto Bordeaux Blend ($35) is a blend of four Bordeaux grapes and is ready to drink now - a more textured character with a juicy clean tail. For several years Dr. Joe Fiola has encouraged Maryland vineyard owners to plant Barbera and Catoctin Breeze has leveraged that suggestion by producing that 2015 Oratorio Barbera ($38). This wine possesses the stereotypical high acids and low tannins while proving a decent fruit profile. The high end of the price range for sure. Finally, my attendant poured a sample of the case club only 2015 Estate Syrah ($34) - one of the wines they featured at the 2018 Winter Wine Showcase. Let's just say, I joined the case club in order purchase a couple bottles of this wine. This is by far the nicest wine coming from their estate. Cheers and as always theCompass Craft Beverage Finder will guide you to Catoctin Breeze Vineyard.
  • USBevX 2018: #Wine Writers, What Are They Looking For?

    Posted: 2018-02-23 22:00
    Photo Courtesy of  Kathy Lang Wiedermann -Virginia Made
    A huge thanks to Jenn Nelson of Wine Antics for live blogging the Wine Writers, What Are They Looking For? session at the 2018 US Wine & Beverage Conference. This two-day conference in Washington D.C. is targeted towards wineries to provide education in the fields of vineyard management, wine-making, and marketing.  The Wine Writers session was one of a few that were very relevant to content providers and fortunately I was able to watch the proceedings live via Jenn's video.  This session was moderated by Eric Guerra, Chief Marketing & Sales Officer Terravant Wine Company, and featured Carlo DeVito Owner Hudson-Chatham Winery  plus three wine writers: Lenn Thompson, Frank Morgan, and Paul Vigna. A stellar cast.  I would strongly encourage interested readers to watch the entire video, but here are my comments on what was discussed and what was omitted. Cheers.

    Educate Tasting Room Staff
    This dictum should be obvious but even the organizers of USBevX realized it's lacking since they created a session on this very topic. Perhaps, turnover is a contributing factor, but I continue to witness this irritating display of ignorance.  On one extreme, I remember Dezel Quillen's (MyVineSpot) story how he mispronounced Virginia's signature grape Vee-og-ney for a substantial period because that's how a staff member pronounced it during his introduction to the grape. On the lesser extreme I've engaged staff who are unfamiliar with where a vinifera grape originated, a blend composition, or even what grapes are planted in the estate vineyard.  Simply unacceptable. And staff should be honest if they do not know the answer to a question. Do not guess. One tip that Lenn Thompson suggested was not only sending writers technical sheets, but post that information on your website. I would expand that and suggest having technical sheets available at the tasting room. At the very least, it would assist educating the staff and more importantly it can be distributed to wine geeks who ask more probing questions.

    Tell a Story
    How can wineries differentiate their brand from the hundreds or even thousands of competing options? That question not only was raised during this session, but has been overarching dilemma of the craft wine explosion.  In addition to producing the best wine possible, a common answer is to create compelling stories behind your establishment. Frank Morgan mentioned Old Westminster Winery as an example with their family story and social media engagement.  However, the story doesn't have to revolve solely around the family.  The region's history can be stressed as is the case at The Winery at Bull Run who display Civil War artifacts in their tasting room.  Another option is highlighting a particular grape variety. Hudson-Chatham's story revolves around Baco Noir -- although their Chelois is just as intriguing.  If you produce an Albarino, focus on the grape's Galicia home as well as how your wine differs from those from Riax Baixas - perhaps through annual comparative tastings. Even normally pedestrian grapes such as Pinot Gris can be a focal point. Recently I tasted a rather noteworthy Pinot Gris from Boordy Vineyards. When I mentioned this to Dr. Joe Fiola, his eyes gleamed as he enthusiastically discussed the specific vineyard block that produced that wine. Boordy should share that knowledge - perhaps present samples of dirt in the tasting room and explain how the soil and sunlight affect the wine. Provide us a reason to visit.

    Expand Beyond Experienced Content Providers
    A valid question was raised during the seminar on how to differentiate between the bloggers, particularly when new content providers seem to be appearing overnight. The panelists gave two equally valid responses. First, look for content providers who have organically written about your area as this demonstrates a degree of excitement towards your location. Paul Vigna's Penn Live is a nice example of an outlet that reports on winery tours in underrepresented locations. At the very least any state or regional winery board worth their salt should have a list of content providers that have written about that area.  The second response was to seek content providers who have large audiences. Now in some instances, these audiences may simply be the result of longevity, but at least the blogger\writer has sustained a passion for covering the wine industry.

    However, I would caution about relying solely on these more experienced bloggers. You could easily overlook many talented and engaging content providers with small but growing readership. Being in the longevity camp, it is refreshing to encounter younger and perhaps more enthusiastic content providers who are not just seeking free samples. And in the DMV region there is no shortage of groups that you can contact to locate these individuals. A few Facebook examples are the Young Wino's of DC, Black Wine Lovers, and I have to include the more senior Virginia Wine Mafia.

    Finally, the discussion was exclusively focused on print.  Yet there's a large array of media that are covering  craft beverage industries. Wine Antics is one example of live video blogging. There are also podcasters, social media providers, and others outside my realm. Try something different such as Winemaker's Drinking Beer. There are numerous outlets beyond experienced print bloggers.

Featured Visit

North Gate Vineyards; Purcellville, Virginia - Monday, January 16, 2012
Being a little stuck inside stir crazy, we headed out for a short trip to Loudoun County to visit North Gate Vineyards. North Gate is owned and operated by Mark and Vicki Fedor, who were working the tasting bar on our arrival. They've been tending fines in Loudoun for almost 15 years and were the initial winemakers at Corcoran Vineyards several years ago. At this point in time, the winery is sold out of some wine (Viognier and Petit Verdot), but we sampled their 2010 Chardonnay, 2010 Petit Mensing, 2009 Cabernet Franc, 2009 Merlot, 2009 Meritage, and NV Apple. All the fruit is sourced from Loudoun County and the resulting wines were rather enjoyable. And affordable - all under $20; which makes their Meritage (Cabernet Franc, (47%), Cabernet Sauvignon (26%), Petit Verdot (21%), and Merlot (6%)) a rather nice deal. The Chardonnay was also a favorite, being both fruit forward and slightly creamy after having been fermented and aged in a combination of older (neutral) and new oak. The Apple and Petit Mensing were also very nice - with any residual sugar equally balanced from the wine's acidity. We plan on getting easier access to their wines, since the winery participates in the Winter Falls Church Farmer's Market.

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