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Lake Chelan AVA

I’ve lived in Washington my entire life and yet I can count on a whopping two fingers the number of times that I’ve visited Lake Chelan – one of the most popular vacation destinations in the state. Both of these visits have been during the “offseason” of late October / early November. Granted, some wineries weren’t open during this time of year and it’s not nearly as enjoyable to sit outside and admire the gorgeous lake views when it’s 40 degrees as opposed to 80. But on the flip side, visiting during the offseason means far fewer crowds and shorter tasting room lines as the population plummets to 1/10th of the peak summer months.

The draw of Lake Chelan by the summer tourists is easily understood, with lots to see and do – and drink! Only a three hour car ride from Seattle to the west or Spokane from the east, it is easily accessible and makes for a (relatively) affordable weekend getaway. However, unlike other Washington AVAs that have built their tourism around an already thriving wine industry, Lake Chelan has done the opposite. Here, tourism was the area’s initial draw and wine has only recently been added as part of the region’s “to do” list. Likely much to the relief of summering parents watching Little Johnny cannonball off the dock yet again.

Lake Chelan is very new AVA (established in 2009) and is wholly contained within the larger Columbia Valley AVA.  Although grapes have been grown in this area since the late 1800s, the first truly modern, production vineyard unbelievably wasn’t planted until 1998 (ironically making this particular AVA too young to enjoy its own wines).  So really, “serious” grape growing in this region is still in its infancy – although I imagine that some old-timers might strenuously disagree with me on this point.

The lake itself is the AVA’s most unique attribute and is a major factor as to why wines from this area are unlike any others from Washington. Lake Chelan is the 3rd deepest lake in the United States (after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe) and is a whopping 52 miles long! Which helps explain why the driving time between winery visits can seem like an eternity.

The lake moderates temperatures year-round: helping the region stay much cooler in the summer months than the rest of the Columbia Valley AVA (preserving acidity in its zippy whites), yet also extending the growing season so as to encourage ripening of its red varieties. Speaking as someone who spent her entire childhood in the Columbia Valley AVA, the heat of the summer months can be unbearable.

My most recent visit to Lake Chelan was in early November 2016 and I was thoroughly impressed with the whites of the area (especially Viognier). They’re bright and fruity, but maintain a weight and complexity that make them more than mere porch pounders to enjoy by the lake.

Unfortunately, the reds of Chelan left me underwhelmed, which I fully admit is a gross generalization based on a small sample size. Many I found to be altered too much by oak – with loads of mocha and toasty vanilla flavors that overpowered any varietal characteristics. Other reds were too thin, watery and lacking flavor and interest. Yes, I realize I sound like Goldilocks with my “too much” or “too little” whining. However, I have found over the years that young wine regions come along slowly (see in particular the Okanagan Valley region in British Columbia) and improve in an almost Darwinian fashion of winemaker trial and error as to what works and what doesn’t.  Chelan Estate Winery

With all of that said, I have an immense amount of respect for those in the region who are willing to experiment with different varieties and clones in Lake Chelan AVA. For instance, Pinot Noir doesn’t grow particularly well in Eastern Washington, and I just don’t know if my beloved home state has it in us to produce a great Pinot. But some winemakers (I’m looking at you Bob Broderick from Chelan Estate Winery) aren’t willing to accept this as gospel and are out to prove me wrong. Bob and others continue to work toward a grape that rivals its much celebrated Oregon brethren. Of course, I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong and would happily eat crow in so doing….I’ve heard it pairs very well with Pinot!

But until that time, here’s the outline on Lake Chelan.

Tasting Notes: Pinot Noir (Burgundy vs. Sonoma)

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written.  Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right?  But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.”

-Robin Williams to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting


I read a lot about wine – I mean, a lot. But learning about wine only by reading books reminds me of Robin Williams’s beautiful lakeside soliloquy in which he implores (a young) Matt Damon to go out and actually experience the world. And so it goes with wine – one of the best (and definitely most fun) ways to learn about wine is to taste it. However, this is a little different from drinking wine . . .

Tasting Notebook
Old Reliable: Tasting Notebook

To me, tasting wine means that I’m taking the time to actually evaluate it and assess all of its unique characteristics.  On the other hand, drinking wine means I’m just kicking back and enjoying it.  The differences between the two  are actually quite stark.  And while I do a good degree of both, when I’m really trying to expand my wine knowledge I sit down with my trusty tasting notebook and put pen to paper to capture my thoughts.

WSET Grid 1
WSET Level 3 Tasting Notes

Since I’ve been on the WSET path for the past year or so, my tasting notes generally follow their prescribed format – which I freely admit falls on the clinical side of evaluation. And while I completely agree with their premise that consistent and objective tasting notes are ideal for learning about wine, I’m never going to truly remember a wine based on notes like “medium+ acidity” or “clear, pale lemon.” For that reason I also like to add my own thoughts on the wine . . . where was I, what did it remind me of, what was I eating with it, etc.

When doing tastings at home, I often enlist Hubs to be my personal wine steward and set me up with a blind tasting. This way, I don’t have any preconceived notions about what I’m tasting and can just do some “mindful drinking” of what’s in the glass in front of me.  Ideally, I taste a couple of wines side by side because it’s much easier for me to pick up differences (or similarities) when comparing wines as opposed to just tasting one wine in a vacuum.  As an added bonus, I then have the benefit of having TWO bottles to choose from after I’m done with my tasting.  🙂  I should also add that while my tasting “goal” is not necessarily to accurately identify each of the wines tasted blindly, the truth is I always smile when I do get them right (I imagine that’s the same for everyone!).

Recently I did such a tasting with two distinct Pinot Noirs (Old World vs. New World) when deciding which would pair best with my mom-in-law’s delicious Coq a Vin that she was preparing for a family dinner.  Sitting in my in-laws sunny, lush Southern California backyard I was joined by my father-in-law, “T-Bone”, for the tasting.  Yes, my 75 year-old father-in-law’s nickname is “T-Bone”…and yes, he’s as awesome and quirky as you might imagine (he once informed me that he stopped drinking Merlot because it is “too purple”).

Domaine Gille 2012 Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru ‘Les Cailles’, Bourgogne. (13% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, tending towards garnet
  • Aromas: Roses that are just starting to wilt, cranberries, earthy cherries, fall leaves
  • Palate: Medium- body, medium+ acidity, medium- tannins.  Additional flavors of tea, spice and an almost cedar-like note.
  • My Thoughts: Very delicate wine – honestly, borderline too thin right now. I’m sure I opened this too early and it would’ve benefited from at least a few more years of age.  I guessed this was the Burgundy due to the color and dominate flavors of earth & spice with the fruit taking a backseat.  I liked this wine, but probably would’ve loved it in a few years.  And interestingly, out of the two Pinots, this was T-Bone’s favorite!  (Sidenote: One of my 2018 goals is to introduce my in-laws to new wines since they gravitate almost exclusively towards California Cabernets and Chardonnays).
  • Technical Bits: Domaine Gille has been passed down from generation to generation since the 1500s.  Their vines currently range from 45-80 years of age.  Soil is stony limestone.  All grapes are hand harvested.  Natural fermentation.  Aged for 18 months in oak (1/3 new).

Hanzell 2014 ‘Sebella’ Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California. (13.7% abv)

  • Color: Pale ruby, bright
  • Aromas: Fresh flowers, slightly sweet fruits – raspberries, red plum, hints of Dr. Pepper
  • Palate: Medium bodied, medium+ acidity, medium (close to medium+) tannins.  I’m picking up sweet cherries and some black pepper here too.
  • My Thoughts: This wine was brighter and more ruby colored, possibly indicating a younger wine. A definite sweetness here that the other wine didn’t have. With all the fresh, ripe fruit oozing out of the glass, I was confident this was the California Pinot.  And while I don’t usually go for wines with this degree of sweet fruit, this wine just smelled yummy . . . tasted it too.
  • Technical Bits: Hanzell Vineyards was founded in 1957 by James D. Zellerbach after he’d spent extensive time in Burgundy.  Focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Aged for 10 months in French oak (25% new).

The end result was that we drank both bottles with dinner so the pairing turned out to not be of much consequence – both were delicious!  And, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of the Sonoma Pinot and T-Bone’s of the Burgundy. 🙂

Valle d’Aosta

If diamonds are the prime example of the adage “good things come in small packages“, then Valle d’Aosta is a very close second.  The smallest wine region in Italy holds its own against its 19 regional counterparts (yes, even Barolo and Tuscany!).  Thanks in part to the presence of one very large mountain in the region, Valle d’Aosta’s unique climate and elevation produce flavors that are entirely distinguishable from others in this wine rich country.  Despite the comparison, if Hubs gets me a bottle of wine from Valle d’Aosta rather than a diamond for our upcoming 20th wedding anniversary, we’re going to have a very long talk.  

To start with, you’ll see a lot of French influence here which dates back to the 6th century when the region was conquered and became part of the Frankish Kingdom.  (Sidenote: Italy was continually getting its ass kicked back in those days by various invading barbaric tribes with, rather ironically, wussy sounding names like the Franks, Normans, & Lombards which sound like an accounting firm).  Today, Valle d’Aosta is bilingual – it’s the only French speaking Italian region and you’ll find several French varieties being grown here such as Pinot Noir and Gamay. 

Valle d’Aosta may be the smallest Italian region, but it contains Europe’s largest mountain – Monte Bianco (aka “Mont Blanc” as it’s known in French – which is also the name of an insanely expensive pen that your rich uncle gets you for graduating college but then you lose two weeks later when moving out of your crappy apartment…all hypothetically of course).  Monte Bianco not only adds to the gorgeous scenery of the area, but importantly blocks the clouds and provides a rainshadow effect to the region, making Valle d’Aosta drier and sunnier – and a better place for grapes to thrive.   

The majority of wine produced in Valle d’Aosta is high quality, DOC wine.  Co-operativesCork (a business arrangement in which a number of growers “pool” their grapes together) are prominent and account for approximately 75% of the production in the region.  However, an increasing number of growers have started to bottle their own wines and have banded together to form an association that helps them achieve this goal – often through use of shared machinery or equipment.  This association of independent growers is known as “Viticulteur Encaveur” – a term that appears on a wine label or cork produced by a member. 

Although many local grape varieties were lost to phylloxera, there are still ten unique and indigenous varieties grown in Valle d’Aosta including Prié Blanc, Fumin and Petit Rouge.  If you haven’t heard of any of these, you’re not alone – I hadn’t either until I started studying this region!

I recently tried a Prié Blanc produced from grapes grown in the highest elevation vineyard site in Europe (1,200 meters above sea level, or 3/4 of a mile up to us non-metric Americans).  Not many grape varieties can survive at this elevation, but neither can phylloxera . . . these vines are some of the very few in Italy that were entirely untouched by the pest. 

Label

Pavese 2015 Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle, Valle d’Aosta, Italy. 12% abv.  Very pale lemon colored with bright aromatics of lemon, wet stone and a hint of white flowers.  On the palate – holy acidity I feel like I’m drinking Lemonhead candies.  Tons of lemon and minerality and electric acidity.  Overall, this wine is fairly simple, refreshing – but not overly complex or interesting. $35.

If you’re interested in learning more – here’s the outline on Valle d’Aosta!

 

Test 2

Five Vines Wine Bar

SELRES_21091176-a06d-4f96-b587-c5341b1953bdSELRES_03e5df0e-6667-46ab-8697-e6b2e959a150SELRES_2c3de0e7-0457-49a4-a347-56cdf2b85e3cAfter a busy day of driving around SoCal, we needed a rest (plus it was almost cocktail hour).  Luckily, Five Vines Wine Bar came up on a search for wine bars located nearby.  We had the place practically to ourselves when we arrived shortly after 4pm, but it was hopping with locals when we left a few hours later.SELRES_2c3de0e7-0457-49a4-a347-56cdf2b85e3cSELRES_03e5df0e-6667-46ab-8697-e6b2e959a150SELRES_21091176-a06d-4f96-b587-c5341b1953bd

Located in heart of San Juan Capistrano, Five Vines is named for the family of five who own the bar.  We met Suzy (aka “Vine #2”) who was a terrific hostess. She and another gal handled the front of house expertly, we never had an empty glass on our table.

Five Vines offers over 5o different options by the glass (6oz), taste (2oz) or bottle – with most bottle prices under $50.  California heavy list, but I was happy to see a few wines from my beloved home state of Washington (Seven Hills, Nine Hats and Stone Cap), along with a smattering of Italian and French wines.  A few sparklers and dessert wines round out the list.

For flights, you can choose from one of their house designed flights (with cutesy names like “Mischievous Malbecs” or “Chillaxed Chardonnays”), or you can put together your own from any of the wines on their list.  They also have a “Flying Blind” flight where they’ll pour you three red wines, and if you guess the varietals correctly you get the tasting for free and your picture posted on their Facebook page – something I’d definitely consider trying down the line sometime.

In continuing my personal “California Adventure” of acquiring a greater appreciation and knowledge of the state’s wines, I ordered a flight of three Golden State whites:

  • Barlow 2015 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. Nice citrus and grapefruit, lower acidity than usual for this varietal.
  • Victor Hugo 2015 Viognier, Paso Robles.  The best of the three with lush peach aromas, but also distinctly smelled of Pillsbury crescent rolls.
  • Saracina 2016 Unoaked Chardonnay, Mendocino County. This didn’t taste completely unoaked to me, definitely had some baking spice notes.

Hubs tried a Riesling from Marin County that was positively teeming with petrol aromas, followed by a Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills.  He liked the Pinot but I thought it came across as thin and tight – and while I would love to be similarly described, not exactly what I’m looking for in my wine. 😉

Also have to give serious props to their playlist – our good friend The White Buffalo’s song came up on the rotation!

Overall – a comfy, unpretentious wine bar with solid, but not over-the-top, service.  I’d definitely go back for the personalized flights so I can practice my blind tasting and to have another crack at the Mormor cheese ball – a secret family recipe


 

Bandol AOC

I love this photo.  It’s such a juxtaposition of extremes: a bottle of rosé from an area in Southern France with 3,000+ hours of sunshine a year, nestled into several inches of Pacific Northwest snow.

Provence is world-renowned for its stunning beaches, fragrant fields of lavender, and some of the best rosé on the planet.  Not only is Provence France’s oldest winemaking region – it’s also the only region in the world to focus primarily on the production of rosé. And they do a pretty kickass job of it.

Rosés from Provence are often light, crisp, delicately fruity wines that are perfect for sipping away an idle afternoon. Bandol is a rosé dominant appellation located within the southern part of Provence, right up against the Mediterranean Sea. And Bandol rosés are nothing like your typical, pink porch-pounders.

For starters, Mourvèdre is the dominant grape in these wines – lending more savory, and sometimes meaty flavors.  Quite different from the usual floral and bright red fruit notes found in rosés where Grenache or Cinsault are the leading players.  Mourvèdre is a grape that loves the heat (it originated somewhere near the toasty Mediterranean coast of Spain) and the steamy vineyards of Bandol are a perfect environment for it to thrive.

Also, unlike the majority of Provence rosés that can be sipped with nothing more than your sandals, Bandol rosés have a degree of heft and complexity (and higher alcohol content) that make them almost need food in order to shine.  I’ve actually found that they can be overwhelming on their own, and enjoy them so much more when paired with the right food – which can range from a burger fresh off the BBQ to roasted chicken to ratatouille (a classic dish of the region focusing on vegetables – which probably explains why I’ve never made this myself). 😉

Like other rosés, it drinks best when well chilled.  So stick it in your fridge or a snowbank for a bit before enjoying. 🙂

And here’s the outline on Bandol!


 

Liguria

I recently started my Italian Wine Scholar studies and had a challenge choosing which region to tackle first.  Do I bite the bullet and knock out the behemoth Piemonte?  Start with the smallest (and possibly easiest) Valle d’Aosta?  Or, do I go for the only Northern Italy region that I’ve visited and hope the fact that I’ve been there makes the information easier to retain?

This last hypothesis made the most sense to me, so I chose Liguria.  We visited Cinque Terre in 2010, back when I knew a bit about wine, but was still a few years from getting serious about it.  And, unfortunately, I had not yet started to keep tasting notes or bottle shots so I can’t recall the specific wines I drank while I was there.   I do remember it was primarily (entirely?) white wine and it paired very well with the huge plate of pasta with pesto sauce that I wolfed down our first night in Manarola.

In reading about the region of Liguria, there is constant mention of the terraced, steep vineyards the hug the coastline.  I remember this vividly because (1) I have a picture of it, 🙂 and (2) I recall the insane uphill hike we had to do in town just to get to our hotel room.  Thankfully, we’d checked most of our luggage at the train station in Pisa so we arrived at Cinque Terre with only our bare necessities in backpack.  This move likely saved our marriage. 😉

Manarola
Terraced vineyards of Cinque Terre

Anyhoo – if simply walking the area is strenuous, I can only imagine how challenging harvesting the vineyards would be.  They’re gorgeous, but high-maintenance.  (Think Real Housewives of Cinque Terre.)

Since I’m doing the IWS on my own and don’t have the benefit of tastings in class, I went in search of purchasing a bunch of Northern Italian wines at one of the local wine stores.  M&S (or as I’ve started thinking of them: “Mute and Snobby”) has an awesome selection of international wines, but their lack of customer service is almost laughable.  Both times I’ve been in there I’ve barely been given a hello upon entering, and nobody has offered assistance.  Even after piling several expensive bottles on the counter – this garnered me a look and a nod, but that’s it.  No “great choice!  This wine is delicious!” or “I’m curious – what are you doing with all these Italian wines?”  I’ve heard and read that this “hands-off” approach is kinda their schtick, but it’s a very bizarre way to go about a retail business.  Shrug.

Anyhoo (again) – the only wine M&S had from the Liguria region was a Pigato.  I scooped it up and have been sipping on it the past couple of nights.  It’s growing on me:

Punta Crena “Vigneto Ca da Rena” Pigato 2014, Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Liguria, Italy.

Medium lemon-gold color.  Aromas of honeysuckle, beeswax, pear, yellow apple – with tons of salinity/sea spray and herbal notes.  Medium plus bodied (almost viscous, like Viogniers can be), with flavors similar to aromas plus a slightly bitter finish.  The wine is interesting, but I’m not sure how much I subjectively enjoy it.  Tastes like yellow fruit that’s been sprayed by the salty sea.  Was better this eve when paired with a crisp salad than on its own yesterday.

Liguria is one of the nine regions covered under the Northern IWS exam and after spending the past week on this area I’m confident that I’ll be able to nail the 0.08% of exam questions on this region. 😉

Here’s the outline on Liguria.