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Toilet Frogs And Whale Tails (Alto De La Ballena Recent Releases)

One could go their entire blogging life and never be fortunate enough to use the phrase “toilet frog.” And yet… here I am, able to use the term from personal experience.

I need a moment to revel in this, people. Please, indulge me a moment, for I have met them, in person.

T-o-i-l-e-t   f-r-o-g-s…. As in, frogs that live in a toilet. Yes, seriously, and for realz, as the youngins say these days.

The toilet frogs moment comes courtesy of Alto de la Ballena (literally, “height of the whale [hills]”), a relatively small producer (about 55k bottles) with a relatively small vineyard area (about 20 hectares) in a relatively small country (Uruguay) who are making relatively excellent wines that are not yet available in the U.S. (though they are working on it; it’s a situation I sincerely hope changes after this, and not just because they showed me their toilet frogs).

The story begins in the Sierra de la Ballena, a stretch of hills that begin at a whale-watching peninsula near the seaside resort town of Punta de Este, a spot where the seafaring mammals stop during their August/September migration to Patagonia. Taking their name from the whales, the Sierra de la Ballena undulate to the north, about fifteen kilometers inland to the town of Maldonado, which is where Alvaro Lorenzo and his wife Paula Pivel decided to plant their vineyards in 2000/2001.

Lorenzo and Pivel were all alone on the steep, rocky, gravel, granite, limestone, and schist hills in Maldonado.

“At the time, no one was here,” Lorenzo told me when I visited the property as a guest of Wines of Uruguay; “we took the risk.”

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Rocks, (PhD) Papers, Capybara (Bouza Winery Recent Releases, Uruguay)

Bouza Winery is small even by Uruguay’s petite wine production standards. 25 hectares of vineyards spread out between two plantings, in the Melilla and Las Violetas regions near Montevideo, yielding about 120 thousand bottles a year. But you wouldn’t know it tasting their wines, which are bold, modernly stylized (okay, and in a few cases too modernly stylized on the aggressive oak treatment), and bigger than some of California’s heftiest reds.

But while you might justifiably dismiss Bouza’s in floral, plummy and spicy experimental 2011 single-parcel “A6 ” Tannat as being too, well, boozy, you’ve got to admire the gumption undertaken in trying to bring it to life. The vines are trained low to the ground, a ground covered with local stones red stones brought in specifically because their wavelength provides maximum light reflection, the better to ripen up that tricky Tannat with less need for leaf thinning and with fewer of that grape’s often punishing tannins.

Bouza has a bit of a secret weapon, and it’s not Pincho, their local male capybara who is friendly and fond of having his rough fur petted (by the way, capybaras purr when they’re happy; who knew!??). No, the secret weapon isn’t a dog-sized rodent that acts like a cat (although that admittedly is very cool), or the fact that Bouza’s renovated 1940s-era property and excellent restaurant have them set up better for receiving tourists than just about any other winemaking outfit in Uruguay. [ Editor’s note: as far as I’m aware, Pincho is a relatively rare case among capybaras, who are pensive in the wild; do NOT get hosed on Bouza wine and the go to the zoo trying to pet one, unless you want to possibly lose your hand! ]

The weapon is mild-mannered, be-speckled and willy-haired former physics teacher and chemical engineering PhD Eduardo Boido; the kind of head winemaker whose doctoral thesis centered on oenology, and just the kind of guy that you’d expect to think up an idea like trucking in wavelength reflective-wavelength red rocks and dumping them in an experimental vineyard…

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Pence In The Sta. Rita Hills Cross Hairs, But How’s The Wine?

Vinted on May 2, 2013 binned in overachiever wines, wine news, wine review

Central Coast-ish California’s Pence Ranch, and its charismatic owner, Blair Pence (who, with toothy grin and cowboy hat looks every bit the part of a rancher) have been making the wine scene headlines so far in 2013, and not in a good way.

To bring you up to speed on what has become the U.S. wine biz equivalent of tossing flaming poop bags about AVA boundaries, let’s quote a few spots and then we can talk about what no one else seems to be getting at in this battle, which is Pence’s wine itself.

To the tape, from Independent.com (emphasis mine):

Vintner Blair Pence filed with the federal government this February to expand the borders of the increasingly renowned Sta. Rita Hills wine-grape-growing appellation to the east to include his vineyard, which he planted in 2006 outside of Buellton… USC-educated developer-turned-farmer has been dealing with the wrath of his winemaking neighbors, and their terroir tussle is now making headlines in the international wine press. “If you look at the history, you look at the geology, you look at the weather, it belongs in the appellation,” said Pence, who built Los Angeles office buildings and industrial parks before growing grapes, ranching cattle, and raising avocados. “The science is so clear-cut.”

And the opposition summary, via WineSpectator.com (emphasis mine):

The board of the Sta. Rita Hills Winegrower Alliance (SRHWA) disagreed with Pence’s arguments, however, and voted unanimously to oppose expansion. Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, the original petitioner who crafted the AVA boundaries, is against the expansion, saying the new border would extend into a distinct landmass called the Buellton Flats, which has a north-south orientation, while the current AVA has an east-west orientation. According to Hagen, the areas Pence wants included also lack the maritime influence that growers insist make the region ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We’ve spent $25 million and 20 years promoting the area,” said Hagen. “We don’t want to be catty, but we want to protect what we’ve built.”

Reaction has not been kind, probably because this seems like a bit of a money grab for Pence, who stands to gain higher grape prices if his AVA expansion bid is successful. Since I visited Pence Ranch and talked about this with Blair Pence last August, I thought I’d chime in on the debate/debacle; mostly because I find it very odd that little has been said about whether or not the Pence Ranch wine itself seems to fit what one might call the Sta. Rita Hills Pinot profile…

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Righting Wine Award Wrongs (Merced del Estero 2012 Mil Vientos Torrontes)

Vinted on April 4, 2013 binned in on the road, overachiever wines, wine review

Merced del Estero, in the über-sunny San Juan region of Argentina, has been tending vineyards under the care of the familia Rodriguez  for three generations, since 1897.

But it took me just one iteration of the annual

Argentina Wine Awards to help screw them up a little bit.

MdE was one of the producer visit stops for a group of about half of AWA judges that followed the awards judging, seminar and winners’ gala in February. It was also one of the most unassuming – twelve hectares of estate vineyards, west of the Tulum Valley, close enough to the Andes to be impacted by the hot sonda winds, and sitting about 700 meters above sea level (which sounds impressive, but that’s about average for a lot of fine wine grapegrowing in the high elevation dessert of Argentina).

The first thing that you notice about the Rodriguez family vineyards – if you’re a geek like me, I mean – is that many of the vines are trained in pergolas, reaching fairly high off the ground. The second thing you’ll notice is that the Bonarda (planned to be introduced to the MdE lineup this year) on the sunnier, exposed areas of the pergola are practically… raisins.

Which you’d resemble, too, if you were openly exposed to that punishing sun for as long as they are…

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