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Planes, Trains, And Single-Day Butt-Numbing Automobile Rides To Dão (Quinta dos Roques Recent Releases)

Vinted on May 30, 2013 binned in elegant wines, overachiever wines, wine review

The first thing I need to tell you is that I’m deeply grateful to ViniPortugal for having invited me to Lisbon to judge in the 2013 Wines of Portugal Challenge (the first time they’ve opened it up to international judging), and for the hospitality that they showed to me while I was there.

I have to tell you this first because I’m about to spend the next few hundred words sounding as if I’m undermining every word of that previous sentence, even though it happens to be the truth, truth that’s balder than Bruce Willis.

What’s also the Die-Hard-With-A-Vengeance-bald truth is that, despite the fact that I’m about to recommend a Dão producer (Quinta dos Roques / Quinta das Maias) to you, I cannot tell you diddly-squat about them. I know, we are off to a swimming start here, aren’t we? Hang on, it will get better, I promise.

Here’s the thing: the Wines of Portugal public relations folks face a daunting task in trying to herd a large amount of fiercely independent winemaking and food-crafting cats. If they ever get the PR situation to match their culinary and wine prowess, I suspect they would conquer the planet storm trooper style. Until then, though, you won’t need to stock up on any ammo, based on my recent experiences (but I still love you, Portugal!).

Exhibit A: I, along with about ten fellow newly-minted international judging alumni, spent more time on a bus traveling from Lisbon to Dão and back in one day in May than I spent (by about an hour) in a plane flying from Philly to Lisbon, all in the name of tasting the wares of a few of the best-regarded producers in Dão. The number of wines we tasted that day? About 12. The number of bottles of water or beer (or anything else) aboard the bus on that 7+ hour jaunt? Zero.

Exhibit B: We were served a fixed menu of bacalhau (traditional Portuguese salted cod, of which there are rumored to be one thousand different preparations) five times in four days, often successively for dinner and lunch on the same days (including the day of our Dão expedition). When we burst out laughing at the final dinner when we each received a serving of cod the size of my mastiff’s head, I was asked “what’s wrong, don’t you like it?” My reply: “I didn’t say that; it’s amazing food, but I don’t like anything five times in one week no matter how amazing it is… with the possible exception of sex with my wife…”

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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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