Review: Wines of La Crema, 2016 Releases

La Crema 2014 Virtuoso Pinot NoirToday we look at three new releases from Sonoma-based La Crema, including the kooky Virtuoso Pinot Noir. Virtuoso is the result of a crowdsourced winemaking experiment, in which 25,000 “virtual vintners” put their input into what type of wine La Crema would make (Russian River Pinot won), what type of yeast would be used (wild), how long the wine would spend in barrel (9 months), and more. Majority ruled, and La Crema made it to the crowd’s specifications. Did the wisdom of crowds prove better than the wisdom of a trained winemaker? Let’s find out!

2014 La Crema Pinot Gris Monterey – A fruity yet brisk and fun pinot gris, this wine offers lush apple notes with a smattering of tropical and citrus fruits, showing some melon notes on the finish. Ample acidity gives the wine a freshness that cuts through any lingering sweetness, wrapping things up on a light and vibrant note. A- / $15

2013 La Crema Chardonnay Monterey – A pedestrian chardonnay, some curious lemon notes are about all that give it structure outside of a moderately wood-driven, slightly chalky and gravelly expression of this grape. The vanilla on the finish is reminiscent of cake frosting more than anything else. B- / $20

2014 La Crema Virtuoso Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – Let’s see if the crowd knew what it was doing. Virtuoso is initially quite restrained for a Russian River pinot, with blackberry preserves, black tea, and mild chocolate notes. The wine is modest of body, almost thin at times, with a short — but nicely bittersweet — finish. Otherwise, it’s not terribly remarkable — perfectly acceptable with a meal, but on its own it feels a little lost in the shuffle. B+ / $50

lacrema.com

Review: Angostura White Oak, 5 Years Old, 7 Years Old, 1919, and 1824 Rums

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While best known for its ubiquitous aromatic bitters, Angostura is a major rum distillery, and it’s been producing spirits in Trinidad & Tobago since 1824.

We tasted five rums spanning a wide range of production from the company. All are 80 proof, with comments on each below. Enjoy!

Angostura White Oak Rum – You’ll find “Angostura Limited” in small type underneath the much larger White Oak banner. This white rum (barrel aged and filtered to white, though no age information is offered) is the number one selling rum in its homeland of Trinidad, and it’s easy to see why. Fresh citrus is prominent on the nose, with crisp lime notes. The palate lacks the raw character that so many white rums exhibit, hitting the tongue with spice and some gentle notes of canned peaches in syrup. The finish is lackluster, flabby, with notes of acetone — but what white rum is a dazzler, anyway? Not widely exported to the U.S., but bottles do show up from time to time. B+ / $15

Angostura Caribbean Rum 5 Years Old – A gold rum with five years of age on it. Caramel and cinnamon on the nose give this a bit of a cinnamon roll character, though the buttery body brings the spice on more strongly — think red hot candies instead of cinnamon toast. The finish is heavier with clove character and lengthy brown butter, but recalls a bit of youthful petrol character as it fades out. All told, it’s a solid though youngish bottling. B+ / $18

Angostura Caribbean Rum 7 Years Old – Though only two years older, this rum is significantly darker in the glass and richer on the nose — with notes of coffee, dense vanilla, and chocolate right up front. These sweet notes lead to a nutty, toffee character as the finish builds, taking you to a big and bold conclusion that offers hints of baking spice while it lingers for quite a while. An impressive sipper, it’s a bold spirit that showcases all the best characteristics of rum at this age level. A / $20

Angostura Caribbean Rum 1919 – This golden-hued rum offers no aging information but it makes up for that with a hugely spicy profile. If you’re a fan of spiced rum, Angostura 1919 will be right up your alley. Toasted coconut, huge vanilla notes, dark brown sugar, cinnamon, and allspice are all present and accounted for — and in a stronger show of force than your typical aged rum. Everything in 1919 seems pumped up to 11, with that unctuous butteriness just oozing on the finish. All told it’s an impressive rum — provided its stylistic flourishes are what you’re looking for. A- / $30

Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old – A blend of clearly well-aged rums, though unlike the 1919, this one offers an age statement on the bottle. As with the 7 year old, notes of coffee and chocolate are immediately present on the nose, with spicy tobacco notes underneath. The body is intense with those coffee notes, rounded out with roasted nuts, vanilla, and sweet milk chocolate. A classic, well-aged rum, the lengthy finish makes for a perfect late-night sipper, but it works just as well as the key ingredient to spike your favorite rum punch. A / $60

angosturarum.com

Tasting Report: Wines of Alpha Omega

I’ve been a fan of Alpha Omega — especially its white wines — for years (the entire operation isn’t quite 10 years old), and have always wondered why I never see these wines at stores or on wine lists. Mystery resolved: During a recent visit to this hot winery, our host informed us that 90 percent of the winery’s production goes direct to consumers, either through the tasting room or the wine club.

During our visit, we tasted through a range of Alpha Omega’s current releases. Thoughts follow.

2013 Alpha Omega Sauvignon Blanc – Beautiful tropical notes here, lemon and figs. Lots of aromatics alongside a stony slate character. Great balance. A- / $40

2014 Alpha Omega Chardonnay Unoaked 2013 – Unoaked, gentle and elegant. Fresh apples and a touch of citrus make this easy to drink. A- / $44

2013 Alpha Omega Chardonnay – The oaked version of the above (30% new oak, with light/medium toast), born from the Newton pedigree of AO’s winemaker. A touch of mint works nicely with the vanilla here, but the overall impact is one of restraint, with surprising acidity on the finish. A- / $72

2014 Alpha Omega Pinot Noir Russian River Hop Kiln – Dense pinot, with dark cherry and red fruit notes. Fairly closed off at this point. B / $86

2012 Alpha Omega Proprietary Red – 61% cabernet sauvignon, 32% merlot, 7% cabernet franc. Big chocolate and salted caramel notes here, with touches of licorice. Some sweetness and cinnamon on the finish. B+ / $96

2012 Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon – Blended with 5% petit verdot. Major density here, with tobacco, red fruits, and blackberry. Chocolate hits on the lengthy finish. A- / $96

2013 Alpha Omega Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper Oakville – A single vineyard, 100% cabernet bottling, one of the components of AO’s top-shelf Era bottling. Big meaty notes of bacon and beef jerky, dense as hell, showcasing mixed herbs and tight tannins. Give this one lots of time. A- / $NA

2013 Alpha Omega Petit Verdot & Cab Franc – Curious name but see if you can guess what’s in this one? (52% petit verdot, 48% cabernet franc.) Starts off a bit shut down, but it slowly opens to reveal gentle strawberry and black tea notes. Exotic but enchanting. A- / $98

aowinery.com

Review: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Casks 39.99 and 95.19

Every year our friends at the SMWS send us a couple of recent releases to sample and enjoy. Some quick thoughts on a couple of nice little indie releases follow.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 39.99 – Linkwood from Speyside, 23 years in refill (bourbon) hogsheads. Distilled in April 1990. Curious and atypical iodine and seaweed notes hit the nose up front, very strange notes for Speyside whisky. These are backed by notes of grains, cinnamon rolls, mixed nuts, some citrus, and light vanilla. On the palate, this cask strength spirit is surprisingly easy to sip on, offering notes of marzipan, ripe banana, spiced nuts, and a lengthy finish that pours on the flamed citrus oil notes. It’s here where things finally start to get a little racy, the alcohol kicked up a notch as it warms and soothes. It’s not a whisky that feels like it’s got 23 years under its belt, but it’s a very capable sipper nonetheless. 117.8 proof. B+ / $185

Scotch Malt Whisky Society Cask 95.19 – Auchroisk from Speyside, 17 years in refill hogsheads. Distilled in August 1997. Pale straw in color, it seems set up to be mild and youthful. That’s not the case here, as this whisky cuts a shockingly powerful profile. The nose is a bit astringent and hot — though this is hardly a blazer of a spirit. Light medicinal character, savory herbs, incense, and some green bell pepper get things started. I know, that hardly sounds like a recipe for excitement, but stick with me for a bit and take a sip or two. On the palate, the whisky explodes with flavor — caramel collides with spearmint, burnt honey runs with gently fruity notes, including raspberry and hints of strawberry. The finish is hot but offers a denouement of roasted grains and a bit of citrus peel… all of which leaves one with a big question: How is so much flavor packed into such a mild-looking spirit that offers no hints of it on its nose? Answers are far from forthcoming. 106.4 proof. A- / $150

smwsa.com

Review: Vikre Vodka, Gin, and Aquavit Lineup

vikre spruce white bkgrdDuluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior, is the home of Vikre Distillery, which takes a localvore approach to making a wide range of (mostly white) spirits, using local grains, herbs, and water from the lake next door to make its craft spirits. The six spirits below — 1 vodka, 3 gins, and 2 aquavits — represent the bulk (but not all) of Vikre’s production. Who’s ready to take the plunge into the production from this neighbor from the Great White North?

Join us.

Vikre Lake Superior Vodka – Distilled from malted barley. Very mild, clean, and fresh. The nose is gentle but hints at hospital notes. On the palate, light sweetness starts things off, but the overall impression is surprisingly clean and pure. Only on the finish do some secondary notes start to emerge… a dusting of bee pollen, some thyme and rosemary, and a pinch of cinnamon. Surprisingly well done and nearly perfect in its balance. 80 proof. A / $35

Vikre Boreal Juniper Gin – Purportedly a traditional dry gin, including standard (local) botanicals plus rhubarb. One whiff and this is anything but traditional — quite sweet on the nose, at offers heavily fruity notes and an intensely floral/rose petal undercarriage. The body hones in on that sweet-and-sour rhubarb, confectioner’s sugar, a mild slug of juniper, and chocolate notes on the finish. I know what you’re thinking: What a random collection of flavors. And so am I. Calling this a “Juniper Gin” leaves me a bit bewildered. 90 proof. C / $35

Vikre Boreal Spruce Gin – Spruce is the primary botanical here, as you might expect. The overall impact is a lot closer to a traditional gin than the Juniper Gin above, though again it carries with it a sweetness that is unexpected. Piney notes mingle with brown sugar and, again, more indistinct florals and perfume notes. Here, the balance is a bit more appropriate, as the spruce character is brought up to where it needs to be, and the sweeter elements are dialed back. Still, it’s an unconventional gin that will need the right audience. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin – This one was fun because I’m allergic to live cedar, so I was excited to see if I would break out in hives from drinking a gin flavored with cedar wood (along with wild sumac and currants). I didn’t, and I wasn’t in love with the gin, either. The nose is much different than the two above gins — musty and mushroomy on the nose, with a medicinal note and some evergreen beneath that. Again, the body is quite sweet — the currants are distinct — with a slurry of notes that include ripe banana, fresh rosemary, and some nutty characteristics. Pumped up evergreen on the body tends again to give this a more balanced structure, but the overall character is, again, a little out there. 90 proof. B / $35

Vikre Ovrevann Aquavit – It’s actually Øvrevann Aquavit, but I have no idea if that’s going to render properly online. Caraway, cardamom, and orange peel are infused into this traditionally-focused aquavit, which is a more savory, herbal meditation on gin. Appropriately Old World, it layers exotic, caraway-driven, Middle-Eastern-bazaar notes with touches of licorice, juicy citrus, seaweed, and light sandalwood notes. Credible on its own, but it probably works best as a substitute for gin, cutting a profile that was probably along the lines of what Bombay Sapphire East was going for. 88 proof. B / $35

Vikre Voyageur Aquavit Cognac Cask Finished – The above aquavit, finished (for an indeterminate time, but long enough to give the spirit a gentle yellow hue) in used Cognac casks. I like the combination a lot. The nose features a fruitiness that Ovrevann doesn’t have, plus a touch of barrel char that adds mystique. This leads to stronger licorice notes on the nose, plus notes of cloves, raisins (a clear Cognac contributor), menthol and spearmint, and a lingering, herbal finish. The Cognac balances out the sweet and savory notes in the spirit, giving this a well-rounded yet entirely unique character that’s worth exploring. 86 proof. A- / $57

vikredistillery.com

Review: Sipsmith V.J.O.P. Gin and Sloe Gin

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Sipsmith isn’t content to just make a single gin in its garage of an operation in London, England. It actually produces a range of artisan spirits and fortified wines — including the two reviewed below, which are exported to the U.S.

Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy (pictured) was recently in my neck of the woods, and we sat down with the Sipsmith portfolio for tasting and exploration. (After the meeting he sent me home with the two below bottles, which I reviewed later on my own.)

sipsmith (1)The highlight of the meeting had nothing to do with the company’s commercially available products, though. Rather, it was a trio of samples that Galsworthy had brought in unmarked bottles. These bottles represented in-progress Sipsmith London Dry gin at three different stages off the still. After the heads portion is cut, it takes about three hours for the gin to complete its distillation (until the tails arrive). Galsworthy presented the evolution of Sipsmith London Dry, one hour at a time. After the first hour, the gin showcases clear citrus notes, almost like an orange vodka. It isn’t until the second hour that the juniper really starts to show, with earthier notes coming to the fore during hour three. I didn’t write up any significant notes on these samples since they aren’t actual products for sale, but it was a lot of fun to see how a spirit evolves over a short amount of time during the distillation process. (Click on the chart above for a little more detail.)

Fun stuff, but let’s look at two commercially available Sipsmith bottlings.

Sipsmith Signature Edition Series V.J.O.P. Gin – This is the same botanical mix as standard Sipsmith London Dry — but with three times the juniper and a three day maceration instead of one day. The results are as expected — palpably piney. Juniper is overwhelming on the nose, to the exclusion of nearly anything else in the botanical bill. On the palate, it’s crushingly juniper-forward and very hot (just look at that proof). Water coaxes out more notes — though the juniper dominates from front to back, it features fresh orange, some brown sugar, licorice, and a touch of cinnamon. While it’s an overwhelming experience, it’s not an unsatisfying one — the juniper finishing on a clean and refreshing note. While I’m not normally fond of juniper-heavy gins, Sipsmith’s V.J.O.P. (“Very Junipery Over Proof”) is quite a compelling beast that lets you know from the get-go what its intentions are, and follows through with style. 115.4 proof. A- / $52

Sipsmith Sloe Gin Special Edition 2013 – Sipsmith only makes a sloe gin on an occasional basis (the photo on its website is a 2010 bottling), so I have no idea if this is the current edition. Why vintage? Because sloe berries are an annual harvest, and these are picked in the wild of West Country, UK, in the autumn. The London Dry gin is rested on these berries for 3 to 4 months before bottling. The company says each vintage does indeed taste different, but 2013 is “noteworthy.” Sloe gin often has a cough syrup character to it — it’s really not meant for straight sipping — and Sipsmith’s offers a powerful and pungent character that grabs you by the throat right away. The nose features aromas of dense raspberry and melted Jolly Ranchers, but the body is extremely tart, the hallmark of sloe gin. It comes on strong with an intense herbal overtone, notes of bitter chocolate, and orange rind. All in all, it’s pretty much exactly what you want a good sloe gin to be — sweet and sour in solid balance, with a distinct weirdness you can’t quite place. 58 proof. A- / $43

sipsmith.com

Review: Vida Tequila Reposado

vida reposado_newWe did the Blanco. We did the Anejo. Now it’s time for the final frontier, Vida Tequila’s Reposado bottling.

This tequila, aged a relatively lengthy six months in barrel before bottling, offers a quiet nose that is mostly sweeter notes. At first sip, it evokes gentle notes of caramel flan, melding burnt sugar with a dense creaminess. As it evolves on the palate, peppery agave comes to the fore, but it’s held in check by the sweetness, which turns toward notes of banana and a little milk chocolate.

All told, it’s got spice, it’s got sweetness, it’s got moments of brilliance, but mixes well while also drinking well on its own. A very well made reposado.

80 proof.

A- / $58 / vidatequila.com

Review: NV Faire la Fete Brut Cremant de Limoux

CSrDIbkVAAEV7FoA sparkler from France’s Languedoc region (the Limoux AOC dates back only to 2005), Faire la Fete is a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, and chenin blanc grapes.

It’s an intriguing wine — very fruit-forward, with a moderate level of fizz. The palate includes notes of fresh apple, tangerine, banana, and light floral touches. The finish is clean and quick, making this almost perfect for a pre-dinner sipper. It may be a wholly unserious wine, but it’s the perfect bottle to crack open at the beginning of a celebration.

A- / $20 / fairelafetewines.com

Review: 2013 Carmel Road Pinot Noir Monterey Drew’s Blend

Carmel Road 2013 Drew's Blend PNWho is Drew, you ask? Drew Barrymore, that’s who.

America’s favorite ’80s star is the name brand behind this wine, produced with winemaker Kris Kato, which is a delightful little pinot from the little-known label Carmel Road.

Drew’s Blend is a precious wine, gentle on the palate but studded with notes of cherry, tea leaf, eucalyptus, and a squeeze of citrus. Very light on its feet, it is quaffable on its own and pairs well with food, too. It worked delightfully well with a butter-sauteed shrimp and spiced tomato rice dish. Notes of black pepper mingle with mint tea on the finish.

A- / $28 / carmelroad.com

Tasting: Tempranillo Wines of California, 2016 Releases

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When one thinks of California wine grapes, tempranillo doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Turns out though, that tempranillo — which is most notable for its viticulture in Spain — is grown all over the state. To prove it, we tested six tempranillo wines, each from a different region of California, with some interesting results.

Thoughts follow.

2013 Castoro Cellars Tempranillo Whale Rock Vineyard Reserve – Grown in western Paso Robles. Chocolatey, with notes of cloves. Ample plum notes add a fruity character, while the herbal character on the finish gives it a bittersweet conclusion. B+ / $17

2013 Lee Family Farm Tempranillo Arroyo Seco – Arroyo Seco is part of Monterey County. Menthol meets notes of fresh thyme, sage, and — strangely — lime zest take this in some oddball (though not entirely unlikable) directions. The finish reminds me of a creme de cassis more than a table wine. B- / $18

2012 Quinta Cruz Tempranillo San Antonio Valley Pierce Ranch – From the Santa Cruz region. The plum and berry fruit is restrained here, the wine already showing some age with balsamic and oxidized notes. Some mild spice notes lead to a body that is slightly bitter, with a short finish. B / $18

2013 St. Amant Tempranillo Amador County “The Road Less Traveled” – A dense wine from the Sierra foothills, atypical in this roundup but a fantastic reminder of what solid tempranillo can be — featuring dark plums, blackberries, and black tea leaf character all bound up in an unctuous and juicy body. The long, spot-on finish recalls some lightly herbal and tea-driven character. A- / $23

2011 Terroir Coquerel Tempranillo Calistoga Napa Valley – Dusty and dry up front, here we see tempranillo showing as more austere and Old World in style. Raspberry, tea leaf, and some bramble notes mingle in a moderately acidic and tart package. It’s the only wine in this package that makes me think of Rioja, where tempranillo is basically a religion. A- / $42

2012 Matchbook Tempranillo Dunnigan Hills – From Yolo County in the Sacramento Valley. A tad watery, but with heavy, extracted fruit notes. Some coffee notes add a little complexity, but the somewhat off, herbal finish doesn’t overly engage. B- / $15