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: NV Sandeman Founders Reserve Porto (2016)

Sandeman founders reserveHere’s a fresh look at Sandeman’s widely-available nonvintage Ruby Port, which is sold in the squat bottles labeled Founders Reserve. (We last reviewed it in 2012.)

It’s a rather alcohol-forward Port, which dulls the raisiny core more than a bit with some hospital character. Secondary notes of weak tea, rhubarb, and caramel sauce find an unhappy hanger-on on the form of some canned vegetable notes that linger on both the nose and the finish, dulling this wine’s impact.

B- / $15 / sandeman.com

Review: NV Leer Vineyards Heroic Red

heroic winesLeer Vineyards is an operation based in Contra Costa County, California, and among their hefty production is this bottling — Heroic Red — a nonvintage blend the proceeds of which partly go to supporting combat-wounded veterans by funding home purchases. (Leer also makes other wines with charitable goals.)

The blend is 58% Syrah, 29% Merlot, and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine offers thick, almost jammy, fruit notes, with strong blackberry and blueberry elements plus a dollop of smoke driven by the syrah. Tea leaf, coffee, and milk chocolate are all secondary notes, alongside a finish of currants. Altogether it’s a standard midgrade blend that you’d expect from this region, but it’s all kept in reasonable balance and offers a fairly brisk, tart finish.

B- / $24 / leervineyards.com

Review: Azzurre Gin

AzzurreGin_Bottle_PRESSBased in Las Vegas and produced in Mountain View, California, Azzurre Gin is a spirit unlike any other — and this is coming from a guy that’s seen an awful lot of spirits. The brainchild of corporate finance veteran Dan Pettit, the gin is made from a distillate that is bizarre to say the least: It’s made from 33% apple, 33% grape, and 34% sugar cane. Let’s call it a third of each.

Botanicals aren’t fully revealed, but the bill does include tangerine, grapefruit, ginger, basil and rose petals — all of which are designed, per Azzurre, to tame the juniper character.

Despite all that, the nose is surprisingly traditional, with dominant juniper notes along with notes of licorice and some nutty elements. Over time, a sweetness emerges on the nose, once the juniper has time to fade a bit. Given this introduction, the body comes across as sweeter than expected, fruity with a melange of peach, blood orange, grapefruit, and apricot notes up front. The finish however turns somewhat herbal and occasionally vegetal, with echoes of evergreen. As a gin, what I find definitively missing are the earthy characters that really round out a solid gin. I was excited about the tangerine/grapefruit idea — but they don’t really come through cleanly and clearly enough.

80 proof.

B- / $NA / azzurrespirits.com

Tasting: Tempranillo Wines of California, 2016 Releases

quinta cruz s

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

Review: Serpent’s Bite Apple Cider Flavored Whisky

serpent's bite

With a name like Serpent’s Bite, one expects at least a little drama. Truth is this apple cider flavored Canadian whisky is about as harmless as they come. (Yeah, I get it, Adam and Eve and all that.)

Mystery Alberta, Canada-born spirit is spiked with apple cider flavors, with results that are, well, probably exactly what you are expecting.

It starts with clear apple notes on the nose, though fortunately the aroma is far from overblown, with a hint of vanilla backing it up. On the palate, Serpent’s Bite is sweet and cinnamon-laced, with strong apple notes as expected. Aside from a little hit of vanilla-infused caramel, though, what’s ultimately missing here is the whiskey. The whiskey flavor is so mild that this feels like it could be an apple brandy, an apple rum, or a (colored) apple vodka.

That’s not entirely a slight, as Serpent’s Bite is completely harmless and inoffensive in every way — although I’m sure that angry snake on the label will scare off a drinker or two.

70 proof.

B- / $16 / serpentsbitewhisky.com

Review: Wines of Avant, 2016 Releases

 

avant wines

Avant is a new budget label from the folks at Kendall-Jackson, with a trio of basic California-sourced wines comprising the initial production run. While a lot of this comes across exactly as you expect it will, there’s at least one modest surprise in the bunch.

Thoughts follow.

2014 Avant Sauvignon Blanc California – Undistinguished and a bit boring, this plain jane sauv blanc offers notes of canned peaches and pineapple, brown sugar, and fruit leather. It works passably with a food, where the more saccharine notes are lost, but on its own it’s a study in plainness. C- / $13

2014 Avant Chardonnay California – A surprisingly fresh and drinkable chardonnay. The muted oak isn’t exactly refined, but the notes of butter-sauteed apples and a touch of citrus give this wine more complexity than you would expect given its price tag. The marshmallow notes on the finish aren’t a surprise, but they aren’t a bad complement, either. B / $13

2013 Avant Red Blend California – Mystery grapes from a mysterious place — what could go wrong? While you might expect a jammy fruit bomb, Avant’s red is more restrained than most wines of this pedigree, though the simple notes of maraschino cherry, strawberry, and brown sugar don’t cry out for in-depth analysis. Probably perfect for making sangria. B- / $17

avant.kj.com

Review: Redemption White Rye, Rye, High-Rye Bourbon, and Straight Bourbon (2016)

redemption.pngIt’s been four years since we last checked in with Redemption Whiskey, one of the best-known bottlers of spirits sourced from Indiana-based MGP.

Redemption’s cylindrical bottles are as iconic as its rather singular focus: Rye whiskey, a category which Redemption was fanatical about before rye was cool. All of its products are rye-heavy, and even its “straight bourbon” is made from a mash of 21% rye, which is heavy when you look at the full market.

Things have changed a bit for Redemption over the years — the company was acquired by Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits in June of 2015 and it now markets a high-end line of cask strength whiskeys as well (reviews coming soon). The core line has evolved as well, and we’ll analyze some of these in the updated writeups below.

Let’s get going!

Redemption White Rye Batch 002 – 95% rye, 5% malted barley. This is essentially the straight rye, unaged. It’s surprisingly fruity on the nose, with strong notes of lemon and pineapple, alongside some roasted grains and coconut notes. That’s a lot for a white whiskey, but the palate keeps things rolling with more of that citrus, notes of coconut husks, and some mint. Hospital notes emerge with time — not uncommon for a white whiskey — but the finish of sugared grains, marshmallow, and menthol really take this in another direction. An unusually worthwhile example of a well-crafted white dog. 92 proof. B+ / $24

Redemption Rye Batch 189 – 95% rye, 5% malted barley, aged in new oak “less than 4 years.” Redemption’s best-known product, it does not appear to have undergone significant changes, offering a light body, ample granary character, and hospital overtones. Some menthol develops on the palate late in the game, with bittersweet cocoa powder notes on the back end. I like this less today than I did four years ago, but whether that is my palate or the spirit in the bottle is up for debate. 92 proof. B- / $27 [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Redemption High-Rye Bourbon Batch 094 – 36% rye, 4% malted barley, and 60% corn, aged “no less than 500 days.” This product has changed a bit since 2011, when it was 38.2% rye and 1.8% barley, aged over two years. So: a touch less rye, a touch less age. They’re different on the palate, too. I still have Batch 010 on hand and it has a depth that 094 is missing to a degree. There’s nothing wrong with this bourbon, but it certainly drinks young. Lots of granary character kicks things off, though there’s burnt sugar, licorice, cloves, and some mint to spice things up. A bit of toasted coconut on the finish adds more nuance, but the overall impression remains one of youth. Redemption clearly has a demand to fill and buyers who don’t mind drinking a very young spirit, but there’s no question that this whiskey would see much improvement after another few years in barrel — economics be damned. 92 proof. B+ / $26  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Redemption Straight Bourbon Whiskey Batch 004 – This used to be called Temptation Bourbon, but otherwise looked exactly like the Redemption bottles, only with a green label. Now it’s all just Redemption, and this one’s made from 21% rye, 4% malted barley, and 75% corn, aged over two years. Lower in proof than all of the above. Traditional in structure, this bourbon offers fresh vanilla, caramel, and a bit of barrel char right on the nose. A bit dusky, clove notes emerge with sustained sniffing. On the tongue, the lighter alcohol level is immediately noticeable, giving the whiskey a softer attack and a gentleness that the punchier high-rye formulation lacks. That’s just fine with me, as it lets the sweetness, some baking spice, black tea, and little hints of orange peel come to the fore. The finish is a bit muddy, but otherwise it’s a worthwhile endeavor for a whiskey that’s clearly quite young. 84 proof. B+ / $26  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

redemptionrye.com

Review: Big Bottom Pear Brandy and Oregon Gin Collection

big bottom PearBrandy-10-NEWIf you know Big Bottom, you probably know the company for its bourbons, most of which feature exotic finishes and impressive levels of quality.

Big Bottom also makes white spirits, though, including fruit brandies (pear now, apple is coming) and a collection of gins. Today we take a look at four of BB’s latest white offerings… well, three white spirits and one with a touch of age on it.

Thoughts follow.

Big Bottom Oregon Pear Brandy – Made from a blend of Oregon-grown Asian pears. Rather musty up front, the nose offers fruit restrained by astringent notes, a commonality of young fruit brandies. On the palate, significant earthy notes interplay with modest pear character — and you can indeed pick out that slightly citrus Asian character vs. the more traditional flavor of domestic pears. The finish, however, is a bit hot and indistinct. This is clearly a labor of love, but as with many pear brandies, it’s one that could benefit from some tempering by wood. 80 proof. B- / $45

Big Bottom Oregon Gin – 16 botanicals (none named) are used in the production of this New Western gin. It’s got a significant floral character, with a touch of black pepper adding spice. Juniper is present, but modest and restrained, as sweeter notes dominate. On the palate, it’s a gentle gin with ample sweetness enveloping the palate, those floral notes — honeysuckle and some white flowers — quite dominant. Citrus elements come on strong as well, with just a little kick of that pepper hitting on the back end. Fun stuff, and a nice change of pace from juniper-forward bruisers. 91 proof. A- / $30

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Navy Strength – Same gin as the above, but higher in proof. It offers similar notes to the lower-proof product, but it’s plenty racier if that’s your bag. As with many an overproof product, the higher-proof version will immediately fire up the palate, but it also offers a few surprises: a slightly fruitier character, and juniper that’s more immediately evident. Slight caramel notes offer a silky sweetness on the back end. All in all, it’s a solid Navy version of a juniper-restrained gin. 114 proof. A- / $46

Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels – Same gin as the first, aged (for 12 months in a new solera system) in used whiskey barrels outfit with new heads made from a mix of Oregon oak and Hungarian oak. The gin takes on a more dessert-like note here, with clear cinnamon notes and some mulled apple cider character. Sweet caramel on the finish takes this gin on a ride between a white spirit and a light, spiced whiskey, with notes of cloves and vanilla in lieu of any significant juniper or floral elements, which are washed away by the wood. Aged gins can be hit and miss, but this is surprisingly fun stuff, perfect for winter cocktails or even sipping straight with dessert. 91 proof. A / $38

bigbottomdistilling.com

Review: 2013 Concannon Vineyard Chardonnay Monterey County

concannonLivermore-based Concannon moves a tad upmarket with this Monterey County bottling of chardonnay from the 2013 vintage.

Immediate notes of burnt butter and baking spice are prominent, with a bit of tropical character on the back end. The body is somewhat flabby, with a caramel note on the finish followed by a light astringency. It doesn’t gel perfectly, but it’s a step up from Concannon’s lower-end production.

B- / $18 / concannonvineyard.com