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

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Review: Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky (2016)

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Back in the day (at least in the late 20th century), Black Bottle was the go-to blended whisky for peat freaks. In fact, at the time it was said to be made from stock sourced from almost every Islay-based distillery. But Black Bottle has a lengthy history — the brand actually dates back to 1879, when it was originated by a tea blender named Gordon Graham.

Black Bottle faded away in the last decade (the recipe reportedly changed considerably)… until 2013, when the brand was relaunched.

The new Black Bottle is made from just four single malts (plus presumably a grain whisky or two, as this is not a blended malt), and I’d be surprised if more than one of them is from anywhere close to Islay.

The deep amber color of the whisky is quite inviting, as is the nose, which features attractive, if muted, notes of green apple, unripe banana, sherried orange peel, and roasted nuts. Some wisps of chimney smoke emerge here, but they aren’t the focus of the spirit.

The palate is surprisingly full bodied, but mostly typical of blended Scotch. Citrus melds with almond and nougat notes up front, melding into a pleasantly dessert-like character. As the palate builds, chocolate and vanilla notes emerge, with curiously exotic spice notes coming on as the finish starts to build. Those smoky elements finally make a comeback here, but they’re cut with sweetness to the point where I think even a total peat hater would find it palatable. It’s a real jack of all trades, master of none.

Let’s be absolutely clear that this Black Bottle has virtually nothing in common (except, well, a black bottle) with the Black Bottle of yesteryear, so don’t come crying to me that “it’s just not like it used to be.” No, it’s not. It’s a totally different whisky. If you want a peaty blend, you can find those, too. But for what the new Black Bottle aspires to be — a very affordable blend that is easy to sip on, mix with, or otherwise keep around the house — it gets the job done.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 / blackbottle.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: Virginia Dare 2014 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

virginia dareThe latest addition to Francis Ford Coppola’s growing wine empire, Virginia Dare Winery is a Sonoma-based operation with an old-timey feel. “American Wines Since 1835” is a bit of an odd thing to say for a winery that was founded in 2015, but it turns out the name has been around for quite a bit longer than that.

The story of the Virginia Dare Winery began with North Carolina’s first commercial winery, Medoc Vineyard, which opened in 1835. Two businessmen, known as the Garrett brothers, purchased the property in 1865 calling it Garrett & Company. They began producing the Virginia Dare label which quickly became one of the nation’s top selling wines. With the start of Prohibition in 1919, Garrett & Company was forced to move, first to Brooklyn, New York, and then to Cucamonga, California, where the business transformed into the Virginia Dare Winery. It was one of the first wineries to sell wine after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 and was considered a booming business for much of the late 40s and 50s, but eventually saw turmoil and nearly faded into history.

So who is Virginia Dare? Born in 1587, she was the first English child born in the British colonies, and she was named after the land in which she was birthed. There’s a lot of mythology around Dare — none of it wine-related — but digging into all that is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thoughts on the two inaugural wines follow.

2014 Virginia Dare Chardonnay Russian River Valley – This is a chardonnay with restraint. It shows the usual oak and brown butter notes, but aromas of lime zest and herbs add some nuance to the typical character. The overall impression is surprisingly restrained and fruit-forward — an easy, everyday white that still has some class. B+ / $25

2014 Virginia Dare Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – A perfectly pleasant pinot, like the chardonnay it showcases restraint while engaging with notes of blackberry, ground black pepper, and a slug of black olives. That sounds awfully black, I now realize, but everything is dialed back and kept in harmony — perhaps it’s dialed back a little too far. Again, it’s a simple wine, but it has lots of charm, particularly at this price point. B+ / $25

virginiadarewinery.com

Review: The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky

famous grouseThe Famous Grouse — a blended whiskey made by the same folks that produce Highland Park and The Macallan, including a significant sherry cask regimen — is a major player in the blended world. (It is the best-selling whisky in Scotland, so that’s saying something.) Somehow it’s escaped our review (though the more recent Black Grouse did get a writeup in 2010) — until now.

It’s easy to see why the Famous Grouse is so well-liked — it’s a baby Macallan at a fraction of the price.

The sherry doesn’t take long to make its presence known — big, sharp, and juicy, it’s got a powerful punch of citrus peels and a squirt of clementine juice that hits the senses right away. Toasted brioche notes are sizeable underneath all that citrus, but the overall aroma is altogether gentle and inviting.

On the palate, the juicy rush is palpable, offering notes of both grapefruit and satsumas, amply sherried with some winey/oxidized notes. As this fades, a stronger grain character hits; what is restrained on the nose is more palpable on the tongue, and as the sherry washes away, the toasty/bready character dominates the palate in full. Secondary characteristics include touches of heather, honey, and a hint of nutmeg — but none of this is overwhelming or particularly pushy.

The finish is more astringent than I’d like, with a slightly chewy mushroom quality and some more raw alcohol character that is a bit at odds with what’s come before, but given the price of the whisky and the pedigree of its makeup, it’s hard to complain too vociferously.

80 proof.

B+ / $20 / thefamousgrouse.com

Review: Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye – 7, 8, and 10 Years Old

redemption 8 years oldIn our recent coverage of Redemption, I mentioned some rare, older, cask strength whiskeys that the company was releasing. We unexpectedly received samples of all three — all of which are 95 percent rye and 5 percent malted barley, aged 7, 8, or 10 years in oak — and all “honey barrel” picks of the best of the best. It’s all MGP stock, but it’s very rare to find the company’s whiskeys at this age on the market any more, much less at cask strength.

Let’s take a dive into all three.

Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 7 Years Old – Fruit and herbs both dominate the nose, with a juicy apple character tempered by ample baking spice. This continues straight through to the palate, which is warming and quite full of those apple pie notes, plus notes of brown sugar and scorched butter. Water helps, but those apples won’t be ignored. Tempered a bit, the spirit evolves clearer notes of cinnamon along with some savory herbs, with a touch of apple butter-meets-butterscotch on the finish. 122.6 proof. B / $80

Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old – It’s just one year older, but what a different profile it cuts. A clearer and stronger wood influence leads the way toward some bold caramel and vanilla notes, both on the nose and on the palate. That savory herbal character appears again on the back end, particularly toward the finish. Water really brings out the best in this whiskey, both its sultry, cinnamon-stick dessert tones and its gossamer-thin savory elements. The complex interplay between the two on that lingering finish really makes the experience wonderfully worthwhile. Definitively, this is the expression to seek out. 121.5 proof. A / $90

Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 10 Years Old – This batch was made from only six barrels of whiskey. Again things take a curious turn, as at the age of 10 this whiskey heads to new territory. Reminiscent of older bourbons, this rye pushes both its substantial barrel influence and some notes of menthol and tobacco, characters uncommon in rye whiskeys. Though considerably lower in proof, it comes across just as racily, and water is once again a huge help in coaxing out more flavor. A quite savory whiskey at heart, it presents a huge, mouth-filling body that offers notes of licorice, tree bark, and cloves. The finish isn’t as long or as satisfying as the 8 year old — here it comes across more as a study of age — but it offers some compelling notes in its own right. 110.1 proof. B+ / $130

redemptionrye.com

Review: New Belgium Accumulation White IPA

new belgium Accumulation_12oz_BottleColorado-based New Belgium is out with a winter special called Accumulation, a seasonal, Belgian-style IPA.

This combination of pale malt and wheat offers a a malty, bready attack that fades into a chewiness that loads up some crisp apple notes, chocolate, caramel, and a hint of pineapple. The body is moderate in weight and backed by ample hops character — finishing off with a bit of a lemon kick.

All told, it’s a nice way to give IPA a bit of a kick and a seasonal spin.

6.2% abv.

B+ / $7 per six-pack / newbelgium.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

Review: Grand Mayan Silver Tequila

grand_mayan_3dsilver_r1_c2Commonly known as Grand Mayan 3D Silver Tequila, the name doesn’t have to do with special glasses you need to wear in order to drink the stuff. Rather, Grand Mayan’s fancily-bottled blanco is triple distilled, a rare occurrence in the tequila world because it’s thought to strip too much flavor from the spirit (which is normally just double distilled).

Grand Mayan Silver — “Very Special Tequila,” per the bottle — is a 100% agave Lowlands tequila that is one of the more gentle blancos on the market — a likely by-product (and intentionally so) of that triple distilling. The nose is modest, with some citrus, a bit of caramel, and peppery notes behind that. Nice start, but on the palate, it’s so quiet and restrained that you just might miss it. Light vanilla, lemon, and some allspice eventually come across as enduring notes that pair well with the moderately herbal underbelly. Given the quiet buildup, the short finish is not unexpected, and the mild tequila goes out without much fanfare.

If you’re the kind of person who loves to drink — and describe — their tequila as “smooth,” crawl, don’t walk, to Grand Mayan.

80 proof.

B+ / $48 / gmtequila.com

Review: Wines of Matanzas Creek, 2016 Releases

Matanzas 2012 Jackson Park MerlotSonoma’s Matanzas Creek is out with new merlots and a chardonnay. Let’s dive in to these new releases.

2013 Matanzas Creek Winery Chardonnay Sonoma County – Initially quite oaky, with a bold, brown-butter body. Classic California chardonnay from top to bottom, but Matanzas Creek infuses it with just enough fruit to make the dense, dessert-like confection work well. Over time, hints of apricots, lemon zest, and peaches emerge, all swirled into that buttery, creamy core. Decadent. A- / $20

2012 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Sonoma County – An entry-level merlot, but pleasant through and through. Fresh blackberry up front leads to some balsamic notes, dark chocolate, coffee bean, and (finally) the expected crushed violets. Give it some time in glass for best results. B+ / $28

2012 Matanzas Creek Winery Merlot Jackson Park Vineyard Bennett Valley Sonoma County – That’s a mouthful of a name for a home run merlot from this storied winery. Initially a bit closed off, it opens up to reveal notes of dense currant, chocolate, licorice, and salted caramel. Huge body with a dense mouthfeel, the finish is long, seductive, and even decadent at times. This is not your mother’s merlot. A / $60

matanzascreek.com