This year’s expression of California Chardonnay from Menage a Trois is a tough one, loaded with vanilla candy to within an inch of its life, and balanced only by a hint of caramel apple and a twist of lemon on the finish. Cloying and mouth-coating from the get-go, it grabs you by the sweet tooth and never lets up. Enter at your own risk.
This New Zealand Pinot (produced by Kim Crawford) is a lean expression of the grape, particularly by Kiwi standards. Herbal, almost vegetal on the nose, it hits the palate with a surprising degree of sweetness. This settles down quickly once it gets some air, however, revealing notes of cherry juice, cinnamon, a bit of oxidized citrus, and some tobacco. The finish is drying and surprisingly tannic, almost bittersweet at times.
B / $37 / loveblockwine.com
Carpano’s Antica Formula vermouth is the first lady of aromatic wines. In a world where most vermouth runs under $10 for a bottle and is tossed out during clean-up from last night’s party, the $30 or more you’ll pay for a liter of Antica Formula indicates at least someone thinks pretty highly of it.
The heritage of this spirit dates back to the late 1700s, when vermouth was invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano — inspired by German aromatic wines. Antica Formula doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to today’s German wines, but it doesn’t take long to see why it has such a loyal following.
On its own, Antica Formula offers a complex nose of vanilla, raisins, prunes, licorice, root beer, and citrus peel. The body is initially sweet, then slowly turns more and more bitter — almost to the level of an amaro — as it fades in the glass. In cocktails, this can create a dazzling complexity and, depending on how much you use, an intensity of flavor. Manhattans are gorgeous with it, the vanilla-scented vermouth a wonderful foil for whiskey, and Negronis take on another dimension. Rather than disappearing into a cocktail, the wine coaxes out notes of cocoa powder, dark fruits, and the spices of Christmas.
That said, drink it year-round.
A / $32 (1 liter) / specialitybrands.com
Canned beer is old news. Canned sake, now that’s something else.
Kibo, made in Japan and imported by Oregon’s SakeOne, is released in memory of the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan and the Suisen Shuzo in which this sake is made. Rising from the rubble, Suisen Shuzo is now exporting Kibo (the name translates as “hope”) to the U.S. — its first ever product for our country.
The choice of a can is unique and intriguing; Kibo is designed for outdoor festivals and the like, for party-goers tired of the usual beer and wine options.
As for what’s inside that can, it’s a largely traditional example of Junmai sake, heavy with melon overtones, somewhat earthy and mushroomy as the palate expands, and lightly sweet on the finish. It’s pleasant enough for sipping while you’re watching Arctic Monkeys jam and you’re grooving with the masses, but Kibo doesn’t even pretend to offer the refinement of a more elegant sake. Totally worth 6 bucks.
B / $6 (180ml can) / sakeone.com
2013 J Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – Rich, currant-laced fruit pops beautifully in this well-crafted Pinot Noir, offering notes of slightly sweetened tea up front and coffee bean and chocolate on the back end. Touches of cloves round out a wine that sounds dense but is actually quite light on its feet. An easy sipper, it also pairs well with food. A- / $40
2013 J Vineyards Chardonnay Russian River Valley – Initially on the meaty side, this wine settles down to reveal more caramel notes, laced with applesauce and quince. Dense and chewy, it’s a big wine that wears the Russian River right on its sleeve, but ultimately reveals more charm than you’d think. B / $28
We try to look for the good in everything we review here, but sometimes we just can’t get into a product no matter how hard we try. In the case of Meiomi Wines — the brainchild of one of the sons of the founder of Caymus — well, this is one of those times.
2013 Meiomi Chardonnay – A blend of grapes from Monterey County (21%), Sonoma County (30%), and Santa Barbara County (49%). Over-oaked and juiced up to within an inch of its life, this incredibly sweet concoction drinks like more like Sunny Delight than any Chardonnay I’ve had. Notes of pineapple and peaches are drowned in caramel syrup and vanilla ice cream, coating the tongue to a point approaching liquid candy. D+ / $22
2013 Meiomi Pinot Noir – A blend of grapes from Monterey County (37%), Sonoma County (34%), and Santa Barbara County (29%). Overbearingly sweet, this attacks like a bowl full of strawberry jelly and never lets up. Jolly Ranchers are the primary element here, and the sugary finish lasts for minutes after even the tiniest sip. Vastly out of balance, this one’s a pass. D / $22
Good, cheap Prosecco isn’t hard to find, but Nino Franco’s Rustico bottling stands near the top of that list. For 13 bucks, you get an awful lot of nuance: bubbly apples up front, light sweetness on the tongue, and a surprising herbal kick on the back end. It’s not too heavy, just a dusting of thyme and sage as the bubbles wash everything away. A solid effort.
A- / $13 / ninofranco.it
This is Oregon-based Erath’s first wine from its newly-purchased Willakia Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills. Just 238 cases were made. Says Erath:
The 2013 Willakia Chardonnay was harvested on October 12, two weeks after a series of rain showers – remnants of Typhoon Pabuk that eventually crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan – passed through the Willamette Valley. The prolonged warm, dry period that followed the rain allowed the vineyard to dry out and provided for extended ripening and maturation of the remaining fruit. The wine was then fermented in a combination of French oak and stainless steel, before being aged on its lees for eight months in 100% French oak with 40% new barrels.
A breath of fresh air in the overoaked world of Chardonnay, the acidity up front drinks like a Sauvignon Blanc, and the midpalate pumps up the citrus — grapefruit and lemon zest. At the same time, the nose offers hints of vanilla and oak, and there’s a touch of marshmallow on the back end. All of this works together surprisingly well, making for a lively wine that balances the buttery notes of a classic Chardonnay with some bright fruit. Very food friendly, as well.
A- / $34 / erath.com
This Sercial bottling of Blandy’s Madeira is a 10 year old expression of its driest style of Madeira. Here it takes on notes of dry apple cider, roasted nuts, and spiced raisins. The finish has a sharpness to it — think spiked, wintry mulled wine — leading to more spicy, almost perfumed, baked apple notes. An interesting expression in comparison to the younger, drier 5 year old Sercial from Blandy’s.
B+ / $30 (500ml) / blandys.com
2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Riesling Central Coast – A humble riesling, studded with notes of honey, Meyer lemon, and some green herb garden notes on the nose. The body moves into slightly sweet territory, with chewy nougat dominating, leading to a somewhat woody, slightly savory finish. B / $22
2013 Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer Central Coast – Racy with aromatics and perfumy notes, this is a classic Gewurztraminer that melds honey character with rose petals, some baking spice, and a finish that loads up plenty of acidity. A nice effort. A- / $22