Review: 2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Chardonnay, Grand Detour Pinot Noir, and Overlook Pinot Noir

Today it’s a trio of 2016 vintage wines from Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma — a chardonnay and two pinot noirs — including a few expressions we’ve never seen before.

2016 Landmark Vineyards Damaris Reserve Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – This standby chardonnay finds a moderate to heavy wood profile giving its underlying fruit a slathering of bacon, vanilla, and a hint of Eastern spices. The finish is lengthy and unctuous with butter and oak; on its own it’s a bit much, but it does pair well with seafood. B+ / $40

2016 Landmark Vineyards Grand Detour Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast – With that earthiness and chewy graphite character, this is iconic Sonoma Coast pinot noir from the outset. Notes of tea leaf give the black cherries at the wine’s core some gravitas, with a light meatiness adding weight to the back end. Some floral notes emerge in time, particularly as that finish lingers. While its dense and rich, there’s an elegance here that’s beautiful today — and will probably be more forthcoming in 2021 and beyond. A- / $30

2016 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir – Very meaty, this wine is almost tough with notes of beef jerky and fried ham, with a bit of a charred, burnt toast character to it. The savory elements dominate any fruit that’s to be found here; that runs to plums and a slightly raisiny, almost Port-like note. Pairs reasonably well with food, but on its own it lacks the vibrancy one wants from a truly soulful pinot. B / $20

Review: Melvin Brewing TGR Pilsgnar and 2×4 DIPA

Melvin Brewing can be found in Alpine, Wyoming, where some serious hopheads have been turning out brews since 2009. Today we take a spin through our first encounter with Melvin, both of which are available in cans, but only one of which (the big boy) has WWE wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan as a spokesman.

Melvin Brewing TGR Pilsgnar – A collaboration of sorts with Teton Gravity Research, an action sports media company, this is a bright and lemony pilsner, light on the malt and crisp on the finish with notes of saltines and a hint of applesauce. Very easy to enjoy, and harmless at a mere 4.5% abv. B+ / $NA

Melvin Brewing 2×4 DIPA – A bruiser of a double IPA, this burly brew is densely packed with the trappings of the IPA world — “a stupid amount of hops,” per the label. Sticky, resinous pine tar is thick on the palate, but there’s complexity here in the form of orange peel and salted caramel notes. The intense bitterness lingers on the finish for days, a reminder that you’re drinking a beer that clocks in at a whopping 9.9% abv. Hello! A- / $9 per 4-pack

Review: Amaro dell’Etna

Amaro dell’Etna isn’t a new brand of amaro, but it’s new to America. To wit:

M.S. Walker has announced that it is introducing Amaro dell’Etna, a Sicilian digestif that has been produced near Mt. Etna in Italy for more than 100 years, into the U.S. market. Amaro dell’Etna has its roots, both literally and figuratively, on the slopes of Mt. Etna, where more than twenty-six native herbs and aromatic plants used to craft this spectacular digestif grow. The 100% natural recipe embodies the volcanic nature of Sicilian soil and, even after more than one hundred years, still possesses its traditional taste.

The process to craft Amaro dell’Etna follows a traditional recipe and utilizes the best raw materials obtained from a selection of over twenty-six herbs and aromatic plants, including organic bitter orange peel, licorice, cinnamon, vanilla, caramel, and more. The all-natural ingredients are carefully washed before the flavors and aromas are skillfully extracted via maceration, with the liquid then left to mature for more than two months to draw out the full potential and bold spiced flavor of Amaro dell’Etna.

Let’s give this amaro a try.

Aromatically, there are lots of cinnamon and cloves here, which is a nice balance to the lightly minty, moderately bitter nose. The palate sees the addition of vanilla, some cocoa powder, and an orange peel element all layering upon one another, leading to a finish that is at first moderately bitter, but over time revealing itself to be sweeter than expected. The finish is a combination of licorice, cinnamon/clove, and a sweet/earthy note I can only describe as carrot cake.

The more I drink it, the more I like it.

58 proof.

A- / $40 (1 liter) /

Tasting the Wines of South Africa’s Simonsig, 2018 Releases

South Africa’s Simonsig (pronounced SEE-mun-sigg) is one of the country’s most noteworthy operations, and recently we had the opportunity to sample five of its wines, courtesy of a live tasting with its winemaking and business staff, broadcast to us from Stellenbosch in South Africa.

We walked through five wines that run the gamut of Simonsig’s production. Thoughts follow.

2016 Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel Brut Rose – We reviewed the 2015 vintage of this wine only a month ago. Mystery from that review solved: “Kaapse Vonkel” means “cape sparkling” in Afrikaans. The 2016 expression is made from the same three red grapes, and as with the 2015, it’s a very dry expression of sparkling wine, a bit meaty, its fruit character running to notes of rhubarb and dried strawberry. Quiet on the finish. B / $18

2017 Simonsig Chenin Blanc – Simonsig’s first wine, this chenin blanc is made from untrained, en gobelet vines. Picked very ripe, the wine has some natural sweetness to it, a honey and vanilla character that counters some of the earthier elements in the wine. A crisp, green apple note gives the finish a lift. B+ / $13

2015 Simonsig Pinotage – Bold and smoky bacon on the nose of this typical pinotage (a cross of pinot noir and cinsault) leads into a mildly fruity, somewhat thin palate, showing blackberry and raspberry, with licorice notes on the back end. That smoky bacon endures well into the finish, though, making this a love-it-or-hate-it experience. B- / $18

2015 Simonsig Redhill Pinotage – Essentially a single-vineyard pinotage, with some of its aging done in American oak, instead of just French oak. Much bolder, with spice and eucalyptus on the nose, dark chocolate and licorice giving it a bit of an American character. A definite food wine, it’s one that would benefit from time in bottle, to let some of its tannins settle out, letting the black fruit show itself more clearly. B / $34

2015 Simonsig Frans Malan Cape Blend Reserve – 67% pinotage, 29% cabernet sauvignon, and 4% merlot. Everyone’s been talking about “mulberries” here and it turns out it’s spot on — the wine showing a kind of blueberry/blackberry note that is stronger and more acidic, with a hint of vanilla extract underneath. This is a velvety but still youthful wine, its finish running to notes of balsamic, dark chocolate, and heady spices. Worth hanging on to. A- / $30

Review: Centenario Rum 7, 9, 12, 20, 25 and 30 Years Old

Centenario Rum, also known as Ron Centenario (and not to be confused with Gran Centenario Tequila), is based in Costa Rica, where the company produces a massive number of expressions, all made from local sugar can and aged in oak.

Centenario sent its core lineup of six rums for us to review (there’s also an 18 year old , from its affordable 7 year old to its ultra-rare 30 year old. The 7, 9, and 12 year old rums are all aged “Spanish style” in barrels (and thus represent true age statements). The 20, 25, and 30 year old rums are all made in the solera style, so those years represent the oldest spirit in the bottle.

Thoughts on the series of six rums, which have recently seen updated packaging, including gift boxes or canisters, follow.

All are 80 proof.

Centenario Rum Anejo Especial 7 Years Old – Still youthful on the nose, but engaging, with ample vanilla of course, plus some coconut, almond, and quite gentle baking spice notes. Similar notes fill the palate, but the body is on the small side — slightly funky, not in a bad way — and the finish is short. Though it’s got a decent amount of age on it, it’s a rum built for mixing, not sipping. Which is fine, because we have a long way to go here. B / $18

Centenario Rum Conmemorativo 9 Years Old – Two extra years make a modest difference here, namely in the body, which is stronger and more pungent, with a slightly winey character. That aside, more coconut and an emerging chocolate note arise to complement the vanilla at the rum’s core, leading to a sharper finish that hints at sherry. B+ / $23

Centenario Rum Gran Legado 12 Years Old – Some clearly older notes percolate here, the nose taking on a winey, sherried note, heavy with notes of baking spice. A salted caramel character is heavy on the palate, with the coconut notes taking on a more toasted character. While it’s slightly chocolaty on the finish, the fortified wine notes are what endure the longest. B+ / $30

Centenario Rum Fundacion 20 Years Old – Getting into the solera releases (this one is 6 to 20 years old), the rum finds a particularly wine-heavy character to it, almost brandy-like at times. Notes of tobacco and old wood begin to appear on the nose, while notes of sour cherry, intense vanilla, and cocoa powder dominate the palate. The finish finds a certain sweetness, almost like a candied strawberry, lingering for some time. In the end, there’s an impressive balance between the spirit-driven power and the elegance that comes with extended time in wood. A lovely rum that straddles the line between crowd-pleaser and sophisticated sipper. A- / $40

Centenario Rum Gran Reserva 25 Years Old – This 6 to 25 year old solera style rum is very dark, like that of strong tea, with a deep and powerful nose that offers notes of coffee, aged sherry, cocoa powder, and walnut oil. Raisiny and spicy on the palate, notes of furniture polish, old leather, and mocha dominate, the finish bouncing between those strong wine and coffee notes. Rich, but with some acidity to give it life on the palate, it’s a pure sipper that invites examination and discussion. A- / $60

Centenario Rum Edicion Limitada 30 Years Old – The top of the line carries less age information than the 20 and 25: All we know is the maximum age of this solera style rum is 30 years old. It continues the theme started by the 20 and 25 year olds, pushing further the agenda of coffee and increasingly dark chocolate. While very winey on the nose, the composition is sweeter on the palate than the 20 or the 25, those nutty notes taking on a candied character, the more intensely oily, polish-heavy notes mellowing just enough to let the fruit in the rum pop. The finish is still sharp and strong, but the warming character fits what’s come before perfectly. Try this after dinner instead of a cup of coffee. A / $100

Review: Spreewood Distillers Stork Club Straight Rye Whiskey

Although it may seem like it, the explosion in craft whiskey distilling over the last decade hasn’t been confined to America alone. Even countries without a tradition of whiskey-making have started to get in on the game. Germany’s Spreewood Distillers is a great example of this trend. In a country better known for schnapps and Riesling, they’ve been distilling whiskey since 2004 just outside of Berlin. German rye grain is well-known for its quality and is used in the production of several American whiskeys (Wild Turkey and Bulleit, among others), so it’s no surprise that a rye whiskey would figure prominently in their portfolio. Stork Club Straight Rye is a 100% rye whiskey aged 3-4 years. It’s a blend of whiskey aged in three different cask types: virgin American oak, sherry (both Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez are used), and white wine. The Spree forest where the distillery is located is a swamp with very cold winters and humid, windless summers, making it ideal for whiskey maturation. On paper, Spreewood Distillers seems to have a lot of the necessary ingredients for good whiskey. But how does the final product actually taste?

I was expecting a big rye punch on the nose of this whiskey, but instead Stork Club Straight Rye showcases less rye spice and more of a peculiar fruity sweetness with dark red fruits, cola, and a little acetone. It’s clean and surprisingly soft given the proof. The palate is rich and oily with a familiar rye heat that moves quickly to the back of the throat. The different barrel influences are evident as the flavors develop. Notes of brandied cherry, dark raisin, clove, and red licorice are layered with oak, vanilla bean, cocoa powder, and a little caramel sauce. There’s a slight astringency on the palate (probably from the new American oak), but the flavors meld well, regardless. A warming and generous finish carries more dark red fruit notes and drying oak. It’s an interesting and enjoyable whiskey that easily stands up to some of the best craft offerings this side of the pond.

110 proof. Reviewed: Batch #2.

A- / $60 (500 ml) /

Review: 2017 Sonoma-Cutrer Rose of Pinot Noir Russian River Valley

The 2017 release of Sonoma-Cutrer’s rose of pinor noir is, as always, built to emulate a Provence-style wine, heavy with flowers and hints of strawberries, but remarkably dry on the finish. As with the 2016 release, I get touches of orange peel, though I don’t catch any of the brown sugar notes here like those I previously mentioned on the former wine’s conclusion. Nonetheless, it’s fresh as a daisy.

A- / $25 /

Review: Wines of Portlandia, 2018 Releases

Pity Portlandia the winery, which has to compete with Portlandia the TV show, at least until this final season ends.

But Portlandia wine “was conceived well before the hit Fred Armisen show, a similar Oregonian whimsy can be detected on the quirky labels and in winemaker Damian Davis’s endearingly zany spirit,” or so they say. And it’s not just fanciful: The Willamette Valley AVA encompasses the entire city of Portland, and wineries are popping up near the city, and even inside it.

Portlandia technically hails from Dundee, which is in the heart of Willamette Valley, but we won’t hold that against them. While we dig into a quartet of surprisingly affordable wines from this operation, do take a moment to enjoy the hyper-hip labels, all simple, single-color graphics on kraft paper, each more iconically hipster than the last.

2016 Portlandia Oregon Pinot Gris – A lively and fresh pinot gris, this expression is a showcase for fresh-press white grapes, lemon, and gentle floral notes. It’s hardly a complex wine, though hints of grapefruit give it ample acidity and easy drinkability. B+ / $17

2016 Portlandia Oregon Rose of Pinot Noir – This rose of pinot is restrained on the fruit, allowing the more steely, acidic notes of a white wine to shine through. A light touch of strawberry, some brewed tea notes, and a hint of caramel take things in a bit of a different direction, giving the wine more of a sustained presence. B+ / $16

2015 Portlandia Oregon Pinot Noir – A soft wine that borders on thin at times. Though a brisk nose of spice, cherry, and gunpowder gives it some initial oomph, the body of the wine settles a little too quickly into a heavily fruited, slightly sweet character, punctuated by strawberry and rhubarb, with a twist of cotton candy. That said, it’s not at all hard to drink, particularly at mealtime, its finish lightly spiced with Christmas cake notes. B / $19

2015 Portlandia Momtazi Pinot Noir – Biodynamic. This is a much bolder expression of pinot, one that I could easily mistake for a Russian River bottling, full of graphite and tannin notes, with a heavy-duty body that allows dense blackberry fruit to slowly bubble up to the surface. It’s a powerful wine considering its Oregon origins, weighty but balanced, with a clean and elegant finish that invites continued exploration. A- / $35

Review: Los Amantes Mezcal Reposado

We reviewed Los Amantes Mezcal Joven way back in 2013 when mezcal wasn’t nearly as popular as it has become today. We were impressed then, so we were excited to sample the reposado offering. Like the joven, this Oaxacan mezcal is made by hand with the most traditional of methods. It’s crafted from 100% Espadin agave, baked in traditional earthen pits, ground by a horse-powered stone mill, and double-distilled in copper stills. The mezcal is then aged for six to eight months in French oak barrels.

Unlike many mezcals that boast big barbecue notes, the nose on Los Amanates Mezcal Reposado is light and clean with sweet honey and soft mesquite wood smoke. If not for that trace of earthy smoke, I’d almost think this was tequila. The palate, however, creates no such illusions. There’s a nice heat and a smoldering campfire quality almost immediately that is mouthwatering and punctuated by notes of sea salt and white pepper. A subtle caramel and honey sweetness keeps the smoke from taking over completely, while the finish erodes with faint notes of lightly roasted coffee and green apple. Like the joven, Los Amantes Reposado showcases a surprising balance, and while it leaves me wanting just a little more complexity, the depth of flavor compensates for that shortcoming.

80 proof.

A- / $70 /

Review: KO Distilling Bare Knuckle Bourbon, Rye, and Wheat Whiskey

KO Distilling calls Manassas, Virginia home, and this outfit, which opened its doors only in 2015, already has a significant portfolio to show off. Today we look at its collection of American whiskeys — a bourbon, a rye, and a wheat whiskey — all of which are made with grains sourced from local Virginia farms, milled on-site, double distilled on a hybrid Vendome still, and aged in new, #3 charred, 53-gallon standard-size barrels. From a craft perspective, KO is doing everything perfectly.

Today we look at the full trio of whiskeys, all bottled in late 2017. Let’s see how technique translates to the bottle.

All are bottled at 90 proof.

KO Distilling Bare Knuckle Straight Bourbon Whiskey – This is a two-year-old bourbon made from a mash of 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% malted barley. Young though it may be, there’s craft here, as evidenced by a nose that incorporates caramel corn alongside some smoky bacon notes. The palate offers hints of butterscotch that lift up the sweetness, but by and large the bourbon is still on the immature side, heavy with popcorn while showing some mushroom and burnt toast punchiness. While raw in the middle, there’s promise around the edges in the form of zippy cloves, toffee, and dark caramel notes, all hallmarks of a whiskey still developing, yet developing well. B / $40

KO Distilling Bare Knuckle American Rye Whiskey – A 100% rye, aged 18 months in new oak. This one holds up better to the brief aging process, with a more rounded nose of toasty oak notes backed up with hints of licorice, camphor, and savory spices. The palate is considerably more engaging than the nose lets on. It’s young, yes, but the spice and wood combine here to make for something quite a bit more fun than you might expect. Healthy vanilla and cinnamon notes linger on the tongue as the wood element quickly fades, though the finish sees just a touch of char-meets-rubber character, a reminder that you’re drinking a pretty solid rye that’s a mere year and a half in age. Would love to see this rye at four years old. A- / $46

KO Distilling Bare Knuckle American Wheat Whiskey – Made from 60% wheat, 30% rye, and 10% malted barley, aged one year in new oak. This whiskey is the youngest of the bunch and it shows. Lumberyard is heavy on the nose, really dominating everything else. Give it some air and notes of clove and mushroom emerge, but these are faint and not all that interesting, anyway. The palate is sharp and quite youthful, heavy with granary notes and a more moderate sawdust character, but this fades surprisingly quickly, leaving behind a slightly salty character with secondary notes of milk chocolate, cherries, and toffee. It may not have much nasal engagement, but on the palate it’s a surprising delight. B+ / $36

Review: NV Bollinger Special Cuvee and Rose Champagne

Since 1829, Bollinger has been producing champagne, with a specific focus on using grapes from its own vineyards (estate grapes account for 60% of the total grape supply), and a heavy use throughout the range of pinot noir, which dominates Bolli’s vineyards. Bollinger’s wines are also fermented in actual barrels, a practice that the winery says has “almost disappeared” from the Champagne region.

While Bollinger has recently been pushing out numerous high-end, vintage-dated releases, today we look at its nonvintage entry-level wines (if you can call them that), one white and one rose.

NV Bollinger Special Cuvee Champagne – 60% pinot noir, 25% chardonnay, and 15% pinot meunier, with 85% of grapes harvested from grand cru and premier cru vineyards. As nonvintage Champagne goes, this is quality through and through. Bold green apple, some brioche, a pinch of yeast — it’s classic Champagne from beginning to end. While a bit bready at times for my tastes, the refreshing dryness ends things on a crisp, acidic note. A- / $49

NV Bollinger Rose Champagne – 62% pinot noir, 24% chardonnay, and 14% pinot meunier, with up to 6% red wine added. 85% of grapes harvested from grand cru and premier cru vineyards. Bright red berries lead the way here, but they fade quickly, falling back on the apple and, here, some lemon notes before sliding gently into those brioche elements so intrinsic in Champagne. The finish is racier and more acidic than the Special Cuvee, lacking any overwhelming yeast notes, instead showing off just a hint of the nuttier elements that I always associate with vintage Bollinger. A / $90

Review: 2015 Stony Hill Chardonnay Spring Mountain District

This atypical Napa chardonnay is dialed back on the nose (it’s aged only in neutral oak, limiting the wood influence), some savory notes finding a companion in light melon and gentle floral tones. The palate sees a significant acidity (again, unusual for Napa chardonnay) before settling into a fruit-forward character, its melon, lemon, and quince notes slightly tinged with vanilla. The finish is moderate and drying, a brisk squeeze of lemon rind ringing out as the conclusion fades away. All told, it’s a beautiful wine with impressive balance.

A- / $48 /