Review: Geyser Peak 2012 Tectonic and 2013 Walking Tree Cabernet Sauvignon

Two new reds from Sonoma’s Geyser Peak, both cabernet-focused but wildly different in style — despite both hailing from the same appellation. Let’s give this duo a spin!

2012 Geyser Peak Tectonic Red Blend Alexander Valley – A very dry blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and petite sirah. The cab takes center stage, with brambly currants, dried savory herbs, and some coffee bean notes leading the way to just a hint of purple flowers and chewier cherry notes on the finish. B+ / $30

2013 Geyser Peak Walking Tree Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – This is a fruitier style of cabernet, in keeping with what’s typical of Sonoma. The wine shows off plenty of strawberry and maraschino cherry notes, fading slowly into a slightly sweet character that features vanilla and a touch of mocha. The engaging and approachable finish is soft and ready-to-go right now; no cellar time needed here. A- / $30

geyserpeakwinery.com

Understanding the Wines of France

To an average wine imbiber, a trek through the new world wine section of their store of choice is a painless ordeal; a California Cabernet has “Cabernet Sauvignon” written right there on the label. Same with an Oregon Pinot Noir, an Australian Syrah, and just about any other “New World” wine. Blends might be trickier, but oftentimes they’ll have a breakdown of which varietals they’re made of somewhere on the label.

This is not so for the labels from most wine-producing countries in Europe, which to the uninitiated can seem maddeningly confusing and needlessly opaque. How can someone tell what is in a bottle of Les Cadrans de Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, for instance? The answer is that, while French wine labels might be vague, France’s wineries are dominated by the governmental body Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC (with France’s entry into the EU, technically the term is now AOP, but many wineries still use the designation AOC). The AOC’s laws are very, very strict about what grapes can be grown in what region of the country, in order to maintain the terroir, or the individual taste of a wine region, and so by knowing how these grapes and regions match up, you’ll always have at least a basic idea of what to expect in any bottle of French wine. Join us today to take a whirlwind tour through four of France’s top wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, and the Rhône Valley.

Bordeaux is the most famous of France’s wine regions — perhaps of all of the world’s wine regions — and is the region that most people think of when they think of French wine. Located just inland from the Atlantic Ocean on France’s southwest side, split in two by the Gironde estuary, some of the most expensive wines in the world come from Bordeaux, including the several-thousand-dollar Château Cheval Blanc, which featured heavily in the movie Sideways. The grapes most regularly used in red Bordeaux wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carbernet Franc, but of course it can’t be so simple as to just say that and call it a day. The split in the region caused by the Gironde also causes a split in the varietals of grapes used in the wines: on the left bank of the river, including areas like Médoc and Graves, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the wines, whereas on the right bank, typified by areas like Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, are heavily Merlot-based wines. White Bordeaux blends are typically made between the two rivers that form the estuary, and are blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. Thanks to Bordeaux blending processes, a good Bordeaux can be endlessly complex, with fruit notes subordinate to tastes and scents like pencil lead, flat stone, loam, and others, depending on which grapes are used. They can be intimidating for new wine drinkers, but a Bordeaux blend has incredible aging potential and can continue to surprise you with new flavors and aromas hours after it’s been opened.

Across the country from Bordeaux, nearing the central east of France, is the region of Burgundy. The regional names you’ll see on the label for Burgundy include Chablis, Macon, and Beaujolais, but unlike Bordeaux, things are simpler here: With one exception, all red Burgundy is made with Pinot Noir grapes, and with no exceptions, all white Burgundy is made with Chardonnay grapes. So why not just slap the grape name on the bottle? Because terroir is still strongly in effect within Burgundy, and white Burgundies made in different regions, for instance, can taste completely different. A white Burgundy from Chablis, for instance, usually tastes very dry, with a white stone minerality, not at all like a Chardonnay someone used to California butter bombs like Rombauer would expect, whereas white Burgundies from Pouilly-Fuisse tend to be more woody and creamy. The one exception to the Pinor Noir-based red Burgundies are the wines from Beaujolais. As you may know if you join in the tradition of opening a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau around Thanksgiving, Beaujolais is made with the Gamay grape, which is more fruit-forward and immediately ready to drink than a drier, earthier Burgundy made from Pinot Noir.

North of Burgundy, in the upper northeast of the country, right on the border with Germany, lies the region of Alsace. In the history of the two countries, Alsace has always been a point of contention, and it has changed hands between the two countless times; this gives the region a strong German influence that is shared with their wines. Alsatian wines are made almost exclusively with white grapes, especially Riesling and Gewurztraminer. They’re made in a more dry, mineral-forward style than someone used to United States Riesling and Gewurz might expect, but like an Italian Pinot Grigio, they’re very refreshing and go great with food. Alsatian Rieslings especially also have excellent aging potential among white wines due to their acidity, and in good conditions can continue to age well for decades.

Too cold up in Alsace? Head south, starting in the Swiss Alps and ending at France’s beautiful eastern Mediterranean coast, near Italy, where you’ll find the wine-growing region of the Rhône Valley. For someone used to a more fruit-forward style of red wine like those found in California or Australia, the wines from the Rhône area might be a good jumping-off point into the world of French wines. The primary grapes used in Rhône blends include red grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, as well as white grapes such as Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier, though AOC allows additional varietals to be blended into the wines in more prestigious regions. Starting up in the north of the Rhône, around the Swiss Alps, you’ll find regions like Crozes-Hermitage that make spicy, savory Syrah that will age wonderfully for years. Further south you’ll find more of an influence of Grenache and Mourvèdre in the wines, from inexpensive Côtes-du-Rhône, to pricier, more complex Gigondas and Vacqueyras, to gorgeous, sumptuous blends from around the former Papal enclave of Avignon, called Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While the northern Syrahs tend to be savory and meaty, the climate of southern Rhône produces rich blends with a perfect balance of berries and the natural terroir that French wine strives for.

This is of course only very a basic overview of France’s four best-known wine regions. Whole books have been written about each of these, and there are many more lesser-known regions within the country, like the Loire Valley and the Languedoc-Roussillon. Hopefully this overview will help you try a new French wine or two, and discover the wonders that the country has in store for a curious drinker.

Review: Drapo Vermouth Complete Lineup

Drapo is a line of vermouths produced in Turin, Italy – which as the company tells us was the birthplace of vermouth in 1786. These releases are all bottled at 16% abv, except the Gran Riserva, which hits 18%.

Thoughts on the lineup, which are soon/newly available in the U.S., follow.

Drapo Vermouth Dry – Aromatic and perfumed, with notes of white flowers, golden waves of grain, and orange peel, this lightly oxidized wine is bittersweet and sour all at once, with a complex palate of honey, green melon, and a hint of ginger. Well made and quite versatile. B+ / $14

Drapo Vermouth Bianco – One of the more unusual biancos (sweet white vermouth) I’ve encountered, with intense baking spice notes, particularly cinnamon, on the nose. The moderately sweet palate offers honey and citrus syrup, and a rising vanilla-lemon note on the back end. May clash in some applications. B / $14

Drapo Vermouth Rosso – Fresh and lively, there’s intense red berry fruit here, along with a spritz of orange oil on the nose. On the palate, the raspberry and strawberry notes dominate, melding nicely with lingering notes of tea leaf, some cloves, and a light bitterness that gives the wine some backbone. Delightful stuff with a surprising depth. A- / $14

Drapo Vermouth Gran Riserva – This is a sweet red vermouth that’s aged in French oak for at least 8 months and is bottled as a single barrel expression. Much more bitter than the rosso, it borders on an amaro, with intense root and tree bark notes, dried plum/prune and raisin, and loads of chewy clove and licorice notes. The finish is long and lasting and hard to shake, a dense and intense character that lingers until you force it off your tongue. Use carefully, or alone in lieu of an amaro. B+ / $20

turin-vermouth.com

Review: Wines of (Illinois-Based) Cooper’s Hawk Lux, 2017 Releases

Cooper’s Hawk is a restaurant chain and winery based in Countryside, Illinois, which is a strange place for a vineyard, no? Rest easy then: Cooper’s Hawk trucks in fresh grapes from California, Oregon, and Washington, then crushes and vinifies them in Illinois before bottling. These wines are non-vintage stated, and some don’t even reveal the grape varietals used to make them.

Cooper’s Hawk makes nearly 50 different varieties of wine, and today we look at its top level of wines, Cooper’s Hawk Lux, which come in strikingly dark bottles and wrapped in tissue paper. Can fruit trucked from the west coast and turned into wine near Chicago compete with the local stuff in Cali? We sampled four “Lux” expressions to find out.

Thoughts follow.

NV Cooper’s Hawk Lux Sparkling Wine Brut – A mystery sparkler made from unknown grapes, this is a very dry wine, mostly chardonnay I’d guess, with initially herbal notes that eventually find their way toward notes of lemongrass, green apple, and a touch of pineapple. A pleasant aperitif on the whole. B / $30

NV Cooper’s Hawk Gewurztraminer – (Not part of the Lux series.) This is a semi-sweet style of Gewurztraminer, appropriately fragrant and aromatic with heavily perfumed florals and loaded on the body with the typical overtones of peaches and honey. The sweetness lingers on the finish, but it’s not overdone. The wine is quite a simple bottling, but it pairs nicely with seafood and works just fine as an aperitif. B / $30

NV Cooper’s Hawk Lux Pinot Noir – Fresh berries, some licorice and graphite notes, and a light tobacco undercurrent give the wine a slight funkiness, backed with evergreen and menthol notes, but on the whole this drinks like a lighter style of pinot noir that might as well be from Carneros. If the body had a bit more meat on it — instead of the slightly watery character we see — it’d be a dead ringer for California. B+ / $40

NV Cooper’s Hawk Lux Meritage – A quite dry wine that offers aromas of dark chocolate, chicory, and well-dried currants. The body is dusty and a bit tannic, though again the chocolate and currant notes are at the forefront. The straightforward finish recalls many a Napa cab, but the blackberry-forward finish belies few complexities aside from a hint of vanilla. B+ / $40

coopershawkwinery.com

Review: 2013 XYZin Zinfandel Reserve Dry Creek Valley

This is a simple yet sultry zinfandel from California’s Dry Creek Valley, a slightly brambly expression of blueberry and blackberry notes, with a cassis finish. Some subtle notes of tea leaf and cola add to the charm of this otherwise food-friendly and wildly drinkable wine — perhaps even more so because it has just a touch of age on it?

A- / $30 / xyzinwines.com

Review: 2015 Cosentino Cigar Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi

Cosentino’s Cigar bottling (not new, but recently given an updated label) is a mighty soft zin, pretty with lots of fresh blueberry and baking spices, but also heavy with floral notes, particularly violets. It’s a nice start, and it’s an easy drinker on these early days of spring, but the body is muddied by overly jammy notes and a finish that focuses more on brown sugar than on anything I’ve ever tasted in a cigar.

B / $22 / cosentinowinery.com

Review: 2015 Illumination Sauvignon Blanc

You’ll have to check the back label for the details, but Illumination is a white wine made at Quintessa, which is best known as a cult producer of red wine. Here, however, is a white from the property, blended from 39% Sauvignon Blanc Musqué (a particularly aromatic clone of Sauvignon Blanc), 48% Sauvignon Blanc, and 13% Semillon. The fruit is sourced 58% from Napa County and 42% from Sonoma County. Aging is done in French oak barrels (8% new), Acacia barrels (5% new), egg-shaped concrete fermenters, and stainless steel barrels.

It’s altogether a fine expression of Sauvignon Blanc, loaded with intensely floral aromatics and notes of apricots underneath. Some light ammonia notes emerge as the wine opens up (and warms up), revealing a body that offers notes of dried fruit, dried flowers, and some nutmeg notes. The finish hints at green tea while concluding on honeysuckle. A very expressive and worthwhile wine.

A- / $55 / illuminationwine.com

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