Wine on Wednesdays – Bridlewood Blend 175

When your goal is to find great-tasting wines under $10, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince.

For example, I bought this Pinotage from Roberston Winery, out of South Africa. I have had South African wines before and found them to be generally high quality and extremely affordable. But this one had a flavor I’ve never experienced before in a red wine.

It tasted like bacon.

I’m not even kidding. This wine had the smoky flavor of bacon. I though perhaps I just had an off bottle or perhaps my sense of taste was warped that night, so I spent another $6.79 on a second bottle a week later and tried it again.

Nope, it tasted exactly like bacon right out of the frying pan. Apparently, Pinotage is a hybrid grape invented in 1925 in South Africa and is notoriously unrelialbe, much like the Pinot Noir grape, one of its parent grapes. Hopefully, all Pinotage wines don’t taste this way.

Anyway, at least I found a wine that will go well with a couple of fried eggs and some toast.

Another unpleasant surprise was this “Bostovan Black Doctor Red Wine”. This is one of those wines that comes in an unusual-shaped bottle that I found on way in the corner on the top shelf of my local wine store, the place where they put the wines they don’t necessarily want to promote. Sometimes you can find some interesting discoveries there, like Georgian wines.

The name of the winery was written in Cyrillic, so I’m not sure what it’s officially called or even what country produces it. (Editor’s note: It’s make in Moldova, according to Google). The only thing I know for sure is that if you are going to sell a sweet red wine, you should put that somewhere on the label.

I hate sweet red wine and this one was not only sweet, but the flavor was unpleasant as well. It was a waste of $5.60 because after one taste, I poured it right down the sink.

Fortunately, the day was saved by this Bridlewood Blend 175. This is a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel grapes that were grown in the Central Coast region of California.

According to the winery’s official site, the grapes for this wine were picked mostly at night to keep the fruit cool, so the flavor characteristics of each grape varietal could be maximized. The grapes were then destemmed but not crushed so that large portion of whole berries were left in the fermentor.

“The must was fermented at a maximum 88F in order to emphsaize the dark, jammy fruit flavors in the finished wine,” it states. “This wine was racked frequently, allowing the rich fruit flavors to open fully.”

That sounds like a lot of work for a wine that sold for $9.34/bottle (after the 15% discount I received at my local wine store for buying more than six bottles at a time. The regular retail price was $10.99). Yet the care and attention to detail that the winemaker put into creating this blend really pays off.

Bridlewood Blend 175’s flavor is remarkably smooth and balanced, and the combination of varietals is simply delicious.

Bridlewood Blend 175 is one of the best wines I’ve tasted in years, and joins Coppola Rosso, Mark West Pinot Noir and Las Rocas as my favorite inexpensive wine discoveries of all time.

It even helped me get the taste of frog out of my mouth!


Wine on Wednesdays – Rigatoni Red

When I worked at my Uncle Tony’s liquor store in high school, I was often approached by customers asking me to recommend a wine to go with a particular dish.

Rigatoni Red

Rigatoni Red

Aside from the fact that they were asking a 16-year-old for wine advice, I did my best to accomodate them. Yet since my wine knowledge was rather limited at the time, some of the pairings were questionable.

Pork chops with apricot sauce? You might try this Mogen David made from Concord grapes. Cashew chicken? How about Richard’s Wild Irish Rose? Traditional Thanksgiving dinner? I suggest Riuniti on ice. It’s nice!

Well, a couple of wine importers from New York are offering a solution to the problem of which wine to serve with a particular entree. Cousins Darren and Ben Restivo, owners of Biagio Cru & Estate Wines, have launched the Food & Wine Collection, which pairs particular foods wines the company develops with selected vintners.

The wine I tried is called “Rigatoni Red” and it is made with a blend of varietals grown in Puglia, Italy, which is traditionally thought to be the place pasta was invented.

The wine was affordable, priced at $9.99/bottle. I paid $8.49 with the 15% discount I get at my wine store for buying 6 bottles or more at once.

I actually tried it twice, once without pasta and once with rigatoni and red sauce.The first time I enjoyed its smooth flavor on its own. It sort of had a Merlot-like mellowness going for it, with a little bit of a cherry tang. Definitely not a fruit bomb.

I wondered how it would stand up to a rich tomato-and-garlic pasta sauce. The answer is surprisingly well. The flavors of the wine and the pasta complemented each other so  that both ended up tasting even better than they would by themselves, which is the way successful food and wine pairings are supposed to work.

The company also offers Bar-B-Que Red, made with grapes from France’s Rhone Valley; Fresh Catch White, a blend of Sicilian varietals; and Ribeye Red, which is composed of a blend of grapes from Argentina’s Fanatina Valley.

I haven’t seen those wines yet, but I’m looking forward to trying them. Especially if they pair as well with those dishes as Rigatoni Red did with the pasta.


Wine on Wednesday – Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine

The concept behind Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine is clever. It’s made from a blend of California grapes that are meant to represent the distinctive flavors of California reds.

But the exact type of grapes used to make the wine is a secret!

Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine

Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine

It’s a marketing scheme apparently dreamt up by Jean-Charles Boisset, president of Boisset Family Estates, the Clarksville, California, wine producer who makes this blend. There’s also a Secret Blend White Wine which I haven’t tried.

Okay, I thought, I love California wines. I’ll try it.

I found the Ameberhill Secret Blend Red Wine to be a good wine with bold flavors and very strong fruits that bordered on the sweet. I don’t care for sweet wines, and this wine wasn’t sweet, exactly. It just hinted at sweetness. Kind of like the way a puckery raspberry jam does.

The problem for me is that the Amberhill Secret Blend Wine didn’t taste like a California wine. When I think of California wines, I envision vegetal Zinfandels, mellow Merlots, or stately Cabernets. This wine reminded me more of a jammy Mogen David, which is a New York State wine made of the Concord grapes that grow well in that region.

I hope they don’t make Amberhill Secret Blend Red Wine out of Concord grapes grown in California because that would be blasphemous. Come to think of it, that would definitely justify keeping the varietals it’s made from a secret.

I didn’t not like this wine. It was pretty good. And I get the whole “secret” thing as a marketing tool. I just don’t think it should be marketed as a wine that evokes the flavors of California wines. Even if the grapes were grown in that state, it doesn’t taste like California to me.

The price of the wine was great. I bought it for $5.94/bottle after the 15% discount my local wineseller offers for buying six or more mixed bottles at once. That’s far below my self-imposed ceiling of $7.99/bottle for affordable wines.

If Amberhill 2010 Secret Blend Red had been marketed as a California red table wine, I probably would have enjoyed it more because my expectations wouldn’t have been so high. In this case, a clever marketing campaign sort of sabotaged my ability to like this wine for what it is.

If that makes any sense.


Wine on Wednesdays – Cameron Hughes Lot 313

When I picked up this bottle of Cameron Hughes Lot 313, I had no idea what a “field blend” was. With a little research, I discovered that it is an old school way of making wines.

In the old days, winemakers would grow a bunch of different types of grapes — such as cabernet, zinfandel, syrah, etc. — in one field. Then at the end of the season, they would pick whatever grapes were the best, crush them and make a wine out of them.

Every year, the mix of grapes would be different because weather conditions, pests and other factors would determine which varietal would be at its most mature at the time of harvest. While it was a way for winemakers to connect more closely with the pairing of the soil and the sun, it also could be kind of a crap shoot what kind of wine they would get. Some years, these field wines would be just okay while other years they would be transcendent.

Cameron Hughes is a wine negociant out of San Francisco who sells ultra-premium wines under five different brands, one of which is the The Lot Series. While technically Lot 313 is not a field wine because the grapes didn’t come from the exact same field, it is a homage to the technique of creating field wines.

And even though it’s labeled as a California red wine — which means the grapes could have come from anywhere in the state — the grapes in Lot 313 were all grown in Lodi, one of the best wine-growing regions in the country for zinfandel grapes, among others.

When I first tasted Cameron Hughes Lot 313, my initial reaction was, “Wow! What a fruit bomb!” There is nothing subtle about this wine and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Cameron Hughes Lot 313 is a powerful wine with lots and lots of fruit flavor, mostly raspberry but with a little strawberry in it as well. It’s not super tannic — in other words, it won’t pucker your face — but there is a distinct peppery flavor in it at the end.

I drank this right after opening it, but I think it would have benefited from being allowed to breathe for about 30 minutes. Next time, I’ll do that.

Still, it was a robust wine with unexpectedly pronounced fruit flavor. I enjoyed it on its own, but I think it would be a great pairing with boldly flavored foods, such as lamb, venison or something with a whole lot of garlic in it.

It is 71% Zinfandel (my favorite California grape), 10% Petite Syrah, 10% Syrah, and 9% Carignane, which is a grape used in a lot of Italian winemaking but which isn’t that big here in the US. It is 14.5% alcohol.

It also was affordable. I paid $7.64 for the bottle at my local wine market, but that included a 15% discount for buying more than six mixed bottles at a time. For that price, Cameron Hughes Lot 313 gives you a whole lot of wine for your money.

So if you are looking for a great-tasting wine that will blow off the back of your head, or if you want to pay homage to the concept of field wines, check out Cameron Hughes Lot 313. Apparently, they don’t make huge batches of wines in The Lot Series, so you will have to grab it fast if you want to try it.


Wine on Wednesdays – Georgian Wine

Georgian wine doesn’t get much play in the US. Maybe it’s because the nation was formerly part of the “Evil Empire”, the Soviet Union.

But the wines made in the Republic of Georgia, located on the Black Sea in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, were the first in recorded history, with archeological evidence indicating that people have been making wine there since before 8,000 B.C.

Personally, I had never heard of Georgian wines prior to finding an unusual bottle wrapped in cellophane on the shelf of my local wine store. It’s called Saperavi, and it’s a dry red wine from the Kakheti region, the heart of Georgia’s wine-producing area.

Saperavi — the Georgian word for “paint” — is actually a type of grape native to Kakheti. It is a deep red grape that produces the darkest juice of any grape in the world, practically as black as squid ink. Yet this wine’s flavor is much more mellow than you might expect. While not as smoothly rounded as merlot, it is closer to zinfandel, having the same type of characteristic spiciness.

I found it to be a bit exotic, yet quite drinkable. Whenever I try a wine I’ve never heard of, especially from a place I know absolutely nothing about, I always approach it with a bit of trepidation. But in this case my anxiety was unfounded. Saperavi was delicious.

It was also very inexpensive. I paid $6.45 for the bottle, well below my self-imposed limite of $7.99/bottle for affordable wines.

And it comes with such a rich history. Some credit the people of Kakheti with the invention of wine. Nearly 5,000 years before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, people in Kakheti discovered that if they buried grape juice in clay jars underground at the beginning of winter, when they dug them up in the spring, it will have fermented into wine.

Then there’s the Kakheti tradition of drinking wine out of goat horns, something that apparently is still being done to this day.

As Americans, we sometimes are prejudiced against all things Russian due to lingering  resentment from the Cold War. But Georgia never wanted to be part of the Soviet Union in the first place and was actually invaded by the Red Army in 1921. It gained its independence in 1991, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia and Georgia continue to have a tortured relationship, with the Russian army occupying portions of the country as recently as 2008. In fact, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to destroy the Georgian wine industry in 1985 as part of an anti-alcohol campaign. And Georgian wine has been outlawed in Russia since 2006 due to an ongoing wine embargo.

So there’s no reason to resent Georgian wines based on the country’s past association with the Soviets. The country produces a wide variety of wines, both reds and white and even fortified wines. In fact, on the shelf next to the Saperavi were several Georgian sweet red wines.

With its numerous vineyards and picturesque mountain setting, Kakheti apparently has a growing wine tourism industry, so if you are planning a trip in that part of the world, it looks absolutely beautiful. As the official Kakheti regional administration website states, “Feel welcome to Kalkheti!”

I’m not sure if Georgian wines will ever become as popular as Italian or French wines, but if Saperavi is any indication of their quality (and affordability), then they are certainly worth checking out.


Wine on Wednesdays – Charles and Charles Red Wine

I bought this bottle of Charles and Charles Red Wine because the label intrigued me and because I’m running out of affordable wines I haven’t tasted at the wine shop I visit.

The label features a blurry photograph of two men standing in front of a building that appears to be painted like the American flag. Okay, I thought. That’s a little edgy. I’ll give it a try.

When a wine is labled as simply a “red wine”, it offers no information about the types of grapes that it was made with. So I really was tasting this wine completely bliind.

Charles and Charles Red Wine was a revelation. It was smooth and berry, not at all in your face as I might have expected from the artsy label. It had a little alcohol kick to it for the first couple of sips, but this went away quickly.

I liked that it was balanced between tartness and smoothness. In other words, it wasn’t so tannic that it puckered my eyeballs, but it had enough of a charge to it that it could stand up to bold-flavored foods. I served it with pizza and it was perfect.

As it turns out, this wine is the work of two renowned Washington State winemakers — 2009 Food & Wine magazine Winemaker of the Year Charles Smith and Charles Bieler, of Three Thieves, BIELER Pere et Fils, and Sombra mezcal.

I had no idea this wine came from the Pacific Northwest, which is not known for its reds but is quite well known for its white wines. It is made with 51% Syrah grapes and 49% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, all of which were grown onthe Wahluke Slope AVA in the Washington’s Columbia Valley, a very-well known wine district.

Here’s how meticulous these guys are: The cabernet was raised in 1 to 3 year old French oak barrels and the syrah was fermented and aged in stainless steel.

Despite all that talent and craftsmanship, this wine still sold for less than $10/bottle. I’ve lost my receipt, but I believe I paid $8.99 before the 15% discount I got for buying a mixed case at a time, so the final price would have been $7.64.

That’s a steal for a wine of this quality. Charles and Charles have only been making wines together since 2008, so that may explain why the wine remains so affordable. I predict that once people begin discovering this wine, the price will go way up.

Incidentally, the buillding on the label is the American Legion Post 35 in downtown Waitsburg, Washington, which Charles Smith bought and painted as part of a conceptual art peice. How cool is that? Here’s a short video in which he talks about the work:

Smith, who is one of the most well-known winemakers in Washington, is known for his idiosyncratic wines and quirky labels. As it turns out, I’ve already reviewed (and enjoyed) one of his wines a few months back, the House Red.

I love it when I discover something wonderful by accident. Although I’ve warned before that buying a wine based solely on its label is a bad idea, in this case I’m glad I didn’t follow my own advice.


Wine on Wednesdays – Castle Rock Pinot Noir

If I had a time machine, I would go back to 1981, when I was applying to colleges, and force my younger self to enroll in the University of California-Fresno’s oeneology program.

In my dream career, I’m sommelier, depending on my finely tuned palate to dole out expert advice about wines to grateful diners.

(For a short time in the early 2000s, recommending wines was part of my job when I was general manager of a casino steakhouse, but to be honest at the time I had no idea what I was talking about. Sorry, gamblers!)

In reality, I actually have very little technical training when it comes to wine. Outside of a few seminars and tastings, I’m little more than a self-taught wine enthusiast.

Having said that, I can tell you that I know what I like. If I taste a wine and I like it, I will recommend it to other people, especially when it’s affordable.

That’s why I was gratified when people who know what they are talking about apparently agreed with my opinion about Castle Rock Pinot Noir.

It’s a smooth, drinkable wine that to me tastes the way Pinot Noirs should taste: Like Canfield’s Dark Cherry Soda. Obviously, there are other flavors as well — including blackberries, raisins and even a little smoke — but as my inner South Sider would say, “I know what I like, and I like this.”

While researching this wine, I discovered that the people over at Food & Wine agreed, naming Castle Rock Pinot Noir one of the best American wines under $15.

Here’s what they said: “Castle Rock consulting winemaker August Briggs makes some of the best value Pinots around, from many of California’s top regions. In 2006, his herbal Mendocino bottling shines the brightest.”

Fortunately, this wine is well under $15, coming in at $6.79/bottle after the15% discount I got at my local wine store for buying more than 6 mixed bottles at a time. That’s well below my self-imposed $7.99/bottle limit for affordable wines.

In trying to find great-tasting affordable wines, you have to kiss a lot of toads before you find a prince. When you occasionally discover a really good, affordable wine — such as Castle Rock Pinot Noir’s delicious drinkability — it makes the search worthwhile.

On a side note: Has anybody else noticed that the overall price of wines has gone up in the past couple of months? Maybe it’s inflation or perhaps there was some sort of wine tax increase where I live, but I’m having trouble finding any wines — other than jug wines, of course — for less than $7.99/bottle anymore.

I’m considering raising my self-imposed limit to $10/bottle so that I can feature a wider variety of wines. What do you think? Does that sound like an unreasonable price for people on a budget? Let me know your thoughts. Thanks!

Wine on Wednesdays – Penfold’s Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet

If you are looking for a pleasant, mellow red wine that you can sip on a summer’s evening,Penfold’s Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet is a really nice, affordable wine that is made by one of the largest winemakers in Australia.

It is made mostly from shiraz grapes (71 percent) mixed with cabernet sauvignon grapes (29 percent). While Australia is known for its wines made with shiraz grapes — usually called syrah here in the US and elsewhere — sometimes the grape can produce wines that are slightly weaker and lack body. The addition of the cabernet helps give the wine structure, so there is a nice balance between the fruitiness of the shiraz and the tannins of the cab.

This particular wine is very affordable. I paid $6.79/bottle at my local wine shop, which included a 15 percent discount for buying more than 6 mixed bottles, well below my self-imposed limit of $7.99/bottle for affordable wines. That’s because it is made from grapes grown from all over South Australia, including Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra, rather than from a single vineyard.

Like Penfold’s Rawson’s Retreat, this wine has a very berry flavor, with hints of licorice. It is just lightly bitter, but smooth enough to enjoy by itself. Ideally, it would be best is served with beef, lamb or grilled meats, but in my opinion it goes great with just about anything.

The wine loses points for having a screw top cap, but at least that’s better than using plastic corks. Plus, it helps keep the wine fresher if you aren’t going to finish the bottle all at once.

To get maximum flavor, remove the cap and let the wine breathe for about an hour before you are ready to serve it. This allows the wine to oxidize with the outside air, releasing additional flavors.

I always thought that letting wine breathe was B.S., but a Frenchman I used to work with once had me taste the same wine side-by-side as an experiment. One had just been uncorked and the other had been allowed to sit uncorked for an hour. The difference was amazing: The bottle that had been allowed to oxidize tasted about 10 times better than the other one.

I have yet to find a Penfold’s wine that I don’t like. The seem to be very dependably good. And I haven’t even tried any of the wineries more expensive brands. I can only imagine what they taste like!

Wine on Wednesdays – Rioja

Spain has always been the the ugly stepsister of Europe, living in the shadow of the more popular France.

But Spain has a long and proud winegrowing history that dates back more than 2,000 years. Especially in the Rioja region, which is in north-central Spain, near Pomplona.

During the Roman Empire, centurions from the 4th Legion who graduated with honors achieving victories for the Emperor were awarded plots of land in Rioja’s Villar de Anerdo, which then became known as Campus Veteranus. Over time, this evolved into Campo Viejo, or “the old camp”.

When they arrived, they found that local tribespeople, whom they called the Celtiberi, already were cultivating vineyards of a local grape, the temperanillo (from the Spanish “temprano”, or “early”, referrring to the grapes ability to be harvested earlier than other varietals). While the locals had been making wine in a crude manner, the Romans tutored them in advanced winemaking techniques.

Over time, temperanillo wines became an important part of the region’s economy. By the 1860s, a local nobleman — Camilo Hurtado de Amezaga, the Marques de Riscal de Alegre — returned from studying in Bordeaux armed with the newest ideas in winemaking. He and another local nobleman, the Marques de Murrieta, began planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes from vinestock imported from France and produced wines in what was then the Bordeaux style.

Other local winemakers, unable to get hold of the imported grapes, were introduced to the new processes by the aristocrat winemakers. They discovered, to their great surprise, that the local grapes they had been working with for years — especially temperanillo — responded extremely well to the new methods, with or without the other, more expensive, grapes.

At the same time, on the other side of the Pyrennees Mountains in France, the phylloxera infestaton was devastating nearly all of the French vineyards. Desperate to provide wine for their French customers, negociants from Aquataine and elsewhere came to Spain to find wines to buy. They were delighted to discover that Rioja’s newly developed wine industry was utilizing French winemaking methods and were available so close to home.

Rioja wines flourished and — for a short time, at least — Spain was no longer the ugly stepsister but the belle of the wine ball.

Campo Viejo is the largest wine company in Rioja and one of the few big enough to export its wines to the US and elsewhere. Founded in 1963, the bodega (Spanish winehouses are called “bodegas”, just as French are called “chateaus”), grows most of its own temperanillo grapes on an enormous vineyard that encompasses more than 1,260 acres.

In 2001, the bodega opened an architecturally-stunning state-of-the-art winery that follows the principles of sustainable agriculture and has won awards for being one of the first “green” wineries anywhere.

At $6.79/bottle, this particular Campo Viejo Temperanillo is certainly affordable and it’s flavor is fine, if a little bitter for my taste. It has a strong black cherry flavor, with hints of blackberry, strawberry, spice and vanilla.

Like the French wine regions, Rioja has extremely strict winemaking laws. This is a very young wine, having spent only four months oak barrels and even less time in the bottle. In order for wines to graduate to the “Crianza” status, they must spend at least a year in the barrel and another year in the bottle. This wine would benefit from a little more aging to smooth out its rough spots. But then, of course, it would cost much more.

While Campo Viejo Temperanillo has a lot of history in the bottle, in the end I think it needs just a little more time.

Wine on Wednesdays – Bordeaux

As a lover of wines, I know that I should be enthusiastic about French wines. But I’m not.

Maybe it’s because there’s just too much to know. There are many famous French wine regions — Burgundy, Graves, Provence, Champagne, etc. — each of which has dozens of chateaus, or wine producers.

French wines can get really complicated, with vintage vs. non-vintage, different cuvees, grand crus, etc. There are even strict wine laws that prohibit certain types of grapes from being grown in specific areas, not to mention traditions stretching back hundreds of years that regulate the types of casks that are used to store particular wines.

In short, the French just take their wine way too seriously.

Then there’s the price. The words “affordable” and “French wine” aren’t usually found in the same sentence.

Where I live, usually the only French wines available for less than $10/bottle are either Nouveau Beaujolais, which are very young wines released on the third Thursday of each November that almost always taste like crap, or mass-produced wines such as the B&G line of wines, which are basically the Budweiser of French wines.

I almost never wander down the French aisle in my local wine shop because I already know I’m not going to find anything I like at my price point.

But this week I made the stroll anyway. And while at $8.91, this Chateau les Rambauds Bourdeux Superieur was slightly above my $7.99/bottle price limit for affordable wines, I decided to give it a try anyway.

The labels on French wines are as complicated as its wine industry. I speak only a little French and certainly not enough to understand everything that is on this label. I know that Bordeaux Superieur means that the grapes don’t come from a certain region of Bordeaux, but can come from any of the regions sub-regions, which include Medoc, Graves and Sauternes.

“Mis en bouttielle au chateau” I believe means that the wine was fermented in the bottle, rather than in giant casks. Yet “Eleve en futs de chene” means high in casks of “chene”, so I’m probably wrong.

“Cuvee petit martinot”: I’m not at all sure what that means.

If anybody can help me out with this, I would appreciate it. I guess I’m just intimidated by French wines.

This particular wine is made from 55 percent merlot, 35 percent cabernet sauvignon, and 10 percent malbec grapes. It’s flavor was good, fruity, with strong dark cherry flavors and a little smokiness. It was a little more tangy than I prefer, but that went away after the first few sips.

My comfort level is more California, Australian or even South American wines, mostly because I can usually understand what I’m drinking by reading the label. Still, I would like to enjoy French wines more and I would pick up this wine again.

I just need to brush up on my language skills first.