30 June 2014

Davis Bynum Wines

Well, my "day" off stretched into a week, but I wasn't really taking a break from wine writing. In that time I attended three online tastings, submitted four articles for other publications, and caught up on receipts and invoices. Add to that the time spent picking up shipments of samples, photographing and organizing them, clearing out the empties (the neighbors are constantly baffled), and it was one busy week in the life of your humble correspondent.

Time to get back on schedule with a pleasant pair from Sonoma.

Davis Bynum was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1951 when he bought some Petite Sirah from Robert Mondavi. Twenty years later he would become well known as the first winemaker to produce single vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, a subregion now famous for the style.

2012 Davis Bynum River West Chardonnay
Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
100% Chardonnay
$30, 14.5% abv.

Pleasantly crisp with a balanced touch of oak. Bright acidity and flavors of overripe peach with a rounder, slightly buttery finish. Should be great with grilled quail and German potato salad this summer.

2012 Davis Bynum Jane's Vineayrd Pinot Noir
Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
100% Pinot Noir
$40, 14.5% abv.

Classic California Pinot Noir with a gentle profile of wild strawberries and mild tannins. Light hints of earth and spice in the background. Set out a platter of Spanish cheeses, olives, and salumi and enjoy a quiet evening snack.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

22 June 2014

Day Off

Normally I have a post every Monday, but I'm taking a day off. And by taking a day off, I mean to say that I still have my full-time day job as well as multiple writing gigs with deadlines and requirements of their own.

One of those assignments has had me running around Memphis all weekend, eating at different restaurants and in this shot, catching a quick snapshot of the Elvis Presley statue just west of Beale Street. I am, in the words of the King, "Taking Care of Business" to keep the lights on here at Casa de Benito. Back in a day or two.

20 June 2014

Wines of Sud Ouest France

Bordeaux Blanc is an odd sort of critter in the wine world... It plays second fiddle to the highly prized reds, and true enthusiasts of French white wines tend to focus on Burgundy. Don't get me wrong, I've had some great Bordeaux Blanc and I'm not putting it down. However, the cost of real estate tends to inflate the prices of those bottles.

If you're looking at southwest France (Sud Ouest), there are great bargains in the Gascony region even if you might not recognize the grape names. I didn't mind, because I got to add a few obscure grapes to the life list, particulalry Arrufiac and Petit Corbu. I am now up to 193, and that 200 goal is tantalizingly within reach. Publicists, if you're having trouble promoting anything mostly unknown, let me know!

Getting back to the geography, the first two are from the Saint-Mont AOC while the second two are from the more casual Côtes de Gascogne VdP. If you want a crisp, light white wine for a summer lunch, any of these would be a great recommendation and highly affordable as well. None of these are going to break the $15 level (pre-tax), and you'll have a classy bottle on the table or on the picnic blanket.

2010 Plaimont Les Bastions Blanc
Saint-Mont, France
Proprietary blend of Arrufiac, Petit Courbu and Gros Manseng
$9, 13% abv.

Green apple and a touch of floral aromas on the nose. Crisp and bright with beautiful acidity.

2011 Plaimont Tableaux
Saint-Mont, France
80% Gros Manseng, 15% Petit Courbu, 5% Arrufiac
$14, 13% abv.

Deeper body with touches of earth and grass in addition to the bright acidity. Would be excellent with an appetizer of roast quail with lots of garlic and rosemary.

2013 Domaine du Tariquet Classic
Côtes de Gascogne, France
45% Ugni Blanc, 35% Colombard, 10% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Gros Manseng
$9, 10.5% abv.

Lots of lemon, touch of herbal notes. Tart acidity. To many this will taste like a bottle of introductory Sauvignon Blanc, but I appreciate the little complexity from the interesting blend.

2012 Domaine Chiroulet Terres Blanches
Côtes de Gascogne, France
50% Gros Manseng, 25% Ugni Blanc, 25% Sauvignon Blanc
$13, 12.5% abv.

Bright citrus character but a little smoother than the prior one. Outstanding summer sipper for hanging out in the backyard.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

18 June 2014

SakéOne Tasting

The more saké I try over the years, the more I enjoy it. More importantly, I think that aside from the inherent pleasures of the beverage, it has an important role in helping develop the nose and palate of the wine enthusiast.

SakéOne is based in Oregon and produces some delightful domestic brews that I've covered in the past. However, they are also a significant importer of Japanese saké and have long term relationships with the original kuras back in the Land of the Rising Sun. During a recent online tasting we got to sample four sakés from Japan, all in the 300mL half bottle format, though the prices listed below are for full 720mL bottles.

Yoshinogawa Winter Warrior
$27, 14%
Clean and mild with light citrus notes. This is a Niigata-style saké made in part to go with spicier Asian-fusion foods here in the United States.

Murai Family Tanrei Junmai
$20, 14.5% abv.
Almost like vodka but at a lower alcohol percentage. Extremely mild and neutral and one that I would reserve for the most delicate sushi and sashimi.

Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry
$27, 16% abv.
Earthy aroma, nice grain flavors. Savory with hints of mushrooms... Certainly a good pick for folks who love Old World Pinot Gris.

Hakutsuru Superior Junmai Ginjo
$16, 14.5% abv.
Lightly sweet and floral. At the least expensive it is also fascinating, and one that really needs to be sipped and enjoyed from a good wine glass.

Note: These bottles were provided as samples for review.

16 June 2014

Pinot Noir from La Pitchoune

La Pitchoune Winery is a small operation named after a property in the south of France, literally translated from Provençal as "the little one". It was also the name that Julia Child and her husband gave to their home in the region.

Both of these wines are made from Sonoma Pinot Noir, yet show very different expressions. I grilled a veal chop, prepared a few cold salads, and sat down for a delightful summer lunch.

2012 La Pitchoune Vin Gris of Pinot Noir
Sonoma Coast, California
100% Pinot Noir
$30, 14.1% abv.
39 Cases Produced

I'm sorry that there is so little of this wine on the market, because it is amazing. Exactly the style of dry rosé that I adore when it's hot outside. Pale salmon color, gentle flavors of watermelon and strawberry, and balanced acidity. Very delicate mouthfeel and a quick finish. Don't keep this one too cold but when properly chilled it is magic. Highly recommended.

2012 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir
Sonoma Coast, California
100% Pinot Noir
$60, 14.2% abv.
279 Cases Produced

Tart wild strawberry notes with hints of flowers and a little earth. On the palate it shows firm acidity and full, supple Pinot Noir flavors of berries and French oak. Quite good with the veal chop and a wine that should continue to improve over the next couple of years.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

10 June 2014

#WorkWonders with Microsoft Office 365

This is what an industry or press tasting often looks like. A lot of times you have a dozen glasses in front of you, plus a water glass and a spit cup. (Keeping the rhythm of spitting into one and drinking from two others while listening to lectures and taking notes is the most important skill in wine tasting. Getting them mixed up is a Bad Thing.) And this layout is before the bottles hit the table. You've got a writer to the left and right of you as well as across from you, and there is precious little real estate to hold a notebook, laptop, DSLR camera, and other equipment--much less the folders of notes and promotional material that you've been handed.

I was a late convert to the smart phone revolution, but I've really enjoyed using Microsoft OneNote to take wine notes during these events. It's the way that I Work Wonders on the road. I can take photos, scribble notes, link to websites, and have a great set of stream-of-consciousness pieces that I can later decipher back in the hotel room and convert into useful and legible prose. And better yet, I only have to keep track of a single phone, not a backpack's load of gadgets and notepads. I've done these tastings both ways and I know which one I prefer, particularly when you're shuffling around to a half dozen of these in a single day.

Technology is often seen as an impersonal, isolating force, but using apps like OneNote on a smart phone actually facilitate socialization. In these environments, my head is not buried behind a laptop screen. If I get tired of typing I can record audio instead. As I meet new people, we can exchange contact information and weeks later I can easily get in touch with someone halfway around the world without having to make sure I didn't lose his business card... which I don't have to keep, because I can take a photo of it in OneNote and append some information about the particular wines we tasted.

I'm running a little contest for my readers. The randomly-chosen winner will receive prize donated by Microsoft: a one-year subscription for Office 365 Home ($99). Tell me how you have "worked wonders" with Microsoft applications, whether it was doing your first Christmas letter mail merge in Word or using Excel to track your daughter's Girl Scout cookie sales. Either leave a comment here or on Twitter, using @benitowine and #workwonders in your entry. The winner will be drawn in a week!

No special rules or restrictions, except that family members and employees of Benito's Wine Reviews are not eligible.

Note: Evaluation of this software was enabled by participation in the Microsoft Office 365 advocacy program, though there was no payment involved. Access to the various programs was provided for free, but the opinions are my own.

09 June 2014


People often ask why I don't review more French wines. I love French wines, particularly from the obscure regions. But I mostly taste and write about the wines that I receive as samples, and not that many French bottles arrive on my door step.

Recently I got a chance to participate in an online tasting of three great bottles from Chablis. The white wines from this region are made from Chardonnay, the world's most popular white wine grape. Sure, I can grab a Chard from Australia or California or South Africa or even Italy, but why is Chablis special? Why does that region have a unique character? It all comes down to terroir.

Sample kits often arrive with bits and bobs of collateral material--pamphlets and maps and corkscrews. But I was really excited by this keychain attached to a chunk of rock from Chablis. This is Kimmeridgian clay, limestone, and lots of shells from the tiny Exogyra virgula oyster that lived 150 million years ago.

I have no idea what creature ate those oysters, or if they merely lived and died on the ocean floor. I wonder if any of my leftover oyster shells will end up on some keychain 150 million years from now, when alien geologists are digging around the remnants of what used to be Memphis.

This type of soil is used for the Premier and Grand Crus, which are the second and third wines listed. The first is an AOC Chablis, and we didn't taste the lower tier Petit Chablis, though those wines can be fantastic bargains.

2011 Chablis La Chablisienne La Pierrelée
100% Chardonnay
$20, 12.5% abv.

The first wine we opened was light and mild with a recognizable Chardonnay aroma. On the palate there is a touch of lemon and a slightly mineral finish. Great for salads and appetizers.

2011 Chablis 1er Cru Montmains, William Fèvre
100% Chardonnay
$45, 12.5% abv.

This bottle showed a floral nose with touches of earth. The oak is more pronounced, with a little vanilla and a firmer body. I found myself with a strong craving for crêpes filled with béchamel sauce and mushrooms.

2011 Chablis Grand Cru Les Clos, Domaine Christian Moreau
100% Chardonnay
$80, 13% abv.

This remarkable wine had a mild honey aroma with a little wet stone. Despite the sweet smell, the wine was bone dry and had the strongest minerality of the three. It was delightful and one that should be enjoyed when you have the time to properly appreciate it. And in honor of the soil, I'd suggest breaking out the oysters.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

06 June 2014

1999 Artéis & Co. Champagne Brut

I have an interesting relationship with the sparkling wines of the world. I pop a bottle of bubbly at least once a week, but most of those are relatively inexpensive Italian Proseccos or Spanish Cavas or domestic versions that are crisp, tasty, and absolutely perfect with things like potato chips, fried chicken, and popcorn. You don't have to save them for a special occasion, and they're meant to be enjoyed like that in a casual fashion.

True Champagne is a different beast, and I give particular attention to two subcategories: grower and vintage. Grower Champagnes are small lot wines that reflect the character of the individual farmer who provides grapes for the great houses of the region. Vintage Champagnes can come from either small or large producers but represent a specific year rather than the blending that is typically done to produce a reliable and consistent house style.

The label was designed by the Swedish-Portuguese graffiti artist André Saraiva, though the restrained layout is not terribly representative of his work.

1999 Artéis & Co. Champagne Brut
4,510 Bottles Produced
$50, 12% abv.

I'm going to note that the price listed is the release price, and I've seen it listed at $100+. Also, quantities are limited and it may be somewhat difficult to find. But while I had a distinguished and delicious bottle of fine wine in my regular wine glass (better for the good stuff than a flute), I shucked a dozen oysters and prepared myself for a sybaritic afternoon meal. Yes, the pairing was magical, and I'll give some more tasting notes in a moment.

I typically don't give the full tech notes of a wine that I try, but just for kicks here are all of the details for those who appreciate premium Champagne and know a bit about winemaking. Why are there two different Chardonnays? Different terroir.

40% Chardonnay Chouilly – Grand Cru (Côte des Blancs)
40% Chardonnay Vertus – Premier Cru (Côte des Blancs)
10% Pinot Noir Vertus – Premier Cru (Côte des Blancs)
10% Pinot Meunier Congy

40% Grand Cru
50% Premier Cru

Dosage: 4 g/liter
Aging: 12 years (tirage in March 2000)
Disgorged in May 2013
Aging after disgorgement: 4 months

Now on to the tasting. It is a complex wine that should be considered carefully. The nose starts out with aromas of honey, green apples, and a touch of white raisins. In the glass it shows a beautiful golden color, with small bubbles. Great balanced acidity with a crisp mouthfeel and a finish that positively melts on your tongue. I could not have picked a better dish for pairing (although I am sure that there are cheese matches out there that would surpass my humble bivalves).

This is not the kind of wine you drink every day, and with less than 5,000 bottles produced, not many are going to be able to. But if you get the opportunity, be sure to enjoy this wine in the proper company, at the right time, and with the best food possible.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review.

04 June 2014

NV La Marca Prosecco

In my last post, I talked about pairing a California Zinfandel with BBQ. And in that case, I'm referring to the standard pork shoulder or ribs, smoked and served with a savory-sweet sauce. In Texas, beef is king and while we have native antipathy towards the infidels, I have to admit that brisket done well is quite good.

However, what is often missed in the various competitions and TV shows is how much smoked chicken and other goodies show up on Southern picnic tables. Steamed corn wrapped in foil, grilled summer squash, skewers of shrimp... So many of these foods cry out for a white wine, particularly one that is served cold. Here's where I like to break out Prosecco, Italy's casual, affordable sparkling wine from the north.

In addition to its role as a fun "grape soda" for the outdoor party, Prosecco is perfect for making sparkling wine cocktails like the Mimosa or Bellini. At the price, it's worth it to pick up a half case and play around with different combinations.

NV La Marca Prosecco
DOC Veneto
100% Glera
$15, 11.3% abv.

Dry and crisp with a splash of lemony acidity. Earthy and floral notes are barely present on the nose, making this wine an interesting one to sip. Tiny bubbles and good overall balance, something to be enjoyed in a bargain Prosecco.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review.

02 June 2014

2012 Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel

Summer is here, but it doesn't mean that you have to pack away the red wines quite yet. The classic pairing for the BBQ is California Zinfandel, though I've got a lot of other thoughts on the matter. However, sometimes traditions are there for a reason, and it's a style that works well with both flame and smoke applied to meat outdoors. (The classic grilling vs. barbecue argument that is reaching levels of conflict not seen since the Thirty Years' War. While I understand the distinction, I have no problem with the generic term BBQ as applied to food cooked outside involving fire.)

I appreciate the combination when the food is served indoors. If I'm outside during a hot Memphis summer, I prefer iced tea or a light white or dry rosé served well-chilled. At a recent cookout I was sipping Vinho Verde with smoked brisket, because sometimes, it's just too damned hot to be drinking red wine with dinner out in the sun.

This particular bottle of Sonoma Zin comes from Rancho Zabaco, who offer four different bottles with varying levels of specific grape origin.

2012 Rancho Zabaco Zinfandel
Sonoma, California
93% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah
$15, 14.88% abv.

Classic aromas of black plum and leather. Even without decanting the wine shows mild tannins, a round mouthfeel, and a short finish. Good balance with great dark fruit flavors that should hold up well against that slow-smoked pork and molasses-based sauce.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review.