Category Archives: What We’re Drinking

Off the Beaten Path: Spanish Finos

Leaving Madrid on a Southbound train, Europe’s highest capital city scales down to scattered suburbs before disappearing entirely. Olive trees step in and take the place of buildings. Beautiful and then monotonous, the scenery is one continuous stream of thousands of olive trees on thousands of white rolling hills. My recent trip to Spain lasted only nine days, just enough time for me to explore Andalucia’s historical treasures and discover the Montilla-Moriles wine region, located 30 km south of Cordoba.

Cordoba itself is famous for its rich history as a Roman city and then a Moorish capital until its reconquest by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1236. Hundreds of years of Moorish rule produced the architectural jewel, the Mezquita. Recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site, the Mezquita is a rare architectural example of two of the worlds greatest religions occupying the same space and time. A single visit allows one to see a 8th century mosque and a 13th century cathedral. Moving to say the least and a bit like meeting a celebrity for history buffs like me.

As usually happens wherever Roman roads lead, vineyards follow. Less famous than it’s popular big brother, Jerez, the Montilla-Moriles region is a collection of small towns connected by the swathes of olive trees and vineyards. The earth here is poor in organic nutrients but high in calcium carbonate, a result of a rich concentration of ancient seashells. In fact, if one looks closely at Cordoba’s many city walls, one see’s hundreds of fino picintact seashells. Calcium carbonate helps retain moisture in this hot, arid region.

First a bit about the word "Sherry." I bring this up because one finds wines from Montilla-Moriles labeled as "Sherries" at restaurants or wine shops. Like "Champagne," true "Sherry" comes only from Jerez region. Jerez employs the Solera process for making its famed wines. Now zip over to Montilla-Morilles which also employs the Solera process. Using similar techniques produces similar wines, these similarities cause them to be lumped together into the "Sherry" category. There are many types of "sherries" but the one explained here is the Fino. Difficult to find and underappreciated, the Fino has escaped the notice of the American market. However, these wonderful wines can forever change one’s notion of what wine tastes like. These are delicate, dry wines, lacking fruity aromas. Instead they display salty and nutty aromas. Fino’s are incredibly popular in Spain and enjoyed with or without food. Given their rarity, I was extremely pleased to find a little time to explore at least one Bodega and see the Fino winemaking process in-person.

We arrived in the white-walled town of Montilla without any plan, map or reservation, risky in a region that enjoys very long siestas. Thankfully, the city provided signs pointing the way to its many Bodegas. We attempted to find the tourist station but gave up after seeing so many signs pointing the way. Getting a bit lost landed us at the door steps of Bodegas Cruz-Conde.

Our guide explained that, unlike Jerez, where the primary grape is the Palomino grape, here the primary grape, Pedro Ximenez, serves as the base for all for all of its wines. While Jerez is situated near the Atlantic, Montilla is about 5 hours inland and experiences very hot and dry conditions. This desert climate relies on a high concentration of calcium carbonate to maintain soil moisture. The vines here are not trellised and grow small and gnarled. With pride, our guide told us that grapes grown here ripen fully in the intense heat and consequently achieve higher sugar levels. This is critical because higher sugar levels allow for higher alcohol levels. So high, in fact, that these wines are not fortified at all at reach and reach fifteen-percent alcohol! This is huge difference from Jerez wines because, in Jerez, the grapes are unable to reach high sugar levels and must be fortified with brandy to increase the alcohol content to roughly fifteen-percent. Consequently, wines from Montilla-Moriles exhibit much lighter bodies and more delicate and subtle aromas.

We were guided into the wine cellar where the wine is barrel aged after fermentation. The barrels were stacked in layers up to 4 barrels high (and go higher where space permits). The ground level layer of barrels is called the "Solera" and derives from the the word "suelo" meaning "floor". The layers stacked on top are the crianzas. The Solera level barrels contain the oldest wine, the next layer up contains slightly younger wine, and so on with each layer. Logically, the youngest wine is found in the barrels stacked at the very top. Wine for bottling is taken from the solera level barrels (the oldest wine) and replenished with wine from the barrels immediately above them (slightly younger wine). Those barrels in turn are replenished with yet younger wine from the barrels stacked on top of them. Thus, younger wine is constantly filtering down to the solera level barrels. Complicated and labor intensive? You bet, but this process allows for uniformity and constant vintage blending. As a visual learner, I really needed to see it in person to appreciate the process. While traditionally unique to Spain (and a handful of other places in Europe), the use of a Solera to blend wine is now appearing in the New World.

But the real magic happens inside the barrel during the blending process. The barrels are only partially filled, creating a large air space. Within that airspace yeast thrives and creates a yellowish veil of "flor" over the surface of the wine. The flor simultaneously shields the wine from the air and imparts the major nutty and salty aromas present in these wines.

So what the heck does a "veil" of yeast on wine look like? Well, thankfully, our guide was ready with a glass-walled barrel so that we could see inside a barrel. Yup, it looks like a layer of yellow muck floating on the wine. Delicious.

So how about a barrel tasting? Because the flor layer protects the wine from the surrounding air, our guide explained, it is critical that the flor be disturbed as little as possible so that once the layer is broken and wine collected, the flor can immediately close over the hole and prevent bacteria from contaminating the wine. To do this our guide showed us a "venencia." The long flexible handle is made of baleen and at the end is a narrow cup (narrow to make a only a tiny hole in the flor). Our guide lined the venenzia up as straight as possible and dipped in and out quickly, then swung the venencia up high and poured its contents into the glass. I took a photo of myself pretending to do the same.

I took a sip and was so pleased to find the characteristic bone-dry, nutty, salty air qualities that make Fino’s so special and unique. These wines may not sound like a wine you might enjoy, but they have a mouthwatering quality about them and unexpected food friendliness that keeps Fino lover’s scouring wine lists to find them.

Champagne style Prosecco?

ninoLast night I had the pleasure of tasting the Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco. Again. I previously opened it on Sunday evening for a few reasons. First, to entice my husband to do a few more “honey-dos” around the house after a very hectic weekend, and second, I was looking for a bubbly buzz. It was successful on both parts! Last night, I opened the remaining half bottle, which had been saved with my favorite Champagne stopper, while doing some computer work. This time, I was less concerned about my bubbly buzz and in-between typing really got to taste the wine.

Originating in the Veneto region of Italy, Prosecco is named for the grape from which it is produced, the wine it creates, and the DOC in Italy from which it hails. Prosecco is a delightful wine, typically made in the tank method, which is different from the method used for wines from Champagne, or the traditional method, as it's called. It shows lots of upfront fruit and usually lacks the typical characteristics common to Champagne and wines made in that style. The Nino Franco, however, is different… I still get the fruit aspect, but also with a lovely crisp, citrus background, with good bubble persistence and a nice, lingering finish. This is a delicious sparkling wine – it is Prosecco, but with an “I can be like Champagne, too” attitude. Good stuff. Enjoy. 

Rhônes that Rock

It’s Rhone month! For a few reasons – first, November is Rhône month for our wine clubs and we’ve been tasting some of the delicious wines cdr logogoing out in the club shipments and I promise, if you are a wine club member, you will be pleased. Second, it’s the time of year for Rhône wines. The cooler temperatures and the warm wines are an excellent pair. And finally, on a personal note, my mom just passed her Rhône Master Level exam through the French Wine Society – one of only 10 who received scores over 80%! So, in honor of our  wine club theme AND Mom, here are a few Rhônes that rock.

Côtes-du-Ventoux – A couple of our wines in the wine clubs this month are from the Cotes-du-Ventoux. And I’m officially a fan! I’ve tasted the La Vielle Ferme Cotes-du-Ventoux before and for $8, it's hard to beat. But after expanding my Ventoux repertoire, I get excited laVFerme about this region. A fairly large area situated on the east bank of the Rhône river, this is what I’d call and up-and-coming region, though they’ve been making wine there for centuries. I say up-and-coming because more merchants/producers in the Rhône getting this juice in bottles that are making it out of the country. The wines are similar to Côtes-du-Rhône – based on Grenache and blended with Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault (they also use Carignan here). Taste is similar to Côtes-du-Rhône wines as well, though the Ventoux wines are a bit fuller-bodied and seem richer on the palate – a bit more savory if you will. The majority of the wines here are red, though they do make some refreshing whites and some tasty rose. Delas, La Vielle Ferme and Chateau Pesquie – all are fantastic wines and values.

Vinsobres – A newly appointed “cru,” Vinsobres was upgraded from a Côtes-du-Rhône Villages to its own appellation in 2005. 50% Grenache is required in the blend. We tasted the Perrin & Fils Vinsobres Les Cornuds 2006 recently and it was excellent… Warm and inviting, dark red fruits, dried herbs, excellent balance of acid and tannin, long finish. What  you love about Rhône wines is in this bottle.

cos de nimes

Costières de Nîmes– Another “up-and-coming” region, this area is on the other side of the Rhône– the right bank. It’s making reds and whites, but what stand out to me are the delicious white blends from here. Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne – the usual suspects for making Rhône whites. But he ones I’ve tasted have a higher proportion of Roussanne, the delicate, highly aromatic grape of the region. This in turn leads to wonderfully aromatic wine with a full mouthfeel and lingering finish. Reds and rose wine are also great in these parts.

St. Joseph – St.Joseph, on the right bank of the Rhône River on the north side. 100% Syrah, making a wine with excellent structure. The ones I have tasted a bit less abrasive than the more edgy Cornas. These wines offer big, black fruits and lots of peppery spice, with an excellent tannic structure and a quite a finish. If you’re looking for something to pair with game, hearty stews or a hard cheese, these wines are a great match. Guigal makes excellent St.Joseph wines, but for value, try the Delas or the St. Cosme.


Interested in learning more about the Rhone? Visit

Tasting the Kenwood Artist Series

Last night I had the pleasure of tasting the 2004 Kenwood Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon. Excellent wine. Excellent story.

The Story Behind the Wine:  Each year, a different artist draws the label for Kenwood’s Artist Series, hence the name Artist Series. For the 2004 vintage, a man named Shepard Fairey kenwood labelwas chosen to draw the label. You may recognize the name – Fairey is the man responsible for taking an existing photo of Barack Obama and putting it in color, creating the iconic HOPE poster that became synonymous with the campaign. He is hailed as one of the most influential “street artists” of our time. The label he created for the Artist Series portrays a “Peace Woman.” Says Kenwood, “the "Peace Woman" is a symbolic representation of the peaceful, nurturing side of humanity. Fairey feels that the female trait of empathy should be embraced to maintain a balanced society.” Sounds good to me! 

The Wine: The 2004 marks the 30th release of the Artist Series from Kenwood, which is a blend of the best lots of Cabernet Sauvignon from the vintage, with 3% of Malbec mixed into the blend this year. Almost 80% of the grapes hail from Sonoma Valley, the remainder coming from Dry Creek Valley. The wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and receives 30 months of barrel aging. It hangs out in bottle another year and a half before release. Those are the technical details, now for the taste.

Deep garnet color, with concentrated ripe blackberry, current and some vanilla on the nose. While rich normally describes texture and mouthfeel, I couldn’t help but want to label the aromas as rich. Kind of like blackberry pie. Drinking it confirmed all in the nose, as well as a touch of cedar. Tannins were ripe and silky and the finish lingering. Good structure and intense, but not one I’d throw in the cellar for very long. Everything was so silky smooth already, I didn’t get that extra kick behind the structure that suggests improvement with significant cellar age. Though it could easily withstand a few more years in the cellar, I don’t know how much it would change, or if I would like it better after cellar evolution. Which is not necessarily a bad thing! It’s a drink-it-now style of Cabernet. And it paired great with my steak.

6th Annual Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries Event

09100 wineries plus one 110-pound woman equals one enormous challenge.  Wednesday night oenophiles packed the Galleria at the San Francisco Design Center for the 6th Annual Wine & Spirits Top 100 Wineries event.  I wish I could say I tried everything, but with so many wines, I am ashamed to say that I only scratched the surface.  But, if anyone has ever had crème brûlée, the surface can be pretty sweet.
The event was in full swing by the time I arrived and grabbed my Riedel glass. I swiped a map of the layout and planned my attack.  Knowing that time and body weight, rather than gusto, were going to be my limitations, I decided to try two of every category.  I was able to stick with that plan, more or less, and leave the place sober and content.  Luckily, t he wineries were arranged by category and each category arranged in a logical tasting order.  

One unexpected highlight was disgorging my own bottle of sparkling wine. Movia’s winemaker Alec Kristancic was on hand to show me how.  Movia’s Puro sparkler comes with the lees still in the bottle, so upside down storage is necessary.  I was a bit nervous for my fellow attendees and not sure they knew what I was doing, I sure didn’t.  But all projectiles landed safely in a water bucket and I spilled only a little bit (ok, ok, I did spill some on the table).  I am not sure how I would do this at home because he uses a special tool to rest the cork in while you turn the upside-down bottle slowly.  Once it pops you quickly turn the bottle upright and there you have it!  

In the interests of time and space here are my favorites in several categories:

Sparkling: Schloss Gobelsberg NV Brut Reserve (Austria)

Not only do they make phenomenal Gruner Veltliner still wines, but they also make this sparkling wine made by the traditional méthode champenoise, complete with hand riddling.  The wine is made from 70% Gruner Veltliner and accompanied by Pinot Noir and Riesling.  Subtle aromas of crushed stones and slight citrus notes preceded a disarmingly smooth mouth-feel.

Crisp Whites
: Boutari Santorini 2008 (Greece)

Made with 100% Assyrtiko, Boutari’s Santorini is a steal at around $20.  I really enjoyed the unique aroma.  The rep hit the nail on the head and pinned down the aroma as that of oxidized fruit.  Think of the aroma of an apple or pear that’s been sliced and left out in the air.  I didn’t find it particularly acidic or crisp, but then again, I think it was served a bit warm.  At a cooler temperature I think the acidity would have jumped out a bit more.

Rich Whites
: E. Guigal Condrieu 2007 (France)

This wine does not need any alcohol to be intoxicating. Honeysuckle, orange blossoms and a hint of spiced bread predominated. Weighty without being heavy handed, it’s a luxurious wine.

Pinot Noir
: Louis Jadot Corton-Grèves Grand Cru 2007 (France)

One winemaker for 150 labels?  Yes, Jacques Lardière has the privilege of this Herculean task.  His rep at the event said he exudes energy and passion.  She described how at harvest he is a man possessed and even over the telephone she can hear his anxiousness to get off the phone and get back to work.  And what a marvelous fruit his labor bore. Possessing a gorgeous ruby red color, aromas of tart red fruit and the subtle scent of smoke and cloves hovering in the background. Good thing for Jacques, at the end of his work, he created something worthy of quite contemplation.

Rhone Family
: Delas-Frères Hermitage Marquise de la Tourette 2005 (France)

Hermitage truly is a beast and I mean that as a compliment.   Spicy, tannic and just plain immense, this wine should really come in a bigger bottle.  Black fruit and pepper lead the way to long and sumptuous finish.

Cabernet Family
Henschke Eden Valley Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Australia)

This was a bit of a preview, as the wine is not yet available.  A phenomenal year for Australian wines, Eden Valley is more known for Riesling than Cabernet.  This particular hillside is planted with old vine Cabernet and small strips of Cabernet Franc and Merlot for blending.  Cassis and pitted black fruit aromas prevailed. Most impressive was the mouth-feel, walking the razor thin edge between elegance and tannic, cellar worthy structure, I loved every second of it.  
Runner-up: Ridge Monte Bello 2005:  Straight-forward and precise.

: Niepoort 1991 Porto Colheita (Portugal)

Simply delightful.  This wine was the life of the party and conveniently located next to the Brix Chocolate table.  Bright red fruit flavors melted away into a rich consistency.  

Sherry: Lustau Jerez-Xérès-Palo Cortado VOS 20 (Spain)

This dry sherry made me wonder why it’s so hard to find them.  Complex and refined, with incredible depth of color and flavor.  It reminded me of the smell of the ocean and perhaps some toasted hazelnuts.