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Sometimes I wish I spoke French. My ears are drawn to that language as I am currently in a French rut, riffling through Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg albums in heavy rotation, while not understanding a word, trying desperately to get my fix. I have also tasted a lot of French wine lately, in particular, adoring the Loire Valley whites that have been transported across shores to shelf to my glass. It was no surprise then that I looked forward to the Loire Valley themed tasting that one of the member’s from my group was hosting to invite more palate exposure to the wines that had me enraptured.

Arriving at 7 p.m. (in hopes of not letting the tasting run too late) to a beautiful home off Melrose, we quickly shuffled in and unsheathed our white wines from the paper totes. We were being treated to an ambitious menu, pairing two to three wines per course, beginning with creamy potato and leek soup, chilled aspargus with vinaigrette and eggs mimosa and finishing the meal with salmon and sorrel Troigros (a strained cream sauce cooked with mushrooms, shallots and sorrel).

We gathered around the table in the outdoor patio catching an hour’s worth of fleeting daylight to start the dinner and the tasting.

We went through these wines:

2007 Damien Laureau  Les Genêts Savennières

2009 Lucien Crochet Sancerre La Croix du Roi

2010 Domaine Daulny Sancerre

2010 Domaine de Saint Pierre Sancerre

2010 Domaine de la Noblaie Chinon Blanc

2008 Domaine Le Captaine Vouvray Demi Sec

2008 Château de l’Eperonniere Savennières

The wines, for the most part, were fresh and crisp, opening with the Chinon blanc that primed our palates for the first course of soup and the following wines. We had the soup that was absolutely phenomenal—no cream, strictly vegetables—partnered with the Domaine Daulny Sancerre that had well balanced components that lifted the wine and the soup to the next level of excellence. The other wine/soup duo—Ch. L’Eperonniere Savennières with our soup, showed better on its own. The medium bodied Chenin Blanc had a distinct fragrance of nuts and the brine of olives, with notes of butterscotch, nuts and green apple in the mouth. The wine was unique and had finesse; its deep flavors intrigued me to no end (the favorite wine of the evening for me).

We continued to the second course, selecting two wines from the pool that might best compliment the egg mimosa and the aspargus (enemy of most wines!). It turned out that another Sancerre—Domaine de Saint Pierre Sancerre—was the key to avoiding the tininess one tastes after mixing wine with asparagus. It was a nice moment in pairing (and I might make use of it when I become a Sommelier) but the apex of the evening and dining experience was reserved for the final course.

Our chef darted for the kitchen after we had cleared our plates, making haste to plate the last entrée.

The salmon came crust up, upon a pale colored sauce, making it a rigorous exam for the final few wines to preserve the flavors in the creamy broth while having enough oomph to carry the salmon and cleanse our palates. The skin was flaky and crisp and downright delicious on its own, the sauce was light and delicate with balanced flavors of mushroom and shallots. The Savennières from Damien Laureau was first, resembling the earlier Savennières with nutty and almost Sherry like esters on the nose but a lighter style that did not mesh perfectly with the salmon while the Lucien Crochet Sancerre paired better in contrast.

I learned a lot about the wide range of Chenin Blanc, from a nuttier, deep and oxidative profile to an off-dry approach with more fruit preservation, Chenin Blanc could do a lot (we didn’t even have a crémant). Meanwhile my appreciation for the food pairing sensibilities of Sancerre were left unscathed—a miraculously clean and mineral-driven expression of Sauvignon Blanc—that could pair with a gamut of cuisine. Afterwards, many lively conversations ensued, dessert was served and I was happy to call the night quits with the Loire Valley having shown me its fullest potential, thinking about the Savennières while listening to Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Histoire de Melody Nelson on my drive back home.

Another session with my tasting group, this time a different cross-section of people banded together, intent on imbibing Bordeaux and, to avoid overkill (as happened in the previous tasting), the host allowed his guests some wiggle room—bringing Bordeaux blends from outside the purview of France from his home in Venice. Our magnanimous host Ari had lent his apartment for the tasting and prepared a Bolognese sauce to cover the handmade pasta he fashioned earlier du jour to compliment the wines in the set when the dinner bell would toll. Trending now: Big reds, sumptuous feasts and furthering a countdown to five hundred, all in luxurious style.

We arrived around 7:30; the environment was small, warm and relatively cozy and the sun was beginning to set—the heat would dissipate soon enough. When we sat down we were the guinea pigs in a blind tasting, consisting of four wines, where we would use deductive reasoning to figure out the mystery wines decanted before us. With a little bit of leading from Ari, we were able to pin the first wine down to two different varietals but ultimately guessed the wrong grape. The Gewürztraminer Grundloch Bundschu (#217) showed itself after being exposed, but what was most surprising was that the wine was in a new world guise, California to be exact. The following taste test (#216) in our sensory exam became a little more difficult to identify. The cross of gold and straw coloring, mixed with the scents of juiced lemons and green peas lead me to think Sauvignon Blanc but the bitter finish threw me off the trail; I doubted myself. It happened to be a bottle of Sybarite Sauvignon Blanc from Margerum. The third wine (#215), was solved in a sniff, detecting some dried spices, olives and meats, clearly an indication of Syrah… and as for the New World guess it just seemed fitting—not so much like the St. Joseph I had had a few months earlier. The fourth and final blind tasting followed suit, a Pinot Noir (#214) that was unmistakable (but I did not peg the winery) from Sarapo Family Wines dubbed Donato from Carneros.

Our buds had gained consciousness and the tasting was under way; we began our expedition with a seven-fifty of 2006  Château de Candale from St. Emilion (#213). The deep coloring was a blend of ruby and garnet shades equipped with a medium intense perfume, redolent of blueberries, rhubarb and strawberry compote that translated on the palate with some character, moderate-plus acidity and a medium finish of fruit.

We transitioned into our second wine of the set, a 2006  Château Coutet (#212) also from St. Emilion, another blend heavy with Merlot, followed by Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The wine was not as extracted, yielding a medium color depth that hinted more towards garnet with dried cedar and blackberries on the nose. In the mouth the Ch. Coutet had fairly drying tannins, medium body, moderate acidity and a little shorter finish than it’s fellow paysan.

We segued into Happy Canyon—an AVA of Santa Barbara—to taste a bottle of 2008 Piocho (#211) by Happy Canyon Vineyards. The garnet wine gave off aromas of wood spice—vanilla—cinnamon, leather and blueberry but on the buds it was rather jammy with a prevalent dose of berry lingering on the palate but not much acid or anything to give it finesse.

The last wine of the group was from Israel; the 2008 Petit Castel (#210), a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Malbec that showed a nice concentration of color in the glass with a whiff of dark fruits, lots of cedar and some asparagus. With an intriguing nose I was hoping for a better finish but instead I got a lot of alcohol out of the wine, which was hard to overlook. The reputation of Domaine du Castel still remains untarnished.

After tasting through nine wines we broke for dinner. We had our gracious host prepare each person’s order of hand made pasta to their tooth. The personal touch was well received and Ari’s pasta and Bolognese were delectable. We ended the dinner and tasting with a little gift from Ari, he popped open a three seventy-five of 2005  Château La Tour Blanche (#210). With its golden coloring, the rich Sauterne gave off luscious odors of honeydew, cantaloupe, honeysuckle and some apricots. The same flavors were present on the palate with a little bit of oak and that long finish was really a great note to leave on, wrapping up another outstanding group event. Not quite a full-fledged voluptuary but I am definitely relishing these tastings.

My first documented professional tasting happened almost two weeks ago, and though I am falling behind in chronicling my tasting adventures I have to say I can remember it vividly. Not too long ago I was invited to my first trade tasting that I would blog, by a former colleague from WFM; it was an event that I very much looked forward to attending.

Held at Hatfield’s—a restaurant with a great pedigree—the smaller, upscale event would be a departure from some of the bigger trade tastings I had already attended in the year. Hatfield’s was hosting a German and Austrian tasting provided under the auspices of Wine Wise.

The venue fostered a different vibe; the gathering was smaller—not exclusive—but more intimate, good for discussing the wines with fellow buyers and not one person was rushed or unprofessional, unlike some of the larger tastings (getting shoved or elbowed out of the way for the last taste of Sauternes…happened!). Refreshing. While the gathering was more personable and petite, the wines were ample; over 150 different bottles were available to taste. Just a note, if I included these tastings into my ‘Count’, I would have been done already, arriving at the checkered flag of my Road-to-500 about three weeks ago. Why don’t I count them? I am going to rationalize my behavior by stating that these events, though valuable—in an educational sense—would be cheating form a story-telling perspective. Even if I could type up all the tasting notes from over a hundred wines, no matter how onerous, it would be unfair to most of the wines. Any mass tastings, including a large number of the wines I tasted at the Wine Wise event, deserve more than a technical breakdown—perhaps a novella each. Sixteen wines (as in the most I ever reviewed in my wine class) were pushing it, but I did pay for the class and the wines indirectly, so I guess I feel that those wines that I purchased (in whatever capacity) are to be reflected in the countdown. On to the marquee bout.

The spotlight was beaming lustrously on Rieslings from Germany and Austria but the showcase was not strictly on high acid white wines…, there were reds too, plenty of Zweigelt from Austria. Wine Wise—a distributor that represents the brilliant selections of Terry Theise—was showcasing a bounty of gems from the legendary importer’s portfolio. The wines were submerged in tubs of ice, a wide array of producers positioned in stations, kabinett, auslese, spätlese and trocken were there for the taking. Those terms (besides being difficult to pronounce until acquainted) signify varying degrees of ripeness for the Riesling grapes.

I shoots & laddered my way through the tables, beginning the tasting incredibly nervous; I poured my first wine* into my spit cup (luckily, it hadn’t been used) but quickly overcame my nerves as I rounded the second table. The acidity in the first few wines revved up my taste buds and I was ready to evaluate at that point. I made my way through the tables, tasting in order, trusting there was some logic behind the architecting of one’s passage through the maze. At every table stood exciting wines and after each sip, I would swoosh the liquid vigorously around my mouth and make an evaluation—basically, scribble my notes in a very small scrawl on the paper provided—based on the brightness of the wine, the residual sugar, the flavors (minerals with a squeeze of lime or dried apricots and other stone fruits…) and the way the wine left an imprint on my palate (the finish). There were some deadly gorgeous wines, lithe acidity and a serious persistence of fruit lingering on the tongue. It would be really painful for me to expound upon 50+ wines of merit, parsing that many notables out of the 120 I tasted but, I will list a few that wowed me:

Joh. Jos Christoffel Erdener Treppchen Riesling Spätlese

Merkelbach Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling BA

Kruger-Rumpf Münsterer Rheinberg Riesling Kabinett

Döhnnhoff Norheimer Kirschheck Rielsing Spätlese

Döhnnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese

Dr. Deinhard Ruppertsberger Reiterpfad Riesling Kabinett

Leitz Rüdesgeuner Klosterlay Riesling Kabinett

Selbach-Oster Graacher Domprobst Riesling Spätlese

Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnernuhr Riesling ”Rotlay”

There were too many Rieslings that I enjoyed, the notes and bouquets were varied and came in different degrees of complexity. What I can tell you honestly is that a measured dose of residual sugar really chimes well with my palate.

After sipping through an endless trove of delicious Riesling and Grüner Veltliner I was not really prepared to sample the red wines, even after a time out, where I casually grabbed a handful of halved figs and grapes (not the ideal palate cleanser but certainly emblematic of summer) and slugged some water. I tried to transition flawlessly into the Austrian red wines but the oak—no matter how faint—really upset my palate. Tastes of meat and wood went wild on my tongue and I was ready to kind of wrap up. After nearly an hour and a half of tasting sumptuous white wines from Austria and Germany, the reds jarred me. I couldn’t get past it and so I was back to enjoying the white wines before calling it quits.

A fraction over two hours and I had tasted over 120 wines, not swallowing more than two full glasses during that time because the emphasis is on introduction and assessment and it would be extremely arduous, simply impossible, to evaluate any wines while intoxicated. I was able to thank my representative for inviting me and talk to a few people before exiting on that warm Thursday. I was sad to think that Rieslings were a tough sell after leaving Hatfield’s and had the privilege of tasting so many of these exemplary wines. I had a realization—not an epiphany—while driving back to the Westside that many people who deny themselves the pleasure of German Rieslings because they are “too sweet” are closing the door on an incredibly exciting varietal, one that can partner with a montage of fantastic foods. This is a challenge to whomever reads this (and may not already be smitten with the zesty grape): Please seek out Rieslings. They deserve your interest.

* Something I was unaccustomed to doing during this encounter, was pouring my own wines. It quickly appealed to me, as I could be as judicious as I wanted, or, perform my own tasting experiments, trying certain standouts side by side and just revisiting wines.

Last week in Downtown LA, with my tasting group, we focused exclusively on Bordeaux for under thirty-five dollars. Nine wines were served in addition to a cache of empanadas, a large tortilla (an egg, potato and vegetable frittata), cheese and olives to tide us over while we sampled a fair smattering of wines from both banks of Bordeaux (the region separated by the Gironde estuary and the Dordogne river), the accompaniment to an Argentine repast.

We were underway by 7:30 p.m., waiting for our last members to carry in, each toting a different bottle that would need to be assessed—to the best of our ability—for purposes of establishing a tasting order. Tasting the wines in a reasonable order gives each wine roughly the same opportunity to show well, no jarring tannins to be followed by the lightest bodied of the bunch—we wanted to give no wine a leg up or diminish any showing of the wines. After our group methodically plotted the tasting we casually sipped ‘n spat through the pride of Bordeaux (in this order):

04 Ch. Saint-Valéry St. Emilion Grand Cru

05 Ch. Faizeau St. Emilion

07 Ch. Moulin St.-Georges St. Emiliion Grand Cru Classé

05 Ch. Carbonnieux Grand Cru Classé Graves

07 Ch. Beaumont Haut-Médoc

06 Ch. Saint-Hilaire Médoc Cru Bourgeois

05 Ch. La Tour Carnet Haut-Médoc

03 Ch. Cambon La Pelouse Haut- Médoc

03 Ch. Potensac Médoc

During the sampling we came up with descriptors that I had never heard before like the Ch. La Tour Carnet having a fragrance of bruised apple and an elegant mouth feel too. Olives were frequently thrown out as well; people were ascribing all the varieties (Kalamatta to Empeltre) to a vast array of wines we sniffed. We were in a different environment, but I was not sure from whence these lively pastiches originated!

The 2003 Château Cambon La Pelouse had an intense scent leaping from the glass, a synthesis of earth and fruit detected, with an emphasis on dried cedar like the inserts from Allen Edmonds Shoes.

Apart from the fragrances, quite a few of the Bordeaux hit the mark. The 2005 Château Carbonnieux was probably tied for first with my taste buds. I was stumped by the closed odor but on the palate the wine came alive with notes of blue and black fruits—not too ripe—, leather and lavender. It was elegant and rich with a long persistent finish. That was the wine I sipped most frequently and chose with the meal.

The 2007 Château Saint-Valéry from St. Emilion was wonderful in a different way. The first wine of the night is always a tough spot to be, no mark is established and it is really a sensory exam because the tasters have not come to. This blend, predominantly of merlot, showed supple tannins (soft on the palate) with blueberry sprinkled lightly along with aromatic dried herbs. It showed favorably.

The Château Moulin St.-Georges had a moderate perfume of plums and potpourri and on the tongue it had great structure with drying tannins and good acidity and tasty doses of fruit.

Like listening to Kelly Stoltz’s “Prank Calls” for the first time (or the 25th), the tasting brought a smile to my face, where my proudly stained purple teeth were emblazoned for all to see. The Argentine food married nicely with the Bordeaux wines and before I knew it it was 11 p.m. and I was down to 220 wines in my countdown, leaving downtown and heading west with pleasant memories of Bordeaux.

I tend to have Tuesday nights open, and luckily for me they coincide with Palate Food + Wine’s Tuesday Jazz series where I can taste four wines for a meager ten dollar charge and experience some more inspired cuisine for a relatively low cost while being entertained by the Wine Director—Steve Goldun—performing on the bass with an assemblage of touring musicians. How come I do not make it out every Tuesday? I will tell you the real downfall for me is travelling to Glendale, the traffic is interminable and enough to make me weigh the fun that is in store at Palate against the gridlock. This time I decided to rough it, after being prodded by friends from wine class to attend (nice to be wanted), I gently fell like a domino and made the excursion east.

I caught up with my friends Tom and Liz at Palate, arriving deep into the set that promptly began around 8 p.m, catching a drum solo as I A.C Slatered my seat and joined them near the front of the house. They informed me that they were far into the four-flight of wines and they encouraged me to order quickly because they had already done so. Scanning the menu I opted for the grilled quail and the flight of Italian wines.

Everyone’s food arrived together, despite the fact that I had ordered well behind my party; and everything was plated beautifully. No indication of a rush. Tom had ordered the octopus with farm egg and Liz, more familiar with the cuisine and their proclivity for mastering anything Cochon, had the pork belly. The quail I had ordered wore its grill marks proudly. We divided the plates of food, family style; we cut into our respective meals and maneuvered the entrées to each other’s platters while respecting the flavors and integrity of the dishes by carefully distributing the portions in cordons.

As we began to eat, my flight of wine began; I was off the ground with a white wine from Campania—failed to grab the name of bottle number 233 (which will forever have an asterisk by it in this marathon ride to 500…may have to add a bottle to ensure purity when the Hall of Wine calls)—that was crisp and tropical, at least that was my experience. I transitioned into the red wines after the only white wine of the set (almost like an aperitif, though I would give it more credit, but I was in a hurry). The second glass was a 2008 Antichi Vinai Etna Rosso (#232) that was mildly tannic, moderate oak, failing to keep my attention as I was onto my third pour in no time, rushing the process to be caught up with my friends. That may have been a mistake because that was a pedigreed producer and a wine that deserved more careful analysis. Fortunately, my profession has sharpened my spot tasting skills and the alcohol was not an issue either.

Onto the 09 Scarpetta Barbera Monferrato (#231), that seemed to pair well with the quail and was delicious on its own. The wine had moderate acidity and good weight in the mouth, not overpowering the food. The final wine in the lineup was a 2006 Camigliano Brunello di Montalcino (#230) that had a tighter, less odorous nose but I was able to pick up a few rose petals and a little cherry. The last two wines really showed well in the set and elevated the dining experience (though the foods did not need much assistance).

The entrées stole the show; my first time tasting quail and it was excellent. Rich white meat that was grilled perfectly and far surpassed the expectation of “gamey” flavors that is always the first adjective for the unfamiliar domesticated fowl. My initial quail experience was eclipsed only by the pork belly that was best in show; the sauce that bathed the crispy vegetables and most likely braised the belly of the porc was savory and vibrant. The octopus on the other hand was okay but did not hit the mark for my taste receptors and the dessert failed to capture my enthusiasm (not what I was expecting for bread pudding), but overall I wasn’t disappointed with the quality or the price.

I see two things happening in the future, making the trek back to Glendale to eat and drink at Palate Food + Wine (even listen to the quality music whether live or recorded) and to eat quail again. I am also happy to report that last Tuesday brought me four wines closer to 500 (230 left) and an asterisk excuse to have one more.

I was bogged down, coursing through the books and lecture notes, studying furiously all the materials I had given little notice to during the semester when I got back from work. I decided it would be advantageous for me to study with someone from class and luckily that person had the same idea, texting me before I could get to the phone. We planned to rendezvous at my house because, well, it was convenient for me after finishing my long yet enjoyable shift in wine.

I was physically tired but mentally alert (sort of) when my buddy from class made it over. We promptly began studying; reviewing quizzes that we had taken in class and trying to stay au courant with the maps of Australia, Germany, China and anywhere else wine was made. Especially deliberate in mulling over the vinography of California, Oregon and Washington—homeland wine regions that we were expected to know well—and trying desperately to remember all the AVA’s and their place on the cartes.

After an hour’s worth of researching it was time to taste the first wine, taking the tasting portion of the exam seriously, I uncorked a less complex, more serviceable red wine from Corbières (#239 in the to-500-Countdown) by Domaine de Fontsainte, comprised of a majority of Carignan, Grenache Noir and Syrah. On the nose it had a moderately fragrant perfume of red fruits buried beneath the easier-to-detect wet soils and some light dried spices. It was smooth and spiced and a nice supplement to a cumulative review.

We got back into the swing, quizzing each other on specifics from the course like how many anbaugebiete (growing regions) are in Germany and their rank in the classification system as well as naming AVA’s in Idaho. After the esoteric upload, we began craving some interesting grub. My friend was also there for the Loire Valley tasting and we instantly knew that Melanne Thai would be our go-to-eats for the evening.

We studied more, until the food arrived, closing our collective MacBook Pros (very spoiled!) and began divvying up the spicy duck salad, Pad Thai and fried rice, including a portion for my roommate who was forced to stay quiet as we read aloud the files on the Moroccan wines and the most celebrated vineyard in the Bekaa Valley. Trivial?

When we readied our plates, I raided my cellar, yet again; to find the bottle that would best compliment the Thai food. In this case we looked beyond the large cluster of Riesling and called on the lychee rich notes of Trimbach Gewürztraminer (#238). It had the acidity to couple with the spiciness of the food.

The food hit the spot and the wine tied it together, we pressed on, chewing with our mouths open, as we had my roommate test us on even more information during the dinner, until finally we could recite rote responses without dwelling on the question. To put it mildly, the study session was enriching and extremely beneficial.

I nailed the final. The tasting portion of the exam was a breeze, even though I did not correctly identify the second wine in the set, a Cabernet Franc from Rosenthal Vineyards (#237) in Malibu. The first wine happened to be a Pinot Noir—2006 Campion from the Santa Lucia Highlands (#236)—that I could deduce from the transparent coloring of the liquid in the challis and the notes of red cherries, some dried herbs and eucalyptus that are so typical of the varietal.

It was satisfying to know that this course came to an end in a positive way, helping me rundown my count on 500 wines during the year and, act as a liaison between me and the rest of the world’s wine production. My wine horizons have expanded tenfold.

West Coast wines comprised the nexus of my last course (that I could attend) before the final exam. The discussion focused strictly on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington, brushing up on our geography skills and learning more specifics about the weather and soil composition of each AVA within the states. We opened up ten bottles in the course of three hours time, whittling my wines-left-to-taste to 241 before my deadline (year’s end) or preemptive thirst brings me victory.  Yep, it was a doozy.

We went through the specialties of each state like the massive amount of Pinot Gris produced in Oregon and the amount of quality Cabernet Sauvignon—I can personally attest to this—in Eastern Washington. Oregon’s Willamette Valley endures lengthy growing seasons, allowing demanding grapes like Pinot Noir to be coddled and matured slowly, producing wines with great success.  While in the Yakima Valley of Washington, large quantities of Chardonnay are being grown on the silt-loam soils, providing an excellent drainage system for the vines. There are many more varietals being planted in both states but those were some of the more indelible points of the lecture.

We spent the majority of the time in California, traipsing through the largely organically grown grapes in Mendocino continuing to Lake County before landing in more familiar terrain, my personal favorite, Sonoma County, and finally we dwelled upon the well-known AVA’s of Napa.

In the midst of all the lecturing, we tasted:

09 King Estate Pinot Gris

09 Cloudline Pinot Noir

09 Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen Eroica Riesling

02 Hogue Cabernet Sauvignon

06 William Selyem Pinot Noir

09 Husch Gewurtraminer

06 Terra d’ Oro Zinfandel

07 Rosenblum Vineyards Zinfandel “Harris”

09 Ah! Wines Fairplay Bebame Cabernet Franc

08 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc

The Pinot Gris from Oregon was okay, but that varietal tends to really bore me and so it became a transition wine, something to start the night. I am not the biggest fan of the Pinot Grigio/ Gris varietal, in part because it does not really express itself outwardly, not that I am looking for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc approach either, but the wine is just there, complacent to be light and carefree. Not on this prairie. I was ready to taste the Eroica Riesling from Washington State. The high acidity perked up my taste buds and the apples soaked in fresh limejuice lingered for a while after spitting the wine. It was everything I needed in a white wine and definitely met my expectations of Washington State Riesling.

Moving on to the red wines, we were lucky enough to taste a wine from our teacher’s collection—the William Seylem—with some bottle age. The pedigreed Pinot Noir was complex with esters of pomegranate, lavender and some red fruits wafting from the glass. In the mouth the wine was warm with low to medium acid, soft tannins and medium weight. The finish was long with little oak interference, just the natural expression of cranberry, dried strawberry and tea.

The Cabernet Franc heavy blend of “Bebame” was very green with cedar notes, some red fruit and bell pepper. It was earthy and fun. Then we tasted the Cabernet Franc from Lang & Reed which was much more herbaceous but still retaining the red cherry. Balanced, the tannins and structure of the wine were quality markers for the wine. It was a wonderful glass of wine to end the class.

I learned way more about California terroir than I thought I could—I only scratched the surface—yet, now, feel that I have a better understanding of the vast growing regions that comprise the Golden State. This class gave me a greater foundation to continue expanding my knowledge of Oregon and Washington too, surging beyond the Columbia and Willamette Valley into winemaking territories I never knew existed. I am ready for the frontier.

Discovering the Loire Valley has been a continually rewarding endeavor for me, I cannot think of the last time I have been disappointed by tasting a mineral driven Sancerre or spending some greenbacks on a vegetative Cabernet Franc from Chinon. The best part of buying these surefire wines is the ease on the billfold; red and whites that pair so well with an eclectic mix of foods like Pad Thai or seafood dishes and are able to do so at respectable prices. It would be easy for me to drink my way through the Northwest of France, pairing Muscadet with shellfish or a Bourgeil with braised veal shanks—an endless bounty of food and wine pairings—that would keep my taste buds and appetite stimulated. It is possible that I would exhaust my culinary prowess trying to keep the food ‘n wine matches fresh since the variety in the Loire is nothing short of amazing. It was with rapt regard for the Loire that I decided to throw a tasting event, in hopes of better acquainting myself with the intricacies of a terroir that deserved more appreciation.

I had a small group of friends over, each of which toted bottles of wine from various towns around the Loire River to be examined fully over a carry-out-Thai-meal. I procured a bottle of Clos Habert from Montlouis-Sur-Loire—100% Chenin Blanc from a town that is just south of Vouvray across the river. Other attendees brought an assortment of wines, those included:

05 Domain des Baumard Logis de La Giraudière, Anjour

04 Clos de Nouys Vouvray demi-sec

08 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon

07 Benoit Gautier Vouvray

NV De Chanceny Crémant de Loire Brut

We began the night with the Françios Chidaine Clos Habert. Served perfectly chilled, the Chenin Blanc offered notes of star fruit as well as other tropical fruit notes, initially, and gave way to more herbaceous eucalyptus esters as the wine opened up. On the palate the straw colored wine was slightly off dry, maintaining some residual sugars on the buds with dried stone fruits and a good firm acidity (moderate); the wine tapered off with a medium finish but was pleasant.

The following wine was the older vintage of Benoit Gautier, another Chenin Blanc, this time from Vouvray, which sits Northwest of Montlouis Sur Loire. Visually the wine appeared almost the same; a straw colored liquid with medium color depth, but on the nose the wine had a little sulfur, some minerality and pleasing aromas of fresh white Stock (flowers). On the palate the wine was dry, with high acid, some citrus and a longer finish than the previous Chenin Blanc.

After the third Chenin Blanc—the demi-sec Vouvray—we transitioned into our first red wine of the night, just Southwest of Vouvray in Anjou. The 05 Domaine des Baumard was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, it was surprisingly fresh and soft. The tannins were refined, the acidity was moderate and the finish was short displaying some blackberry/raspberry combo with some red rose petals. It was light and easy drinking, not bad but nothing too exciting.

From Anjou we headed east to the appellation of Chinon, tasting 100% Cabernet Franc from Domaine Bernard Baudry. It showed some red fruit—a little less complex than I was hoping—on the tongue it showcased some earth and red fruit, with moderate acidity and tannins and a decent finish of fruit.

By far, the tasting was a success. We had had all but one of our Loire Valley wines (the crémant) when our Thai Food arrived and all of us had hit the spigot on the wines we wanted with the fare from Melannee Thai.

The white wines stole the show, the ability of Chenin Blanc—not one Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre was served—was remarkable. The diversity in one grape varietal from different appellations and/or styles along the Loire was pleasing. The Benoit Gautier Vouvray became the preferred wine for pairing with the Thai, the acidity helped propel the wine to the top, matching the vibrancy in the some of the citrus-y sauces and the spiciness of the dishes. The medium body of the wine was enough to support the noodle and rice dishes without overpowering any of them.

When we moved onto the Crémant, it was not as cool as it could have been by the time we served it and some of the zip was gone, however we threw it into the freezer and carried on, captivated by the various guises of Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Without having served one Sauvignon Blanc from the appellation of Sancerre we were able to have a spectacular tasting and while not every wine hit the mark, none were bad and at least three of the wines I will be buying again. 251 wines left and I wonder how many more will come from the Loire?

After my class, my anticipation for the event grew exponentially; all quality Italian wines would be poured for the masses at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and I could not wait. I am not the biggest fan of large tastings (as I’ve alluded to this before in my Chateau Koivu article), being crowded out, mixed in with a majority that treat it as a time to furiously quaff rather than spit, trading the education for purely hedonistic delight. I could guarantee that a good-sized group of friends amassed from my tasting group and wine class would help ease my woes but nevertheless I was fearful of the tasting losing focus. My trusty group would also help me make sense of the overwhelming catalog of wines (red and white) after the big tannins decimated my taste buds and my teeth took on a darker shade of garnet. Oh yeah…this was Viva Vino!

The idyllic surroundings of the Skirball Center would play host to the tasting. A serene space that was a cross between modern and earthy, operating north of nearly all the bustle in LA, with ample space to allow a large group of people to comfortably taste and nosh. Just inside the venue, venders, vendors and importers had lined up tables, ready to showcase their products, introducing buyers and enthusiasts to assay wine that they might not encounter in any other setting. As the doors opened, people shuffled through, grabbing pens, booklets and glassware, beating paths to the nucleus of the tasting.

Once inside, our clique spotted our former teacher and consulted with him about which wine we should try first and if there was anything we shouldn’t miss. After accepting his advice, we made our way to our first producer—tasting the expressions of Sicily. We tried the Cyane—a hundred percent Muscato Bianco—Pollio Moscato di Siracusa DOC, the Solacium Moscato di Siracusa DOC before moving onto the reds like the Frederico IGT Sicilia Rosso which was a 100% Nero D’Avola. The Solacium Moscato stood out amongst its peers; it was crisp and lighter-bodied white, with a delicious nose of white flowers, Honeycrisp apples and some tropical fruits; it had a mouthfeel that packed moderate-plus acidity and a long, lingering finish. On the flip, the Nero D’Avola was fronting some cran-cherry notes in the nostrils and was totally dry, medium bodied red with moderate tannins and flavors of cherry, herbs, brush and some pepper on the buds.

We continued to Sardegna, moving through some Cannonau Di Sardegna with lots of cherry between sips and also some cocoa notes, but aside from the body being heavy, the finish was not as long as I would have wanted—at least on the three or four that I tasted. I was thankful for trying them all though. Our group leaped up to Piemonte in Northwest Italy, spending the most amount of time sampling an endless array of Barolos and Barbarescos, from various producers and sub-areas within the famous villages of the region.

Another standout for my palate was the noticeably brighter (ripe) cherry notes coming from the Eraldo Viberti Azienda Agricola 06 Barolo with medium acidity, soft, but ever-present tannins and a long finish that followed the nose and would not let go of the tongue; it showed well now. The wine felt young and decidedly fresh especially after tasting through countless austere examples that needed more age and would have benefitted by accompanying some Piemtonese cuisine.

Among all the Roero (Arneis), Valpolicella, Amarone, Sangiovese, Barolo and Barbaresco, my palate was thoroughly hammered. With the live band pumping out classic Italian tunes (at incredibly loud volume) and the wan lighting to make it incredibly difficult to see the real hue of the wine, the point of the tasting got away from me. I decided to close the complimentary notebook, sheath the pen, and just relax. Having friends to consult and laugh with during the tasting seemed to make all the difference because other aspects remained constant—the wines were not done justice, there were still a small amount of rude people, etc.—but in the end, it was not so much that Viva Vino became the new benchmark for wine events but rather an emphasis that it is imperative I travel to them with my friends. A lesson in self-discovery.

Marche sits humbly on the east coast of Italy, without the fanfare that seems to be hitched to the surrounding regions; yet, it is another storied locale that puts it own mark on olive oil and the vines. In my class last week we had some ambassadors of the region—winemakers and sommeliers—share their insight on the variances of terrain in a unique area sandwiched between Emilia-Romagna and Abruzzo along the east coast of Italy. This class would be a precursor to the Viva Vino Italian tasting the following night that I would be attending and an interesting avenue on my way to Five Hundred wines.

We began our download of information on the eastern-most region by learning about the temperate climate and the proximity of the Adriatic Sea that bears a heavy influence on the outcome of the grapes that are grown there—Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Verdicchio and Trebbiano. We also learned about the calcerous-rich soils and their contributing differences to the coastal vineyards and those further inland.

Most of us were not really familiar with the region and there was a good explanation for that: It was one of the last few regions in Italy to realize its potential in making quality vino. While it is true that winemaking has existed well beyond its nascent epiphany, Marche was an outlier of the major trade circuit carved through Milan to Naples and thus the grapes of Marche stayed local. Marche harbors many port cities, the most important being Ancona—the capital of Marche.

We tried a smattering of wines from IGT’s to DOC’s from Marche, being tutored through the details of the process of picking, crushing and fermenting the grapes, and their passage through oak, if there were any. We tasted:

09 St. Joseph Rosso Piceno

08 Syta –Syrah and Sangiovese mix

10 Curtes Offida Pecorino

10 Offida Passerina “Ampor” Marche IGT

10 Colli Pesaresi Bianco

09 Clos le Corti dei Farfensei

NV Gruet Brut Rosé

Their (our resident winemaker and posse’s) take on Sangiovese was surprisingly light but focused. Found in the Rosso Piceno—a blend of mostly Sangiovese and a smaller percentage of Montepulciano had really rich fruit notes (Bing cherry), tar and a little cinnamon spice that wasn’t from oak but inherent in the Sangiovese of Marche. The wine noticeably lacked in astringency, as I was accustomed to in Chianti—the Sangiovese rich blend of Tuscany that comes with a bouquet of toasted fennel, cherry and wood spices and heavy tannins that wick the moisture from your mouth; Marche’s rebuttal was markedly softer in mouthfeel.

The Syrah blend gave way to stewed tomatoes and pepper on the nose that transformed dramatically on the palate, it exposed vanilla from barrel aging, cocoa, blackberries and some darker fruits. It was full-bodied and sapid; I instantly began craving simple and understated Italian cuisine. A testament to the wine.

After the presentation that had me reminiscing of my times spent in Italy, the group of men from Marche departed, wishing us well. After the class we popped open a New Mexico Wineries Brut Rosé from Gruet to recapitulate the wines we had tasted in class and our thoughts on Marche. The presentation had disrupted our sweep of the-other-46-states-that-produce-wine-lecture (regarding the USA) but it did leave me closer to my goal—257 wines left to taste before next year.

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