Category Archives: USA

A little place of serenity outside of Napa: Ladera Vineyards

End of January, Nina and I spent a week in California. I’ll readily admit it was a nice break from the Michigan winter. We’d both never been to either Napa or Sonoma, so we decided it was time. Me being the complete newbie to wines from that region, I relied on friends and fellow bloggers to give me some direction on which wines to try. We decided to limit it to four wineries, two in Napa and two in Sonoma. We only had the weekend, and we have by now learned that tastings usually take a while and there is nothing worse than rushing away from a tasting to make the next on time.

The first thing that struck me visiting the two regions is really how much they look like other wine regions: a long, winding road in a center of a valley, with hills rising, sometimes steeper, sometimes gentler, but always surrounded by vines. There really is nothing like it, and I was not prepared for how much at home I felt immediately. And the light and slight warmth certainly helped.

Ladera Vineyards was suggested by Anatoli of Talk-a-vino. He insisted one had to try their wines, and he helped us in setting up a tasting there. The first thing I had to do was google the winery (I know, shame on me). So what did I learn? Ladera is located on Howell Mountain, one of the top spots in Napa, and its roots go back to 1886, when the first winery building was erected in that same spot it now is, with vineyards dating back to 1877 (not the vines, mind you). The winery building is still standing in all its glory, but has been completely modernized inside and a large cellar has been constructed underneath. Ladera has been owned by its current owners Pat and Anne Stotesbery since 2000 and has built an impressive reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon.

So on Sunday, around noon, we curved our way up the valley onto Howell Mountain, pretty steep at times, and then finally turned into the property of Ladera Vineyards. From the website, Nina and I were not prepared what was awaiting us at the winery. The place is an absolutely breathtaking stunner: The old winery building with its gorgeous sandstone facade, the sky was of a deep, satisfying blue, and the vineyards are gently sloping around it. It was just a wonderful piece of quiet and calm, way above the fray that can be Napa. We were really speechless for a bit. I mean, look at this:

Ladera Winery Building

Ladera Winery Building (and yes, that is Nina sitting in the sun)

Everything was just so peaceful, you almost wanted to speak in a hush not disturb it. The tasting room manager during our visit, Julie, was friendly and knowledgeable and was happy to share with us the story and wines of Ladera. And we were ready to have both shared with us.

Get what I mean about the sky?

Get what I mean about the sky?

We started with a 2013 Ladera Sauvignon blanc, from what I can tell the winery’s only white wine ($30). And it was a great start: The nose was full and lush, with kiwi and gooseberry aromas, some flint, slight green pepper and bitter almonds, as well as beautiful hints of cassis (yes, I am a white wine person). It was bone dry, crisp and fresh, and oh so flavorful: grapefruit and other citrus in the forefront, cassis and blackberry, but also nicely creamy and almost doughy (in a good sense – it spent 7 months on lees!). I loved the balance of it, it was the right opening for a sunny day. I could drink that any time.

On we went to the 2010 Ladera High Plateau, a mix of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot ($65). The wine poured in a dark ruby red, and the nose was amazingly powerful, with what felt like many layers of blackberry, plums, cacao, and, to my surprise, what I can only describe as watermelon. I guess a hint of sweetness combined with freshness. Definitely unexpected. The wine was dry with medium tannins and body, and nicely crisp acidity. On the palate it was aromatic, with sage and brush (Julie mentioned later the vineyard is surrounded by evergreens), raspberry, mocha and bitter chocolate with a long finish. Count me as impressed: This was a Cabernet Sauvignon that made me understand why people can love that grape, which I am often ambivalent about: It had the right mix of fruit and spice, and presented itself very well.

In between, we took a tour of the facility and state of the art cellar, probably one of the most beautiful modern cellars I have ever visited. And they have a great tasting room down there as well. The press and fermenting tanks are modern and lots of steel, it was quite pretty. In general, wines are fermented in open top vats with a cold soak for two to three days.

Inside Ladera's modern cellar

Inside Ladera’s modern cellar

From there, we went to the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain Reserve Cab, a just released 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the winery’s best lots in Howell Mountain ($85). It poured in a similar dark ruby that the 2010 High Plateau poured in, but the nose was a lot more powerful: plums, but then a bunch of green peppercorns, tobacco, and some smoke with definitely more prominent wood aromas in the nose. To my surprise, the palate was definitely more fruity than the nose gave away: There was a bunch of black berries and cassis, but paired with a certain rubberiness that can be expected in such a young wine of this intensity. What I loved most about this wine was its texture, which was just beautifully chewy. The acidity and the tannins were in good balance, and the wine showed a lot of promise, although I want to try it in five years when it has calmed down a bit (as most of you know, I like my reds with some age on them).

Finally, we got to try some of the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain “S” Cabernet, another 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but this one stemming from the one block in Howell Mountain with the oldest vines, and only the four best barrels of that. So just a teeny little amount available ($175). The wine poured in a very dark ruby, almost black. The nose was intriguing, but also a bit mystifying: some brush, some licorice, some red berries, but also a bit musty at this stage. On the palate, you could tell this is way too young right now, but it provided a nice little window into its development: It felt a bit all over the place and very intense right now. What I liked about it was its fruit and acidity with powerful tannins that need settling down. But that’s a great structure for development. The finish was great: dark chocolate for days with no end in sight. Want to try this again in seven to ten years.

For me, this visit has the potential of being transformative. I never quite got why people could be so obsessed with Cabernet Sauvignon, which to me is often just powerful with no finesse. Ladera showed me that there is a different route for that grape, and it’s definitely worth exploring more. Needless to say, Nina knew that all along and had a great time as well. So, thanks to Ladera and thanks to Anatoli for opening my mind!

And thanks to the sun, for making these wines possible and that day gorgeous. I paid it my respects:

In the sun at Ladera

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Sunday Read: Trends in the US Wine Industry for 2015

I am clearly having more time again, and I relish being able to read through blog posts again. It’s inspiring, and I have missed being able to do so over the last couple of months. Given that, it’s also time to resuscitate my Sunday Read column. I doubt it will get back to a full regular schedule, but I still want to use it to point you to articles I liked or consider interesting/thought-provoking.

In 2012, a Sunday Read pointed to Liz Thach’s post on statistics on the US wine industry. The other day, I cam across her Trends in the US Wine Industry for 2015 post, which is based on the 2015 Unified Wine Symposium and some articles. Thach is a professor at Sonoma State University and the geek in me gets a kick out of her bibliography at the end of the article.

Things that impressed me most in this article:

  • California’s dominance in the market (60%!!)
  • Per capita consumption is still low at 2.82 gallons (10.7 liters). That’s not a lot by any measure. These Wine Institute numbers for 2012 (it’s the most recent I could find – the US consumed 10.42 liters in 2012) indicate France consuming 44.19 liters (so roughly four times that), Switzerland drinking 40.44 liters, and even beer-addicted Germans drining 23.98 liters. Note that the Vatican tops the list at 73.78 liters annually per capita!!!
  • 36% of consumers using a wine app to check reviews or compare prices when shopping for wine. I guess not having a smartphone is the reason why it’s hard for me to wrap my head around that.

Have a great Sunday, and keep warm!

Liz Thach: Trends in the US Wine Industry for 2015

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Villa Bellangelo – Finger Lakes Riesling and Chardonnay with a cool surprise

A while back, I saw my buddy Anatoli’s stellar and raving review of Villa Bellangelo‘s Rieslings, which he stated had finally converted him to Finger Lakes Riesling. Naturally, this triggered my interest (when have I ever heard Anatoli rave about Riesling? Just kidding!). I am a Riesling snob after all, and when folks I like and trust are impressed with a wine in general, but in particular with a Riesling, I want to try and see for myself.

I have a had the good fortune of having participated in several Twitter tastings organized and hosted by the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, the association of Finger Lakes winemakers, so feel like I have somewhat of an idea of what is going on in the Finger Lakes, particularly Riesling-wise. Let me add that I also, quite naturally I believe, do compare these Rieslings in my head with Mosel Rieslings I know. The Finger Lakes after all are considered similar in their volcanic soil and rather cold temperatures. I do, however, always try to see these wines by themselves, and compare them to their counterparts in the Finger Lakes as well. One general impression I have is that, while Riesling from the Finger Lakes rightly is considered the best in the US, a lot of them are still a little too one-note for me. A great Riesling has at least five or six layers of flavor and complexity, while I often find myself wishing for more of that complexity in the Finger Lake Rieslings I have tried. That does not make them bad wines, to the contrary, they are very enjoyable, but I think for truly great Rieslings more complexity is key.

Ok, so much for my “credentials”. Sometime after Anatoli’s piece, Villa Bellangelo and I were tweeting and exchanging messages, and they offered to send me some bottles as samples to see for myself. I gladly agreed. The package arrived, with a cool piece of shale bedrock from Villa Bellangelo’s vineyards, which has joined our collection of Mosel slate. Since there were four bottles, I wanted to have some friends over to try along, to see what this group, that has tried wines with us a lot of times, thought as well. With November rapidly turning into December, it took us all the way into January until we could get together and try the wines, along with charcuterie and cheeses, our natural spiel…

Cool piece of shale bedrock.

Cool piece of shale bedrock.

So, who is Villa Bellangelo? Villa Bellangelo was founded in 2002 by Michael Litterio, but was purchased by the Missick family in 2011/2012, who hail from California, according to a post in the New York Cork Report. According to several bloggers and writers (including East Coast Wineries), the winery is a great spot to visit (with Yelp reviews supporting this claim), sitting atop a hill overlooking Seneca Lake. Some of the vineyards belonging to the winery date back to 1866, which is awfully cool, I think. That’s 150 years!!! The winery produces a bunch of whites and reds, and also produces wine from hybrids like Seyval blanc.

My package contained two Rieslings, a Seyval blanc, and a Chardonnay. After some back and forth, I decided to try the Chardonnay first (which I expected to be the most muted wine), then the two Rieslings, and then the Seyval blanc (because it appeared to be the sweetest wine).

So, what did I think? Here are my notes:

Chardonnay!

Chardonnay!

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Chardonnay (ABV 13%), retails for $20: The wine poured clear in a rather pale color (giving me the hope – justified – that it was more in a French style). The nose was somewhat subdued, with some oak and nuts (walnuts?). On the palate, the wine was bone dry and light, with crisp acidity nicely balanced. It was definitely low on the wood, but also a bit too restrained on the fruit for my taste (you get why I like Riesling?). What made me like this wine was its minerality that led to a spicy finish. Definitely more French in style, which I really appreciate. All by itself, this might have been a bit boring, but it sure worked with our charcuterie. Should be paired with food.

Two of Villa Bellangelo's Rieslings

Two of Villa Bellangelo’s Rieslings

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Dry Riesling (ABV 11.3%), retails for $18: Aaaah, Riesling. The wine poured clear with hints of green. The nose was moderately aromatic, but showed good fruit: I got sour peaches, some apple, some floral notes. Would have liked a bit more intensity. The wine tasted dry (although there definitely would be some sugar left at this low alcohol level), was light and crisp. I thought it had good acidity and a very good mouthfeel to it, was quite balanced, but on the palate it just didn’t remind me much of a Riesling, and the table agreed. I think there just wasn’t that much aroma going on. The wine finished spicy, which was a new flavor for a Riesling for me. While the nose surely indicated Riesling, I am not sure I would have recognized it as a Riesling in a blind tasting based on the flavor. This does not mean I didn’t like the wine, in fact I thought it was tasty. Just not Riesling-y enough for me.

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Semi-Dry Riesling (ABV 10.8%), retails for $18: Often, when I find a dry Riesling from a particular winery lacking in flavor (a bit more sugar just brings out more fruit), I look to the semi-sweets. I like that they labelled it semi-dry, because the alcohol indicates it is still pretty dry, and semi-dry is the literal translation of the German “halbtrocken”. Easy to make a German happy! :) Now this wine showed itself pretty much with the same color as the previous. The nose, however, was a different story: nicely peachy, almost peach cobbler, which I love, some bees wax. The wine tasted medium-sweet, with a bit more viscosity, but still fresh acidity. It was flavorful, with good fruit: peach juice, mandarin, some peach pit. Really an enjoyable and good expression of Riesling: flavors were there, the finish was good.

A delicious hybrid

A delicious hybrid

2013 Villa Bellangelo Seneca Lake Seyval Blanc (ABV 12%), retails for $16:  I’d never had a Seyval blanc before, so I consulted Jancis Robinson’s and others’ encyclopedia Wine Grapes. According to this, it’s a French hybrid popular in “marginal climes, especially England”. Now, doesn’t that sound appealing? ;) I was intrigued for sure. The wine poured in a very light color and had a quite restrained nose, maybe some canned peach, but I couldn’t make out much. On the palate, however, what a surprise: Dry and crisp, Asian pear galore (especially the Asian pear freshness), some lemongrass, good acidity, just a really, really tasty wine. Man, that was a really cool surprise. Liked it a lot, and at $16 quite the steal.

My general thoughts? Villa Bellangelo did a good job here. Especially the semi-dry Riesling makes me want to try their single vineyard and reserve Rieslings, I definitely see potential there. The Chardonnay was well-crafted, and the Seyval hit it out of the park. Definitely want to visit the winery, too, given the photos I have seen. Add in that the contact was super friendly, and that piece of bedrock a cool way of showing me some terroir. I like how dynamic the Finger Lakes are, and how, due to their rather short history of professional winemaking, things are still in flow a lot. That creates opportunities for wineries as well as wine lovers.

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