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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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Meeting the Vintners: Kleine Zalze, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Entering the estate in the evening

Entering the estate in the evening

It is hard not to notice the size of Kleine Zalze’s business endeavors as you enter the compound through a security gate: To your left, you find rows of apartments, there is a lodge, and in the distance is a golf course operated by Kleine Zalze, but at the heart of these operations, geographically and by importance, is its winery.

Kleine Zalze was founded in 1685 and was purchased by the current owners Kobus and Mariette Basson in 1996. Its production is 720,000 bottles per year. The winery has between 50 and 60 hectares under vine, but it also buys grapes from 23 suppliers that have long-term contracts with Kleine Zalze. This stems from the simple fact that some grapes are simply not suited for Kleine Zalze’s holdings (like Sauvignon blanc), but are seen as essential by the owners for their portfolio. These contract growers are spread out over the Cape, with some over 400 km away from Stellenbosch. The logistics of this seemed to be quite intense, with regular inspections at the vineyards and then bringing the grapes in cooling vans to Stellenbosch so that they don’t start fermenting after picking. I know that this practice is common in many wine regions, but I think it was the first time I got to talk with a winemaker about the logistics.

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

With assistant winemaker Dirk van Zyl

Dirk van Zyl is an assistant winemaker and vineyard manager at Kleine Zalze. His family owns a small winery, so it was natural for him to go into the wine business. At Kleine Zalze, he is in charge of integrating vineyard management and winemaking. This means that a big part of his job is driving to the contract growers and inspecting their vineyards, adjusting methods and doing what is necessary there. In the cellar, he is involved in all areas of winemaking. Dirk very clearly loves his job, and he loves working at Kleine Zalze. When I asked him about future plans, he told me he wants to stay with Kleine Zalze as long as he can to learn more about different vineyard sites and cellaring methods. Eventually, he plans to return to the family farm but not for now.

Kleine Zalze produces three lines of wines (a practice that seems common in the Stellenbosch region): the Cellar Selection, which is meant for early drinking with usually low use of oak and more fruity in taste; the Vineyard Selection as the middle tier of quality, in which all white wines are barreled; and the Family Reserve, which is their highest tier.

Our line up for the night

Our line up for the night

I will focus these reviews on the high end wines for the sake of readability, but I want to point out the two whites we tasted of the Cellar Selection, a 2014 Sauvignon blanc and a 2014 Chenin blanc, which were both great easy drinking wines. The Sauvignon blanc was fruity with great acidity, and the Chenin blanc struck me with its fruit mix of guava, gooseberry and peach.

The 2012 Sauvignon blanc Family Reserve spent 12 months on the lees in stainless steel and is meant to be more in an Old World style. The color was slightly golden, and the nose was intriguing: full aromas of tropical fruit (and some banana?) and honey, with some acidity noticeable in the nose already. Most of all there was something that reminded of an older Riesling. I couldn’t nail it down to what it was, but definitely intriguing. Its mouthfeel was nicely velvety, much heavier than the Cellar Selection. Aroma-wise, I got gooseberry and green pepper, but all in all it was rather restrained, which wasn’t a bad thing. It was nice mixture of soft and muscular, with good acidity and a nice finish to it.

The 2012 Chenin blanc Family Reserve was the maiden vintage for this line’s Chenin blanc. The grapes come from three sites in Stellenbosch, which all have different soil types (granite, decomposed shell, and sand and clay mix). Vinification begins in stainless steel and then the wine spends one year on the lees in first and second fill barrels. The color was golden, and the nose quite expressive and complex. There was tons of tropical fruit (probably pineapple most prominently). On the palate, you could taste a bunch of minerality, acidity was again spot on, and the wine was creamy and balanced with an elegant finish. Everything was well made in this wine, but somehow it didn’t touch me the way it probably should have. It probably needs more time to age.

And two of the whites we tried...

And two of the whites we tried…

The 2010 Shiraz Family Reserve was made from grapes from one block which contains three different soil types which produce different kinds of grapes: some with thicker skins, others with thinner skin and therefore less tannin potential. The batches are fermented separately, some in open cement containers, and then are blended afterwards. The color was a dark ruby red, and the nose was intense and concentrated, with chocolate and coffee aromas. Nina and I both loved how well integrated the wine tasted: it was grippy with great tannins that held it all together, with dark fruit aromas and a long finish. The balance of it all was great. When I just checked Nina’s notes, I saw a smiling face beside this wine. Mine has a bunch of plusses. A total winner.

The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve we tried comes from one block in Stellenbosch and is aged in first fill barrels for 26 months. The nose of the wine was complex and very intense, almost aggressively so. I picked up boiled green peppers, bitter chocolate and what I would describe as tomato stalks (have you ever smelled them?). Nina’s notes read pencil shavings and spice with lots of red fruit. On the palate, despite its age, the 2008 was still very firm and closed, with restrained fruit, and still a bunch of green aromas. It was very hard to assess at this stage because it didn’t really want to come out of its shell. When I voiced some frustration about this, and that I would love to try it again in three years, Dirk got up and told us to wait. He came back with a bottle of 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve that had been opened a few days before! While the nose was pretty much gone, just a whiff of prunes left, the flavor worked on this one: great tannins and what I would describe as port wine like flavors (fortified, prunes, sweet cherry). It was succulent and full, enticing and alluring. All of that topped by a long finish. This was an impressive wine, and it did give an idea of where the 2008 might be headed…if that’s the case, there’s some good times ahead for it…and what a great way to finish the tasting.

If you visit the estate, make sure you book lunch or dinner at Terroir, the restaurant on the estate. The food is exquisite and very well prepared. A must for me in Stellenbosch.

2005 Kleine Zalze Cabernet Sauvignon Family Reserve

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Meeting the Vintners: Warwick Estate, Stellenbosch, South Africa

Warwick's logo is a wedding cup from which two persons can drink at the same time

Warwick’s logo is a wedding cup from which two persons can drink at the same time

One of the first wines I picked up when I lived in Botswana six years ago was Warwick’s Three Cape Ladies, mainly because of the fabulous label, but also because it is a Cape Blend, which by law has to include 30% of Pinotage, that is usually blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and then Shiraz or any other of the French usual suspects. I like Pinotage, and I wanted to try something unique. I liked the wine a lot back then, so when it was time to go to Stellenbosch, I put it high on my list.

Warwick Estate is a family-owned winery that was bought in 1964 by Stan Ratcliff, but the winery dates back to the 1700s. His wife Norma decided to learn how to make wines from other winemakers in the region, and initially produced only wines for friends and family. Norma became one of the first female winemakers in South Africa. Since 1981, winemaking has become more commercial and today the estate maintains about 60 ha under vine and about 110 ha in total, and produces a wide range of wines from whites to Pinotage to a flagship Bordeaux blend. The current managing director is the third generation of the Ratcliff family managing the estate. The grounds boast wide lawns around a water basin, and you can have picnics there while you taste their wines. One curio as you enter the gardens is a larger than life Nelson Mandela statue made completely from beads…

Paying our respects to Nelson Mandela

Paying our respects to Nelson Mandela

We met Warwick’s winemaker Nic van Aarde over lunch in the winery’s garden. We were about two hours late because we had had such a grand time with Dirk Coetzee at L’Avenir. Luckily, the chef had prepared tapas food, with most of the ingredients coming from the region. There was chicken liver pate that was to die for, and the pulled pork sandwiches were delicious as well. Even local olives were served.

Very tasty tapas

Very tasty tapas

Nic is an easy going, very likable guy. He’s quick, full of stories, loves to laugh and keeps any taster on his toes with what seemed like constant questions about how I would describe the wines. He has consulted for a while with a Mumbai-region based winery in India…I didn’t know there was winemaking in India, and his tales were amusing but also horrifying at times. Talk about an interesting fellow.

Nic’s winemaking “philosophy”, if you want to call it that, is to try to avoid overly herbaceous wines, a flavor characteristic that one can find in many South African reds. He doesn’t like softening his wines, and prefers to present them the way they come, with some edges and character. The wine he considers most in line with that philosophy is his Cabernet Franc which comes in a small batch and is only available at the winery.

Us with Nic

Us with Nic

We tried a host of Warwick’s wines and started with the 2013 Prof. Black Sauvignon blanc. The wine is named after Prof. Black, who planted a peach orchard on the premises in the 20th century, but that didn’t work out so well. Now, the area that used to be the orchard hosts Warwick’s Sauvignon blanc vines. They are among the oldest vines on the property. For this vintage, 14% Semillon joined the Sauvignon blanc, and it worked out well. The wine showed a very light yellow color, with a restrained nose of grass and citrus aromas. The palate was surprisingly expressive given the nose, with minerality, low acidity and great citrus fruits. I was very partial to this wine!

Next up were the 2013 First Lady Unoaked Chardonnay and the 2013 White Lady Chardonnay (which is oaked). The first one is made in the Chablis-style with partial spontaneous fermentation. The color was slightly golden, and the nose showed grapefruit, lees and grass aromas. The mouthfeel was as full as one would expect from an oaked Chardonnay, but it had very clean and light flavors. The oaked Chardonnay is fully spontaneously fermented and after fermentation, the barrels are being rolled to stir the wine. Nic called it great exercise. The vines for this wine are 32 years old, and combined with the wood they clearly produced a more intense nose which also was dominated by citrus aromas. The mouthfeel was fuller than the unoaked (surprise, surprise), and while the wood was noticeable, it still showed good freshness, mainly driven by good acidity. I still preferred the unoaked version though.

We then tried the 2012 First Lady Cabernet Sauvignon, which sometimes gets blended with Shiraz, but not in 2012. The grapes come from younger vineyards and the wine spends 18 months in older barrels. The wine poured in a purplish red color and smelled of ripe red fruit, tobacco and leather. It was an interesting mix of very expressive fruit and tartness, which reminded more of a Cabernet Franc rather than a Cabernet Sauvignon. It confused me a bit too much, I am afraid to say.

The reds lined up

The reds lined up

Up next was the 2012 Pinotage, which hails from old bush vines (vines that are not tied to posts and wire). It is produced in old barrels with a soft approach that does not try to extract too much from the grapes (in order to not get too many tannins). It poured in a dark purple, and the nose was very expressive with cassis, sandalwood and cake batter. We loved it! On the palate, it was light and refined in texture, with cassis being the dominant aroma in this fruit driven version of a Pinotage. Great to drink, very easily accessible. Would recommend this to fall in love with the fruitier side of Pinotage.

After that, it was time for the 2011 Three Cape Ladies, which is a third each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Pinotage. The wine smelled of red berries, sour cherry and tobacco leaves, a combo I like a lot. In the mouth, it felt silky and had good tannins. The most wonderful thing though was the combination of raspberries and dark chocolate with a whiff of sweetness, and then a bitter chocolate finish. Love, love, love it!

The final wine was the 2010 Trilogy, Warwick’s flagship Bordeaux blend, which sells as Barrique Estate in the U.S. due to copyright problems. The grapes come from two Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards (60%), two Cabernet Franc vineyards (30%) and one Merlot vineyard (10%) and spend 24 months in 60% new oak barrels. The color is dark and brooding, and the nose very complex: There is ripe cherry, definite coffee aromas, and hints of cooked meat. The texture is wonderfully silky, and the flavors are carried by just enough acidity. I found the wine to be very balanced in its play between red fruit and leather aromas. It leans towards the Cabernet Franc side in taste more than in the nose. Very good length on the finish. I was quite impressed with this wine.

All in all we were quite happy with the line-up, which is marked by wines that are ready for consumption, but should also do well in the longer run. The food was great and just what we needed and dealt with Nina’s food allergies very well. Nic is a great guy, and I hope for anyone that they can run into him either at the estate or at an event!

Warwick's iconic and easy to recognize labels, Three Cape Ladies in the center

Warwick’s iconic and easy to recognize labels, Three Cape Ladies in the center

 

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