Tag Archives: chardonnay

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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An evening at The Ravens Club in Ann Arbor

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor's Main Street

The Ravens Club on Ann Arbor’s Main Street

The Ravens Club is a bar in downtown Ann Arbor, right on the most important restaurant road in Ann Arbor, Main Street. I’ve been there once or twice, but my main memory is from right after I moved to Ann Arbor. While Nina denies ever having been there with me before, I am certain we went there pretty soon after I moved to Ann Arbor from Germany. From that visit, I remembered its great cocktails fondly. But I also liked the atmosphere with its gold and dark, pretty classy. However, we were dirt poor at the time and couldn’t afford to go out much, and somehow The Ravens Club dropped off my radar…

A well-stocked bar at The Ravens Club

The Ravens Club’s well-stocked bar. The cocktails here are absolutely amazing!

So, a couple of weeks ago I received an invitation from The Ravens Club’s managing partner Jeff to come and sample their new fall menu along with a bunch of other food and booze bloggers in and around Ann Arbor. He specifically touted their revamped wine list, and you know, free food and free wine? Count me in. I was joined by my blogging and real life friends John (The Food and Wine Hedonist) and Hannah (Next Stop: TBD). It was great to meet other bloggers from the area, too, like the authors of Clover Eats and All the Brews. Others have written about their impressions, so feel free to check out The Food and Wine Hedonist‘s, Clover Eats‘, and Hannah‘s take on the event. I also asked both of them whether I could use some of their photos, because a) I suck at remembering to bring a camera, and b) I usually suck at taking photos. They were kind enough to let me use them, so all visual beauty today is thanks to them.

Jeff told us that he thinks he and his team finally figured out what The Ravens Club is about: A bar with excellent cocktails that will offer bar food with a twist. He admitted that it took them a long time to figure it out (roughly four years), but that he is now comfortable with what The Ravens Club is. He wanted to share his vision with us, and we were happy see what they had up their sleeves. The cocktails have always been amazing, so I won’t even go into those.

While I am a foodie of sorts, I want to focus this review on The Ravens Club’s wine list. But the food was good, and I like that they incorporate interesting dishes into the menu. Chef Frank came out to talk to us, and it was interesting to see how this young chef balances making bar food to please the average diner at a bar who doesn’t want fancy food and making food that is creative and keeps him on his toes. I think, overall, he managed to achieve this. These were my favorites:

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

House-made pickles that paired very well with their rillette.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

Insanely tasty chicken liver pate with apple chutney and pistachios. Probably my favorite of the night.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

The burger was cooked exactly right, and was one of the best burgers I have had in town. Excellent.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

Kudos to chef Frank for putting roasted bone marrow on the menu. Unique, glibbery, and very tasty.

However, on to the wine list. Let me preface that I believe that bar’s have the hardest time to figure out a wine list: The normal customer comes for the cocktails or the beer (in The Ravens Club’s case mostly the cocktails). Wines lead a shadowy existence in a bar setting. This poses several issues for bar owners: How restricted should my wine list be? What’s my ratio of wines that an average customer might be interested in (I am just throwing it out here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Moscato, or a sweet Pinot Grigio) to wines that I am proud of serving? Should I offer wines at all? The Ravens Club, according to Jeff, tried various approaches in the past: From a vast wine list befitting a fine dining establishment to a small, mainstream (boring) list. Just like with the theme of The Ravens Club, they now feel they know what they want The Ravens Club’s wine list to be.

We had a chance to talk to the guy who put this list together, Ben Eberlein, who heads The Signature Collection, which is the boutique wine division of Henry A. Fox Sales Co. Ben is a super chill guy, and I loved talking to him for a while (it helped that his family’s roots are in Germany, and that we seem to have similar tastes in wine). First of all, he looked at what The Ravens Club has to offer: classic cocktails and American bar food. This led him to focus on American wines only. Except for the sparkling wine, which is a Spanish cava (which I always consider a good alternative to expensive champagne). He then decided to create a limited wine list of twelve still wines: six red, six white. Period. The wines are all from either California, Washington, or Oregon. I was a bit surprised to find no Michigan wines on the list, given how home state-proud a lot of Ann Arbor is, but it is what it is…and probably not for the worse.

The wineries deliver their wines in small barrels of 19.5 liters (around 5 gallons), and most wines are available on tap. At first I was a bit surprised, but it actually makes a lot of sense: Their wine sales aren’t overly big, and when you store the wines in the barrels and have them on tap, you can hold them and offer them for up to six months without them losing flavor. I think it is a win-win strategy for winery, The Ravens Club, and also the consumer. All wines I tried tasted fresh and one couldn’t tell how it got into the glass.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

Chef Frank hanging out with us over a bottle of excellent Chardonnay.

With my wine buddy John sitting right beside me, and Hannah helping out from across the table, we got a good go around of a lot of their wines. Here are my thoughts on what I had:

  • We started with the Stolpman Sangiovese Carbonic from Ballard Canyon, California. The wine is made with carbonic maceration, which means the grapes are not crushed but put in a tank and then infused with carbon dioxide which causes the grapes to ferment in the berries. It’s an interesting way of making wines. However, the result was not my style at all: It showed a very light and VERY bright color (insanely bright for a Sangiovese), and ended up being pretty sweet without any Sangiovese characteristics (no cherry or underbrush). While this was not my style, I think this can work for those seeking a sweeter wine and I grant The Ravens Club that this is more interesting than your average Pinot Grigio.
  • I also tried the Blacksmith Cabernet Sauvignon fromOakville, California. Now most of you know I am not a big fan of that grape in a monovarietal, but I wanted to see what The Ravens Club offers that most consumers will probably go for. This was about what I expected: wood and red fruit. Clean, nothing really objectionable, but also nothing that would excite or entice. For what it is, it probably works well for many.
  • Now the Corvidae Lenore Syrah from Columbia Valley, Washington was an entirely different story: If you want to try wine at The Ravens Club (and you should), I highly recommend this one. Pitch dark, juicy and smoky, with depth and layers and layers of interestingness. To my palate, which likes restraint, Syrah can easily be too spice. But this one was just the right amount. This also paired well with the burger.
You knew I had to try the Riesling...

You knew I had to try the Riesling…

  • I simply had to try the Corvidae Ravenna Riesling from Columbia Valley, Washington. Most West Coast Rieslings leave me wishing for more and often disappoint me, but this was outstanding. I would compare it to Alsatian Riesling in style, with prominent notes of petrol, clean and bright citrus flavors with good acidity. The wine was very balanced, and it paired amazingly with the rillette and then the chicken liver. I was a bit stunned, because I didn’t expect this wine to wow me that much, but in fact it did. Pretty high up on the list. In what I assume is an attempt to make people actually order this wine it is described as off-dry. But to my taste buds, this seemed way more dry than off-dry. In a very pleasant way.
  • When we asked Ben what else we HAD to try, he said the Chardonnay that they sell as a bottle only. It took little to convince us at that stage (two cocktails and a couple of wines into the evening): the Roco Chardonnay from Eola-Amity Hills, Oregon. US chardonnay and I have a charred history, where I often struggle with too much alcohol in the wines (which is my personal crux). Everyone that tried this wine seemed to love it. It was the picture perfect example of what a well-made Chardonnay can be: crisp, clean, refreshing, with bright lemon and green apple flavors. A delight to drink, and definitely worth a try.

As should become obvious here, there are some true gems on this wine list. For Wine Century Club lovers, they have a Grenache blanc on the list, and for the eccentrics or the bourbon lovers, they have a wine that matured in bourbon barrels. In any case, it is worth looking past the cocktails and the excellent selection of bourbons that The Ravens Club has to offer. The wines make for interesting pairings, and can be a nice mix-up of the regular fare.

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Pancake and Cupcake Tastings at Delheim

Delheim Logo

When I first received our itinerary for Stellenbosch, a pancake and cupcake pairing at Delheim Estate immediately caught my eye. Were they serious? A wine pairing with cupcakes? What crazy mind had conceived this idea? The pancakes somehow seemed more doable, but these cupcakes really made me scratch my head. In any case, being the wine explorers we are we were excited to give it a go. Unfortunately, both pancakes and cupcakes were not for Nina due to her food allergies, so this review is all on me…

Delheim Estate sits on land up in the hills that was first turned into agricultural land in the 1800s by Jan Andries, who purchased parcels of land over a 50 year period to create one farm. In 1938, Hans Otto Hoheisen bought the 200 hectares which he wanted to use as his retirement home. By 1940, he had decided on parcels of land that he wanted to cultivate vines on, cleared the scrub and got going. In 1951, the German nephew of the owners, Michael Sperling, also called Spatz Sperling (Spatz meaning sparrow, Sperling being a synonym for sparrow), joined the operation and worked at the winery for 60 years, establishing it as a leading winery in the region.

The wine that made Spatz famous is his “Spatzendreck”, which was conceived in 1961 when he poured this newly developed wine (a sweet dessert wine with a brownish color) into the glass of a friend who exclaimed “Now, Spatz, this really is just ‘dreck'”, Dreck meaning dirt. Spatz’ sense of humor is expressed in the name of the wine, and he also created a hideous label that won Decanter’s prize for worst label of the year in 1970.

The day we went to visit the winery, we met with its national sales manager Johan van Dyk in the winery’s restaurant which is located in the midst of its sprawling holdings. Johan explained to us that Delheim is particularly proud of its family-friendliness, which was not only shown by all sorts of certificates attesting it, but most vividly by the children’s birthday party that was held at another table in the restaurant: The kids were digging into the cupcakes served to them while the parents enjoyed a glass or two of wine. All this happened in a great, relaxed atmosphere. If you have kids, this is definitely your winery to visit first and foremost.

Delheim's delicious pancakes

Delheim’s delicious pancakes

I started lunch with the pancake pairing. The genius of this dish is that it comprises a starter, a main course and a dessert in three small portions of pancakes which were delicious. The menu starts with a salmon and cream cheese pancake, is followed by a lamb shank pancake and then crowned with a pickled butternut squash pancake for “dessert”. The pairings were the 2014 Pinotage Rose with the salmon, the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon with the shank, and the 2013 Edelspatz dessert wine with the squash.

The pairings really worked: The Pinotage Rose had some residual sugar with aromas of raspberry and strawberry as well as some cream and was very tasty with good acidity. Combined with the salmon pancake, it accentuated the salmon and its acidity cut through the cream cheese. We ended up taking a couple of bottles of the Rose because it was so tasty! I wish I could drink this every day on a sunny day.

The Cabernet Sauvignon, which had aromas of cooked red fruit, some cinnamon and was mostly fruit-driven, was made even fruitier by the lamb shank which also brought out more vanilla aromas in the wine. I thought the Cabernet Sauvignon was very drinkable (which, as you know, is quite the statement by me!) and the pairing did work.

Lastly, the Edelspatz with its strong aromas of canned peaches and apricot, was definitely enhanced by the butternut squash. The wine lacked some acidity for my taste and was too sweet tasting on its own. But combined with the pickled squash it was an eye opener: There were now aromas of nutmeg and cloves and the wine seemed way drier. Well done!

After the pancake pairing, Delheim Estate served us a lunch (I know, I know…I did gain tons of weight on this trip). One thing I want to mention about the lunch is how accommodating Delheim’s kitchen was to Nina’s food allergies. The kitchen had not received the memo that contained information about her allergies and so was completely unprepared, but the chef immediately came to our table, discussed Nina’s needs and came up with a wonderful curry dish which she whipped up in no time. This is a commitment to service that is rare to find worldwide, but a defining feature of our time in Stellenbosch.

I was so excited, I ate the first cupcake before I remembered to take a photo...

I was so excited, I ate the first cupcake before I remembered to take a photo…

After lunch, it was time for the cupcake pairing, which pairs four cupcakes with four of Delheim’s wines. The cupcakes were a Roiboos (which is a South African tea) cupcake, a pomegranate cupcake, a Makataan (an African melon) cupcake, and a pumpkin cupcake. These cupcakes were paired with (in order) an unwooded Chardonnay, again the Pinotage Rose, a Chardonnay Sur Lie (a Chardonnay that spend time on the lees), and the winery’s Pinotage.

Again, the pairings were interesting and accentuated different aspects of the wines and the cupcakes. For example, the Chardonnay Sur Lie, that had a bit too many bitter aromas for my taste and was a tad too alcoholic, definitely worked with the melon cupcake. The Pinotage Rose brought great acidity to the pomegranate cupcake which alone lacked that freshness. But most striking was the pumpkin cupcake and the Pinotage. The Pinotage and the cinnamon in the cupcake made for a super interesting combination that made my day…

All in all, Delheim’s line up of wines is mostly fruit driven for easy and mostly early drinking. The wines were very tasty and also quite affordable. The pairings are 70 Rand (which is about $7), so definitely, go and try it out. Great fun, you learn about your tastebuds, you get surprised by what pairings actually are capable of, and you will enjoy the leisurely atmosphere.  Make sure you make a reservation, though! The place was packed, despite this being low season.

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