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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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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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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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