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Today let's share a few tasting notes from a recent event. It was my good fortune to wangle an invitation to the local presentation of the "2008 Grand Portfolio Tasting" by Vanguard Wines, a regional importer based in Northern Kentucky.
Vanguard distributes some very interesting wines - the kind of offbeat grape varieties and less-familiar wine regions that I love, many of them in the affordable range - in Kentucky and Ohio. Naturally when I was offered a chance to attend the tasting in Louisville's striking 21c Museum Hotel, I was so there, as the youngsters say.
A large downstairs gallery room in the artful hotel was circled by tables, with a total of 32 pouring stations staffed by winery or distributor reps - in a few cases, the actual wine maker, such as Au Bon Climat's Jim Clendenen, Christian Berthet-Rayne of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape property that bears their name, and Erika Ribaldi of Sicily's Tenuta di Trinoro and Passopisciaro.
It appeared that about 150 to 200 wines were being poured. Even with spit buckets, no thanks! I took my time, socialized with wine-and-food-business pals on the scene, and discreetly sampled a relatively small proportion of wines that for one reason or another caught my eye.
Most of these wines will be in national distribution, perhaps via other regional distributors in different parts of the country. I've passed over a few that didn't strike my fancy; all of the wines listed below have my recommendation and are well worth seeking out.
First, though, let's address an obvious question: Can you get into one of these tastings? The answer is not so simple, and likely varies depending on the hosts and organizers and perhaps local law and custom.
Generally speaking, the purpose of a distributor portfolio tasting is to sell wine, and the primary guests are wine retailers and restaurateurs who will consider purchasing wines in quality for their businesses. Wine writers are often invited - distributors rarely object to publicity, although it should be noted that I am under no obligation (and would not accept an obligation) to speak well of a wine I didn't enjoy.
But how about "civilians"? My best advice, if you are a regular customer and buy wine in reasonable amounts from a quality local wine shop, or if you're friendly with the sommelier or wine guy at a good restaurant that you patronize regularly and buy wines from the list, and ask if they can wangle an invitation to a tasting for you. Chances are, assuming you're a good customer, you can make it work. If you try it, good luck ... and let me know how you fare.
Now, a quick list of short-form notes on some of my favorites from yesterday's Vanguard Wines tasting.
Au Bon Climat 2006 Pinot Noir "La Bauge Au-dessus" This Central Coast winery's French name signals a commitment rare for its region: Winemaker Clendenen seeks to extract the character of Pinot Noir fruit in all his reds (and quality Chardonnay in his whites). If not exactly "Burgundian," his wines invariably please me with their unlikely blend of power and elegance, and this first-rate red - brightly acidic and shimmering with pure Pinot fruit - was a winner for me.
Domaine Serene's 2005 Evenstad Pinot Noir Reserve and 2005 Jerusalem Hill Pinot Noir were both delights from a favorite Oregon winery, and for similar reasons: Lovely, balanced, velvety and elegant, Serene's reds consistently show me a pure, delicious expression of Pinot Noir without going over the top into that "blockbuster" style that fails to impress me. 2005 Syrah Rockblock Seven Hills, "Rockblock" being Serene's alternate label for Syrah, was structured and impressive, but as I jokingly told Michelle Farkas, Serene's national sales manager, "Please don't ever stop making Pinot." She reassured me.
Domaine Berthet-Rayne 2006 Chateauneuf-du-Pape, my first taste of the '06 vintage from this favorite appellation, was really a delight. M. Berthet-Rayne told me that a major critic has declared this wine "modern" in style. As he and I sipped together, we caught each other's eyes and quietly snickered. This is classic, traditional Chateauneuf, red berries and earth, powerful but balanced and elegant. I want some.
At Ramey Wines, another of the North Coast California wineries that I admire for its commitment to tradition and elegance, I tried two top reds from a broad list of temptations. Ramey 2005 "Claret," a mix of all five Bordeaux red varieties plus a dollop of Syrah, was loaded with ripe but elegant black fruit and a rich, complex flavor; its 14% alcohol provided texture but neither harshness nor heat. 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Larkmead, a single-vineyard blend of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot. Surely an ager, it's nonetheless showing beautifully now, rich black fruit and earthy minerality with great balance and length.
Tenuta di Trinoro from Tuscany and its Sicilian sibling Passopisciaro offered wines that delightfully break from the growing "international" standard with idiosyncratic but delicious flavors. Trinoro 2005 "Le Cupole" Rosso Toscana was an excellent expression of Tuscan red, all about dry cherry fruit and subtle spice. The Sicilian 2005 Passopisiaro was a new one on me, made from the Nerello Mascalese variety. It's pale ruby in color, hardly darker than a rosé, but there's plenty of oomph on the nose and palate. Ripe cherries and tart acidity, full body and maybe just a hint of sweetness in a firm, rather high-alcohol package made it seem like a rare blend of something from Sicily and something from, yes, Burgundy. Another wine here, 2006 Franchetti from Tuscany, was impressive but a little less to my preferred style: deep and dark, licorice and menthol over very ripe black fruit, a big boy of a modern-style wine.
Another Italian booth, Fattoria di Milziade Antano, drew me in with hope of a taste of Sagrantino. None was to be had, alas, but the firm's more affordable 2004 Antano Montefalco Rosso was the next-best thing, offering a blend of Sagrantino with Merlot, I believe the man said. In any case, it was a lovely wine, cherries and spice and a whiff of tobacco leaf, ripe but balanced with good acidity and a distinct edge of tannin.
I finished my round at the table of Vintage '59 Imports, where I told owner Roy Cloud that I have yet to run into an item in his portfolio that I didn't like ... and they're almost invariably in the affordable range. Quickly told, we tasted 2007 Chateau Coupe Roses "Champ de Roy", an intriguing white-varietal blend that included a floral blast of Muscat; vinified crisp and dry, it ends with a pleasantly bitter-almond finish. 2007 Chateau Coupe Roses Rosé was a pale pink in color, but there was nothing pale about its very-berry, intense berry and herbal flavor. A fine rosé. 2003 Monplaisir Cuvee Prestige Cahors was by no means a lighter-style modern Cahors but takes us back to the times when this Southwestern French region's Malbec-based reds were nicknamed "black wine." 2006 Montirius Cotes du Rhone was just plain delicious, loads of berry fruit, fresh and ripe, with a distinct "beef blood" note that's appetizing, not unpleasant - think rare steak - purportedly from iron in the vineyard soil. This table tasting wound up with two exceptional, offbeat Alsatians: Marc Tempe 2006 Alliance, which Cloud said was a Chasselas and Gewurztraminer blend, a very odd but delicious combo that came across floral and full and very close to dry. Marc Tempe 2005 Zellenberg Pinot Blanc might have been a little reductive at first, but soon opened up to a crisp, aromatic character that struck me as an amazing partner with shellfish.
For more information on Vanguard Wines, see the company Website,
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