The life of a wine writer is often a solitary existence. Contrary to what many may imagine, it’s not all swirling and swilling, but hours of study, research, composition, editing, and, well, you get the idea.
So when there’s an opportunity to spend a few hours with like-minded vino lovers, sample wines and investigate intriguing food pairings, it’s a chance I don’t let slip away.
The Temecula Wine Council is such a group, comprised of professional wine, food and travel writers plus regular ‘wine loving citizens’. We manage to carve out a few days each year when all our schedules co-inside, like a fortuitous astrological forecast. Wine samples are collected and each member is entrusted with a bottle. Their mission: pair and prepare a complimentary dish.
While there is congeniality there is also serious contemplation as each attendee , in turn, speaks about their assigned wine – its producer, history, vineyard and vinification – and what inspired their culinary creation.
Our last meeting focused on a suprising selection of Chardonnay, a berry filled Rosé and two revealing reds.
No other winery in California, or perhaps one might say the USA, is more identified with the chardonnay grape than Wente Vineyards. Their story goes back to 1883 when the family purchased their first 47 acres in the Livermore Valley and began researching and developing the vines best suited to their vineyard conditions. These selections became know as the ‘Wente Clones’ and are the ‘parents’ of most of California’s chardonnay vines today.
Wente Vineyards currently produces four different bottlings of America’s favorite white variety and we had the opportunity to sample three of them and learn why 5 generations of winemakers have earned this venerated winery the title of ‘First Family of Chardonnay’.
2013 Wente Morning Mist Chardonnay (SRP $15) is named for the famous fog that rolls into the Livermore Valley each morning. Later in the day it gives way to the warm rays of the California sun producing balanced fruit with refreshing acidity. Tropical nuances of mango and pineapple dominate with touches of lemon drop and whiffs of light oak and toast. The declared pairing; a pair of pizzas from local Temecula restaurant the Goat and Vine, both of which surprised in their complement. The red onions on the goat cheese, garlic and tomato pizza really showed-off their roasted sweetness as did the savory spice of the fennel sausage featured on the ‘Butcher Shop’ pie.
2014 Wente ‘Eric’s Chardonnay’ (SRP $28) Eric is the Winemaker and the grapes for this refreshing, un-oaked wine are hand selected from Wente’s Livermore Valley Estate. Perfect for ‘appero time’, it’s light and softly fragrant with soft gold apple and Asian pear with nectarine and lemon zest on the finish. Try pairing with a complimentary appetizer – puff pastry squares topped with a fruity compote comprised of pears and kumquats, sweet red onion, creamy Havarti cheese and toasty almonds
Lake County is one of California’s more northerly American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and is known for it’s cooler, fresher climate, higher elevations and well-ripened fruit. Shannon Ridge is located at the southern end of Clear Lake, a body of water that brings a moderating effect to the vineyards – vineyards which are sustainably farmed using the Ovis Cycle and a herd of over 1000 sheep. These industrious creatures work in harmony with the vineyard, consuming foliage, clearing fire hazard areas surrounding the vines and eliminate the need for costly fuel-powered tractors, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.
2013 Shannon Ridge Chardonnay (SRP $12) is a great example of the cooler climate influence – vibrant acidity keeps the Anjou pear, crunchy apple and citrus characteristics lively and clean while just a touch of oak aging lends finesse and vanilla, butterscotch tones. An equally crisp Spinach Salad adorned with ripe red strawberries, red onion and candied pecans paired well, enhancing the ripe red fruit of the raspberry vinaigrette.
Two red wines awaited, both from our friends at Shannon Ridge:
2012 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah (SRP $22.99) offered up deep, dark and black fruit, quite contrary to the ‘Petite’ in the variety’s name! Blackberries, dried currant, chocolate, espresso roast coffee beans and mouth filling tannins held up well with the designed pairing – spicy and earthy Carne Asada, but the wine also met its match with the tapenade and both pizza choices. Could have sipped this wine for the rest of the evening, but it was time to open our last bottle.
2011 Shannon Ridge Terre Vermielle Barbara (SRP $30) With 18 months in a combination of French and American oak, this Barbara showed an ‘Old World’ style that emphasised the earthy, licorice, dried herb and peppery side of the variety, while the classic red cherry fruit was somewhat subdued. Paired with a bite of the previously mentioned spinach and strawberry salad the berry notes of the wine were more pronounced but it really shone with the dark, deep cocoa richness of the decidedly decadent brownies.
As the evening drew to a close, we all knew the time had come to review our notes and cast our votes. While wine is definitely a ‘personal preference’ sport, we try to put our minds into judging mode, looking at the typicity, craftsmanship and character of the wines. Three categories were declared:
2012 Wente Morning Fog Chardonnay: definitive style Chardonnay with a drinkable balance of fruit and oak. Plays well with a variety of food choices or on its own. Great value.
2014 Villicana Rosé and Black Olive Tepenade: classic pairings are classic for a reason! Think bistro, South of France.
2012 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah: with it’s easy to drink style, food friendly attitude and varietal typicity, this wine was an all around winner and unanimous choice. Plus, at this price, you could easily bring 2 bottles to any dinner party!
And so ended another Wine Council evening, proving once again that wine tastes better with good food and even better companions. Santé.
Hilarie Larson is a wine writer, and educator, who loves nothing more than traveling to vineyard and food destinations. Join her as she shares some of her experiences on the wine roads.