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September 22, 2014

Somms Take a Global View

 As results rolled in over the weekend at the sixth annual Sommelier Challenge International Wine Competition in San Diego, it became obvious that the list of winners would have an international flair.

The top-rated wine with 99 points was a dessert wine from Canada, the 2012 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine ($59.99). Best of show white went to an Australian wine, the 2014 Dandelion Vineyards ‘Wishing Clock of Adelaide Hills’ Sauvignon Blanc, $25, at 95 points. Top sparkling was a 2004 Moet & Chandon Brut Rose Champagne, $65, from Epernay, France, another 95-pointer.

California upheld the honor of domestic U.S. wineries with two stunning reds – 2010 Hawk & Horse Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills, $65, and 2010 Rocca Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Grigsby Vineyard, Yountville, Napa Valley, $85 – that tied at 98 points each.

Throw in the 94-point 2013 Halter Ranch Rose, $21, from Paso Robles and the Californians could celebrate a good weekend showing against top wines from around the globe.

More than 800 wines were evaluated by professional sommeliers over two days of intense tasting at this unique wine competition. Inniskillin, as the most highly rated wine, was named Wine of the Year, while Sonoma’s Rodney Strong Vineyards and Italy’s Ruffino took the Director’s awards as domestic and imported Winery of the Year, respectively.

The performance of Rodney Strong was especially impressive with nine medals from 10 wines entered, including the best of class chardonnay, a 2012 Rodney Strong Estate, Chalk Hill Chardonnay that retails for $22. Winemaker Rick Sayre has been making a Chalk Hill Chardonnay for at least a quarter-century and it has always been among the best in its price category.

Working with the highly respected winemaking consultant and Chardonnay whiz Dave Ramey, Sayre related a recent conversation between the two as they conducted evaluations at the winery.

“Dave tasted the Chalk Hill and said, ‘Hmm, this is pretty good. How much did you make,’ “ Sayre related. “I said 60,000 cases. Dave said to me, ‘How do you make 60,000 cases taste so good?’

“I said, the same way you make 1,000 cases taste good.”

Indeed, Sayre works with state of the art winemaking equipment that allows Rodney Strong to isolate its finest grapes during fermentation and maintain high quality despite production levels that would challenge most winemakers. For example, even the Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay ($17) at much higher levels of production took a gold medal with a 90-point rating. Overall, Rodney Strong won a platinum, five golds and three silvers to nail down domestic winery of the year.

Ruffino won seven medals overall from nine wines entered, including platinum awards for its Super Tuscan, the 2011 Modus, $24.99, with 95 points and its super value 2011 Chianti DOCG, $9.99, with 94 points.  Long one of Italy’s most quality conscious wineries, the Sommelier Challenge performance was stellar even by Ruffino’s historically high standards.

In other interesting results, the top-rated Pinot Noir was the 2012 Johan Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir, $28, from Oregon’s Willamette Valley with 95 points and a platinum medal. This wine is another great example of the trend in making sensational Pinot at a relatively modest price. If you don’t believe that, just put this wine in a blind tasting with $50 and $60 domestic Pinots and watch what happens.

Paul Mas, a top producer from France’s Languedoc region and last year’s winery of the year at the Sommelier Challenge, continued its impressive run with the sommeliers, taking platinum medals with its 2013 Chateau Paul Mas Clos de Savignac, $24.99, a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend that earned a 95-point rating and its 2013 Cote Mas Coteaux du Languedoc red Rhone blend, $19, with 94 points.

Barboursville carried the water for Virginia with a platinum for its 2010 Paxxito dessert wine, $31.99, at 94 points, and a gold medal and 90 points for its 2012 Octagon red meritage, $54.99.

Sonoma’s Gloria Ferrer, one of California’s top sparkling wine producers, won seven medals, including one platinum and four golds. The platinum was for its impeccably made non-vintage Sonoma County Brut, $22, with 94 points.

V. Sattui entered 30-plus wines and was the leader in medals with 21, including a platinum for its 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Preston Vineyard, Napa Valley, $55, with 94 points. V. Sattui also bagged six gold medals.

The Champagne house Moet & Chandon had a good weekend in addition to its triumph with the best of show sparkling wine. Moet won medals with all five of the wines it entered, including a second platinum with its 1999 Grand Vintage Collection Brut, $140, at 94 points.

Complete results can be found at the Sommelier Challenge website, SommelierChallenge.com.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 4:31 PM

September 3, 2014

Solving a Cork Crisis

It’s no wonder many wine enthusiasts approach the task of opening an older bottle with trepidation. The fear and loathing is understandable for anyone who’s had a faulty cork shred in an attempt to extract it from an expensive or rare vintage.

More often than not, if the wine has been stored properly – on its side in a cool, dark space – the cork will come out easily and in one piece. But there are times, and it's simply the luck of the draw, when removing an old cork can result in unmitigated disaster, crumbling before your eyes and literally impossible to extract with an ordinary corkscrew.

And so it was on a recent evening when I foraged through the cellar for a well-aged Cabernet to serve with a beautiful prime ribeye steak. After considering a number of possibilities, my hand settled upon a bottle of 1994 Guenoc Bella Vista Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley.

The wine had been resting on its side in my cellar for at least 17 of its 20 years. The ullage (the space between the bottom of the cork and the liquid in the bottle) was exceptional for a 20-year-old wine. And there was no evidence of seepage around the capsule.

From all appearances the wine was in superb condition. But when the dramatic moment arrived to open the bottle, the cork disintegrated, leaving the neck of the bottle and the liquid at the very top covered with what looked like sawdust.

The cork had completely dried out over time despite lying on its side with the bottom of the cork wet for those many years. The problem was nothing more than a bad or faulty cork, and I can say from years of experience that it happens.

Not to worry, however, if you have the proper tools. To recover from a crumbled cork you will need a decanter and a funnel equipped with a wire mesh trap to catch the cork particles as you decant.

But first I used the knife on the corkscrew to push the cork completely into the bottle to create space for the wine to escape. The wire mesh captured all of the broken cork and left the decanted wine in pristine condition.

To my utter delight, the faulty cork had not spoiled the wine. It was loaded with primary fruit, with great color and remarkable freshness for a 20-year-old California Cab.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:16 PM