Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Wineaux: Deciding on wines in the Year of the Horse


From page A11 | February 06, 2014 | Leave Comment

The Year of the Horse has just trotted in, replacing the slightly unsavory Year of the Snake, which despite attempts to present it positively (“a year of steady progress”) carried with it that frisson of distrust generated by the much-maligned reptile.

The horse promises “fast victories, unexpected adventure and surprising romance.” But, astrologers say, you have to act fast in a Horse year. “If you are not 100 percent secure about a decision, then don’t do it … you don’t want to gallop off in the wrong direction.”

My qigong-master partner discourages Jan. 1 resolutions because “nature calls us to rest in winter,” so mid-winter (even if the sun’s shining) resolutions to act (or to refrain from acting by, for example, foolishly giving up wine or pasta or chocolate) usually fail. Make resolutions, she says, with the first stirrings of new life, which, usually, just happens to coincide with Chinese New Year.

But this “decisive” year poses problems, at least for me, an admittedly indecisive person. How do I know I’m not galloping off in the wrong direction? Better, I think, to stick to the small stuff. Like drinking better wine.

So, for a Chinese New Year gift, I offer you the pay-less-attention-to-price wines that have brightened up our winter meals and started the Year of the Horse galloping off in an excellent and mildly adventuresome direction.

The first comes from Lioco, a wine-making project dedicated to expressing various California terroirs. Lioco (the name a contraction of founders Matt Licklider and Kevin O’Connor) owns no vineyards but sources grapes from some of the best independently owned, sustainably farmed and low-yielding vineyards in the state. A part of the loose “natural wine” movement, Lioco follows minimal manipulation practices — hand-harvesting and sorting, wild yeast fermenting, little or no oak contact (this particular wine spent 11 months in neutral oak barrels), no fining or filtration.

And, yes, as you would expect their pinot noir (one of their specialties) costs nearly $40. But they also make a red blend for half that. It’s not actually much of a blend — 98 percent carignan, 2 percent grenache. They could, legally, just call it “carignan,” but that hardly has the cachet of, say, “pinot noir.” Instead, they call it “Indica.”

Carignan is a mostly Rhône grape — usually used for blending — that was widely planted in California before so many old varietals got ripped out and replaced with cabernet and chardonnay. The Indica grapes come from 70-year-old dry-farmed vines grown in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley.

A wine that didn’t impress me much at first sip, Indica really popped — with sour cherry, bright cranberry and savory herbs — when paired with a spicy red-sauced, four-cheese pizza. Even the vinegar-dressed broccoli salad didn’t dim its lively fruit. We just couldn’t bear to leave a single drop in the bottle, but at just 12.9 percent alcohol, it didn’t do any serious damage.

I recently looked at the wine list of a trendy new San Francisco restaurant and found three Lioco wines on their not-very-long list. So if you want to start the Year of the Horse in a trendy direction, do get yourself a bottle of Indica ($20, Co-op). Or pay $40 for it at Verbena to drink with your trendy dish of “Carrots, Verbena, Aleppo-pepper, Nettles, Cashew.”

My second wine — the Joseph Faveley 2010 Bourgogne Pinot Noir — came from Valley Wine Company. (Well, actually it came from France, but you know that already.) John warned me to give it plenty of breathing time, three hours minimum, because it’s tight. I thought it would be fun to take sips every hour of those three, and I was prepared to find the first sip just too austere even for me. But, perhaps seduced by the earthy clove nose (which disappeared later), I loved it from the beginning. Even before I paired it with a wild-mushroom-wine-sauce (no, I didn’t use this wine) over polenta, which is when it really started revealing itself.

There was a time in my wine life when I thought wines from Burgundy were overrated. And I’m sure some of them are. But now I think that if I could afford to drink them three times a week (must save nights for Italian, Californian, Spanish, Portuguese, Oregonian), I would. The Faveley family has been making wine since the early 19th century and are now known as one of the very best producers of classic Burgundies.

The Bourgogne Pinot Noir is made with grapes from all three of the Domaine Faveley’s classified vineyards in the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and Côtes Chalonnais — some of the wines from these vineyards, by the way, cost several hundred dollars a bottle. This fresh, elegant, herby wine with good tannins and a clean, tangy finish is their entry-level project and a bargain at $15.99 (Valley Wine Company).

Not trendy (except that these traditionally crafted, low-alcohol European wines are very much in style right now), but seriously delicious. Warning: This wine screams “I’m not from California,” so if you’re a big fan of big California reds, you might not find this to your liking.

I’d be hard-pressed to decide which of these two wines to have with our next special dinner — I think my resolution for the week will be a bottle of each. Decisive enough?

Two local wineries certainly have started off the year galloping in a good direction. Both Route 3′s 2012 Chardonnay and their 2011 Grenache were awarded silver medals at the 2014 San Francisco Wine Competition, one of the largest competitions of American Wines in the world — with more than 1,500 participating wineries.

In the same competition, Putah Creek Winery received silver medals for all five of the wines they submitted: ’09 Tannat, ’11 Syrah, ’11 Barbera, ’12 Sauvignon Blanc and ’12 Unoaked Chardonnay.

Congratulations to both Route 3 and Putah Creek!

And Happy Year of the Horse to all.

— Reach Susan Leonardi at Comment on this column at

Susan Leonardi


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