My goal here is to share with other wine enthusiasts my discoveries as I judge at wine competitions and visit wine regions, with occasional commentary about issues touching the wine scene, especially in California.
After two days and 192 wines tasted blind at the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition earlier this week, here are a few notes squeezed from my scoresheets:
- For character and value, is there another varietal more consistently rewarding these days than sauvignon blanc from New Zealand? If you're looking for a dry but fruity wine with beckoning aromatics, spirited flavor and refreshingly snappy acidity, head for the aisle lined with labels that include "Sauvignon Blanc" and "New Zealand," and just for good measure, "Marlborough," the region that yields most of the more outspoken interpretations of the varietal. Dallas organizes its classes by region of origin. Of the 32 sauvignon blancs from New Zealand we tasted, nine won gold medals, an exceptionally high percentage. Only four got no award at all. The medal winners uniformly were lively, balanced and packed with zesty fruit - grapefruit and lime, mostly. All the golds were from the 2012 vintage and from Marlborough. They were the Sileni Cellar Selection, the Martin's Rake, the Forefathers Wax Eye Vineyard, the Spy Valley, the Chasing Venus, the Starborough, the Giesen, the Wither Hills Marlborough Wairau Valley and the Smyth & Renfield.
- Lake County is no slouch when it comes to sauvignon blanc, either. We judged 13 Lake County sauvignon blancs, giving gold to five of them, another exceptional showing. As a group, they were a little less rambunctious than the sauvignon blancs from New Zealand. Several tilted more to suggestions of melon than grapefruit and lime. They were broader, with more persistent finishes, yet also had the balance and backbone to be enjoyed either as cocktail wine or as an adaptable companion at the table. The gold-medal winners were the elegant Bell 2011 Lake County, the grippy Vigilance 2011 Red Hills, the spicy and zesty Cross Springs 2011 Family Estate, the complex and crisp Shannon Ridge 2011 High Elevation Collection, and the limey and steely Line 39 2011.
- Of the 192 wines, just one clearly was contaminated with TCA, a taint commonly called "corked," though another entry was suspect. We asked for new bottles for both, and the replacements were fine. A decade ago the percentage of corked wines at the competition likely would have been close to five percent. Two lessons can be inferred from this: More vintners are using screwcaps, and the cork trade pretty much has gotten on top of the problem that caused so many wines to be marred.
- The most disappointing class was cabernet sauvignon bearing a "California" appellation, meaning the grapes that went into the wines could have been grown anywhere in the state. Of the 52 we judged, only two got gold medals; 34 got no award whatsoever. By and large, they were ragged, blunt and dull, rarely showing any trace of the kinds of fruits and herbs commonly associated with cabernet sauvignon. To be fair, most were from California's challenging 2010 and 2011 vintages, but still, if a vintner is going to release a wine labeled "cabernet sauvignon" it should show at least some family resemblance. So which ones won gold? The rich and spunky Parlay "The Bookmaker" 2010 California Cabernet Sauvignon, and the bright and supple Barefoot Cellars non-vintage California Cabernet Sauvignon. I voted gold for one more, the generously fruity and finely structured The Naked Grape non-vintage California Cabernet Sauvignon, but the rest of the panel felt it warranted no more than silver.
- Blended wines made with grapes long associated with France's Rhone Valley - grenache, mourvedre, syrah and so forth - are generating much buzz on the California wine scene nowadays. Blends from other grape varieties, however, have a ways to go before they achieve the same sort of riveting complexity and seamless grace, to judge by the 55 we judged. These were not "meritage" wines, or blends made solely from the traditional grape varieties of Bordeaux - cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, principally. Rather, they might be a mix of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, grenache, mouvedre and viognier, or a mosaic of tempranillo, grenache and monastrell. Several were splendid - we awarded gold to five of them - but too many were just too simple, too clumsy or too flat to deserve anything more than a bronze, if that. One, however, drew from our panel rare unanimity when we all agreed that it warranted a gold medal. It was the darkly fruity, powerful and spicy Big Guy 2010 California Red, which showed an animation and composure unusual for the class. It consists of 73 percent syrah, 16 percent merlot, 6 percent sangiovese and 5 percent cabernet sauvignon. The other golds went to the Jeff Cohn Wines 2010 California Imposter, a substantial and complicated blend of zinfandel, syrah, petite sirah, grenache, mourvedre and viognier; the Open Range 2009 California Red, a big and round blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, merlot, mourvedre and cabernet franc; the Masked Rider 2011 California Gunsmoke Red, a youthful and delicately layered blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, merlot and cabernet franc; and the Red Rock Winery 2011 California Reserve Winemaker's Blend, a muscular and jammy blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.
- Our panel also was assigned blended red wines bearing a Paso Robles appellation. Going in, I would have bet that the blends to show best would consist largely of zinfandel, the grape that to me has shown off the region more steadily than any other variety. The two golds we awarded, however, went to wines based on other varieties, the Daou 2010 Paso Robles Celestus, a hulking and concentrated blend of 59 percent syrah, 32 percent cabernet sauvignon and 9 percent petit verdot, and the Sculpterra 2010 Paso Robles Estate Figurine, a bold, toasty and solid blend of 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 38 percent primitivo and 12 percent merlot.