Cliff Lede Vineyards Tasting at Union Square Cafe

This was my first visit to Union Square Café since its move to East 19th Street. I was really looking forward to the lunch and to tasting the Lede Family wines. The two are a well-matched pair, classy, luxurious yet without pretense. The tall ceilings of USC, matched with the contemporary art throughout the restaurant, speak to the bright, modern atmosphere it conveys. The same can be said of the food, while classic in approach, it is fresher, brighter, and with an added touch of polish. 

We began our tasting with the 2017 Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley. Remi Cohen, the Lede Family Wines COO who led the tasting, spoke of the thought process behind this wine. Like the white wines of Bordeaux, this wine is about brightness; a fresh, mineral approach but with a layer of polish brought by the careful use of oak and stainless steel. While the roots of the wine are clearly old world, with its blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the fruit clearly speaks of Napa. The bright citrus on the nose is contrasted with hints of coconut and stone fruit. The palate open with grapefruit, green mango and lime, but then turns to show a lusher side of custard and sweet pineapple. The wine finishes cleanly, with a dry, spicy finish of basil and citrus zest. 

In addition to the Cliff Lede Vineyards, the Family also includes FEL Wines, with a focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. FEL Wines (a tribute to Cliff’s mother – Florence Elsie Lede) is situated on 44 acres in Anderson Valley and include the famous Savoy Vineyard, planted in 1991. We tasted the 2017 FEL Anderson Valley Chardonnay first, a whole cluster pressed wine, aged sur lie for ten months with limited malolactic fermentation. While clearly full of ripe sweet California fruit, the wine showed beautiful white flowers on the nose with hints of vanilla. The palate was ripe, with lemon curd and melon, but underlines by a fresher, zestier streak that kept one coming back for another sip. The wine finished with a hint of green peach and citrus rind. 

We also tasted the 2016 FEL Anderson Valley Pinot Noir as well as the 2016 FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir. Both wines see a similar vinification, with cold soak and maceration (the Savoy receives a longer maceration period of ten days) and are aged for 16 months in 60-gallon French Oak (about 40% new). Both wines are rich and powerful, showing the darker fruit and sweeter cherry tones one would expect in California Pinot. The Savoy Vineyard Pinot thou was clearly my favorite; while it too opened with blackberry and blueberry on the nose, there were hints of mint and sweet herb as well. The palate was redder, brighter of the two wines, with strawberry and pomegranate along for the ride. While a very young wine, this had a streak of minerality hiding under the lush fruit, perhaps hinting at the ageing potential. Long silky finish brings savory herb notes and a touch of coffee. Quite intriguing. 

We then moved on to the Cliff Lede Vineyards red wines. Cliff’s initial interest in Napa wines came both from his visits to the area and his interest in the great wines of Bordeaux. Thus, the inspiration for the red wines is, in its essence, Old-World. However, this inspiration is filtered through a fresh, modern look of Napa Valley and, with a layer of classical rock, present to the drinker a new vision of taste and of beauty. He acquired the estate, situated in the famous Stags Leap District, in 2002, and the winery, completed in 2005, was designed by Howard Becken. We began with the 2016 Cliff Lede High Fidelity, a Cabernet Franc dominated Bordeaux blend (51% Cab Franc, 34% Merlot, 14% Cab Sauv and 1% Petit Verdot). I was happy to see that the wines showed the classical notes of Cab Franc on the nose, tobacco with savory herb and a touch of pepper. The oak is well balanced here by the lush, sweet red and black fruit, with black cherry and plum dominating. The wine shows a powerful core and structure, for all its breadth, with plush, polished tannin and a streak of savory herb that keeps the wine fresh. This is already a pleasure to drink, a luxurious armchair of a wine but with clear aging potential as well. 

The 2016 Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon was likely my favorite wine of the tasting. A true California Cabernet, it opens with ripe, rich blackberry and cassis, as well as a clear milk chocolate note. However, just take one sip, and you will quickly discover the more structured, medium bodied wine underneath. Smoky spices, red fruit and a classic chewy palate. Herbs and tobacco round off the back palate, leading to a tannic, grippy finish that speaks to the bright future of this wine. I believe the ripe fruit will subside, giving more room to the more classic tones of this wine. I would love to revisit it in a decade. 

We concluded the tasting with the 2015 Moon Fantasy and the 2012 Poetry Cabernet Sauvignons. The Moon Fantasy name comes from Cliff’s love for classical rock – Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Cream’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. This is a big, brash wine, luxurious and self-involved, as a good rock star should be. Rich sweet fruit on the nose, dripping with lilacs and violets. Cigar box, cassis and black cherry on the palate, ripe and sweet, wrapping one’s palate in velvet. It is a powerhouse of a wine, but unlike the two previous reds, it is more approachable immediately. If you find yourself in a rich, soft armchair, as the sun is setting in the background, with a good book in hand, this may be your wine. The 2012 Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon plays many of the same notes as the Moon Fantasy, but in a silkier, less obvious way. This isn’t a rock star per se, but perhaps a look back to the glamor days of Hollywood. Wood, tea, pepper notes speak of luxury, but the fruit tones are softened, less sweet, cleaner and brighter. They contrast the richness of the tannin and wood notes, creating a complex and powerful symphony. This is a wine to age, to let all the players find their tune. 

I want to thank both Remi Cohen and Katherine Jarvis for such an intriguing tasting. Remi’s knowledge of the wines and of Napa gave us a deeper understanding of Cliff’s vision for both Cliff Lede Vineyards and FEL Wines.  

Massanois Imports Annual Tasting 2019

This was my second year attending the Annual Tasting, and I want to extend my thanks to both, the Massanois Imports, all the producers present and the crew of City Winery. These are merely brief notes on some of the wines that I tasted. 

2007 Weingut Max Ferd. Richter Mülheimer Sonnenlay Riesling Spätlese feinherb: This is aging beautifully, not much has changed since last year, a hint of the orange flower note on the nose (some botrytis) the wine was peach, mirabelle and mint. There is a hint of ginger on the long sweet and sour finish Still young but reaching into maturity. Light and bright - a perfect afternoon in a bottle. 

2016 Weingut Max Ferd. Richter Mülheimer Helenenkloster Riesling Eiswein: Stunning wine, ripe, with oranges, mango and ripe apricot. It is ripe, but the sweetness is balanced by a bright, mineral note. While it clearly shows notes of rich tropical fruit, there are lighter, brighter tones still hidden within. Given time, this should blossom into a beauty. 

2015 Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Großes Gewächs:
This was a wine I was looking forward to, as I am quite fond of the 2015 vintage. It did not disappoint, the wine is thoroughly bright, with a deep mineral streak that speaks to its origins. While lighter than some, the wine shows white peach, pear and apple. I can see this aging into a classic MSR Riesling, and yet this trocken is quite delicious already. 

2010 Karthäuserhof Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg Riesling Auslese: This is a throwback Auslese, with a modern spatlese weight, yet rich with tropical notes and ripe peaches. There is a hint of pineapple and mango toward the back, but the mineral nature of the wine keeps it fresh. Quite impressive! 

2010 Parusso Barolo Bussia:
The 2010s are still quite young, but this Bussia is already showing a floral, rose and violet nose. Elegant mid, light color, with juicy red cherry fruit in the mid. The structure is still quite rustic, powerful tannins, with hints of tar and spice. This will age into an excellent wine. 

2015 Bruna Grimaldi Barolo Bricco Ambrogio: This was an elegant Barolo, floral on the nose, with spice, cherry and purple flowers. The mid is quite tight, though elegant, smooth tannins, and sweet cherry fruit. A beautiful young wine.

2015 Bruna Grimaldi Barolo Badarina:
Unlike the Bricco Ambrogio, this is a richer, darker expression of Nebbiolo, sweet raspberry, dark cherry and savory herbs in the mid palate. The mineral undertones keeps this wine in check, leading to a long and still quite tannic finish.   

2012 Bruna Grimaldi Barolo Badarina Riserva:
A serious, powerful wine from a tough vintage, sweet, ripe cherry fruit, darker toward the back palate, quite tannic, yet polished, with a savory herb on the finish. 

2017 Cascina Gilli Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco:
Seeing Paolo Vergnano in New York was an unexpected pleasure, having visited Cascina Gilli this past summer. Their Malvasia is an absolute pleasure, a guilty pleasure indeed, fruit salad, cotton candy, with a slight raspberry effervescence. Ripe and sweet, it has an underlying herbal structure and a refreshing citrus note. Delicious! 

2013 Cascina Guido Berta Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza:
This is a powerful wine, with earthy cherry fruit. It is still quite young, but the savory. Chewy mid is already hard to resist. 

2015 Bibbiano Chianti Classico Montornello:
A mineral expression of Sangiovese, bright red fruit, cherry, earthy tones, good power toward the finish. Quite elegant already and clearly with potential.

2015 Bibbiano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione Vigna del Capannino: Richer and riper than the Montornello, with darker, deeper fruit. Quite firm, more in need of time, but clearly with aging potential.

2013 Fanti (Tenuta San Filippo) Brunello di Montalcino Vallocchio:
A bright, fresh Brunello, elegant but with a more rustic, chewy mid palate. Great structure here, a wine that need decanting or, preferably, time. 

2015 Fongoli Montefalco Rosso Serpullo:
Juicy, ripe sweet fruit, medium bodied, deep mid, sweet and ripe finish. Quite intriguing! 

2012 Fongoli Sagrantino di Montefalco Fracanton:
This wine has spent six years in anfora, and the result is a fresher, brighter fruit flavor, ripe cherry and blackberry on the nose, powerful fruit in the mid, serious and needing time. 

2017 Anthony Nappa Wines Cabernet Franc Bordo:
An interesting Cab Franc from Long Island, with ripe fruit and bell pepper on the nose, good mid palate, red fruit, juicy and bright. Good long finish, with some herbs and spice. 

2014 Brittan Vineyards Pinot Noir Gestalt Block: Ripe, powerful expression, tannic and rich with blueberry and cherry tones. This is an intriguing expression of Pinot, taking the clarity of cooler climate fruit but with the richness and power that is quite unexpected. 

Willamette Pinot Noir Auction Seminar - A Unique View into the Valley

When I think of Pinot, Willamette Valley comes to mind only a step behind Burgundy. To be fair, I am biased – Oregon was my first trip without my parents as a teenager. I spent a year in school in Oregon as well, at Willamette University, across from the Capitol Building. But there is another basic bias, I have been to Oregon. From the serene beauty of Crater Lake, to the quaint towns of the Oregon coast, and the majesty of the mountains – it is easy to fall in love. The valley itself, nestled between the foggy, dreamy Pacific Coast and the power of the Cascade Range, allows for a cool, dry growing season so well suited to the Pinot Noir grape. 

The history of Oregon Pinot, from the early days of David Lett and Dick Erath in the 1960s, to the 500 wineries of today, was one of community. When asked at the seminar “What does Willamette Valley stand for?” Eugenia Keegan quickly replied: “Quality and Collaboration”. And the latter brings us to the Auction itself, now in its fourth year, it represents the winemakers of the valley coming together to showcase their region. Small lots of 5, 10 and 20 cases by 86 producers will be offered, including six unique lots of Chardonnay, made by previous and current auction chairs, often in collaboration (the 2016 poured at the seminar was made as a collaboration between Bergström and Adelsheim wineries). Scheduled for April 5-6th, it will bring trade professionals to Oregon, allowing them to experience the Valley for themselves. 

We tastes six Pinot Noir wine at the seminar, as well as a lovely and fresh Rosé, from Big Table Farms and an Auction Collaboration Chardonnay. The Pinot Noirs spanned the last six vintages, from 2011 to 2016, and allowed us a peek into the evolution of the wines in the bottle, as well as the specific terroir and winemaking styles represented. I was most taken by the 2013 Soléna Estate Zena Crown Vineyard and the 2012 Penner-Ash Wine Cellars Hyland Vineyard Pinots. Both showed the structure and masculine nature I often see in Oregon Pinot Noirs, with juicy red berry dominating. The Penner-Ash clearly darker, riper, showcasing the rich vintage, with a core of deep plum fruit on the back palate and a rich, spicy finish. It handles the oak beautifully, adding a layer of velvet onto the dusty and brash fruit. The Soléna, on the other hand, is a lighter, more perfumed wine, opening with violets and sour cherry tones, leading to a bright, fresh mid palate of cranberry and tart red cherry. The vintage shows itself here as well, with the beautiful fresh acidity and the higher, more nervous structure. I really loved the raspberry notes on the long finish. 

Of the younger wines, I must mention the 2015 Drouhin Oregon Roserock “Auction Cuvee” Pinot Noir. While still quite primary, it showed a unique dry cherry and dry cranberry on the nose, with a core of black cherry fruit and savory herb on the palate. This is still painfully young, and in need of age, but the sweet cherry finish makes the sacrifice worthwhile. I would love to see this wine after a decade in the cellar. I must also say a few words about the Chardonnay, a grape that, after a slow start, is quickly gaining ground in Oregon. The 2016 “The Pioneer and the Punk” Chardonnay, a joint venture of Josh Bergström and Dave Paige, was a treat. Still youthful, with a hint of vanilla over the bright citrus of the nose, the wine opens to reveal a bright palate of dry pineapple, mango and a touch of tart lemon curd. The mineral notes and the brighter lemon zest are hiding underneath, waiting their turn, but give them a few years and this wine will really begin to sing. 

I would like to thank both Shirley Brooks and Eugenia Keegan for their insightful and education seminar, and to Jarvis Communications for the invitation 

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