Over two thousand wine reviews! While most of our reviews focus on great wines under $20, we also offer reviews of luxury and collectible wines. As we are located in Philadelphia, most wines reviewed here are available via PLCB Wine & Spirits Shops in Pennsylvania. Our main reviewer is Keith Wallace, the executive director and founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia.
This is not the first time we have reviewed a Firriato wine, and it probably won’t be the last. They bring classic Sicilian wines to the American market in a way that makes everyone happy. They use indigenous varietals and focus on classic wine styles. The winery is not technically in Sicily; it is located on mountainous island of Favignana, which is part of the Sicily DO.
Winemaker Giuseppe Pellegrino has put together a fantastic portfolio of wines since the winery was founded in 1985. In the nineties, he and his team brought in young winemakers from Australia and New Zealand to help the Sicilians translate their wines for the American palate. A few talented “New World” winemakers have gotten their start at Firriato, including Sam Connew (Stargazers Winery in Australia) and Alana McGettigan (Allora Wines and Kiwi-Oeno in New Zealand). It’s a brilliant concept that has helped Firriato build a following in the USA.
Cantina Firriato 2011 Quater Bianco
Wine Review of Cantina Firriato 2011 Quater Bianco
Not surprising, the Quater Bianco is a blend of four white grapes, Zibibbo, Grillo, Catarratto and Carricante. Zibbio is the local term for Muscat of Alexandria, which is most often used for dessert wines in southern Spain and several Greek islands. Here, it gives the illusion of being sweet: the wine is bone dry. Aromas of very ripe nectarines and peaches intermingled with water lily. White fruit flavors own the palate like Tony Soprano. White pepper and oyster shell come forward in the super-ripe finish. 90 Points.
Ribera del Jucar is one of a dozen unknown yet exemplary wine regions in Spain. It’s an ancient wine region that was under vine during the Roman Empire. But it’s also one of the newest; it was only granted it’s Denominación de Origen in 2003. Before that, it was only labelled as an anonymous La Mancha wine.
Bodega La Magdelena is the local co-operative, and has been producing bulk wine since 1958. There are about 300 wineries involved which collectively own about 700 hectares of vineyards. This is a common means of wine production for small wineries in economically strained wine regions. It’s been the standard in Europe for decades. Such projects are often based in high-volume production, but can also produce very good wines when they decide to.
For this wine, the co-op partnered with a viticultural consulting firm, Majuelos de Espana, to create the wine from a few select Tempranillo vineyards.
Bodegas La Magdalena 2011 “Sueno” Tempranillo
Wine Review of Bodegas La Magdalena 2011 “Sueno” Tempranillo
This wine is proof positive that Spanish wines are absurdly undervalued in the American marketplace. This is a monolithic bottle of wine with just the right amount of grace. The aroma drips with basil, charred fruit, and smokey cinnamon. A touch of round earthiness spins out into the galaxy. The palate is licorice, damson plum, fireplace embers, and blueberry. It’s richness and thick round tannins ebb in the mid palate then rise in a crescendo in the finish of burnt cedar and mineral. 93 Points.
Chateau L’Ermitage is the classical type of French winery. Nothing exciting except the wines they produce. For the past thirty years, Michel and Jérôme Castillon have owned the winery and made the wine. Their vineyards span 80 hectares through the Nimes region, which is on the southern side of the Rhone valley. They are the third generation of the Castillon family to tend the vineyards at Chateau L’Ermitage.
The Castillon family clearly have wonderful and tranquil life of tending grapes. It just makes it really hard to write about. Without any action or horror or tragedy, there really isn’t much to say about the winery. The property was orginally an 11th century monastery, and the first wine cellar was built in the 19th century. Again, lovely but not really exciting stuff. And that is a good thing. Wineries don’t need shady politics and machinations. They need centuries of quiet tending, and that is what we have here.
Chateau L’Ermitage 2012 “Sainte Cecile” Costieres de Nimes White
Wine Review of Chateau L’Ermitage 2012 “Sainte Cecile” Costieres de Nimes White
Old vine Roussanne with a bit of Viognier and Grenache Blanc. Fermented in steel and aged for a hot second in oak. Stone fruit and hibiscus on the nose with a whiff of toast and Nutella. The attack is lush and round and only by the finish does the crisp underbelly of crab apple come into play. Flavors of quince and dry honey own the mid palate, and the finish is a full-on bakery: fresh dough, spices, and burnt butter. 92 Points
I am not a fan of corporate wines. That is something most people in the wine trade know all too well. I am not a fan of large-scale wineries, even if they are run family-owned. They don’t need my help in getting attention for their wines. They have marketing people for that. Firestone Vineyards fell into that category. Don’t get me wrong. They are really nice folks. I have nothing against them. I simply prefer to seek out smaller wineries to write about.
Curtis Winery in Santa Ynez Valley is owned by the Firestone family. Brooks and Kate Firestone opened up the winery in 1995 to produce Rhone-style wines, mostly syrah, grenache, and viognier bottlings. Brook is the grandchild of the original Firestone Vineyards owner, and the heir to the Firestone Tire fortune. His son is Andrew, from the reality tv show The Bachelor. Yeah, Andrew kinda pretended to be a winemaker and occasionally poured wine at the tasting room. As a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kinda guy, that wasn’t a story I was interested in writing about.
But the wines were often awesome. The Firestones pulled in winemaker extraordinaire Chuck Carlson to make the wines, and the bottles just kept getting better and better. Then they closed their doors on March 31st, 2014. The 2010 Heritage Cuvée was sold off to the PLCB for pennies on the dollar, and the rest of the wine was sold off into different channels, mostly flash wine sites. The move was sudden, and the reasons unknown.
This is where I change my mind about the Firestones. They immediately leased the winery and vineyards to one of the most awesome of winemakers in the region, Andrew Murray. According to my sources in the Santa Barbara wine trade, the Firestones offered Andrew a sweet deal as long as retained the majority of the staff. Whatever the reason for the selloff and winery closing, it’s amazing that the Firestones insured their people would remain employed.
Curtis Winery 2010 Heritage Cuvée
Wine Review of Curtis Winery 2010 Heritage Cuvée:
The wine regions in Santa Barbara county are well-known for their ability to grow top-notch Mediterranean grape varietals. This bottle is yet more proof. On the nose, pain grille, garrigue (yes, these are Wine School terms), and ripe plum are in full force. On the palate, layers of fresh raspberries, fennel, and burnt cedar lead into cinnamon and sweet vanilla. A Rhone-style blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah aged in oak for a year. Medium bodied with medium tannins, which really shows in the finish. This will drink well for the next six years, but I’d plan on drinking it in the next 24 months for maximum enjoyment. 91 points.
This wine is a bit of Argentine history. The Bodega Goulart vineyard was originally planted by Gastao Goulart in 1915 to Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, he was a Brazilian political exile living in Argentina at the time. Soon after, he became a South American legend when he returned to his homeland and led it’s Constitutional Revolution in 1932. The vineyard was lost to time and war, but the vines somehow thrived on their own.
Flash forward to 1988, and Goulart’s granddaughter, Erika Goulart, discovered the deed to the vineyard in his papers. According to the papers, it was located in Luján de Cuyo, one of the very best sub-regions in Mendoza. She left for Mendoza almost immediately thereafter, leaving her life as a marketing professional forever. She teamed up with Mauricio Parodi, one of the top agronomist working in Mendoza. It took about 6 years to rebuild the gnarly old vineyards. Once they were ready to make wine, she brought on Luis Barraud –the guy who runs Paul Hobbs winery in Mendoza–as the consulting winemaker.
Bodega Goulart 2010 “The Marshall” Malbec
Wine Review of Bodega Goulart 2010 “The Marshall” Malbec:
If there is a wine that could be called democratic –appealing to everyone except the most snobbish of snobby wine snobs– this would be it. This wine waves it’s ruby hue like a victory flag. Aromas of cocoa and tobacco are followed by a round and full body. The tannins are full and ripe, pushing forward flavors of creme de cassis, mocha, and cherry dust. An ample amount of oak is evident in the vanilla and toasted spices in the finish. Things tighten up a bit on the finish, but this is a lovely bottle for the price. 90 Points
The Greve Valley is lined with terraced vineyards. Looking across the valley from this winery, those stone walls can look like a giant scallete (ladder, in Italian). At least it did for the wineries original owner. We will never know where he thought that ladder would take him. He disappeared a long time ago and his winery fell to ruin.
Only much later, in 1991, was Poggio Scalette raised again, by none other than Vittorio Fiore, one of the greatest living winemakers working in Chianti.
Greve is one of the great Crus of Chianti Classico. The analogy I would make is that it is akin to Saint-Estèphe in the Haut Medoc. And yes, that is a totally geeked out analogy. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
Greve –which is pronounced like gravy, fyi– is one of the original wine growing towns of Chianti, with a history that dates far back into the middle ages. And still remains one of the best. Sadly, this information is often missing from the wine label. When it is present, it’s often in very small type.
The nose is an intriguing blend of fresh leather and chamomile tea. The palate is freshly crushed cherries and pomegranate that turns floral with a whiff of bergamot. The tannins are silky and edge the fruit into a blue state while the floral notes ebb into a spicy intense finish.
No matter it’s pedigree, Zinfandel is big, dumb and fun. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. There should always be a place for fun. This is the wine for unsophicated meals. I couldn’t imagine a better wine for the smokiness of Texas pulled pork or the tang of Carolina-style brisket.
Conversely, it’s the perfect wine for sophisticated parties. It’s the wine for smart people having a good time: the type of party where Sartre quotes and dirty limericks are equally likely to emerge.
The Harris Kratka vineyard is high up on the pyramid, quality zin-wise. It’s located in the Chalk Hill AVA in southern Alexander Valley in Sonoma. Pro Tip: Wine regions can sometimes seem like nesting dolls, with smaller one residing in bigger ones. Harris Kratka is a perfect example; the vineyard is located in Chalk Hill wine region which itself is located in Alexander Valley, which is in Sonoma Valley, which is in the California AVA.
The Zinfandel comes from 50 year plus head-pruned vines. This is a very old vineyard, California-wise, and has been under production since the 1970′s, when it’s grapes were sold to Gallo. These days it’s grapes go to Rosenblum, along with a significant number of great wineries. This includes Rock Wall, Manzanita Creek, Fieldstone, R&B Cellars, Pezzi-King, Wilson, Carol Shelton, De Lorimier, and Wine Guerrilla. That’s an impressive line-up considering this is only a 17 acre vineyard.
The fruit is classic Sonoma zin: basically a cherry-powered Humvee that drives over your tongue with giant blueberry tires. It keeps up with its decadent show of force with dried plum, creme brulee, and licorice. At that point the jammy fruit turns a bit angular and shows a level of finesse that isn’t always found in Zinfandels. A trace of Thai Basil and brighter fruit moves into the finish with freshly ground black pepper. It’s that finish that shows it’s pedigree, and it’s definitely worth the price. I imagine Berliners of the Weimar Republic would have loved this wine.
Way back when I was in my early twenties, Pouilly-Fuissé was all the rage. The restaurant I was working at had three on their wine list. One of the greatest points of being a chef at such a young age was that I got to experience a lot of great wines early on. Drinking good wine didn’t mean I knew anything about wine, but I did know that Pouilly-Fuissé was the finest Chardonnay I had ever experienced by that point. And like all guys in their 20′s, I spouted off my knowledge with the same level of aplomb as the Phillie Phanatic shooting pork bullets from his pneumatic hotdog gun.
While Pouilly Fuisse has a lot more competition in the Chardonnay market today, it hasn’t lost any of it’s luster. A few salient facts: Pouilly Fuisse is the AOC (AKA wine region) for a few towns in southern Burgundy. The wines must made with 100% chardonnay. This particular wine comes from vineyards surrounding the town of Vergisson, although other surrounding towns ( Fuissé, Solutré-Pouilly, and Chaintré) can also call their wines Pouilly Fuisse.
We have used Evening Land wines at the wine school, but with a bit of hesitation. Their business is very different from a traditional winery, and I am not sure it’s a good direction for the wine trade. The “Evening Land” brand is owned by a investment group that started purchasing wineries in California, Oregon, and France in 2005. Their goal was to produce great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay around the world under the “Evening Land” label. They did manage to do that, but the project never really caught on with wine consumers. In fact, it seemed to confuse the marketplace. In the past few years, some of the wineries have been sold off, the firms founder (Mark Tarlov) left in 2012. The firm has recently started dumping their wine into the “Chairman’s Selection” program here in Pennsylvania. That means they are willing to sell their inventory at pennies on the dollar. This may signal the end of “Evening Land” in the coming years. It also means we hin PLCB land should be seeing more of these wines at good prices in the coming years, as well.
Sourced from old vines, this wine is mostly aged in tank, with a quarter of the juice aged in oak barrels for less than a year. This makes for a lovely fruit-dominated white Burgundy with fresh peach and sea foam on the nose. The palate pushes toward red fruit and veers back to ultra ripe pear with an undercurrent of toasted spices. The bright minerality moves forward into the finish with a refreshing bright note of orange oil. Medium bodied with a dose of buttery luxury, this wine is a great alternative to a Napa Chardonnay.
A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to have a one-on-one tasting with Maria Larrea, the CVNE winemaker. A wonderfully gracious woman, she took me through her entire portfolio of extraordinary wines. My favorite CVNE wine has been the Contino every since the 1996 vintage, the very first Gran Reserva. I even featured it on my long-gone Philly.com show Philly Uncorked. I gushed and slobbered over the wine like a half-crazed bassethound.
It wasn’t until after I returned from Spain that I realized my massive faux paux. Of all the wines at CVNE, that was the only wine she didn’t make. It was the project of winemaker Jesús Madrazo, who just happens to be the son of CVNE’s owner.
Contino is completely separate from CVNE. It’s Chateau-style winery and vineyard is located near the medieval town of Laguardia. It is tucked into the rolling vineyards of Rioja Alvesa. CVNE is a sprawling viticultural campus located in the outskirts of the bustling city of Haro.
PRO TIP: CVNE is an acronym for Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, but everyone just pronounces the winery Coo-nay. It started out as a coo-operative in the 19th century but is now privately owned.
Let’s talk about the wine.
The experience begins with a captivating aroma of cola, rust, and blackberry. The attack offers lean but substantial tannins that leads into notes of blackberry cobbler, burning tobacco and ocean air. The acidity keeps a tense balance between fruit and mineral from start to finish. The tannins increase like gravity dragging the taste buds into some dark and pleasurable place. The finish moves toward mint, sage and cast iron. This is a classic wine, one that everyone should experience. Old vine tempranillo, with a splash of Graciano.
Most descriptions of Saintsbury Winery will include the word “pioneer” somewhere within the first paragraph. Go one and google it: you will get over 3.5 million pages describing how the winery is a pioneer in California. Saintsbury does have a place in our wine history books (if such a book existed) for planting Pinot Noir in Carneros. They helped launch the Carneros as a sub-region in Napa Valley when Richard Ward and David Graves launched the winery in 1981.
This bottle has been their flagship wine for the past decade. Originally a horse ranch, Saintsbury’s Brown Ranch Vineyard was planted in the mid-nineties t0 two clones of Pinot Noir (667 and Pommard for you geeks out there). It’s one of the coolest spots in Carneros with enough sunshine to even ripening. In other words, perfect pinot country.
It’s ownership over the past decade has become murky. At some point, it was sold to Silverado Premium Vineyards in a very discrete sale. SPV is the closest the Cali wine trade has to a shadowy organization, pulling strings in the back rooms and wine cellars. Or so goes the gossip. To be honest, they are just a private company that acts like a venture capital firm for winery acquisitions and mergers. In turn, they sold the winery to Renteria Vineyard Management Company in 2013, at which point many of the major players in the winery (including their wonderful winemaker Jerome Chery) were let go.
All of this may be the reason why all of a sudden why the PLCB wine shops in Pennsylvania are suddenly awash in heavily discounted Pinot Noir from Saintsbury. The sale probably meant that the winery had to dissolve of a lot of back inventory fast. Well, the vino VCs play out their games. We ended up with some fantastic Pinot Noir to enjoy.
The 2009 Brown Ranch is a singular Pinot Noir that is worthy of its reputation. Deeply hued with a rippling of Kola nut, dark cherry, and toasted spices. The palate is medium bodied with a concentration and concentration that is rare in Carneros Pinot. Flavors of fresh red fruit, cardamom, and savory vanilla fold into forest floor and wild flowers. The finish turns toward spice and mulberry with very linear but evolved tannins. A wonderful Pinot.