Friday, February 7, 2014

2014 Mohegan Sun WineFest: Favorite Wines & More

As the New Year begins, and winter embraces New England, it is the time for two major wine events, the Mohegan Sun WineFest and the Boston Wine Expo. This is an excellent opportunity to explore new wines, to taste new vintages, and find new favorites. I recently attended the Sun WineFest and will go to the Wine Expo later this month. Because of their proximity of distance and time, and the nature of the events, it is natural to draw some comparisons between the two events. In short, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and which event you desire to attend is probably more a matter of preference.

As for venues, the Sun WineFest is the clear winner, hosting the event in a casino rather than Wine Expo, which is held in an exhibition hall in the Seaport District. Even if you don't gamble, there are plenty of other options at Mohegan Sun, from a swimming pool to shopping. I enjoy gambling, especially poker, and had fun playing some games during the Sun WineFest weekend. The Sun WineFest also runs over three days, with several different events, from a Bourbon Tasting to a Celebrity Chef Dine Around. However, they do not run wine and alcohol seminars like the Wine Expo, and would benefit more if they did.

The centerpiece of both wine expos is their Grand Tasting event, both which run on Saturday and Sunday. At the Sun WineFest, Grand Tasting tickets generally cost $80 on Saturday, $70 on Sunday and $125 for both days. These are less expensive than the Wine Expo which costs $95 for Saturday, $85 for Sunday and $145 for both days. The Sun WineFest Grand Tasting also has five hours for the public as compared to Boston's four hours. However, the Sun WineFest only provides one special hour for the media/trade while Boston provides two hours. I wish that the WineFest provided an extra hour for the media, giving us a bit more quiet time to check out, taste and review wines. Once the public arrives, it becomes far more difficult to check out the wines. The Grand Tasting event at both expos is the most crowded on Saturday so you might want to go on Sunday instead.

Both Grand Tastings have fun and interesting chef demonstrations during the course of the Grand Tastings. Attendance at these demos is free and you often get to sample food prepared by the celebrity judges. Both expos have food vendors though I feel the Sun WineFest has more, and diverse, food vendors where attendees can sample a variety of dishes, from lobster rolls to oysters, burgers to sushi. A portion of the proceeds from these food vendors goes to benefit the Channel 3 Kids Camp.

The Sun WineFest offers a smaller, and less diverse, wine selection than found at the Wine Expo. There were plenty of large, commercial brands there, from Yellow Tail to Barefoot, but you could find some intriguing selections if you looked carefully. For example, you could taste an $8 Yellow Tail Shiraz or a $100 French Rosé, if you took the time to carefully peruse all of the tables. I would have preferred more wine diversity at the Sun WineFest, to see better representation from some regions, such as Portugal, Greece and South Africa. I would also have preferred to see more small wineries represented. Prior years seemed to possess more diversity than this current year.

On the other hand, the Sun WineFest offers more than just wine for tasting. You can also find beer, cider and spirits, which the Wine Expo rarely offers. At the Sun WineFest, there are several separate rooms for their beer and cider samples. The spirits are offered in the same main hall as the wine tasting, except for a few producers which were located just outside the main hall. These additional beers, ciders and spirits add value to the Sun WineFest.

I now want to share some of my favorites from the Grand Tasting, mainly wine but with a bit of cider and whiskey too. Obviously, I did not taste every wine at the event so there could have been other worthy wines that I simply did not get the opportunity to sample. If you attended this event, and tasted some excellent wines that I have not mentioned, feel free to add your thoughts to the Comments.

Chateau d'Esclans, located in Provence, France, has a rich and vibrant history and was acquired by Sacha Lichine in 2006. The Chateau is well known for its Rosé wines, and four of those wines were available for sampling. I've tasted prior vintages of these wines and have been impressed so I had high expectations, which were well met.

Their entry level Rosé is the 2013 Whispering Angel ($20-$25), which was recently released. Bright red fruit, clean and crisp, this is a delicious and easy-drinking wine but it is not a simple one. This is the Provence style Rosé which I really enjoy. The 2012 Chateau D'Esclans Rosé ($30-$35) has more restrained red fruit flavors and greater complexity with some herbal elements. It brings elegance to your glass. The 2011 Les Clans ($75) is made from a blend of 50 and 80 year old Grenache and sees a touch of oak. The complexity continues to increase, and there is a subtle melange of intriguing flavors, including tropical fruit, dried fruit and herbal notes. Elegance, style and a fuller body. The 2011 Garrus ($100) is made from 100% 80-year old Grenache and sees about a year in new oak. This is an ethereal and complex Rosé, clearly a stunner. It nearly eludes description, something to experience rather than read about. The taste will linger long in your mouth, and it will haunt your memory for even longer.

Two years ago at the Sun WineFest, I met Jim Bernau, the founder of Willamette Valley Vinyards, an Oregon winery. You can read my prior review of their wines, and I made sure to stop at their table again to check on their latest vintages. The 2012 Pinot Gris ($17.99) was as good as the 2009, presenting more of a full bodied wine with creamier fruit flavors, nice apple and peach tastes. The 2011 Estate Pinot Noir ($30), which was just released, is my style of Pinot, with fresh cherry flavors, herbal aspects and an earthy streak. Well balanced, it is food friendly and complex, a serious wine to savor. And at this quality and price, it is also a good value.

Murphy Distributors offered some interesting Spanish wines, including one of my overall favorites of the event. The 2012 Bodegas La Val Albarino (about $15) was pleasant with citrus and lemon notes, plenty of acidity and even a little spritz. The 2012 Martinez LaCuesta Blanco (about $11) is barrel aged, made from 100% Viura. The aroma has nice floral elements and on the palate there is a nice balance of herbs, melon and apples. An easy drinking and good value wine.

One of my favorites of the entire event was the NV Vermut LaCuesta ($20), an impressive Spanish vermouth. Tempranillo is the base wine, and it presented with an intriguing herbal taste with only mild bitter elements and hints of sweetness. I tasted some of it on its own, as well as in a glass with ice, and in both instances, it was impressive. It is well balanced, and would be delicious on its own or in a cocktail. Highly recommended.

Wines from Arizona? As soon as I learned an Arizona winery would be at the WineFest, I knew that I had to stop at the table and check them out. Arizona Stronghold was founded in 2007 by Eric Glomski and Maynard Keenan (a musician and the frontman for the band Tool). They own 200 acres, and 120 of them are sustainably planted with a variety of grapes, from Mourvedre to Sangiovese. Their wines are generally priced $12-$22, so they are made to be more affordable for everyone.

I liked their red wines, including the 2012 Nachise ($22) a Rhone blend made up of 42% Syrah, 30% Petite Sirah, 18% Grenache, and 10% Mourvedre. It is aged in 95% neutral French oak and presents with plenty of lush red and black fruit flavors up front, with spicy notes on the finish. There is also a sprinkling of herbal hints, enhancing its complexity. A wine that can be enjoyed on its own or with food. My favorite of their wines though was the 2011 Mangus ($22), a Super Tuscan blend made up of 60% Sangiovese, 13% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petite Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc. It spent about 10 months in neutral French oak and the alluring aroma beckoned to me.On the palate, it was compelling, with lots of complexity, luscious red fruit, and dark spices. The tannins were restrained and it had a lengthy, satisfying finish. Highly recommended.

Moonlight Meadery made an appearance, offering samples of a number of their interesting meads. Check out my prior review of the Meadery. One of their highest end offerings is their Utopian Mead (about $50), which is aged in used Samuel Adams Utopia beer barrels. Each batch though has its differences. When I previously tasted some Utopian at the meadery, I appreciated its complexity and depth of flavor, but it reminded me too much of a beer and thus didn't appeal to my personal preferences. However, at the Sun WineFest, I tasted the Utopian Batch #7, a new release, which was aged for 3 years. I actually enjoyed this batch very much, savoring its intriguing melange of honey, dried fruits, and hints of cocoa. It beer taste was very slight, and didn't detract from my enjoyment. Well worth seeking out.

Winebow offered a few good Spanish wine selections. The 2008 Juve Y Camps Brut Natural Cava Gran Reserva ($18) is an excellent example of a Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine. Crisp and clean, with tiny bubbles, the palate presents delicious flavors of green apple, peach, honey and light toasty notes. Full bodied and complex, it is an very good value at this price. The 2012 Licia Albarino ($14-$15 )is another excellent value wine, showcasing the wonders of Albarino. This was probably the best Albarino I tasted at the event. The 2010 La Tremenda Monastrell ($16) was an easy drinking wine, with prominent fruit, black cherry and blueberry, and a subtle backbone of spice.

Jonathan Edwards Winery is a local winery, located in Connecticut and they produce both estate wines as well as other wines made from California grapes. I tasted their estate wines and enjoyed the 2012 Estate Pinot Gris ($23). I found it full bodied and crisp, with pleasant pear and melon flavors, enhanced by a floral component. I was most impressed though with their 2011 Estate Cabernet Franc ($25), which had an alluring aroma of red fruit without any hint of vegetal. On the palate, it was light and easy drinking, with delicious cherry and raspberry flavors, with some herbal notes, though not any green pepper. Mild tannins, nicely balanced, and with a pleasing finish, this wine would be enjoyable on its own or paired with food. Highly recommended.

David Milligan Selections presented another one of my top favorites, and best values, of the Sun WineFest. The 2012 Espirit de Sarrail Carcassonne Rouge ($10) is the first wine to be imported into the U.S. from the Cite de Carcassonne IGP, which was established in 1981. This region has about 25 producers, most working as a cooperative. Domaine Sarrail is the largest producer, with an estate of 250 acres. This wine is a blend of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, and 20% Malbec and the aroma was compelling, such powerful fruit, and the palate lived up to the promise of the nose. Excellent red fruit flavors, a hint of spice, and some herbal notes. Far more complexity at this price point than many other wines. It is easy drinking but not overly simple. Highly recommended.

The 2012 Chateau Le Berriere Muscadet Sevre et Maine ($10-$12) was another excellent value. Crisp and clean, this wine presents delicious flavor of lemon, peach, floral elements, and a strong minerality. Bring on the oysters for this wine and enjoy!

Craft & Estate presented another one of the best values of the tasting. The NV Francois Montand Blanc de Blancs ($15) is a blend of Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Chardonnay. This sparkling wine is from the Jura region and made by the méthode champenois. Great acidity, a clean taste, and delicious flavors of green apple, lemon, and hints of toast. At this price point, this wine is a clear winner, presenting an excellent taste.

Glenlivet Distillery showcased their 15 Year Old and Nadurra Single Malts, and I previously reviewed both of them. I retasted them and my thoughts about both haven't changed. If you enjoy whiskey, Glenlivet delivers.

The Chivas Regal Gold Signature is a blended Scotch whiskey, with a minimum age of 18 years though some of the whiskies are aged as much as 40 years. It is aged in old bourbon and sherry barrels. I enjoyed this smooth, easy drinking whiskey with a nice blend of spice, caramel, dried fruits and hint of maple syrup.

Aberlour A'bunadh combines two Gaelic words: Aberlour which means "mouth of the chattering burn" and A'bunadh which means "origin." Aberlour produces a line of single malt Scotch whiskies and the A'bunadh ($80) is a cask strength whiskey, at 60.4% ABV, that is aged in Oloroso casks. It is bottled only twice a year and I tasted Batch #46. It is made in a more traditional manner, and presented a compelling profile. It possessed a creamy mouth feel, with plenty of spice, dried fruit notes, caramel and a little sweetness. Lots of complexity, smooth and with a very lengthy finish.

Crispin Cider offered several of their products for sampling, except the one for which I was most excited. Their Original is crisp and clean, mostly dry and with tasty apple flavors. The more artisanal Honey Crisp, which is unfiltered, provides more complexity and a richer taste. The Saint, which uses Belgian trappist yeast and maple syrup has a fuller mouth feel, and just a hint of maple flavor complementing the apple flavors. I wanted to sample their Artisanal Reserve Cho-tokkyu, which is made with Sake yeast and organic rice syrup, but it was not available at the event. I'll have to seek it elsewhere.

The Sun WineFest gave further support to my belief that there are still compelling wines available under $15. Generally, those wines are European, including countries such as Spain and France. The WineFest also showed that good wine is made across the U.S., from Connecticut to Arizona. California, Washington and Oregon are not the only states that made excellent wine. Take the opportunity of these large wine expos to explore and discover the wonders of wine.

(Please be advised that I received a complimentary media pass, guest room, and food allowance for attending the Mohegan Sun WineFest.)

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