February 15th, 2013
Karen – Ken
Check out their tastes and Bios here
Cru Winery (15,000 Cases)
Ficklin Vineyards (9,000 Cases)
1) To view more information for the Wineries in Madera County (the local regional association), click here and type “Madera” in the “quick search” field to see their listing on Winery-Sage.com.
2) View more information for the Madera Wine Trail on their Association listing on the Winery-Sage.com main site.
3) More information can be found for each Varietal that we’ve listed by clicking on the link that we’ve created the first time the Varietal is listed in each post.
The Northern Wineries of the Madera Wine Trail are on the west side of highway 99 in between the Highway 152 junction and the southern edge of the town of Madera.
First stop on this leg of the Madera Wine Trail was Cru Winery, situated off the ever so cleverly named, Road 20 1/2 exit off 99. That’s right…road 20 1/2. You see, somewhere back in the dark ages, a genius in Madera county decided that naming all the roads and avenues after numbers worked so well in New York, that it should work in Madera County as well. Well, there are several problems with this, chief of which is that in New York, there isn’t room to wedge any more streets between the existing buildings so incrementing each street by 1 is perfectly feasible. There was no room to add any more roads. In Madera County, when it split off from Mariposa County however, there were only 6,000 people and tons of empty space. In other words, lots of room between the existing roads and towns to build new roads and towns. So why start out on a minor rant about the street names? Try putting Road 20 1/2 in a 10 year old Honda navigation system. If a car could talk, this one would have said, “Seriously…you’re joking right? 20 and 1/2?”. Thankfully Google maps on my phone isn’t so easily confused.
Anyway, back to Cru where winemaker Ken Post was kind enough to walk us through their latest release. Cru has two labels. The Primary one “Cru” (no big surprise there) is all about the two main Burgundian Varietals. They make five different Chardonnays and three different Pinot Noirs. The 2nd label, Mariposa, which means Butterfly in Spanish, is for smaller lots and experiments. It’s kind of a winemakers sandbox. We started with a 2011 unoaked Chardonnay. Usually neither Karen or I are big fan’s of the unoaked version but this one still had a nice balance to it due to it sitting on the lees for several weeks. Ken confided that he was looking for a crisper taste and he hoped the 2012 would reflect that (sorry Ken – we liked it this way more. A fortuitous accident from our point of view). Of the Chardonnays that we tasted, Karen and I both preferred the one from Santa Maria Valley. On to the Pinots and we are pretty familiar with Cru’s and we almost always prefer the one from the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH). The others are good but we both have a soft spot for Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots. The Santa Maria Valley and the Montage (a blend of various vineyards from different AVAs did not disappoint but I still liked the SLH Pinot the best). Fully expecting Karen to concur, I almost dropped my glass when she said she liked the Santa Maria Valley one best. I did a quick double take to make sure that someone hadn’t swapped out my wife with a look a like. Hmm…same woman I married almost 20 years ago. She didn’t look like she was running a fever either. Don’t get me wrong. The Santa Maria Pinot was good, but Karen preferring it to the SLH was a shock. We moved on to several of the Mariposa brands including a lighter Sangiovese and their first vintage of a Petite Verdot. We really like Petite Verdots and we were expecting something that was a huge, spicey “take no prisoners” version like the others that we’ve had. This one was lighter than we are used to (lighter being a relative word because true of most Petite Verdots, you could probably have used it to refill an ink cartridge). These grapes came from Napa. Most of the ones that we’ve had have come from Livermore where there seems to be more spice. I’d liken the Mariposa version to a Cabernet Sauvignon in weight. We had one that night with Mexican food and it was delicious. Cru also makes an Albarino which is a white Varietal from Northwestern Spain. It’s a shame that this grape doesn’t get more play in the US because I think it is way more interesting than Pinot Gris and as for Sauvingon Blanc, don’t get me started.
The next two stops are definitely outside of our normal comfort zone. Quady Winery specializes in Sweet Dessert wines and Ficklin Vineyards is arguably the preeminent maker of Port in the US. So why were we outside of our comfort zone? I have no sweet tooth. My wife will tell you its because I am a bitter person. When others are looking at a dessert menu, I’m craving peanuts, chips pretzels – anything salty. The general thought of sweet wines just doesn’t usually appeal to me. Even when wine tasting I usually avoid them unless they are at the last winery because they tend to demolish your tasted buds for any future tasting. Karen will occasionally dabble in a late harvest Varietal or Port but even that is rare. Mind you, we’re not neophytes when it comes to these types of wines but our experience pales in comparison to the more mainstream Varietals. These two wineries were recommended by another winemaker in the area and we’re glad we followed her advice.
Darin Peterson, assistant winemaker at Quady, ably walked us through their offerings. First off was their only table wine called Visao, a Tinta Roriz (more commonly known as Tempranillo in the US – Tinto Roriz is the Portuguese name). For an everyday wine, it’s a good value at $11. Out came a Vermouth next. Yep, I said it, a Vermouth. Up to now, I’ve never given much thought to Vermouth, considering it nothing but the secondary ingredient in a martini. I can still picture an ugly green bottle sitting in the dark recesses of my parents’ liquor cabinet that had a layer of dust so thick, you couldn’t even see the liquid. Gamely we gave it a shot and neither of us expected to care for it. We were wrong….really wrong. I hate being wrong but I find I’m getting used to it as I get older because it seems to happen a lot. Quady’s Vermouth didn’t taste fortified (even though it is) and the blend of botanicals that were used to flavor it imparted a crisp, refreshing flavor. It can be enjoyed on its own without having to mask it with gin in a martini. It’s not often that we’re really shocked at a winery but this one did it. It was my favorite thing we tasted there. The next two wines, Essensia and Elysium were made from Orange and Black Muscat respectively. To be honest, I was expecting the normal “single note” Muscats that I usually find – all sweet and nothing to counter balance it but we unexpectedly found a depth of flavor that is quite unusual. The tasting notes offers an array of desserts that pair well with both – everything from chocolate to fruit pies. They even recommend pouring the Elysium over Vanilla ice cream. The Essensia was Karens favorite at Quady. If those two were unexpected, the next two were borderline shocking. The Electra and Red Electra are very low in alcohol (around 4.5% to 5%). Quady also keeps a hint of the naturally occurring effervescence that give it a lightness and crispness that neither of us expected. Seriously, a wine that is only 4.5%? Craft beer makers are creating IPAs (India Pale Ales for those who aren’t beer fans) that are twice that. Whether they stumbled onto this formula by chance or it was a carefully orchestrated potion, the results are definitely a winner. It’s also a reminder that wine has many components and alcohol is often the least important. One amusing note. The label has the standard nutrition label on the back showing fat, calories etc. Darin told us that if something is under 7% alcohol, it has to have one of these labels. I guess they assume its a food. Wine as food? I could get used to that.
If Quady was a surprise, Ficklin was a revelation. It probably shouldn’t have been but it was. Their reputation for Port is stellar. We still have an unopened 1999 Ficklin Colheita Tawny Port sitting in our cellar, waiting for the perfect occasion. It was given to us by a good friend who’s been in their wine club for years (thanks AG!). The problem – I’ve allowed myself to become jaded by tasting Port at too many wineries that do it as the token dessert wine – usually too sweet or only has a dried fruit flavor. I don’t think I’ve tasted a Port at a winery for at least a couple of years. All that changed at Ficklin. They have so many Ports available for tasting that keeping meaningful notes became a fruitless effort. Liz Wilcox, the President of Ficklin Wilcox, guided us through the offering explaining how each one was made. All of the Ports that we tasted were very good but the ones that stood out the most are the Rose Port made from Tinta Cao and the Tawney Ports. The Rose port was like nothing else I’ve had before with aromas of watermelon, strawberry and kiwi. Both Karen’s and my favorites though were the Tawny Ports. I liked the 15 year old and Karen liked the 10 year old but I could be convinced to drink the 10 year old one (without much effort really).
The differences between Ficklin and most other winemakers are many:
– Ficklin has been making Port continuously in the same facility since 1946.
– Ficklin makes all of their Ports from the same Varietals that are used in Douro Valley of Potugal, home to the original Ports.
– Old barrels are used that are as neutral as possible (they don’t impart any wood flavors to the wine anymore). A few of their barrels are over 100 years old. Some are made of Oak and some of Redwood, an old technique from the early days of California winemaking
– Ficklin uses grape brandy as a fortifying agent. While not exactly neutral in flavor, it doesn’t overwhelm the wine. Many other wineries use strongly flavored spirits which impart a more intense flavor.
There are few wineries in the US that have the tradition and consistency of Ficklin. Sure Mondavi, Sebastiani and a number of other wineries are older but they no longer have the family tradition. Ficklin is one of the only US wineries that has become synonymous with a style of wine. It’s now on its third generation of family winemakers. There is so much to talk about here that we’re going to do a followup post just on Ficklin. If you are looking for Ficklin, this is another one of those “only in Madera County names” – Avenue 7 1/2.
Sometimes wine tasting is just a trip. This was a journey. We learned (or perhaps relearned) more on this one than on any other sojourn we’ve taken in several years. We’ve spent 20+ years enjoying wine and have tasted at several hundred wineries, some good and some bad. Each has their specialty but at least 95% of them specialize in the standard French, Italian and Spanish Varietals. A few will make the token Riesling or Portuguese Varietal as well. We like to think that our tastes are varied. We have close to 30 different Varietal wines in our cellar as well as dozens of blends. Even with that “variety”, we realized there is a certain “sameness” to what we’ve been drinking. Quady and Ficklin forced a different and very welcome perspective on us. They reminded us again why we became wine fans in the first place. Back then, everything was new. Now, its harder to be surprised. We’d become just a couple more lemmings following the crowd to the same type of wines. This lemming has gained a fresh perspective and is eagerly waiting for the next surprise.
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