Thursday’s night’s wine tasting benefit for the Merrimack Valley Food Bank proved to be a grape success. Several hundred people came out to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium and tasted wines from California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand and New Hampshire – that’s right, New Hampshire. Food stations surrounded the outer edges of the Auditorium floor, from crab cakes to clam chowder to braised beef crepes and chicken medallions. Of course, there was cheese – at least five varieties – positioned right at the foot of the stage. But the night was for wine.
I showed up at the 6 p.m. start when the room was still wide open and circled the four wine stations. I got a “feel” for the room first, and staked out where I wanted to go first and where I wanted to end up. This is important. Whether you are a Wine Novice like me or an expert like Robert Parker, I believe the tongue can only take so much tasting before it gets weary and everything become a blur in the mouth. With four stations, I was going to limit myself to no more than 12 wines total (Hey, I was working, remember?).
I went global, launching my exploration at the Klin Spirits table featuring two South African wines. This market is on fire, producing some high quality, low-priced wines. The Road Less Traveled, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, seemed a bit thin for a full-bodied red on the first sip, but it opened up on the second. For $12 a bottle, it’s a great buy to serve with grilled burgers, game or other meats. The 2008 Winter Hill Sauvignon Blanc, for the same price, gave off grapefruit aromas and was peppery on the finish.
Next stop was local, I mean real local: The LaBelle Winery table which featured products that are handcrafted in Amherst, N.H. Amy LaBelle is the winemaker and the family is building a new winery on the grounds. She’s been fermenting wines since 2005 with grapes purchased from Upstate N.Y. vineyards. But that will change shortly; LaBelle is launching its own vineyard and will be planting vines on its own property soon. I tasted two products, an absolutely gorgeous off-dry Riesling and a delightful semi-sweet Cranberry wine. LaBelle Winery features 18 drinking wines and three cooking wines. I’ve got to plan a visit there on a hot summer’s day, because these two wines are something special.
I turned left and found myself in familiar territory, the Tutto Bene table, where nearly a dozen wines were on display. First I tried three Cameron Hughes selections: Lot 251 2009 red blend of Syrah, grenache and mouvredre from Monterrey; Lot 257 2009 cabernet sauvignon from Rutherford, Calistoga and St. Helena, and a Lot 300 cabernet from Oakville and Rutherford. The latter, with grapes from Stag’s Leap and Atlas Peak vineyards, was a premium wine and, matched against others in its class, is selling at a bargain price at $29.99. The Wine Novice (WN), however, thinks that’s a bit too expensive with all the good cabs available. The other Hughes cab sold for $22.99 and, in my view, didn’t leave your mouth feeling as if you were being cheated on the $7 difference. Overall, Cameron Hughes wines are very good and priced to sell.
The last wine I tasted at the Tutto Bene (Lowell) was among the best offerings of the night, a 2009 Sequoia Grove Cabernet from Napa Valley. This is a rich, dense fruit, mouthwatering cabernet with a long, elegant finish. It’s a bit out of the WN price range at $33 a bottle but well worth the money for a good sit-down meal or special occasion.
My last stop was at the Stadium Plaza Wine & Spirits (Tewksbury) table where more than a dozen wines were on display. It was a dizzying sight, and I was four wines from reaching my limit. I tried three:a sumptuous 2009 Ghost Pines merlot ($15.99) with 53% of the grapes from Napa and 47% from Sonoma; 2010 Apothic red blend ($11.99) and a 2009 late harvest Victor Hugo Zinfandel port ($30) that was the hit of the night. I found Esmeralda in this Zin, a rich, deeply aromatic and jammy, black raspberry concoction that was simply divine. You can drink this now or cellar it for 15-25 years and uncork it at your son’s or daughter’s wedding and guests will think you’re a millionaire. What a way to end the night!