Superstar Leo Messi scores a couple of goals with excellent Malbec

Leo Messi is known the world over as a soccer star – one of the biggest, best and brightest in the world. Five years ago, he started the Leo Messi Foundation. This charitable group focuses its energies on helping at-risk children and adolescents. The latest venture to help raise money for the foundation is a partnership with one of Argentina’s most storied family wineries, Bodega Valentin Bianchi. Leo has helped them launch two wines, both Malbecs. In early 2014 these wines will be joined by a Torrontes, the benchmark white grape of Argentina. I recently tasted the Leo wines alongside a large swath of the Valentin Bianchi portfolio. Here’s a look at them, along with one of my other favorites from the evening.

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The Valentin Bianchi 2012 LEO Malbec was produced from fruit sourced in a vineyard that sits 750 meters above sea level in the San Rafael section of Mendoza. This offering is 100 percent Malbec. The fruit was hand harvested. Fermentation and maceration on the skins took place over a week in a temperature-controlled environment. Aging took place over a month with oak staves. About 35,000 six-bottle cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $16.99. Fresh blueberry aromas emerge from the nose of this Malbec along with a nice complement of vanilla bean. Blackberry and raspberry fruit flavor are abundant on the deep and proportionate palate which impresses with its depth and abundance of dark, brooding flavors. Plenty of spice emerges on the finish, led by the essence of gingerbread and including pepper. Medium tannins soften with air. This wine has nice structure and pairs well with an exceptionally wide array of foods. Although Malbec at this price level is often simplistic and one dimensional, this one is anything but — and handily provides lots of bang for the buck.

The Valentin Bianchi 2011 LEO Malbec Premium was produced using fruit sourced at the Doña Elsa estate in San Rafael. This wine is 100 percent Malbec. All of the grapes were manually harvested. Fermentation, which included manual pump-overs, took place over three weeks in a temperature-controlled environment. Aging took place over 12 months in a combination of new French (75 percent) and American (25 percent) oak. Another six months of bottle aging took place prior to release. About 10,000 six-bottle cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $29.99. The nose here is simply immense with an impressive array of dark, deep and rich aromas. Dark plum and blackberry are of note. The palate shows off black cherry, blackberry and a ton of spices such as clove, pepper and a gentle hint of cinnamon. The finish on LEO Premium is long, lusty and impressive with tons of super concentrated fruit flavors, black tea, espresso and a final wallop of chocolate-dipped-cherry flavors. This wine is riper, bigger and bolder than the other Malbec. It will pair well with full flavored foods, grilled meats and the like. Despite its relative heft this is still a proportionate wine.

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When Leo Messi decided to launch a wine to raise money, he of course partnered with a winery with a long and impressive history befitting his reputation. One of the many other wines they produce which I recently tasted is the Valentin Bianchi 2006 Particular Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit for this wine came from the winery’s Asti Vineyards. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (85 percent), this wine also contains small amounts of Petit Verdot (8 percent) and Malbec (7 percent). Fruit was hand-picked and fermented in a temperature controlled environment. Barrel aging took place over 14 months on entirely new oak; 93 percent of the barrels were French and 7 percent American. Six months of bottle aging followed. About 400 cases of this Cabernet were released and it has a suggested retail price of $29.99. Red cherry aromas are in evidence on the nose of this Cabernet Sauvignon. The palate is loaded with a bevy of fruits and spices that all work together to form a harmonious core that is equal parts gentle and layered with tons of complexity. At 7 years old, some secondary characteristics are coming into play here, adding to the intricacy. The finish is gorgeous and persistent with black tea, chicory and a baker’s chocolate. This is an incredibly refined Cabernet for the money with impeccable structure and great body. This wine showcases the potential that Cabernet Sauvignon has in Argentina. If you love good Cabernet, this one is a steal in its price range.

This set of wines is quite delicious. Valentin Bianchi has been on my radar for quite a few years as an Argentine producer that over delivers at every price point in their portfolio. The partnership between them and Leo Messi makes perfect sense and strives to make a difference with infant health, education of kids and sports programs. So this is money which will improve quality of life for some young people, certainly a noble pursuit. As a consumer you can spend a reasonable amount of money on the LEO wines and know that you will have something delectable to drink and are also helping a worthwhile cause. Sounds like a double whammy of a win to me, or as they say, Goooooooooooaaaaaal!!!

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Esporão wines show that Portugal offers a lot more than Port

When Portugal comes to mind most of us think of dessert wines, Port specifically. This is quite natural as Ports of all styles are the bread and butter of the Portuguese wine industry. However, as wine lovers are starting to learn, there are lots of terrific table wines coming from Portugal as well. There are white wines, some of them quite well known, but what impresses me are the reds, most often produced as blends. In many cases the grapes are indigenous to Portugal and while some of them are planted in other regions, many are not. Portugal has been very good about holding on to and promoting their local grapes, the ones that really flourish there. That lends itself to a unique drinking experience. You can taste things in Portuguese wines that simply aren’t available elsewhere, which prosper in their microclimates. Here’s a look at two reds and a Rosé from two wineries that are both part of Esporão, a sustainable winery located in the Alentejo region of Portugal.

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First up is the Herdade do Esporão 2011 Defesa Rosé. This wine was produced from grapes sourced in the Alentejo region of Portugal. It blends together two varietals — Syrah and Aragonés– in equal parts. The fruit was destemmed and then crushed. Skin contact and maceration was minimal. Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. Approximately 120,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $14.99. A striking strawberry hue looks beautiful as you pour this into a glass. The nose of this Rosé brings to mind a bowl of fresh red fruits. Strawberry, cherry and subtle bits of raspberry are all present throughout the palate, along with a wisp of white pepper. Black cherry flavors emerge on the finish. This wine is crisp and remarkably refreshing. The alcohol here is nice and modest, making it easier to enjoy that second or third glass with a leisurely meal.

The Quinta Dos Murcas 2010 Assobio was produced using grapes sourced within the Douro appellation. This wine blends together Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca. The fruit was hand harvested and then underwent bunch selection as well as being destemmed. Fermentation took place in a temperature-controlled environment. Approximately 20 percent of the blended wine was aged in a combination of French and American oak for 6 months. Roughly 140,000 cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $12.99. Black plum and vanilla bean aromas emerge from the nose here. The palate is studded with dark, brooding fruits such as blueberry, black raspberry and continued plum. A treasure trove of spice characteristics are in evidence as well, adding depth and complexity. Sour black fruit flavors emerge on the finish which has nice length; they are joined by minerals and bits of espresso. This wine really shines if you decant it for an hour or so. Enjoy it with hard cheeses and roasted meats.

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Finally, we have the Quinta dos Murcas 2009 Reserva, which was produced from fruit sourced within the Douro. This offering blends together Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Miúda, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Francesca and Sousão. After being hand-picked, sorted, destemmed and crushed, fermentation took place in temperature-controlled granite lagares. The wine was aged for 12 months in a combination of French and American oak. Just about 30,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $39.99. Plum and red raspberry aromas emerge from the exceptional nose of this 2009 blend. Purple, black and red fruits are interspersed on a deeply layered palate that is both dense with flavor and diverse. There is a depth and elegance from the first sip through the last note that makes this wine a knockout. Minerals, earth, spices and bits of dusty chocolate emerge on the finish, which has excellent length. Everything you’d want in a red blend in this price point is present in droves: structure, acidity, balance, grace and length. It’s delicious now, particularly after a couple of hours in a decanter, but it will improve over the next 5 years and drink well for at least five after that. It’s certainly suitable for pouring on a holiday or special occasion.

These three wines from Portugal’s Esporão are well made, delicious and provide solid quality for the respective price points. And while these wines are diverse, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Portugal has to offer in table wines. It’s easy to see from tasting any of these that blending is a forte. The variety of indigenous grapes is huge and plays a starring role in shaping the myriad blends that are made. Portuguese wines are making inroads in the U.S. market. Look on your shelf for these and other exciting wines from the old-world country that is new for a lot of American wine drinkers, particularly when it comes to table wines.

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Vina Montes epitomizes Chilean quality

Viña Montes in Chile has been around for 25 years now. In that time, they’ve been a part of the Renaissance that has occurred in Chile, with quality and diversity rising dramatically year after year, and meeting with what was already a wine region that offered value. As with most Chilean brands, they offer a broad range of wines at numerous price points aimed at a varied consumer base with a multitude of needs. This vast range of wines is produced with a multitude of intents. All told, they make close to a million cases of wine, some in small lots and others in large quantities. Here’s a look at three current releases that are widely available across the country.

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First up is the Montes Alpha 2011 Chardonnay. The fruit for this offering was sourced in the Casablanca Valley. This Chardonnay is a 100 percent varietal wine. Aging took place over 12 months with 40 percent of the wine seeing time in French oak, the balance in stainless steel. This wine has a suggested retail price of $25. The Montes Alpha Tier of wines was on the forefront of Chile’s entry and innovation into to premium wine space. Pineapple aromas light up the nose of this Chardonnay, with pear and apple characteristics as the dominant fruits on the palate. Toward the back end, the apple quality picks up a bit of lovely green tartness. This is accompanied by baker’s spices, star anise and a gentle kiss of crème fraiche. Here’s an example of Chardonnay that is absolutely studded with lively fruit and true varietal character. The barrel treatment enhances those flavors, adds complexity and never detracts. This is an elegant Chardonnay for the money. I recommend serving a few degrees warmer than the typical white wine as it shows off more of its charms that way.

The Montes Alpha 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from fruit sourced in Colchagua Valley, one of Chile’s best Cab regions. This wine blends together Cabernet Sauvignon (90 percent) and Merlot (10 percent), one of its most natural partners. After fermentation this wine was aged in a combination of new and used French oak barrels over a period of 12 months. About 100,000 cases of this wine were bottled and it has a suggested retail price of $25. Plum and bramble aromas leap from the nose of this Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark fruits rule the day here and blackberry, black raspberry and more fill out the palate, while little wisps of red fruit do pop through every now and then, adding to the depth. Espresso and black pepper spice are both prominent on the finish, which has good length. Firm tannins and solid acidity lend to the overall well-proportioned nature and structure of this wine. For $25 or less this is very good value in Cabernet Sauvignon. Some lesser examples from other regions often sell for close to twice the price. Grab up a case of this wine and drink it over the next five years and enjoy its evolution.

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Frankland Estate proves that Australia is much more than Shiraz

It’s possible — perhaps even likely — that the first thing you ever tasted from Australia was Shiraz. In fact, it wouldn’t shock me if Shiraz is the only grape you’ve tasted from down under. Lots of Australian Shiraz, at bargain prices, filled lots of U.S. store shelves for a number of years. Some of it was interesting and tasty, but a lot of it was anonymous or worse. The thing is that Australia is a huge country with many distinct wine growing regions, and while they do make lots of delicious Shiraz, they also produce many other grapes quite well too. I recently sampled the wines of Frankland Estate at a portfolio tasting and was impressed enough that I needed to retaste them in a sit-down setting. There are quite a few distinct selections in their lineup, but three in particular really stood out to me above the others.

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The Frankland Estate 2011 Isolation Ridge Chardonnay was produced using organic fruit. All of the grapes were harvested from a trio of different locations within the winery’s estate vineyards. This offering is 100 percent Chardonnay. After being pressed into stainless steel, the wine is fermented utilizing wild yeast in French oak barrels for a period of nine months. About 1,000 cases of this offering were produced in the 2011 vintage and it has a suggested retail price of $39.99. Aromas of limestone and citrus are joined by an undercurrent of nutmeg on the nose of this Chardonnay. Apple, pear and lemon zest flavors lead an absolutely intense blast of pure and unadulterated fresh fruit flavors. The finish is clean and crisp, showing off minerals, spice and a bit of crème fraiche. The depth and clarity of the fruit here is striking, as is the persistence and length of the finish. Frankland Estate’s 2011 Chardonnay is an extremely impressive example of this wonderful grape.

The Frankland Estate 2012 Isolation Ridge Riesling was produced using fruit that has been dry farmed with organic methodology. This wine is 100 percent Riesling. All of the fruit was hand harvested and then immediately pressed into tank. Fermentation took place in a combination of tank and neutral oak at low temperatures. About 1,200 cases of this Riesling were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $39.99.The nose is fresh and vibrant with bits of citrus alongside mineral aromas. Lemon zest flavors overlay stone fruit characteristics throughout a gently layered palate. Grapefruit, lime, white pepper and minerals galore are all part of the impressively long finish. This wine is refreshing with lively acidity and a crisp finish. It begs you back to the glass for sip after sip until the bottle stands empty.

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Dry Creek Vineyard: Quality, value and dependability

Dry Creek Vineyard is one of the flagship wineries of Sonoma Valley, as well as the namesake producer of an entire appellation. It’s one of the largest producers in Dry Creek Valley, and like almost all of the wineries there, it’s a family-owned and run operation. Most of their wines are produced using fruit they grow or source right in their native valley, with a few other wines sourced from nearby appellations. They have a number of wines that are readily available all over the country at reasonable prices that offer consistent quality and drinkability one vintage after another. Dry Creek Vineyard also pushes the envelope and adds new offerings to their portfolio from time to time. Some of these are smaller production wines and sometimes they are larger production wines. Case in point: the first wine covered in this column is in only its third vintage.

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The Dry Creek Vineyard 2010 Foggy Oaks Vineyard Chardonnay is a single vineyard effort. All of the fruit for this wine was sourced at the namesake vineyard in Russian River Valley. It’s a 100 percent varietal wine. Foggy Oaks Chardonnay was aged entirely in French oak. Just a smidge less than 5,000 cases of this offering were produced, and it has a suggested retail price of $20. Orchard and tropical fruit aromas are joined by spices and toast on the nose of this wine. Apple and pear characteristics in particular light up the palate, which is substantial and weighty but spry and well in proportion. Anjou pears, lemon zest and minerals are all part of a long and impressive finish. The bottom line is that this is an elegant, extremely well-crafted Chardonnay. In its price category it’s an outright steal. Russian River Valley is one of the best appellations in California for this grape and this is a terrific example.

The Dry Creek Vineyard 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from fruit sourced in the winery’s namesake appellation. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (86 percent), Merlot (4 percent), Cabernet Franc (4 percent), Malbec (3 percent) and Petit Verdot (3 percent) were also blended in. Fermentation took place over 28 days in a temperature-controlled environment. Twenty months of barrel aging followed in a combination of French, American and Hungarian oak; 30 percent of the barrels utilized were new. Almost 12,000 cases of this Cabernet were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $25. Berry fruit, toasty bramble and bits of vanilla bean are all part of the nose on this 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. Blackberry and cherry are part of an overall mélange of red and black berry fruits that dominate the palate of this wine; black peppercorn and wisps of nutmeg add spice. Dusty earth, espresso and continuing fruit flavors are all part of the finish which has solid length. The tannins here are well-integrated and along with firm acidity lend to the excellent structure. This Cabernet is delicious now, but will age well over the next five to eight years. This is a fine example of Cabernet Sauvignon at a price that belies its quality.

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Finally, we come to the Dry Creek Vineyard 2009 The Mariner. This is a proprietary Meritage blend. It combines Cabernet Sauvignon (43 percent), Merlot (37 percent), Malbec (10 percent), Petit Verdot (5 percent) and Cabernet Franc (5 percent). The fruit for this wine comes from a combination of their own vines and neighboring vineyards within Dry Creek Valley that they’ve been working with for many years. Fermentation took place over 20 days, followed by 24 months in 100 percent French oak; 46 percent of the barrels were new. Dry Creek Vineyards produced 5,238 6-bottle cases, and this wine has a suggested retail price of $40. Dark fruit aromas, dotted with bits of red fruits, emerge from the nose of this Meritage. The palate here leads towards the darker fruit flavors: blackberries, raspberries and plum are all along for the ride. This wine has an awesome depth that’s matched by its precision and graceful power. Bits of chocolate sauce, earth, toast and minerals are all here on the finish. Firm acid keep things in check. This wine is an absolute delight to drink. The 2009 Mariner is a seamless blend that does what great Bordeaux-inspired wines should do: create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. This wine will age effortlessly for the next decade, but there’s no reason to wait — it’s delicious now and these folks are likely to put out another splendid Meritage next year. So my advice is to drink up!

This trio of wines is only a small window into the fine releases that Dry Creek Vineyard is producing year after year. Two of these wines feature Cabernet Sauvignon prominently. For me this is one of the secrets of Dry Creek Valley. Cabernet from there doesn’t often get the headlines, but there are some fine examples and two are covered here. Being in Dry Creek Valley, they of course make several Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel-based wines. They also make a Chenin Blanc that, at around $10, is one of the great picnic wines, vintage after vintage. Again these are just a few examples. By and large their offerings are easily accessible across the U.S. The wines have been fairly priced throughout their 40-year history, and they offer a consistency of quality that can’t be ignored. They are one of a small number of excellent go-to producers based in Sonoma County that fit all those criteria. If they’re not on your personal wine radar, they really should be.

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