School Days: September’s Back to School Wines

Okay, the kids are back in school and the “Bennies” with packed SUVs are on their homeward migration paths which tells me that fall is on the horizon.  Soon, the leagues and business networking groups will be back in full swing, and the temperatures and leaves will both begin to drop­—telling me that it’s time to leave the light summer wines behind and head for something more “fall-ish”—in other words, red wine is back in style and on the table.

Fall reds are generally somewhat lighter as the weather is still a little too warm to enjoy the big hearty reds that are waiting in the wings. We want deeper hued wines, yet we want them to be more transitional to blend in with the change in diet and habit. For our salute to back-to-school month, you’ll see the wines have a theme—most have the word “School” in the title—and, because September has been designated as California Wine Month by no other than the Golden State’s esteemed governor, most of the wines hail from California.

Two popular reds that go right to the head of the class come from Liberty School. Liberty School wines are actually part of The Hope Family Wines portfolio. Located in Paso Robles in central California, the Hope Family has five separate and distinct brands: Liberty School, Treana, Candor, Troublemaker and Austin Hope; but they have been producing Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon since 1990.

Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, this medium-bodied red offers aromas of ripe red fruit, dark cherry, blackberry, chocolate and cassis with a touch of cedar that are followed by vibrant and rich currant, blackberry, and cherry flavors. Silky and supple  tannins lend excellent structure, while maintaining the soft approachability of a Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine has a ripe finish echoing flavors of bell pepper, with hints of ginger, oak, and vanilla throughout its long finish. At 13.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) it’s fruit-driven style lends ease to food-pairing as well as casual sipping; it’s an excellent choice for grilled, braised or roasted meats and semi-aged cheeses. (about $15)

Liberty School Cuvée 2009. This Central Coast Cuvée is a full, smooth, crisp Syrah-based Rhône blend of 85% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petite Sirah, 3% Grenache, and 2% Viognier. Currants, cherries, raspberry, strawberry and smoke backed by floral notes greet you from this glass. With accents of smoke and pepper, this fruit-forward blend shows fine tannins—reminiscent of wines from the southern Rhône Valley. The predominant grape, Syrah, shows off jammy, strawberry and plum-like flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon adds leather notes and firm tannins. Petite Sirah adds deep color and provides structure. Not only does the Grenache soften the wine and add needed balance, it brings an element of spice to the blend. Viognier (yes, it is white) adds floral aromatics and a bit of roundness. This is one full-bodied, balanced, complex wine with a velvety mid-palate and an excellent finish.  (about $15)

If you’re in the mood for a good bottle of California Merlot, look no further than this Clarksburg find:
Tortoise Creek’s Schoolhouse Cuvée. This affordable red will have you smiling after one silky sip. Schoolhouse Cuvée is made with 100% Merlot sourced from a large single sustainably-farmed vineyard block in the newer Clarksburg AVA that sits within the larger Lodi AVA; and the name refers to the old schoolhouse built by Clarksburg’s Mokelumme settlers in 1859.

This balanced Merlot is full of fresh, bright aromas and flavors without resorting to over-extraction. The flavors are classic Merlot: jammy blackberry, black cherry, cassis, black olive, cafe au lait, mocha, bay leaf, blueberry, peppercorns, dill, and cola, laced with lead pencil, wood smoke, a touch of leather and stone notes. Like most Lodi wines, it is generous and graciously expands and softens as it breathes. There is a graceful balance of acids and soft tannins, a lovely smooth texture, and judicious use of oak. Try pairing this wine with grilled or smoked meats, burgers and pastas. (about $15)

School House Mescolanza 2007. This next red blend of  76% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah and 7% Carignane comes from the Spring Mountain District in Napa Valley. Mescolanza is a Spanish word for “medley.” and is a direct link to Napa Valley’s frontier days as a wine region. Produced from a one-acre parcel that represents the oldest vines on Spring Mountain—some of the vines are well over 100 years old—this wine is Zinfandel-based with Petite Sirah and Carignane lending support. It is a concentrated. elegant and spicy presentation of ripe red berries, sweet bramble berries, rhubarb and spice. It is a intense wine with balanced acidity, a firm tannic backbone and a lengthy delicious finish. This robust wine will make a perfect pairing with rich, well-flavored foods. Only 20 barrels were produced, so you may have to ask for this one. (about $46)

For Pinot Noir lovers, we have find for you! A wonderful, earthy and mushroomy classic French style Pinot Noir: School House Vineyard Spring Mountain District Napa Valley Pinot Noir 2008.

School House Pinot Noir has been  produced since 1957. Aromas of cherry with hints of tea leaf and oak waft from the glass. The wine enters your mouth softly, and develops full Pinot richness that lingers on your palate. Impressively flavorful with dried  cherries and plums, cherry compote, baking spice and green leaf, with notes of raisin, prune, herbs and a wonderful minerality braced by a moderately firm tannic backbone. The finish is unbelievably long finish. Only Eleven barrels of this delicious wine were produced. (about $90)

For those of you who are old school and prefer to drink French wines, here are two Old School wines from the South of France, the first is a rosé, a perfect seasonal transition wine and the second ia a Rhône-style blend.

Château Maris Old School Rosé Minervois-La Livinière 2011. Sourced from an Old School vineyard planted in 1959 in AOC Minervois, this Rosé de Presse is 100% Cinsault. There aren’t many rosés that come from certified biodynamic vineyards, and this is a beautifully delicious one. Old School Rosé is salmon in color but dry, crisp and refreshing. The wine offers an aromatic and lively bouquet of red currants, spiced cherries, salty minerality, and hints of rose petal. The flavors are straightforward rosé: berry, spice, strawberry, orange zest and candy followed by a round, harmonious and seamless palate.

It is Provençal in style, elegant and light with a medium-bodied texture, racy acidity, and a clean finish balanced with nice minerality and a touch of  orange zest. Cinsault lends itself particularly well to the production of rosé, and this version can be enjoyed as an aperitif or with a wide range of Mediterranean dishes. Only 488 cases were made. (about $16)

Old School Rouge AOP Minervois 2011. Old School Rouge is a blend of 90% certified organic young vine Syrah with 10% estate-grown certified biodynamic Grenache. Located in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of the Southern France, this estate is a stone’s throw away from the Mediterranean sea. Their slogan, “By any (natural) means necessary”reinforces the fact that the estate is committed to natural and sustainable practices in the vineyard, winemaking, and all aspects of operation—from working with plough horses, to a winery built to run with zero carbon emission, to bottles made of recycled glass and labelled with recycled paper.

Old School Rouge explodes with aromas of black plums, tar, pepper, mocha, tobacco and leather. Velvety and round in the mouth, it coats the palate with waves of blackberry, cassis and plum complemented by accents of herbs, black pepper, mushrooms, tobacco and licorice. Long and lingering, it finishes with earthy, plummy fruit, tobacco and herbal notes. This is the wine to pair with grilled eggplant, your first beef stew of the season, roast leg of lamb and hearty pâtés. (about $12)

At this point, you white wine lovers are probably asking, “What about white wine?”

Well, not to worry, Chardonnay is a great fall weather wine.

Liberty School Chardonnay. This Chardonnay is a blend of 94% Chardonnay and 6% Viognier from the cool Monterey and the warm Santa Barbara regions of California’s Central Coast. Fruit-driven in style, the wine offers aromas of crisp green apple and full citrus blossom. The flavors lean to fresh fruit — pears, red apples, quince, citrus, pineapple, caramel and honey. There is a subtle hint of toasted oak and vanilla on the rich md-palate that is balanced by a clean, crisp, flinty/mineral finish. Try pairing this with grilled crab, shrimp or white fish, pastas in olive oil, mild cheeses and fresh tart fruits—or even pears. This Chardonnay reminds you that a good Chardonnay is not a light, mindless wine. (about $14)
Another white I love this time of year is Chenin Blanc, the great grape of the French Loire Valley. Okay, I admit I love this wine any time of the year, but while it can make light, refreshing, summery wines, its best iterations have more body, either through bottle aging or aging in large wooden casks at the winery. My favorite Chenin comes from the Loire’s Savenièrres appellation, so in looking for a California Chenin Blanc I look for ones that try to capture the wonderful notes of apricots, peaches, lanolin, and beeswax prevalent in the French version.

Heller Estate Chenin Blanc 2009. This white is 100% Chenin Blanc and certified 100% organic.  Heller Estate Chenin Blanc  balances the grape’s rich, fruit-driven apricot nature with Carmel Valley’s mineral quality, crafting a wine that is at once bright and flavorful yet refreshingly dry and crisp. Fragrant floral aromas of pineapple, white peach, melon and citrus leap from the glass.  A few swirls reveal an underlying minerality, even some chalky notes, which are an ode to the variety’s Loire Valley roots. Rich and round, the wine is at once lovely, soft and flavorful. The palate expresses soft apple characteristics, zesty citrus, muted apricot and a wonderful sense of balance and freshness  followed by a crisp minerally finish. The well-balanced acidity and a crisp finish make this wine a perfect patio sipper as well as a perfect match for spicy dishes, grilled seafood, cheeses and fruit plates. (about $20)

The key to switching from summer white wines to fall wines is to look for wines that are a little richer, fuller and rounder than the wines you have been happily sipping this past summer. That means look for whites that have a touch of oak for falls cooler days and evenings and get ready to break out the red for the fall semester.

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