The NCAA's version of March Madness concludes this weekend, with the penultimate games—between in-state rivals Louisville and Kentucky, and Kansas and Ohio State—this Saturday night in New Orleans, with a champion crowned Monday night. But vinsanity took over in Wine Spectator's offices last night with a tasting of wines made near each of the collegiate participants in the 2012 Final Four. As in the past, we used this blind tasting opportunity to predict Monday night's NCAA champion, which has proven unlucky for the team represented by our winning wine: We've gotten it wrong every single year going all the way back to 2007.
Our wine selection committee's Big Dance invitations for 2012:
All wines were tasted blind (preventing our clearly biased unnamed assistant tasting coordinator from Kentucky from skewing the results).
River Bend Chambourcin Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Red (University of Louisville) vs. Chrisman Mill Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Kentucky 2005 (University of Kentucky)
River Bend Winery is located in a historic building in the heart of downtown Lexington. Built around 1880, the former InTown Winery was originally … well, no one really knows what the building originally housed, but the father-and-son, owner-and-manager team of John and Jon Ryan Neace, who took over the space eight years ago, renamed it River Bend. (Jon Ryan is currently digging through the University of Louisville photo archives in hopes of piecing together the 19th century building's past.) River Bend has no vineyards, but all the wines are made and bottled on the premises, which is also home to River Bend restaurant, where diners can watch employees work the tanks and bottling line when they're in operation. River Bend's signature wine is its Bourbon Barrel Chambourcin Red which, as the name implies, is aged in used Bourbon barrels. Neace says the wine picks up a very strong sweet, smoky flavor from the Bourbon barrels, which are only used once.
Chrisman Mill Vineyards is a small but serious operation, built from the ground up beginning in 1996 by Dr. Chris Nelson and his wife, Denise. Dr. Nelson, who fell in love with wine while in medical school, celebrated graduation with a tour of Napa and Sonoma in 1989. "That planted a seed. Of course, I'd already gone to medical school …," said Dr. Nelson, who is now head of the infectious diseases department at the University of Kentucky. "If I'd discovered it earlier on, I might not have even gone to med school because I fell in love with it." The Nelsons make regular visits to other wine regions, picking up pointers along the way—they've been visiting Long Island, N.Y., vineyards this week. Dr. Nelson, who handles the winemaking, draws on his nearly 3 acres of estate vineyards and 11 other growers in Kentucky to make the Chrisman Mill lineup of wines, which includes Cabernet Sauvignon (in vintages that allow the grape to fully ripen), Norton and various blends with Chambourcin and Cabernet Franc. He also makes semi-sweet wines from Vidal Blanc and Traminette.
Result: In a Wine Spectator Taste-Off first, we have a forfeit: Sadly, River Bend's bottle submissions broke in the mail, leaving the Louisville winery with no time to provide replacements. Considering our tasting panel's history of dooming the winning wine's basketball team to failure, we have not ruled out sabotage by an overzealous Cardinal fan ….
Chrisman Mill's 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is a worthy victor, though it was perhaps the most polarizing wine of the competition. Aged in French oak barrels, this was by far the oldest vintage among this year's submissions; some tasters were thrown by its dusky dried rose petal and tobacco leaf aromas, while others argued it was the best wine of the tasting. All of the grapes for this wine were sourced from Crab Orchard, with 25 percent Cabernet Franc contributing a peppery component.
Grace Hill Winery Dodging Tornadoes Kansas Semi-Sweet Red (University of Kansas) vs. Ravenhurst Champagne Cellars Central Ohio La Terre Riche Brut Rosé NV (Ohio State University)
"I tried to put up a winery after about 20 years of visiting wineries. Seemed like it was a pretty easy thing to do," laughed Dave Sollo, owner and founder of Kansas' Grace Hill Winery, near Wichita. "That was a wrong thought." Indeed, it's no mean feat to make wine in Kansas, breadbasket for so many other crops. "Last year we had like 53 days over 100° F," although it was the -17° chill that virtually wiped out Sollo's Cabernet Sauvignon crop. The area's industrial farms use the weed killer 2,4-D, which can travel a county's distance through the air, courtesy of Kansas' blistering winds. And then there are the birds, which can only be discouraged by nets over the vines. "The only thing the [sonar bird] cannon keeps away is the neighbors." Add to all that a years'-long rift between two factions of winemakers in the state, and it starts to seem appropriate that Sollo's day job is pain management physician. Despite the obstacles, Sollo and his wife put down vines in 2004, opened their winery in 2008, and now work 8 acres and 3,000 gallons a year. They make sweet wines from hybrid and native grapes, but their pride is in making Vitis vinifera happen under such unlikely conditions: When the vintage is right, they turn out a zesty Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend called Leaning Shed (unfortunately, its namesake collapsed some time ago).
Pinot Noir gives winemakers a headache in Burgundy, so what business does Chuck Harris think he has growing it in Ohio? In fact, at Ravenhurst Champagne Cellars, all Harris makes is vinifera. "It's as hard to grow hybrids where I live. Why would you go through all that work and only grow Marechal Foch? If you're going to spend that kind of time, why not grow Pinot?" he asked. Even more unusual, Ravenhurst began as a sparkling wine outfit. Why? "The honest truth is I married a woman who wanted to drink more Champagne than I could afford to buy 42 years ago." Harris' bubblies are sérieux, too: All are made in the méthode Champenoise, with no dosage added, and the grand cuvée is aged 10 years. More recently in its three-decade history, Ravenhurst added Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. (The still wines are bottled under the label Busch-Harris, surnames of Chuck and his wife, Nina.) Ravenhurst is a modest operation by choice—10 acres and 5,000 cases a year—and the trick to its success is microclimate. The clay soil gets so dense with winter's freeze that budbreak occurs much later than elsewhere in Ohio—and misses the spring frost. The vineyard spot, just north of Columbus, is flanked to the west by Campbell Hill, which parries the brutal fall storms. But good luck getting your hands on this slice of Ohio terroir: Like any boutique winery worth its lees, Ravenhurst sells most of its production through a mailing list.
Result: Long before the Sollos began making wine, they had a dual-function basement cellar—part wine-collection storage facility, part storm shelter. Like all well-prepared Midwesterners, the family had a plan in place for when the storm sirens went off: Don't forget the corkscrew. Hence the name for their semi-sweet Chambourcin, Dodging Tornadoes. Ruby in color, its candied cherry, strawberry and raspberry notes seem perfectly suited to serve slightly chilled on a hot Kansas night, and it had fans, but Ravenhurst's brut rosé was the crowd favorite.
Ravenhurst's 100 percent Ohio Pinot Noir sparkler offers cherry and floral aromas of hibiscus and bougainvillea and refreshing raspberry coulis flavors. A briny note adds complexity, sending Ohio to the finals.
Chrisman Mill Vineyards Norton Kentucky Reserve 2009 (University of Kentucky) vs. Ravenhurst Busch-Harris Cabernet Franc Ohio 2008 (Ohio State University)
Result: The final features two of the upper Midwest's most successful red grapes, Norton and Cabernet Franc. Chrisman Mill's Norton Reserve is its top red wine, sourced from grapes in western Kentucky. It spends a full year in three-year-old, air-dried Kentucky white oak barrels from Canton Cooperage. The Norton offers clove, allspice and leather aromas on the nose, with earthy, peppery cherry and berry flavors.
The Busch-Harris reds represent Ravenhurst's estate vineyards, and they aim for fully ripened Cabernet Franc to subdue the grape's naturally herbaceous qualities. The 2008's spice box aromas are augmented by a tart cherry note. It has good grip on the palate without being overly tannic, and the berry flavors, along with a touch of cola, prevail over the herbal underpinning. All in all, it's a well-balanced wine that earned Ohio the victory in the 2012 Final Four Taste-Off.
Congratulations to Chuck Harris and the Ravenhurst Cellars family. We sincerely hope Buckeye fans don't blame you for cursing the team's chances at the 2012 NCAA championship.
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