We didn't have an NCAA tournament office pool this year, but we couldn't help but get involved with March Madness in some form or another. To satisfy our bracket-lust, we've predicted the tournament winners based on a highly unscientific, non-blind taste-off featuring wines made near each of the universities remaining in the Elite Eight. (Wine Spectator is not responsible for monies lost in wagers based on our predictions, particularly if you plan to bet that Oregon beat Florida last weekend.)
Midwest Regional Final: Chautauqua White Muscadine Carlos NV (representing the University of Florida Gators) vs. Benton-Lane Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2005 (representing the University of Oregon Ducks)
It's David versus Goliath in round one of our NCAA taste-off. If ever there were a top seed in this bracket, Benton-Lane would have it. (Obviously, our bracket is of the seedless variety. Can I get a rim shot?!?) However, this Benton-Lane squad is definitely not the powerhouse it's been in previous seasons. And the Chautauqua leaps from the glass. It's ultrasweet exuberance is clearly tough to defend.
Result: Unfortunately, Cinderella didn't make it to this ball, and the Benton-Lane Pinot runs away with a victory. However, recruiting was tough in Oregon in 2005, and this fan favorite could be tested in the later rounds.
West Regional Final: Rosenthal Meritage Malibu Newton Canyon 2002 (representing the UCLA Bruins) vs. Somerset Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Kansas Reserve 2003 (representing the Kansas University Jayhawks)
The Rosenthal starts off unexpectedly strong: Should we have seen this style of play coming from a California wine? Maybe. Sure, it's a touch green—some might even say inexperienced, though there's obvious talent here. A little sour toward the finish, but that's just one small weakness in an otherwise solid performance. Not to be outdone, the Somerset Ridge puts up a solid effort. Early on the Kansan's style is a bit off-putting, with an overly candied chocolate-covered cherry aroma, but this underdog just gets stronger and stronger, fighting to the finish with good flavors and aggressive tannins.
Result: It's a barnburner at the half, but Somerset Ridge pays for its shaky start. The California climate wins out in the end, with Rosenthal having a complete, all-around game.
East Regional Final: Childress Cabernet Franc Reserve North Carolina 2002 (representing the University of North Carolina Tar Heels) vs. Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve Virginia 2002 (representing the Georgetown University Hoyas)
In our most highly anticipated match-up of the first round, two Cab Francs go head to head. Barboursville is a bruising bully up front, with plenty of tar and dark fruit, but it's also got composure and finesse. No weaknesses here. The Childress on the other hand gets off to a slow start, but it's a high-octane wine with serious potential.
Result: The Childress finishes on a hot streak (we may have a two-sport star on our hands here ...), but it's not enough to overcome the slow start. Barboursville's deep bench and solid finish are more than enough to pull off the win.
South Regional Final: Debonné Riesling Grand River Valley 2005 (representing the Ohio State University Buckeyes) vs. Beachaven Vineyards Viognier NV (representing the University of Memphis Tigers)
Is there a German recruit on the Debonné squad? Certainly possible from our first sniff of the wine. Unfortunately, this doesn't have the backbone we anticipated—these guys can expect a scare or two in this tourney, even against weaker contenders than this. Beachaven, too, brings it early with true character. Not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but look out Condrieu—here comes Tennessee! There's no denying that these guys are here to play. Overall, this is a great match-up since both teams have similar strengths and weaknesses from start to finish.
Result: Beachaven wins on a buzzer-beater! It was down to the wire, folks. But at the end of the day it was the surprising Viognier that moves on to the next round. We couldn't have planned a closer contest.
Before moving on to our Final Four, two competitors were nice enough to show up to the dance even though their representative universities chose not to comply by winning their way into the Elite Eight. We thought we'd let them duke it out in an exhibition match:
Exhibition: Chaddsford Barbera-Sangiovese Due Rossi Pennsylvania 2002 vs. Becker Cabernet-Syrah Texas 2004
In the consolation bracket, it's a Pennsylvania wine versus a Texas wine. (Just play along … we had to order the wines in advance, when it wasn't yet clear what teams would make the Elite Eight). It's an interesting match-up since Texas' Becker is tarry and muscular at the start, and all the essentials are here. However, Texas starts to fall apart—the team lacks cohesion and harmony. But they may have a chance in this game—early on it looks like Pennsylvania's Chaddsford is toast (well, the aromas are, anyway). There are many solid elements here: smoke, fruit and leather. Like Becker, though, the coach needs to get them all working together. Teamwork is going to be the deciding factor here.
Result: Becker wins in overtime! Everyone hates to see a game decided by the refs instead of the players, but the wine from the Lone Star State had the intangibles that often decide a game. We can only hope these two meet again next year.
Semifinal Match-Up: Beachaven Vineyards Syrah NV (Memphis) vs. Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve Virginia 2002 (Georgetown)
Beachaven makes a strategic substitution! The winery is pulling its Viognier and going with the Syrah to try and deal with Barboursville's deep, well-rounded style of play. It's a risky move, but will it pay off? After all, the Syrah is very chocolaty up front, and finishes very tough and tannic. It needs time to come together, but this is a bold effort. Will it be enough to deal with Barboursville's solid game? Can the grit of a Tennessee Syrah compete with the smooth richness of the Virginia Cabernet Franc?
Result: Beachaven's substitution didn't work, unfortunately. Even keeping the Viognier in contention wouldn't have been enough to handle the Virginia Cabernet Franc. It's a convincing win for Barboursville, but keep your eye on the Viognier from Tennessee.
Semifinal Match-Up: Benton-Lane Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2005 (Oregon) vs. Rosenthal Meritage Malibu Newton Canyon 2002 (UCLA)
Benton-Lane still comes out a bit muted in the second round. There's a lot of dust to shake off for the favorites. Rosenthal on the other hand starts off strong if a bit erratic. High-toned cherry fruit and a real quaffability factor are working in their favor.
Result: The Rosenthal Meritage pulls off the upset! The kids from Malibu turned out to be too energetic for the Benton-Lane Pinot, which just seemed sluggish again. Benton-Lane is a perennial powerhouse though; don't expect them to have two off seasons in a row...
Championship Taste-Off: Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve Virginia 2002 (Georgetown) vs. Rosenthal Meritage Malibu Newton Canyon 2002 (UCLA)
It's been a long tournament, and endurance has become a real factor in this one. Even the referees are showing some fatigue. Barboursville sticks to its game plan, showing poise with its traditional style of finesse and subtlety. Their big bruising front line has certainly mellowed as the taste-off has worn on, but it's hard to spot any weaknesses. The Rosenthal effort, however, is as strong as ever. It's not as polished as its opponent, but it's a real crowd-pleaser with its flash and style.
Result: The refs turned to a few instant replays and called up to the booth a few times for some official rulings, but the Rosenthal Meritage wins in the end. The flamboyant fruit was too much for the subtlety of the Cabernet Franc, though this Barboursville effort has some aging potential, and could come back even stronger next year. But this year it was youth and power that decided the game, and it's Rosenthal popping the corks today.
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