In what is becoming an annual feature in futility, we've once again attempted to predict this year's NCAA basketball champion by tasting wines made near each of the Final Four participants. In both 2008 and 2007 we predicted that UCLA would be crowned king, so we're well on our way to establishing our own version of the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Sorry Bruins! But this year, there are no heavy favorites from the West Coast, so the taste-off field is wide open.
As soon as the final buzzer sounded in this past weekend's Elite Eight games, we starting calling on wineries located near the University of Connecticut, Michigan State, University of North Carolina and Villanova. Two wineries near Hartford, Conn., stepped up to the line, giving the Huskies perhaps an unfair advantage, Priam Vineyards and Sharpe Hill. From Michigan, not far from East Lansing, St. Julian winery got into the game, and from Pennsylvania, Chaddsford checked in. Finally, in a heart-pounding, last-second buzzer beater, arriving literally seconds before the tasting began, Chapel Hill's nearby Chatham Hill winery's samples arrived in Wine Spectator's New York office.
This year we changed up the format as well, requesting two different wines from each participant and tasting all of them blind. We then selected the best of the bunch to represent their wineries and nearby universities in our taste-off bracket. I was joined by a panel of my colleagues for this year's blind tasting; they were told nothing about each wine other than grape variety. And so the March Madness began.
St. Julian Riesling Michigan 2007 (Michigan State Spartans) vs. Priam St. Croix New London County Non-Vintage (University of Connecticut Huskies)
First, let's meet the contenders. St. Julian winery is located in Paw Paw, Mich., and is one of the state's oldest, founded by Mariano Meconi, an Italian immigrant, in 1921 and now owned by Meconi's grandson, David Braganini. St. Julian's head winemaker, David Miller, earned his viticulture degree at Michigan State. Priam Vineyards is a much younger operation, opening its doors as a winery in 2003 in Colchester, Conn., after selling its grapes for five years. Husband-and-wife proprietors Gloria Priam and Gary Crump farm 22 acres in New London County, part of the Southeastern New England AVA, and Priam's grapegrowing family history dates back to her grandfather's vineyards in Hungary in the early 1900s.
In this match-up, the St. Julian Riesling, a grape for which Michigan is known to have had success, starts off a touch sweet, with candied aromas and sweet and tart flavors with a refreshing touch of spritz. It also shows the prized petrol characteristic common in Rieslings from the world's best Old World regions. Priam's offering is made from the St. Croix grape, a hybrid that was bred to thrive in the harsher cold climates of the northern Midwest and New England. The hearty red shows heady Port aromas and flavors, in a drier style, with a strong streak of vanilla and toast. While the Riesling is a fine effort, the distinctiveness of the St. Croix has the Connecticut contingent moving on to the final.
Chaddsford Chardonnay Pennsylvania 2007 (Villanova University Wildcats) vs. Chatham Hill Cabernet Franc North Carolina 2006 (University of North Carolina Tar Heels)
The Chaddsford winery (in Chadds Ford, Pa.) is owned by husband-and-wife vintners Eric and Lee Miller, and they've been making wine commercially here for more than 25 years. Eric spent much of his youth in and around the vineyards of Europe; his family eventually moved from Burgundy to New York's Hudson Valley, where they founded Benmarl Vineyards. Eric and Lee, formerly a wine journalist, moved to Pennsylvania and founded Chaddsford in 1982. Chatham Hill, a so-called "urban winery," is located within the triangle that connects Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, N.C., but the majority of its grapes are trucked in from North Carolina's Yadkin Valley AVA. Chatham Hill is owned by winemaker Marek Wojciechowski and Jill Winkler.
The taste-off continues with Chatham Hill's Cabernet Franc matched up against Chaddsford's Chardonnay. The Cabernet Franc exhibits its varietal character well, with herbal aromas with hints of bell pepper, tobacco and stewed greens. It has a modest core of cherry and currant fruit and a clean finish. Chaddsford's Chardonnay tips off with a strong swath of oak and toast on the nose over a palate of pear and candied fruit. There's a pleasant butterscotch candy note and a real quaffability factor that sends Chaddsford on to the next round, where the Connecticut contingent will switch gears and send in a Chardonnay from Sharpe Hill.
Chaddsford Merican Pennsylvania 2002 ('Nova) vs. Sharpe Hill Chardonnay Connecticut Vineyard Reserve 2007 (UConn)
Sharpe Hill is another winery located near Hartford, Conn. Owned by Steven and Catherine Vollweiler, Sharpe Hill has a track record for good-quality wines and is one of the region's leading wineries. For more on Sharpe Hill, WineSpectator.com subscribers can read James Molesworth's "Tasting America's Bounty" cover story, in the Nov. 30, 2002, issue of Wine Spectator.
Our Final Two were easily the most lauded wines of our blind tasting. Chaddsford's Merican, a Bordeaux-style blend of 56 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Petit Verdot offers nice Bordeaux typicity with aromas of currant, berry and cherry, with a note of green herbaceousness. On the palate there's a core of red cherry fruit and just enough tannins to give it a mouthpuckering grip. It finishes with a touch of heat. The Sharpe Hill Chardonnay, which is made with 25 percent Melon de Bourgogne, is a smooth and solid version of the Burgundian grape variety. The nose offers attractive citrus and apple aromas with an oaky hint that shows a light hand in barrel aging. The medium-bodied Chardonnay's pleasing tart acidity and mild salinity can be attributed to the addition of the Melon de Bourgogne. It finishes with pretty apple flavors accented with honey and vanilla notes, and was the unanimous winner of this year's Final Four taste-off.
Congratulations to Sharpe Hill and the Vollweilers for their success with the 2007 Connecticut Chardonnay. (And if our past success, or lack thereof, is any indication of who will win this Monday's NCAA tournament championship, sorry Huskies!)
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