A tasting at Alba includes your choice of six or seven of the 18 wines available for tasting: five whites, one blush, three reds, and six dessert wines produced under the Alba Vineyard label, and three reds produced under the Chelsea Cellars label. Despite the fact that the Chelsea Cellars grapes are picked whole and shipped to New Jersey for pressing, aging and bottling, New Jersey law prohibits the winery from labeling them as Alba Vineyards wines as none of the grapes are grown locally.
I always find it challenging when forced to “choose my own” tasting menu. On the one hand, and particularly if it’s my first visit to the winery, I want to select a range of wines that showcase the range and depth of the winery’s cellars and the winemaker’s art. On the other, there are types of wines (blush, semi-sweet) and varietals (pinot grigio, riesling) that are not among my favorites, and I’ll tend to avoid them. Always gravitating towards those tried and true varietals that I tend to drink more often (cabernet franc, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc) presents the opportunity to specialize at it were – comparing similar wines from winery to winery – but runs the risk of never discovering something new or sampling a local gem.
There’s always the fallback of simply asking the winery staff to select wines for you, but that does take some of the fun out of the experience.
As I’ve come across more and more wineries that allow you to create your own tasting menu, I’ve developed a few simple rules that have stood me in good stead: First, balance the tasting between whites, reds and dessert wines (if the winery produces dessert wines), allowing yourself the chance to sample the winery’s range.
Second, look for pairings or contrasts. Often wineries will produce different “versions” of the same or similar wines, an oaked and an unoaked Chardonnay, for example, or an estate or reserve version of a wine. Tasting these back-to-back will often prove to be one of the highlights of a winery visit.
Third, look for things that are different, particularly if they are unique to the area or region. Part of the fun of winery visits and tastings is the chance to try something you’ve never or rarely had, and that you’d be unlikely to try if you had to purchase an entire bottle.
Fourth – CHEAT. If you’re with friends or in a group, coordinate your tasting selections and pass glasses; the wineries certainly don’t mind, and you get to taste a bigger selection!
So keeping all that in mind, particularly rule #4, Maree and I made our selections. We both opted to start the tasting with Alba’s most popular wine…
Mainsail White The Mainsail is described by the winery staff as being “like an everyday Pinot Grigio” in style. The wine is actually a blend of Cayuga (very popular grape here in the Northeast) and Vidal Blanc with a bit of Riesling thrown in for the “aroma.” The lighting in the tasting room is soft and yellow-ish, so it was tough to get an accurate “read” on the color, but in the glass the color appeared pale yellow. The nose was bright with distinct notes of melon and grapefruit. In the mouth the wine is light-bodied, with definite grapefruit flavors and a nice balance of acid, particularly on the finish. This is an easily drinkable wine, and I can see why it is so popular.
In addition to the Mainsail White, Alba has two white “pairs,” a more traditional Riesling and a Dry Riesling, and a Chardonnay and Estate Barrel Reserve Chardonnay. Maree opted for the traditional Riesling but took a pass on the Dry Riesling, and in keeping with rule #2, I decided in favor of the Chardonnay/Estate Barrel Reserve Chardonnay pair.
2005 Riesling While definitely sweeter than the other whites, the Riesling is still tending towards a drier wine. The nose is sunny, with strong notes of fruit, particularly melon. In the mouth, the wine is smooth and velvety with distinct notes of melon. Maree also noted honey, although I must admit I didn’t pick that out myself. A nice wine and one that Riesling fans would definitely enjoy.
2005 Chardonnay The Chardonnay is initially oaked in a combination of French and American barrels and then moved to stainless steel for finishing. The result is a light-bodied wine which has a very light nose with notes of green apple and grass. In the mouth, the wine is clean, with crisp notes of apple and just a hint of citrus. The oak is subtle, providing a touch of vanilla that smooths out the wine for a satisfying finish.
2004 Estate Barrel Reserve Chardonnay In contrast to the Chardonnay, the Estate Barrel Reserve is aged completely in oak and subjected to Sur Lies aging by stirring the wine during fermentation to increase contact with the yeast. The Estate Barrel Reserve is, as a result, very different from the Chardonnay. The nose has an earthy smokiness and in the mouth, the wine while smooth and lush, is also very smoky with strong notes of burnt toast. It’s an interesting contrast with the Chardonnay, but I found the oak to be too overpowering for this to be a really compelling wine.