Cougar Winery – Italian wines in the Temecula Countryside

Cougar Winery sign

The Cougar Property is in the midst of lots of change with construction surrounding the winery, but they are still open and happy to take care of guests in the tasting room.

The winery is owned and operated by Rick and Jennifer Buffington.  17 years ago while in Texas the Buffington’s began making wine.  They later moved to Seattle and continued making wine in Washington and labeled under the Cougar Mountain Winery label named after Cougar Mountain in Belleview Washington.  After moving to southern California they eventually purchased the winery property in Temecula planting Sangiovese, Aglianico, Montepulciano and Vermentino.  At La Vigna e Destra they also have Primitivo, Arneis, Malvasia Bianca and Pinot Grigio.  They are making estate wines as well as some wines with purchased grapes that they do not grow.  They do beautiful Italian wines.

Cougar construction

Cougar construction

The last time we were here we did not taste but drove up to see the winery.  It was a large metal warehouse that held their winery and tasting room.  Situated on an a hillside on the De Portola Wine Trail they have a great view.  Since our last visit they have begun their expansion.  They are siding the current building as well as building out for a new tasting room.  Upon entering the building you are greeted by the life size cougar sculpture and then the tasting bar to your right.

Cougar tasting room

Cougar tasting room

The warehouse is segmented by barrel racks, with one section for public tastings, a separate section with tables for club members and music on the weekends and then of course their production facilities.  There was a steel drum artist playing the day we were there and while we couldn’t see them (they were in the member area playing) we could enjoy the music as it filled the building.  We found a place at the tasting bar next to the free coffee and Dani set us up with our tasting.

We began with the 2011 Vermentino.  This was a dry wine, a little dusty on the palate with a little effervescence.  You get lime, light minerals and lime leaf.  It is a refreshing white that leaves your palate clean. I am a Vermentino lover and I enjoyed this wine.  They actually use this for a white sangria base as well as for bloody mary’s here in the tasting room.

We continued with the 2010 Miscuglio de Circulo, which is a blend created by their wine club members.  This blend was a light red blend that would make a great summer wine.  It had pepper on its long lasting finish.

The 2009 Estate Bella Rossi is a blend of 25% each Aglianico, Primativo, Sangiovese and Montepulciano.  You get pepper on the palate but the nose is light and fruity with a medium mouth feel.

The 2009 Aglianico had pepper, eucalyptus and mint on the nose.  The cool mouth feel accentuated the mint taste.  There was a little underlying metallic rusty taste that was not unattractive.  Medium tannins hit the top of my teeth.  This was considerably lighter than the Kenneth Volk Aglianico that we had.  I have tasted very few of this varietal and this was a new interpretation of this grape for me.

On to the 2008 Montepulciano which they have called “The Full Monte”.  This red had big smooth tannins.  This was filled with strawberries and had a little heat on the finish.

I finished off with some of their mulled wine.  It was beautifully done with the spices not overcooked (my home mulled wine making experience did not turn out so well).  The spice on the nose was perfect and the warm wine filled my mouth with gorgeous warm fruit.  It was really lovely.

This winery is old school and the owners are hands on.  We saw Jennifer in the tasting room, picking up bottles for the wine club members area.

I look forward to returning to see the new tasting room when construction is complete. Check out the blog on their website to see the construction updates!  The new tasting room will have beautiful views as well as views into the winery itself. They also have tours and classes available by appointment.

Aglianico (don’t try to say it on your own!)

On our last trip to Paso Robles, Michael and I stopped into the Kenneth Volk tasting room that is next to Lone Madrone and tasted his 2008 Aglianico.  Okay don’t try to pronounce this without assistance or you will butcher it like I did.  Let Bruno de Conciliis teach you how to correctly pronounce it.  (ah-L’YEE’AH-nee-koh)

I was doing research on Aglianico to figure out how long I should cellar this and found lots all kinds of interesting information on this variety.

In many places you will hear that this grape came from Greece in the 6th century and was used to make Falernum (it’s latin name) or Falerian wine.  Falerian wine was a favorite of the Romans and was said to be made with Aglianico and sometimes Grecco grapes.  These grapes were grown on the slopes of Mt. Falernus and is mentioned in Roman literature.  This wine was a white wine that was at 15% alcohol.  The grapes were a late harvest grape harvested after a freeze (like eiswein?).  The wine was aged in an amphorae for 15 to 20 years so the wine became amber to dark brown before drinking.  The area these vines were grown in is now the vineyards of Rocca de Mondragone and Monte Massico.  The name was thought to be a version of the word Hellenic or Ellenico the Italian word for Greek.

Okay now that I’ve given you all that rich history…DNA research shows that Aglianico is not related to the Greek varieties that were used to make Falernum.  Still…great story huh?

This grape was almost completely wiped out by phylloxera in the 19th century.  It is a late ripening variety that has strong tannins a deep black color and a firm structure.  It is said that these wines can be harsh in their youth and 5-10 years in the bottle allows the fruit profile to emerge and the tannis to soften.  These wines exhibit a smooth, rich texture with aromas of coffee, leather, smoke, dark chocolate, black fruits and mineral and tend to be complex.

Jancis Robinson has a beautiful speaks of this wine which she describes as “exuding class”.

The variety is grown in Campania where it is made into Taurasi.  Taurasi is mostly Aglianico, but may have up to 15% of other grapes, such as Piedirosso which is a fresher and more aromatic local grape or the Primitivo of Puglia. The addition of these grapes makes this wine mature earlier and leans toward fruity.  It buds early and harvests late.  In high altitudes in Taurasi it has been harvested into late November.

In Basilicata they turn this grape into Aglianico del Vulture (Vul-tur-e not like the bird!)  This wine is 100% Aglianco.  Both Campania and Basilicata are located in Southern Italy.

This variety is slowly being grown outside of Italy, thus my Kenneth Volk ’08 Aglianico!  Seghesio is also growing it in the Alexander Valley and it is now being grown in Australia in the inland wine regions.  It has been discussed that this grape could be a great alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon in California as it is more suited to the warmer climate.  By the looks of the multiple vineyards that popped up on my search for “California Aglianico”, it is finding a foothold.

So after all my research I was still wondering…should I cellar this for another 5 years?  So…I e-mailed Kenneth Volk and received a wonderful personal response.  His Paso Aglianico is grown in Pomar Junction and as it often does not have the opportunity to be as late ripening as traditional Italian Aglianico it tends to not cellar by typical Italian standards.  He suggested that the ’08 was drinking well now and will probably drink well for a few more years.  Since it was drinking well now I asked for his suggestions on pairings.  He did tell me that this was a food wine and suggested something protein rich like lamb, waterfowl or a rustic pasta.

Well…now my day was complete.  I had two correspondences from Kenneth Volk (who I have a bit of a wine crush on) and determined what I was having with Thanksgiving dinner.  Michael and I started a new tradition last year in that, since it is just the two of us, rather than cooking a whole turkey, we indulge in a duck.  So….that will be my waterfowl.

And I have to say a huge thank you to Mr. Volk for personally answering my questions so thoroughly about his wine.  Not only is he a genius, he’s a nice genius!  Now to figure out what to pair with the duck!