|WINE TALK |
Robert Whitley's Creators Syndicate Columns
There is a tendency among wine drinkers to be more forgiving in their evaluation of wines that cost less. It’s a reasonable approach, but sometimes unnecessary. The markets are chock full of cheap wines that deliver excellent quality along with a generous price break – no forgiveness needed.
This is especially important as we head into the outdoor grilling season, a time when volume might seem more important than taste as we serve up adult beverages for larger groups of friends and family. If your idea of cheap as it relates to good wine is the $10-$15 price range, your wine options are practically limitless.
This week I highlight three that I am particularly fond of, but the plethora of top-notch wines that retail for $15 or less is worthy of your own exploration. These are merely a few among the many that have crossed my desk in recent months.
Centine is a large brand produced by the well-regarded Tuscan producer, Banfi. Castello Banfi helped popularize Brunello di Montalcino globally. The care in the vineyards and cellars at Castello Banfi extends to Banfi’s other labels, including Centine and the Banfi wines of Chianti Classico. Centine is the bargain of the bunch, priced at $11 for any of its three wines – Rosso, Bianco and Rose. Mary Ewing-Mulligan, the first woman to earn the coveted Master of Wine title, is co-chief judge with me at the annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition. Together we taste all of the wines awarded a platinum medal in the championship round. We were both stunned and delighted when we tasted the $12 Centine Rosso 2010, a wine I’ve often called a “baby” Super Tuscan. It is a blend of several indigenous and international grape varieties grown in Tuscany. This is a well-proportioned wine with true Tuscan character, excellent balance and supple tannins. The Critics judges voted it Best of Show red wine. The other two Centine wines also won medals.
Clayhouse is located in Paso Robles, in the Central Coast region of California, and specializes in richly flavored yet well-balanced red wines that sing when paired with grilled meats. Its best wine is syrah, but Clayhouse also produces delicious cabernet sauvignon, malbec and sauvignon blanc in its “Vineyard” series (the “Estate” series is priced a bit higher) and a red blend, white blend and rose in its “Adobe” series. In blind tastings I find the syrah has no problem competing against wines at twice the price.
Cupcake Vineyards is one brand amongst a huge cluster of brands produced by The Wine Group, one of the world’s largest wine companies. Despite its somewhat whimsical name, Cupcake wines are serious, as in seriously good. Cupcake wines are sourced from vineyards located in many of the world’s top wine regions, and three that proved stellar at the recent San Diego International Wine Competition were a Best of Class sauvignon blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand; a Chianti DOCG from Tuscany; and a Prosecco from northern Italy. Five other Cupcake wines won silver medals or better, and none of the eight medal-winning wines cost more than $13.99.
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Beaulieu Is Back
Beaulieu Vineyard traces its roots to the turn of the 20th century, when Georges de Latour purchased a vineyard in the Napa Valley near the village of Rutherford. No one knows for sure, but it’s a good bet the BV wines of that era weren’t much of a threat to the great chateaux and domaines of France.
It wasn’t until 1938, following the end of Prohibition, that de Latour journeyed to France and hired a brilliant young Russian-born winemaker named Andre Tchelistcheff to run the winery. For the next several decades Tchelistcheff was America’s most influential winemaker.
Such legendary winemakers as Mike Grgich and Joe Heitz considered Tchelistcheff their mentor, and his legacy at Beaulieu continued long after his retirement from the winery in 1973. It was under Tchelistcheff that the iconic BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was created. For more than a half-century it was one of America’s most important wines, a worthy rival to the finest red wines produced anywhere in the world.
BV and the Georges de Latour Private Reserve lost some of their shine in the last decade when technical issues (since corrected) robbed the winery of its aura of invincibility, but there are signs Beaulieu Vineyard is ready to resume its former role as the model California winery producing suave cabernet-based wines that are benchmarks for quality and style.
The BV wines put on a dazzling display March 16-17 at the 30th annual San Diego International Wine Competition, claiming two of the most prestigious awards – Best of Show red wine for the 2009 Tapestry Reserve, $61, and Best of Class Cabernet Sauvignon for the 2009 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $126 – as it was on its way to being named Winery of the Year.
“The 2009 Beaulieu Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon is the finest wine I have tasted at this competition in the five years I have been chief judge,” said Michael Franz, Editor of Wine Review Online and former wine columnist for the Washington Post. “It was singing.”
BV won three other medals for a total of five, but it wasn’t the number of medals that impressed as much as the quality of the wines that won. Franz gave the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet a numerical score of 98; I rated it at 97 points, and gave the BV Tapestry Reserve, a red Bordeaux-style blend, a rating of 95 points. Tapestry narrowly edged the Georges de Latour in the final vote for Best of Show red wine, when all 34 judges taste the same wines and weigh in, opting for the immediate appeal of the delicious Tapestry over the greater long-term ageing potential of the Georges de Latour.
If total medals were the determining factor in the Winery of the Year decision, V. Sattui of the Napa Valley would have been the runaway winner. Sattui entered 29 wines and win 22 medals, including four platinum awards and a slew of golds. Platinum awards are conveyed on all gold-medal wines that are advanced by the judges to the championship rounds of the tasting, where best of class and best of show awards are determined.
At that stage of the judging all of the wines being evaluated are superb and it becomes a beauty contest. The judges fell in love with a $9 dry riesling from Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin and gave it the nod for Wine of the Year. This on the heels of Wollersheim’s stellar performance at the 2012 San Diego International, when its wines won four platinum awards on the way to the winery being named 2012 SDIWC Winery of the Year.
In other interesting developments at the 30th San Diego International, the California winery Gnarly Head won five medals, all of the gold, with wines that retail for $12 or less. Those looking for good wine at a great price should take heed.
The Italian winery Bolla had a similar experience, going gold on all four of its medal-winning wines, including the Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOC ($40). The rest of Bolla’s big winners ranged in price from $10 to $14. Bolla has emerged recently from decades of mediocrity to produce a number of top-notch Veronese wines. The gold medals are a solid indication the turnaround at Bolla continues.
A complete list of winners can be found at SDIWC.com. Winning wines will be poured at the annual Wine & Roses Charity Wine Tasting and Sale in June 9 in San Diego. Cases of medal-winning wines, donated by the winning wineries, will be sold at the event at generous discounts. Information about Wine & Roses, which provides “camperships” to send kids to a summer youth camp, is available at WineandRoses.net.
Next week: Mini reviews of platinum-award-winning wines from the 30th San Diego International.
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The 100-Point Wine
It isn't often that I hand out a perfect score to one of the thousands of wine samples I taste each year.
I can remember a Montrachet from Drouhin, a cabernet from Nickel & Nickel. There have been a handful of others, always from the usual suspects: world-renowned wineries, rock-star winemakers, hallowed vineyard ground.
Feudi di San Gregorio is none of these things in the conventional sense. This relatively new, relatively modern winery was founded in 1986 in the small village of Sorbo Serpico, in the Campania region of southern Italy. The winery sits in the shadows of Mount Vesuvius. The sandstone and marl soils are laden with mineral-rich volcanic ash from the frequent eruptions of Vesuvius.
There is little doubt Vesuvius contributes mightily to the personality of the wines. They all have backbone. The reds are massively structured, with mouth-puckering tannins and firm acidity that can carry them for decades. The whites are rich and oily, with scintillating acidity that defies logic considering how close the region is to the warmth of the Mediterranean Sea.
The most important red grape is aglianico, a variety little known outside of southern Italy. It can be unfriendly, even off-putting at times. For more than a century, the wines made from aglianico were rustic and mean, needing years in the cellar to be ready to drink. Over the past quarter-century, Feudi di San Gregorio and a handful of other wineries in the area have worked at improvements in the vineyard and the cellar to make the wines more approachable.
Serpico, which carries the Irpinia IGT designation as its appellation of origin, is Feudi di San Gregorio's flagship wine. The Serpico vineyards are planted at more than 1,000 feet of elevation and range from 40 to 70 years old. I have long thought it is one of the greatest red wines in the world. I tasted the 2008 Serpico in a flight of a dozen mostly impressive Italian reds. It was the standout by far. Ten hours later, I went back to retaste the open bottle and found it to be even better the second time around.
It is quite possible that Serpico would not be to your liking. For me, however, the complex flavors, the remarkable structure, the real or imagined potential for historic longevity all add up to what I am looking for in the perfect red wine.
And that, dear reader, is why the 2008 Feudi di San Gregorio Serpico is a 100-point wine.
Once upon a time in America, Bordeaux was the beverage of choice for sophisticated wine enthusiasts. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find even one Bordeaux selection at a top-notch restaurant that wasn't French.
Once upon a time in America, Bordeaux dominated the shelf space of virtually every fine wine merchant in the big cities. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a token handful of good Bordeaux chateaux on the retail shelves. And the farther away you get from New York and Los Angeles, the harder it gets to lay your hands on any bottle of Bordeaux, good or bad.
Bordeaux as a brand is dying out in America, and the warning signs are everywhere.
"Young people in America, people in their 30s, don't know Bordeaux," said Olivier Lebret, a consultant with the Bordeaux Wine Council here in America. "The perception is Bordeaux is too expensive."
The perception, for most of us, is the reality. The most expensive wines in the world are Bordeaux. The most sought-after chateaux fetch prices ranging from $400 a bottle to more than $2,000. The prices are so outrageous even lifelong collectors gag and avert their eyes.
Bordeaux has become a victim of its own success. That success is the feeding frenzy in the Asian market for Bordeaux from the most famous chateaux. Well-heeled Asians show off their good taste and status by acquiring and gifting expensive wines from France. That drives prices ever higher.
Americans continue to play the Bordeaux game, but the end is in sight. The U.S. market for Bordeaux has been reduced to two types of buyer. There is the aging baby boomer who has money to burn and refuses to give up a decades-old passion, and there is the canny investor looking to resell collectible Bordeaux on the auction market or pack it off to Asia at a handsome profit.
Bottom line: Fewer Americans are actually drinking Bordeaux, and those that are either have gray hair or no hair at all. This is where Lebret and the Bordeaux Wine Council come in.
"We want to change the perception," said Lebret. "We conduct tasting programs in a number of cities around the country aimed at a younger demographic. We know we have to do more to educate the consumer."
The focus of the tastings is affordable Bordeaux priced between $15 and $45. Most consumers don't realize that the vast majority of all Bordeaux falls within that range. The expensive classified growths account for about 5 percent of the total production of Bordeaux.
"Most people would look at $15 Bordeaux and say, 'That can't be any good,'" said Lebret. "Until they taste it. Then they get excited about what they are drinking and tweet about it, or post comments and pictures on Facebook. We hope to use social media to spread the word about Bordeaux anyone can afford."
It is a good and noble approach. My question is whether it is enough to make an impression in a nation of 380 million people. I remain skeptical. It is one thing to get excited about an affordable Bordeaux you've tasted; it is quite another to find it.
Bordeaux once owned the U.S. wine market, but the boomers who made it so are shrinking in number. Will Twitter and Facebook bring it back? I think we all know the answer to that.
The Next Robert Parker?
The still relatively small world of wine journalism has been atwitter lately over the future of wine criticism. There has been both elation and angst, triggered by the news that the world's most prominent wine critic, Robert Parker, had sold an interest in The Wine Advocate, his closely watched newsletter, to a group from Singapore.
There is little doubt that Parker, at 65, is beginning to wind down a brilliant career. Prior to the sale, he had already announced he would narrow his focus to the areas that most interest him, Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley, two wine regions in France that owe a great deal of their current worldwide popularity to Parker's palate and enthusiasm.
Reaction to the sale of The Wine Advocate and Parker's retreat has been nothing if not curious. A new generation of wine journalists has long envied Parker's influence, and loudly applauded what is seen in some circles as the end of the Parker era. One wine blogger, my colleague W. Blake Gray, has gone so far as to post odds on the "next" Robert Parker.
Not so fast. Over the past three decades, Robert Parker has been a kingmaker with his popular but controversial 100-point scale. He came to prominence in 1983 with audacious praise for the 1982 vintage of Bordeaux. He filled a void with reviews that were bold and provocative at a time when serious wine critics were few and far between, and wine writing in general was often little more than genteel puffery.
Parker was effusive about the wines he loved, but equally passionate and expressive when he took a chateau to task for underperforming. His style was bold, honest and refreshing, and it was quickly embraced by the wine trade as a tool to increase sales.
It was a time in America when solid information about wine was scant, although curiosity about wine was growing. France was dominant, but California was beginning to emerge in the market, and there was genuine need for a reliable voice consumers could trust.
Robert Parker was the right person in the right place at the right time. That world no longer exists.
Today, largely due to the Internet, there is a cacophony of wine advice. A merchant looking to utilize a shelf-talker to promote sales of a particular wine now has multiple options. The Wine Advocate and to a lesser extent The Wine Spectator remain the preferred media in wine promotion, but the choice is no longer as clear-cut as it once was. Other voices have emerged and will continue to emerge.
There are literally dozens of wine journalists with the talent and work ethic to be the next Robert Parker. But the day when one person can toss out a number and put an obscure winery on the map, or inspire a stampede at the checkout counter, is all but over.
When RP does finally retire, it will mark the end of an era — the Robert Parker era.
I wouldn't look for another RP anytime soon.
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Cecchi Joins the Renaissance
It would seem the Italian renaissance in wine is old news. Antinori, Gaja, Banfi, and the wave of so-called “flying” winemakers saw to that. Or so we thought.
Not so fast I say. There are still stories to be told. The once woebegone Bolla is making noise in the north of Italy, and down near the boot Feudi di San Gregorio has ushered in the rise of the wines of the south. Sicily, an island unto itself, has witnessed a generational change in winemaking and finally caught up to the Mainland in quality.
Then there is Tuscany, ground that has been ploughed and ploughed again as the rules of the game have changed. Tuscan producers have had it relatively easy through the years because Chianti once stood for quality in Italian wine. That was until the visionary Piero Antinori demonstrated what quality truly meant, what it looked like, and most of all what it tasted like.
As the bar was raised, many Tuscan producers were left behind. The smart ones, however, understood that as more was expected they would not be able to compete unless they upped their game. The house of Cecchi, under the leadership of fourth-generation winemaker Andrea Cecchi, got it.
The family winery, with its Villa Cerna estate in Castellina-in-Chianti in the heart of the Chianti Classico region, and its Val delle Rose property in Scansano, in the much warmer Tuscan district known as the Maremma, and a few smaller properties, has steadily moved forward on the quality front over the past decade or more. The results of Cecchi’s dedication in the vineyards and the cellar are now obvious for all to see, which explains Andrea’s recent presence on a tour of the United States.
He was here for the Gambero Rosso “Tre Bicchieri” tastings, a series of exhibitions to show off all of the Italian wines that had been awarded tre bicchieri, three glasses, in the publication’s most recent annual ranking of Italian wines. Gambero Rosso is Italy’s equivalent of The Wine Spectator, the widely watched U.S. wine publication that generates quite a buzz each year with its list of the Top 100 wines of the year.
Where The Wine Spectator ranks wines on a 100-point scale, Gambero Rosso issues one, two or three bicchieri for its recommended wines (most wines, it should be noted, receive no bicchieri from Gambero Rosso). Cecchi’s 2008 Villa Cerna Chianti Classico Riserva was Andrea’s ticket to the Gambero Rosso tour this year, and the tre bicchieri was a well-deserved kudo for a superb Chianti from a house that hasn’t always done so well.
The Cecchi wines were once renowned for their earthy, rustic quality, and they appealed to a dwindling crowd of wine consumers who clung to the sometimes funky flavors and aromas of Chianti made the old-fashioned way, without such modern luxuries as temperature-controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks or a basic understanding of how to control or eliminate bacteria that lives in wine barrels.
Andrea has been able to correct those fundamental flaws in the Cecchi wines without abandoning the traditions that helped the family establish its name in the Chianti region more than a half century ago.
Andrea Cecchi has embraced modern winemaking while maintaining allegiance to the indigenous grape varieties of the Chianti district, meaning you can be certain a Cecchi Chianti will be made mostly from sangiovese, the workhorse grape of the region, with a splash of colorino, another indigenous grape. Andrea has resisted the urge to join the crowd that hedges its bets each vintage with cabernet sauvignon or merlot, which have been permitted in the wines of Chianti going on two decades now.
As he crisscrossed the U.S. on the tre bicchieri tour, Andrea kindly took the time to present a number of his wines for my evaluation, an opportunity I relished. I’ve followed the upward trajectory of quality at Cecchi for a number of years, and at prices that seem quaintly modest by today’s inflated standard.
Castello Montauto 2011 Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy ($17) – There is perhaps no other wine that represents the improvement in winemaking in Tuscany than Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Once upon a time it seemed the Tuscans only cared about their red wines, offering whites that were dull and lifeless, and often brown from oxidation before they were barely a year old. This vintage from Cecchi’s Castello Montauto is a golden straw color, with aromas of fresh citrus and dried fruits. It is fresh and clean on the palate, with mouth-watering acidity and a crisp finish. Rating: 88.
Val delle Rose 2009 Morellino di Scansano Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($20) – Scansano is situated in the Maremma, southwest of Montalcino toward the coast of Tuscany. The region is warm, so the sangiovese (called “morellino” in the area) always ripens, and in good years it can be rich and voluptuous, distinctly different from the sangiovese-based wines of the Chianti district. Because the region is tucked away far from any major village or city, the wines were undiscovered until recently, and land has been cheap to purchase compared to the Chianti Classico region and the better areas of Montalcino, where Brunello is made. This Cecchi Val delle Rose property produces exceptional Morellino di Scansano. This vintage is lush and pure, with soft tannins and a rich texture on the palate. Aromas of ripe cherries and spice are appealing and typical of the wine. Tremendous value! Rating: 90.
Villa Cerna 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva, Tuscany, Italy ($24) – This was among my go-to Chiantis over the past year, a sleek, beautifully structured Chianti that is likely to improve over the next three to seven years although more than likely most of it will be drunk long before it reaches its peak. This wine exhibits freshness and richness on the palate, with a spicy nose, nicely integrated tannins and good acidity without the telltale bite for which Chianti is renowned. Notes of black cherry and dried herbs come through in this seamless beauty. Villa Cerna is a single-estate, single-vineyard wine from Castellina, a lovely village situated in the center of the Chianti Classico region between the major cities of Florence and Siena. The vineyards are planted to a number of new clones of sangiovese that have emerged in many trials as superior clones. The proof, as always, is in the bottle. Rating: 94.
Cecchi 2007 Coevo, Toscana IGT, Italy ($58) – Cecchi’s hot-rod “Super Tuscan” is a tip of the hat to the undeniable fact that some so-called international grape varieties, typically merlot and cabernet sauvignon, thrive in the hilly, arid climate of Tuscany. The blend is 50 percent sangiovese with 20 percent merlot, 20 percent petit verdot and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon. The wine is aged in small French oak barrels and it has the decided personality of a Bordeaux-style blend, although the large percentage of sangiovese lends a bit of the Tuscan character (aromas of black cherry, fresh acidity). This vintage exhibits an enticing floral note of violets, with hints of spice, black fruits and supple tannins that deliver a soft mouthfeel that marries nicely with the richness of the fruit. Rating: 91.
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In a Perfect World
Ever sit down in an unfamiliar restaurant and order a dish you don’t know and feel somewhat comforted when the server mutters “perfect” as he/she moves on to the next guest? You are feeling good about your selection until the person beside you orders something entirely different and the same he/she server mutters “perfect” again.
You suddenly have the sinking feeling that if everything is special, then nothing is. It is that way this week as I field suggestions from overly enthusiast publicists on the merits of an endless variety of wines for Valentine’s Day.
Did you know that carmenere from Chile is the “perfect” pairing with a box Valentine’s Day chocolates? Neither did I, but so I am told. And here all along I was thinking it was zinfandel from Amador. Or was it pinot noir from Carneros?
The head is spinning, about to explode as I consider the myriad possibilities. Of course, it’s mostly nonsense, these silly “perfect” suggestions that will make you someone’s hero on this day of romance.
Cupid I’m not, but I can tell you unequivocally chocolate does not do much to flatter any dry red wine I can think of. Yes, you might pick up a hint of mocha in a rich Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. That doesn’t mean it will taste good with a truffle from Godiva. Quite the opposite is likely to occur as the sweetness of the confection makes the wine taste tart and sour.
Ah, you say, but how about Champagne? Isn’t that supposed to be a natural with chocolate? Only if you pop the cork on a demi-sec, but even that’s a stretch. Most demi-sec methode champenoise, while somewhat sweet, isn’t quite sweet enough to stand up to a rich chocolate confection. The rule of thumb for this sort of match is to serve a wine that is sweeter than the confection.
So in a perfect world, here’s what I would consider optimal Valentine’s wines for Valentine’s treats:
Rosa Regale 2011 Brachetto d’Aqui ($25) is my go-to wine for Valentine’s Day. This sweet, frothy red wine from northern Italy smells and tastes like fresh raspberries and strawberries, flavors that sing when paired with chocolate. Though it is sweet, Rosa Regale finishes clean, with a bit of palate-cleansing tannin. It was a favorite at the 2013 Winemaker Challenge wine competition, where it claimed a silver medal. There are other Brachetto bubblies out there, and you should be adventuresome and try them, but Rosa Regale is among the best; beautifully balanced and sure to please.
Eberle 2011 Muscat Canelli, Paso Robles ($15) is a luscious white wine that exhibits exotic floral aromas, with tropical notes and dried fruits on the palate, balancing acidity and a clean, persistent finish. This wine, much like the Rosa Regale, can be sipped as an aperitif or with dessert after a meal, or even with pungent cheeses. Won a silver medal at 2013 Winemaker Challenge. Winery owner Gary Eberle likes to serve it with cakes and fruit. Slightly frizzante moscato from northen Italy’s Piedmont region is a reasonable substitute.
Inniskillin 2008 Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula, Canada ($80) was the Best of Show dessert wine at the 2012 Sommelier Challenge wine competition. The sommeliers went bonkers over this wine and more than likely would have voted it Wine of the Year had it not been up against one of the greatest Champagnes ever made (Charles Heidsieck 1995 Blanc des Millenaires) in the championship round. This is one of the most intensely delicious wines you could ever taste, with mind-bending tropical aromas, and notes of honey and spice. It will hold its own against any sweet confection Cupid might deliver.
Quady 2010 ‘Essensia’ Orange Muscat, California ($25) is a lightly fortified (15 percent alcohol by volume) dessert wine that never disappoints. With aromas of orange blossom and stone fruits, it is “perfect” with chocolate, as he/she might say. This grape variety is grown in central California but is little known around the world, with a few small plantings in France and Australia. It was Best of Show dessert wine at the 2012 San Diego International wine competition.
Rancho de Philo Triple Cream Sherry, Rancho Cucamonga ($35) is one of the few sherries produced in the United States that is on par with the finest sherry from Jerez, Spain. It is made using the traditional solera technique with mission grapes grown in the warm, dry climate of Rancho Cucamonga, east of Los Angeles near the San Bernadino Mountains. It exhibits rich notes of toffee, nuts, raisins and spice. This wine won a gold medal at the 2012 San Diego International.
Perfect with chocolate.
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When Big Isn't Bad
The wine blogosphere was all atwitter last week over a published report revealing three large wine companies — E&J Gallo, Constellation and The Wine Group — produce more than half of all the wine consumed in the United States.
Considering America drinks more wine — by volume and by value — than any other nation in the world, the big three couldn't possibly quench the national thirst with nifty handcrafted wines made in an idyllic small vineyard in the heart of wine country.
A whole bunch of it comes from vast vineyards that are farmed for volume, news that's not really news but rather a fact of life that is rarely discussed by those who worship at the altar of new French oak barrels and trendy cult cabernets.
Hello, most of America — indeed, most of the world — drinks inexpensive wine produced in industrial facilities bulging with enormous stainless steel tanks and all of the tricks of modern winemaking, so your wine will taste somewhat like the more expensive juice when it's really not.
This is a problem? I think not. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy those special bottles with their unique personalities and interesting narratives as much as the next wine geek. But sometimes a wine is just an adult beverage (meaning merely that it contains alcohol) that you would prefer over beer or a distilled spirit. It usually doesn't have to be any more than that, though more discerning consumers might like it to have a pleasant taste.
Consider the typical family that might enjoy a bottle of wine on the table with dinner each night. If the average price of wine they drank was $30, their annual budget for wine would come to $10,950, a number that would be difficult for many families to swallow. So make that average cost $20 per bottle, but the $7,300 tab would still be difficult to swallow for many.
That's why the majority of wine consumed in the U.S. costs $10 or less. That's what the average person is willing to pay, or what he or she can afford on a daily basis.
So are we a nation of rubes, drinking cheap swill because we don't know any better, unwilling to pay the price for a decent bottle of wine? No, we aren't. We are no different than the inhabitants of such wine-savvy nations as France, Italy and Spain.
Should you happen to vacation in Paris at some point, you will notice that it's almost impossible to find a classified-growth Bordeaux or a Burgundy cru in most bistros and brasseries. What you will find are the much less expensive wines of the Loire Valley, the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc. Out in the countryside, it's even more difficult to find top-notch Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Travel to Italy, and you will meet people in small villages who still take jugs to the back door of their favorite local wineries, filling them with inexpensive wine that failed to make the cut so it was never bottled.
Spaniards are notorious for their fondness for Rioja "crianza," which is the cheapest Rioja you can buy; and also inexpensive wines from La Mancha, Jumilla and Navarra.
It is hardly a crime against the culture to find beauty in a wine made for the masses, and with that in mind I give you a winning wine from the recent Winemaker Challenge in San Diego. A panel of three winemakers evaluated cabernet sauvignons priced at $10 or less and awarded a Platinum medal to the non-vintage Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($6.99).
They all agreed, it didn't stand a chance in the championships against the 2009 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain ($110), which was voted Best of Class Cabernet Sauvignon, but they all found it to be delicious and a winemaking achievement within its price class. I imagine it was produced in enormous volume; perhaps millions of cases.
But if you can buy cheap and good, that seems to me a winning combination, no matter what the cognoscenti think.
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A Chardonnay Triumph
Chardonnay is America’s favorite white wine. Nothing else is even close. Yet this popular wine has notoriously underperformed on the wine competition circuit in recent years despite its far-reaching appeal.
As Director of four important international wine competitions, and a judge at numerous wine competitions around the globe, I’ve seen judges go through their sauvignon blanc stage, their riesling stage, their viognier stage, and the occasional flirtation with steely white wines such as albarino and gruner veltliner.
It’s been some time, longer than I can remember, since I’ve seen a significant number of professional wine judges embrace a chardonnay for their top award. Strange considering the chardonnay grape produces wines of profound character in many parts of the world. I have concluded the reluctance to show any love for chardonnay was merely a backlash to its popularity and widespread availability. Wine judges seemed to be under the spell of the ABC (“anything but chardonnay”) crowd.
As a fan of the grape, especially when it reaches its potential in the right hands, I was pleasantly surprised over a recent weekend in San Diego, where the fourth annual Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition brought together 21 respected winemakers to evaluate more than 700 wines, with the 2009 Baileyana Firepeak Vineyard Chardonnay ($28) from California’s Edna Valley emerging as Winemaker Challenge Wine of the Year.
The Baileyand chardonnay nudged V. Sattui’s 2009 Paradiso ($75), a red Bordeaux-style blend from the Napa Valley, on the final vote. The Paradiso had to settle for Best of Show red wine at the competition.
Baileyana’s chardonnay is crafted by the French-born winemaker Christian Roguenant, who came to this country nearly 30 years ago to make sparkling wines near San Luis Obispo for the Champagne house Deutz. Though Maison Deutz won considerable critical acclaim, the project was abandoned after mounting financial losses made it no longer viable. Roguenant remained in the area.
A native of Burgundy, he settled in as winemaker at Baileyana, where he focused on Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir. In recent years the Baileyana ownership, Niven Family Wines, has added other brands – Tanget, Zocker, Cadre and Trenza – and Roguenant, who headed up all of the projects, became widely known for his success with aromatic whites such as gruner veltliner, albarino and grenache blanc.
While those grape varieties have been popular in Europe for years, they haven’t been widely planted here in the United States. They’ve thrived, however, in the cool Edna Valley where Niven’s well-regarded Paragon vineyard is situated just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. The days are warm and the nights are cool.
It is that same proximity to the ocean that elevates the Baileyana chardonnay, allowing Roguenant to make a wine that combines crisp acidity with rich, sun-kissed flavor. It is an easy wine to love. And for a change, a room full of professional wine judges did.
In other inspired Winemaker Challenge performances:
V. Sattui Winery, with 30 medals overall, was named Winery of the Year. The Napa Valley winery won Best of Show Red Wine with its 2009 Paradiso, and also took a platinum award with its 2009 Preston Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($49). In addition, V. Sattui won nine gold medals.
Gloria Ferrer, a Carneros-based sparkling wine house, placed four of its wines in the sparkling wine finals. All wines that reach the finals are given a platinum award, and it is a significant achievement to have four platinum awards. None of those won Best of Show Sparkling, however, as that honor went to the 2006 Domaine Ste. Michelle Luxe, Columbia Valley ($23).
Another Washington winery, Maryhill, had an impressive weekend with 19 medals won, including platinum awards for its 2010 Tavola Rosso ($32) and 2010 Cabernet Franc ($16.95). Maryhill also picked up four gold medals.
Milagro Farm Vineyards & Winery brought a little local flavor to the winners’ circle with the Best of Show Rose Wine, a 2012 Rose of Sangiovese, Ramona Valley ($22) and Best Sauvignon Blanc, a 2012 Estate Sauvignon Blanc ($23). Ramona is located in the rolling hills 40 miles east of San Diego.
Napa Valley being famous for cabernet sauvignon, it came as no surprise that Best Cabernet Sauvignon went to the Cakebread Cellars 2009 Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain ($110). Cakebread also won gold for its 2010 Chardonnay Reserve, Carneros ($55).
And, finally, the judges also had considerable love for a well-made wine from the bargain aisle, awarding platinum to the non-vintage Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, California ($6.99).
Said Napa Valley winemaker David Stevens: “You have to respect it when someone can make a delicious cabernet for under $10.”
Photos by Karen McDonald.
Why Not Kentucky?
My recent column on "American Wine," the book (by Master of Wine Jancis Robinson and American wine journalist Linda Murphy) as well as the topic, struck a chord last week with one reader. John Bojanowski is a native of Kentucky who now lives in the south of France, making wine at Clos du Gravillas in St. Jean de Minervois.
"I'm delighted to see this book, as I respect what Jancis writes and am personally interested in the subject. I grew up in Kentucky and somehow ended up growing organic grapes and making wines (out of unloved varietals, most passionately) in St Jean de Minervois, Languedoc.
"I'm back home in Kentucky a couple of times per year and have noted two things: The number of Kentucky wineries has gone from 5 to 50 in 10 years, and each time I go back, I buy four to five bottles, which inevitably finish in the sink.
"A firm believer that it is possible to make good wine 'in most places and with most varietals,' I look at Kentucky's advantages (limestone) and think there might be application there for some of what I've learned over here in France (it don't get no more limestonier than in St. Jean de Minervois ...). I think there's a philosophical muddle going on — the neo-growers are trying to 'make to market' rather than discovering 'good practice' to figure out how to make good taste under local conditions (and local good practice is much easier to find here than in Kentucky).
"Ever had a good Kentucky wine or even a drinkable one? I visited Jim Law at Linden in Virginia a few years ago, and he's understood his vineyard constraints absolutely. So I know Kentucky is possible."
I know next to nothing about Kentucky wine, but I would say to John that the growth spurt in the number of wineries over the past decade is encouraging. That would seem to indicate that there is an underlying belief in the potential of the region.
There are many challenges in these non-traditional winegrowing regions, which is why so many aspiring vintners locate in California, where the conditions are just about ideal.
For example, Eastern wine regions such as Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia often have a wet spring. That happens in California, but not very often.
Those areas also are prone to hail in the summer months, which is rare in California. Then there is the shorter growing season, which makes it tricky as harvest (and stormy weather) approaches as the leaves begin to turn.
Yet in recent years we've seen glorious wines emerge, crafted by dedicated vintners who've figured out the climate and the soil and made the advances in technology and vineyard practices that were necessary to produce high-quality grapes. Perhaps Kentucky will be next, although to this point none of the wineries there have mustered the courage to compete on the world wine competition stage — at least, not that I am aware.
But I have no doubt that if there's good wine being made in Georgia and Ohio and Michigan and Missouri and South Dakota and Colorado — and there is — then there's hope for Kentucky, too.
American Wine, a comprehensive look at the history and state of wine in America co-authored by Master of Wine Jancis Robinson and wine journalist Linda Murphy, is scheduled to be released February 1. It is available on pre-order now ($45) at Amazon. It should be an eye-opener.
Although the focus promises to be on the most important wine-growing regions in the nation, i.e., California, Washington and Oregon, the most important detail is the revelation that good wine is made throughout America, often in places the average American would consider improbable turf for winemaking.
The subject is near and dear, for I have become a convert to the exciting viticultural possibilities in, say, South Dakota. I won’t pretend that it is a budding Napa Valley waiting to be discovered, but I do know there is a winery, Prairie Berry in Hill City, SD., that has consistently racked up awards at the San Diego International Wine Competition.
The wines of Prairie Berry are made from grapes, such as Frontenac Gris and Vidal Blanc, that may not be familiar to the average person, but at Prairie Berry they are transformed into delicious, well-balanced wines that impress even grizzled wine judges with more experience, and perhaps a small bias, toward more traditional grape varieties.
Even more startling than the recent success of Prairie Berry was the accomplishment last year of a winery from Wisconsin, Wollersheim, which racked up four platinum awards and was named Winery of the Year at the San Diego International. Wollersheim is located in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, where it, too, features hybrid grape varieties made in a range of styles from dry to sweet, but with an emphasis always on exquisite balance.
Less surprising but equally obscure for most Americans are the superb wines of New York, where the primary growing regions are the Finger Lakes upstate and the eastern end of Long Island. The Finger Lakes specialize in aromatic whites, such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Gruner Veltliner, while Long Island is a friendly environ for Cabernet Franc and Merlot, with a smattering of good Riesling and Chardonnay.
I’ve also tasted award-winning wines from neighboring New Jersey, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.
Further south, Virgina, North Carolina and Georgia have made tremendous strides with more traditional grapes. I’ve grown fond of the Cabernet Franc and Viognier from Barboursville and Jefferson Vineyards, both near Charlottesville, Va., at the southwestern tip of the state. Barboursville also makes what I consider one of the two finest Nebbiolo wines (this is the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco in northern Italy) in North America (Baja, Mexico’s LA Cetto makes the other) and Jefferson’s Chardonnay and Bordeaux blend are perhaps the best made in the East Coast and always competitive when up against California rivals in major wine competitions.
Georgia has a small but significant wine-growing region in the mountains in the southwest corner of the state, where the climate is hot and dry by day and somewhat cool at night. Frogtown Cellars, located in Georgia’s Lumpkin County, concentrates on elegant reds and lush whites made from traditional French grape varieties. These wines also compete successfully on the world stage, always winning a fair share of medals when entered in competitions that attract entries from California, Washington, Oregon, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere.
I’ve also tasted award-winning wines in recent years from Texas and Colorado.
The reason you may not be aware of this booming culture of American wine is that California, for the most part, gets all the glory. Washington and Oregon pick up California’s crumbs on the publicity front, and the rest of the country goes begging for attention.
Hopefully “American Wine” will alter that dynamic. I am reminded of a query from a San Diego restaurateur just last week, wanting to know of any California distributors who might have inventory from New York or Virginia. Sadly, I know of none.
Even in New York City it is sometimes difficult to find a New York wine, and my experience says the same is true of Virginia wines in Virginia and Georgia wines in Georgia.
Perhaps you will read “American Wine” and seek out some of the more interesting wines from unusual places. More than likely you will be thwarted by your favorite wine merchant, but the internet has changed the rules. Now you can hop on the computer and join a winery’s wine club, bypassing the gatekeepers who either don’t know there are exceptional wines made all over this country, or have little interest beyond the easy sell of California wine.
There are amazing wines being made across America. A book that documents the breadth of America’s winegrowing chops is long overdue.
Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Robert Whitley on Twitter @wineguru or @WhitleyOnWine.
Three Modest Proposals
Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t have a crystal ball that allows me a glimpse into the future. I usually can't spot a wine trend until it lands in my glass. I merely have a wish list. So for 2013 I have a few modest proposals for the wine industry.
First, I would like to see more options for tasting multiple wines while dining out. I’ve just about given up on the half bottle of wine. Restaurateurs generally hate the topic because they know offering a half-bottle selection is perfectly logical and desirable, but also a royal pain.
There is the storage issue, of course. And pricing presents a problem. Most customers don’t understand why a half bottle is more expensive by volume than a full bottle. Simple answer: half bottles cost restaurants more at the wholesale level than full bottles. The additional cost is passed along to the customer.
My solution to all of this is the half glass. I may not want a full glass of white wine or bubbly with my starter course, followed by a full glass of red (or another white) with the main, especially at lunch. Or my inner wine geek, after stumbling onto an excellent wine-by-the-glass selection, might simply want to experience as many of those intriguing wines as possible without ordering too much.
There is a superb bistro/wine bar near my home in San Diego, Café Chloe, which offers the “half glass” option. A number of other restaurants have imitated the Chloe wine-by-the-glass program since it opened several years ago, but I would love to see more.
The half-glass option gives the diner tremendous flexibility and discretion when ordering wines to pair with ever more varied menu options.
My second proposal is directed at Olivier Bernard, the incoming president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, a trade organization that represents the interests of those chateaux that produce classified growth Bordeaux. Olivier has done a wonderful job since taking over the family chateau in Graves, Domaine de Chevalier, a number of years ago.
He is personable, gregarious and very sharp, so I’m sure he will do the same for the UGC.
Bordeaux has reached a crisis point here in the United States. Young wine drinkers don’t buy it and new wine drinkers don’t buy it. Interest in Bordeaux wines is confined now to aging wine collectors and the high-rollers who prowl the wine auctions looking for investment-grade Bordeaux to re-sell on the Asian market.
When I first took an interest in wine in the 1970s Bordeaux was the dominant player in almost every fine wine shop from coast to coast. California wines had yet to gain widespread credibility, and even fairly serious wine enthusiasts did not understand the intricacies of Burgundy. Few collectors took Spanish or Italian wines seriously, and no one could pronounce the name of a single German wine other than Blue Nun.
If you were serious about buying wine for long-term cellaring and enjoyment down the road, after the wines had matured, you bought Bordeaux.
The First Growths are now out of reach for most of us. I love Cheval Blanc, but I’m not paying $800 for any wine. Chateau Latour at $1200 to $2000 a bottle? Forget about it.
It is up to the UGC, in my humble opinion, to market Bordeaux aggressively here in the United States and spread the word that affordable classified-growth Bordeaux exists. The UGC also shouldn’t be afraid to point out there are many wonderful unclassified Bordeaux reds and whites that are not only delicious but age-worthy.
The importers won’t do it because they’re cheap. A handful of importers have a decent budget for marketing, but the vast majority don’t. And the smaller chateaux simply don’t have the resources to promote their product throughout a country the size of the United States.
It is only with a collective effort by a unified and effective trade organization such as the UGC that we will ever see Bordeaux regain a smidge of the grip it once held on the U.S. wine market.
Finally, I would borrow an idea from one of my colleagues, Dan Berger. Dan suggested that “cool-climate Syrah” might well be the salvation of this exceptional grape variety in the United States. I am inclined to agree.
For those of you unfamiliar with the history of Syrah around the world, this is a red grape variety that is the workhorse of southern France, particularly in the Rhone Valley. It is also the dominant red grape in Australia, where it is known as Shiraz.
Syrah is widely planted throughout the U.S., but Syrah wines have never been fashionable here. In fact, many wine merchants run the other way when a wine distributor attempts to sell them Syrah. That’s because Syrah is a hard sell with the U.S. wine consumer.
Most U.S. Syrah is grown in the same places vintners grow Cabernet Sauvignon, meaning there is a good deal of heat. Paso Robles, in the Central Coast of California, is a prime location for Syrah production in this country. For the most part (there are some exceptions) Paso Syrah is rich, ripe and full blown, with generally high levels of alcohol (above 15 percent in many cases). The same could be said of Napa Valley Syrah or Syrah from the Sierra Foothills.
But Syrah is a versatile grape that can also survive in a cooler climate. Most experts would agree the finest, most desirable, and also the most expensive Syrah produced in the Rhone Valley is made in the cooler northern Rhone.
Cool-climate Syrah tends to be spicier, often with subtle notes of white pepper and mint, and more firmly structured, thus more suitable for aging. Even Australia, which is most well-known for its jammy Shiraz from the warm Barossa Valley, produces a fair amount of spicy cool-climate Shiraz from the Victoria region, Clare Valley and Margaret River.
The cool coastal valleys of northern California, Santa Barbara County, and even the Columbia Valley of Washington have been making credible cool-climate Syrah for years, just not enough of it and also without the necessary explanation (marketing again) that it’s a different beast from the ripe, jammy, Cabernet-style Syrahs you’ve experienced in the past.
More Syrah like this, please. I would by it.
And those, dear readers, are my modest proposals to improve our wine experiences in the coming year.
Email comments to email@example.com and follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru & @WhitleyOnWine.
It's All About the Bubbles
Tis the season to raise a glass of bubbly and toast the dawn of a new year, a ritual that can be as simple or as extravagant as you like. Whether your beverage of choice is a modest Prosecco from Italy or an expensive tetes de cuvee Champagne, on New Year’s Eve it’s all about the bubbles.
For me and mine, this year we plan to ring in the New Year with extravagant simplicity. That means a roaring fire, grilled lobster tails with mayonnaise, and a fine sparkling wine.
Once upon a time calling for a fine sparkling wine meant popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne. For many wine enthusiasts that remains a truism, but in reality other wine producing regions in France and around the world now make bubbly that can compete with Champagne at virtually every level.
I offer a few suggestions from California and Italy in this week’s tasting notes, as well as a classic tetes de cuvee Champagne from Charles Heidsieck, the 1995 Blanc des Millenaires, which I’ve bestowed with one of those rare 100-point ratings.
The sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region are all made using the traditional Champagne technique of inducing a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. In the United States producers generally call this methode champenoise. Metodo classico is the term used in Italy for the same technique.
The best Champagnes are typically aged anywhere from three to 10 years prior to the time they are disgorged (a process that removes the dead yeast cells that were used to induce the second fermentation) and placed under cork prior to being shipped to market. In recent years more New World producers have adopted the French passion for aging better bubbly, and the J Vineyards 2003 Late Disgorged Vintage Brut recommended this week is an excellent example of the result.
Sparkling wines that are aged longer generally exhibit more richness and complexity. They also are more rare and therefore tend to be more expensive.
Charles Heidsieck 1995 ‘Blanc des Millenaires’ Champagne Blanc de Blancs, France ($170) – Rating: 100.
Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Champagne, France ($110) – Rating: 95.
J Vineyards 2003 Late Disgorged Vintage Brut ($90) – Rating: 95.
J Vineyards 2005 Vintage Brut, Russian River Valley ($48) – Rating: 93.
Ferrari Brut Rose, Metodo Classico, Trento DOC, Italy ($37) – Rating: 92.
Mumm Napa 2007 Blanc de Bancs, Napa Valley ($38) – Rating: 88.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru & @WhitleyOnWine.
The Pinnacle of Italian Bubbly
To the extent that you think about Italian sparkling wine, if you think about it at all, you are probably most familiar with the refreshing aperitif bubbly, prosecco. Attractive pricing and improved quality have strengthened demand for and the availability of prosecco in recent years.
You also might have a passing acquaintance with Asti spumante, the exotically perfumed dessert bubbly, particularly if you’ve attended an Italian wedding recently. Few wines go better with wedding cake or traditional Italian cookies.
And if you have a curious and daring palate, you may have taken a trip on the wild side and indulged in a bit of brachetto d’Aqui, the bright red bubbly from Piedmont that goes both ways, either as an aperitif or with, especially with, fruit-based desserts.
If this has been your experience, then you’ve missed the finest in bubbly that Italy has to offer. These are the sparkling wines labeled Metodo Classico, indicating they have been made using the classic technique of Champagne, which involves a second fermentation in the bottle and extended aging on the so-called “lees”, or dead yeast cells.
The top metodo classic bubblies of Italy are produced in the north, in Franciacorta and Trento. These wines, along with a handful of California bubblies, are the only sparkling wines in the world that come close to Champagne in terms of quality and prestige.
The luxury category of Italian sparkling wine is small, dominated by three wineries – Ca’ del Bosco and Bella Vista in Franciacorta, and Ferrari in Trento. Of those three, Ferrari bears added significance because it was Giulio Ferrari at the turn of the 20th century who introduced the Champagne technique to Italy, after studying the process in Epernay, France.
Ferrari also insisted that the grape varieties of Chamagne, particularly pinot noir and chardonnay, be planted in the Trentino district that surrounds the village of Trento. The sloping, mountainous vineyards of Trentino are situated in the Dolomites, along the banks of the Adige river. The chardonnay planted by Giulio Ferrari was the first chardonnay grown in Italy, and its importance is difficult to overstate.
Three of Ferrari’s cuvees – Ferrari Brut ($25), Ferrari Perle ($35) and Giulio Ferrari ($100) – are blanc de blancs, or 100 percent chardonnay. Chardonnay is the grape that imparts the structure and elegance for which Ferrari is famed, and it is the backbone that gives Ferrari its exceptional capacity to age.
The 2001 Giulio Ferrari, for example, was aged 10 years prior to disgorgement (this is when the dead yeast cells are removed and the original airtight cap is replaced with a cork) yet tastes as fresh as the day it was bottled.
“It is,” said Ferrari brand ambassador Jamie Stewart, “a little bit like having a grand cru white Burgundy with bubbles.”
This particular vintage of Giulio Ferrari is hands down the finest Italian sparkling wine I have ever tasted. Yet it is not the end all and be all of the Ferrari story. Giulio sold the winery to the Lunelli family in 1952 and it remains a family affair to this day, with Matteo Lunelli the keeper of the flame. He has Ferrari positioned as the No. 1 producer of metodo classic in Italy and intends to keep it there.
He cited Ferrari’s work in the vineyard, for example, as we tasted the 2004 Perle Rose ($75), which is 80 percent pinot noir and 20 percent chardonnay.
“The typical yield for pinot noir in Trento is 15 tons per hectare (approximately 2 ½ acres) while our yields for pinot are eight to nine tons per hectare,” Lunelli said, explaining that Ferrari cuts away a good deal of fruit from each vine to increase flavor intensity through the growing season. “We also use sustainable growing practices to ensure we have healthy fruit.”
Of course, no winery can exist financially living at the high end. Ferrari Brut is the top selling metodo classic brut in Italy, and at $25 it’s among the finest values in sparkling wine in the world. It is remarkably fresh and clean, and renowned for its finesse.
Of course, you may still prefer a bottle of Champagne when you reach for the bubbly this holiday season; nothing wrong with that, so long as you don’t mind paying a little more for quality that is roughly equal. As for myself, I will continue to drink my fair share of Champagne, but I plan to make Italian metodo classico part of the conversation.
Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru.