|WINE TALK |
Robert Whitley's Creators Syndicate Columns
|The Mystery of Chablis
CHABLIS, France — The mystery of Chablis is hardly a case for Sherlock Holmes, despite the fact that this famous wine from the Burgundy region tastes like no other white wine in the world, including its kissing cousins from the nearby Cote de Beaune.
The village of Chablis, from whence the wine takes its name, is the northernmost wine-growing region in Burgundy. The only French wine-growing regions to the north of Chablis are Champagne and Alsace. This is an important aspect of the taste profile found in Chablis, though hardly the only factor, and perhaps not the most important.
The soils of Chablis, at least where the most highly rated vineyards are planted, are a chalky combination of mostly clay and limestone, similar to the soils found in Sancerre, another famous wine region located in the Loire Valley, and Champagne.
The flinty taste of Chablis is no doubt produced by the combination of cool climate and soils that profoundly shape the character and personality of the wine we call Chablis, which is 100 percent Chardonnay but bears only a passing resemblance to the wines of Puligny, Chassagne and Meursault in the Cote de Beaune, where it is warmer and the wines possess a richness seldom achieved in Chablis.
In some circles that might imply lesser quality, and indeed the premier cru and grand cru wines of the Cote de Beaune command a higher price, but that is merely an example of consumer preference. Puligny, Chassagne and Meursault surely have more cachet in the market, but they are not necessarily better wines.
An argument can be made that Chablis loyalists prefer the more austere character of Chablis, particularly when paired with shellfish, such as the freshly shucked oysters that were showcased at the Chablis tasting that kicked off Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne this week in Burgundy. Les Grands Jours is a tasting tour of the region, with stops each day in a different part of Burgundy to sample wines from the two most recent vintages.
Chablis producers wrestle with nature to achieve ripeness each vintage, but ripeness in Chablis is not the same as ripeness to the south or ripeness in the vineyards of the New World. The grapes of Chablis typically struggle to reach sugar levels that will yield a potential alcohol of 12 or 12.5 percent. In California, by comparison, alcohol levels for Chardonnay range between 14 and 15 percent.
Chablis, as a result, is less fruity that other Chardonnay, exhibiting a stony, mineral character that appeals to many connoisseurs. The 2011 and 2012 vintages on display at Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne were challenging for the vignerons of Chablis, producing uneven results, but there are many fine wines to be had from both harvests.
The following producers are shining examples of how exceptional skill and selection in the vineyard and the cellar can overcome difficult conditions:
Domaine Drouhin Vaudon showed only wines from the 2012 vintage, and they were excellent across the board, especially two from the grand cru vineyards Vaudesir and Bougros. Drouhin, one of the top negociants in Burgundy, has extensive vineyard holdings under its Domaine Vaudon wing.
Domaine Gerard Duplessis offered a selection of premier cru from 2011 and one grand cru, from the Les Clos vineyard. These wines were outstanding across the range.
Domaine Jean Collet et Fils had an impressive lineup of mostly 2011 Chablis. The wines were among the most complex I tasted at the exhibition, including a terrific 2011 Chablis Grand Cru Valmur.
Domaine Laroche presented an array of premier cru Chablis from 2011, including a steely, flinty premier cru Fourchaume. Laroche, widely distributed in the United States, also showcased two 2010 grand cru, from the Les Clos and Blanchot vineyards, that were among the finest wines at the exhibition.
Domaine Vocoret et Fils did very, very well in 2012, but yields were small and the wines could be difficult to find. The 2012 Premier Cru Vaillons and 2012 Premier Cru Vaillons Vieilles Vignes were some of the finest premier cru wines of the vintage, and the Grand Cru Blanchot, Valmur, Vaudesir and Les Clos, batting cleanup, were the equivalent of a grand slam home run.
Domaine William Fevre, another producer widely distributed throughout the U.S., exhibited five wines from the 2012 vintage, and all were outstanding, particularly the Grand Cru Les Clos. The 2012 Grand Cru Bougros was barely a step behind the Les Clos in class.
Maison Simonnet-Febvre poured a silky, elegant 2011 Grand Cru Les Clos, and an array of crisp, premier cru wines with beautiful minerality from the 2012 vintage. Simonnet-Febvre's Cremant de Bourgogne sparkling wine also was a standout.
When In Beaune
BEAUNE, France — Inside the largely intact ramparts of this relatively sleepy village of 20,000, there are four restaurants with at least one Michelin star. Outside the city walls there are several more.
The center of the village, around Place Carnot, is lined with shops pedaling gourmet food products, as well as the latest fashions from Paris, a couple of hours to the north.
From early spring through the annual Hospices de Beaune wine auction in late November, the cobblestone streets are clogged with tourists, particularly on Saturday, which is market day. On most weekends in the high season, hotel and restaurant reservations are a must.
Once the bastion of the Dukes of Burgundy, Beaune is now the center of the wine universe for some, particularly wine aficionados with a taste for the most sought-after chardonnay and pinot noir in the world.
Surrounded by some of the most famous wine villages in France, Beaune is more than the commercial center of Burgundy; it is its heart and soul.
When in Beaune, this is what I do.
I arrive at Hotel le Cep, a four-star hotel near the village center, and immediately celebrate with a glass of Cremant de Bourgogne or Laurent-Perrier brut rose Champagne, usually by the grand fireplace just off the lobby, especially if there is a chill in the air.
Beaune has other superb hotels, including the elegant and relatively new Le Cedre and the conveniently located Hotel de la Poste. Le Cep, however, is eclectic and charming, an Old World period piece, with a warm and friendly staff; and it's an easy walk to my favorite haunts.
None easier than the few steps to Loiseau des Vignes, a Michelin one-star next door to Le Cep. A diner could easily spend $300 in one sitting at Loiseau, but on a recent visit I ordered the four-course menu decouverte for 59 euros, which is about $80, including tax and tip.
Dinner was, as expected, innovative and spectacular, but the greatest attraction for me is the Loiseau approach to wine. It is one of the few restaurants or wine bars in France where it is possible to enjoy grand cru Burgundy by the glass. I indulged and ordered a magnificent 2009 Armand Rousseau Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru for 20 euros. I also took the wine pairings for each course, chosen by the sommelier, for an additional 45 euros.
On the same visit, I had dinner one evening at Le Beneton, another Michelin one-star, and ordered a la carte. Le Beneton was equally innovative and dazzling, but twice the price.
Michelin stars aside, my favorite restaurant in Beaune is Caveau des Arches. It is listed in the Michelin guide without a star, but the cuisine, perhaps a bit more traditional than Loiseau and Le Beneton, is exceptional and the wine list one of the finest in the village (though that distinction may be held by the small, charming Ma Cuisine).
Caveau des Arches recently added a casual dining space upstairs from the main dining room in the "cave." The menu is limited, and reservations are not required, but it is well worth a visit.
If budget is of concern, the modest but well appointed La Grilladine, a half-block from Le Cep, offers several menu options that are attractive. I recently chose its 23-euro dinner that included salmon tartare, beef bourguignon and a cheese plate. With a half-bottle of Pernand Vergelesses Premier Cru I got out for less than 50 euros, including tax and tip.
I've also had similar experiences at the modest Le Conty, which, like the others, is mere steps from Place Carnot in the center of the village.
And a bit further from the center of the village on Rue Faubourg Madelaine is Cave Madelaine, serving up the ultimate in Burgundian comfort food paired with an extensive selection of wines from Burgundy and the rest of France.
Of course, no visit to Beaune would be complete without a stop at one of its better wine bars.
My favorite for lo these many years has been Le Bistrot Bourguignon, near Place Carnot. This homey wine bar, which serves excellent bistro faire, offers more than 20 Burgundies by the glass, most of them village wines, ranging anywhere from 4 to 12 euros per glass, which is a four-to-five ounce pour. On a recent visit I also enjoyed a 1972 Armagnac for 10 euros.
On the other side of Place Carnot you will find the hip, modern La Part des Anges (the Angel's share) with equally good prices on the wines by the glass, and an array of tapas that pair nicely with the wines. La Part des Anges also steps outside the Burgundy box occasionally. The bar was pouring a South African Sauvignon Blanc and a dry red blend from Portugal on my last visit.
So, when in Beaune, do as I do, and you will neither starve nor go thirsty.
Award-Winning Non-Vintage Brut Champagne
It is well understood that a vintage statement on a bottle of Champagne is an indication of superior quality. The Champagne region of France, about an hour from Paris by train or car, is so far north that ripening patterns from year to year can be tricky, complicating life for those who would wish every year to be a vintage year in Champagne.
Sadly, it isn’t. When nature hasn’t been kind, most reputable Champagne houses abstain from declaring a vintage. But even then, all is not lost. Non-vintage, or what some would call multi-vintage Champagne, is the bread and butter of the industry. And, contrary to what a reasonable person might conclude, non-vintage Champagne hardly means bad Champagne.
The clever Champenoise have devised a system that ensures there will always be outstanding bubbly to pop open for the holidays, no matter how lean the harvest might have been in some years. The reason is simple: Top Champagne houses hold back a portion of their production from each of the good vintages. These reserve wines are blended with the best wines from the so-called “off” vintages to achieve consistency of quality and to craft a house style.
A Champagne house lives and dies by its reserve stocks, largely because non-vintage Champagne represents the bulk of production. The storied Piper-Heidsieck Champagne house offers a good example of the importance of reserve stocks. Over a period of a couple of decades in the 1980s and early 1990s, Piper allowed its reserve stocks to dwindle. The quality of Piper’s non-vintage brut suffered as a result and the reputation of the house cratered.
Winemaker Regis Camus joined the winery in 1994 and was elevated to Chef de Cave in 1998, when he embarked upon an ambitious plan to restore the tarnished Piper-Heidsieck reputation. To accomplish his goal and speed the return of Piper to elite status in the world of Champagne, Camus refused to produce vintage Champagne in some very good years. It raised eyebrows, but it worked. Its reserve stock replenished, today Piper-Heidsieck’s non-vintage brut is among the finest in Champagne.
Over the past six months I’ve had an opportunity to taste a number of top non-vintage Champagnes at two major international wine competitions: Critics Challenge in June and Sommelier Challenge in September. Champagne, in particular non-vintage brut, shined at both.
As you choose bubbly for the holidays, you would do well to consider any of these six award-winning Champagnes:
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($65) – This beautiful multi-vintage Champagne took a platinum medal at the Critics Challenge. It is rich and creamy, with notes of brioche and a remarkably long finish.
Charles Heidsieck Rose Reserve ($80) – Charles Heidsieck is the kissing cousin of Piper-Heidsieck. It was made famous to some extent by its incredibly rare tetes-de-cuvee “Champagne Charlie.” The Rose Reserve may not be as rare, but you won’t be disappointed in this powerful, inviting bubbly that can be matched with savory cuisine and hold its own. Also a platinum medal-winner at Critics Challenge.
Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial ($42) – This workhorse non-vintage brut was awarded a gold medal by judges at the Sommelier Challenge in September. Sommelier Challenge is a unique wine competition in which all of the judges who evaluate the entries are certified sommeliers. This beautifully balanced multi-vintage brut Champagne is one of the finest non-vintage bruts I’ve encountered from Moet.
Mumm Cordon Rouge ($49) – Mumm underwent a renaissance in the cellar that was very similar to that experienced at Piper-Heidsieck. Under the guidance of Chef de Cave Dominique Demarville, who has since moved on to become Cellar Master at Veuve Clicquot, Mumm stormed back to prominence in the late 1990s. Its flagship wine, the rich, toasty non-vintage Cordon Rouge, is now as good as it ever was, and it won a gold medal at the Critics Challenge earlier this year.
Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut ($55) – This brilliant Champagne house in Epernay is a model of consistency, but that said I do believe the Grand Brut is better now than it’s ever been. This one took a gold medal at the Critics Challenge (all of the judges are renowned wine journalists). It is firmly structured and has the potential to evolve beautifully with additional age, though it is meant to be consumed upon release.
Piper-Heidsieck Brut ($50) – This lovely wine won a platinum medal at the Critics Challenge and in my humble opinion is the finest value in non-vintage brut Champagne today. I recently purchased several magnums for less than $70 apiece, which works out to about $35 a bottle. If you can find a similar deal where you shop for wine, my advice would be to load up the cart!
Thanksgiving Options Wide Open
The beauty of the Thanksgiving feast from the perspective of the wine enthusiast is versatility.
The traditional Thanksgiving bird with all the trimmings provides multiple options for pairing with wine. The most obvious and oft repeated, of course, is the match with Beaujolais, the soft red wine of Burgundy made from gamay noir.
This fruit-driven red from France is versatile in its own right, taking on the mixture of savory and sweet at the feasting table without losing a beat. You could stick with the tried and true (good producers include Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Georges Duboeuf) and be perfectly happy at the end of the long Thanksgiving day.
Or you could eschew the tradition of drinking French on this distinctly American holiday and look to other possibilities; and they need not be red, for a roasted turkey is equally friendly to certain white wines.
I am fond of presenting an abundance of riches and allowing guests to choose on their own. It wouldn't hurt to place two wine glasses at each setting, for those who would dare to drink red and white at the same time, as I often do.
My preference in red wines for the Thanksgiving feast is inclined toward older, earthier wines or young wines with soft tannins. I try to stay away from young California cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux, unless the wines have aged to the point of mellowness. This pushes me in the direction of pinot noir (domestic rather than French, which tends to be tannic) and Rhone-style blends, particularly those with a fair amount of grenache, which typically lends a bright red-fruit characteristic that I find works well with the sweet and savory offerings at the Thanksgiving table.
A few of my favorite pinot noir producers are Alysian, Dutton Goldfield, Calera, Merry Edwards, The Four Graces, Gary Farrell, Domaine Carneros and MacPhail. All of the aforementioned make small batches of vineyard-specific pinot noir that are sure bets to dazzle even the most discriminating wine lovers. The choices on Rhone-style red blends are more limited, but one of the most consistent over recent years is Eberle Winery's Cotes-du-Robles. The 2009 won a gold medal at the recent Sommelier Challenge International Wine Competition, and it is a wine I regularly stock in my personal cellar.
During the Thanksgiving feast, I generally reach for richer, more full-bodied, complex white wines than I do for everyday consumption. The Thanksgiving table also lends itself to whites that are a bit off dry, so rieslings, which have more residual sugar than most table wines to balance higher-than-usual acidity.
Three domestic rieslings that are sure to please are Dr. Konstantin Frank Reserve riesling from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and Smith-Madrone riesling and Trefethen riesling, both from the Napa Valley. All three are limited production wines that will require some effort to locate, so I recommend doing a search at Wine-Searcher.com, an indispensable resource for finding wines that are not mass produced and in wide distribution.
My go-to Chardonnay these days is Bouchaine, made in the Carneros district of the Napa Valley by pioneering winemaker Mike Richmond. The beauty of the Bouchaine Chardonnay is its impeccable balance, combining rich, ripe flavors with firm structure. This excellent area for Chardonnay also gives us the stellar Acacia Chardonnays.
Of course, these suggestions are merely guidelines and reflect my own personal preferences. Your taste may well be different. And that's the beauty of the Thanksgiving feast. Chances are, if there's a wine you are fond of drinking, it will find a compatible match somewhere on the Thanksgiving table.
Wines for the Ages
I was invited on a recent Saturday night to join my friend and colleague Jeremy Parzen for dinner at a wine savvy local restaurant. Jeremy, a native Californian who is fluent in Italian, writes the closely watched Do Bianchi wine blog. The focus, as you might imagine, is on the wines of Italy.
We would be joined on this evening by winemaker Paolo Cantele, one of the young lions of the wine industry in the Puglia region of southern Italy. Everyone would bring some wine to share, as is the custom. And our small group grew as the evening wore on and the wine flowed.
I confess I was a bit nervous about my contribution, apologizing in advance should the wine I chose be over the hill. You may have heard that wine improves with age. That’s not always the case, and even when it is, there comes a time when any wine is completely shot, devoid of flavor and past the point of redemption.
I hoped for the best but feared the worst as we pulled the cork on my bottle of 1971 Argiano Brunello di Montalcino. When this wine was made, the producer was barely known outside the boundaries of Tuscany. The only Brunello producer of world renown was Biondi Santi. And there was serious doubt that many of the rustic wines of the era would improve over time.
As the cork came out intact (at 42 years on, it would not have been a surprise if the cork had crumbled) there was a sigh of relief around the table. The cork was in excellent condition, always a good sign after four decades in the cellar.
The first glass was poured and all around we marveled at the bright color, for red wines tend to lose color and brown around the edges with significant age. Based upon the visual inspection, the wine appeared to be very much alive.
After a few quick swirls for aeration came the smell test. There were no off aromas. With a bit of air and a little time, it began to exhibit aromas of tart cherry and nuances such as leather and spice. So far so good.
Finally, the taste test. Despite its age, the Brunello had structure and tannic grip, with complex savory elements on the palate and ever more intense fruit as it got more air. I did a little fist pump. The wine was that good.
Not to be outdone, someone produced a bottle of 2001 R. Lopez Heredia “Vina Tondonia” Rioja Reserva; only 12 years old but a wine of legendary longevity. At my favorite wine shop, this is the vintage of Vina Tondonia Reserva that is currently available.
You would think this Rioja would show some signs of age: loss of color, taming of its fruit profile, soft tannins. Instead, the color was brilliant. On the palate the wine was remarkably fresh. The structure was bold and firm.
It took me back to a recent time when I ordered a 1970 Vina Tondonia Reserva from the wine list at another restaurant. It was decanted and brought to the table, and my guests at dinner were convinced it was a “young” wine.
Older wines are not for everyone, and they may not be for you. They evolve over the years and the flavors change. Most wines sold today are consumed within days, if not hours, of purchase. You get a blast of fruit and a blast of alcohol and that’s just fine for most people. Nothing wrong with that.
But if you are at all curious about profound wines for the ages and can’t afford the high price of Bordeaux or Burgundy, you could do worse than explore the possibilities presented by top-notch Brunello di Montalcino and Rioja Reserva.
Then you too might be inclined to add a little fist pump to your wine tasting experience.
The Winter Wine
It was a chilly autumn night as I sat in front of a crackling fire sipping a glass of Champagne while savoring the comforting aromas of braised veal shanks, aka osso buco, wafting from the kitchen. My reverie was abruptly interrupted when the call came from the dining room to fetch a “winter” wine for dinner.
With my marching orders, I descended into the wine cellar on a mission of culinary match-making. I was immediately transported to northern Italy, home of the osso bucco, and still vivid memories of this hearty dish enjoyed in cozy trattorias from Milano to Venice, and points in between.
A hearty meat dish generally calls for a hearty red wine, and this one is no exception. A Barolo or Barbaresco could work, and to some extent Barbera, too. After weighing the options, my hand finally settled on a bottle of Masi ‘Costasera’ Amarone della Valpolicella Classico DOCG.
When I think of a “winter” wine, I think of Amarone, the most important wine of the Veneto region of northern Italy. Nothing else comes close. Amarone is a powerful, dry red wine made from Corvina, Rondinella and, until recent vintages, Molinara grapes grown in the rolling countryside outside of Verona.
Amarone owes its unique richness and intense flavor to a controversial winemaking technique that requires the grapes to be partially dried prior to fermentation. In this northern climate near the foothills of the Alps, red wines tend to be lighter in color, body and flavor. Drying the grapes on straw mats or in temperature controlled drying sheds shrivels the grapes and concentrates sugars and flavors.
The result is a wonderfully smooth, rich red wine with slightly elevated levels of alcohol by volume, generally in the 14.5 to 15.0 range, levels once considered high (and some critics argued artificially induced) but now quite the norm for red table wines.
Although Amarone can overpower some cuisine, it is the perfect partner for braised meat dishes and stews. Over the years I’ve also developed a fondness for Amarone served with cheese following dinner.
This is a delicious habit I acquired at the legendary Bottega del Vino in Verona, which routinely serves 40 to 60 wines by the glass, and always a good selection of Amarone. Following a big meal while attending the annual VinItaly wine fair, I would nightly stop at the Bottega and order a glass of Masi or Bertani Amarone and take it with a serving of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The proprietor, Severino Barzan, was the ultimate host. Severino, seeing me with a glass of Amarone and a plate of cheese, would cheerfully visit my table and drizzle some of his 40-year-old balsamic vinegar on the cheese. The flavors and textures with the rich Amarone were quite simply a match made in heaven.
And so it was that I clasped the Masi ‘Costasera’ Amarone and climbed the stairs from the cellar, placing the bottle squarely In the middle of the table, mission accomplished. So, dear reader, the next time someone asks you to suggest a “winter” wine you can say with some confidence, “no-brainer, it’s Amarone.”
Stunning Bargains from Chile
Over the course of any given week, I sample in the neighborhood of 100 wines on average. There are good weeks and bad weeks, and everything in between. My quest, of course, is to identify a wine or two I can recommend. Not every wine, not even every good wine, passes muster.
I need to be moved, to have some emotional connection to what’s in the glass, and I can’t always predict what that will be. So I’m looking back on my tasting notes from last week and there are two wines that I can’t get out of my head, both from Chile.
The South American country boasts a vibrant wine industry that has established an impressive record for quality and value over the past two decades, attributes that make Chilean wines extremely popular in the United States. Chile does a particularly good job with wines at the lower rungs of the price ladder, generally with a fairly generic appellation of origin designation such as “Central Valley.”
But Chile is a vast country with cool coastal valleys that produce outstanding Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and warmer inland valleys that are ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the uniquely Chilean Carmenere, a wine that traces its roots to Bordeaux although the carmenere grape is no longer planted in that part of the world.
These diverse terroirs are the untold story of Chilean wine.
What intrigued me most last week was the 2011 Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay from Chile’s Limari Valley, located about 250 miles north of Santiago near the Pacific Ocean. The region has been under vine for more than two centuries, but only recently have wineries invested heavily in new vineyards and technology.
The soils of Limari are limestone and clay, which when combined with the cooler climate yield wines of elegance and finesse. The Marques de Casa Concha Chardonnay, which carries an average retail price of $18 at WineSearcher.com, struck me as an outstanding example of the stylistic potential of the wines from Limari. It is crisp and firmly structured while exhibiting notes of spice and lemon crème, with a hint of brioche. And the winemaker, Marcelo Papa, touched on another note.
“I love the minerality I find in this wine,” he told me.
Papa is the chief winemaker for Marques de Casa Concha and also head of production for the more generic wines of Casillero del Diablo, both of which are owned by Concha y Toro, Chile’s largest wine company. The Marques de Casa Concha line focuses exclusively on the diversity of Chilean soil and climate to make wines that reflect authenticity of place.
Whether you are a fan of Chardonnay or not, this vintage of Marques de Casa Concha is a stunner, even moreso because of the price. The suggested retail is $23, but I found it on WineSearcher for as little as $16, with the average price being $18. I would not hesitate to serve it in company with Chardonnay from California or France costing twice as much.
It was just that sort of quality to price ratio that grabbed me when I tasted the 2012 Novas Gran Reserva Pinot Noir later in the week. This is an organic wine made by Spanish winemaker Noelia Orts from grapes harvested in the cool Casablanca Valley near the Chilean port of Valparaiso. Pinot Noir plantings in Chile are in their infancy and there is a large body of work to make meaningful comparisons, but the Novas Gran Reserva demonstrates the potential when the grape is planted in the right place.
Orts, who also makes the biodynamic wines of Emiliana, previously worked at Miguel Torres and Marques de Grinon in Spain before moving to Chile.
“I have a strong belief that Casablanca is the place for Pinot Noir in Chile,” she told me.
The 2012 Novas Gran Reserva Pinot Noir is beautifully balanced, with juicy red-fruit aromas and a firm, crisp structure. Best of all: the price. I found it on WineSearcher for $16. Anyone familiar with the cost of Burgundy or palatable Pinot from Oregon or California must realize this is a remarkable price for a quality Pinot Noir.
With Thanksgiving looming and thirsty friends and family to entertain, this is one wine that should be on every wine enthusiast’s shopping list.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.
The Future of Aussie Wine
Once upon a time in the land of Oz there was a plan to establish a beachhead for Australian wine in California, from whence the Aussies would take the American wine market, the largest market for wine in the world, by storm. Funded in part by the Australian government, the plan seemed to work.
Aussie Shiraz was going to be the next big thing in wine, and for a time it was. Americans, particularly Californians, were drawn to the ripe, plush fruit aromas and textures of these big, bold red wines from Australia. Even better, the exchange rate favored the American consumer and thus high-quality red wine from Australia was relatively cheap.
Large Australian wine companies such as Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Rosemount Estate, Lindemans, Hardys, Peter Lehmann and Jacob’s Creek aggressively expanded their reach into the United States and threatened to seize a sizable chunk of the market share, primarily taking it away from the dominant California wineries.
Then a funny thing happened: The bottom fell out. First, the Australian wine industry began to cannibalize itself. Mergers and acquisitions blurred the lines between long-established brands that once competed fiercely to establish identity, only to find in the long run that yesterday’s competitor was today’s stablemate.
Then quality, at least at the bigger Australian wine companies, took a hit as executives became increasingly concerned with return on investment. This was followed by a grape glut, which put downward pressure on prices. And, finally, California wineries fought back, generating new tiers of existing brands that could compete in the arena of price and quality. That the exchange rate on the dollar swung in favor of the Aussies only exacerbated the problem for the Australian wine producers trying to maintain their hard-earned share of the U.S. market.
In the end, the grand plan fizzled and the Australian wine experiment in the United States appeared to be on course for a giant boomerang. In one sign of abject failure, a large Australian wine company recently destroyed millions of dollars in back inventory it had been unable to sell. In short, Aussie wine in the U.S. market was a train wreck.
So it was with a bit of skepticism, and also a dash of curiosity, that I agreed to sit down recently with Australian winemaker Peter Fraser and taste his wines from Yangarra Estate Vineyard, a 400-plus-acre spread in the McLaren Vale region of South Australia. Fraser, who has an impressive track record at multiple wineries in South Australia, has been at the helm of Yangarra Estate since the property was purchased by the late Jess Jackson in 2000.
Jackson, an American, made his mark in wine with the popular Kendall-Jackson brand, but he was also a global visionary who purchased numerous wineries in Italy and France, and eventually Yangarra in Australia. Jackson probably never got his due for efforts to improve the breed, but in his later years he worked steadfastly to focus his wineries on better vineyard sources and state-of-the-art winemaking.
Yangarra, for example, began farming its vineyards organically and biodynamically in 2008, and was certified biodynamic in 2012.
“We were looking for greater purity of expression from the vineyards,” Fraser explained. “And we wanted to enhance the minerality and elegance that is inherent in many of our wines.”
There is no easy transition to biodynamic farming, for it requires biodiversity that involves the presence of farm animals, composting, and strict attention to the cycles of the moon. Few wineries in Australia have gone to the trouble, though Fraser cites the iconic Cullen winery of Margaret River in Western Australia as a good example.
In Fraser’s telling, the expressions of the various soils throughout the vast Yangarra estate are what make the wines compelling and unique. Of the 400-plus acres, 250 are planted to grape varieties typically found in the southern Rhone Valley of France. The soils range from huge ironstone deposits, which impart a distinct minerality to the estate’s Shiraz, to alluvial and sandy soils where bush-vine (with no trellis system) Grenache is planted.
Then there is the human element. As the winemaker, Fraser dissents from the doctrine of ripeness practiced by many of his Aussie brethren. There is no big blast of alcohol from the Yangarra wines, a departure from the norm of Australian Shiraz. Fraser works studiously in the vineyards and the cellar to control the alcohol level in the Yangarra wines.
When he makes the decision to harvest “I am looking for texture and elegance as much as flavor” Fraser explained. The Yangarra wines are impeccably balanced, including a luscious Viognier, which is typically made in an ultra-ripe style throughout the New World. The Yangarra Viognier could easily pass for French in a blind tasting.
For the money, the Yangarra wines deliver the sort of price/quality ratio that helped create demand for Australian wines in the first place. The Viognier and a delicious Roussanne each retail for $25, and the flagship Old Vine Grenache is $32. There is but one truly budget-busting wine in the Yangarra portfolio and that is the Ironheart Shiraz that retails for $100, a price that reflects both its unique characteristics and its limited availability. A superb GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) reminiscent of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a palatable $28.
As I tasted each wine in the lineup, I was impressed by the brilliance versus the cost and it occurred to me Yangarra, and wineries of its ilk, may well be the future of Australian wine in the U.S. market. It would be a very bright future, indeed.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.
Excellence from the Languedoc
Selecting the winery of the year from those entered in the 2013 Sommelier Challenge in September would be a snap if it simply came down to the winery with the most medals. By that reckoning, the Napa Valley winery V. Sattui would emerge the champ nearly every year. At the very least, it would be a contender.
And so it was this year, with V. Sattui taking 23 medals overall from 31 wines entered. But as the Director of the Sommelier Challenge, it is my task to scrutinize the evaluations of the judges (16 certified sommeliers from around the nation) and look beyond the numbers for a performance that stands out above and beyond the rest.
With that in mind, I took a long, hard look at the Champagne house Moet & Chandon of Epernay, France, which entered five wines in Sommelier Challenge V. One of the five, the 1993 Grand Vintage Collection Brut ($140), was a deserving winner in the final vote for Wine of the Year. The other four Moet wines were awarded gold medals. All of the Moet entries were impeccable in an impressive performance.
Still, there was another winery, also from France, that caught my eye. Chateau Paul Mas, a wing of Domaines Paul Mas, entered eight wines and medaled with seven. Three of those seven were awarded platinum medals and competed in the championship rounds where best of show and winery of the year are determined. The Chateau Paul Mas entries ranged in price from $8.99 to $27 suggested retail, and as I tasted each I noted with great satisfaction that they were beautifully balanced, suave and sophisticated, and most of all delicious.
The wines of Chateau Paul Mas went up against an array of superb wines from many of the wine world’s finest wine addresses and proved themselves worthy. For this reason, I have chosen Chateau Paul Mas of Pezenas, in the Languedoc region of southern France, to receive the Director’s Award as the 2013 Sommelier Challenge Winery of the Year.
This level of excellence from the hinterlands of the French wine industry, a region once known only for its ocean of generic “bulk” wine, would have been unthinkable as recently as 20 years ago. The Languedoc, which covers the Mediterranean coast from Montpelier to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border, has undergone a renaissance in recent years, led in part by visionary enterprises such as Domaines Paul Mas and Gerard Bertrand, as well as boutique producers such as Domaine Mas Jullien.
The potential was always there in a land dotted with well-kept 50-to-75-year-old family owned vineyards planted to syrah, carignan, mourvedre and grenache. But the area was so poor in post -World War II France that few families had the money or the manpower to tend the vines, then make and market their wines.
So the fate of those outstanding old-vine vineyards was up to the many vintner cooperatives that sprang up after the war, with the result that prime wine grapes were blended with lesser grapes from over-cropped vineyards to make cheap wine. It is only over the past 10 to 15 years that entrepreneurs with a vision of quality have been able to rescue the Languedoc from the wine wilderness.
Chateau Paul Mas produces wines under several affiliated labels, including Cote Mas and Paul Mas Estate. Its platinum award-winners were the 2011 Chateau Paul Mas Clos de Savignac, Gres de Montpelier ($27), 2012 Chateau Paul Mas Belluguette, Coteaux du Languedoc ($20) and 2011 Paul Mas Estate Carignan, Vielles Vignes, Savignac Vineyard, Pays d’Herault IGP ($14).
The two from Chateau Paul Mas are red and white Rhone-style blends with varying levels of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, while the simply stunning Paul Mas Estate Carignan is a single-vineyard wine made from old vines (hence Vielles Vignes). The 2012 Paul Mas Estate Picpoul de Pinet IGP ($14), a crisp white wine made from vineyards within spitting distance of the sea, also was awarded silver.
Cote Mas was awarded a gold for its non-vintage Cremant de Limoux AOP Rose ($17) and a silver for a white Rhone-style blend, 2012 Blanc Mediterranee, Pays d’Oc IGP ($8.99). Yet another Paul Mas label, 2012 La Forge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Pays d’Oc IGP ($12) won a silver medal.
These wines are not only exceptional by anyome’s standard, they’re also attractively priced. It is a beautiful thing.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.
Sommelier Challenge V: A World View
The fifth annual Sommelier Challenge wine competition, staged the last weekend of September in San Diego, had a decidedly international flair. A glance at the top awards confirms as much.
Six different countries – the United States, France, Italy, Canada, Portugal and Greece – were represented among the Best of Show winners, and France claimed the biggest prize of them all in the final vote for Wine of the Year, which went to Moet & Chandon’s 1993 Grand Vintage Collection Brut Champagne ($140).
The Sommelier Challenge brought together 16 certified sommeliers from around the nation to evaluate a record total of 898 wines at a “blind” tasting in which the identity of the producer and the name of the wine was concealed until after awards had been assigned. The somms were divided into panels and each panel tasted approximately 130 wines, sending its favorites on to the championship round where best of class and best of show awards were determined.
The 1993 Moet, as Wine of the Year, also claimed title to the Best of Show sparkling wine award, prevailing in the championships over Italy’s 1996 Ferrari Perle, Trento DOC ($42) and Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rose ($36) from the Napa Valley side of the Carneros district. All three sparkling wines were exquisite, but the Moet was simply stunning, and remarkably fresh despite its 20 years of age.
In the finals Moet faced another 20-year-old, the Taylor Fladgate 20-Year-Old Aged Tawny ($54.99) from Portugal’s Douro Valley, winner of Best of Show fortified wine, but neither the Port nor any of the other six finalists were a match for the dramatic impact of the Champagne.
There were two ties in the best-of-show voting prior to the final vote for wine of the year. Italy’s Castello di Gabbiano 2009 Chianti Classico Riserva ($22) and the Napa Valley’s Black Stallion 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) finished in a dead-heat in the vote for Best of Show red wine, and Canada’s 2008 Inniskillin Riesling Icewine, Niagara Peninsula ($80) and Virginia’s Barboursville 2008 Malvaxia Reserve Passito ($31.99) tied in the Best of Show dessert wine category.
Best of Show white wine went to the 2012 Dr. Konstantin Frank Riesling Reserve ($25) from New York’s Finger Lakes region and Best of Show rose was taken by the 2012 Falkner Winery Rosato, Temecula Valley ($15.99). The Greek Liqueur Pilavas Tentura Liqueur ($24) won the Best of Show spirits award, but was ineligible for the wine-of-the-year vote.
Robust Reds for Fall
On the first evening of autumn we deemed it sufficiently cool to build a crackling fire. With the fire going, I took stock of the wine rack in the den, looking for something hearty to pair with a savory meat loaf from our favorite butcher. The reds were mostly light and fruity, slightly better when chilled, and meant for lighter summer cuisine.
A trip into the wine cellar was in order. The appeal of any wine, after all, is subject to change with the seasons. We had turned the page on summer; the time was nigh to to turn the page on our everyday wine selection.
In cooler weather I prefer bolder, more robust reds. I don’t even mind slightly higher levels of alcohol, for warming the toes can be just as important as warming the soul; and the bigger reds are generally more suitable with fall and winter dishes, i.e., earthy mushroom sauces, roasted meats and root vegetables.
I emerged from the cellar with a triumphant smile, having successfully foraged a handful of robust reds that represent the wine bounty of the world across a broad range of prices. This week I commend five of the most impressive of these wines for your autumn enjoyment.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Antano 2008 Rioja Reserva, Spain ($12) exemplifies the value to be found in Spanish reds, particularly Rioja. This region was the benchmark for quality in post-World War II Spain, but the combination of complacency and overproduction eroded its standing over time. The renaissance started sometime in the 1990s, and today modern Rioja once again sits astride the Spanish wine world. But prices have not caught up to the reality and the wines remain undervalued. The Antano Reserva from a good vintage is exquisitely balanced, with a light touch of oak that adds spice and warmth to the black cherry and red-fruited aromas: a beautiful match with carne asada or roasted fowl. This wine was awarded a platinum medal in its class at the 2013 Critics Challenge International Wine Competition. Rating: 90.
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2010 Merlot, Sonoma County ($20) ably demonstrates the synergy the merlot grape seems to have with the varied appellations of Sonoma County. From the Carneros to Sonoma Valley to the Alexander Valley, merlot thrives. Though often blended with cabernet sauvignon, merlot in Sonoma is a stand-alone grape variety that produces an outstanding varietal wine, too. This one from the Alexander Valley, the warmest of the appellations referenced, is rich and deep, showing juicy black fruits, well-measured oak, and a touch of spice on the finish. It is superbly crafted and satisfying at a modest price, and was a platinum medal-winner at the 2013 Critics Challenge. Rating: 91.
Jean-Luc Colombo 2010 “Les Fees Brunes” Crozes-Hermitage, France ($24.99) is a result of Jean-Luc’s stellar stewardship of the vines. Crozes-Hermitage, a few miles up the river Rhone from Tain-l’Hermitage, is the largest appellation of the northern Rhone and the least revered, at least in comparison to nearby Cote-Rotie and Hermitage. This wine comes from a single-vineyard site situated on a steep hillside. It is farmed naturally, without pesticides, and it stands out from most other wines of Crozes-Hermitage. The vineyard is 100 percent syrah. The 2010, from Jean-Luc describes as one of the three best vintages in his winemaking experience, is beautifully structured, exhibiting firm tannins that support silky layers of plum and blueberry aroma, with a hint of spicy oak. Considering Colombo’s top wines retail for more than $80 a bottle, this one is a steal. It should age exceptionally well over the next 10 years, and the alcohol –by-volume (ABV) is a modest 13 percent. The average price for this wine at WineSearcher.com was $22. Rating: 92.
Dutton Goldfield 2011 Pinot Noir, Dutton Ranch-Freestone Hill Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($72) is for those big spenders who just love mind-bending Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. For my money this is the finest region in the United States (here come those emails from Oregon readers!) for the pinot noir grape and Dutton Goldfield is among the top three or four producers in the region. The 2011 vintage was supposed to be a disaster, and for many growers and vintners in the north coastal appellations of California it was, but this effort from Dutton Goldfield begs to differ. This vintage from the Dutton Ranch’s Freestone Hill Vineyard offers scintillating complexity and structure along with a smooth, supple mouth-feel that deceptively conceals the underlying power of this wine. The aromas run the gamut of red and black fruits, and the oak treatment is well judged, lending a spice note and overall warmth that is nothing more than an accent. Perfect. Rating: 97.
Esporao 2009 Reserva, Alentejo DOC, Portugal ($27) is a suggestion from a somewhat forgotten corner of wine’s global landscape. We drink sweet, fortified wines from Portugal. We drink light, somewhat spritzy white wine from Portugal. But all too often we ignore the excellent red table wines of this small European nation that borders Spain on the Atlantic ocean. Portugal produces many fantastic dry table wines, and this Reserva from Esporao is a fine example. From the warm Alentejo region, the Esporao showcases three indigenous grapes in the blend – aragonez, trincadeira and Alicante bouschet – along with cabernet sauvignon. It is plump and juicy on the palate, with delicious red and black fruit aromas, firm tannins and remarkable length and depth. This is a seriously good red that won a gold medal at the 2013 San Diego International wine competition, and the average price at WineSearcher.com is $21. Rating: 90.
Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com.
Bordeaux, arguably the epicenter of the modern wine universe, wasn't always a hot destination for wine tourism. Unlike the Napa Valley, with its two major roadways that run parallel past most of the important wineries, the Bordeaux region is a vast area surrounding the port city of Bordeaux along the Gironde, the largest estuary in Europe.
The city itself is a challenge to navigate and until recently was fairly drab and uninviting.
In recent years, however, the city of Bordeaux has experienced a renaissance of sorts, with a new tram system that makes getting around a breeze, and a stretch of pedestrian-only streets in the city center that has become a magnet for tourists drawn to the area's trendy restaurants and shops.
I was reminded of this by a recent query from a reader concerning travel to Bordeaux. Harvest is already underway in many sections of the Bordeaux district, the heavy scent of fermenting grapes in the air being an attraction in and of itself.
When I visit Bordeaux, I have my own approach, which I am happy to share.
First, a visitor must decide whether to stay in the city and visit the chateaux of Bordeaux on day trips or take to the countryside and bunk at a cozy inn. There are advantages to staying in the city. There is nightlife, for one thing, and no shortage of excellent restaurants.
The finest hotel in the city is The Grand, smack in the center of the city with a tram stop right in front. If money is no object, this is the place to stay. On the other hand, if you are on a budget, as I am when I travel, the nearby Hotel de Normandie is an upscale three-star (out of five) property that is charming and convenient.
The Normandie is a mere two blocks from The Grand and it's just across the street from a tram stop. When I feel the need to connect with the opulence of The Grand, I simply walk across the plaza and visit over a glass of wine at The Grand bar.
Both hotels are relatively close to the rustic La Tupina, one of the most famous restaurants in southwest France. La Tupina has no Michelin stars, but it is renowned for its traditional cuisine, typically hearty meat dishes roasted or grilled over a wood fire. The wine list at La Tupina is superb. If you only have one night for dinner in the city of Bordeaux, La Tupina is the place to go.
Staying in the city is a good idea when the itinerary calls for flexibility, as in going south and east of the city one day to visit Graves or Saint-Emilion and north and west another day to take in Pauillac or Margaux.
Staying in the countryside has its own set of advantages, though it cuts down on the flexibility of your itinerary. Wine lovers interested in the chateaux of the Medoc region would do well to book a room at Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, a Relais & Chateaux property in Pauillac. For one thing, the kitchen, under the direction of Chef Jean-Luc Rocha, has two Michelin stars.
And the location positions you for visits to most of the top first-growth and super second-growth chateaux of Bordeaux.
Fans of white Bordeaux, or Bordeaux blanc and Sauternes, might prefer to take up temporary residence in the opposite direction, booking a room at Les Sources de Caudalie, a luxurious spa across the street from Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Leognan. The restaurant at Caudalie, La Grand Vigne, has one Michelin star.
From there a thirsty wine tourist can easily reach many of the finest producers of Saturernes and Barsac, the sweet dessert wine of Bordeaux, as well some of the legendary red-and-white wine producers of the region, such as Chateau Haut Brion, Domaine de Chevalier and Pape Clement.
Last but not least, whenever my schedule permits, I try to squeeze in a visit to the "right bank" village of Saint-Emilion, perhaps the most picturesque wine hamlet to be found anywhere in the world. This district of Bordeaux borders the commune of Pomerol, and together the two wine districts produce some of the world's most expensive and sought-after wines (Chateau Petrus, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Chateau Ausone, for example).
There is no restaurant in Saint-Emilion that I am aware of with a Michelin star, but the village is not lacking for excellent casual bistros and wine bars. When visiting Saint-Emilion, the relais at Chateau Franc Mayne is a charming and convenient location, right on the edge of the village, for an overnight stay. Best of all, the wines of Franc Mayne are modestly priced for Bordeaux and downright delicious.
Labor Day Barbecue Wines
With the long Labor Day weekend just over the horizon, the end of the summer grilling season draws near. That means it's time to take stock of the pantry and make one last run to the market for your favorite grilling wines.
The options are many and the choices personal, but the one common denominator all wine enthusiasts should pursue is affordability. A gathering around the end-of-summer BBQ is typically casual, so I look for wines that will complement casual dining, restricting my purchases to those that retail for $20 or less.
That doesn't mean I sacrifice flavor or quality; merely that I am after wines that won't compromise my budget for the better cuts of meat and/or fish. My personal suggestions follow:
SPARKLING — There is a celebratory aspect to the Labor Day weekend, so a bit of bubbly can help make the occasion special. To meet my budget restrictions, I generally opt for either prosecco or cava. Prosecco DOC, from Northern Italy not far from Venice, is light and easy on the palate and a perfect companion to most things spicy. Ruffino Extra Dry ($15) is slightly softer and sweeter than Zardetto Brut ($16), but both are fresh, clean and delicious. For a slightly higher price, you might opt for Freixenet's Elyssia Gran Cuvee Brut Cava ($20), from northeastern Spain. Korbel's Brut Rose ($11) is a domestic crowd-pleaser that is very, very good for the price. Serve all of these bubbles well chilled.
WHITE — For crisp and refreshing white wine on the domestic side, two of the best value options available are the 2012 Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc ($12) and the Dry Creek Vineyard 2012 Fume Blanc ($14), both sourced from the Sonoma County AVA. Both wines exhibit a good deal of fresh citrus, with a slightly herbal back note. These go well with grilled fish.
If shellfish is on the menu, I love to pair an albarino, either the 2012 Paco & Lola Albarino, Rias Baixas ($20) from Spain or Tangent's 2012 Albarino, Paragon Vineyard ($17) from California's Edna Valley. With spicy dishes, the Husch 2012 Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($14) or the Robert Oatley 2011 Rose of Sangiovese ($15) would be my first options. And if you must have a chardonnay, at $16 the Francis Ford Coppola 2012 Diamond Collection Chardonnay, Monterey, is well balanced, satisfying and unpretentiously priced.
RED — This category is trickier than you might imagine, for the red wines must have enough flavor and oomph to stand up to bold, smoky aromas from the grill, but not to the extent they are heavy, leaden and overly tannic, which won't play well on a warm day. My star red wine of the Labor Day show this year is the Bolla 2010 Le Poiane Valpolicella Classico Superiore Ripasso, Italy ($15). The name of the wine is a mouthful, but so is the wine. It has richness and character, but the primary grape (corvina) is not as meaty or as harsh and mouth-puckering as, say, cabernet sauvignon. So it makes for a medium-bodied wine that is easily consumed young.
This particular wine is made in the ripasso method common in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, fermented on the skins of grapes used for the region's big red, Amarone. On the domestic side, two California Zinfandels come quickly to mind for the task of facing savory grilled meats: Alexander Valley 2010 Sin Zin ($19.99) and Dry Creek Vineyard 2010 Heritage Zinfandel ($19).
And my best value red, Antano 2008 Rioja Reserva, Spain ($12) is an absolute steal at the price. For those grilling salmon as well as meats and seeking a crossover red, the Navarro 2011 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley ($19) is as good as any domestic pinot you are likely to find under $20.
The Gift of Cab
Over the weekend in Paso Robles, the Eberle Winery team walked off with the Peoples' Choice trophy at the 15th annual Winemakers' Cookoff, staged at the fairgrounds in the prominent wine-growing community along California's vast Central Coast.
The event, put on by the Paso Robles Rotary, raises money for college scholarships for worthy Paso Robles high school seniors. The founding father of the cook-off, in which competing winery teams are charged with dreaming up and executing a winning dish on the grill, was none other than Gary Eberle of the Eberle Winery, and the Winemakers' Cookoff is but one more example of the gift of Gary.
That gift is vision. Since its inception, the Winemakers' Cookoff has given away more than $400,000 toward college scholarships. It routinely attracts an enthusiastic crowd of 1,000 or more and is seen as an unqualified success.
So, too, the Eberle adventure in Paso Robles has been an unqualified success. Any reasonable person would put it down to Eberle's extraordinary vision. A native of Pittsburgh, Eberle had been a star football player at Penn State, where he did his undergrad work in the sciences. While working on his Ph.D at Louisiana State University, he fell in love with food and wine.
That led him on a lifetime detour, first to the University of California, Davis where he picked up a second Ph.D., this time in enology, then on to Paso Robles, where he founded the Estrella River Winery in 1973. Paso Robles at that time was something of a second-class citizen in the California wine industry. It was widely considered too hot and too remote, and most of the wine grapes grown in the region found their way into better wines as blenders, or jug wines.
Eberle planted the fashionable grapes of the day, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, but he also introduced syrah to the Paso Robles landscape for the first time. Syrah, we now know, thrives in the region and has helped make the area a shining star for those passionate about the so-called "Rhone" grape varieties such as syrah, viognier, grenache, marsanne and roussanne, which are prominent in France's Rhone Valley.
What we also know now, which no one understood or believed at the time of Eberle's arrival, is that Paso Robles is ideal for wine grapes. The days are warm, so the grapes have every opportunity to ripen perfectly, and the nights are cool, a key factor in the freshness and structure of wines from the Paso area.
Yet the success of the Rhone grape varieties in Paso Robles has hardly dampened Eberle's enthusiasm for his original conclusion that cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay would do well in Paso Robles. He planted plenty of both at the Eberle Winery (Estrella River was sold and remains today a "brand" rather than a small family-run winery) before it opened its doors along dusty Highway 46 in Paso in 1979.
"I would put up Paso Robles cabernet against Napa Valley cabernet any day," Eberle says with a bit of bravado that is inspired as much by his ire at a certain wine critic as it is his own experience.
The longtime critic for a major wine publication, who shall remain nameless, once doubted the potential longevity of an early Eberle cab.
"He said the Eberle cabernet sauvignon is nice, but it's too fruity, it will never last," Eberle recalled last week.
And with that Eberle retrieved a 1979 Estrella River Cabernet and a 1980 Eberle Winery Cabernet from the cellar. Both wines had good color and enticing aromas of leather, cigar box and spice. Though the primary fruits were nothing more than a memory, hints of dark fruit remained, and the tannins were sweet and smooth. Both wines were in excellent condition for their age and well worth exploring over a meal of tri-tip steak from a smoky barbecue.
"I don't know whether it's the cool nights or the soils or the clones or whatever, but these older Paso cabs seem to hold their color and structure forever," said Eberle as he savored the 1980. "Not bad for a Paso cab more than 30 years old."
Indeed, it could well be that winemaker Gary Eberle's greatest gift to Paso Robles has been the gift of cab.
Winds of Change at J Vineyards
When Judy Jordan founded J Vineyards & Winery in California’s Russian River Valley in 1986, she had a very clear goal to produce sparkling wines that would rival Champagne, the gold standard for the genre.
By that measure, she and J have achieved a level of success many thought not possible. The sparkling wines of J are elegant and stylish. They are among the finest made in the New World and certainly on a par with many outstanding Champagnes. Yet nearly 30 years into the ambitious project, Jordan and J are flirting with a new direction.
There is the rapid expansion of its successful Pinot Gris program on the horizon, and a nifty array of offerings such as Vin Gris made from Pinot Noir, a delicious Pinot Meunier, and a growing selection of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There’s even an unusual blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinotage.
The goal is to ramp up the Pinot Gris to as much as 100,000 cases annually within a few years, and emphasize the table wines, primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, that can be made from grapes grown on J’s nearly 300 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley.
It was no accident that J went out and hired winemaker Melissa Stackhouse away from Jackson Family Wines a little more than two years ago. Stackhouse was a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialist at Jackson Family’s La Crema winery through 2010, when she was appointed winemaster to oversee Pinot Noir production for all Jackson Family brands before accepting the position at J.
That decision marked a turning point for J. It was a signal that Jordan was conceding the obvious, acknowledging that domestic sparkling wine, no matter how good, remains a tough sell when competing with Champagne. Table wines made from the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes that would have gone into sparkling wine production can fetch the same price or more, and gets to market sooner and is less costly to produce than high quality sparkling wine.
“When the recession hit, our wine club kept us afloat,” said George Rose, spokesperson for J. “The American consumer typically buys sparkling wine once a year, and that’s around the holidays.”
The changes underway at J don’t mean the winery will get out of the sparkling wine business, but it is a clear signal that diversity is the new mantra. What separates J from neighbors Gloria Ferrer and Domaine Carneros, both in the nearby Carneros region, is that those two companies are backed by two titans of the industry. Gloria Ferrer is owned by the Spanish wine company Freixenet, the largest sparkling-wine producer in the world, and the French Champagne house Taittinger owns Domaine Carneros.
The bet here is that J will continue to make dazzling sparkling wines. But the day will likely come, and sooner rather than later, that it is best-known for estate grown Russian River Valley Pinot and Chardonnay.
"Somm" the Movie
For most of my professional career, the sommelier has been a relic of the past, a symbol of that forgotten time when only the wealthy ordered fine wine off a restaurant wine list and only the stuffiest, most image-conscious restaurants found it necessary to employ a certified wine professional to cater to their upper-crust clientele. A restaurant with a sommelier was considered by most casual wine drinkers to be wine snobbery on steroids.
The world has changed, and so has the professional sommelier. To some extent much of the credit for the change goes to the Court of Master Sommeliers, which trains, tests and certifies sommeliers in four distinct levels of expertise and maintains the professional standards that have shaped the world of the modern sommelier.
"Somm," the movie, is a documentary by Jason Wise that follows four young sommeliers as they prepare for the Master Sommelier (MS) exam. "Somm" is now showing in theaters around the country and also is available at the iTunes store.
If you have the vaguest interest in wine and dine out with any frequency, you need to see this film. Whatever you think you know, or could possibly imagine, about the world of the professional sommelier, do yourself a favor and check your assumptions at the door. The subjects of the documentary — Ian, Justin, Brian and JLynn — are ordinary guys with one exception: All four have a passion for wine that has morphed into obsession, which in turn has inspired their quest to be the best they can be at their chosen profession.
Of the four levels of expertise certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers — Level 1, Certified, Advanced and Master — the Master level is the highest and most difficult to achieve. Of those who take the Master Somm exam, only 3 percent pass. There are but 200 or so master sommeliers in the world.
The preparation is demanding, time consuming, and mentally and physically grueling. Most sommeliers studying for the Master exam do so in teams, constantly challenging each other to improve their knowledge of the subject, their tasting skills and their service skills under extreme pressure. Many brilliant sommeliers never pass the Master exam despite multiple attempts. It's that hard.
Wise in his documentary follows one such study group. The film was three years in the making and made a huge splash at the Napa Valley Film Festival earlier this year. The four characters are compelling at a very basic human level, while resisting the urge to give in to a fear of failure as they immerse themselves in what to many might seem to be an impossible dream. Master Sommelier Fred Dame, a legendary sommelier and one of the testers at the Master exam, is brilliant simply being himself.
The film is polished and sophisticated in the way "Sideways" never was, and the characters had the crowd at my screening cheering and sighing as the results of the exam were announced. "Somm" is entertaining, at times great fun, and, I daresay, delivers an important message about the growing presence of the modern professional sommelier in the restaurant industry.
Living the Dream
You could make a case that James MacPhail and Jeff Gaffner are two of California's most important winemakers. There is an equally strong argument that no one beyond a tight circle of dedicated wine geeks has ever heard of either.
Yet both men, on parallel paths, are living the dream. Their dream.
MacPhail is the owner/winemaker of MacPhail Family Wines; Gaffner the owner/winemaker of Saxon Brown Wines. Gaffner launched Saxon Brown in 1997; MacPhail his winery in 2002.
Early in his career, Gaffner worked under legendary winemaker Dick Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean; MacPhail spent his formative winemaking years as lieutenant to iconic winemaker Merry Edwards.
Both men specialize in small-batch, handcrafted wines that express characteristics unique to specific vineyard sites situated in the most coveted winegrowing appellations along the California Coast.
You may not have heard of either man because their wines are made in miniscule quantities — hundreds of cases produced instead of thousands — and sold almost exclusively in wine-savvy restaurants or by wine merchants who prize individuality.
"I started with enough money to buy fruit and a few barrels," said MacPhail, remembering the early years operating out of his garage on the edge of the northern Sonoma village of Healdsburg. "I barely scraped by. But I got some good press, and my wines turned up in a few of San Francisco's top restaurants just as pinot noir started to become popular. I caught the wave."
Pinot noir is MacPhail's specialty, though he poured a stunning Gap's Crown Vineyard Chardonnay and a lovely rose the day we chatted. His arsenal of pinots is remarkably diverse, expressing the soil, climate and vintage conditions connected to each vineyard.
"I'm a non-interventionist," he explained. "I guide each wine; I don't manipulate it."
The common thread throughout all of the MacPhail wines is consistency of quality and exquisite balance. None of the MacPhail wines will overwhelm the senses with alcohol or wood. MacPhail also cherishes the earthy nuances of pinot noir, such as forest floor and mushroom, and strives to bring out those complexities.
Bottom line, the MacPhail wines don't taste manufactured.
Gaffner takes a similar approach with a much broader repertoire of wines. Gaffner could correctly be called a pinot noir specialist (his Black Kite Pinot Noir from Mendocino's Anderson Valley is some of the finest made in California), but he is equally adept with cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel and his eclectic semillons — Cricket Creek and Bothers Cuvee.
His wines are notable not only for their quality and distinctiveness, but also their elegance and finesse. Gaffner has a knack with tannin, producing red wines that are supple and smooth without sacrificing flavor or resorting to the use of overripe grapes.
His recently released 2005 Saxon Brown Cabernet Sauvignon is a case in point.
"I call it my anti-Napa Valley cab," he said. "Many winemakers in Napa over-extract because they think that's what people like, and it grabs the big scores. Then they leave (residual) sugar in the finished wine to mask the astringency of the tannin.
"I want something more seductive, more elegant. So for the Saxon Brown Cabernet, I make it the way a pinot noir guy would make cabernet. I age it three years in Burgundy barrels, then several years in bottle before we release it. I made 300 six-packs (150 cases total), and it retails for $75 a bottle. I don't make a lot of it because it isn't easy."
While Gaffner is critical of a popular Napa Valley winemaking technique, it should be noted that he also makes a brilliant cabernet-based red Bordeaux-style blend, Stephanie, for the Hestan family of Napa. While he doesn't barrel down his Stephanie wines in Burgundy barrels, he does employ the same philosophy with respect to extraction and astringency.
"I like to get extraction early in the fementation, at lower levels of alcohol," he said. "The tannins you get at lower alcohol won't take the enamel off your teeth. When you get enough extraction, you don't need more. I stop. In California, I believe we need to learn when to stop."
You may not know MacPhail or Gaffner. Perhaps you haven't even tried their wines. But you've felt their impact nonetheless.
For it is an undeniable fact that more wine enthusiasts are showing support for wines that exhibit the style and sensibilities you will find in the wines of James MacPhail and Jeff Gaffner. They are living the dream, and lucky you get to drink it in.
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.
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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.
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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.