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Wines from…Where? Striving for Excellence in Morocco

Readers might reasonably ask why I am writing about wines not available in the U.S. market from one the last places on earth you’d expect to find fine wine–Morocco, a Muslim country where alcohol is forbidden.  Why?  Because it is a fantastic story about problem solving, a learning curve, and perhaps a little bit of following your heart.

Although Charles Melia founded Val d’Argan in Morocco in 1995, the story starts much earlier.  Charles, who is, by his own description, “French and Catholic,” is, at heart, Moroccan.  His great grandfather had been part of the French contingent in Algeria in the mid-19th century and afterwards the family remained in North Africa, even after Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956.  His father, mother and uncle were all born in Morocco.  Charles spent most of his childhood in Morocco, which explains why he could instruct his Moroccan vineyard workers, in what sounded like perfect Arabic, precisely how he wanted them to prune the vines.

In 1942, Charles’ grandfather purchased Château de la Font de Loup, now a well-regarded estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, sight unseen on the recommendation of a friend.  (Given that this was wartime France, it would be two years after the purchase before he actually saw the property first-hand, according to Charles.)  In the family tradition, Charles ran Château de la Font de Loup starting in 1977, but after a decade and a half, he had other ideas.  He wanted to, as he described it, “branch out from the family estate.” He spent what he estimates as three years looking at vineyards in Chile, Argentina and finally Morocco.

Searching in Morocco took time.  He explains, “I knew what I didn’t want to do.” He didn’t want to go to an “established” Moroccan region like Meknès, Rabat, or the Atlas Mountains (though some might question his use of the word “established” in this context.).  He wanted to find a new place, so he started looking for potential areas in the south of Morocco for vineyards, but found the soil far too sandy near Agadir.  Gradually moving north and staying near the cooling influences of the Atlantic Ocean, he found his current locale, just east of the Atlantic seaside resort of Essaouira, where he spotted vineyards that produced table grapes.

To his pleasant surprise, he found limestone, which is a perfect foundation for the roots of vines, under the 1.5-foot of topsoil.  The soil itself contained what turned out to be a literal mountain of stones, fragments of the limestone bedrock.  Though different in origins, the stone-filled vineyards at Val d’Argan are reminiscent of those in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Jérôme Dourdin, a recently transplanted Frenchman who, along with his wife, has a delightful small hotel, Dar Diamar, 15 minutes away from Val d’Argan, lamented, “The thing that grows best in the garden is rocks.”  The stone is so prevalent that much of the local construction–houses and walls–are built from the ubiquitous warmly colored pale-brown stone.

Melia purchased a 12.5-acre olive grove, uprooted most of the trees, removed enough stone for the eventual construction of his house, and planted 13 different Rhône varieties–shades of Châteauneuf-du-Pape–in what he described as a viticultural laboratory. Even Melia concedes his first wines were “not so good.”

Echoing Melia, Cornelia Hendry, the co-owner of the charming hotel, Villa Maroc in Essaouira, commented that the initial wines from Val d’Argan were heavy and not very drinkable.  Now, however, they are on the hotel’s wine list and are “very popular.”

Melia explains the transition, “I started with European ideas, and now I know I needed Moroccan ideas.”  In the vineyards, which have been farmed organically since their inception, Melia has added cover crops and has engaged in what he refers to as “progressive replanting,” expanding to his current 125-acres. He has planted more Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Marselan, a genetic cross of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier and Roussanne, because he finds that those are the varieties that do best here. He is especially pleased with Marselan.  When replanting, he trained the vines to be very low to the ground and closer together, not to compete with each other to limit growth, but rather so the leaves from one vine shade other vines to prevent the grapes from being sunburnt.  Pruning to keep the grape-containing canes close to the ground keeps the grapes cooler. These techniques are critical because of the heat.  This year, on the 23rd of June, the temperature reached 124º F, according to Melia.  As a result, he lost his entire crop of Mourvèdre to sunburn and desiccation.   He refers to his method of planting as the “Moroccan gobelet.” Melia notes that even with irrigation–he has three wells–his yields are small, averaging only 25 hectoliters/hectare.

The winery, built over three years from 1995 to 1998, is traditionally low-tech French and very efficient.  Small crates of hand-harvested grapes arrive on the second floor of the winery, where Melia has placed a small de-stemmer.  The grapes are destemmed and then drop directly–no use of pumps–into a press for the whites or cement fermentation tanks for the reds.  He proudly reports that the time between picking the grapes and pressing them is about 30 minutes. He uses only natural yeast and relies on very little aging in oak barrels–those he uses are large and older–preferring to highlight the wine’s fruitiness.

Melia admits that in the beginning his wines were “too big.  I was trying to make them like I did in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”  He points out that the most important change in his red winemaking since he started twenty years ago has been limiting extraction, which has made the wines lighter, fruitier and more elegant.
He credits the addition of an expensive system of circulating cold water to keep fermentation temperature constant and low.  His harvest occurs in July or August when sugar levels are appropriate to achieve wines with between 13 and 14 percent alcohol.  However, at that point, the tannins are still unripe and firm.  Gentle extraction at low temperature helps him to minimize the harshness of the tannins in the finished wine.

The most surprising element of Melia’s Moroccan wines–both red and white–is their refinement.  I was expecting robust wines with high alcohols, great density and power, characteristic of wines made in hot climates. After all, that’s frequently the character of California wine.  But in California the temperature might climb “only” to the lows 100º F for a few days–not 120º F. In warm areas when tannin ripeness lags behind sugar ripeness, winemakers are faced with the decision of whether to wait for the tannins to ripen, knowing that the higher sugar levels will translate to higher alcohol wines, or to harvest when the tannins are still green leading to wines with firmness in their youth.  Melia seems to have achieved an extraordinary balance in his wines given the climate by getting them to the winery quickly, through gentle handing of the grapes in the winery, and via low temperature extraction.

Even youthful barrel samples of wines from the 2017 vintage were refined.  The Syrah, lighter with less spice compared to those from the Rhône, had finesse.  Marselan from barrel showed more tannin and structure, but without a trace of heaviness.  It had surprisingly good acidity and balance. A sample of Viognier-Grenache blend from the tank was perfumed, clean, fresh and filled with nuances of stone fruit.  It was hard to believe it came from a desert-like locale.

Bottled wines–he has four levels–were equally impressive.   At every level, the hallmark was freshness, vivacity and finesse.  The flavors of a 2011 Val d’Argan Reserve red, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, had transformed from firm fruitiness apparent in the 2014 of the same wine to a suave succulence, while the 2014 Orian, a blend of Mourvèdre and Marselan and Val d’Argan’s flagship, was denser with an even a more refined texture.  The whites were refreshing, clean and crisp and a perfect complement to the region’s seafood.  All weighed in at 14 percent or less stated alcohol.

Since Val d’Argan’s wines are not (yet) imported into the U.S., it is impossible to know what prices they might fetch here.  In Moroccan restaurants, Orian, Val d’Argan’s top tier red or white, at about $50, was always the most or second most expensive Moroccan wine on the list, while their excellent Perle Noir or Perle Blanche, which represents their second from the bottom tier, was about $30, pretty much in line with many other Moroccan wines.

Until 2003, Melia supervised production at both Val d’Argan and Château de la Font de Loup.  It was a quick flight from Marrakech to Marseille and he could oversee the critical harvest period at both estates since they were separated by two months.  But since 2003, he turned over the winemaking at Château de la Font de Loup to his daughter and son-in-law, while devoting all his energy to his Morocco estate.  The wines at Val d’Argan show it.

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Email me your thoughts about Moroccan wines—or anything else—at  Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 3, 2018

The Mother of All Wine Auctions

The Napa Valley Wine Auction (officially known as Auction Napa Valley), which started in 1981, bills itself as “the world’s most celebrated charity wine event.”  To its credit, it raises a lot of money–roughly $10 million last year.  Bidders at Auction Napa Valley and other charity wine auctions pay thousands of dollars to attend high-end dinners and mingle with winemakers, winery owners and other “personalities.”  When the auction actually starts, they compete for luxury vacations, dinners with famous chefs, fancy cars, and, yes, wine.  The wines are frequently “one-offs”–large formats or vertical tastings—donated by wineries or other deep pockets.  Baseball great and Burgundy afficiando Rusty Staub donated a 54-bottle collection of top Burgundies to Emeril Lagasse’s Foundation Carnivale du Vin, which brought in $55,000, according to a report by Wine Spectator.

Yet this hoopla pales in comparison to the century-old mother of all charity wine auctions, the Vente des Vins des Hospices de Beaune, usually just known as either Hospices de Beaune–if you are an outsider–or La Vente des Vins, if you are from Burgundy.  In its present form, the Hospices de Beaune auction started in 1859, which makes the recently completed auction—always on the 3rd Sunday of November—its 157th.  The sale raised $13.2 million (11.2 million euros), an all-time record with the proceeds going to the hospitals of Beaune and various other charities.

The unique aspect of this auction is that only newly made wine is sold and only by the pièce–a traditional Burgundy barrel that contains 228 liters of wine.  (The price of the barrel, roughly $720, not counting tax, is added to the hammer price.)  Although there is a gala dinner at the 12th century Clos Vougeot the night prior to the auction (as well as what’s been called the world’s longest lunch, the Paulée de Meursault, the day after the auction), at the auction itself there are no fancy cars, elaborate dinners, or luxury vacations available–just newly made, and not even ready to be bottled, wine.

The Hospices de Beaune actually owns vineyards, a lot of them, just under 150 acres, which makes them one of Burgundy’s largest landowners.  (By comparison, Domaine Louis Latour, one of Burgundy’s top négociants, owns about 120 acres of vineyards in the Côte d’Or.)  This all started in the 15th century.  Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, established, in 1443, the Hôtel Dieu (hospital) to care for the poor.  Benefactors, starting with Guillotte le Verrier in 1457, have been donating vineyards to the Hospices ever since.  The wines from those vineyards are labeled by appellation and then given a Cuvée name honoring the donor or benefactor.

For example, William (Bill) Friedberg, a prominent Boston wine merchant, donated 1.5 acres of vineyards in Santenay in 2010 in honor of his recently deceased wife, Christine.  The wine is labeled Santenay, Cuvée Christine Friedberg. In total, there were 50 different Cuvées (33 reds and 17 whites) offered at this year’s auction, up from 48 last year, with the addition of Chablis, Premier Cru Côte de Léchet, Cuvée Jean-Marc Brocard, and Puligny-Montrachet, Cuvée Bernard Clerc.  The vast majority of the vineyards owned by the Hospices are Premier Cru plots from the Côte de Beaune, though there are 4 Grand Cru vineyards from the Côte de Nuits and even one from Pouilly-Fuissé in the Mâconnais.

Starting with the 2015, the winemaking at the Hospices has been under the direction of Ludivine Griveau, the first woman ever to hold that post.  Prior to assuming that responsibility, she worked as a viticulturist with super-star winemaker Nadine Gublin of Domaine Jacques Prieur and Maison Antonin Rodet and then as winemaker for Maison Corton-André.  In addition to making the wines, she supervises 23 individual wine growers who tend the vineyards.

Up until 2005, only the Burgundy wine trade could buy at the auction, but starting that year, Christie’s, the famed auction house, entered the picture and brought the auction into the 21st century.  Now, in addition to bidding live, individuals or a group can bid via telephone or the internet and compete to buy a single barrel.  (Previously, individuals in the trade had to buy multiple barrels of the same wine.)  An incentive for individuals to bid is that winning bidders are entitled to add their name on the label of the finished wine.

The mechanics of bidding from outside of the auction hall are quite simple:  Individuals can go to Christie’s.com and bid via Christie’s Live, or by telephoning Christie’s Client Services [+33 (0)1.40.76.85.85] at least one day prior to the auction.  A Christie’s representative will call you during the auction and pass your bids on directly during the sale.

In addition to the hammer price, the buyer is responsible for a 7 percent buyer’s premium, the aforementioned price of the barrel, and cost of élévage, paying a négociant in Beaune to “raise” and bottle the wine for you.

Elévage is rarely discussed because it is almost impossible to separate it from the winemaking since they always go hand-in-hand–except with wines from the Hospices, which are made by one person, and raised by another.  But, indeed, élévage helps determine the character of the wine.  This was brought home to me several years ago when I purchased the same Hospices de Beaune wine, 1988 Beaune, Cuvée Nicolas Rolin, raised by two different, but equally outstanding, négociants, Maison Louis Latour and Maison Louis Jadot.  Both Latour and Jadot purchased several barrels of the wine at the auction, brought them back to their respective cellars, transferred the wine into their own barrels, cellared the wine for the next 18 or so months, and then bottled it.  When tasted the wines side by side, both wines were excellent, but reflected the respective négociants’ style:  Jadot’s was more muscular while Latour’s was more taut.

Let’s run some numbers to get an estimate of what the 288 bottles (one pièce) will cost you or your group of Burgundy lovers.  The prices at the 2017 sale ranged from 6,400€ for a barrel of Pouilly-Fuissé, Cuvée Françoise Poisard to 118,000€ for a barrel of Bâtard-Montrachet, Cuvée Dames de Flanders.   Assume the hammer price of the barrel was 10,000€, which was the price of a barrel of Beaune 1er Cru, Cuvée Dames Hospitalières this year.  Add to that 700€ Buyer’s Premium, 600€ for the barrel and 3,000€ for élévage, which gives a final price of 14,300€ or about 50€ a bottle ($59 at current exchange rates).  Adding about $10 a bottle for shipping, customs clearance and duty gets a final estimated price of about $69 a bottle.

Remember, the minimum purchase is 288 bottles of the same wine, so you might want to start getting your group together in time for next year’s Hospices des Beaune auction.

 

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Email me your thoughts about Hospices de Beaune or Burgundy in general at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

December 6, 2017

Grignolino: A Rare but Exciting Choice for Thanksgiving

I never gave much thought to Grignolino, an obscure grape from Piedmont, until Marchesi Cattaneo Adorno Giustiniani poured one, a 1971, from his winery, Castello di Gabiano, at dinner last month.  It was show-stopping.  One of the qualities that determines greatness for a wine, at least for me, is its ability to develop over time.  Wines start their lives redolent of fruit, but with proper aging, the fruit flavors fade and are replaced by non-fruit flavors, such as leather, coffee, mushrooms–it really doesn’t matter how you describe them–while remaining fresh and harmonious.  Well, at 46 years of age, Castello di Gabiano’s 1971 Grignolino ticked that box.

More practically, tasting Castello di Gabiano’s younger versions, their 2014, 2015 and 2016 Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese “Il Ruvo,” other producers’ Grignolino at an event in New York City last year, and a visit in July of this year to the Monferrato hills, where the bulk of the grape is planted, reminded me that Grignolino can make a wine that gives great pleasure when drunk young; hence my suggestion to try one at Thanksgiving.

Grignolino, the wine, which Jancis Robinson, the renowned British wine writer, described as “the flirtatious aromatic side of Piemonte’s …wines,” has fallen out of favor.  Consumers clamor over round robust reds.  Grignolino, by contrast, is the opposite.  This lightly colored wine–just a shade darker than many rosés–takes on orange hues with only a year or two of bottle age.  (Thankfully, though, it bears no resemblance to the “orange” wines currently revered by hipster sommeliers.)  With high acidity and firm tannins, it isn’t a good choice as a stand-alone aperitif when your Thanksgiving guests arrive, but it will be a fine choice for the plethora of flavors found on the table.

When young, the Castello di Gabiano’s 2016 Il Ruvo, for example, exhibited a light cherry-red color and aromas of wild strawberry or cherry-like fruitiness.  On the palate, the wine’s delicate fruitiness is apparent, buttressed by firm, not hard, tannins and a sour cherry-like acidity.  With even a year or two of bottle age, the wine can deliver herbal or spicy notes that complement the delicate red fruit flavors. The Italians insist Grignolino is the perfect wine for charcuterie because its firmness balances the richness of the meats.  Similarly, Grignolino’s lovely austere quality, light body and vibrancy pairs well with turkey and the sweet/savory foods on the Thanksgiving table without overwhelming them.

From an economic point of view, it is easy to why growers have abandoned Grignolino for other varieties.  Grignolino produces less juice than most other grapes because it has lots of seeds, typically six or seven rather than two, and less pulp, so yields are inherently low.  (Indeed, it takes its name from “grignole,” which means many seeds in the Piemontese dialect.)  Lowering yields further is what is known as asynchronous maturation:  The berries in any given bunch do not ripen simultaneously, which means lots of manual sorting at harvest and discarding grapes because bunches contain both ripe and unripe ones.

To make matters worse, this lightly colored red grape with abundant tannin and lots of acidity is difficult to grow, requiring plenty of sun and southern exposure, precisely the requirements for Nebbiolo.  That explains why less and less Grignolino is found in the Langhe around Alba, which includes the Barolo or Barbaresco zones.  You don’t need to be an economist to understand why growers there opt to plant Nebbiolo and make either Barolo, Barbaresco or Langhe Nebbiolo–all of which command a higher price in the market–than Grignolino.  Nonetheless, Cavallotto, one of the top Barolo producers located in Castiglione Falletto, still has Grignolino planted in their prized Bricco Bocchis vineyard alongside Nebbiolo…and makes an excellent wine from it.

The best Grignolino comes, not from the more famous Langhe hills, but from the Monferrato hills around Asti in the DOC zones of Grignolino di Asti and Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese.  Grignolino di Asti comes from the area’s sandy soil, which means it’s lighter compared to Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese, which has more structure and a fuller body because of that zone’s loamy clay and limestone soil.  The distinction is relative since Grignolino from both areas are lightly colored, light-bodied reds.

Another challenge for winemakers using Grignolino is to get more color into the wine, since the paleness of it resembles a rosé, not a plus for a red wine among most consumers.  To extract more color from Grignolino, winemakers must perform a longer maceration, which extracts even more tannin.  Clearly, a tough line to walk.

One advantage of Grignolino for consumers is its narrow stylistic range.  Unlike Chianti, where the wines can be diverse depending on whether the producer includes Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah in the blend or opts to use small French oak barrels (barriques) for aging, most growers in Grignolino di Asti and Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese do not blend significantly and avoid barrique aging, so consumers are faced with fewer surprises after they pull the cork.

The Grignolino likely to be the most familiar to American consumers is the delightful one from Heitz Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. Although the famed Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon gets all the attention, Grignolino was the first wine they made–it was the only grape planted when Joe and Alice Heitz purchased the property in 1961–and they have made it in every vintage since.

Despite all the hurdles, dedicated winemakers still make Grignolino, either because it’s their tradition, or because they just like the wine, or because it’s what generations preceding them planted in their vineyards.  Whatever the reason, we are the better for it.

Availability of Grignolino is limited, but finding one you like is worth the effort.  Winesearcher.com lists 34 producers whose Grignolino ranges in price from $14 to $38.  In addition to the aforementioned Cavallotto, who grows Grignolino, other well-known Langhe producers buy grapes from growers in Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese and Grignolino d’Asti zones, so consumers will see Grignolino from the likes of Francesco Rinaldi and Pio Cesare, to name just two. In addition to those, I have listed alphabetically below growers whose wines I can recommend highly.  The ones listed in bold I find particularly notable.  If your local wine merchant doesn’t have one of these, ask him or her for suggestions.

Davide Beccaria “Grignò,” Marco Botto “Barba Carlin,” Marco Canato “Celio,” Castello di Gabiano “Il Ruvo,” Castello di Uviglie “San Bastiano Terre Bianche,” Tenuta Tenaglia, Gaudio–Bricco Mondalino, Vini Angelini “Arbian,” (all Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese), Crivelli, Marchesi Incisa della Rocchetta, and Tenuta dei Re, all Grignolino d’Asti.

I am indebted to Ian D’Agata, whose book, Italian Grape Varieties, is an indispensable reference that should be on every Italian wine lover’s shelf, for his explanation of the quirks of Grignolino at a seminar in New York City last year, and to Marchesi Cattaneo Adorno Giustiniani for sharing his 1971 Grignolino with me.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Grignolino or what you plan to drink at Thanksgiving at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

November 8, 2017

Nizza: A New Italian DOCG Worth Remembering

The history of the official alphabet of stratification of Italian wines–VdT, IGT, DOC, or DOCG (Vino da Tavola, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)–does not inspire confidence.  When Sassicaia, now an iconic Italian wine, was first released, it barely registered on the official scale, being relegated to a lowly VdT designation.  The top Soave Classico producers have either opted to label their wines as an IGT (Anselmi) or refused to use the DOCG designation to which they are entitled.  For a time, Angelo Gaja, certainly one of, if not THE, star Italian producer, opted to label some of his wines with the less prestigious Langhe DOC instead of the Barbaresco or Barolo DOCG because he felt he could make better wines outside the rules of the DOCG.  Regions making distinctive wines, such as Chianti Rufinà, have no official recognition while the less prestigious greater Chianti area carries Italy’s highest ranking, DOCG (Rufinà’s official categorization is, in fact, Chianti DOCG).

So why am I trumpeting the emergence of another DOCG to add to Italy’s 73?  Because the wines from this enclave in Piedmont deserve this special recognition.  The Italian wine authorities have taken a historically important area with a track record for fine wine and added vigorous regulations to ensure quality.

The new Nizza DOCG, which consumers will see on the label starting with the 2014 vintage, was formerly one of the three subzones of Barbera d’Asti (For completeness, the other two are Astigiani Colli and Tinella.)  Prior to the 2014 vintage, the wines from this area were labeled Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza. Since many of them are still on retailers’ shelves, consumers are well advised to remember the old name, especially since the 2013 vintage was exceptional in the area. Nizza, which represents only about 10 percent of the entire Barbera d’Asti DOCG, is home to about 47 producers, including 4 co-operatives, according to Gianni Bertoli, a spokesperson for the association of Nizza producers.

Part of the reason the wines from Nizza outshine the wines from the Barbera d’Asti DOCG is because this small area is exceptionally well suited to the Barbera grape.  Barbera in Nizza is like Pinot Noir in Burgundy or Nebbiolo in Barolo or Barbaresco. Bertoli explains that since Nizza has always been revered for its Barbera, more than half of the total vineyard area has vines that are over 50 years old. Indeed, the grapes from Nizza have historically commanded a premium.

Moreover, the regulations for the new DOCG actually assist in achieving the goal of producing very high-quality wine throughout the zone.  Only vineyards with the best exposures–those facing southeast or southwest–are included in the new DOCG.  Allowable yields are about 75 percent lower in Nizza compared to Barbera d’Asti (3.1 versus 4.0 tons/acre).  If growers opt to make a single vineyard wine and put the vineyard name on the label, the yields must be another 10 percent lower.

Nizza wines must be made exclusively from the Barbera grape–growers there realize they don’t need international varieties to make impressive wines–whereas in the Barbera d’Asti zone, producers are allowed to use up to 10 percent of other red varieties.  Additionally, the grapes need to be riper (Nizza wines need to achieve a minimum of 13.0 percent alcohol compared to 12.0 for Barbera d’Asti).  Although no chapitalization is allowed in Italy, growers can add concentrated grape must to increase minimum alcohol in poor years.  Not so in Nizza.  If grapes don’t ripen naturally to achieve the minimum level because of poor weather, no Nizza will be made that year.  Nizza wines are required to undergo longer aging (18 versus 4 months minimum) 6 months of which must be in barrel. (There is no barrel-aging requirement for Barbera d’Asti DOCG.)

The soils in Nizza have been carefully mapped and are quite varied even in this small area, with lighter sandy soil in the northern part of Nizza giving way to sandy clay and sandy marl as you move south.  Bertoli explains that the soil differences account for lighter, more elegant wines to sturdier and more structured ones moving from north to south within Nizza.  In my experience, from a tasting of about 40 wines from about a dozen producers, the viticultural and winemaking techniques far outweighed any sense of where within the zone the grapes grew.

Nizza is clearly popular among Piedmont winemakers, with many high-profile producers buying land, which is still far less expensive than in Barolo or Barbaresco.  Ignazio Giovine from L’Armangia noted mournfully that land values in Nizza have already gone up three-fold in the last two years.  “Last year land that sold for 40,000 € per hectare ($19,000/acre) is now 80,000 € per hectare.”  Bertoli predicts than land prices will increase further over the next several years as people see Nizza DOCG on labels and taste the wines.

The important takeaways from my tastings were these:  First and foremost, Nizza stands head and shoulders above Barbera d’Asti in general.  They are big, juicy wines with balancing acidity that show surprising complexity and suaveness.  In my mind, the best examples emphasize the wine’s savory and spicy side, restraining their natural power.  Nizza produces none of the lean, acidic wines that may have soured consumers in the past on Barbera.  The Barbera grape is a “sugar machine,” but its inherently high acidity helps balance whatever sweetness alcohol provides, so the wines can carry a 15.0 percent alcohol effortlessly.

A constant thread in Nizza is spicy acidity, but producer style–especially the use of oak, the amount of extraction and overall ripeness–is highly variable making it difficult to generalize beyond that. Some producers believe Barbera’s inherent acidity and spice can balance full-blown ripeness, extraction and oak aging.  Sometimes it does, but often times it doesn’t. Oak, per se, is not the demon in Nizza.  Rather it’s how the winemaker opts to use the oak that can be the problem.

The wines generally have low tannins and high acidity–it is Barbera–but with an appealing generosity and suaveness that is unexpected from that grape.  Prices currently run anywhere from $20 to $50.  I suspect that, like land prices in Nizza, these retail prices will rise over the next several years.

For me, part of the definition of a great wine is its ability to develop with bottle age.  Judging from Berta’s 2008, Riserva de la Famiglia’s 2007, and two single vineyard wines from 2001, Bava’s “Vigneti Bava d’Agliano,” and Michele Chiarlo’s “La Court,” Nizza checks that box.  (All of those wines are labeled Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza since the vintages preceded the DOCG.)

The producers are aiming high, hoping to put Nizza on the same exalted plain as Barolo and Barbaresco.  To that end, they are identifying cru and the best vineyards, hoping for some sort of classification in the future.  The market will determine whether they succeed. My bet is that they will.

Distribution in the U.S. is still spotty, but consumers should be able to find Nizza at their local retailers from some of the producers recommended below.  As consumers realize the value these wines deliver, I predict they will become more readily available.

Recommended producers:  Bava, Bersano, Borgo Isolabella, Michele Chiarlo, Coppo, Dacapo, Famiglia Berta, Garitina, Il Botolo, Ivaldi Dario, L’Armangia di Giovine Ignazio Domenico, Le Nizze, Olim Bauda, Riserva de la Famiglia, and Vietti.

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Email me your thoughts about Barbera d’Asti or Nizza at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 11, 2017

The Most Beautiful Wine Region That You’ve Never Heard Of…And They Make Good Wine, Too

Our exceptional bus driver and guide, Matt Wentzell, assured us that he could make it up the steep twisty and bumpy dirt road.  I remained unconvinced as the road became more twisted and bumpy.  Halfway up, we stopped, carefully disembarked and stepped onto a plateau overlooking the narrow, mountain-lined valley.  John Weber, who with his wife, Virginia, moved here a dozen years ago to start Orofino Winery, recounted his first impression upon seeing this view.  Driving from Eastern Canada, they took a wrong turn and came over the pass into the valley on this same dirt road instead of the main–and equally beautiful–road.  They looked at each other and simultaneously said, “This is the place.”

The Similkameen Valley runs northwest off the much larger, and marginally better known, Okanagan Valley in British Columbia.  Home to only about 19 wineries and approximately 700 acres of vines, the Similkameen and the Okanagan with its several hundred wineries and roughly 8,600 acres, accounts for over 90 percent of the province’s wine production.  (By comparison, Napa Valley comprises about 50,000 acres of vineyards.)  And contrary to the conventional impression of Canadian wines, most of the production is not ice wine, but rather dry, still and sparkling.

Indeed, consistent with the prevailing pioneering wine culture–the modern industry is only about 25 years old and many producers narrow that to the last ten years for quality production–winemakers have planted most everything.  The results have been astonishingly good, though inconsistent still.  Orofino’s single-vineyard Rieslings, for example, are brilliant, combining elegance and finesse with a distinct sense of place, while other producers are still making over-extracted and ponderous reds.

Jay Drysdale of Bella, who makes only sparkling wines, and focuses on single varietals from single vineyards, epitomizes the adventurous spirit.  “We are not harnessed by rules,” he says, noting that they have a completely different climate and soil compared to Champagne. “There’s no reason to follow their rules.  We must make wines to adapt to our conditions.”  And he has.  This year Bella produced a total of 2,000 cases of 12 different bubblies, including a half a dozen “Pet-Nats.”  His wines are certainly not for everyone, but he has an unbridled enthusiasm, matched only by Buddha, his tail-wagging and body-shaking bulldog. And this enthusiasm, I am sure, will certainly help propel the region forward as, for example, when he says, “I love working in a place where other guys are playing with Touriga, Zinfandel, and Grüner.”

Along with Orofino, Little Farm Winery and Clos du Soleil Winery are two other outstanding producers whose wines will make the Similkameen a name to remember.  Co-owners Rhys Pender, MW and Alishan Driediger, at Little Farm Winery, aptly named considering the garage-sized winery, produce small quantities of exciting Riesling and Chardonnay, while Mike Clark at Clos du Soleil shows the extraordinary diversity of the area with his suave red and white Bordeaux blends as well as an uncommonly deep and elegant Pinot Blanc. These three wineries and their vineyards are within a couple of miles of one another, yet the variations in soil and exposure–the shadows cast by the mountains exert an enormous influence on temperature–allow varieties as different as Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling to thrive in close proximity.

Across the pass in the Okanagan Valley, Pender explains that the culture and feeling is more akin to Napa compared to the rural and laid-back Sonoma-like Similkameen.  With majestic houses and wineries bordering the lake, the Okanagan actually makes Napa look down-market.  The views are breathtaking, matching many of the wines.  But still, not surprisingly given the youthfulness of the area, inconsistency remains.

What is consistent, however, is the spirit of adventure; the, “why not try it” attitude.  Take, for example, CedarCreek Estate Winery’s 2016 Ehrenfelser, made from the grape, a cross between Silvaner and Riesling, of the same name. Instead of ripping out the few remaining acres of it, they have made a delightfully floral fruit salad of a wine with gripping acidity that prevents it from being cloying.  CedarCreek refers to it as a “patio-sipper,” but I think they underestimate its complexity and balance.  Indeed, there’s a modesty bordering on insecurity on behalf of most of the producers in these valleys that is reflected in the tremendous quality/price ratio of the wines.  Sadly, for those of us south of the border, the wines are virtually impossible to find.  When and if we can find them, I suspect the prices will be far higher thanks to our three-tier distribution system.

The pioneering spirit of Donald Triggs, one of the pioneers in the Okanagan Valley and certainly now past normal retirement age, is still very much alive after he sold the Jackson-Triggs winery in 2006.  He founded Jackson-Triggs with Allan Jackson in 1993 and it went on to become Canada’s most important winery.  Now, he and his wife, Elaine, have started anew, purchasing vineyards and creating a winery, Culmina Family Estate Winery, in the Golden Mile Bench, the Okanagan’s only officially classified sub-region.  They were the first in the Okanagan to plant Grüner Veltliner (2011).  Six or seven other growers have followed.  What is amazing about Culmina’s wines is how good they are despite coming from vines that are only a few years old.

The enormous length, about 150 miles, of the Okanagan Valley brings with it markedly varied growing conditions, which also stem from whether the vineyards are on the eastern side and receive warmer afternoon sun–or the western side of the valley and receive cooler morning sun.  These variations also suggest that
the region will never have a single signature grape.  Too many grape varieties do equally well.

For example, in the south, which is hot and is really an extension of Arizona’s Sonora Desert, Syrah excels.  Indeed, Pender believes that Syrah is the best grape for this particular part of the Okanagan.  Judging from a tasting of Syrah organized by the British Columbia Wine Institute and held at Le Vieux Pin Winery, one the top wineries in the region, I wouldn’t argue with him.  Le Vieux Pin’s winemaker, Severine Pinte, a transplanted French woman who makes three delectably different Syrahs, believes the area is “exceptionally well-suited to the grape.”  Other producers, such as Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, Bartier Brothers, C. C. Jentsch Cellars, do equally well, capturing a style in-between the New and the Old World.  Some producers co-ferment Syrah with Viognier as is common in Côte Rôtie, while others make 100 percent Syrah.  Regardless of particular practices, these Syrah-based wines manage to deliver generous plumy quality without over ripe jamminess, while maintaining the savory peppery quality and meatiness so prized in their Rhône Valley siblings.

Tasting wines with winemaker David Paterson from Tantalus Vineyards shows the importance of vine age and how far the region has come in such a short period of time.  I had heard from many knowledgeable writers and growers that Tantalus’ Old Vines Riesling, made from vines planted in 1978, was Canada’s best rendition of that noble variety.  After tasting a series of them ranging from the 2014 to the 2006, I have no reason to disagree.  The 2014 had a paradoxical laser-like penetration while still being delicate, while the 2006 had developed a luxurious texture balanced perfectly by a lime-like zestiness.  A similar range of his regular Riesling, made from far younger vines, had buoyancy and lacey qualities that made them easy to recommend, though they lacked the complexity of the “Old Vines” bottlings.

Tasting Tantalus’ Pinot Noir was equally instructive.  The 2010 had developed nicely but lacked finesse compared to the gorgeously proportioned and seemingly weightless yet intense 2015.  Paterson admits he’s learned a lot in the intervening years and so have the vines.

Speaking of Pinot Noir, three pairs of them from three different wineries show that the Okanagan is likely to rank with other great Pinot Noir areas for showing that elusive “sense of place” or terroir.

At CedarCreek, they harvest and vinify two separate portions–an upper and a lower–of one of their hillside Pinot Noir vineyards because they think the soil and climate is different.  And indeed, so are the wines; one is more robust and one more delicate.  Even more convincing are two pairs from wineries located on the Naramata Bench, a non-officially categorized subzone of the Okanagan on its eastern bank.  The Naramata Road marks the level of 10,000 year-old Okanagan Lake formed by a glacier.  Below the road, the soil in the vineyard is sedimentary, reflecting the presence of an ancient lake, while above the road, the vineyards are rocky and less fertile.  Two wineries, Howling Bluff Estate Winery and Fox Trot Vineyards, each make two Pinot Noirs, one from their vineyards that lie above and below the road.  Although the winemaking at Howling Bluff and Fox Trot are different, each uses the same techniques for both their Pinot Noirs.  Yet in each case, the wines are wonderfully and dramatically different.  The wine made from Pinot Noir grown in the less-fertile vineyard above the road in each case was more elegant and savory compared to the riper, fruitier wine made using the same techniques from the grapes grown below the road.

Place matters.  At least for Pinot Noir and Riesling, the Okanagan/Similkameen Valleys allow those varieties to show their distinctive and unique origins.  It may take another 50 years or so to fine tune the map, but the basics are there.  Will the same be true of other varieties?  Time will tell.  It would help if the authorities would de-lineate and define the other important sub-regions, such as the Naramata Bench, Kelowna, Okanagan Falls, and Osoyoos, of this diverse area.

Don’t expect a single grape or two to represent the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys the way Malbec and Torrontés have defined Argentina.  From my experience, Riesling, Syrah, and Pinot Noir all can excel, as do Bordeaux varieties (more on those in a future column).  These two British Columbia areas, while still finding their way, will be home to many stars.  Will one shine brighter than another?  I doubt it.  Rather, I think we’ll be looking at a bright constellation.

 

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September 13, 2017

E-mail me your thoughts about Canadian wine in general and those from British Columbia in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

No Rosé, Please…Just Chill the Red

The spray from the tsunami of rosé hitting our shores just soaked me. I know rosé is popular, but the latest evidence of its popularity floored me: An offering of the 2016 Le Rosé de Chevalier. Bordeaux’s Domaine de Chevalier making a rosé? Really. It’s as though Château Lafite Rothschild decided to make a rosé. Domaine de Chevalier is THE benchmark producer in Pessac-Léognan, making classically framed and balanced wines, and one of the few to produce equally stunning reds and whites. Their wines, even their second wines, L’Esprit de Chevalier, perfectly express the nuances and allure of Pessac-Léognan. Indeed, if you want to know how wines from Pessac-Léognan are supposed to taste, without manipulation that often obscures the origin, reach for a red or white Domaine de Chevalier. So why are they stooping to make a rosé? The first three words of the title of a book by my good friend John Anderson, who is also a Bordeaux expert, springs to mind, Follow the Money: How George W. Bush and the Texas Republicans Hog-Tied America, (Simon & Schuster).

As regular readers of this column know–and if you didn’t you could tell from the introductory paragraph–I am not a fan of still rosé. (Champagne and other bubblies are in an entirely different category.) Although rosés are cool and refreshing, most lack complexity. I realize I’m painting with a very broad brush because there are rosés that deliver lots of character. Rosés from Bandol or Tavel in the south of France, to name just two, can make you sit up and focus on what’s in your glass. But most rosés don’t demand attention, which, of course, is likely much of their appeal. Most people do not want to think about the nuances of wine, especially in the summer.

But for those who want a cool and refreshing, rosé-like experience and want to think–at least a little–about what’s in the glass while sitting on the porch or deck, I suggest chilling red wine.

Before I make specific recommendations, here are a few basic principles. You chill the bottle by immersing it in a bucket filled with both water and ice–not just ice alone–because the combination hastens chilling. Alternatively, a half hour or so in the fridge will work. As a last resort, should you have forgotten to think ahead, drop a large ice cube in the glass of wine, stir twice and remove. It chills the wine without diluting it. Credit for that trick goes to Jean Louis Carbonnier, the Director for the Americas for Château Palmer. (He’s quick to mention that he has never done it with a glass of Château Palmer.)

Choose a low-tannin, high-acid red because chilling accentuates the wine’s tannic structure, bringing out astringency, and the acidity keeps it juicy and lively. Lighter styled reds devoid of tannin and packed with acidity work best. So leave the Classified Bordeaux, such as Château Palmer, the Grand or Premier Cru Burgundy and California Cabernet Sauvignon with their weight and prominent tannins in the cellar ‘till fall. On the other hand, young Bourgogne Rouge from lighter vintages–not the highly acclaimed 2015s–work well because these wines come from vineyards where ripening is often suboptimal, leaving the Pinot Noir grapes with high acidity and fewer tannins. While not a Bourgogne Rouge, but made from Pinot Noir grapes by a top-notch Burgundy producer, Louis Latour’s Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir from the Var in the south of France ($14), would be an excellent choice for the ice bucket.

My recent favorite trio of chill-able reds comes from a place you’d least expect to find them–Piedmont, home to tannic Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s more famous wines, neither of which you’d want to chill. One, Barbera d’Asti, is familiar to consumers, though not one people think to chill. The two others, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato and Pelaverga di Verduno will be familiar only to Italian wine geeks and to the savviest sommeliers. Consumers should learn about these aromatic reds because they are equally appealing served at “normal” temperature in the fall.

The Barbera grape, one of Italy’s most widely planted grapes, does exceptionally well in the area around Asti in Piedmont. (More about the difference between Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba in a future column.) Near the town of Asti, Barbera produces a high acid, low tannin, fruity/spicy wine that is eminently food friendly. It is a perfect match for the rich Piedmontese fare, but I wouldn’t limit it to those dishes because it is an extremely versatile wine, matching nicely with anything from pizza to hearty pasta to grilled meats–and yes, to the ice bucket. For chilling, reach for traditionally made Barbera d’Asti, such as Vietti’s Tre Vigne ($17) and not ones whose charms are overdone by the vanilla flavors imparted by too much oak aging.

Onto Ruchè and Pelaverga. Ruchè, an aromatic, low tannin red grape, is the basis for the DOC Ruchè di Castagnole. It conveys a wonderfully unforgettable mixture of delicate perfumed elements–rose and lavender–and black pepper-like spice that seasons the red fruit flavors. The best ones have balance and persistence. Look for examples from Cantina Sant’Agata ($16), Crivelli ($24), Ferraris ($18), and Tenuta dei Re ($18).

With all of 50 acres planted in total by roughly 15 producers, Pelaverga di Verduno makes Ruchè look commonplace. The grape, Pelaverga piccolo, also named Pelaverga di Verduno after the Piedmont village where it does best, never makes a full-bodied wine, only light to medium bodied ones full of perfume. Its bantam weight and floral character, coupled with the grape’s inherent acidity and lowish levels of tannin, make it ideal for chilling. If you can find one from Comm. G.B. Burlotto ($22), Fratelli Alessandria ($22) or San Biagio ($15), grab it.

Not so surprising is Beaujolais. The source of all red Beaujolais, the Gamay grape possesses lots of inherent acidity and little tannin, which makes the wine perfect for time in the fridge. Although I am a vocal proponent of the cru of Beaujolais, the 10 named villages of the region, I suggest reaching for a simpler–and lighter–Beaujolais-Villages or straight Beaujolais for summertime chilling. The widely available bottlings of Beaujolais-Villages from either the Maison Joseph Drouhin ($14) or Maison Louis Jadot ($12) would fit the bill just fine. Both, in their slightly different ways–the Drouhin typically being a touch lighter, the Jadot a bit fuller and richer–are impeccable examples of what good Beaujolais-Villages has to offer.

The sun is setting on this hot and muggy August day, so you’ll excuse me while I put a bottle of Barbera d’Asti in the fridge.

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Email me your thoughts about rosé or chilling red wines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

August 16, 2017

The ‘Cru’ of Soave: Another Attempt to Resurrect the Region

Soave, one of Italy’s great white wines, has an image problem, and, as a result, it gets no respect.  Although I’m sure that must be frustrating for the producers, it’s a boon for consumers:  The wines can be excellent but their prices fail to reflect their quality.  If your memory of Soave is bland, watery swill marketed so successfully decades ago by Bolla–consumers have told me that they assumed the name of the region was Bolla Soave–then it’s time to try them again.  Even Bolla’s.

Soave has never been better.  To quote Ian D’Agata, a world authority on Italian wine, “It’s rare to get a bad Soave today.”  (His meticulously researched book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, University of California Press, is essential reading for anyone interested in Italian wines.)  Young Soave has a subtle stone fruit–peachy—character buttressed by lively acidity and a hint of almond-like bitterness in the finish.  The quality/price ratio is outstanding, with most Soave from the current vintages selling for less than $20 and even top wines, such as the Prà 2015 Soave “Monte Grande,” retail for less than $30.

Consumers are lucky to have examples from both the 2015 and 2016 vintages in the market currently.  Both are excellent vintages, though different in character, with the 2015s being richer and riper, while the 2016s are generally more racy. Though Soave is consumed primarily within a year or two of the vintage, the best ones, similar to other fine wines, develop beautifully with bottle age.  A tasting of Gini’s Soave Classico “La Froscá” at their estate in 2009 was eye-opening:  The wines, stretching back to 1990 had developed a warm and nuanced complexity while maintaining exquisite energy.  Tasted blind, you could be excused thinking they were mature white Burgundies.  Even well-aged examples are affordable:  At the Michelin 3-star restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena, a superb 2005 Pieropan Soave Classico “La Rocca”–10 years old at the time–was less than $100 (including tax and tip.)

Soave’s popularity sprang to life after World War II, even outpacing sales of Chianti in the U.S. in the 1970s.  As is often the case, increased demand resulted in increased production.  To satisfy the markets, growers planted vines on the less well-suited fertile plains and maximized yields.  Quite predictably, dilute and vapid wines appeared.  In an attempt to compensate, growers included Chardonnay in the blend to add body and weight, which actually made matters worse.  Soave became relegated to the “innocuous white wine” category. Thankfully, this is all past history.  Although small amounts of Chardonnay are still allowed, few growers embrace it, preferring to limit the yield of the primary grape, Garganega, and to blending it sometimes with Trebbiano di Soave, a far superior biotype of Trebbiano compared to Trebbiano di Toscana.

To help reinvigorate the area, around the turn of the last century, the Soave Consorzio lobbied and finally convinced the Italian wine regulators to elevate Soave from a DOC and create a Soave Superiore DOCG category starting with the 2002 vintage.  To my mind, the quality of the some of the wines deserved this higher classification, though the implementation of it was controversial with many producers in the prestigious Soave Classico zone refusing to use it even though they were entitled to because they felt sub-par areas were included within its boundaries.  Indeed, one prominent producer, Roberto Anselmi, opted to abandon the DOC altogether in 2000, and to label his wines under the less prestigious IGT designation.

The Classico zone, originally delineated in 1927, well before the DOC was established, was limited to about 2,700 acres of hillside vineyards around the communes of Monteforte d’Alpone and Soave itself.  (For perspective, the total planted Soave area is about 16,000 acres.)  The soil in the Classico area is poor, not fertile, with limestone and volcanic rock, superior for growing quality grapes.  The newly created DOCG Superiore zone included the Classico area–and here’s where the controversy started–as well as other hillside areas, which were named Colli Scaligeri, in honor of the Lords of Verona who owned much of those hills in the 13th and 14th centuries.  Classico producers felt the inclusion of these other, less well-situated hillside vineyards in their opinion, “diluted” the reputation of the Classico area, and have opted to continue to label their wines as Soave Classico DOC instead of Soave Superiore DOCG.

As a result, the DOCG designation has not been widely embraced and hence, has not fulfilled the hope of reinvigorating the area.  Graziano Prà, of the eponymous estate, summed up his opinion succinctly when he said that my name is Prà, what more guarantee do you need.  Even Giovanni Ponchia, the former head oenologist for the Soave Consorzio, says with a sense of resignation, “the DOCG classification is losing credibility year by year.”

Enter the “cru” system.  As part of their application to create Soave Superiore DOCG, the Soave Consorzio started mapping of the Soave vineyards to identify the best ones.  Now, hoping to replace, or at least to supplement, Soave Superiore and to polish Soave’s overall image as a place for fine wine, they have recently released their list of 59 noteworthy vineyards, which, borrowing the French term, they refer to as cru.  The cru system makes enormous sense in a place like Soave where the both the volcanic soil and exposure of the vineyards varies dramatically from place to place.  Some wines from grapes grown on black, lava-filled soil are racy and bold, while others whose origins lie in the calcium-filled white soil are racy and sleek. Typically wines from the cru require two or three years of bottle age for full expression.

This focus on site specificity is nothing new–the French classified vineyards in Burgundy in the 1930s.  And Pieropan, a top Soave producer, has been bottling vineyard-designated wines since the 1970s. Regulations forbid fantasy names, allowing the use only of real places, many of which could be found on military maps dating from the 19th century.  Although when I tasted a range of 2016 Soave in April of this year with Chiara Mattiello, the current head oenologist of the Consorzio, some labels still sported fantasy names.

The Consorzio has done micro-vinification–small batch vinification–of grapes from the different crus to validate the uniqueness and individuality of the wines from them.  Nonetheless for consumers, the challenge is to determine whether the differences in the glass are due to the unique character of the individual cru or the differences in winemaking/viticultural practices of the producer.

This challenge is not unique to Soave.  The same is true in Burgundy and Barolo. When I compare a Musigny from Drouhin and a Bonnes Mares from Jadot, I ask myself, do I taste the differences between Musigny and Bonnes Mares or do I just taste the difference in winemaking between two fine producers who have different styles?  Similarly, in Barolo, where vineyards, like those in Burgundy, often have multiple owners, is the difference between Vietti’s Brunate and Chiarlo’s Cannubi a result of the site or just the differences between these two top producers?  At least in Barolo, producers often own parcels of several vineyards, so for example if you taste the Marchesi di Barolo’s Sarmassa side by side with their Coste di Rose you can see immediately how these two parcels are different because the winemaking is basically the same for both.  In Burgundy, it’s even easier because of the tradition of négociants making wine from a vast number of sites within the region.  Taste a line-up Louis Latour’s Corton Clos du Roi, Beaune Vignes-Franches, and Romanée St. Vivant and the impact of site on the character of the wine is readily apparent.  But in Soave, few producers own pieces of multiple crus so it is hard for the consumers to learn first hand the different expressions of wine from these sites.

What’s more, the cru system in Soave, and in Barolo, for that matter, lacks the more rigorous regulations found in the Burgundian system.  In Burgundy, for example, allowable yields decrease as the prestige of the cru increases from a village vineyard, to a premier cur to a grand cru, increasing the potential quality of the wine.  But in Soave, the regulations governing wine production in the cru are no different from those elsewhere.  And given the continued appearance of fantasy names on the label, it’s not clear how vigorously even the current regulations are enforced.

Since the hierarchical DOC/DOCG classification is certainly flawed in this region and the Cru system is confusing and imperfect, one might reasonably ask:  What then is the solution for the consumer wishing to take advantage of the bargains that abound currently in Soave? My advice echoes that of Graziano Prà: producer, producer, producer.

In the alphabetical listing of recommended producers below, my favorites are in bold, but frankly, I’d be happy to drink Soave from any of them.

Ca’ Rugate, Cambrago, Cantina del Castello, Cantina di Soave, a super co-operative, Casarotto, Coffele, Colato, Corte Adami, Corte Mainente, Corte Moschina, Dal Cero, Fasoli Gino, Fattori, Fornaro, Franchetto, especially their La Capelina, Gini, Gianni Tessari, I Stefanini, Inama, Le Albare, Le Battistelle, Portinare, Pagani, Pieropan, Prà, Tenuta Solar, Suavia, Villa Canestrari, Vitevis, another good co-op, Vicentini Agostino, and Zambon.

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Email me your thoughts about Soave at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

July 19, 2017

The New Beaujolais, but Definitely Not Beaujolais Nouveau

A recent tasting of Beaujolais reminded me of tasting wines from the Côte d’Or.  Yes, you read that correctly–I am comparing Beaujolais and the Côte d’Or.  To be sure, I’m not speaking about just anywhere in Beaujolais, only the crus, the 10 villages in the northern part of the region whose bedrock is either pink granite or a blue-black volcanic stone and whose wines are so distinctive that only the name of the village, without a mention of Beaujolais, appears on the label. Despite different grapes (Gamay versus Pinot Noir), different soil (granite versus limestone) and different exposure (undulating hills versus a constant southeast facing slope), both the northern part of Beaujolais and the Côte d’Or are magical winemaking areas where the particular site is paramount in determining the character of the wine.

Anyone who doubts that Beaujolais can excite needs to taste Château des Jacques’ 2015 trio of Morgon, Fleurie and Moulin-à-Vent, three of the 10 Beaujolais crus.  And then in case you think the differences among the trio was a one-off, you should taste Château des Jacques’ vineyard-designated wines from Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon.  You’ll come away, as I did, amazed with the revelation that Beaujolais is not just a fresh and fruity wine.

The conclusion is inescapable: Beaujolais can be serious stuff and the Gamay grape is capable of extraordinary complexity. The wines reflect their sites, just as in the Côte d’Or, the more up-market part of Burgundy. At Château des Jacques, as well as at many other fine producers who focus on the uniqueness of specific sites, the wines are wonderfully different even though they are all made from the same grape–Gamay, in this case–by a winemaking team that uses similar techniques with each wine.  And this being Beaujolais, and not the Côte d’Or, you can actually afford to buy them.

Maison Louis Jadot, one of Burgundy’s best producers, purchased Château des Jacques and its vineyards in Moulin-à-Vent in 1996 and subsequently has expanded its presence in Beaujolais by purchasing estates and vineyards in Morgon and Fleurie.  With their emphasis on specific vineyard sites, Jadot and other producers are showing the world that Beaujolais can offer the same thrilling diversity using Gamay, as the rest of Burgundy does with Pinot Noir.  Though Jadot’s goal is to show the distinctiveness of individual vineyards in Beaujolais, their flagship wines are the ones from the villages themselves, according to Cyril Chirouze, Château des Jacques’ talented and energetic winemaker.  It’s an analogous philosophy to that seen in Champagne where producers make distinctive vintage Champagne, but consider their non-vintage bottlings the standard bearer.

The 2015 vintage in Beaujolais, like the rest of Burgundy, is outstanding.  The growing season was hot and dry overall with the harvest starting in August.

(Climate-change deniers should note that August harvest occurred only twice during the entirety of the 20th century, 1947 and 1976, while 2015 was already the fourth time Beaujolais has seen such an early start in this new century.)

Yields were low in 2015, further concentrating flavors.  The allowable yield for the crus is 52 hectoliters/hectare (hl/ha), while the average at Château des Jacques in 2015 was 28 hl/ha.  The high acidity inherent to the Gamay grape is what makes the 2015 Beaujolais wines so stunning.  It balances the ripe flavors the sun delivered, preventing the wines from being jammy or overdone.  Chirouze notes with a smile, “The vintage is a gift.  It will put the spotlight on Beaujolais.”

The spotlight was on Beaujolais at the turn of the last century.  Moulin-à-Vent was made by traditional methods–not carbonic maceration–with long maceration and barrel aged, as evidenced by an old de-stemming machine Jadot found at Château des Jacques when they bought the property and from photographs from that era.  Chirouze reported that they discovered restaurant menus from the early 20th century indicating that Moulin-à-Vent sold at a comparable price to Volnay and Beaune.  He explains that Gamay stands up to (and benefits from) barrel aging as long as the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and undergo prolonged, three to four weeks of maceration and fermentation, as is done with Pinot Noir in the rest of Burgundy.  Any wine, Beaujolais or Bordeaux for that matter, which undergoes protracted barrel aging requires time in the bottle before it is ready to drink.

After World War II, says Chirouze, fashions changed in Beaujolais.  Neither producers nor consumers wanted to wait for wines to age.  Producers wanted to sell their wines as soon as possible rather than tie up their money aging them.  Consumers wanted wines for immediate consumption rather than cellaring.  Enter Beaujolais Nouveau.  The formula here is simple: Whole bunches of grapes are thrown into the vat without destemming or crushing.  Fermentation begins within the berries and vinification is rapid, seven to ten days, rather than a month, which brings out the fruitiness but not the tannins.  The result is a light, fruity and fresh wine ready for immediate consumption–but has little character and transmits nothing of its origins.  During the past 20 years (from 1996 to 2016) Beaujolais Nouveau production has fallen by 60 percent (from 472,000 hl to 193,000 hl), but it still accounts for 27 percent of the region’s production, according to data from Inter Beaujolais, the trade group that represents the entire region.

Despite the longstanding prominence of Nouveau and the impatience that explains its advent, the pendulum in Beaujolais is swinging back toward seriousness.

In addition to the original eight separate parcels in Moulin-à-Vent, Château des Jacques has acquired three in Morgon and two in Fleurie, giving them a total of roughly 200 acres.  (Jadot also has an entirely separate winemaking facility and team in the region for their less terroir-driven Beaujolais Villages, which, by the way, delivers more than you’d expect for the price, especially the 2015 vintage.)

Chirouze is adamant that they will bottle single vineyard wines only when doing so does not “impair the quality and integrity of village wines.”  He continues, “The village wines–Morgon, Fleurie and Moulin-à-Vent–are not ‘second’ wines.  We bottle the single vineyard wines only if the vintage allows bottling of both.”  Hence, the number of single-vineyard bottlings Château des Jacques does depends on the year.  The grandeur of the 2015 vintage allowed Château des Jacques to bottle all six of their single vineyard Moulin-à-Vent, La Roche, Clos du Grand Carquelin, Clos de Rochegrès, Champ de Cour, Clos des Thorins, and La Rochelle, without diminishing the quality of the village wine.  Only the first three, however, will be available in the U.S.  (They own two additional parcels, Les Vérillats and Les Caves, that they never bottle separately, reserving those grapes entirely for the village wine.)

Comparing the three 2015 single vineyard wines from Moulin-à-Vent is an epiphany-inducing experience.  You’re left with the same amazement as when you taste wines from Volnay, or any Côte d’Or village–wines made from same grapes grown in adjacent vineyards that somehow taste remarkably different.

The 2015 La Roche ($43, 94 points) lives up to its name–the rock.  The vineyard lies at the foot of the village’s icon windmill and has shallow poor soil atop volcanic bedrock.  Even the ripeness of the 2015 vintage does not soften this massive young wine.  Despite its concentration and perhaps because of its structure, it comes across as austere.  But it’s really not.  It has splendid freshness, which adds to its allure.  I suspect it will turn out beautifully with time.  (I just finished the last bottle of a case of the 2000 Château des Jacques La Roche–at 16 years of age, it was still fresh and marvelously mineral-y.)

The 2015 Clos du Grand Carquelin ($43, 95 points), from a vineyard across the road–not 10 feet away from La Roche–was entirely different:  Floral and elegant, long and graceful, almost delicate by comparison.

The 2015 Grand Clos de Rochegrès ($43, 95) 500 feet away as the crow flies, combined elements of both of the others, with gorgeous power but less refinement compared to Clos du Grand Carquelin.

Although Château des Jacques is adamant about the importance of site-specific bottlings, this is not a new idea.  Indeed, the previous owner of the property bottled a wine from Clos de Rochegrès for decades.  Nor is Château des Jacques the only producer in Beaujolais to have that focus.  The single vineyard wines from Château du Moulin-à-Vent (which sits adjacent to the windmill) are stylish and reinforce the importance of site specificity.  Their Moulin-à-Vent from the Croix des Vérillats vineyard is consistently firm, reflecting the poor soil, with an uncanny elegance, while the one from La Rochelle, a south-facing plot with more soil atop the granite–and not more than 50 meters away–is richer and more opulent.

Moreover, site-specific bottlings are not unique to Moulin-à-Vent.  Other quality-oriented producers in other villages, such as Domaine Mee Godard and Château de Raousset, to name just two, have adopted the practice.  Godard bottles three distinctive–and different–wines from Morgon, from the lieux-dits Courcelette, Grand Cras and Côte du Py.  Château de Raousset has been bottling by parcel for about 15 years after they realized the wines from Grille-Midi, a parcel in Fleurie, had unique character.  They’ve added a Morgon from the Douby lieu-dit and even one from Chiroubles, Bel-Air, because they recently acquired sufficient acreage there to make a separate bottling practical.

Let me venture to make a prediction. The time will come–and soon–when the vineyard names in Moulin-à-Vent and the other cru will be as familiar to us as those in Chambolle-Musigny or Beaune.

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Email me your thoughts about Beaujolais at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

Jun 20, 2017

Canadian Pinot Noir: Who Knew?

When I told friends that I was going to Edmonton to taste and judge Canadian wines, the predictable response was, “Oh, icewine.”  Having tasted Canadian wines during trips to Ontario and at a previous edition of the Northern Lands Festival Canadian Wine Competition in Edmonton, I knew that Canada made more than just icewine.  What I didn’t know at the time, but know now, is that Canada makes sensational and unique Pinot Noir that reflect the diversity of sites where the grapes grow.

Indeed, winemakers in Canada, as a group, seem to know how to coax from the grape both subtle fruity and savory flavors –the ying/yang for which that grape is famous–far better than winemakers working with other New World sites.  The alcohol levels of Canadian Pinot Noir are modest by today’s standards, rarely exceeding 14 percent. Even the ripest that I’ve tasted recently do not come close to the overdone style that I call “Pinot Syrah,” which can give the varietal a bad name in California.  If Burgundians have been looking over their shoulder at Pinot Noir from California, Oregon or Central Otago and Martinborough in New Zealand, they should be checking the other shoulder because the ones from Canada will be upon them before they know it.

The two major regions for Pinot Noir in Canada are the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, about a four-hour drive east of Vancouver, and the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.

The Okanagan Valley, running north-south for about 100 miles, has an incredibly diverse climate and a plethora of soils, but one unifying characteristic–long hours of sunshine due to its northern location.  During the height of the growing season the Okanagan receives two hours a day more sunshine than the Napa Valley, which compensates for a shorter growing season.  The southern end, bordering the U.S., is desert-like (in reality it is the northern extension of Arizona’s Sonora Desert) with summertime temperatures reaching 100 degrees.

Not surprisingly, Pinot Noir, which thrives in a cool, even marginal, climate, doesn’t do well there.  However, 60 miles to the north, in Okanagan Falls and further north in Kelowna, the conditions are perfect for that fickle grape. Pinot Noir does best in climates where sugar and phenolics (skin and seed tannins) ripen at the same time, something that occurs in the northern part of the Okanagan, just as in Burgundy.  The whole valley, north and south, has extraordinary diurnal temperature variations–up to 30 degrees, which helps explain why the grapes hold their acidity, imparting freshness and liveliness to the wines.

From a winegrowing point of view, the Okanagan Valley is young.  In 1990, when it received official VQA status from the Canadian authorities in British Columbia (the equivalent of the French AOC), roughly 1,200 acres were planted to vines. By 2014, there had been a 700 percent increase in vineyards, with about 8,500 acres planted.  The numbers for Pinot Noir are striking–an 80 percent increase in plantings over eight years, 2006 – 2014, outstripping new plantings of every other red variety. The number of wineries has also ballooned from fewer than 20 in 1990 to over 200 in 2014. Many winemakers told me that the Okanagan has been a quality wine-producing area for only the last decade.

I’ve seen (or rather tasted) the steep learning curve that has accompanied the proliferation of vineyards.  Two years ago, at Northern Lands, Canada’s largest all-Canadian wine and culinary festival, which brings together chefs and winemakers from all over Canada, my impression after tasting scores of Pinot Noir was that these were okay wines, but nothing unique or exceptional.  Now, just two years later, my viewpoint is entirely different–these Canadian Pinot Noir make you sit up and take notice.

David Paterson’s 2014 Tantalus Pinot Noir from the Okanagan Valley shows just how far he’s come in two years.  The 2014 had far more polished tannins and a more elegant savory profile erasing the rusticity of the 2012.  Paterson attributes the change to the vines being two years older, which may not seem like an eternity, but two years on the life of an eight-year-old vine represents 25 percent of the vine’s life. Additionally, Paterson is certain that he knows the vineyard better over the last two years and has refined his techniques in the cellar as a result.

Part of my enthusiasm for these Canadian Pinot Noirs is that even within a small area, such as the northern part of the Okanagan Valley, the character of the Pinot Noir varies greatly, depending on the sites, which vary considerably.  The soils are diverse and interdigitating because the area was formed by glaciers which have left their scars on the region in the form of canyons and cliffs and stones in the vineyards.  Just as conventional wisdom says that the southern end of the valley is warmer, so is the east side because of the effect of the hot afternoon sun.  However these broad generalizations can fail to predict the character of the wines.

Take, for example, 50th Parallel Estate’s 2014 Pinot Noir, in which graceful red fruit flavors mingle with savory notes that dance across the palate.  It’s delicate and fresh, a Côte de Beaune-style wine.  From a site just across the lake on the western side is Quails’ Gate Winery’s 2014 Richard’s Block Pinot Noir, which is a more robust darker expression of the variety that maintains uplifting freshness, more reminiscent of the Côte de Nuits. Here are two beautifully made Pinot Noirs made from grapes grown less than a mile apart, yet which convey vastly different, yet equally captivating, expressions of my definition of Pinot Noir–that is, flavor without weight.

Or, take two 2015 Pinot Noirs from Meyer Family Vineyards.  Their bottling from the more northern located Reimer Vineyard is riper, a more fruit-driven style compared to their version from the more southern (and theoretically warmer) McLean Creek Vineyard, which has a far more savory character.   Michaela Morris, a Vancouver-based wine writer and authority on Canadian wines, explains that individual microclimates can trump the sometimes simplistic conventional wisdom.

Despite being geologically and climatically very different from the Okanagan Valley, the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario is another ideal spot for Pinot Noir.  This wine-growing area runs east to west, is limestone-based without the residue left by glaciers, and has such a harsh winter that some producers actually bury their vines so that they survive the cold.  To dispel the notion that it’s not too cold in this part of Canada for fine wine, winemakers in Ontario emphasize that their latitude is comparable to France’s Burgundy and Champagne regions.  In truth it’s the Niagara Escarpment coupled with Lake Ontario that makes wine-growing here possible.  (If latitude alone determined the ability to make fine wine, there would be wineries in Vladivostok, on Russia’s east coast.  A more critical factor is whether the vineyards are located on the eastern or western side of a land mass.)

The Niagara Escarpment is the name given to a 1,000-mile ridge that runs from upstate New York to Wisconsin.  On the Niagara Peninsula this several hundred foot high ridge traps warm air rising from Lake Ontario and forces it down onto the vineyards, warming them and creating a constant flow of air that reduces the chance of frost and helps keep the vines free of disease. Indeed, the distance that the vineyard lies between the lake and the foot of the escarpment determines, in large measure, the character of the wine.

Paul Pender, winemaker at the highly regarded Tawse vineyard in Ontario and another leading Pinot Noir producer, explains that Ontario, like the Okanagan, is basically a young area for winegrowing.  He estimates that serious quality winemaking has only been around in the last ten years.  One of his explanations for the rapid learning curve is that winemakers are staying put and thereby learn about their vineyards.  In the past, he says, the focus was on the winemaker.  “If you had ‘that’ winemaker, you were golden.  Winemakers moved from winery to winery.”  Now, it’s clear to everyone that the focus needs to be on the vineyard.  Winemakers need to learn how an individual vineyard responds year to year. The only way to do that, is to stay in one place.

Prices for Canadian Pinot Noir are incredibly reasonable.  Parallel 50th Estate’s 2014 Pinot Noir, “Unparalleled,” a barrel selection that represented a few percentage of their total production and was voted “Best in Show” at the recently completed Northern Lands Wine Competition sells for $50 CAD (about $37 at the current exchange rate) at the winery.  Parallel 50th Estate’s regular 2014 Pinot Noir, which was voted 2nd best Pinot Noir after Unparalleled, sells for $29 CAD ($21.50). Sadly for us south of the border consumers, Canadian Pinot Noir are difficult to find because they are made in small quantities and consumed locally.  But they are worth the search.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Canadian wines in general or Canadian Pinot Noir in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

May 24, 2017

Lugana: The Perfect Summertime White

With their crispness and cutting acidity, the refreshing wines of Lugana, a small Denominazione Origine Controllata (DOC) on the southern edge of Lake Garda in northern Italy’s Lake District, are perfect for drinking in the summer–or year round for that matter.  (Just don’t confuse Lugana, the wine, with Lugano, a neighboring lake.)  A bonus is in finding an area that produces distinctive and unique wines using an autochthonous grape come to life, rather than succumbing to the allure of planting international varieties.

These mid-weight wines deliver a captivating combination of tropical fruit-like flavors, spice (sometimes in the form of a white-pepper bite) minerality and zesty acidity. They’re reminiscent of dry Vouvray or Riesling with a delicate fruitiness buttressed by welcome, laser-like acidity.  The more mineraly ones bring to mind Savennières, another Chenin Blanc-based Loire wine, or again, Riesling.  Unlike many New World wines that convey tropical fruit flavors, Lugana wines are not cloying, sweet, or heavy.  And therein lies Lugana’s near magical balance:  A subtle hint of tropical flavors and then, wham!–palate-awakening vigor.  Their ying-yang balance makes them extremely versatile–lively and easy to sip before dinner, but bold enough to cut through virtually anything on the plate–from sushi to, believe it or not, grilled meat.

Winemakers insist the character of the wine comes from the Turbiana grape, proximity to Lake Garda, and the abundant clay in the soil.

Let’s start with the grape.  Recent DNA research indicates that Turbiana, long thought to be identical to Trebbiano di Lugana (a.k.a. Trebbiano di Soave or Verdicchio Bianco), is distinct from that variety though many in the region still refer to the grape both in conversation and on labels as Trebbiano di Soave or Trebbiano di Lugana.  The grape ripens late and has inherently high acidity.  To be labeled Lugana, 85 percent of the wine must come from Turbiana with other 15 percent coming from a wide variety of non-aromatic grapes.  Some producers insist that adding a small amount of other varieties has little effect on the finished wine, while other producers shake their head and insist that Lugana should always be make entirely from Turbiana.

The surprising warmth in this northern clime–there are palm trees as well as prized local olive oil–is a result of the moderating affect of Lake Garda and allows the Turbiana to achieve good ripeness without losing verve.  The lake is also responsible for the consistent morning and afternoon breezes in the vineyards that helps keep the grapes healthy.

Thick grass and other vegetation growing between the rows of vines gives the appearance of vineyards planted on someone’s lawn.  Clay soil, which many growers credit for the wines’ distinctive spice, mandates the use of heavy inter-row vegetation.  Fabio Zenato, the head of Le Morette, one of Lugana’s top produces, notes enigmatically, “The grass allows you to leave the vineyard after a rain.”  He explains that, “After a rain you could walk into the vineyard, but without grass, you’d sink into the mud up to your ankles and never get out.”  The grass, he adds, gives the otherwise rock-hard dry clay porosity, allowing adequate oxygenation of the soil.

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The region is undergoing a transformation.  I remember drinking Lugana 30 years ago because it was cheap.  Some of the wines were pleasant enough, though not memorable, while others were “horrible,” to borrow a word from Carlo Veronese, the Director of the Lugana Consorzio when he described the wines from that era.  The wines now are, by and large, stunning because a new generation of producers have energized the area.  To be fair, Zenato, the region’s second largest producer and the one responsible for initially popularizing the wines, has always made–and continues to make–an excellent array of Lugana.

The public has noticed by buying the wines.  In 1967, when Lugana received DOC recognition (it was the first in the Lombardy region to be awarded that distinction) there were only 1,000 acres under vine, but, with increased demand, 3,500 acres are planted today.  In the past, producers sold much of their wine in bulk because it was worth more as a non-DOC wine that could be blended with–and expanded the volume of–a prestigious DOC wine, than it was bottled and sold as DOC Lugana. That practice is a thing of the past.  All of Lugana’s production is bottled and sold proudly as DOC Lugana, Lugana Superiore, Lugana Reserva or as a sparkling Lugana.

Fortunately for consumers, the prices–most are under $20 a bottle–have not kept pace with the increased quality.  That situation will not last long for two complementary reasons.  It’s hard to keep this kind of character and quality secret for long.  And the price of vineyard land will increase as new vacation houses in this gorgeous part of Italy encroach on the DOC’s boundaries.

When I asked Stefano Fraccaroli, the winemaker at the eponymous family estate founded in 1912, how much they produced 20 to 30 years ago, he responded with an Italian shrug, “molto meno” (literally, much less) and scurried to find his father, Luigi, who estimated their production back then was roughly 100,000 bottles annually, compared to 450,000 bottles now.  Many of the winemakers in the region are too young to remember what precisely was happening 30 years ago, they just know that that area was in the doldrums. It is not clear when the region’s fortunes turned around–no one to whom I spoke could point to a single event that initiated the resurgence–but most agreed it occurred about 15-20 years ago, at about the turn of the new century. (The Consorzio has data regarding production figures only as far back as a decade.)

Some growers speculated it was the world market’s disaffection with international white grapes, while others noted that it might be the affect of tourism since the Italian Lake District receives 60 million visitors a year, a third of whom come to the province that includes Lake Garda.  Other growers believe the surge in popularity was related to the Consorzio’s efforts to re-name the grape and distance it from the stigma of Trebbiano, which is Italy’s most prolific, and least prestigious, white variety.

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The overall production from Lugana is small, about 1.2 million 12-bottle cases, and the Germans love the wine, so finding examples in the U.S., especially from small producers, can be difficult, but worth the effort.  The 2015s, from a riper vintage that still maintains lively acidity, are currently in the market.  The incredibly consistent 2016s, which are more linear and penetrating, should arrive over the next six to 12 months.  You can almost “select blindfolded” when selecting a 2016 Lugana.  Although only a few percent of total production is labeled Reserva or Superiore, tasting how beautifully some have developed with 10 or 15 years of bottle age reinforces the idea that Lugana has potential for being included as one of the world’s great wine areas.  (Capuzza Selva’s 2001 Lugana Superiore, a wine made for early consumption rather than extended bottle aging, had developed incredible complexity without losing its vibrancy.)

Since many producers’ wines are available in only one or two markets, I have simply listed my favorites, alphabetically.  I’d be happy drinking any of their wines this summer:

Cà dei Frati, Castrini, Citari, Corte Sermana, Feliciana, Famiglia Olivini, Le Morette, Marangona, Montonale, Nunzio Ghiraldi, Ottella, Pasetto, Pasini San Giovanni, Roveglia, Selva Capuzza, Turina, Zenato and Zeni.

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April 26, 2017

Do you have any experience with Lugana?  Email me your thoughts at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

2015 Burgundies: Superb for Both Colors…Don’t Miss Them

After having tasted literally hundreds of barrel samples from négociants and small growers while on my annual pilgrimage to Burgundy in November, followed by a series of important importers’ tastings New York City earlier this year, (again, mostly barrel samples), it’s clear to me that the 2015 Burgundies are stunning.

With her typical understatement and wry smile, Véronique Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, summed it up, “There’s no question it is a good vintage.”  I would go further–2015 is a great vintage for both the iconic Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-based wines. This is, moreover, the case in all of the subregions of Burgundy:  Chablis, Côte d’Or, Mâconnais, and Côte Chalonnaise–and is equally great for the Gamay grape, the staple of the Beaujolais region. The only downside is, as is frequently the case with Burgundy, the limited amount of wine and the prices.

Today, I will focus only on the 2015 reds, while saving my thoughts about the whites for a future column.

Though it’s trendy today to write only about small growers’ wines, I think it is critically important to taste the wines from the major négociants. Indeed, the table of the major négociants is the best place to begin tasting the wines of the new vintage.  This enables one to gain a sense of the vintage as a whole, with examples of reds and whites drawn from throughout Burgundy, giving broad overview, not merely the viewpoint of a grower whose plots might lie in only one or two villages.  It should also be pointed out that all the major négociants, such as Bouchard Père et Fils, Maison Joseph Drouhin, Maison Louis Jadot and Maison Louis Latour, own substantial vineyards and are thus growers themselves.  Latour, for example, is the largest owner of Grand Cru vineyards in all of Burgundy, including the plums of Corton and Corton-Charlemagne. Additionally, and this is especially important for the 2015s, négociant wines are more widely available (which also helps explain why they are less trendy, especially among the sommelier crowd.)

Consumers could reasonably ask why I am assessing wines in barrel since I have a longstanding policy (set out in a column linked to below) of not reviewing individual barrel samples, which won’t even be bottled for months and will not be in the market for another year, when there are excellent wines from 2014–especially the stunning whites–that are already on retailers’ shelves?  It’s simple:  Shrinking supply and increasing demand means the time is right to buy “futures” to get the wines you want at a more reasonable price.

Yields in 2015 were low, making it the fifth consecutive short crop.  Demand for Burgundy continues to grow–the wines remain tremendously popular in the U.S. while being embraced more and more by consumers in Asia.  Producers and fellow writers to whom I spoke in Burgundy were effusive in their praise for the vintage.  (Granted, producers always love the vintage they have to sell, but the widespread enthusiasm and broad smiles regarding the 2015s was especially striking.)

With futures, the customer pays for the wine before having the opportunity to taste the finished product.  The risk is obvious–maybe you won’t like it–or worse, the retailer from whom you purchased the wines, fails to deliver what you’ve paid for upfront and disappears with the dough.  To minimize the risks, you should only purchase from producers whose wines you’ve liked in the past and only from reputable merchants with whom you’ve done business.  Ignore the hype from unknown retailers promoting their “newly discovered” grower.  Do trust retailers like Ian Halbert from Gordon’s in Boston, Joe Kluchinsky or Mark Wessels from MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., and David Netzer from The Wine House San Francisco, whose advice will rarely lead you astray.

Listen to recommendations from writers or retailers you trust, but remember:  No one has tasted the finished wines because, with rare exceptions, they have not yet been bottled.  Although all the great Burgundies are made from the one grape–Pinot Noir or Chardonnay–each barrel of wine, even from the same vineyard, is different for multiple reasons:  The age of the barrel differs (new oak or one-year old barrel); the juice in each barrel is different because of the variation even within a vineyard, and the evolution of the wine barrel to barrel is not uniform. Tasting the “same wine” from different barrels in a producer’s cellar shows the extraordinary range of flavors and textures and explains why producers blend the wine from all the barrels before bottling.  Tasting in Méo-Camuzet’s cellar, Jean Nicholas Méo emphasized that although we were tasting “representative” barrel samples, the final blend had not been made and the wines “by no means were ready.”

The 2015 Burgundies are so alluring because the weather during the growing season was itself perfect:  Warm, sometimes hot, with rain only when it was needed, a little at the beginning of August and then again at the end of the month, according to Drouhin.  Critically, the harvest took place under ideal weather conditions–no rain to spoil the grapes.

Anne Parent, one of the leading producers in Pommard, described the 2015 vintage as having “great energy,” and her wines confirmed that assessment.  She was amazed at the pristine condition of the grapes at harvest, discarding less than one percent of them at the sorting table.  The fruit was in such perfect condition that Parent opted, for the first time, to include a small percentage of stems (whole clusters) during fermentation, noting that the stems “add some interesting structure so that it is worth including them if you can be assured they are ripe.”  Echoing Parent, Frederick Weber, the winemaker at Bouchard Père et Fils, noted that, “There were healthy grapes; like 2005…nothing to sort.”  He described the tannins as silky and delicate, and was quick to add that at Bouchard they were careful not to over-extract during winemaking.

The only potential downside is that since the weather at harvest was perfect, some growers waited, and waited, and waited to harvest, coaxing every last bit of ripeness out of the fruit.  Hence, some wound up with over-ripe grapes that translated into slightly jammy wines.  Pierre Bart, from the eponymous domaine in Marsannay, suggested that there will likely be two types of wines produced in 2015:  The ones whose grapes were picked at the right time, and others in which growers waited too long. The key, according to Megan McClune the newly installed managing director at Maison Jessiaume, was to pick a little early, forgoing the last bit of ripeness, but capturing the all important acidity to keep the wines lively and fresh.

The team at Maison Louis Jadot, led by Frédéric Barnier, did just that. The proof is in the pudding too:  Jadot’s line-up of 2015 reds is magnificent, lively and fresh.  Tasting the same wine from different barrels in Jadot’s cellars reminded me of why it’s difficult to recommend a particular wine based on tasting from a single barrel.  But tasting barrel samples can indicate overall quality and style and whether particular villages or areas stood out.  Well, Jadot excelled in 2015, but it’s hard to claim that one village did better than another because their overall line-up of wines was stunning.  My advice:  Buy what you can afford.  Don’t overlook their wines from less hallowed terroirs, such as Maranges, Pernand-Vergelesses or Monthélie.

Louis Fabrice Latour, the head of Maison Louis Latour, commented–only half-jokingly–“2015 was the greatest vintage of my life.”  Indeed, Latour’s array of reds (all of which had been bottled) that I tasted in New York earlier this month supported his opinion.  The warm vintage complemented Latour’s racy, elegant style.  With not an over-ripe flavor to be found, the wines reflected their village and vineyard origins perfectly.  Beaune tasted like Beaune, while Vosne-Romanée tasted like Vosne-Romanée.  Latour’s village Vosne-Romanée was positively stunning (93, $87), more beguiling than most producers’ premier crus.  Latour’s Beaune Vignes Franches, from their own parcel, which they’ve owned for over 100 years, was captivating, showing the splendor of premier cru from that village (95, $82).  Corton Grancey (97, $165), their flagship wine, with unbelievable length, elegance and complexity, was spellbinding.

At Maison Drouhin, Véronique’s broad smile revealed her real opinion of the vintage while we tasted.  She explained that they opted to harvest early, the beginning of September, to capture acidity and delicacy.  That decision paid off big time–Drouhin’s reds are lacey and elegant.

Though Drouhin’s reds, like many of the other 2015 reds are, by and large, charming and deceptively easy to taste now, the best ones, at the premier and grand cru level, have the requisite structure and balance to develop the alluring flavors for which Burgundy is known over the next decade or two.  I would plan on cellaring them for at least a decade and then revisit them to see how they are developing.  But even many of the reds with a “lesser” pedigree, such as Bourgogne Rouge or those from less well known villages, such as Marsannay or Monthélie, will benefit from a few years of bottle age–if you can keep your corkscrew away from them.

My advice to those with some experience with Burgundy is to rely on producers whose wines you’ve liked in the past–and then check with your banker.  But don’t let prices put you off from the 2015 Burgundies.  There are plenty of great Burgundies at more affordable prices.  If Bouchard’s top wines do not fit your financial profile, consider their less prestigious wines that still pack enormous enjoyment, such as their Monthélie or their Beaune du Château Premier Cru, which comes from 17 parcels they own in different premier cru parcels that are too small to vinify and commercialize individually.

Similarly, if $80+ for Latour’s Beaune Vignes Franches is above your budget, try their Santenay (90, $32) or Mercurey (89, $27), wines from unheralded villages that offer great enjoyment.  In the same vein, if Parent’s show-stopping Pommard or Corton is out of your price range, opt for her wines from less prestigious appellations, such as her Ladoix or Bourgogne Rouge “Selection Pomone.”  She makes Selection Pomone, which includes grapes from vines located in Ladoix but that are, by law, too young for inclusion in wines from that appellation, only in top vintages.

Alternatively, find wines from a producer, such as Domaine Jessiaume, whose quality has been transformed recently, but whose prices have yet to reflect it.

For newcomers to Burgundy, the 2015 vintage offers a fantastic opportunity to learn about the region’s allure. Pick one of the major négociants and start sampling a range of their wines, starting with the Bourgogne Rouge and working your way up the prestige ladder to a regional wine, such as Côte de Beaune Villages, and then to village wines, such as Santenay or Savigny-lès-Beaune. By sampling wines from the same producer, you’ll understand the Burgundians’ focus on terroir since the winemaking is basically the same and drink some delightful wines in the process.

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March 29, 2017

Email me your thoughts about Burgundy at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

To read a column indicating my reservations about rating wines based on barrel tastings, please see:
 http://winereviewonline.com/Michael_Apstein_Against_Barrel_Tastings.cfm

The Renaissance at Jessiaume: A Multi-National Collaboration

In parochial Burgundy, where even French citizens from outside the region are viewed with skepticism, an American–and a woman no less–is leading the Anglo-American-French team that is intent on resurrecting Domaine Jessiaume.  With the quintessential Burgundian tiles adorning their building, Domaine Jessiaume, which dates from the mid-19th century, is one of Santenay’s iconic properties.  Of course, looks aren’t everything, and in years past, I can recall thinking:  If only the wines were as captivating as the building. Well, now they are…thanks to the newly installed Directrice, Megan McClune, and her young French winemaker, William Waterkyn.

Full disclosure:  I’ve known Megan, her husband, Matt, and their children for years, sharing many meals and excellent wines both in Beaune and in the U.S. They are friends.  So on one hand, I might not be entirely objective about her work, but on the other hand, I’m likely the only critic who has tasted Jessiaume’s entire line-up through the transition–from the 2012 vintage, which frankly was torture, to the 2013s (almost as painful) to the excellent 2014s and the truly exciting 2015s–and can attest to the evolution of the Domaine’s wines.

Domaine Jessiaume had remained in the Jessiaume family for four generations, from the mid-19th century until–enter the British component–Sir David Murray, a Scottish businessman and industrialist, purchased the estate in 2007.  Initially, Murray kept on the Jessiaume brothers, allowing them to continue making the wines and running the estate, but then in 2014, he hired McClune to run the show.  Although McClune had no winemaking experience, she knew her way around a winery–and how to run one.  She had been the export manager–and basically the CFO–for Alex Gambal, another American, who, as a grower and négociant based in Beaune, had been making headlines with his Burgundies.

McClune, who clearly had a vision for the domaine, wasted little time in hiring Waterkyn, a Frenchman of Belgian extraction, completing this multi-national team.  She took an enormous risk hiring this young winemaker who had graduated from oenology school only the previous year.  Waterkyn’s previous experience was limited to a six-month stint at A to Z winery in Oregon and then six months as an assistant to Geraldine Godot, Gambal’s talented winemaker.  But McClune, with her sharp eye and intuition, saw a smart, motivated individual who was unencumbered by the all-too-common French dogma of “that’s the way things are done.”  She saw in him someone open to new ideas and feedback and, as she described him, “someone who’s hungry to make his own way.”  With the history of the estate, she realized that there was “a lot of baggage to shake off” after four generations of the same family running the domaine.  She wanted someone who was willing–indeed, really eager–to discuss options and to make “new history.”

One method open to producers seeking to increase quality virtually overnight is to declassify some of the wines.  Including a healthy amount of subprime Volnay Premier Cru in a village Volnay increases the quality of both.  McClune opted not to use that method, but took a more gradual approach, which explains why the wines from 2012 through 2015 have gotten progressively better.  She started a transition to organic viticulture, which will be complete by 2019.  McClune explains, “You don’t make the transfer instantaneously because it shocks the vines.” She noted that the first vintage that will have the Bio label is 2019.  She attributes the movement to organic as one reason Jessiaume’s 2015s were so good.

The other major improvement was in the winery, which was dirty, dark, and clearly neglected.  The first step was a thorough cleaning followed by some simple renovations that made a big difference, such as changing the lighting and replacing the floors.  McClune reasoned that while you need a clean environment, you don’t need–or want–one that is sterile, else the wines will be sterile.  You just need a well-lit, organized, clean cellar.”

McClune’s vision was to focus on the domaine wines and highlight the individuality of the climats, Burgundy’s claim to fame and the reason UNESCO recognized the region as a “Heritage Site.”  She wants Jessiaume’s wines to be fully transparent regarding their origins.  Sure, their Beaune Cents Vignes should express the terroir of that site and taste different from their wines from Santenay.  But, more importantly, McClune emphasizes passionately, that within Santenay, their Comme should be clearly distinguishable from their Gravières and their Clos du Clos Genet.  “These sites within Santenay are all special, even Clos du Clos Genet, which is not a premier cru [unlike the other two].  You need to respect their unique terroir.”

To concentrate of these wines, she immediately jettisoned the négociant business that Jessiaume had started in 2008, which means they are now focusing on 13 wines instead of 30.  “That business made no sense,” explains McClune, her CFO experience speaking.  “Customers were coming to us for our domaine wines.  If they wanted a wine from Morey St. Denis, they would go to a grower there, or a well-known négociant, not us. It [the négociant business] was a distraction.”

McClune still buys a small amount of grapes or wine from growers to fill particular needs.  For example, Jessiaume cannot fill all their customers’ requests for a Bourgogne Chardonnay and Bourgogne Pinot Noir exclusively from their vineyards, so they supplement their production by buying from other growers.  Similarly, in a year like 2015, when yields were down, they made only one-half a barrel of Volnay so McClune purchased a little to fill the barrel.  Combining estate and non-estate fruit is legal and commonplace in Burgundy, as long as the wine is labeled as a négociant, not a domaine, bottling.

The key decision for McClune and her team regarding the 2015s was when to harvest.  They agonized because the weather was perfect.  They felt no pressure to bring the crop in because no rain, which could dilute the grapes or result in rot, was predicted.  They nevertheless pulled the trigger, bringing everyone in a week early.  McClune explained their thinking, “Ripeness wasn’t an issue, but acidity might be.  We wanted to capture the acidity and keep the wines fresh.”  It proved to be an excellent decision, at least in my mind, because Jessiaume’s 2015s are not only gloriously rich, but also bright, lively, and well balanced.  In short, not overdone.

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I tasted Jessiaume’s 2015s in November 2016 during my annual trip to Burgundy.  They were either tank samples (wines that had been racked, the blend completed and were waiting in stainless steel tank to be bottled early in 2017) or representative barrel samples that Waterkyn had prepared.  I avoid scoring barrel samples to guide consumers to a specific wine because the wines are not finished.  However, barrel samples do allow assessment of how a producer has done with a particular vintage.  And Jessiaume hit the bull’s eye in 2015.

Maison Jessiaume’s Bourgogne Pinot Noir is charming, with bright ripeness. It’s what I call a “roast chicken” kind of wine.  The Domaine’s Auxey-Duresses comes from the lower (non-premier cru) part of Les Ecussaux vineyard.  Ripe, clean and juicy, it shows the enjoyment village wines can deliver. Someone knew where to draw the line that separates village from premier cru in this vineyard.  From the upper part of the vineyard, their Domaine Auxey-Duresses Premier Cru Les Ecussaux, is a touch bolder with far more complexity and depth compared to its village counterpart.  Fragrant, delicate, yet paradoxically intense and long, Maison Jessiaume’s Volnay is a pretty wine.  It reinforces the wisdom of searching out village wines from top producers. The Domaine’s Volnay Les Brouillards is more structured than the village Volnay and more disjointed, likely as a result of a greater percentage of whole clusters during fermentation.  It lacks the suave texture of the others at this stage, but judging from all of the others, it will likely turn out just fine.

Domaine Jessiaume excelled with their 2015 reds from Santenay.  They are like no other wines they’ve made and truly exciting to taste so clear is the distinction from one vineyard to another.  Their Clos du Clos Genet, despite being “only” a village wine, is always one of their most captivating.  The 2015 is no exception.  With an uncommon gracefulness, it’s just delicious, even at this stage.  The Santenay La Comme, bigger and brawnier than Clos du Clos Genet befitting its Premier Cru ranking, exhibits the charming rusticity for which Santenay is known. Their Santenay Les Gravières balances juicy ripeness with a delectable earthy woodsy component.

In past years, Domaine Jessiaume’s Beaune Cent Vignes has played second fiddle to their wines from Santenay.  But in 2015, this Beaune Premier Cru shines along with Jessiaume’s other reds.  Ripe and suave, an uplifting acidity amplifies its beauty.

Jessiaume’s 2015 whites, like many other white Burgundies I tasted, were rich and forward, ideal for current consumption.  The 2015 whites in general are excellent for those looking for an introduction to the charms of Burgundy because their splendor is immediately apparent.  They exhibit the ripeness of the 2009s, but with better vibrancy.  Maison Jessiaume’s 2015 Bourgogne Chardonnay would be a marvelous introduction to white Burgundy. Their Domaine Auxey-Duresses Les Ecussaux, similarly forward and ripe, has more complexity and density. The Santenay Les Gravières Blanc is bolder and chunkier with lots of up-front fruitiness but also remarkable acidity.

It is truly gratifying to see another sleeping Burgundy house awaken.

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Email me your thoughts about Domaine Jessiaume or Burgundy in general at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

March 1, 2017

Bordeaux’s 2014s: An Excellent, Well-Priced Vintage

The press regarding the 2014 vintage in Bordeaux, written in the spring of 2015 after the “en premieur” tastings (a week long series of tastings of “representative” barrel samples in Bordeaux) was lukewarm.  The vintage was damned with faint praise (e.g., “It’s the best of the lesser vintages,” or “The best since 2010,” which of course isn’t saying much, given the trio of mediocre vintages, 2011, 2012 and 2013).  Hence, I approached the annual Union des Grands Crus (UGC) tasting in New York City last month with a lack of enthusiasm.  At this tasting, 89 major chateaux pour ed 102 of their 2014s, which, unlike the wines sampled during “en primeur,” were finished wines, bottled and ready for sale, not barrel samples.

What a pleasant surprise!  It turns out that 2104 is, in fact, an excellent vintage in Bordeaux across all three categories:  Reds, dry whites and the sweet wines.  It’s rare for all three categories to succeed in the same year, but they did in 2014.  Thankfully, it’s not a “vintage of the century,” which is usually characterized by ripe–sometimes over ripe–wines with lots of oomph.  Rather, it’s a classically proportioned vintage, showing the elegance and finesse of Bordeaux.  Tannins and acidity provide structure without being aggressive, making the wines approachable.  But do not interpret that to mean that the wines will not develop with bottle age.  Their balance indicates they will.  Importantly, the prices are amazingly good.  One of my favorites of the vintage, Château La Lagune, is widely available on retailers’ shelves for about $40 a bottle.

Olivier Bernard, owner of Domaine de Chevalier, one of the top properties in Pessac-Léognan, and president of the UGC, described it as a “cool vintage,” characterized by a colder than normal summer.  Superb weather in September made the harvest.  A cooler vintage theoretically favors Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines since that grape remains on the vines later than the earlier ripening Merlot.  To my mind, however, the Right Bank Merlot-predominant wines from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol were equally successful this year.

Producers to whom I spoke had a difficult time comparing the 2014 with previous vintages. Frédéric Vicaire from Château Coufran, a top-notch Haut-Médoc estate, described 2014 as “a classic Bordeaux vintage.”  He felt it was similar to 2004, while Bernard thought the wines were similar to those from 2008.  Panos Kakaviatos, an acclaimed wine writer and Bordeaux expert, echoed Bernard’s comparison to 2008.  John Anderson, another writer with great experience tasting Bordeaux, felt the wines were similar to those of 2001, another vintage in which all three categories turned out superbly.

Other producers compared the vintage to the highly rated 2000. Véronique Dausse, Managing Director of Château Phélan Ségur, a superb property in Saint-Estèphe, thought for a while, and then with a smiling Gallic shrug, said that she could not compare it to another vintage. She felt it was a vintage with unique character.  I agree.  To me, the wines are not up to the superb quality of the 2000 vintage, but they are definitely better than those produced either in 2004 or 2008, because they are just a touch fleshier, while still exhibiting an alluring herbal character.  Indeed, the 2014s remind me a bit of the 1978s.  The growing season was similar to that year, a cool summer and a vintage saved by September weather.  If the 2014s turn out like the 1978s everyone, consumers and producers alike, will be very pleased.

One thing the vintage is not–and everyone to whom I spoke agreed on this point–is over ripe.  The wines are beautifully proportioned, not flamboyant or boisterous.  Yes, there are some that are over extracted and overdone, but of the 51 reds I tasted, only one showed a high level of alcohol.

Although others have characterized 2014 as a “Cabernet year,” I found exceptional wines in all of the sub-appellations represented at the UGC tasting, making it difficult to say that one area “did better” than others.  Standouts in Saint-Julien, for example, were Léoville Poyferré ($68, 94 points), Léoville Barton ($71, 94) and Langoa Barton ($46, 92), whose fleshy wines were alluring.  Similarly, Jean-Dominique Videau, winemaker at Brainaire-Ducru ($49, 92), and Matthieu Bordes and his team at Château Lagrange ($38, 92), were equally successful balancing fruitiness, structure and herbal notes.

In Pauillac, Château Pichon Baron ($105, 96) produced a wine with amazing concentration and grace that is, at this stage, one of the top wines of the vintage.  Similarly, Château d’Armailhac ($45, 93) had a wonderfully dense and mineral-y quality enrobed in polished tannins.

The biggest surprise came in Saint-Estèphe where the young wines are often difficult to taste because of their tannic structure.  Château Phélan Ségur, which under Dausse’s management has catapulted into the top ranks, produced a positively gorgeous wine in 2014 (94). Though refined and polished, it retained the attractive gritty earthiness that makes the wines of St. Estèphe so engaging. At $35 a bottle, it is one of the best buys of the vintage.  Similarly, Château Lafon-Rochet’s 2014 (93) conveys the earthy gravely quality of the appellation while exhibiting an uncanny elegance.  Another bargain at about $35 a bottle.

There are a bevy of 2014 reds from Pessac-Léognan to recommend.  Olivier Bernard believes that the wines from Pessac-Léognan should be “feminine, not a powerhouse.”  Their inherent ash-like nuances remind me of Burgundy.  Chateau Haut-Bailly’s 2014 ($80, 93) has marvelous concentration without being flamboyant, still conveying the earthiness of the region.  Bernard’s Domaine de Chevalier 2014 ($58, 94), a majestic wine, while less concentrated that Haut-Bailly, conveys just as much.  It’s flavor without weight, a description I often use for Burgundy.  Château Malartic-Lagravière ($46, 92) is another example of the graceful exoticness that the wines of Pessac-Léognan achieved in 2014.  More muscular, but still not over the top, Château Smith Haut Lafitte ($74, 93) continues their streak of winners in 2014.

The commune of Margaux had a wealth of riches in 2014.  Château Brane-Cantenac ($51, 93), with suave tannins and a dark core, reflects the grandeur these wines can achieve.  Similarly, Château Giscours ($48, 93) hit the bull’s eye with density and energy.  Château Rauzan-Ségla, ($63, 94) fractionally less dense than Brane or Giscours, impresses with its glossy elegance and finesse.  As usual, Château d’Angludet (91) delivers far more than its price (~$35) suggests.

The Haut-Médoc appellation provides bargains in 2014.  Château La Lagune ($40, 93), smooth and delectable, delivers that alluring “not just fruit” character without being flashy.  With remarkable length and elegance, the often under-appreciated Château Cantemerle (92) is a steal at ~$30.  So is Château de Camensac ($25, 92) because of its herbal quality and polished tannins.  Château Coufran ($18, 90), an oddity on the Left Bank because of its high proportion of Merlot, confirms to me that plenty of properties did well with grape.  It combines a leafy earthy component with fine tannins.  It’s a steal.  And just because Coufran is not a “classified growth” (that is, it was not classified as Grand Cru Classé in 1855) do not dismiss its ability to develop with age.  I recently had a bottle of the 1982 Coufran, which I purchased upon release for about $5 (the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $11.50 today).  The wine was wonderfully fresh and complex.

Four examples from Saint-Emilion demonstrate that the Right Bank also succeeded in 2014:  The fleshy and seductive Château Beau-Séjour Bécot ($51, 92), the refined and elegant Château Canon ($74, 93), the gorgeously mineral-y Château Canon-La-Gaffelière ($64, 95) and stylishly balanced seemingly endless Château La Gaffelière ($55, 94).

The toasty and exotic Château Bon Pasteur ($70, 92) and the structured fleshinss of Château Gazin ($59, 94) confirm that wines from Merlot-dominant Pomerol turned out well in 2014.

Bernard emphasizes that the cool vintage explains why the dry whites excelled across the board.  My notes were repetitive with praise–you can practically point and shoot depending on the style you prefer and your wallet. Château Bouscaut ($35, 90) is crisp and refreshing.  Château de Chantegrive ($15, 90) manages a touch of creaminess atop its crispness.  An outstanding buy!  Château Olivier ($35, 93) managed to combine spice, pungency and creaminess.  Both Château Louvière ($28, 91) and Château de Fieuzal ($44, 92) marry creaminess with an attractive bite whereas Château Pape Clément ($135, 93) and Château Smith Haut Lafitte ($95, 94) deliver more power and richness without losing vibrancy.  Domaine de Chevalier ($93, 96), an “OMG” kind of wine, combines everything perfectly as usual.

Aline Baly, whose family owns Château Coutet in Barsac, says it took a lot of patience–and hand wringing–in 2014 because the botrytis necessary to shrivel the grapes and make outstanding sweet wine, hit sporadically.  With a broad grin, she beams, “The anxiety was worth it. It’s a great vintage.”  I concur.  Again, point and shoot.  But don’t miss the energetic Château Coutet ($44, 95), the lush and lively Château Doisy-Daëne ($41, 92) the ripe and nutty Château La Tour Blanche ($39, 92), the apricot-tinged and lively Château Suduiraut ($64, 94) and the luxuriously rich Château Guiraud ($45, 93).  The prices listed are for full (750 ml) bottles, but remember, a half-bottle (375 ml) of these sweet wines easily serves four.

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E-mail me your thoughts about Bordeaux in general and the 2014s in particular at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

February 1, 2017

Merry Edwards Makes Marvelous Pinot Noir

The title of this blog post should come as no surprise to anyone who enjoys Pinot Noir.  Although Edwards was the founding winemaker at Matanzas Creek and put their Sauvignon Blanc on the map, her specialty now is Pinot Noir.  She added an excellent Sauvignon Blanc to her offerings several years ago, and is now off to a flyting start with Chardonnay as well, but superb Pinots remain the calling cards for her eponymous winery.

Edwards makes two regional Pinot Noirs, one from Sonoma Coast and one from Russian River Valley.  In addition she makes up to six vineyard-specific wines and a Reserve bottling.   Though they are all significantly different (these vineyard designations are not mere marketing ploys), three threads of stylistic continuity run through them.

First, they are robust wines reflecting California’s climate.  She is not aiming to make Burgundy–she makes California Pinot Noir.  That said, they do not fall into what I refer to as the “Pinot Syrah” category of over ripe, over extracted wine.  Second, their texture is suave and velvety despite plenty of structure that keeps them lively.  Third, they’re exciting to taste–and drink–because they evolve with time in the glass.  These are wines to savor.

Here are notes on a terrific set of current releases:

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Meredith Estate 2014 ($63): The pick of an exceptional litter at this stage, Merry Edwards’ Meredith Estate Pinot Noir says wow!  It’s a wonderfully complex mixture of dark fruit and savory flavors.  Both glossy and chewy (in a nice way) its contrasts continue to captivate throughout a meal.  It delivers New World opulence without a hint of exaggeration or flamboyance.
 97

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Coopersmith 2014 ($66):  Merry Edwards’ Coopersmith bottling, similar to the Meredith Estate, delivers refined black fruit flavors enrobed in suave tannins.  There’s also an alluring smoky or slightly toasted aspect to it.  It’s long and captivating.  Part of this wine’s excitement is that it is, indeed, different from the Meredith. Open them side-by-side with a group of friends and I suspect you’d get a pretty even split regarding preference. Another tell-tale sign of greatness is how beautifully this wine — and all her others — showed the next day. 
 96

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Olivet Lane 2014 ($68): There are fewer savory elements in Merry Edwards’ Olivet Lane compared to the Coopersmith and Meredith, but the crystalline purity of the red fruit flavors is astounding.  The savory slightly mushroom-y nuances appear with time, with reinforces an important point when drinking (or tasting) her wines.  They develop in front of your eyes over hours so these are wines to savor and think about while you eat.  
95

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Flax Vineyard 2014 ($60): The Flax Vineyard bottling bombards the palette — in a very nice way — with lovely aromatics and juicy dark red fruit.  It speaks directly to you.  Savory elements appear, almost reluctantly, but then persist through a long finish.  Similar to her other Pinot Noirs, the tannins are suave giving the wine a velvety texture. 
94

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir “Cuvée August” 2014 ($98): The grapes for Merry Edwards’ Cuvée August, named after her first grandchild and her most expensive Pinot Noir, come from the top part of the slope of the Meredith Estate.  A dazzling and explosive wine, its concentration almost borders on a “Pinot Syrah” style, but does not cross the line.  It’s just rich and savory and refined all at once.  Despite its power, it’s still closed and tightly wound.  At this stage, the “regular” (I hate to call it that) Meredith Estate is more expressive.  It will be fun to see how they develop over the next five to ten years.
 94

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Georganne 2014 ($63): Merry Edwards’ Georganne bottling has more apparent tannic structure compared to her others from 2014.  It’s more brooding at this stage without the same velvety glossiness.  That said, there is an appealing earthy, savory aspect that grows on you as the wine sits in the glass.  On day two of tasting, it’s still the most structured wine in this lineup, but not in an offensive way.  It just needs a few extra years of cellaring.  This is an excellent young Pinot Noir.  Cellar it while you enjoy some of Merry Edwards’ other bottlings.
  93

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir Klopp Ranch 2014 ($66): Merry Edwards’ Klopp Ranch bottling highlights bright red fruit flavors with less emphasis on the savory component.  A succulent wine, it is balanced and pure with an alluring suppleness.  It strikes a gorgeous mid ground in terms of intensity.  I’m not sure that anyone, even Edwards herself, can explain precisely what it is about the vineyards that results in the different expressions of her wines.  But it’s clear that the wines differ one from the other.  It’s not a marketing technique.  Another unique and riveting Pinot Noir from Merry Edwards!  93

Merry Edwards, Russian River Valley (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2014 ($48): Also reflecting its origins, the Russian River Valley bottling delivers more black fruit-like flavors rather than the red fruit of the Sonoma Coast.  In contrast to the cooler Sonoma Coast bottling, this one is fleshier with a hint of savory notes. The fine-grained tannins contribute to its supple texture.
  92

Merry Edwards, Sonoma Coast (Sonoma County, California) Pinot Noir 2014 ($45): Merry Edwards is one of America’s top Pinot Noir producers.  It’s always a joy to taste her new releases side by side because it’s clear that her vineyard or appellation designation is legitimate and not a marketing gimmick.  For example, this Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, from a cooler area, reflects those growing conditions with more angularity and firmer lighter red fruit-like flavors.  It’s precisely the kind of Pinot Noir you’d expect coming from that part of California.
  90

Published on January 25, 2017

Decanter Magazine – Understanding Alcohol Units

Joyce Jones, Birmingham, asks: Is an alcohol unit the same in the UK as it is in the US or Europe, and what is the difference between a unit of wine and a unit of spirits? Am I better off having a shot of vodka, for example, than a glass of wine?

Michael Apstein MD replies:

The British government introduced the concept of a ‘unit of alcohol’ in 1987 as a way for individuals to measure the amount they consume because wine, spirits and beer vary in the amount of alcohol they contain.

UK

One unit of alcohol equals 10ml

  • 175ml of wine at 12% ABV – 2.1 units
  • 175ml of wine at 15% ABV – 2.6 units
  • 250ml of wine at 12% ABV – 3 units
  • 250ml of wine at 15% ABV – 3.75 units
  • 25ml shot of 40% ABV Vodka – 1 unit
  • Pint (568ml) of 4.8% ABV lager – 2.7 units

A 250ml glass of 13% white wine has more alcohol units than three 25ml vodka shots


One unit of alcohol equals 10ml, or 8g, of pure alcohol whether it comes from wine, spirits or beer.

It’s a way of standardizing the playing field because a ‘glass of wine’ or ‘a shot’ is an imprecise measurement.

For example, a standard glass (175ml) of Chablis (12% alcohol by volume) contains about two units (175ml x 0.12 = 21ml of pure alcohol or 2.1 units), whereas a bigger glass (250ml) – but still ‘a glass’ – of 15% abv Australian Shiraz contains almost twice as much (3.75 units).

Similarly for spirits, it depends on the size of the shot. In England and Wales, one shot is 25ml, whereas, in Scotland and Northern Ireland a standard shot is 35ml. Hence, a shot of vodka (40%abv) in London has one unit of alcohol, but in Edinburgh it has almost 1.5.

So if by ‘better off’, you mean what is potentially less harmful between a glass of wine or a shot of vodka, then it depends on the size of the glass or shot, what you mix the vodka with, over what period of time you drink them, whether you eat or not, and, of course, your overall health.

UK government guidance on drinking introduced in January 2016 said that no one should exceed 14 units per week.

USA

The USA have health guidelines in based on the Standard Drink measure which can be used to benchmark alcoholic drinks in the same way as the UK. In the US, the measurement changes with one unit of alcohol being 14g of pure alcohol or 5 fl. oz. It is used as a guideline for how many drinks a day you can consume, as well as for other alcohol related health measures.

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

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A Champagne Article After the Holidays? What is He Thinking?

To some it will seem odd to read a column about Champagne after New Year’s and the holiday season.  (My editor will say it’s because I’ve missed yet another deadline.)  After all, the vast bulk of Champagne and sparkling wines are purchased and consumed between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  Bob Harkey of Harkey’s Fine Wines, a top fine-wine shop in suburban Boston, notes that over 80 percent of his sales of fizz occur during that period of time.  Other retailers from around the country echo that statistic.

Non-holiday consumption is usually reserved for special occasions.  In restaurants, sommeliers report that two-thirds of bubbly sales are because of celebrations, according to a Guild of Sommeliers 2014 survey.  By comparison, only a trivial amount of Champagne is consumed at other times.

And that’s a shame!

First and foremost, what my friend Paul Wagner (one of the country’s top wine marketing experts) once said about Prosecco, “It’s a party in a bottle,” is true about Champagne or any sparkling wine.  Nothing enlivens an upscale dinner party, or even a simple pizza, as well as the pop of a Champagne cork.  Nothing says “welcome” to friends who stop over unexpectedly as that distinctive sound.  My advice: always–always–keep a bottle of bubbly in the refrigerator.

Second, what is most underrated about Champagne is its versatility with food. When you can’t immediately answer the question of what wine to serve with what food, open Champagne. You’ll be surprised how it enhances a meal. It goes perfectly with a remarkably wide range of dishes, from sushi or other crudo to a meaty steak.  The bubbles and acidity refresh and invigorate the palate.  I’ve consumed Champagne with pleasure throughout meals featuring everything from the trendy (and I hope soon to disappear) small plates presentation to tasting menus featuring so-called “fusion” cuisine to more traditional three-course meals.

Thirdly, for the quality and enjoyment it delivers, Champagne or sparkling wine is not expensive.  Sure, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne have three-digit price tags, but many superb non-vintage Champagnes can be found for $40 or less, and many superb sparkling wines weigh in at under $20 a bottle.  With white Burgundy and many California Chardonnays ringing up at twice the price, Champagne’s sticker does not shock.

A common misconception is that Champagne and sparkling wines go flat immediately after being opened.  Not true, especially if you use a simple Champagne stopper, which will keep the bubbles intact for at least a few days.

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Champagne, like all top French wine, takes its name from a place, in this case the eponymous region about 100 miles east of Paris.  By law Champagne must be made from two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, alone or in combination, that were grown in the region.  (A few other varieties are allowed, but rarely used.)  If made entirely from Chardonnay, the Champagne will be labeled, Blanc de Blancs.  If made entirely from the red grapes, it will be labeled Blanc de Noirs and be clear, not rosé, since the juice of these grape is clear.  Rosé Champagne comes from pressing red grapes gently to extract a hint of color, or by blending in a bit of still red wine.

Again, by law, the secondary fermentation, which creates the bubbles, must be performed in the bottle, not in a tank under pressure, as is the tradition for Prosecco, for example.  None of the other sparkling wines from Europe (Franciacorta from Italy, Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant from other parts of France, Sekt from Germany, fizz from anywhere in the European Union, for example) can be labeled Champagne even if made by the same method.  Since we in the U.S. do not subscribe to European regulations, California sparkling wines can still be labeled “Champagne,” though those produced by Schramsberg, California’s top producer, and the subsidiaries of French Champagne firms opt not to use the term.

Producers consider their non-vintage Champagne, despite being the least expensive of the line, to be their flagship because it reflects the house style consistently, year to year.   To make non-vintage Champagne, the winemaker blends still wine from the current vintage with still wines from previous vintages (reserve wines), which have been saved in hermetically sealed tanks, to achieve the house style.  The blended still wine is put into the Champagne bottle along with a little sugar and more yeast, and the bottled is capped.  The yeasts convert all the added sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide (the secondary fermentation).

Unlike the primary fermentation, this time the carbon dioxide becomes trapped because the bottle has been capped–hence the bubbles. The resulting Champagne rests on the yeast for months, or occasionally years, before the dead yeasts are removed, a process known as dégorgement (disgorging). To disgorge a bottle, it’s turned upside down so the yeasts collect in the neck of the bottle, under the cork.  The neck of the bottle is then frozen, entrapping the yeasts in a plug of Champagne.  The bottle is rapidly turned upright, uncorked–the plug shoots out because it is under pressure–and the bottle “topped up” with wine and a touch of sugar, known as the dosage, depending on whether the Champagne is Brut (the driest), Extra Dry or Doux (the sweetest). Some producers bottle a Champagne labeled Zero Dosage, Brut Zero or Natur, by adding no sugar at this stage.  These Champagnes are not for everyone.  Many consumers, myself included, find these types of Champagne to be very cutting, bordering on aggressive.

When the climate produces particularly noteworthy grapes, producers use only those grapes (and no reserve wine) to produce a vintage Champagne.  Though the vintage Champagne continues to reflect the style of the house (Bollinger’s will still be big and bold, whereas Moët’s will be more delicate) it also transmits the character of the vintage.  Ed McCarthy, author of “Champagne for Dummies” and one of America’s top Champagne experts, considers 2008 (which is just coming onto the retail market), 2002, 1996 and 1985 as exceptional years in Champagne.  Like other great wines, vintage Champagne develops beautifully in the bottle with age, as exemplified by the 1996 Pol Roger I enjoyed with a dinner recently.

What about those Champagnes with three-digit price tags?  Most houses produce a Super Premium Champagne referred to as a Cuvée de Prestige or Tête de Cuvée.  In addition to the aforementioned Dom Pérignon and Comtes de Champagne, Louis Roederer produces “Cristal,” Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin makes “La Grande Dame,” and Pol Roger crafts “Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.”  These wines are made only in “vintage years,” and only from the very best grapes (most, if not all, of which will have come from the company’s own vineyards).  Though these Tête de Cuvée Champagnes vary in style (Cristal is bolder whereas Dom Pérignon lighter), all are exceptional wines that benefit from prolonged bottle aging–the 1990 Comtes de Champagne is simply gorgeous, robust yet elegant, even now.

Though the so-called “grower” Champagnes have been around for decades, their popularity has soared recently as consumers seek “artisanal” production in all aspects of food and wine.  In contrast to the big name producers who buy a significant amount of grapes to make their Champagne, these growers produce Champagne solely from their own vineyards.  The big houses blend wines from many areas to achieve consistency of style.  In contrast, grower Champagnes reflect the specific area in which the grapes are grown, much like in Burgundy, because far less blending is involved.

Consumers often ask whether grower Champagnes are “better” than the ones produced by the big houses.  I don’t think you can generalize.  Grower Champagne will be less uniform–which is either a good or bad thing depending on your perspective.  They are certainly a welcome addition because they add another dimension to the category.

For 2017, put bubbles in you life.  First, buy a Champagne stopper.  If you still subscribe to the notion that you need “an event” to drink Champagne, celebrate Wednesday (or Thursday).  Try Champagne from a producer you’ve never heard of, perhaps André Jacquart ($55).  Or try Pierre Sparr’s Crémant d’Alsace Rosé ($20) or maybe Simonnet-Febrve’s Crémant de Bourgogne ($20).  Buy a bottle of Ca’ de Bosco’s Franciacorta ($35) or Ferrari’s Brut from Trentino ($23). Or why not Roederer Estate’s Anderson Valley Brut ($25)?

For more in-depth knowledge about Champagne, pick up a copy of Ed McCarthy’s “Champagne for Dummies.”  (Full disclosure, he’s a friend and a colleague here at WRO, but I assure you the book is not just for dummies.)

Nor is Champagne just for the holidays anymore.  And if you still can’t get your arms around that concept–then make every day a holiday!

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Email me your thoughts about Champagne and sparkling wines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

January 4, 2017

Is It Terroir or National Origin? Burgundy in Oregon

What’s more important in determining wine quality—terroir, or the nationality of the winemaker?  Almost everyone agrees on the importance of terroir, the idea (best exemplified in Burgundy) that where the grapes grow is critical in determining the character of a wine.  Equally important in the estimation of many wine experts is the role of the winemaker or producer.  But what is driving the winemaker–conscious decisions or some subconscious force, such as national origin?

The Burgundians’ foray into Oregon offers a chance to explore this question.

As Véronique Drouhin tells it, her father, Robert, then the head of the leading Burgundy négociant, Maison Joseph Drouhin, decided to buy land in Oregon in 1987 after visiting and seeing its potential for making distinctive wines.  Drouhin was in the front rank of what would turn out to be a mini-French invasion, when the family purchased land, planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Willamette Valley, and established Domaine Drouhin Oregon.

Other Burgundy producers have followed either by buying directly or collaborating with Americans.  Another star Beaune-based Burgundy négociant, Maison Louis Jadot, purchased Resonance Vineyard (and subtly renamed it by adding an accent: Résonance) in August 2013. Jean-Nicolas Méo, head of Domaine Méo-Camuzet, a top-notch estate in Vosne-Romanée, and music mogul Jay Boberg have just released the first vintage of their joint Willamette Valley-based Pinot Noir project called Nicolas Jay.  Dominque Lafon, who specializes in white wines as head of the Meursault-based Domaine Comtes Lafon, is working with Larry Stone at Lingua Franca, Stone’s new winery.  As has often been the case in Burgundy with winemakers, musical chairs has been played in Oregon with filmmaker Mark Tarlov collaborating first with Dominque Lafon at Evening Land in 2006 and then in 2012, with Louis-Michel Liger-Belair at Chapter 24 Vineyards. (The name derives from the last chapter of Homer’s Odyssey.)

The Burgundians clearly believe the projects are working out, as Drouhin is now releasing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from its recently purchased property in Eola Amity, an AVA distinct from their home base in Dundee.  Jadot, though a newcomer to Oregon, has already purchased additional land intending to focus on specific bottlings that highlight Oregon’s diverse terroir.

(In an example of turn-about being fair play, Grace and Ken Evenstad, owners of Oregon’s Domaine Serene, purchased Château de la Crée in Santenay and its 25 acres of vineyards in 2015.  Château de la Crée’s current winemaker Aline Beauné–is there a more fitting name?–will work with Erik Kramer, the winemaker at Domaine Serene.)

Before turning to the tasting that was conducted to answer the question at the head of this column, it is worth noting that conscious or unconscious winemaking decisions may not be the only explanation for stylistic differences.  The logistics of who’s managing the project may be even more important.  Pierre-Henry Gagey, President of Maison Louis Jadot, explained to me that he felt that part of Drouhin’s success in Oregon has been the presence of a family member, Véronique, to oversee the project.  A fundamental problem for Burgundians in Oregon is that the harvest usually occurs at the same time as in France, and even the most talented winemaker can’t be in both places at the same time to supervise the harvest.  Jean-Nicholas Méo told me that he was lucky this year that the harvests did not coincide, so he could, in fact, oversee both.  That timing is rare, which is why having family members in both places is an enormous asset, according to Gagey, and helps explain why Jadot expanded to Oregon when it did.  Jacques Lardière, their talented winemaker of 42 years, had just “retired,” and Thibault Gagey, Pierre-Henry’s son, was available to work with Jacques in Oregon.

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In an attempt to answer the question whether the nationality of the producer influences the wine, I organized a blind tasting of 2014 Oregon Pinot Noir divided into three categories: 1) those made by Burgundians themselves (6 wines made by Drouhin or Jadot), 2) one made by a Burgundian collaborating with an American (Nicolas Jay) and, with the help of the Oregon Wine Board, 3) 20 wines made by five Oregon producers without any overt foreign input.  Just for fun, I included five wines made by Thomas Bachelder, who makes Pinot Noir in Oregon, Canada’s Niagara Peninsula and in Burgundy.  All of the wines included in the tasting are listed at the end of this column, organized by producer, although we tasted them in random order.

I was joined in the tasting by three other tasters all of whom have extensive experience with either Burgundy or Oregon Pinot Noir: Fred Ek, an importer who was responsible for introducing Comtes Lafon wines, among others, to the U.S. market, Tom Schmeisser, the former wine buyer for Marty’s Liquors, a major Boston retailer, and Lloyd Foster, who worked at Grapevine Imports and was largely responsible for bringing Oregon wines to the New England market.

The tasting had the potential to answer the question whether there is an inherent difference among the wines as a group depending on their ownership and winemaking (French, French/American, or American).  Is it winemaking philosophy that determines style or does the Oregon terroir trump everything?

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We all agreed that the most striking result was the overall high quality of the wines.  All had identifiable Pinot Noir character and were easy to recommend. None of these Pinot Noirs fell into the all-too-common trap of over extraction and over ripeness that resulted in what I refer to as the “Pinot-Syrah” category.

Not surprising, none of us were completely correct in identifying which wines fell into which category.  Although we identified the riper ones with more apparent oak as falling into the “Oregon without overt foreign input” category, we misidentified a surprising number in that category that had a lighter, more savory profile, thinking that the Burgundians had made the wines.  Schmeisser wondered whether the overlap could be explained by Oregon winemakers who had studied in France adopting a philosophy to make more delicate wines.  And of course, many Pinot Noir producers often, consciously or subconsciously, try to imitate Burgundy, at least initially.

The wines from Domaine Drouhin Oregon were delightfully lacey, with the ones from Eola-Amity showing more ripeness than the ones from Dundee, which had more savory notes.  Their special cuvées, Zéphirine from Eola-Amity and Laurène, from their Dundee vineyards, had more complexity and intensity, without being heavy.

Jadot’s Résonance from Yamhill-Carlton, their top wine (and the only 2013 included) was more robust, but still nicely balanced, compared to Drouhin’s, similar to the stylistic difference these houses exhibit in Burgundy.

Nicholas-Jay Pinot Noir was riper still, but nowhere near the “Pinot-Syrah” category.

The six Pinot Noirs from Division taught us a fascinating lesson in the diversity of Oregon’s terroir:  The Willamette bottling was delicate and fruity; the one from Dundee, delicate, but more savory; the two from Eola-Amity were bigger and riper, almost chewy; the ones from Ribbon Ridge and Red Hills had stony, tarry notes. All were nicely balanced and none were overdone.

The beautifully balanced wines from Lange did not break down strictly according to AVA with some bottlings from Willamette (Willamette and Three Hills Cuvée) being fruitier, while others (Lange Estate, and Freedom Hill Vineyard) showing a bolder, more complex interplay of ripe dark fruit and savory notes.

Lemelson’s wines were distinctive, but also reinforced the complexity of rigidly associating a style with an AVA.  Their two from Willamette, Thea’s Select and Jerome Reserve, had a darker profile compared to theirs from Stermer Vineyard (Yamhill-Carlton), Meyer Vineyard (Dundee Hills) and Chestnut Hills Vineyard (Chehalem Mountains).

It’s not surprising that that all wines from an AVA do not adhere to a similar style. Lloyd Foster pointed out that within most Oregon AVAs, there are two fundamental areas–a valley floor, formerly a seabed, versus a hillside–which are likely to produce very different kinds of wines.  Certainly in Burgundy there’s a wide range of wines from Volnay, for example, depending on the location of the vineyard. Similarly in Oregon, location within an AVA, in addition to things like the age of the vines and the producer’s hand will all influence the style of the wine.

Benton Lane’s focus seemed to be on sweet ripe fruit with a hint of that in the finish.

A toasty accent to Gran Moraine’s Pinot Noir added to the intriguing interplay of sweet and savory notes.

Bachelder’s wines were fascinating because they all conveyed a similar style–a delicate blend of fruity and savory flavors–regardless of origin.

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The bottom line:  A “national style,” as reflected by ownership, did not clearly stand out in this tasting.  The results may have been different if we had compared wines from other Oregon producers.  Or perhaps many Oregon producers are eschewing over ripeness and over extraction, instead focusing on the ability of Pinot Noir to deliver, what I call, “flavor without weight.”  Nevertheless, Laurent Drouhin, with far more experience than I on the subject, is concerned that many producers are moving in a wrong direction, toward overly muscular wines, at least from his tastings of recent vintages.  He believes that Oregon must be at the forefront in crafting elegant Pinot Noirs, not over-extracted ones.  He thinks that there are plenty of other sites in the world for that kind of Pinot Noir, but he believes that Oregon, like Burgundy is unique for allowing the elegance and delicacy of Pinot Noir to come out.

What definitely stood out in this tasting was the overall high quality of the wines.  And that’s good news for Pinot Noir lovers everywhere.

Résonance (Louis Jadot), Willamette, 2014
Résonance, Résonance Vineyard (Louis Jadot), Yamhill-Carlton, 2013
Lemelson Vineyards, Stermer Vineyard, Yamhill-Carlton, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Meyer Vineyard, Dundee Hills, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Chestnut Hills Vineyard, Chehalem Mountains, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Jerome Reserve, Willamette, 2014
Lemelson Vineyards, Thea’s Select, Willamette, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Roserock, Zéphirine, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Roserock, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Dundee Hills, 2014
Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Laurène, Dundee Hills, 2014
Nicolas Jay, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Reserve, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Freedom Hill Vineyard, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Three Hills Cuvée, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Lange Estate Vineyard, Willamette, 2014
Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards, Yamhill-Carlton Assemblage, Yamhill-Carlton, 2014
Division, “Un,” Willamette, 2014
Division, “Deux,” Vista Hills Vineyard, Dundee Hills, 2014
Division, “Trois,” Temperance Hill Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Division, “Quatre,” Bjornson Vineyard, Eola-Amity Hills, 2014
Division, “Cinq,” Armstrong Vineyard, Ribbon Ridge, 2014
Division, “Six,” Red Hills Vineyard, Red Hills Douglas County, 2014
Benton Lane, Willamette, 2014
Benton Lane, “First Class,” Willamette, 2014
Bachelder, Nuits-St.-Georges “La Petite Charmotte,” 2011
Bachelder, Johan Vineyard, Willamette, 2014
Bachelder, Wismer Parke Vineyard, Twenty Mile Bench, VQA, 2014
Bachelder, Lowrey Vineyards, St. David’s Bench, VQA, 2014
Bachelder, Willamette, 2014
Gran Moraine, Yamhill-Carlton, 2014

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December 7, 2016

Please email me your thoughts about Oregon Pinot Noir at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

A Game-Changing Development in Beaujolais

Everyone knows THE grape in Beaujolais is Gamay.  Ok, a little Chardonnay, which finds its way into Beaujolais Blanc or even Bourgogne Blanc, is planted in the region as well.  But now, a game-changer could transform and revitalize the region–a major Burgundian producer has started planting and making wine from Pinot Noir in Beaujolais.  And the first vintage of it is very appealing.

Maison Louis Latour, one of Burgundy’s top producers, took the plunge in 2012 and planted about 45 acres of Pinot Noir in southern Beaujolais, in an area known as the Pierres Dorées because of the golden color of the limestone rocks there.  Emeric Teyssou, who oversees the viticulture for Latour, notes that the soil in the Pierres Dorées is different from the remainder of Beaujolais where volcanic granite prevails.  Here, it’s more a marl limestone mixture similar to that found in the Côte d’Or.  It is abundantly clear that in prehistoric times the land in this area was under a vast sea because everywhere you look there are shell-like fossils in the stones.

There was one small, less than 2-acre parcel, that had been planted with Pinot Noir in the 1970s, which Latour kept, but the remaining parcels were replanted in a Burgundian fashion, more suitable for Pinot Noir than Gamay.  Most importantly, the new vines were trained on wires instead of the traditional gobelet system used for Gamay.

Immediately after harvest, the Pinot Noir grapes are kept cold and delivered by truck to the Latour winery in Beaune, a trip that takes only about one and a quarter hours.  Vinification is similar to Latour’s other red Burgundies.  Latour made only a few thousand bottles of the 2015, not enough to be imported into the U.S.  Although exact quantities of the 2016 have not been determined because the wine is still aging, Latour estimates they will produce about 30,000 bottles, which means that some will come to our shores.

The wine is bottled under a relatively new appellation, Côteaux Bourguignons, which allows any blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, along with some other minor grapes, grown throughout Burgundy, including Beaujolais.  (Côteaux Bourguignons will replace the terrible sounding appellation, Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire, and Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, which currently allows the blending the Pinot Noir and Gamay.)

The 2015 Maison Louis Latour Pinot Noir “Les Pierres Dorées” is a smashing success, delivering juicy fruity notes buttressed by round mild tannins and a hint of savory, earthy notes.  It’s a perfect “roast chicken” kind of wine.  I can’t wait for the 2016 version to hit our shores….

 

November 27, 2016

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Umbria: Italy’s Forgotten Region (Until Now)

Ask consumers to name their favorite Italian wine regions and you’re sure to hear Tuscany and Piedmont.  Italian white wine enthusiasts no doubt would add Friuli and Trentino to the list.  And Campania would certainly be on most people’s short list.  Umbria?  Not really.  Most people, even wine aficionados, can’t even locate the region on a map.  (It’s the landlocked region between Lazio in the south and Tuscany to its north.)  Though significant earthquakes have rattled Umbria recently, even the Italian media refers to it as,“Central Italy.”

There were good reasons, until now, for Umbria’s wine obscurity.  For one, it has lacked a “signature” wine.  Tuscany has several, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Piedmont has Barolo and Barbaresco.  Sure, Umbria has a DOCG, Sagrantino di Montefalco, but this tannic red needs decades to come around and has never gained a widespread following.  Umbria has also lacked, until now, a “locomotive,” a producer whose wines capture the wine world’s attention. Again, turning to Tuscany, we find Antinori and Frescobaldi.  In Piedmont, Gaja’s name stands out.

After tasting a wide range of wines from Castello delle Regine it’s clear to me that Umbria now has both a signature wine–maybe more than one–and a locomotive.

*       *       *

Paolo Nodari, a prominent Milanese lawyer who loves horses, was searching with his wife, Livia Colantonio, for a country retreat where he could ride and hunt.  It turns out that the area of southern Umbria just across the border from Lazio was well known for hunting and riding, so they looked for property there.  They found a decrepit hilltop castle dating from the 15th century.  Only two families had owned the property prior to the Nodari/Colantonio purchase in the mid 1990s.  It had remained in the original family until about 1900, when the family from whom Paolo and Livio purchased it, acquired it.  They in turn kept it until abandoning it shortly after World War II.  From photographs, it looked as though it had been bombed years ago with crumbling walls taken over by vegetation.  (A true “fixer-upper.”  Colantonio says, “Now that I know how much work, and time and money this place takes, I understand why they abandoned it.”)

Along with the castle came about 35 acres of vineyards planted to old clones of Sangiovese and Merlot, whose vines were roughly 50 to 55 years old, though records showed they had both been planted on the property for at least 250 years.  The new owners called on their friend, Franco Bernabei, one of Italy’s most respected wine consultants, for advice as soon as they discovered the old vines.  They had always liked Bernabei’s classic style of wines as opposed to the more modern or international style that had become so popular.  Colantonio recounts that Bernabei was skeptical about consulting because, after all, it was Umbria, but consented because they were friends.  Bernabei’s eyes lit up, according to her, when he saw the old vines.  He remarked to her that it was no surprise that the Merlot had done so well in this locale because the soil, clay and sand, was similar to that in Pomerol.  He was equally intrigued by the Sangiovese and, after tasting the wines, I see why.

From the winery, it’s easy to see the property’s historically strategic importance, overlooking both the Valle delle Regine (Valley of the Queens), named for the noble families who passed through it on their way to Rome, and the Tevere River (aka Tiber) as it flowed to Rome and the coast.  The winery itself, like the wines, is understated and functional–not an architectural trophy to an owner’s ego. Indeed, it is covered with vines, which makes it blend into the surrounding countryside when viewed from the valley.  In keeping the sustainability of the entire property–everything they use comes from their 1,000 acres–Colantonio points out that the vegetation covering the walls keeps the winery cool, reducing energy requirements.  Clean and functional, the stainless steel fermenting tanks vary in size to accommodate grapes from individual plots in the vineyards.  This precise parcelization allows them to fine-tune viticultural and winemaking practices depending on the particular parcel and variety.

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Across the board, the wines from Castello delle Regine are simply stunning.  They produce three distinct dry Sangiovese-based wines, all of which I heartily recommend, based on the age of the vines.  From 18 to 20 year old vines, which Colantonio categorizes as “very young,” Castello delle Regine produces Poggio delle Regine from a blend of Sangiovese (85%) filled out with Merlot and Syrah.  The 2014, fresh, fruity and juicy, still shows its character with the barest hint of balancing bitterness in the finish.   At about $12 a bottle, it is the perfect “pizza wine” (88 points).

A step up in complexity, and a similarly excellent value, is Castello delle Regine’s 2013 Rosso di Podernovo.  A blend of Sangiovese (85%) from 25-30 year old vines with Montepulciano and Merlot, it conveys an alluring “not just fruit” character balanced by freshness.  It has extraordinary complexity for its $15 bargain price.  Showing its stature, it finishes with a touch of bitterness, perfect to accompany a robust pasta dish, not the sweetness of a fruit bomb.  As with all of Castello delle Regine’s wines, it over delivers for the price.  It goes into the “buy it by the case” category (91points).

Castello delle Regine’s top wine, to my mind, is their show-stopping Selezione del Fondatore ($45), made exclusively from 50 to 55-year old Sangiovese vines.  To be fair, others, with some justification, would put Castello delle Regine’s Merlot ($45) at the top of the heap.  I can also understand why some might even tag Princeps ($24) despite the lower price of their Cabernet Sauvignon blend, as the Castello’s flagship. But more about those wines and the Castello’s whites in another column.

A vertical tasting of Selezione del Fondatore from 2004 to their current U.S. release of 2007–yes, you read that correctly–their current release is a nine year old wine–demonstrated the wine’s grandeur.  (Colantonio insists that it is the winery’s responsibility to release the wine when it is ready to drink and not the customer’s responsibility to age it since the winery has ideal conditions for aging.)  All of the vintages had a captivating dark minerality and an appealing earthiness buttressed by juicy acidity and balanced by an appealing hint of bitterness in the finish.  They were exciting wines to taste–the kind that make you say, “Wow.”  Not cookie-cutter wines, they all clearly reflected their respective vintages.

The expected (from the vintage) tannic structure apparent in the 2004 Selezione (94 points) melted away hours later when served with dinner, indicating it still needed more bottle age before coming into its own.  The 2005 (95 points), on the other hand, from a less prestigious vintage, showed a perfect harmony of maturity and fruitiness.  It reminded me, once again, how important it is to judge the wine, not the vintage.  The 2006 Selezione (96 points), despite more fleshiness, tasted more than a year younger than the 2005, reflecting the glory of that vintage.  Its balance and how it unfolded over the next several hours indicated that it will be a spectacular wine in a few more years.  The 2007 (97 points), is a captivating young wine.  Fleshier still, it is paradoxically tightly wound and explosive with layers of flavors and extraordinary length. (Though I’m forced for put a number on to express my opinion, my notes indicate WB, for “would buy.”)

Keep your eye on Umbria and this locomotive.

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[Castello delle Regine wines are imported by Golden Ram Imports/Bluest Sky Group]

E-mail me your thoughts about Umbria in general or Castello delle Regine in specific at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

November 9, 2016

Sicily: Diverse Land, Diverse Wines

The wine culture of Sicily–a little bit of everything–mirrors that island’s unique character.  Over the centuries, Sicily has been invaded and colonized by the Greeks, the Arabs, the Spanish, and the French, to name just a few.  These diverse cultures have all have left their unique marks on the island–Catholic churches built by Arab workers look like mosques from the outside.  Monuments to Spanish kings dot the streets of Palermo.

Much like the invaders, Sicilian wines are diverse and have arrived on our shores in waves.  Etna Rosso, wines made chiefly from a blend Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio planted on the slopes of Etna, transmit the flavors of that volcanic terroir with extraordinary elegance.  They’re often referred to as Sicily’s Burgundy because of their finesse.  Ten years ago, those wines were rarely seen in the U.S.  Now, it’s hard to find a wine list in an Italian restaurant without at least one.  (Those unfamiliar with the category should try one–technically not DOC Etna Rosso, but rather DOC Sicilia–from Tascante, an outpost of the well-regarded Regaleali producer.)  Carricante, a white grape grown around Etna, is poised to be the next “hot” wine from Sicily.

Wineries such as Planeta have shown the heights that can be achieved with Nero d’Avola, Sicily’s most important indigenous red grape, which they bottle under the proprietary name, Santa Cecilia.  Planeta also makes a sensational white wine from Fiano, a grape native to Campania, but which Sicilians consider “foreign” because it comes from the mainland.

None of the examples I’ve cited above are inexpensive.  Tascante will set you back at least $40, Planeta’s Santa Cecilia, or their Fiano, labeled Cometa, $35.

What receives less attention, but is equally or even more remarkable, is the slew of high-quality wines at stunningly attractive prices that come from Sicily.  Similar to the upper end wines, these bargain wines have appeared in the last few decades.  In the past, Sicily was focused on quantity, not quality, producing concentrated must to be exported–what the French dubbed “vin de medicin,” because it helped to “cure” the anemic wines often produced in more northern climes.  The locally produced finished wines weren’t any better.  Thirty years ago, visiting a local cooperative during my first trip to Sicily, I found their wines, though inexpensive, oxidized and undrinkable though the locals seemed to enjoy that style. That philosophy changed with another wave of invaders:  Foreign investment–for Sicilians that can mean money from the Trentino as well as Australia.  Today, tasting the bargain-priced range from Stemmari is illuminating and makes you want to back up the car and to buy them by the case.

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Stemmari is the product of a vision and the money to execute it.

Let’s start with the money.  Enter Trentino-based Mezzacorona, the world’s largest producer of Pinot Grigio, as measured by value, according to chief winemaker, Lucio Matricardi.  In the late 1990s, they established Stemmari by purchasing two estates, comprising a total of about 1,600 acres, one near Sambuca in Sicilia, near the coast about an hour south of Palermo, and one in the southeast, near Ragusa.  Mezzacorona is accustomed to managing vast vineyards, including more than 6,000 acres in Trentino.  They ripped out the existing vineyards, which had been planted in the traditional high yielding pergola style, and basically started from scratch with replanting, employing the more modern–and low-yielding–Guyot system.

Matricardi explains that Sicily is not one uniform vineyard, but rather a vast “continent of vineyards” with different climatic conditions, soils, and elevations.  Matricardi emphasizes that Stemmari plants grape varieties where, by their analysis, they will do best.  Sambuca is a good area for reds, while their other estate is better suited for whites, he explains.  Although they have international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, Matricardi says they want to be “the ambassador for Sicily” and are focusing on Nero d’Avola and Grillo, two of the island’s autochthonous varieties.  He believes the local varieties are the “face of Sicily.”  In Sambuca, they’ve built a state-of-the-art gravity flow winery.  In total they’ve invested a staggering $150 millions dollars betting on their vision, according to a representative of the winery.

Stemmari’s vision is to satisfy the average consumer by making inexpensive, but solid, wines that over-deliver.  Matricardi unabashedly proclaims that the philosophy of Mezzocorona is, “Two wallets–the consumer’s and the producer’s.” I don’t know about the producer’s wallet, but I do know that Stemmari’s wines will please customers’ wallets because they do, indeed, over-deliver for their price.  They are not the “knock your socks off” or “compelling” wines that grab the critics’ attention.  But Stemmari is not interested in producing those kind of high-end or cult wines.  Indeed, their most expensive wines from Sicily sell for $14.  Their aim is to produce stunning $10-a-bottle wines.  (Frequently, the wines retail for less.  A quick check of wine-searcher.com shows that Stemmari Grillo and Nero d’Avola average about $7.)

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Stemmari’s approach with Grillo exemplifies their vision.  Matricardi calls Grillo a, “White grape in a red dress,” because of its thick tannin-containing skin and its propensity to make a big wine.  He explains, “We need to tame the generosity of Sicily” and make a more delicate Grillo.  Formerly, the grape was used primarily for making Marsala because the fortification process made it drinkable.  Matricardi stresses that it is important to know what style of wine you want to make. He continues, “In this (Sicilian) climate, you can do what you want.”  Grillo can make wine that’s either delicate or powerful–and anything in between–depending on viticultural practices.  Based on Mezzocaronna’s vast experience with the Pinot Grigio market, Matricardi believes customers are moving toward lighter foods and wines in general.  He even notes that Starbucks has introduced a lighter blend of coffee.  Hence, Stemmari has adjusted viticultural practices–variety-specific planting and harvesting earlier–techniques that help produce a lighter, less powerful Grillo.  They aim for a lemony, white peachy character to their Grillo, not a big ripe style of wine.

Matricardi refers to Nero d’Avola as a chameleon because it produces a vastly different wine depending on where planted.  He notes that the grape originated in the southeastern part of Sicily, but now is planted all over the island, producing many different styles of wine from light and fruity to more dense and concentrated depending mostly on the soil. Though Stemmari prefers making lighter, more delicate and less alcoholic Nero d’Avola, they are experimenting with an appassimento process–drying grapes before fermentation–with that grape in an attempt to add depth with heaviness.  Early trials are very promising.

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Stemmari, Nero d’Avola, 2014 (90, $10): Stemmari’s Nero d’Avola delivers savory nuances of herbs and olives, which make a lovely counterpoint to the bright red fruit elements.  What makes it especially attractive is the price. Mid-weight and balanced, with mild tannins, it would be a perfect choice for current drinking with pasta or seafood with a robust putanesca sauce.

Stemmari, Grillo, 2014 (88, $10):  This one delivers an emblematic, ever so slightly bitter, saline component that makes it a delightful match for hearty seafood in a tomato-based sauce.  Its clean, bracing acidity allows it to hold up throughout a meal, even against robust dishes. Your palate does not tire of it, which is an extraordinary accomplishment for a wine of this price.

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Email me your thoughts about Sicilian wines at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

October 12, 2016

Wine Fraud: More Common Than You’d Think

The mother of all wine frauds belongs to Rudi Kurniawan, who was convicted in federal court in 2013 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for essentially selling millions of dollars of counterfeit wine.  In a separate, but related matter, Kurniawan agreed to pay billionaire wine collector Bill Koch $3 million in damages to settle a lawsuit in which Koch claimed Kurniawan sold him fake wine.  So, wine fraud is clearly big business…at least when the 1% of the 1% are involved.

Wine fraud is, however, nothing new.  Decades ago, before bottling at the château became commonplace, off-site bottlers might add one barrel of lesser-known wine to the 10 barrels of top-notch Bordeaux they were supposed to bottle.  Voilà, instead of 3,000 bottles of Château XYZ, they now had 3,300 bottles, resulting in a two- or three-fold increase in their profit.  It was only when representatives of Château XYZ would taste their wine after bottling that they figured out that something was amiss.  And that’s why the phrase, mis en bouteille au château (bottled at the château) on the label became so important.

(The phrase itself has not prevented all trickery.  One of the more notorious cases involved a château owner himself:  In 1973, the owner of Château Pontet-Canet was caught passing off lowly table wine as high-class wine, mise en bouteille au château, no less.  The scandal forced the sale of the Cruse family-owned Château Pontet-Canet to the father of its current owner, Alfred Tesseron, who also owns Château Lafon Rochet.)

Even today, every so often, we’ll read about some French or Italian producer caught trying to sell down-market wine under a more prestigious appellation.

But something similar–though hardly “fraud,” in the legal sense–occurs on a regular basis, affecting everyday consumers. You can be certain that neither the FBI, nor anyone else, will be investigating what I am talking about.  The perpetrators will never be prosecuted nor make headlines, so it’s up to us individual consumers to be vigilant.  Some of what I am about to describe may be inadvertent, stemming from ignorance, though the pattern suggests otherwise.

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Typically, the more complicated the nomenclature of the wine, the larger the potential for “misunderstanding.”  So let’s start with the single most complicated source of great wine in the entire world, Burgundy.  In the 19th century, the Burgundians succeeded in misleading consumers by appending the name of a village’s famous vineyard to the name of the village–Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin–in the hopes that buyers would buy village wine thinking it was Grand Cru.  But in the 20th century, it is wine retailers, not the Burgundians themselves, who are responsible for the current shenanigans.

Over the last couple of decades, a number of top-flight growers have started their own small négociant businesses.  They capitalize on their famous name by incorporating it into the name of the négociant business.  For example, Domaine Méo-Camuzet’s négociant business is called Méo-Camuzet Frère et Soeur (brother and sister).  Domaine Dujac started their négociant business under the name of Dujac Fils & Père (son and father).  Domaine Pierre Morey’s négociant arm is called Maison Morey Blanc. You get the idea.  None of this is fraudulent or underhanded.  Indeed, it’s a boon for consumers because the talents of these producers are now more available.  Tasted side by side, the grower’s négociant wines, while very good and noteworthy, usually lack the excitement of their Domaine wines and typically sell for less.

The problem arises when the retailer, who invariably knows better–or should, at least–does not distinguish between the two in their listings.  For example, go to the website for Acker Merrall & Condit, a top New York retailer, and you’ll find a long list of wines from Méo-Camuzet without any reference to whether they are Domaine Méo-Camuzet or Méo-Camuzet Frère & Soeur.  This is not the fault of the producer.  Méo-Camuzet’s website shows a clear distinction between the two lines of wine because the labels, which are different, are displayed.

The problem is not industry-wide.  If you peruse the website of Zachy’s, another top New York retailer, where, you’ll see for the most part, Méo-Camuzet labels displayed next to the name of the wine and the price so you’ll know what you’re buying.  Sometimes too the problem lies in just plain old sloppiness. MacArthur Beverages, a Washington, D.C-based, top-notch retailer, does know to distinguish between the two, and lists them accordingly on its website, Méo-Camuzet and Méo-Camuzet F. & S.  The problem is that they list some of the wines incorrectly.

This is not an issue when buying wines from the traditional négociants, such as Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, or Louis Latour.  Although all of these houses have substantial vineyard holdings and hence have true domaine wines–some of which are even labeled that way–the wines are almost invariably marketed and sold under the name of the négociant house.

If anything, the deception is more prevalent in restaurants where the customer has less time to make a decision, does not see the label itself until it’s too late, and is loathe to return a bottle, especially if dining with guests.  I’ve ordered a bottle of Domaine Leflaive’s sensational Bourgogne Blanc, a wine that could certainly pass for most producers’ village Puligny-Montrachet, only to be served a bottle of Bourgogne Blanc “Les Sétilles” from Maison Olivier Leflaive, a solid wine that retails for about a third the price from an entirely different producer despite the same name.

Lars Leicht, Director of Trade Development for Banfi, related to me how he has ordered a bottle of Banfi’s Brunello di Montalcino in a restaurant, only to be served a Banfi Rosso di Montalcino, a fine wine, to be sure, but not worthy of a Brunello price.

The most annoying–and likely the most common–deceit in restaurants is serving a vintage of a wine other than the one indicated on the wine list.  It may make little difference whether you order a 2014 Australian Chardonnay and are served the 2013 of the same wine, but the same substitution when ordering Chablis will be substantial given the difference in vintages–the 2014s are fabulous, whereas the 2013s, for the most part, are less thrilling–in that region.

Some top American wineries themselves are responsible for a very common ploy–a variation of bait and switch.  It goes like this:  The winery makes a “reserve” wine—a limited selection of their best wine–and sells it only to restaurants.  Over a fine dinner, a customer loves it and sometime later goes to a retail store to purchase the same wine.  Alas, the wine shop has only the “regular” bottling, which is what the consumer winds up buying.

Readers, caveat emptor!

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E-mail me your experience at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

September 14, 2016

Robert Mondavi: The Father of California Wine

No one is more responsible for the success of the California wine industry than Robert Mondavi. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the winery that bears his name and is an appropriate time to look back on his extraordinary accomplishments.

There have been, and still are, many stars in the California wine galaxy.  Andre Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyards’ legendary winemaker from 1938 to 1968, made great Cabernet Sauvignon–and less well realized, but no less great–Pinot Noir.  Ernest and Julio Gallo sold more California wine–and their company still does–than anyone else.  But it was Robert Mondavi who convinced the world that California could make world-class wine.  And for those of us over 50, his accomplishments are all the impressive because he started his eponymous winery and his crusade for top-notch California wine when he was in his 50s.

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To understand the magnitude of Mondavi’s accomplishments, we must remember the state of California wine in the mid 1960s when he left his family’s winery, Charles Krug, to start his own.  There were fewer than 30 active wineries in Napa Valley.  For comparison, the Napa Wine Project estimates there are currently more than 400 wineries and over 1,000 commercial wine producers in Napa Valley today.  Prices for land were measured in hundreds or thousands–not hundreds of thousands–of dollars per acre.  Although Beaulieu Vineyard, Inglenook, Louis Martini and others made excellent wines at the time, the preponderance of California wine was generic jug wine whose legacy remains a deep-seated prejudice among Americans against screw caps.  The famous tasting in Paris where California wines upstaged the French ones–with French judges no less–was still a decade away.  The truth was that until the mid 1970s very few people took California wine seriously.  Robert Mondavi changed all that.

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Many wine regions have benefited from a locomotive that brings the region’s wines to international acclaim.  Angelo Gaja, in large measure, put Barbaresco and wines from Piedmont on equal footing with the world’s other great wines.  Piero Antinori with his ground breaking Tignanello and enormous energy did the same for Tuscan wine when the Chianti region was in the doldrums.  But unlike Robert Mondavi, none of them started with a region so far down the prestige ladder and managed to carry it to the top.

When I first met him in the early1980s, his mantra–the same as it was 15 years earlier–was as notable for what he omitted as for what he said, “I need to convince people to drink California wine.”  He did not say that he needed to convince people to drink Napa Valley wine or the wines of Robert Mondavi.  He knew the hurdle was to convince people to think California when they purchased fine wine.  To him, it was a foregone conclusion that once people started to explore California wines, they would embrace his.  It wasn’t arrogance–it was confidence.  He knew the quality of his wines and knew all too well the real impediment.  For him, the cliché–a rising tide raises all ships–was true as far as California wine was concerned.  He didn’t fear competition from his California colleagues. He relished it because he knew the result would be better California wine.  His goal was to show the world California could make world-class wine.

He was tireless and single minded in his crusade.  Many of my wine writing colleagues have told me the same story, so I know that my experience was not unique.  Whenever Mr. Mondavi would come to Boston to promote his wines, the format might be different, but the strategy never varied:  Drink a Mondavi Reserve Cabernet along side a first growth Bordeaux.  Sometimes he would moderate a blind tasting of five or six wines that included his and one or more first growth Bordeaux.  Other times at dinner he would encourage–demand really–a guest order a bottle of Chateau Lafite or any first growth Bordeaux on the wine list so all could drink it with his Reserve Cabernet.  Sometimes his wine was the group’s favorite, others times it was not.  But on every occasion, it was clear that the Mondavi Reserve Cabernet deserved to be on the same table.  And that was Mr. Mondavi’s point.

As with so many of Mondavi’s ideas, his marketing strategy has been copied and is used widely today.  New Zealand producers routinely show their Pinot Noir next to famous red Burgundies.  Chilean wineries sponsor “competitions” in which their Cabernet Sauvignon is in a line-up of world-renowned Cabernets.  The unspoken message is the same:  we deserve to be on the same table.

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Robert Mondavi was a great mentor.  There is a long list of current and past California winemakers who worked in the Robert Mondavi winery and then went on to make names for themselves and their wineries:  Warren Winiarski, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, Charles Thomas, Paul Hobbs, Zelma Long, Janet Myers, to name just a few.  Mr. Mondavi always encouraged them even after they left–and became competitors–giving advice to solve problems and to make better wine.  He would loan equipment when other winemakers were in a pinch.  Miljenko “Mike” Grgich relates how, in 1977, Robert Mondavi assured him that he (Grgich) could use the Mondavi winery to make his first vintage if Grgich’s winery wasn’t completed in time.  Grgich sums up Mondavi, “He was a generous man.”  This spirit of cooperation is rare in the wine world.  This kind of collegiality is not routinely found in Burgundy or Bordeaux.  Most winemakers and principals guard their proprietary information carefully, never to reveal their solutions to problems to competitors.

Mondavi knew that California was capable of producing great white wine as well as red.  Although he was not the first to bottle California Sauvignon Blanc, he made exceptionally suave wines from the variety and was the first to label them “Fumé Blanc,” a reference to Pouilly-Fumé in France, an appellation that used that grape exclusively.  The name helped the varietal’s popularity and is now used by hundreds of wineries throughout California.  Although some people thought Mr. Mondavi’s failure to trademark the name was a mistake, Peter Holt, a former Vice-President of Purchasing for the former California retailer, Liquor Barn, and a keen observer of the California wine industry, felt it was consistent with Mondavi’s desire to share what others might consider proprietary information for the good of the California wine industry.

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His philosophy about wine was simple and constant, despite changing fads.  To him, wine should be consumed at the table, with food and friends.  The marketing description of “food wine” arose in reaction to the so-called “monster” or “killer” Cabernets that made an impact in blind tastings, but overwhelmed everything on the table and indeed, were not so great with food.  Mondavi, never a fan of that style of wine, continued to make the wines he liked to drink with food despite mounting criticism from some prominent wine reviewers in the 1990s.

In his honor and to see how the older Mondavi Reserve Cabernets have evolved, I dipped into my cellar shortly after his death in 2008 and just again this week to try the 1985, as he would have suggested, with dinner.  My notes for the 1985 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 2008, when it was 23 years old, and from this week, at 31 years of age, were remarkably similar:  It was harmonious and still fresh–a seamless mixture of fruit and mature savory notes–with a supple texture.  It was perfect throughout the meal because each sip brought new flavors.  The 1991 and 1992, tasted in 2008, were less evolved–still exhibiting bright fresh red and black fruit flavors–but developing those engaging secondary aromas and flavors of cedar, tobacco and dried fruits.  They still have a long life ahead of them and more importantly, will continue to improve.  All of these wines contained less than 14 percent alcohol and none were considered “blockbusters” when they were released.  They have blossomed beautifully because they were balanced and not overripe or jammy upon release.  I, for one, am glad that Mr. Mondavi stuck to his guns.

Thank you Mr. Mondavi–Mr. California Wine.  The California wine industry would not be the same without you.

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August 17, 2016

Email me your thoughts about Robert Mondavi at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

Beauty in Beaujolais: the 2015 Vintage

When I was in Côte d’Or and Beaujolais last November, all the producers with whom I spoke were absolutely raving about the 2015 vintage. The exuberance in Beaujolais–perhaps because the wines were closer to being finished than in the Côte d’Or–was even more palpable and universal.  Pierre Savoye, a top grower based in Morgon, was effusive in his praise for the vintage.  Showing a broad smile, he could barely contain himself while saying, “This year, the weather made the grapes and the grapes made the wine. The winemaker did nothing.”

Romain Teyteau, the U.S. export director for Georges Dubœuf, the region’s largest and most prominent producer, recounted how the 83-year old Georges Dubœuf, who has seen more than 50 harvests, declared 2015 to be “the greatest vintage he’s ever had” and added, “it is magnum vintage” because the wines have the potential to age and evolve beautifully.

Cyril Chirouze, the winemaker at Château des Jacques, a leading producer in Moulin-à-Vent, was equally effusive about the 2015 vintage.  He noted that the hot summer guaranteed ripe grapes.  The only potential downside was that the summer was too hot, the weather too perfect, and that some growers elected to wait–and wait–to harvest, resulting in super-ripe grapes that translated into wines that could turn out to be over the top.  Addressing the potential for over ripeness, Romain Teyteau of Dubœuf revealed that he was aware of some cuvees (not theirs, he was quick to add) that came it at 17 percent alcohol.  He did note, however, that Dubœuf needed to reprint some labels to reflect the higher alcohols.  So, though Savoye asserts that the winemaker “did nothing” in this vintage, it was in fact winemakers who needed to make the most critical decision–when to harvest.

Savoye explained that the vineyards have adapted to what he euphemistically calls, “The new weather pattern,” which he thinks helps explain why the warmth of 2015 did not affect the vines the way the heat of 2003 did.  In 2003, the Gamay berries were small with thick skins and the resulting wines were unbalanced.  Not so in 2015.  Chirouze agrees that the 2015s are fresher than the 2003s ever were, because 2015 never saw the heat spikes that wreaked havoc with the 2003 vintage and because the harvest occurred under cooler conditions.  Importantly, the natural high acidity of the Gamay grape is an insurance policy that the wines from Beaujolais retain verve and energy despite extra ripeness.

Underscoring the potential of the 2015s was the surprising stature of a sampling of the Beaujolais Nouveau, a category that usually deserves little attention. Château du Basty, an excellent producer, turned out a 2015 Beaujolais Lantignié Nouveau that had structure to support its ripe, juicy fruit.  (If all of the grapes come from a single commune, such as Lantignié, its name can appear along with Beaujolais on the label.  By contrast, the ten crus of Beaujolais label the wines with solely by the name of the village.)

Similarly, Domaine des Nugues, another top grower, made a 2015 Beaujolais Villages Nouveau with just enough tannin to balance the lush dark fruit notes characteristic of the vintage.  It was real wine, not some candied drink.

Teyteau was in Boston recently to show a stunning array of single estate Beaujolais cru that Dubœuf markets on behalf of growers.  He explained that Dubœuf has two major parts to its wine business.  The wines bottled under the iconic “Flower Label” are wines that Dubœuf made from wines or grapes purchased from a number of sources.  He bottles hundreds of thousands of cases of these wines.  Although we tasted a few Flower Label wines in Boston, the focus of the tasting was to showcase wines from the crus–the ten villages in the northern part of the region whose wines are distinctive enough that they can be labeled solely with the name of the village–such as Fleurie, St. Amour or Morgon, to name just three.  The growers themselves, not Dubœuf, make these wines.  Dubœuf buys either a portion–as little as a few hundred cases–or all of their production and markets them, each with a unique label highlighting the name of the domaine.  Dubœuf’s name appears only in small print at the bottom.

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The grandeur of the 2015 vintage is apparent even in a Beaujolais-Villages from one of Dubœuf’s growers.   The wine from the Domaine des Côtes du Berchoux, previously incorporated into Dubœuf ‘s Flower label Beaujolais-Villages, showed such distinctiveness that the Dubœuf team felt confident to release it under the domaine name.  Less overt fruitiness makes it more serious and puts it a cut above the typical Beaujolais-Villages.  Its fine tannins should make it a good choice for drinking this fall. (88 Points, $20).

With a lean minerality, you can almost taste the granitic soil of the 2015 Domaine Pontheux, located in Chiroubles. Though its engaging floral aspect suggests it’s great for immediate enjoyment, its tannic structure means a year or so in the cellar is more appropriate. (88, $21).

Two wines from Beaujolais’ southern-most and largest cru, Brouilly, demonstrate the diversity and difficulty generalizing about the character of the individual wines from these individual villages.  The 2015 Château de Nervers, ripe, round and fleshy, has firm tannins more associated with the wines from the Côte de Brouilly (91, $23).  In contrast, the 2015 Domaine de Combiaty is far more approachable–fruitier rather than firm.  Fresh and lively, it is the quintessential “bistro” wine (90, $23).

Speaking of the Côte de Brouilly, the 2015 Domaine du Riaz was one of the stars of the tasting.  Filled with fleshy dark fruit, it has substantial structure, yet is not hard or unyielding. The minerality expected from a wine from the Côte de Brouilly comes through because there are no overripe flavors to hide it.  Freshness in the finish amplifies the enjoyment.  A couple of years in the cellar would be a good idea. (93, $23).

For those looking for a ready-to-drink 2015 Beaujolais cru, reach for the Château de Saint Amour.  The 2015 from this estate is the first vintage of it that Dubœuf opted to bottle separately.  Softer, rounder and less tannic, it’s far “friendlier” than the Côte de Brouilly at this stage.  A hint of spice adds to its immediate appeal. (90, $25).

Dubœuf purchased the entirety of the production of Fleurie’s Clos des Quatre Vents, certainly a wise decision in 2015.  Both floral and firm, the wine expands in the glass.  There’s far more than dark berry-like flavors going on in this remarkably stylish Fleurie.  Refined earthiness appears in the unexpectedly long finish. (93, $25).  Though hard to resist now, more complexity will emerge with a couple of years in the cellar.

One of the first growers with whom Dubœuf worked was Jean-Ernest Descombes in Morgon. The wine has always been one of my favorites from the Dubœuf portfolio. Dubœuf’s 2015 Jean Descombes Morgon is stunning.  Weighing in at a modest 13 percent stated alcohol, it is firm–more mineral in character–and decidedly less floral than the Clos des Quatre Vents Fleurie.  Structured and elegant simultaneously, this balanced treasure needs a few years in the cellar to reveal its charms. (93, $25).

The Côte du Py, arguably the most famous site in Morgon, is a hill of schist that produces sturdy wines.  The 2015 Morgon Côte du Py from Domaine Javernière is a textbook example, showing power, firmness and elegance while delivering black cherry-like fruitiness.  Even with its density, an invigorating acidity keeps it fresh and lively. There are only 400 cases so you may need to search for it.  It will be worth it. (93, $23).

What’s exciting about of all of these wines is their fabulous concentration and balance.  All are fresh and lively.  None are cooked, raisin-y or over ripe.  The highest praise I can give them is that many are going into my cellar–maybe even some magnums.

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July 20, 2016

Email me your thoughts about Beaujolais at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

 

Siepi, a True Super Tuscan

Today, the term Super Tuscan has become almost meaningless because its widespread use encompasses anything from expensive wine made entirely from Sangiovese to low-end blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Sangiovese.

The original Super Tuscan moniker referred to innovative wines, blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, or those varieties with Tuscany’s traditional Sangiovese.  The wines arose in two distinct areas of Tuscany for different reasons. Continue reading Siepi, a True Super Tuscan

Surprising Portugal

Although my predictions lack the consistency of Nate Silver’s, I will stick my neck out and say that Portuguese wines will be the next “hot” item in the US wine market even though pronunciation issues may be an impediment.  After spending a week in Portugal judging at the 2016 Concurso Vinhos de Portugal (Wines of Portugal Challenge), tasting a vast array of Portuguese wines (including Port, of course, but also a bevy of hearty reds and refreshing whites) and discussing them with Portuguese winemakers and wine judges from around the world, I came away thinking that Portuguese wines are poised to take-off, much as Italian wines did 30-plus years ago. Continue reading Surprising Portugal

Chianti Rùfina: Wines Worth Knowing

It’s well worth unraveling the confusion that often prevents consumers from embracing Chianti Rùfina, for the wines from this area are a joy to drink.  Some people mistake this subregion of the greater Chianti area for Ruffino, a prominent producer of Chianti and Chianti Classico (Ruffino makes no Chianti Rùfina, though).  Others stumble over the pronunciation–the accent marks the emphasis, making it ROO-fi-na, not Roo-fin-NA. Continue reading Chianti Rùfina: Wines Worth Knowing

Malbec That Makes You Think

Subtlety and Malbec are two words rarely used in the same sentence.  Malbec, at least from Argentina, usually produces a big, ripe, jammy monotonic red wine with little structure or finesse.  But then, along came Count Patrick d’Aulan and his team at Alta Vista in Argentina and, later, at Altamana in Chile.  Together, they have shown that New World Malbec can convey both subtlety and a sense of place. Continue reading Malbec That Makes You Think

2013 Bordeaux: Like Wagner’s Music, It’s Not as Bad as It Sounds

In November 2013, Alan Sichel, chairman of Bordeaux’s guild of wine merchants, told Bloomberg Business, “No one will be excited by the 2013 vintage [in Bordeaux].” That comment turned out to be high praise compared to how others in the trade described the vintage–“a catastrophe”–at the time. With that background, it was with trepidation that I approached the annual Union des Grands Crus tasting in New York, an event at which about 100 of the major Bordeaux properties present finished and bottled wines to the press and trade.

To my surprise, the 2013 vintage in Bordeaux is not a catastrophe. Far from it. But a great year for reds? No. Continue reading 2013 Bordeaux: Like Wagner’s Music, It’s Not as Bad as It Sounds

Beaujolais Rising

A transformation is occurring in Beaujolais, and within a few years the world will see the wines from that region in a whole new light. For most consumers today, Beaujolais is synonymous with Beaujolais Nouveau, which all too often is a grapey, gooey wine. But, in my mind, the future of Beaujolais surely lies with its crus, which are prohibited from making Nouveau. These ten villages, located in the hilly northern reaches of the region, have unique granitic soil and produce wine that is distinctive enough to be labeled solely with the name of the village, often omitting the name Beaujolais entirely. It’s what’s happening within the crus–a Côte d’Or-like parcelization–that explains why Beaujolais will reclaim its reputation as a top wine region. Continue reading Beaujolais Rising

All Smiles in Burgundy

There were smiles all around Burgundy–at least before the horrific events in Paris on Friday, November 13. And with good reason: The 2014 whites are stunning. And overall, yields in 2014 were closer to normal–70 to 80 percent–after four short harvests, though, as Frédéric Barnier, winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot, noted, “We are still looking for a full [normal] crop.”  Continue reading All Smiles in Burgundy

New Zealand Wines: An Update

Although still focused primarily on Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand is showing a lot of vinous diversity these days, both with that variety and with other grapes.  In the cellars, winemakers are branching out by using oak barrels for fermentation and aging of Sauvignon Blanc.  In the vineyards, growers are experimenting with Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Syrah, to name a few.  And the results are very encouraging. Continue reading New Zealand Wines: An Update

Rating Wines: Is a 94-Point Wine Better Than an 88-Point Wine?

I hate the 100-point scale for rating wines. Of course, I use it, like the vast majority of wine writers, because it has become the standard scale and because many consumers expect and embrace it.  My dislike is really not with 100-point scale itself, but rather the way many consumers use it, which goes something like this:  Plug in the name of the latest 90+ point wine on wine-searcher.com and find the cheapest place in the country who allegedly is selling it. If you live in most states–Bingo!–the wine will appear on your doorstep in a matter of days.  It’s all very appealing.   But let’s drill a little deeper. Continue reading Rating Wines: Is a 94-Point Wine Better Than an 88-Point Wine?

Sommeliers: Love Them or Hate Them?

Somms–and oh, how I hate that word–are the newest darlings of the wine world.  Sommeliers have been anointed the opinion leaders, directing trends in wine consumption, replacing, in many instances, the voices of established wine critics such as Robert Parker, Jr. or The Wine Spectator.  Wine producers either love them (if their wines make it onto their lists) or hate them (when their wines are ignored). Continue reading Sommeliers: Love Them or Hate Them?

A Seasonal Take on Food and Wine Pairing

Bob Harkey, a friend who has an excellent palate and uses it stocking his retail shop (Harkey’s Fine Wines, in suburban Boston), gives the spot-on advice around Thanksgiving, “Match the wine to the company–not the food.”  I now expand that advice after a meal during the recent East Coast heat wave to, “Match the wine to the setting, not the food.” Continue reading A Seasonal Take on Food and Wine Pairing

The Trouble with Vouvray

Vouvray is home to a fabulous array of under-valued white wines.  A major impediment to more widespread popularity is the confusion that surrounds their level of sweetness.  (This confusion is surely a major reason the wines remain undervalued, so perhaps–for those of us who love the wines–I should stop here.)  A superb trio of wines from Domaine Huet, perhaps the appellation’s greatest producer, puts the problem in clear relief.  The three cuvées, each made from separate vineyards (Haut-Lieu, Le Mont and Clos du Bourg) in the superb 2014 vintage, were surprisingly different in sweetness despite all being labeled Vouvray Sec. Continue reading The Trouble with Vouvray

Chinon: Burgundy in the Loire Valley

Chinon as Burgundy? At first glance, it is an unlikely comparison. Chinon growers use Cabernet Franc almost exclusively for their reds, while Burgundians use Pinot Noir. And Cabernet Franc is no winemaker’s Holy Grail, unlike Pinot Noir. Few consumers are passionate about Cabernet Franc, nor do they search for it the way they clamor for Pinot Noir. Cabernet Franc’s widely recognized downside is that it can convey an unpleasant vegetal character, reminiscent of cooked green beans or asparagus, when it doesn’t ripen fully. Many California producers combat this tendency by harvesting it very ripe and producing a robust red wine that is usually oak-aged and focuses more on power than delicacy. By contrast, however, producers in Chinon have managed to produce graceful wines without a hint of under-ripeness while keeping alcohol levels in check. Continue reading Chinon: Burgundy in the Loire Valley

Two Essential Pieces of Equipment for Anyone Who Drinks Wine

The corkscrew is an obvious choice as one, but what’s the other?  I’ll give you a hint — it costs between $5 and 10, so that eliminates the Coravin, the clever $300 gadget with a long needle that lets you sample a bottle without having to open it.

The other essential piece of equipment is a Champagne stopper. Continue reading Two Essential Pieces of Equipment for Anyone Who Drinks Wine

Bargains Abound in Burgundy–If You Know Where to Look

With prices for top Burgundy wines in triple and sometimes quadruple digits, you could be forgiven for concluding that Burgundy is expensive.  Well, most of it is. And, as I will explain below, there’s no reason to believe that prices will come down.  But there’s plenty of Burgundy that is attrctively priced, especially when compared to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produced elsewhere.  You just need to know where to look. Continue reading Bargains Abound in Burgundy–If You Know Where to Look