A Sparkling Wine Guide For New Year’s Eve

29 December 2017

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, and, really, at any time of day. But certain moments practically demand the pop of a cork: weddings, anniversaries, births, occasionally a divorce or funeral… And, of course, New Year’s Eve. The festive nature of sparkling wine works particularly well at that moment, regardless of whether things are going well for you or not. You can toast to the exciting prospect of the new year to come, or drink a relieved good riddance to the 12 months past. Either way, the change of the year is something to celebrate.

I’m excited about the year to come because of my new web series, Name That Wine. My friend Liz Barrett — who is one of the most fun people with whom to taste wine that I’ve ever met — and I have filmed a few more episodes, and we are having a blast doing it. In the most recent episode of this blind tasting-themed show, we attempt to identify two bottles of bubbly and figure out which was the more expensive. We also offer a sparkling wine tips we’ve learned over the course of many years of sparkling wine… research. Check it out, and if you haven’t already, please subscribe! (It’s the red button below the video when you watch it on the YouTube website.)

I’ve also compiled a sparkling wine guide for New Year’s Eve, so that regardless of your taste or budget, you can find something fun and tasty to drink.

CHEAP

If you get a sparkling wine for less than $10 or $11 a bottle, it’s likely not going to be particularly good. The bubbles might be a bit big, or it might taste unbalanced. But you might get lucky and find something perfectly drinkable.

To increase your chances of getting lucky, I recommend avoiding Spanish Cava, the cheap versions of which I find barely drinkable, and opt for Prosecco instead, or perhaps something French.

Regardless of what bubbly you buy, if it costs less than $10 or $11, serve it as cold as possible. That will mask the aroma, which may or may not be a good thing, and it will help even out the flavor.

Alternatively, you can hide flaws in the wine by turning it into a cocktail. As Liz recommended in the video above, you can add a couple of drops of Campari if the wine is too sweet for your taste. Alternatively, I like to add a splash of Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), which turns the sparkler into a classy Kir Royale cocktail. A splash of elderflower liqueur like St-Germain also works wonders, as does a very small dose of Crème de Violette (violet liqueur). The latter three options work best in dry sparkling wine.

INEXPENSIVE

If you can find it, Gilgal Brut from Israel is a great value at about $15

If you can swing between $12 and $16 a bottle, it’s almost surely unnecessary to adulterate the wine, and you can successfully serve it closer to the temperature of a refrigerator.

My favorites in this price range include:

Blanquette de Limoux claims to be France’s oldest sparkling wine, and it rarely costs more than $12 or $13 (you might even find it for less). It comes in both Brut (dry) and Demi Sec (fairly sweet) versions, so be sure to check the label.

Gruet comes from New Mexico, and perhaps that unhallowed terroir explains the low price tag. I spotted some today in Whole Foods on sale for $13 a bottle, though $15 or $16 is more common. Nevertheless, the wine has very small bubbles and fine balance, both in its Brut and Rosé versions. A superlative value for the money.

Cava starts to taste very good towards the top end of this price range.

MID-RANGE

A wine costing between $16 and $25 is ideal to bring to someone else’s party, because it shows that you appreciate their hosting efforts without going overboard. You can also have a little more fun in this category.

Crémant, a sparkling wine from France that’s not Champagne, can be an excellent choice in this price range. Crémant d’Alsace can sometimes be a little austere for my taste, but Crémant de Bourgogne tends to be more juicy and acidic. Crémant de Loire and Crémant de Jura both tend to be safe and delicious bets. Wines from the Jura region (bordering Burgundy) are quite fashionable now, so if you’re attending a wine geek’s party, a Crémant de Jura is sure to please.

Riesling Sekt from Germany also tends to sit in this price range, and it can be a delight. Don’t be seduced by a (cheap) bottle simply labeled “Sekt,” however. If it doesn’t say “Riesling Sekt,” it could be made from some random crappy grapes from God only knows where, as opposed to Riesling from Germany. These sparklers are drier than you might expect, and they’re a fun surprise for guests. You can read more about Riesling Sekt in this post.

Prosecco in this price range also starts getting quite interesting, because you start having access to the region’s best grapes. Look for the words “Valdobbiadene” or “Conegliano” on the bottle, indicating that the grapes come from one of those favored locations. The letters DOCG, as opposed to just DOC, are also encouraging.

Franciacorta

EXPENSIVE

Once you get above $25, sparkling wine becomes a real life-affirming joy to drink, with (hopefully) more complex flavors and sharper focus.

Champagne, of course, is always a delight. Well, almost always. Certain ubiquitous Champagnes, notably Veuve Cliquot, have expanded to such a degree that it’s simply not possible for them to include high-quality grapes in every bottle. Yellow Label Veuve, the brand’s entry-level Champagne, is the Santa Margherita of Champagne. It’s no longer worth the money. Seek out a lesser-known brand that spends its money on winemaking instead of marketing. I’m especially fond of trying Grower Champagnes, indicated by the tiny letters RM on the label, as opposed to NM. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with NM Champagne.)

Franciacorta, which I describe in more detail in this post, is also an excellent choice if you’re willing to spend a little more. This sparkler from northern Italy has great elegance and is as satisfying as Champagne. Again, it’s an ideal choice if you want to splurge on a wine geek.

California also has some remarkably fine sparkling wines these days. In the video above, Liz recommends Schramsberg in particular, and far be it from me to disagree. Chandon, which tends to be less expensive, is a very good value.

ESOTERIC

As Odd Bacchus, I love throwing the occasional vinous curve ball. If you want to surprise and delight your guests with something a little off the wall, consider one of the following:

Sparkling Shiraz from Australia has something of a bad reputation, but I quite like it. It’s great fun to have flutes of bubbly purple stuff for a change, and it’s usually mid-range in price. You can read more about Sparkling Shiraz in this post.

Sparkling Furmint from Hungary is harder to find, but if you see one, it’s worth snapping up. Furmint ranks among the world’s great white wine grapes, and though it’s most famous as the main component of Tokaji, Hungary’s answer to Sauternes, Furmint makes superb dry wines (including sparkling wines) as well.

Cap Classique from South Africa can be quite good nowadays, and the better brands make thoroughly delicious wines, often in the inexpensive category. Graham Beck is reliable and not too difficult to find.

Sparkling Grüner Veltliner from Austria is a little pricier, usually within the mid-range bracket. Szigeti makes a particularly delightful Brut. I love its tiny bubbles combined with Grüner’s acidity and freshness.

And, if you happen to find yourself in Burgundy, don’t miss the chance to try some Sparkling Gevrey-Chambertin.

Most important is that you have a splendid time with those that you love, and you don’t need a super-expensive bottle of wine to do that. Though, of course, it doesn’t hurt, especially if you plan on bringing that bottle to my house.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you have a 2018 worth many a toast!

Wine From The Holy Land For The Holidays

11 December 2017

What’s most shocking to me about Israeli wine is its consistent freshness. I wonder if winemakers there — all-too-aware of Israel’s reputation for ponderous, syrupy Maneschewitz-like wines — have reacted, consciously or subconsciously, by crafting wines with bright acids and lively spice. They are ideal for holiday entertaining because most of them pair well with food, and they tend to be excellent values for the money. The fact that the wines come from the Holy Land is an extra bonus.

I must admit that until recently, I was generally unfamiliar with Israeli wine. A tasting of Galil wines earlier this year surprised and delighted me, and so I jumped at the chance to try the bottlings of other Israeli wineries at a tasting at Chicago’s Naha restaurant. The wines impressed me time and time again.

But why, if the wines are so good, does Israel have a reputation for being vinously compromised? The short answer is that its ancient traditions of winemaking were obliterated by hundreds of years of Muslim rule, and only in the last half-century or so has Israel been able to reclaim this heritage. But reclaim this heritage they have.

You can read a bit more about Israeli winemaking history in this post about the Galil tasting. 

The wines I tasted at Naha confirmed that Israel now crafts wines that are world-class. Yes, they are thematically ideal for serving at Hanukkah and Christmas, but these aren’t holiday sweater wines, to be brought out once a year and then put away on the bottom shelf. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “The three leading [Israeli] wineries are supporting the wine-quality revolution by diligent vineyard site selection and investment in technology. Israeli farming prowess and determination is good at coaxing wine from challenging environments that will stand international comparison.”

I tried 19 wines at the tasting at Naha, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. There were certain wines that positively caused a sensation.

If I could have taken any three bottles home from the tasting, they would have been:

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery “Katzrin” Chardonnay

This beauty had an extremely enticing aroma of buttered popcorn with a hint of citrus. It felt big and creamy, but limey acids and white pepper spice gave focus to the lushness. Yarden’s Vice President of Sales, Anne Marie, told me that the Katzrin (named after the town in the Golan Heights where the winery is located) saw 75% new oak! But the balance was amazing. I loved it. This vintage costs about $30, according to Wine Searcher, which is a smoking value considering the quality of the wine.

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery Petit Verdot

Shalom, owner of Chicago’s Kol Tuv kosher grocery store, exclaimed, “This is one of the best wines I’ve tried — I’d recommend it to anyone!” I would as well. It looked dark and thick, and smelled of ripe plums and blackberry jam. It tasted rich but strikingly clean, with big but supple tannins. Bold, brightly acidic, rich and fresh; what more could you want? Petit Verdot, historically a Bordeaux blending grape, “is well suited to warm, dry parts of Spain… and it has performed exceptionally well in varietal form in the irrigated inland regions of Australia…” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It’s no surprise that it also does well in warm, dry Israel. Another fine value for about $35 a bottle.

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery “2T”

A blend of two Portuguese varieties, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão, this wine (along with the Petit Verdot) had everyone at the tasting talking. I can see why. It had a very appealing aroma of ripe raisins and baking spice, and it tasted rich and just a bit funky. Refined spice cut right through the big, raisiny fruit, maintaining ample balance. A delight, and an excellent deal for $25-$29.

The above three wines should be purchased on sight. They’re something of a splurge for most of us, but you deserve it! Look for other Golan Height Winery wines as well (“Yarden” will be prominent on the label). The Sauvignon Blanc felt wonderfully exotic with its note of passion fruit, the organic Odem Vineyard Chardonnay felt taut and zesty and just a touch buttery, the Syrah was refined and rich, and the Cabernet had ample plummy fruit balanced with freshness and spice.

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But should you see any bottle from a reputable Israeli winery, you should consider snapping it up. Below are some descriptions of several of the other wines I tried in the tasting. A pattern of general high quality and value becomes clear:

2016 Mount Hermon “Indigo”

Mount Hermon is a more inexpensive brand of Yarden, and its wines are a great value for the money. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah had notes of cheerful dark cherry and vanilla, with some exotic spice, like jasmine. It sounds sweet, but it dries right out on the palate. I found the 2014 vintage for $13 at Binny’s.

2016 Mount Hermon Red Wine

A classic Bordeaux-style blend, this wine tasted freshly fruity, with ripe red fruit, refined juicy acids and a long finish with subtle spice. A lift of freshness supported the wine throughout. The 2014 vintage is also $13 at Binny’s, which is a steal.

2016 Mount Hermon Moscato

I tend to avoid Moscato nowadays, because it tends to be too simple and sweet for my taste. This version, however, had an alluring aroma of orange flowers, lychee and jasmine, and mouthwatering orangey acids complemented by foamy bubbles. It gives any Moscato d’Asti a run for the money, especially considering it costs only $10 or $11, according to Wine Searcher.

2016 Gilgal Riesling

Gilgal is more of a mid-range offering of Yarden, and its wines taste sophisticated. I also like the label, which depicts an ancient and enigmatic henge near the winery. The Riesling was thoroughly dry, so those with a phobia of sweet wine have nothing to fear. Taut and citrusy and rather forceful, the wine moved from pear to lemon/lime acids to ginger and white pepper spice, followed by a dry finish. It costs about $13, a magnificent value considering that a comparable German Riesling would cost twice as much.

2016 Gilgal Chardonnay

Whereas the Yarden “Katzrin” Chardonnay tasted rich and luxurious, the Gilgal version felt fresh and spicy. It moved seamlessly from ripe fruit to focused white pepper to juicy lemon/lime acids to something like fresh straw. Very classy, and, surprise, it’s a superb value. It runs about $14.

2016 Gilgal Pinot Noir

Light-bodied with plenty of fresh dark-cherry fruit and some refined black pepper spice. Some inexpensive Pinots can be a little too earthy for my taste, but this one, which costs $13 or $14, is fresh and fun.

2013 Gilgal Cabernet Sauvignon

Even the Cabernet had impressive freshness. It had a huge aroma of raspberry jam, and big, rather raisiny fruit on the palate, but lively spice and underlying freshness kept it light on its feet. And, of course, it’s an excellent value for about $13 or $14 a bottle.

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Finding Israeli wine might take a little effort, but your work will be amply repaid by wines that are generally ripe, fresh and very well-priced. I’ve now tried quite a few of the wines made by the Golan Heights Winery, Galil, Gilgal and Mount Hermon, and I’m hard pressed to think of one I didn’t like.

I also recommend checking out this pairing guide produced by Yarden, the first latke-themed wine chart I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, everyone!

Note: I was invited to this wine tasting and did not pay for the wine I sampled.

Name That Wine: The Debut Episode!

28 November 2017

What’s the scariest thing you could possibly do? For many wine writers, the answer is likely the same: blind tasting. What could be more embarrassing than, say, guessing a wine is Pinot Noir when in fact it’s Cabernet?

In fact, the only thing scarier than doing a blind tasting is doing a blind tasting on video, so that everyone can watch you get it wrong. So that’s exactly what my good friend Liz Barrett and I decided to do.

In our new web series, Name That Wine, we get other people to buy us wine, and we challenge each other to figure out what it is. We had a blast doing our first tasting:

Subscribe to our channel on YouTube (hit the red “Subscribe” button below the video on this link) to be among the first to watch future episodes!

Beaujolais Reassessed #Winophiles

14 November 2017

Poor Beaujolais. Who drinks it anymore? There must be people who pay attention to the release of the new Beaujolais Nouveau vintage each November 16, but I don’t know any of them, and I’m a wine blogger. The last time I had a Beaujolais Nouveau in my wine rack was in May of 2006. I remember the moment very clearly: A wealthy couple attending my 30th birthday party presented me with a 2005 Beaujolais Nouveau as a gift. Mm, Beaujolais Nouveau in May… yum. Merci beaucoup.

Honestly, I can’t imagine why anyone would buy Beaujolais Nouveau, at least in the U.S. It often costs more than $15 a bottle, which is insane for a wine that’s supposed to be simply fruity, cheerful and gulpable. The last time Beaujolais Nouveau was stylish was in the 90s. I know this because The Oxford Companion to Wine tells me that consumption of it peaked in 1992, when “nearly half of Beaujolais AC was sold in this youthful state.” And also because I was flipping channels a couple of months ago and came across an old “Frasier” episode in which the titular character offered his sophisticated date a glass of the stuff.

Brouilly, a Cru Beaujolais

Nowadays, if Frasier were attempting to impress a date with his wine sophistication, he would likely present something from Jura, or at least Alto Adige. Beaujolais is simply not chic.

This is a shame. Beaujolais still squirts out far too much overpriced and overhyped Nouveau (which would be an OK value for $10 or $11 a bottle), but it also produces thoroughly charming and sometimes quite intense wines. These wines are “compulsively drinkable,” as the cliché goes, and usually very food-friendly. But many of the best, problematically, don’t even have the word “Beaujolais” on the label, except perhaps in fine print on the back.

What Beaujolais should you buy then, if not the famous Nouveau? Skip over basic Beaujolais and start with Beaujolais-Villages. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “It is almost always worth paying more for a Villages wine for its extra concentration.” Beaujolais-Villages wines have more oomph because they come from hillier vineyards in the north of the appellation, as opposed to the flatter sites in the southern half.

I recently received a bottle as a free sample from the Vignerons de Bel Air, a cooperative of some 250 wine growers in Beaujolais. Its Beaujolais-Villages comes from 50- to 60-year old Gamay vines in vineyards around the southern edge of the region’s hilly northern section. The Gamay variety, which tends to be frankly boring almost everywhere else, for some reason flourishes in the granitic soils of Beaujolais, where it can make wines of real interest.

Manti (they taste better than they look)

Certainly the 2016 Beaujolais-Villages was a pleasure. I sampled it over a delightful dinner with one of my favorite tasting partners, the inimitable Liz Barrett, at an underrated restaurant on Chicago’s North Side: Turkish Cuisine (the owners aren’t the euphemistic sort). I liked the wines aroma of dark fruit with a touch of vanilla, and its juicy, mouthwatering acidity. The acids shifted to warm spice, and together they provided a through-line, ensuring that the wine never sagged. It didn’t quite stand up to the yogurt-rich sauce on our manti (little lamb-filled raviolis), but it worked beautifully with our next course of roasted lamb. Interestingly, this wine was labeled “Natural,” indicating, according to the press materials, that it experienced softer filtration and has less sulfites.

The other three wines I received as free samples from the Vignerons de Bel Air were from Beaujolais’ best vineyards, classified as Cru Beaujolais. These are the Beaujolais wines really worth seeking out, and these are the wines that often lack the word “Beaujolais” on the label. There are 10 Beaujolais Crus: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié and Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. They all have distinct characters, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll concentrate on the three Crus of the samples.

First, we tried what proved to be my favorite of the four wines, the 2015 Domaine Baron de l’Écluse “Les Garances” Côte de Brouilly had a tighter-grained, more expensive-seeming aroma than the Beaujolais-Villages, with notes of prune and a meatloafy savoriness, as well as a whiff of violet that Liz first detected. It looked quite dark and concentrated, but it proved to be light on its feet, with ample dark fruit, warm spice, juicy acids and an iron tang on the finish. It felt well-integrated and refined, and it stood up well to the manti, with enough heft to punch through the yogurt. It also paired wonderfully with all the roasted meat we tried (chicken, lamb, spiced ground lamb and gyro).

According to The World Atlas of Wine, bottlings from the large Brouilly Cru “can vary enormously. Only those grown on the volcanic slopes of Mont Brouilly in the much smaller Côte de Brouilly Cru are really worth ageing.” I believe it — I’m sure this wine could have easily handled several more years in the bottle.

The 2015 Domaine de Briante Brouilly, another “natural” wine like the Villages above, had an earthier character, with an aroma of blackberry fruit, mushroom and sausage. I liked how the wine started with clean, clear fruit and then mussed it up with those wonderful juicy acids and some forceful (but well-integrated) tannins. It didn’t manage to cut through the yogurty manti, but it paired perfectly with the chicken kebap and became even spicier with the lamb. This wine proved to be Liz’s favorite, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to drink it again myself, given the opportunity.

Finally, we tried the 2015 Dominique Piron Côte du Py Morgon. The World Atlas tells us that “Morgon is the second-largest Cru, associated with its famous, volcanic Côte du Py, whose wines are particularly strong, warm and spicy.” Liz called it on first sniff, noting the wine’s distinct tart cherry aroma. I thought it smelled rather like sweet barbecue. “Yes, cherry wood-chip smoke,” she agreed. There were those characteristic juicy acids again, leavening the ample black-cherry fruit. The wine felt lighter-bodied, but with plenty of spice and supple tannins. It was heavenly with the chicken, but it also worked well with the lamb, which brought out more of a violet note in the wine.

What a joy of a tasting. I had to be careful not to consume too much — we had four bottles between the two of us — because these Beaujolais were such fun to drink. Each had ample fruit and juicy, mouthwatering acids, ensuring that even the most concentrated of them remained lively and light on its feet.

The Beaujolais-Villages was good, but I fell in love with the Cru Beaujolais. These wines would be perfect for a dinner party, because they’re food-friendly and easy to drink, yet they also offer a sense of refinement. Best of all, because they’re unfashionable, Cru Beaujolais wines are not expensive. I see on the Binny’s website that Morgon starts at just $16, Brouilly can be had for as little as $17, and Côte de Brouilly for $24. The wines we had tasted far more expensive than that.

Yes, Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! But it is the “vieux” Beaujolais, the Cru Beaujolais, that has now truly arrived.

For additional perspectives about Beaujolais in general and these wines specifically, check out these #Winophiles blog posts:

  • Our host for the month, Jeff from Food Wine Click!, shares “Tasting the Beaujolais Pyramid over Dinner”
  • Jill from L’Occasion shares “No Sleep ’til Beaujolais: The French Wine That’s Keeping Us Up All Night
  • Martin from Enofylz writes “Ready To Elevate Your Beaujolais Game? Go Beyond Nouveau!”
  • Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Savoring and Sipping Bottles and Bottles of Beaujolais”
  • Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm writes “Say Yay for Beaujolais
  • Jane from Always Ravenous shares “Beaujolais Wine: A Foodie’s Dream”
  • Nicole from  Somms Table writes “Cooking to the Wine: Stephane Aviron Cru Beaujolais with Pork Tenderloin While Jumping Life Hurdles
  • Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Thanksgiving for Two: Mushroom-Stuffed Pork Loin Paired with Beaujolais Cru”
  • Michelle from Rockin Red Blog writes ”Exploring Cru Beaujolais with #Winophiles
  • David from Cooking Chat shares “Food-Friendly Red Wine from Beaujolais”
  • Gwendolyn from Wine Predator writes “Do you know the way to Beaujolais?”
  • Liz from What’s in that Bottle writes “Discover Real Beaujolais”
  • Lynn and Mark from Savor the Harvest shares “Beaujolais Beyond Nouveau”

Chablis Versus The World: A Chardonnay Blind Tasting

30 October 2017

Someone recently asked me if I could drink wine made from only one grape variety for the rest of my life, what would it be? My first instinct was Chardonnay. It can be everything from steel-spined Chablis to rich California butterballs, and — no less important — some of the best Champagne. But those over-oaked, over-extracted California butterballs ruined Chardonnay for a generation of wine drinkers, and many people, quite understandably, avoid the grape entirely (try Googling “Anything But Chardonnay”).

Even those who like Chardonnay often have misconceptions about the grape, as evidenced by a recent blind tasting I held, in which a Master of Wine took a sip of a New Zealand Chardonnay and exclaimed, “France!” I did no better than she, even though I had purchased the wines. Blind tastings are a wonderful way to keep one’s ego in check.

The Chablis component of the tasting

A bottle of Chablis inspired the blind tasting. I had agreed to sample a 2015 William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis, because how could I resist a free bottle of one of my favorite wines? The marketer who sent it wanted me to evaluate it as an example of the vintage. I decided the best way to do that was to compare it to some other 2015 Chablis.

But then, why not also compare it to some Chardonnays from elsewhere in the world, in a modified Judgment of Paris tasting? I assembled seven other 2015 wines ranging in price from $8.50 to $57, produced in Chablis (France), New Zealand, Argentina and California. In order for me to also participate in the blind tasting, I bagged the bottles, mixed up the bags and numbered them. My husband then presented the wines to the group, so that I wouldn’t be able to cheat by looking at their necks.

The results were absolutely fascinating. The $57 wine was rather unpopular, and the $8.50 wine tasted better than expected. There was broad consensus in our group of nine tasters about the best and the worst of the bunch, but not such broad consensus regarding the grape variety we were tasting. A few people guessed that we were sipping Chardonnay, but just as many thought the wines were Sauvignon Blanc, and another guessed Viognier. Chardonnay can take many forms!

Here is what we tasted:

WINE #1

This wine proved immensely popular, garnering seven Loves and two Likes on my rating scale of Love, Like, Meh and Dislike. All but one of us guessed correctly that it came from France, an indication of France’s enduring reputation for quality. People praised its creamy mouthfeel and long finish, as well as its zesty and sharply focused acids. No one thought that it cost less than $18 a bottle, and two of us (including me) guessed that it cost $57.

In fact, it was the sample bottle I’d received, the 2015 William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” from Chablis! It costs just $18 at Binny’s, where I purchased the other wines for the tasting. At that price, it’s a screaming steal. It was the hit of the tasting.

WINE #2

Wine #2 was less popular. One taster asked, “Why does this taste cheaper to me?” I noted that it smelled richer than #1 but that it didn’t taste as complex. It felt hotter, more alcoholic, and rougher around the edges. Others liked its lightly buttery quality, and only two tasters rated it as low as Meh. One gave it a Love, and everyone else rated it as Like. Guesses as to its origin ranged across the map, though three people correctly labeled it as an Argentinian wine. A couple of people thought it cost $22 a bottle, but most wrote down the actual price.

In fact, it was the 2015 Salentein Reserve Chardonnay from Argentina’s Uco Valley, a high-quality region just to the south of Mendoza. It cost me $15 a bottle, and judging by its reception, it seems fairly priced.

WINE #3

Chardonnays from Argentina, New Zealand and California

Our third bottle fared worse, earning only two Likes and a bunch of Mehs. I liked its creamy and citrusy aroma and bright acids, but another taster remarked, “It’s acid that I don’t love.” Another commented that it was “oak city,” and a third complained that its “finish is like a teenage boy” (i.e. too fast). Others approved of its white pepper spice, however. As to its origin, the guesses divided among Argentina and New Zealand, and most people thought it cost between $16 and $18.

In fact, it was the 2015 Domaine Costal Premier Cru Vaillons Chablis, which cost me $32.29 at Binny’s. Yikes! A Premier Cru Chablis comes from one of the region’s best vineyard sites, and it should in theory be better than a standard Chablis. I think this one might need a little more time in the bottle to settle down.

WINE #4

My contribution to the pot-luck dinner accompanying the tasting: tomatoes from our garden with basil and olive oil

People enjoyed this wine much more, with only one person giving it a Meh — everyone else gave it a solid Like. And again, almost everyone assumed it was French. “It’s more expensive and it’s France for sure,” one taster asserted. Only one of us guessed its true country of origin. I certainly liked it, with its citrusy and mineral aroma, bright lemon-orange acids and finish of focused spice. Almost everyone thought it cost $22.

In fact, it was the 2015 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand’s East Coast, which cost just $16. If you prefer your wines bright, fruity and juicy, this Chardonnay is ideal for you. And considering that most people thought it cost $6 or more than its actual price, it’s a fine value as well.

WINE #5

This wine divided the group more than any other. Reactions ranged from “Dislike from me” to “It was OK” to “I like it!” One taster complained that it was something of an oak bomb, but I found it more balanced. I was one of the three people in the room who actually liked this wine for its creamy/buttery start and cleansing shaft of sharp spice. I wrote “Rich and zesty, but disjointed.” It earned three Love ratings, two Likes, three Mehs and one Dislike, and people priced it anywhere between $15 and $57, with most clustered around $18. Almost everyone thought it came from California or Argentina. Tellingly, the only people who correctly guessed its true country of origin, France, were two of the people who enjoyed it the most.

In fact, it was the wine that should have been the star of the tasting, the 2015 Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin Grand Cru Valmur Chablis (Valmur is one of Chablis’ Grand Cru vineyards). It cost a healthy $57. The problem with this wine, I suspect, is that we drank it far too young. Its components hadn’t yet integrated, and so the oak stuck out like a sore thumb. Give this wine five years in the bottle, and I have no doubt that it will be gorgeous.

WINE #6

Wine #6 was a great big Meh. Only one person rated it as Like. Everyone else rated it as Meh, aside from two Dislikes. I wrote that it was pointy — “maybe too pointy” — and others noted its spicy aroma and general roughness. Even so, people generally guessed that it cost around $15. Only two people guessed its true price.

In fact, this was the 2015 Alamos Chardonnay by Catena from Mendoza, which cost just $8.50. Four people guessed that it came from Argentina, which means either that they’re very good at blind tastings, or that they assume that a cheap-tasting wine is an Argentine wine (only one person guessed France).

WINE #7

I quite liked the balance on this wine, and others complimented it as well, saying, “I don’t want to spit this one out,” and “It’s crisp and well-structured.” Our Master of Wine in the group remarked on its lemony character, exclaiming, “It’s like lemon meringue pie!” But others complained of a “funk aroma” redolent of “dirty feet.” This wine earned one Dislike, one Meh, three Likes and three Loves, making it the second-most popular wine of the tasting, after the William Fevre “Champs Royeaux.” People thought it was expensive, too. One taster thought it cost $18 and another $22, but the rest thought it cost either $32 or $57, and came either from France or (to a lesser extent) the USA.

In fact, this was the 2015 Etienne Boileau Chablis, theoretically a step down in terms of quality from the Premier Cru and two steps down from the Grand Cru. It cost me $19, which is quite a bargain, considering that most of the group thought it cost much more.

WINE #8

And then we came to the real disaster of the tasting, Wine #8. Only one person liked it. The entire rest of the group rated it as Dislike. As people tasted it, I heard things like, “Oh God, it’s horrible,” and “It smells like Mott’s apple juice in a box.” There was a touch of pétillance, which was surely unintentional, and an odd olive brininess. No one thought it came from France — most people assumed it was from Argentina or the U.S., aside from a couple of New Zealand guesses.

In fact, this was the 2015 Mer Soleil “Silver” Unoaked Chardonnay from Monterey in California, and it cost $18. Most people assumed it cost $8.50, but I wouldn’t pay even that for this wine. Ugh. Interestingly, Binny’s no longer seems to carry this wine.

CONCLUSION

If this tasting is any indication, the notion that French wines are quality and Argentine wines are not persists unabated. When people liked a wine, they almost always guessed it came from France. Few of us guessed that a high-quality Chardonnay could come from New Zealand. The versatility of Chardonnay is also still a surprise, as evidenced by the number of people guessing that we tasted Sauvignon Blancs. And we learned that whites aren’t necessarily at their best right out of the gate. Some of them, such as the Grand Cru Chablis, clearly need more time in the bottle to settle down.

Others, such as the William Fèvre “Champs Royeaux,” are drinking beautifully right now. That wine is relatively easy to find — I’ve seen it on a number of restaurant wine lists — and it’s an incredible value for the money. Seek it out, along with the delicious Kim Crawford Chardonnay from New Zealand.

You can read a another post about the delights of Chablis here.

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