Phylloxera And The TSA

13 August 2015

As I write this, I’m awaiting my flight to Corning, New York, where this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference will take place. The wine talk this year started a little early, however.

When I walked through the metal detector in the TSA Precheck line in O’Hare’s Terminal 1, it beeped, most unexpectedly. As a relatively frequent traveler, I’ve perfected a uniform I wear through the detector that I know won’t set it off. But it wasn’t my outfit that caused the beep.

“You’ve been selected for additional screening,” the security guard informed me. Ah well. I alerted him that I preferred to opt out of the backscatter machine and do a pat-down instead. I don’t trust the emphatic government claims of the machine’s safety. It’s only been in operation a few years — not long enough to ascertain any long-term effects — and it’s no secret that the government isn’t always honest with the public.

In any case, I opted out, and a tall gentleman in his late 50s led me to the pat-down mat. “Have you done this before? Good — OK, so you know I’ll be touching inside your collar and brush against some potentially sensitive areas with the back of my hand. OK, please raise your arms.” He felt my sleeves, and asked, “So where are you off to today?”

“I’m headed to Corning, New York, to go to a Wine Blogger Conference. It should be a hoot.”

“Really, so you’re a wine guy,” he asked, feeling the inside of my shirt collar. He started brushing his hand down my back. “You know, I buy wine now and then myself.”

“Oh really? What sort of things have you been drinking?”

“I’ve bought a few bottles of Caymus,” he replied, and he noted a few other brands. “I like to wait until Binny’s [Chicago’s biggest wine store] has a sale, and then I stock up. The good stuff is all sitting in my basement, and when I retire, I’ll start opening it,” he laughed, running his fingers around the inside of my waistband.

“That’s a really good strategy,” I concurred. “Binny’s has some great sales!”

“Absolutely,” he agreed, now standing in front of me and patting my torso. “You know, It’s funny, but I really like Chilean wine, too.”

“Ah, Chilean wines give you a lot of bang for the buck,” I said, because it’s true.

“Right, they’re really good! You know, there was a fungus in the 80s that attacked American vines. Yeah, they had to cut the vines off, and transplant them to different roots.” I realized he was talking about phylloxera, which is an insect, not a fungus. And it caused the most damage in Europe, not the United States, and that was in the late 19th century, not the 1980s.

“Oh right!” I nevertheless replied, not correcting him because doing so would have been inconsiderate, and because he was at that moment running his hands down my legs, starting at a “sensitive area.”

“But in Chile,” he explained, “they never had the fungus [insect]. That’s why I think their wines taste a little better,” he confided in me, giving me a wink as he checked his gloved hands for bomb residue. And he may indeed be right — there are those who say that American rootstocks adversely affected the taste of European wines post-phylloxera, and that Chilean wines may have a slight advantage, growing on their original vinifera roots. “Have fun at your conference!”

I put my belt, shoes and watch back on, wondering how the heck I ended up talking about phylloxera with a security guard’s fingers partially in my pants. I can only imagine that it’s an omen of things to come at the Wine Bloggers Conference!

The Remarkable Red Of Viña Vik

14 February 2015
Viña Vik

Viña Vik

I have had the fortune to explore numerous wine regions around the world, but never have I stayed in a hotel quite like Viña Vik. This new property gleams from its hilltop perch like an alien space base, its spiraling titanium roof a beacon above the vineyards. And what vineyards!

Millahue ValleyThey grow in the valley and up the sides of the low mountains surrounding the hotel on all sides, until finally they give way to groves of acacia. A small lake covers much of the rest of the valley floor, where flocks of waterfowl gather. It is a sublime landscape. Every view from the hotel is a vineyard view.

On the map in my World Atlas of Wine, Viña Vik looks to be just a stone’s throw from one of my favorite Chilean wineries, Casa Lapostolle. But Viña Vik is on the edge of the Cachapoal Valley, and Casa Lapostolle is in the Colchagua Valley. I was disappointed to learn that despite their proximity as the crow flies, it takes well over an hour to drive between them, skirting a high ridge. Fortunately, confining myself to the Viña Vik property didn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.

I toured the vineyards with Miguel, a young gentleman who “used to hate wine.” It seems working at Viña Vik has changed all that — his passion for wine became quite clear as he showed me the 950-some acres of vineyards and led me through a tasting. He pointed out where Cabernet  was planted, where Merlot, and the hillsides of slower-ripening Carmenère, Chile’s signature variety. “All the vines are grafted onto American rootstocks,” he explained, “because of the phylloxera.”

Carmenère Grapes

Carmenère Grapes

Confused, I replied, “But there is no phylloxera in Chile.” Chile is one of the few wine-growing countries in the world as yet unaffected by the destructive aphid-like pests.

“American rootstocks give you better grapes,” he quickly responded. He gestured towards the panorama of grape vines before us. “These are the only vineyards in Chile growing on American rootstocks.”

The quality of American versus European rootstocks is up for debate, but the care with which Viña Vik selected its rootstocks is indisputable. In the strikingly contemporary winery — water flows all around the boulders scattered about its roof, keeping the barrel room cool and humidified — he showed me several maps of the valley. Agronomists had carefully tested the soil composition at regular intervals, and Viña Vik determined which of seven different American rootstocks best matched the soil in each parcel of land. Though a certain section of the valley may be all Cabernet, for example, those vines aren’t necessarily growing on the same type of rootstock.

Viña Vik's WineryMiguel guided me through an absolutely fascinating private tasting in the barrel room. The winery currently produces only one wine, but Miguel didn’t restrict the tasting to that one red blend. First, we tried some of its component parts, including a big, tough and well-structured 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon; a round, decadent and much softer 2013 Merlot; and a complex and earthy 2013 Carmenère with a finish redolent of mesquite smoke and spice. (Syrah also goes into the mix.)

Tasting these components helped me identify their contributions to the final blend. The 2010 Vik had an enticing aroma of dark, almost jammy fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay the bottle down for another couple of years. The finish went on and on.

Viña Vik Varietals

Bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère that go into Vik’s blend

I found this wine for sale here in the U.S., retailing for $150 at Sotheby’s Wine. Yet the Viña Vik hotel pours the wine freely as its house red! Each lunch and dinner, decanters of the stuff would appear, and waitstaff would fill our glasses as often as we liked. It was always served too warm, alas, but even so — what a treat! It worked especially well with a dish of Wagyu beef slow-cooked for 24 hours and served with a rich potato purée.

I’ll never forget my stay at Viña Vik. Because of the wine, yes, but also because of the 4.8-magnitude earthquake which startled this Midwesterner out of bed one morning. It lasted all of six or seven seconds, but that was enough to have me springing out of the sheets and diving, naked, under the desk.

Viña Vik's red blendAnd there was the afternoon an odd smoggy haze filled the valley and drifted over the hotel. I later learned that it was no smog. At dinner, a couple related how they had been hiking and encountered a helicopter manned by heavily armed guards. Instead of walking the other direction, they approached and asked for the time. The guards, it turned out, were the Chilean equivalent of DEA agents. They had discovered an illegal field of marijuana on public land adjacent to the hotel’s property and were setting it on fire. That was the smoggy haze — a great cloud of pot smoke! No wonder the Wagyu beef tasted so good that night…

Postcard From Chile

26 January 2015

I didn’t have a chance to visit many wineries in Chile — the hotel I selected was on the wrong side of the mountain. But the vineyards here are stupendously beautiful, and the wines I’ve tried exhibit rich fruit, prominent spice and good structure. What a blessing, to visit such a scenic wine region that produces such elegant wines! It’s sheer joy to be here.


Carmenère Vineyards at Viña Vik in the Colchagua Valley


Casa Marín Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the San Antonio Valley

A focused Casa Marín Cipreses Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from the San Antonio Valley


Horseback Riding through the vineyards of Viña Vik

Horseback riding through the vineyards of Viña Vik

Top Red Wines Of 2014

9 January 2015
A fun and fruity 2011 Posta Kadarka from Szekszárd, Hungary

A fun and fruity 2011 Posta Kadarka from Szekszárd, Hungary

This list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better, whether we’re in Chile, California, Colorado or Croatia.  Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2014, in alphabetical order:


Ciprian Pinot Noir

Ciprian Pinot Noir in Vienna’s Silvio Nickol restaurant


The adventurous sommelier at Silvio Nickol in Vienna poured me a glass of this extraordinary Swiss Pinot Noir from Zizers, a little-known AOC in Graubünden, set on the Rhein River just south of Liechtenstein. I don’t usually quote directly from the notes I take while tasting, but I’ll make an exception in this case and quote from my notebook at length:

“Gorgeously balanced — exquisite surprise! Great finesse. Earth, deep red fruit, elegant acids, aromatic cherry finish. Light, joyous, refined — how do I get some?? Chills down spine!”

The Swiss export almost none of their wines to the United States, unfortunately.



Only about 89 acres of Charbono vines remain in California, and Duxoup makes one of the best Charbono varietals. The winery sources its fruit from the Frediani Vineyard, comprising 10 acres of old Charbono vines along the Silverado Trail: “The most sought-after Charbono on the planet,” according to The Wine News.

The wine was a pleasure in every respect, with aromas of rich, dark berries and plum. Forceful and big, it tasted of ripe, dark, dusky fruit, and I was impressed by its focused acids and well-balanced tannins. I don’t often spend $20 on a bottle of wine, but for something so rare and well-crafted, $20 seems like a steal. (The current vintage is 2011.)



El Enemigo

A lineup of The Enemy

El Enemigo is a side project of the winemaker of Catena Zapata, one of Argentina’s most highly regarded wineries. Its name refers to “the enemy in ourselves, the one stopping us from trying something different — something extraordinary,” explained Enemigo representative Constanza Hartung. The wines she presented, with one exception, did not rely heavily on Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, these blends showcased Cabernet Franc.

In this blend of 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec, there was a freshness to the aroma, but it had notable undertones of earth and dark fruit. When I tasted it, I just thought, “Wow.” It was lush and rich, but simultaneously focused and clean. Quite a balancing act.


Katunar "Kurykta Anton" Syrah, with boeuf Bourguignon

Katunar “Kurykta Anton” Syrah, with boeuf Bourguignon


The Katunar vineyards have an enviable location on the south end of the island of Krk, just southeast of the Istrian peninsula. Father and son Anton and Toni Katunar exploit their fine terroir fully. The 2010 Katunar “Kurykta Anton” was thoroughly delicious.

Referred to as Kurykta Nigra on the Katunar website, this deep magenta-hued Syrah had an instantly appealing aroma of earth, iron and red fruit. It felt very well-balanced, with a rich texture and luscious red-fruit flavors leavened by deep undertones of earth and a bright zing of acids. I also loved the overtones of violets and the tightly focused metallic finish. The rustic acids helped the wine pair beautifully with some traditional boeuf Bourguignon, standing up to the hearty flavors in the dish and clearing the palate for the next bite.



One of six unusual single-vineyard Syrahs that the estimable Chilean winery Lapostolle recently assembled in a special half-case, the Pirque had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma. It felt silky on the tongue and revealed itself slowly, deliberately. There was a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. Sexy and very classy. (The single-vineyard Carmenères are also excellent.)

The half-case of single-vineyard Syrahs (or Carmenères) would make an excellent gift, should you have a oenophile in your life that you wish to impress. It’s great fun to compare and contrast the wines side-by-side, to see the effects of the different terroirs.


Marko Babsek of the Balkan Wine Project, introducing me to Stobi Vranec

Marko Babsek of the Balkan Wine Project, introducing me to Stobi Vranec


Tiny, landlocked Macedonia lies on the northern border of Greece, making it the southernmost of the former Yugoslav republics. Stobi is one of its largest wineries, and it used to export bulk wine to the Soviet Union before retooling to concentrate on quality instead of just quantity.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Vranec (also spelled “Vranac”), an ancient red variety native to the Balkans with a parent/offspring relationship to Zinfandel. It was a bottle of velvety Jović Vranac from Serbia which inspired this blog. This Macedonian expression had a ripe and lush dark-fruit aroma with an intriguing saline overtone. Very well-balanced, the wine had plummy fruit, a wonderful dusky quality and a spicy finish. Delightful.



Dinner at Dunton Hot Springs paired with Sutcliffe wines

Dinner at Dunton Hot Springs paired with Sutcliffe wines

When I went to Colorado, I had no expectation of finding fine wine. Had I cracked open my Oxford Companion to Wine — always a good idea before heading off on a trip to pretty much anywhere — I would have discovered that “Colorado’s increasing vineyard area (nearly 1,000 acres) and growing number of wineries (over 50) are beginning to provide wines of quality to its major tourist market as well as Denver…” Sutcliffe is among those leading the charge.

Most blends occur in the winery, with a winemaker choosing so much of this and so much of that. A field blend occurs in the vineyard, blending whatever grape varieties happen to be growing together. This wine “gives the true taste of McElmo Canyon,” according to the Sutcliffe website. I loved its rich, dark-fruit aroma, and it had rich, creamy fruit on the palate. It had elegantly soft tannins and a dry finish, and it became even bigger and richer when paired with some “truffle tremor” cheese.


What fortune, to have tasted so many beautiful, unusual wines! I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store.

Exploring The Terroir Of Chile

12 December 2014

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard CarmenereSingle-vineyard wines are nothing new. Burgundy has perhaps the most famous examples, and in recent years, vintners in the U.S. have also started marketing vineyard-designated bottlings. But it’s still relatively rare to see single-vineyard wines from anywhere in South America, which has a shorter history of high-quality winemaking.

Vinous excellence is certainly no stranger to South America now, however, as illustrated by this recent tasting, and this one, and this one. It makes sense that ambitious winemakers would now want to take things a step further and start delving into the subtleties of terroir.

The word “terroir” refers to all the factors affecting a certain patch of land, be it soil composition, exposure to light or wind, elevation, rainfall, etc. Wines lose their sense of terroir in direct proportion to the size of the geographical area from which their grapes were harvested. A Sonoma Coast wine will have, in theory, more of a sense of terroir than a wine labeled simply “California,” even if the Sonoma Coast wine comes from more than one vineyard.

This concept sounds esoteric, and you may very well be wondering, who cares? And it’s true that a single-vineyard wine does not guarantee quality, nor does a blended wine necessarily suffer in any way. Some of the world’s very best wines are blends. But single-vineyard wines most often come from vineyards that winemakers regard as special. Setting the grapes from this vineyard aside allows them to display all of what makes that particular site great. A single-vineyard wine also connects the taster to the land in a way that a blend, however grand, simply cannot.

Lapostolle Carmenere Gift BoxI was very excited, therefore, to learn about Lapostolle‘s single-vineyard Carmenères and Syrahs. I can’t recall tasting single-vineyard Chilean wines before, and I’d never tried a single-vineyard Carmenère from anywhere. This variety was popular as a blending grape in Bordeaux in the 18th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but it slowly fell out of favor for various reasons, and now it rarely pops up in its homeland. The grape arrived in Chile from Bordeaux in the 19th century, where it was mistaken for Merlot until 1994. Now, just 20 years later, Carmenère has become the signature variety of Chile.

The country may be extraordinarily narrow, but the terroir varies as much east to west as north to south because of the effects of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. It was absolutely fascinating, then, to taste single-vineyard Carmenères from Marchigüe, near the Pacific, Apalta, in the middle of the country, and Portezuelo, closer to the mountains (as illustrated by their labels).

Each was a delight. The 2010 Marchigüe smelled of plum jam, and it had dark fruit leavened by bright green peppercorn spice. The 2010 Apalta had a heady, jammy aroma and flavors of ripe dark-red fruit and big but focused white peppercorn spice. The group favorite, however, was the sexy 2010 Portezuelo Carmenère, with its creamy raspberry aromas and big, dusky fruit. Some smokiness and meatiness undergirded the fruit, and despite the ripeness and sultriness of the wine, it maintained impressive focus. Though each wine came from the same grape, the same vintage and the same producer, each had its own distinctive character.

Lapostolle Pirque SyrahI also had the opportunity to try two of the six Syrahs, which come from vineyards running north to south. The 2010 Pirque and the  2010 Las Kuras both came from vineyards relatively close to the Andes, but the Pirque vineyard is in Maipo, and Las Kuras is in the Cachapoal Valley, the wine region immediately to the south. The Las Kuras Syrah smelled of chocolate and violets, and its bright acids and black pepper spice kept its dark fruit well in balance. The Pirque also had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma, but it felt silkier on the tongue and revealed itself more slowly than the Las Kuras. It had a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. It felt sexy and very classy, whereas Las Kuras was more of a “punch in the face — in a good way,” as a fellow taster noted.

Either the half-case of Syrah or the half-case of Carmenère would be an ideal base for a wine-tasting party. It’s great fun to try the wines side-by-side to compare them. The boxes also make a beautiful gift for a wine lover you would like to impress. Each half-case costs $200, and you can purchase them at The Carmenère box includes two wines from each of three vineyards, and the Syrah box includes six different wines.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more single-vineyard wines like these coming out of South America, and if these thoroughly delicious bottlings are any indication, we’re in for a treat.

Note: These samples were provided free of charge by Terlato Wines.

A Delicious Mutant

26 October 2014
Gabriel Mustakis

Gabriel Mustakis with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

At large wine-tasting events, I usually run out of time before I get to try everything I would like. And a recent tasting of Portuguese, Spanish, Argentinean and Chilean wines organized by Winebow in the Pump Room of Chicago’s Public Hotel was no different. With only minutes to spare, I realized to my horror that I hadn’t yet tried one of the wines I was most excited to experience. I dedicated my last minutes to the table of Chilean winery Cousiño-Macul, which, in addition to the expected Chardonnays and Cabernets, presented an unusual Sauvignon Gris.

Cousiño-Macul’s youthful agricultural engineer and chief winemaker, Gabriel Mustakis, manned the table, and he explained that the parents of the current Sauvignon Gris vines came over in 1860 from Bordeaux, arriving just before phylloxera hit France. This pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc almost became extinct because of its low yields, but the variety “has an increasing following, notably in Bordeaux and the Loire,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and it “has found itself quite at home in Chile,” Wine Searcher explains.

The renewed interest in this variety is no doubt due to the fact that these wines can be “much more elegant” (if less aromatic) than Sauvignon Blanc, as Wine Searcher attests, and that Sauvignon Gris can “produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” as the Oxford Companion asserts.

The 2013 Cousiño-Macul “Isidora” Sauvignon Gris, named for the family’s 19th-century matriarch, certainly had no lack of aroma. It smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted the wine, which had very focused acids and laser-like spice. It tasted bright, zesty and cheerful, with ample fruit and acids well in balance. Not too shabby for a wine that typically retails for less than $14!

I found an entry on Cousiño-Macul in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The review was quite mixed — it called Cousiño-Macul “Chile’s one-time best winery,” lamenting that the winery “maintained its old-fashioned standards” as other producers overtook them in terms of quality. But this 2007 edition of Sotheby’s goes on to say that Cousiño-Macul “recently relocated to new vineyards, and has started producing fresher, fruitier, better-focused wines since the 2002 vintage.”

Based on this distinctly fresh, fruity and focused Sauvignon Gris and the creamy and exotic 2012 Antiguas Reservas Chardonnay I tasted, I’d say my Sotheby’s Encyclopedia is out of date in this case. Cousiño-Macul is clearly back at the top of its game.

An Unexpectedly Centered Tasting

5 April 2014

Tasting with Rebecca DelottOver the years, I’ve tasted wine in a lot of different places, including obvious places such as tasting rooms, restaurants and cellars, as well as more unusual places such as ghost townsnational landmarks and buses. But I had a completely new and unusual wine tasting experience a few days ago, thanks to my favorite yoga teacher.

Rebecca Delott organizes periodic yoga and wine tasting events. That might strike you as gimmicky, and perhaps in less expert hands it would be. Rebecca, however, leads yoga classes as well as wine tastings professionally. The wine tasting isn’t just a way to get people to come to yoga. It’s an integral part of the class.

About 16 or 18 of us gathered at Namaskar Yoga Studio on Chicago’s north side, and participants ranged in age from late 20s to mid 50s or so. We did some vinyasa flow yoga for 75 minutes, with several opportunities to do relatively advanced poses. After the class, the couple across from me remarked, “We usually do the beginners class here, but we’re in the big leagues now!” Like any good yoga teacher, Rebecca frequently illustrates several ways to do a pose, ranging from the gentle to the truly challenging, which makes the class suitable for yoga neophytes and experts alike.

Side Angle pose with Cabernet

Side Angle pose with 2012 Apaltagua Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon

I must admit I just expected to get a workout and a wine tasting, which wouldn’t have been at all a bad thing. But the yoga class left me feeling centered, grounded and relaxed — not necessarily my usual state of mind. It actually changed the wine-tasting experience. My nose and palate felt more open and receptive. Just as drinking from the right glass can enhance a wine, it seems doing some sun salutations in advance of a tasting can as well!

The four Chilean wines we sampled weren’t especially unusual — a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon — but each was well-balanced and quite tasty. Rebecca gracefully fielded an array of questions about the wines, ranging from “What does ‘unoaked’ mean?” to more technical questions about vinification. She managed to hold her audience’s attention even as she discussed carbonic maceration, an achievement I wouldn’t have thought possible.

If you have a chance to attend one of Rebecca’s classes ($40), it’s well worth it to experience how yoga affects the wine tasting experience (check the “Workshops” page of the Namaskar Yoga website for upcoming dates). Some exercise and meditation turns out to be an excellent warm-up for the palate.

Cheers and Namaste!

Top White Wines Of 2013

27 December 2013

White WineLast year, I assembled all my favorites into one list, but because 2013 brought so many memorable wines I wanted to highlight, I had to separate them into top whites and top reds. Many of my favorite white wines of 2013 cost less than $20, and one can be had for less than $10 — yet more evidence that taking a risk on an unusual bottle can really pay off.

The 10 wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets. 

I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in balance, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply sweet and innocuous. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

You may not find all the wines below with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine shop will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2013:



I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.



The family-owned Bodega Bouza in Uruguay focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. Powerful and exciting.



The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Andrea León Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night, to help preserve freshness in the fruit.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded. This Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.



I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I couldn’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.



It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this British Columbian ice wine, Hainle hit a smashing home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get your hands on a bottle of this wine, for God’s sake, do it.



Mazzoni Pinot GrigioI had never sampled, to my knowledge, a Tuscan Pinot Grigio. All the quality Italian Pinot Grigios I knew of came from the mountainous north, from Alto Adige or Friuli. A Tuscan Pinot Grigio varietal — a white Super Tuscan — is extremely unusual.

Many of us associate Pinot Grigio with light, inoffensive and bland flavors; it’s a wine for a hot summer pool party or a beach picnic. But this golden-hued beauty had some oomph. After pressing, the juice sits for 24 hours on the skins, giving the wine additional body, followed by 25 days of cold fermentation, increasing the wine’s acidity. The craftsmanship is readily apparent in both the aroma and flavor.

The wine smelled fresh and lively, like a green whiff of spring. On the palate, it exhibited focused and controlled fruit, prickly acids, some aromatic qualities, and a surprisingly lush finish. It was light but complex, and a fine value for the price. Sampled with a white pizza topped with arugula and parmesan, the food-friendly acids kicked into high gear, and the wine became juicier and rounder. A delight.



Planeta CarricanteThe Carricante variety is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” according to the Wine Searcher website. The Planeta expression of this ancient variety has a wonderfully seductive aroma with notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and racier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.



A surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay, the Grau Weiss sounds a little crazy to me, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!



On its label, this Sauvignon Blanc declares itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I turned to my trusty reference library for some answers as to what a Sauvignon Blanc was doing in Burgundy. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. The AOC has only about 250 acres of vineyards located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis.

The Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What an incredible value for $12!



Weingut Dr. von Basserman-JordanThis single-vineyard Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region is a Grosses Gewächs, a “Great Growth,” indicated by the “GG” on the label. Find those GGs if you can — they designate a vineyard of top quality, and grapes of at least Spätlese ripeness. “Spätlese” often connotes a sweet wine, but GG wines are classified as “trocken” (dry). This remarkable wine had a green, honeyed aroma, rather like a light Sauternes. I loved the rich, peachy fruit; the dry, white-peppercorn spice; and the forcefully driving acids keeping everything in taught balance.

The Not Merlot Of Chile

19 October 2013

Historically, Chile has not been especially proficient at identifying its grape varieties. As described in this post, Chile’s Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all until the 1990s. And it wasn’t until 1994 that a French professor discovered that thousands of acres of what was thought to be Merlot was actually another grape entirely. Since Merlot was quite fashionable in the 1990s (and up until the release of the film Sideways), vineyard owners must have been initially dismayed to learn that they in fact had some odd, old Bordeaux variety that no one had ever heard of. But what a propitious discovery it turned out to be.

The vineyards contained not Merlot but Carmenère, which had “virtually died out” in Bordeaux, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, by the time it was discovered in Chile. Though this variety is “rarely acknowledged in the vineyards of Bordeaux today,” notes The Oxford Companion to Wine, it was “widely cultivated in the Médoc in the early 18th century and, with Cabernet Franc, established the reputations of its best properties.” The reason the Bordelais eventually abandoned the variety, the Companion goes on, was because of its “susceptibility to coulure and resultant low yields.”

I think this is a fact that’s important to emphasize: The abandonment of Carmenère in Bordeaux had little or nothing to do with the quality of the wine it produced.

Even more exciting, the Carmenère “had been preserved in its pure, ungrafted format,” according to Sotheby’s, since the original vines had been imported from France in the 19th century before phylloxera required the grafting of vines onto American rootstocks. At its best, according to the Companion, when yields are limited, Carmenère “has the potential to make some very fine wines, combining some of the charm of Merlot with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea Leon Iriarte at Del Frisco's in Chicago

The author, Liz Barrett and Andrea León Iriarte at Del Frisco’s in Chicago

That sounds like a winning combination to me, and so it was with some anticipation that I sat down to dinner with Andrea León Iriarte, the winemaker of Casa Lapostolle (one of Chile’s most critically acclaimed wineries), and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for Lapostolle’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines.

Founded by the same family that owns Grand Marnier, Lapostolle grows its fruit organically, and then takes things one step further by employing time-consuming biodynamic practices as well. These practices have tangible effects in the vineyards and in the wines, according to Iriarte, who noted that organic and biodynamic agriculture has made the differences between vintages more distinct.

Just as important, Lapostolle sited its vineyards to take advantage of the most favorable terroir, rather than the most fertile soil (where many of Chile’s vineyards were originally located). The World Atlas of Wine cites one of Lapostolle’s vineyard sites by name, in fact, noting that “the most quality-conscious producers are now actively seeking poorer soils, such as those of Apalta in Colchagua for their best wines.” As described on the Lapostolle website, the shape of the Colchagua Valley also naturally regulates exposure to the sun, which is particularly beneficial in warmer climates.

All that sounds promising, but would the Carmenère varietals and Carmenère-based blends we were trying taste like the ideal that the Companion described above? Or would the wines be what Sotheby’s argues that Carmenère too often becomes, “a one-dimensional parody of overripe blackcurrants”? Let us consult my tasting notes:

2011 Lapostolle “Casa Grand Selection” Carmenère: Though officially a varietal, this wine is technically a blend of 89% Carmenère, 6% Merlot and 5% Syrah, and most of my resources agree that Carmenère indeed benefits from the addition of some blending grapes. I found the aroma of wine-soaked wood enticing, and the flavor did not disappoint: big fruit, round but lively acids, some oak, and a fresh finish — a pleasant parsley-like lift at the end. Paired with some of Del Frisco’s superbly tender beef, the wine tightened up, and more notes of iron and earth came to the fore. An excellent value for about $14, and certainly not the blackcurrant bomb of Sotheby’s fear.

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: The “Song of Apalta” was thus named, according to Iriarte, because of the birds’ nests discovered in the vineyard (the winery itself also takes the form of an abstracted bird’s nest). The 2011 is only the second vintage of this blend of 45% Carmenère, 25% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Syrah. A less-expensive reinterpretation of the flagship Clos Apalta, this wine was originally created for a restaurant, but it proved to be so popular, the winery started making more of it and marketing it more generally. I can see why. It had a nose of dark and dusky fruit, and powerful flavors. After a blast of big, big fruit, a hit of white-pepper spice kicked in followed by some significant but well-balanced tannins. Paired with the beef, the tannins felt more rustic, giving the pairing a rather masculine feel. Another very fine value for about $20 a bottle.

2011 Lapostolle “Cuvée Alexandre” Carmenère: The fruit for this wine, a blend of 85% Carmenère and 15% Syrah, comes entirely from the top-quality Apalta vineyard. And as with all Lapostolle’s wines, the fruit was hand-harvested. The attention to detail makes a difference — this wine had a meaty, red-fruit aroma and notable focus on the palate, with restrained red fruit, green-peppercorn spice and some soft tannins undergirded by a meaty note. Again, it packs a lot of flavor considering its $15 price tag.

2009 Lapostolle “Clos Apalta”: On its website, Lapostolle calls this opaque purple wine a “world-class blend in the Bordeaux tradition,” and indeed, if you are interested in experiencing what the top Bordeaux wines of the 18th century might have tasted like, the Clos Apalta might be getting close. A blend of 78% Carmenère, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot (another Bordeaux variety now rare in its original home), this wine is a worthy splurge, with fruit coming from vines ranging between 60 and 80 years old. I knew from the lusciously rich aroma that I would be in for a treat. Absolutely gorgeous fruit managed to seem at once jammy and focused — no mean feat. The perfectly balanced acids and tannins made the wine feel exceedingly elegant, and undertones of violets and thyme added to its complexity. The finish went on and on — just when I thought it would be over, yet another flavor would reveal itself. As Barrett aptly noted, the Clos Apalta “happily overstays its welcome.” It tasted fantastically rich with the lamb, which brought forth additional notes of dried herbs. It sounds expensive at $70, but if you put this wine side-by-side in a blind tasting with Bordeaux wines costing two or three times as much, my money is on the Clos Apalta.

It seems odd to think that Bordeaux’s reputation as a top wine region is due in no small part, historically speaking, to the former success of its Carmenère-based blends. It seems odd, that is, until you taste wines like Lapostolle’s.

A Formerly Unusual Sauvignon Blanc

16 October 2013

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc may not sound especially unusual, but the story of this wine is surprising indeed. For many years, it turns out, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all.

According to The World Atlas of Wine, much of what was sold as Sauvignon Blanc “was actually Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse” (The Oxford Companion to Wine considers these two varieties to be synonymous). Despite their names, they have little in common with Sauvignon Blanc. The Oxford Companion notes that “wines produced from Sauvignonasse are much less crisp and aromatic than those of Sauvignon Blanc.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia has less patience with Sauvignonasse, simply stating that it’s “not related to Sauvignon and has no Sauvignon character whatever.”

Tom Stevenson, the author of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, was frustrated by Chile’s unwillingness to distinguish between Sauvignon and Sauvignonasse, and he made a trip to the vineyards himself. In addition to plenty of Sauvignonasse, he discovered acres of confusing mutations and crosses: “Sémillon with Sauvignon, Sauvignonasse with Sauvignon, and Sauvignonasse with Sémillon.” Separating the Sauvignon Blanc from the Sauvignonasse turned out to be not so simple after all.

But in the 1990s, Chilean vintners began a serious effort to replant vineyards with true Sauvignon Blanc, and today any reputable winery that labels its wine as Sauvignon Blanc is indeed bottling wine made entirely (or almost entirely) from true Sauvignon Blanc. One Chilean Sauvignon Blanc particularly worth seeking out is made by Casa Lapostolle, a critically acclaimed 19-year-old winery founded by the owners of Grand Marnier.

I had the opportunity to sample a glass of the 2012 Lapostolle Casa Grand Selection Sauvignon Blanc over dinner with winemaker Andrea León Iriarte and Liz Barrett, Vice President of Corporate Communications for the wine’s U.S. distributor, Terlato Wines. It put to rest any remaining doubts as to whether Chile can make world-class Sauvignon Blanc.

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in the Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night. This practice helps preserve some freshness in the fruit as well as reduce energy costs. Because the grapes come in already cool from the night air, the winery expends less energy bringing the grapes to the correct temperature for fermentation.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded — this Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

This wine, it should be noted, isn’t 100% Sauvignon Blanc. The 8% Sémillon and 2% Sauvignon Gris surely help round out the edges. Iriarte confided that there likely is just a touch of Sauvignonasse in the blend as well, from “just one or two” old vines that weren’t removed from the vineyards. “It adds to the complexity,” she said. It’s also a subtle nod to Chilean wine history; a faint whisper from another era.

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