Spain

Terroir, Schmerroir: Dave Phinney’s “Locations” Wines

21 March 2017

Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

I can think of no buzzier buzz word in the wine world than “terroir.” How often do we read something about how a wine reflects its terroir or expresses its terroir? The phrases describe a wine that represents where it was made, with clear influences from the local climate and soil in its aroma and flavor. Americans are relative newcomers to the concept — we tend to think in terms of grape varieties. It’s the French who have developed the potential of terroir to its fullest extent, as evidenced by regions like Burgundy, where vineyard site is everything.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the terroir bandwagon. You can find single-vineyard wines everywhere from the Okanagan Valley to Central Otago. And the fashion for “terroir-driven wines” only continues to grow.

It takes some guts, therefore, to say screw it, I’m going to make a really delicious wine from Portugal or Argentina or wherever, but about 35,000 thousand square miles is as far as I’m going to narrow it down in terms of terroir. Even in California, most respectable winemakers restrict their bottlings to at least a single region, like Napa or Sonoma. A label that simply says “California” doesn’t ordinarily inspire confidence. Unless, that is, that label is on a wine made by master blender Dave Phinney.

California-based Phinney founded a wildly popular and critically acclaimed red blend called The Prisoner (a brand he sold in 2010), as well as the highly regarded Orin Swift Cellars. Blends from both companies have appeared in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists (and even Top 10 lists), indicating that Phinney “has a knack for mixing and matching vineyards and grapes,” as Wine Spectator puts it.

His new venture, Locations, would seem to be all about terroir, given the name, as well as the first sentence of the winery’s Philosophy statement: “In the world of wine there are compelling Locations that exist where soil, climate and vines interact to produce grapes that uniquely express their Location through wine.” But Phinney goes on to lament that “laws and restrictions [discouraging cross-appellation blending] make it near impossible to express true winemaking freedom.” The goal of Locations is to combine grapes from top vineyards across several different regions in, say, Italy, to create a new and entirely unique blend that represents the country as a whole. So in a sense, these wines simultaneously celebrate and obliterate the concept of terroir.

With a collection of nine bottles of Locations, sent to me by the winery’s PR company, I decided it was time to host a blind tasting. I lined the bottles up, turned them around, mixed them up and bagged them, so that not even I knew which bottle was which. My group, a mix of wine professionals and amateurs, had a spirited debate about which wine came from where. We only occasionally all agreed, but there was general consensus that this was one of the most consistently enjoyable tastings I’ve ever held.

All the wines were red except one, a French rosé, which I left unbagged and served as an aperitif. This 100% Grenache from the South of France tasted full and fruity, with plenty of watermelon and strawberry notes, ample acids, a pleasingly bitter note and some minerality on the finish. My friends called it “delightful,” “surprising” and “f*cking good.” Its weight, one taster noted, makes it an ideal rosé for winter. In America, we think of rosé exclusively as a summer wine, but why shouldn’t we drink it when it’s cold outside? Rosé is delicious any time of year, and if I were in the mood to splurge just a bit, I would certainly pay the $19 price for this example.

Of the bagged wines, there was only one that everyone in the group guessed correctly: Oregon, the very last bottle we tried. Oregon made it easy because it was a varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, and because it came from just one region, the Willamette Valley. I got taut cherry fruit, baking spice and a tart, rather austerely elegant finish, but others noted some cough syrup in the aroma and even a touch of Kraft caramels. “It wants fat,” one taster said, and indeed, it worked quite well with some pizza topped with bacon, onion and mushroom.

All the other wines provoked disagreement, and sometimes disbelief when the country was revealed. In the order we tasted them:

Wine #1: Big and dark, with rich black-cherry fruit, soft tannins, a meaty note and some mocha on the finish. Again, there was a touch of pleasing bitterness. “It tastes way better than it smells,” one friend remarked, though I rather liked its plummy aroma with vanilla overtones. I guessed Italy, thinking of grapes like Negroamaro. Others guessed Argentina and France, but it was, in fact, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah from various vineyards in Washington. Oops!

Wine #2: “Leather!” and “Cigar box!” were shouts I heard about the aroma, which also had lots of jammy red fruit.  The wine moved from ripe, ripe dark-red fruit to a big pop of spice and some rather chewy tannins. “They’re flirting with my cheeks, in a good way,” one taster said of the tannins. And what a fantastic pairing with that bacon/onion/mushroom pizza — big, bold and beautiful. With that kind of flavor, I guessed California, as did everyone else, except for one Argentina holdout. And California it was! A blend of Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills.

Wine #3: “Oh, that’s a big boy,” a taster exclaimed. I got a lot of purple from this wine — dark fruit and a tone of violets in the aroma, and on the palate, some more dark fruit (people called it everything from fresh plums to grape candy), leavened with white pepper spice and a dry, rather tannic finish. We all convinced each other that this wine was from Spain, but it was actually a blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Touriga Franca, sourced mostly from the Douro (with a little Alentejo thrown in). So we were close: It was from Portugal.

Wine #4: A transparent garnet color, this wine had a taut red-fruit aroma marked with something savory, something meaty. “Pinot can taste like blood,” one guest suggested. But the flavor made me not so sure: red fruit followed by black olive and black pepper spice, with very few tannins. Olive plus black pepper made me think of the South of France, but everyone else guessed Italy. Sometimes it pays to go against the consensus — it was indeed France! A blend of Grenache, Syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varieties” from the Rhône Valley, Roussillon (near Languedoc) and Bordeaux.

Wine #5: “Son of a bitch!” We all had trouble figuring out this one, with its hooded dark-fruit aroma, ripe dark-red cherry fruit, ample acids, pop of spice and clear, supple tannins. “Zinfandel?” one person guessed. “There’s a squeaky finish on this one. On my teeth!” said another, providing one of the evening’s more enigmatic tasting notes. Somewhat at a loss, we all went for Washington. The wine was from the New World, but in fact it was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina.

Wine #6: We felt some relief when we got to this wine, with its raisiny aroma, raisiny fruit, ample spice and serious tannins on the finish. Everyone loved it, and everyone thought it was from Portugal (except for one obstinate guest who insisted on California). The raisins and tannins reminded us of Port, but unfortunately, no one was reminded of passito. Passito wines, such as Amarone, make use of partially raisinated grapes. And indeed, #6 was not from Portugal but from Italy. Argh! It was a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia as well as Barbera from Piedmont. (I can find no evidence of passito-style drying of the grapes.)

Wine #7: “This has biting tannins, but it like it — rrrrr — it hurts so good,” said one taster. “It’s hot hot hot!” another exclaimed, referring to what felt like a rather high alcohol content. I got lots of dark-red fruit, black pepper, an olive note and a bit of mocha at the back of the throat. I guessed that this delicious wine came from Argentina, and others went with Portugal or France. But of course, you know that it was none of these. Instead, it was a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan) from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain.

All these wines retail for about $17 to $19, making them an affordable indulgence and an excellent value for the money. Different as they were, the Locations wines each had finely tuned balance and a sense of depth, enhanced by fruit that tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, sometimes leavened with something savory or briny. That’s a profile I can get behind.

Dave Phinney asks, “The question is – do you break the rules, and thousands of years of history and tradition, in pursuit of expressing freedom?” There’s a lot to be said for rules when it comes to wine — they’re doing something right in Burgundy, after all — but Locations makes a compelling case that sometimes you should just toss the rule book into the destemming machine and go for it.

Note: These wines were provided for review free of charge.

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What To Buy A Wine Geek For Christmas

13 December 2016

Christmas Party‘Tis the season for holiday parties, my most favorite season of all. A good friend of mine recently threw one, and conversation turned, as it inevitably does at such events, to whether we had finished our Christmas shopping. My friend hadn’t, and he confessed that he found me especially difficult to shop for.

“Why?” I asked, more than a little incredulous. I can’t think of anyone with desires less complicated than mine.

“Well,” he responded, “I know you like wine, but you’ve got your wine blog and everything, so I always feel nervous picking a bottle out for you.”

“What??” I didn’t bother trying to understand his feelings, and chose instead to act like he was an idiot. “Just go in a decent wine shop, tell the clerk that you have a wine snob friend, tell him your budget, and have the clerk pick something out,” I said, a little too loudly. I wasn’t even drunk. All I’d had was two chocolate/peppermint scones and a cup of decaf.

That is really all you need to do to come up with perfectly wonderful gift for the wine geek in your life. Find a good wine shop, go into it, and ask an employee for a recommendation for a wine snob that costs between $___ and $___.

A grower Champagne

A grower Champagne

I would end my gift-guide post right here, but I know that lots of people out there would rather have Trump fact-check their foreign policy thesis paper than ask a wine shop clerk for advice. For a birthday one year, I remember that I asked party guests to bring me an unusual wine. I made it very clear that it need not be expensive, and that if people had doubts, that they should ask a wine store clerk for advice. Precisely one of my guests asked a clerk for advice (she brought me a beautiful white from Santorini).

I’m not entirely sure why there is this aversion to talking with wine store clerks. Perhaps it’s a worry that the clerk will hard-sell an expensive wine, or even worse, that the clerk will judge a person who doesn’t have a lot of wine knowledge.

Judgmental wine clerks do exist, I can’t deny it. I wrote about one at Binny’s that I encountered a while back, for example. Fortunately, he is much more the exception than the rule. Most wine shop employees are great fun to chat with and are more than happy to recommend something in whatever price range you set.

Frank Cornelissen

Frank Cornelissen

That said, if you’re determined not to talk to a wine clerk, here are a few gift ideas guaranteed to impress your wine geek friend without breaking the bank:

Grower Champagne. Most Champagne is a blend of grapes grown by different vineyard owners. Grower Champagne, however, is produced by the person who grew the grapes. To tell the difference, you’ll need your reading glasses. Look for a number on the bottom of the label (it might be on the front or back). If it starts with “RM,” you’ve got a grower Champagne. If it starts with “NM” or the less-common “CM,” you don’t. Grower Champagnes start at about $30 or so.

Something from Jura. Pronounced approximately “zhoo-rah,” this region, located just east of Burgundy in France, has become a darling of wine geeks everywhere.  Expect to pay around $18 to $25.

Something from Sicily. Sicily, too, has surged in popularity, but don’t just grab any old Sicilian off the shelf. Go for something that costs more than $15. Bonus points if you can find something by Frank Cornelissen.

Weingut Christmann in the Pfalz

Weingut Christmann in the Pfalz

High-end red from Argentina or Chile. People tend to regard wines from Argentina and Chile as bargains, not splurges, and indeed, there are plenty of wonderfully drinkable inexpensive wines from these two countries. But many winemakers have upped their game, and it has become easier and easier to find Argentine and Chilean wines with true elegance and force. In general, look for something that costs $20 or more, and it’s bound to taste more expensive than it is.

Single-Vineyard Riesling. Any wine geek worth his or her brix will appreciate a high-quality Riesling. Look for one from the Mosel or Pfalz with a vineyard designation. A German vineyard name often consists of two words, the first ending in “-er,” as in Ürziger Würzgarten. Look to spend between $20 and $30.

Oversize bottles are always a hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Oversize bottles are always a hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Toro. This Spanish wine can vary in quality, but the region is small and exclusive enough that you’re likely to find a big, fruity and spicy red, whichever Toro you choose. It’s a a less obvious choice than Rioja, and it’s one of my personal favorites. Toros start at around $16, but buy one over $20 if you can.

A Magnum of anything. A Magnum is a large-format bottle containing the equivalent of two standard bottles of wine. No wine snob can resist a Magnum. If you can find and afford a Double Magnum or a Jeroboam, the recipient will be your devoted friend for life.

And remember folks, it’s just wine. It’s supposed to be fun. Shopping for wine should be fun, giving wine should be fun, and drinking wine should certainly be fun. Don’t let anyone else, be it a judgmental shop clerk or an overly picky wine snob friend, tell you otherwise.

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The Obscure Delights Of Sumoll

8 July 2016

Sumoll, minor Catalan red wine grape usually blended, known as Vijariego Negra on the Canary Islands.

Gaintus "Radical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Radical” Sumoll

Thus reads the entirety of The Oxford Companion to Wine‘s description of Sumoll, which ranks among the shortest entries in the volume. If even the Oxford Companion can’t muster enough energy to make a single complete sentence about a grape variety, you know it’s really, really obscure. I was therefore amazed to learn from DeVinos that there used to be more Sumoll in Spain than Garnacha (Grenache), a variety which now counts among the country’s most ubiquitous grapes. What happened?

The 19th-century phylloxera plague took its toll, DeVinos explains, and according to Wine Searcher, most of the remaining vineyards were uprooted “in favor of less temperamental varieties.” The website of the Heretat MontRubí winery calls Sumoll a “delicate variety and so difficult to grow.” Wine Searcher agrees, noting that “The variety gives large grapes but low yields and is quite difficult to work with.” It’s not difficult to empathize with farmers who, faced with phylloxera-devastated fields of Sumoll, decided to grow something just a little bit easier and more internationally popular.

Sumoll RoseFor much of the 20th century, the only people with any interest in Sumoll, it seems, were Australians. For all its fussiness, Sumoll is “particularly drought-resistant,” according to Wine Searcher, and wine growers Down Under created four hybrids using the variety: Rubien, Cienna, Tyrian and Vermillion (Cienna merits no fewer than three sentences in the Oxford Companion). But aside from some Australian ampelographers, few cared all that much about Sumoll.

The last few years have seen a resurgence in interest in local, indigenous varieties that arguably better express the personality of a wine region. This fashion may just have rescued Sumoll from extinction. Current plantings only cover about 300 acres, but a handful of dedicated wineries are giving the grape some much-needed attention.

This underdog variety captured my attention at a recent Catalan wine tasting, and I could hardly pass up the chance when a winery offered to send me four different samples of wines made from the variety.

Heretat MontRubí stands in Penedes, the heart of Spain’s Cava country, but the winery produces only small-production still wines — nothing sparkling. It released the first varietal Sumoll in 2001 (at least the first seen since phylloxera hit), and the winery now bottles three, a rosé and two reds, in addition to a Sumoll-based blend. Finding one Sumoll is rare enough, but to taste four side by side in one evening? That’s like winning the Odd Bacchus lottery.

Gaintus "Vertical" Sumoll

Gaintus “Vertical” Sumoll

Should you encounter a Sumoll yourself, and it’s not out of the realm of reason, here is what to expect:

2015 Gaintus “One Night’s Rosé” Sumoll: This wine has a lovely pale peachy-pink color and ample red fruit on the nose, along with some citrus like grapefruit and lemon. Surprisingly, it doesn’t taste especially fruity, feeling more tart and lean. But sampled with some roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, it filled out nicely. This is a rosé you want to drink with food.

2014 Gaintus “Radical” Sumoll: I quite liked the aroma of vanilla, chocolate and peppercorn, and its color looked enticing as well — a Pinot Noir-like transparent garnet. My dinner companion remarked, “It tastes young,” and I sensed that as well. There was a green peppercorn note intermingled with the ripe black-cherry fruit. The finish felt tannic but certainly not harsh, and with some tagliatelle Bolognese, the acids came more to the fore. Again, it was with food that this wine really sang. I’m of a mind to buy a bottle or two and see what happens in five years, after it ages a bit longer.

2007 Gaintus “Vertical” Sumoll: The Vertical Sumoll sees more time in wood — 14 months in new French barrels compared to the Radical’s six months in second-use barrels — and it’s aged an additional 24 months in the bottle before release. Its aroma smelled like a more subtle version of the Radical, again with the notes of vanilla, chocolate and a bit of pepper. But this time, the peppercorn flavor tasted more black than green. The dark cherry fruit was there, as were more than enough acids for balance. Indeed, it tasted a little too acidic for my taste, but some chicken with tomato sauce tamed the acids beautifully. As with the wines above, the Vertical was at its best with food.

Durona Red Blend2009 Durona Red Blend: A blend of 50% Sumoll, 25% Garnacha and 25% Samsó (a “confusing Catalan name used for both Carignan and Cinsault,” according to the Oxford Companion), this wine had a totally different character from the Sumoll varietals. It smelled big, ripe and rich, with lots of fruit and a vanilla overtone. My friend took a taste and exclaimed, “Oh, I love that.” I did, too. The flavors felt deep and powerful, with ample dark fruit, a shaft of white-pepper spice and a well-balanced note of wood underneath. If you like high-quality Cabernet Franc, I suspect you’ll like this wine a great deal. With the chicken, it became more taut and spicy, but I would happily drink the Durona all on its own.

It’s unlikely you’ll find a Sumoll aisle in your wine shop any time soon, but should you come across one of these wines while shopping for something to accompany dinner, don’t hesitate to pick it up.

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Monastrell: The Wild, Rich Red Of Jumilla

20 May 2016

Juan Gil Conoloco and Silver LabelWhen I visit my Aunt Hannah, it’s easy to choose a wine to bring. She loves Ivanović Prokupac from Serbia, and — a little easier to find — Juan Gil’s Silver Label Monastrell from Jumilla. The latter, a Spanish red, remains relatively unknown in the United States, a fact which baffles me. Well-made Monastrell has such rich fruit and hearty character, it should be a perfect fit for the stereotypical American palate. And just as important, it usually offers a fantastic flavor-to-price ratio. Binny’s, for example, sells the Juan Gil Silver Label for $14.

I suspect the obscurity of Monastrell (known as Mourvèdre in France) has something to do with the fact that its home base in southeastern Spain produced “lackluster” wines until only recently, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, noting that “Wine is still made that is deliberately strong and sweet, but the best can compete with ‘premium’ super-ripe reds from California and Australia.” Fans of Zinfandel and Shiraz, if you’re looking for something new, Monastrell from Jumilla may be just the thing.

Like Salta in Argentina, Jumilla has an arid climate, a large day/night temperature differential and a relatively high altitude (Juan Gil’s vines grow between 2,300 and 2,800 feet). As a result, the vineyards tend to have low yields and the grapes tend to be thick-skinned, producing concentrated, aromatic and rather tannic reds, often with high alcohol levels. In other words, these wines are big.

And, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, Monastrell has “…a somewhat gamey, almost animal flavour when young.” That sounds problematic, but in the right hands, that “animal” quality turns into an appealing savory undertone akin to grilled meat, smoke or even bacon, adding complexity to the wine.

Juan Gil tasting at Maple & Ash

Juan Gil tasting at Maple & Ash

I had an opportunity to experience the full potential of Monastrell at a recent tasting hosted by Juan Gil in Chicago. The wines ranged in price from $8 a bottle into the triple digits, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. That said, exercise caution with bargain-priced Monastrell. I once had a harrowing experience with $9 Bodegas Volver “Wrongo Dongo” Monastrell, for example, though the resulting puns that flew around the table were some consolation. When in doubt, stick to Monastrell that costs $12 and up.

2014 Honoro Vera Monastrell: This entry-level Monastrell typically sells for less than $10 a bottle, but it tastes more expensive. It has taut and ripe red fruit, a savory undertone, some forceful white-pepper spice and a tannic finish. It all seemed in balance, and my goodness, what a value for the money.

2014 Honoro Vera Organic Monastrell: Surprisingly, the organic version of this wine sells for the same price (Binny’s sells both for $8 a bottle). It tastes different from the other Honoro Vera — it smells heartier, with more of a hint of meat and funk. Full of raspberry jam, it starts with a refined mouthfeel and builds to a big, rather rustic finish. Again, it’s a superlative value.

2014 Orowines “Comoloco” Monastrell: Juan Gil also owns Orowines, which produces another remarkably inexpensive Monastrell (Binny’s sells it for $8 a bottle). This example sees no wood, and though stainless steel highlights pure Monastrell fruit, I prefer a touch of oak. The wine smelled of dark red fruit and black pepper, and its fruit felt pleasingly fresh. The savory note and spice were both there, but I missed something in the midsection. Even so, considering the price, you’re still getting a lot of flavor for the money.

Juan Gil's 100th anniversary cake

Juan Gil’s 100th anniversary cake

2013 Juan Gil Silver Label Monastrell: Aged 12 months in French oak, this wine costs more (about $14), but for that money, you’re getting a richer, darker wine, with no absence in the midsection. For years, the Silver Label has been one of my go-to reds.

2013 Juan Gil 18: If you have between $25 and $30 to spend, spend it on this. The 18 is a blend of 60% old-vine Monastrell, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Syrah, all aged 18 months in French and American oak. The dark, rich aroma seduces immediately, and any Parkerized American will love the big, jammy fruit. A shaft of spice shoots right through it, keeping the wine balanced, and I loved the green tobacco note on the finish. This is a gorgeous wine, and a great value even at $30.

2013 Juan Gil “Aniversario” 100: Created for Juan Gil’s centennial, the “Aniversario” blends 50% Monastrell, 25% Cabernet and 25% Syrah, and it sells for just a bit more than the 18 (if you can find it). It sees El Nido Clio23 months in French and American oak, and it’s big, dark and rich. The fruit feels opulent but tightly controlled, and the focused spice keeps going and going. The wine slowly unfolds, growing and developing to a big finish of spice and fine-grained tannins. This is a delicious, elegant and powerful wine, but if I had the choice between the 100 and the 18, I would pick the 18.

2013 Bodegas El Nido “Clio”: Juan Gil also owns El Nido winery, a “…partnership between the Gil family and Chris Ringland, one of Australia’s best winemakers,” according to El Nido’s website. The Monastrell vines are “very old… almost centenarians,” and they produce some incredible fruit. This blend of 70% Monastrell and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon sees between 22 and 26 months in oak, and it was my favorite wine of the entire tasting. It had an aroma of rich, dark, almost jammy fruit, in the range of black cherries and plums. On the palate, the fruit felt sumptuously lush and clear, with a laser beam of white pepper spice streaming through it. The tannins on the finish were big but very refined. Binny’s sells the “Clio” for $40, and it’s worth every penny. A wine like this from Napa would easily be twice the price.

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The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

Red wine from the Pfalz at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald's Vivaldi restaurantThis 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. 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 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

August Eser Spatburgunder

August Eser Spätburgunder at the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz in Mecklenburg, Germany

2010 AUGUST ESER MITTELHEIMER SPÄTBURGUNDER BARRIQUE TROCKEN

First, a quick translation: This dry (trocken) Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Mittleheim section of the Rheingau is aged in small oak barrels (barriques). It had a surprisingly dark, almost porty aroma, full of red currant fruit. It felt deeply flavored but light-bodied, with some slow-building black-peppercorn spice and a woodsy note on the finish. An excellent pairing with some duck.

 

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

2007 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO “CEMBALI” NERO D’AVOLA

I’ve long enjoyed Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and this example ranks among the best I’ve tasted. The grapes come from 45-year-old vineyards and the wine sees nine months in barriques and 36 months in the bottle before it’s released. Although 2007 isn’t an especially new vintage, the wine still felt young. I could detect its aroma well beyond the rim of the glass: red fruit, fresh green herbs, spice. It had big, ripe fruit, focused green-peppercorn spice and a finish of wood and leather. Just beautiful.

 

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata's experimental winery

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata’s experimental winery

2013 CATENA ZAPATA ADRIANNA VINEYARD MALBEC PASSITO

I tasted this remarkable wine, made from partially dried grapes in the Italian passito method, right from the barrel in the experimental section of Catena Zapata’s pyramid-shaped winery. The Adrianna Vineyard ranks among the very best in all of Argentina, and after sampling this Malbec, I could see why. The wine exhibited gorgeously rich, jammy fruit, with lots of plum and raisin flavors. Bright spice, which built to a blast at the finish, kept things well in balance. Sensational.

 

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

2013 CELLERS UNIÓ “PERLAT”

Catalonia has more to offer than just Cava — the Spanish region’s red wines can compete with the best Rioja has to offer. I felt particularly impressed at a recent tasting by the 2013 Cellers Unió “Perlat,” a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Carignan and Syrah from Montsant. The wine exuded elegance with its well-integrated and notably supple tannins, and it had a striking purity of fruit. Its red fruit aroma was clean and clear, and the dark cherry flavor rang like a bell.

 

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur Ocio at right

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur “Ocio” at right

2012 CONO SUR “OCIO” PINOT NOIR

If this wine is any indication, Pinot Noir apparently grows exceedingly well in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley, just off the coast. Cono Sur (note the pun) made Chile’s first premium Pinot Noir, according to its website, and the Ocio certainly lives up to the “premium” designation. It had a rich aroma of deep red fruit along with a surprising mocha note. When I tasted the wine, ripe black-cherry fruit was quickly shoved aside by forceful spice, followed by some earth and a softly tannic finish. I loved it.

 

Element's oversize bottles were quite the hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Element’s oversize bottles were wine blogger catnip at this year’s Finger Lakes conference

2013 ELEMENT LEMBERGER

Sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates gave an excellent presentation at this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and his winery’s Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) proved just as memorable, if not more so. It had a seductive aroma of dark fruit and violets, and though it was light-bodied, it displayed big dark fruit offset by ample and refined spice. Riesling gets all the press in the Finger Lakes, but Lemberger is equally at home there.

 

Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc

2012 HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARDS CABERNET FRANC

Wiemer winemaker and co-owner Fred Merwath also knew how to impress a table of wine bloggers, pouring his Finger Lakes wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It had power, but it remained cheerful and light on its feet.

 

Rodney Strong Malbec2011 QUINTA DA LAPA TINTO RESERVA

From Portugal’s Tejo region, this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute joy. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with some pork cheeks. The price of about $25 is higher than many Portuguese reds on the shelf, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value.

 

2012 RODNEY STRONG ALEXANDER VALLEY MALBEC

“Oh my lord,” my tasting companion remarked about this wine. “That is sexy.” It really was. Rodney Strong’s first Malbec varietal (usually the grape appears in Bordeaux-style blends) had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to some pork loin. Sonoma isn’t known for its Malbec, but maybe it should be.

 

Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference

2012 SALTON “INTENSO” TANNAT

The wine representative who poured this Brazilian wine promised me that it would be “light and elegant.” A light and elegant Tannat seemed about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nearly spit this wine out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

 

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah's restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah’s restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

2012 STELLA BELLA MARGARET RIVER VALLEY TEMPRANILLO

I mentioned to the sommelier how much I enjoyed this wine, and he nodded, saying, “It’s really hard to make bad wine in the Margaret River Valley,” a distant wine region set on the coast in the far southwestern corner of Australia. The aroma of this Tempranillo sold me right away, with its notes of dark fruit, earth, vanilla and violets. Powerful but classy, the wine moved from plummy fruit to big white-pepper spice to supple tannins to a savory finish. Some lamb made for a superb pairing.

 

Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

A hotel’s “house red” doesn’t usually quicken the pulse, but Viña Vik, standing like an alien space base on a Chilean hilltop, is not your usual hotel. Its onsite winery makes just one wine, and it’s a doozy. I could tell from its enticing aroma of dark, rich fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla that the wine was going to be memorable. 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 a bottle down for another few years. The finish went on and on.

 

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

2012 VIÑA PEÑALOLÉN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

This elegant and complex Chilean Cabernet impressed me most with the finesse with which it shifted gears from ripe red fruit to focused white-pepper spice to velvety tannins. It’s yet another illustration of Chile’s great success in developing its fine-wine industry.

You might also enjoy reading about my favorite whites and spirits from 2015. And you can see past red winners from 2014, 2013 and 2012

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Top White Wines Of 2014

31 December 2014
An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

An ethereal Wind Gap Trousseau Gris from the Russian River Valley

For this idiosyncratic list, 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 sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. 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.

The 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.

You won’t find all of these particular wines 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 clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2014:

 

2013 ANSELMI CAPITEL CROCE

In 2000, Roberto Anselmi very publicly withdrew his wines from the Soave DOC, writing in an open letter, “I’m walking out of Soave and leaving it to its fate. Let it wear out its vital cycle, good luck to it, I want my freedom…”

Now bottling his whites under the broader Veneto IGT, Anselmi has used his freedom to the fullest. This 100% Garganega comes from a choice hillside vineyard rich with limestone. It had a sweet aroma with some spice, and a wonderfully refined texture on the palate. I loved its creamy fruit, focused ginger spice and long finish dusted with subtle minerals. Very classy.

 

2008 BARTA PINCE ÖREG KIRÁLY DŰLŐ 6 PUTTONYOS TOKAJI ASZÚ

The courtyard of Barta Pince

The courtyard of Barta Pince

Hungary’s Tokaj region became famous in the courts of Europe for its sweet aszú (botrytized) wines, such as this one by Barta Pince. This extraordinary wine from the Öreg Király vineyard has a whopping 257 grams of sugar per liter. Compare that to, say, Dr. Loosen’s 2006 Beerenauslese from Germany’s Mosel Valley, which has a mere 142 grams per liter.

With all that sugar, could it possibly be balanced? The aroma seemed promising — rich honey underlined by fresh mint. It tasted very, very rich, with honeyed fruit and dusky orange. Acids felt relaxed and slow, gracefully balancing out all the sweetness. Wow. I wrote in my notebook that this wine “feels wise beyond its years.”

 

2012 BRUNO TRAPAN ISTRIAN MALVAZIJA “PONENTE”

Istria, a triangular peninsula jutting off the northwest of Croatia, used to belong to Italy, and its food and wine has started to rival that of its former owner. This Istrian Malvasia (known locally as Malvazija Istarska)  had a memorably rich aroma which almost moved into caramel territory. Savory and a bit floral, this beautifully balanced wine had notably focused acids and an underlying note of salinity.

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Michel Garat with Chateau Bastor-Lamontagne

Unusual and very, very tasty.

 

2011 CHÂTEAU BASTOR-LAMONTAGNE SAUTERNES

The 2011 vintage happened to be a particularly good year for Sauternes, as well as dry white Bordeaux wines (it was uneven for reds). This assertion was strongly supported by a Bordeaux tasting I attended, where the Sauternes ranged from memorable to absolutely astounding.

My favorite was the dazzling Bastor-Lamontagne. It had a fresh and fruity honeysuckle aroma with nothing heavy about it. There was the rich and opulent character one expects from a fine Sauternes, but here, a rocket of minerality and acids shot right through the middle with electrifying focus. It rang like a bell; it was a taut violin string plucked in a clear pool of nectar. This château may not be Sauternes’ most famous or highly classed, but in 2011 at least, Bastor-Lamontagne crafted a thing of invigorating beauty.

 

Winemaker Gabriel Mustakis, with Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris

2013 COUSIÑO-MACUL “ISADORA” SAUVIGNON GRIS

A pink-skinned mutant of Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris 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.

Cousiño-Macul’s Sauvignon Gris varietal smelled fun and citrusy, with notes of grapefruit and orange peel. The grapefruit carried through when I tasted this Chilean 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!

 

2011 ERZSÉBET PINCE LATE HARVEST KÖVÉRSZŐLŐ

Unpronounceable Kövérszőlő, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, almost died out in Tokaj during the phylloxera epidemic. But it was revived in the late 1980s and 90s, and a few wineries like family-owned Erzsébet Pince produce varietal wines from it. It had a fresh honeyed aroma, but despite its high sugar content, it did not feel at all syrupy. And not because of powerful acids — instead, there was a wonderfully light, ethereal quality to this wine.

 

2012 GRABEN GRITSCH SCHÖN GRÜNER VELTLINER SMARAGD

Inside Vienna's Palmenhaus

Inside Vienna’s Palmenhaus

“Schön,” which means pretty, is not an adjective in this case but the name of a vineyard on the far western edge of the Wachau Valley near the town of Spitz in Austria.

I loved this wine, which clocks in at a hefty 14.5% alcohol. It had a complex aroma of dried herbs, green fruit and even a hint of smoke. But when I tasted the wine, it burst with rich fruit, leavened by cedar and some focused gingery spice. It felt very decadent and exotic — perfect for sipping on the terrace of Palmenhaus, a regal café and restaurant occupying what was once the imperial palm house of the Habsburgs.

 

2012 JURAJ ZÁPRAŽNÝ PINOT GRIS

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

Tasting with Rado in the Národný Salón Vín

What a delightful surprise. This wine comes from Slovakia’s Južnoslovenská region, which is apparently “warm and sunny,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. It had an enticingly spicy, stony aroma and lush, full fruit on the palate. A shaft of gingery spice kept things well in balance.

I could easily imagine buying this by the case, if it were actually available somewhere (I tasted it at Bratislava’s Národný Salón Vín, a cellar in a rococo palace which assembles the top 100 wines of Slovakia, culled from a selection of some 8,000 bottlings).

 

2010 JUVÉ Y CAMPS RESERVA DE LA FAMILIA CAVA

You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky. As Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.”

Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

 

Next up: The top reds.

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Find Something To Celebrate

8 November 2014

Oriol Gual of Juve y CampsIt is unquestionably celebratory to hear that most beautiful of all sounds, that of a cork pop, and bubbly deserves its status as the most festive of all wines. Prosecco appears at parties more frequently now, and Champagne corks whiz through the air on New Year’s Eve. But considering all we Americans have to celebrate, we serve sparkling wine relatively rarely. This is an error.

First, sparkling wine goes well with such a wide variety of foods, it’s quite difficult to screw up a pairing. When in doubt, go with the bubbles. Second, guests love sparkling wine, regardless of the occasion for their visit. It makes them feel special. Third, it can be a fantastic value for the money. It’s not affordable for most of us to drink Champagne any time we feel like it, but there are plenty of other fine sparkling wines available for weeknight prices. Cava is one of them.

I recently tried six superb Cavas produced by Juvé y Camps, which, according to the promotional materials I received, uses fruit only from its own vineyards (most Cava producers, like those in Champagne, buy fruit from independent growers). Juvé y Camps also hand-riddles all its bottles, a labor-intensive process now performed by machines in most wineries, and it uses free-run juice, collected without pressing the grapes. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, free-run juice “is generally superior to, and much lower in tannins than, juice or wine whose extraction depends on pressing.”

In the 2007 Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, author Tom Stevenson is more than usually grumpy about Juvé y Camps, writing, “I have failed to discern any of the intrinsically superior qualities in these wines that some Cava-infatuated critics have found. However, I do hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with the wines of this respected, traditional family firm.” I’m no Cava-infatuated critic — I rarely buy them, as a matter of fact, because I (rightly or wrongly) associate Cava with large bubbles. But I thought Juvé y Camps’ Cavas were quite delicious and elegant, whatever Mr. Stevenson has to say.

2010 Reserva de la Familia: You’ll encounter vintage-dated Cavas far more frequently than vintage Champagnes or Proseccos. This example includes the three traditional Cava grape varieties, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel·lo, and it includes no dosage, the mixture of wine and sugar syrup added to most méthode Champenoise wines at the final stage of production. A dosage can smooth over certain flaws in a sparkling wine, in addition to adding some sweetness. Omitting it entirely is risky; as Juvé y Camps’ Export Area Manager Oriol Gual explained, “It’s like working without a safety net.” Juvé y Camps crossed the tightrope with this wine, certainly. It had a surprising and very pleasant aroma of light caramel, popcorn and orange peel. Elegant and zesty on the palate, it exhibited prickly bubbles and notes of citrus and light toast.

2009 Gran Juvé Reserva Brut: Aged 60 months on the lees and made only in the best vintages, this Cava includes the unorthodox variety of Chardonnay in with the traditional Spanish blend. It felt very classy, with a toasty, citrusy aroma, sharp bubbles, and a dry but perfumed quality — there were notes of orange flowers and stone fruits. Delicious and refined.

2010 Blanc de Noirs Brut Reserva: Unusually for a Cava, or any sparkling wine, for that matter, this bottling blends 90% Pinot Noir with 10% Xarel·lo (Cava producers have been experimenting with the traditional Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in recent years). This romantic sparkler had a tight aroma of candied berries, or as one fellow taster exclaimed, “It’s like that dust in straws!” (he meant Pixy Stix). Spicy but elegant, it had tiny, pointy bubbles, some subtle red-fruit undertones and chalk on the finish.

NV Pinot Noir Brut Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir had a lovely watermelon color and aromas of berries and orange zest. It was fruity but dry, with orangey acids and very small, classy bubbles. An excellent choice for date night — I could easily picture snuggling up by the fireplace with this one.

NV Juvé Sweet: During my time at the Juvé y Camps tasting table, several people expressed skepticism about this Cava. A lot of experienced wine drinkers look down on sweeter wines, regarding them as uninteresting or simply for amateurs. They may be unfashionable, but by ignoring them, you deny yourself an entire range of beautiful and well-balanced wines. In this case, I enjoyed Juvé Sweet’s fresh, cheerful aromas of white fruits, and its sweet but non-cloying character. It had balanced acids, a bit of perfume and small, refined bubbles. This Cava would make an excellent aperitif — it’s a more sophisticated alternative to Moscato d’Asti.

Many of these wines cost far less than you might expect, considering the quality and the labor required to craft them. Binny’s, for example, sells the Reserva de la Familia and the Brut Rosé for $15 a bottle. I think that’s cause for some celebration.

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