Grape Varieties

What Does A $500 Wine Taste Like?

29 November 2016
Maple & Ash

Maple & Ash

There is a widespread suspicion that high-end wines are something of a con, even among high-end winemakers themselves. I recall a swanky Bordeaux tasting I attended where I chatted with the owner of a Sauternes winery. He did not mince words about trophy wines: “You know, to be perfectly honest, I never buy wines that cost more than 50 or 60 euro. That’s maybe $100? Anything that costs more than that is bull****. When you buy wines,” he gestured towards the room, “that cost $300 or $800, you are not buying the wine. You are buying the label. I want to buy only the wine.”

Because I have limited experience with wines in the $300-$800 price bracket, and because it suited my own prejudices, I was inclined to believe him. What could you possibly get for $500, say, that you couldn’t in a $250 bottle? Would the $500 wine be twice as good as the $250? And of course, the $250 should theoretically be twice as good as a $125 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $62 bottle, which should be twice as good as a $31 bottle, which should be twice as good as the $15 bottle that I typically have on my rack at home.

Which means that a $500 bottle should, with that kind of quality, literally make my head explode with joyous rapture. Literally. I mean blood-on-the-ceiling joyous rapture explosion.

Fortunately for the condition of my head, wine tends to occupy a more logarithmic scale, which means that though there will indeed likely be a gigantic leap in quality from an $8 bottle to a $15 bottle and again from a $15 bottle to a $30 bottle, the returns start to diminish as wines become more expensive. So how could a $500 wine be worth it?

Gaja wineYou do get something for all that expense. At a recent tasting in Chicago’s Maple & Ash restaurant, I had the fortune to sample three $500 wines in succession. Well, two $500 wines and one $535 wine. I observed the room during the tasting, and many of the men (the guests were almost exclusively men) did indeed appear to be enraptured. I must admit I felt some shivers of delight myself, as I tried them.

These were wines by Gaja (pronounced guy-a), one of Italy’s most formidable wine families, which has vineyards in Barbaresco, Barolo, Bolgheri and Brunello. But it’s the Barbarescos that fetch top dollar. Or more accurately, the Langhes. As I learned from The Oxford Companion to Wine, which devotes an entire column to Gaja, Angelo Gaja thought that his coveted single-vineyard wines had hurt the reputation of his traditional Barbaresco, which is blended from multiple vineyards. So, as is common in unnecessarily complicated Italy, Gaja now sells its most expensive bottlings under a basic catch-all appellation, Langhe DOC, instead of the ostensibly more prestigious Barbaresco DOCG.

At the tasting, I tried the 2013 Gaja Barbaresco, a blend of 100% Nebbiolo grapes from 14 different vineyards around the town. Barbaresco, incidentally, was for ages not an especially popular wine. “Barbaresco did not enjoy Barolo’s connection with the House of Savoy and the nobility of the royal court in Turin,” The Oxford Companion explains, “and suffered in relative commercial obscurity until the efforts of Giovanni Gaja and Bruno Giacosa in the 1960s demonstrated the full potential of the wine.”

It’s difficult now to imagine that Barbaresco was once the ugly duckling of Piedmont. If anyone has any lingering doubts about Barbaresco’s potential, Gaja’s example will smash them into pomace. I loved the 2013, even in its youth — the dark-red fruit aroma had a savory note underneath, as well as a floral overtone. The wine moved gracefully from ripe fruit to white-pepper spice to supple, dusty tannins. It is an absolutely beautiful wine, with poise and elegance, but its suggested retail price is only $240, and we’re not here to talk about bargain Barbaresco. Let’s move on to the pricey stuff.

Gaia Gaja

Gaia Gaja

But first, why are these wines so pricey, anyway? Gaia Gaja, the fifth generation in her family to work at the winery, presented the wines we tasted, and she provided part of the explanation: Gaja takes great pains to create healthy vineyards, using its own compost, seeding vineyards with a mix of plants from local meadow in order to improve biodiversity, introducing bees, and planting some 250 cypresses to serve as a refuge for small birds, among other measures. “The birds eat grapes,” Gaia Gaja told us, “but they also eat harmful insects, so we have to be generous.”

And, of course, making top-quality wine is expensive and labor-intensive. Gaia Gaja noted that the winery doesn’t hire many seasonal workers, relying more instead on full-time staff. “Seasonal workers know agriculture,” Gaia Gaja explained, “but not Nebbiolo vines.” The winery decided to train people and keep them on staff, ensuring that its workers really got to know the vineyards and how to coax the best fruit from them.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the price is simply that there is limited supply and high demand. Gaja, as evidenced by the family’s numerous appearances in The Oxford Companion, is a wine giant, and when a name has great renown, that name drives up the prices (that’s why I usually write about more obscure wines — they’re what I can afford).

Gaja’s wines, however, are more than just a name — they have the quality to back up their hype. Let’s examine the evidence:

2013 Gaja Sorì Tildìn, suggested retail price, $500: “Sorì” is a local Piemontese word indicating a desirable vineyard. The aroma of dark-red fruit is rich and forward, and that big fruit continues in the taste. This wine is powerful, with immense fruit, lively acids and youthful tannins. Deliberate and slow-building white-pepper spice marked the finish. That slow build was a delightful surprise, and although the wine felt youthful and bold, it moved from flavor to flavor with impressive finesse.

2013 Gaja Sorì San Lorenzo, suggested retail price, $500: This wine was one of the first single-vineyard bottlings of Nebbiolo in the region, first sold in 1967, and as such, it helped put Barbaresco on the map. It had a rather dusky, hooded, dark-red fruit aroma, marked with some spice and some purple flowers. Again, this wine tasted big and brawny, with dark-red fruit flavors quickly moving to white-pepper spice and strong (some might say “tough”) tannins. It needs a little longer to mature, but even now, in its headstrong youth, it exhibits finesse as it shifts gears from fruit to spice to tannins.

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

Giovanni Gaja, Gaia Gaja and Bill Terlato

2013 Gaja Costa Russi, suggested retail price, $535: “Costa” is the Italian version of côte, or slope. Here the dark-red fruit in the aroma was accompanied by some meaty notes as well as an overlay of violets (as I write this, I realize that combination sounds rather horrifying, but actually it’s thoroughly enticing). This wine had the slowest development of the three. It took its own graceful time to unfold, moving from concentrated fruit to focused acids to sneaky tannins. They started softly at first, and it wasn’t until I was in the thick of them that I realized their power.

What all three wines have in common is great finesse. It might be difficult to imagine, but when you taste a wine that has it, finesse is unmistakable. It’s like riding with an expert driver in a manual-shift car. Anyone who knows how to drive a stick can get you where you’re going, but the journey is ever so much more graceful and enjoyable with an expert maneuvering the gears and clutch.

But are these wines worth it? That depends. Let’s say you make about $50,000 a year, and you think $50 is an affordable splurge on a bottle of wine. To make a similarly affordable splurge on one of the three wines above, you would have to be making $500,000 a year.

If you are indeed one of those high-earners, these wines won’t disappoint. They offer a seductive and life-affirming combination of richness, power, balance and finesse. I loved tasting them. They put me in a brilliant mood for the rest of the day. I practically skipped home.

But would I spend 1% of my yearly earnings to purchase a bottle? I think I’ll have to settle for a ride in which I feel the gear shifts a bit more.

Vézelay: Burgundy’s Flyover Country

14 November 2016
Vézelay

Vézelay

I regarded the Burgundy map in my World Atlas of Wine with some consternation. In the midst of planning my road trip from Paris to Beaune, I noticed an immense gap between Burgundy’s northernmost vineyards, surrounding Chablis, and its most famous, stretched along the Côte d’Or. The shortest route between my hotels in Chablis and Beaune was 82.6 miles, and the idea of driving that entire length — almost an hour and a half — without stopping for a drink seemed incomprehensible.

Then I noticed it: a little dogbone-shaped speck of pink, hiding in the map’s vast sea of grey flanking the A6 highway. This speck represented Bourgogne Vézelay, which the World Atlas calls a “recondite mini-appellation.” Goodness knows I’m a sucker for a recondite mini-appellation, especially one close to such a lovely (if touristy) town as Vézelay. I planned a detour.

The Oxford Companion to Wine had little to say about the appellation, but my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia was a bit more encouraging, noting that Vézelay’s “top-performing white wines… are superior to the lower end of Chablis, which is relatively much more expensive.” To determine what the top-performing white was, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I simply googled “best Vézelay winery.”

Domaine de la CadetteAnd it worked! Google suggested Domaine de la Cadette, the wines of which are imported by the legendary Kermit Lynch. Trusting in the judgment of Google and Lynch, I added the winery’s tasting room to my itinerary.

The words “Burgundian winery” might conjure visions of grand châteaux, but that’s only occasionally the case in the Côte d’Or, much less in Vézelay. The tasting room looked quite unassuming, in fact, and as I pulled into its parking lot, it also looked quite closed.

Ever hopeful, I walked into the similarly unassuming restaurant, the name of which translates approximately to “The Foot in the Plate” (it sounds ever so much more charming in French). Inside Le Pied dans le Plat, I met the delightful and thankfully English-speaking Martine, who explained that the tasting room had indeed permanently closed. However, the restaurant and winery were affiliated, and I asked if I could do a tasting for my blog. Martine was happy to oblige.

ChanterellesI settled into a shady table on the restaurant’s terrace, decorated with potted succulents interspersed with old green demijohns. A young waitress sat nearby, brushing the dirt from a gorgeous pile of golden chanterelle mushrooms. Martine appeared with the first bottles, and I poured myself a bit of the Melon.

Melon de Bourgogne, in spite of its name, has little presence in Burgundy nowadays, long ago supplanted by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc now grows more commonly in the Loire. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Melon’s increasing importance today rests solely on Muscadet, although it is also grown to a limited extent in Vézelay…”

The Melon vineyards in Vézelay may not be as important in the grand scheme of things, but the wine they make can certainly be delicious. The 2014 La Soeur Cadette Melon had an appealingly minerally aroma and zesty flavor, with tart green-apple fruit, lively limey acids and some minerals on the finish.

Domaine de la Cadette Pinot NoirI also tried two cheerful Chardonnays, the 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “La Châtelaine” and the 2014 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Galerne” (Valentin Montanet of Domaine Montanet-Thoden is the son of Jean and Catherine Montanet, founders of  Domaine de la Cadette, and the wineries are intimately linked). The organic “La Châtelaine” had fresh, creamy fruit leavened with bright, lingering spice — a wonderful contrast. But I liked the “Galerne,” named for a local wind, even better. It had a rounder aroma, more subtle flavors and a more complex journey: the creamy fruit started taut, unwinding and opening into gentle lemon-lime citrus and some light ginger spice.

I also tried two charming Pinot Noirs. The 2014 Domaine de la Cadette “Champs Cadet” tasted light and fruity, with a pop of spice. It wasn’t especially deep or complicated, but there’s nothing wrong with a wine that’s simply lively and fun. The 2012 Domaine Montanet-Thoden “Garance” was more serious, with an unusual pink-aspirin aroma and a less fruity character. It tasted more earthy and meaty, with darker, brooding fruit and subtler spice.

Feeling quite comfortable by now at my little table on the terrace, I ordered some trout meunière for lunch. The fish had perfectly crispy skin and delicate flesh, and luscious butter soaked the potatoes and fresh vegetables. Martine tentatively asked me how it tasted. She looked relieved to hear my praise, and said, “Some people complain about all the butter.”

Trout meuniere“That’s insane,” I replied. Ordering trout meunière and complaining about the butter is like ordering steak tartare and complaining that your beef is undercooked.

The tight and citrusy “Galerne” Chardonnay was a perfect foil for the trout, cutting right through the buttery richness. I’d had more elegant wines in Chablis, and I would soon indulge in much fancier food in Beaune, but at that moment, with that trout and that Chardonnay, I didn’t want to be anywhere other than the sunny terrace of The Foot in the Plate.

Burgundy has other “recondite” appellations, and one of my favorites is St. Bris, which produces delicious Sauvignon Blanc. To learn more about St. Bris and how I made a fool of myself in Whole Foods, click here

The Federalist At “Hamilton”: Wines Fit For A Founding Father

29 October 2016
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda at the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton

A cast party seemed like an odd venue in which to taste wine, but as a recovering theater major, I have a soft spot for musicals. Getting a new one off the ground can be tough, especially if it’s a wordy period piece, and I decided that if my blog post about the partner wine of the musical can also help promote a good show, then so much the better. So I accepted the invitation to the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton.

Serving glasses of a wine named The Federalist during the intermission of a musical about Alexander Hamilton would seem gimmicky if the quality were less than excellent. After all, who cares if the wine’s name ties in to the theme of the show if it doesn’t taste any good?

Federalist Sonoma County ChardonnayAs we entered the party, I wasted no time in scooping up a glass of the 2015 Federalist Sonoma County Chardonnay. In general, Sonoma has a cooler climate than Napa, because the county is closer to the cool ocean currents off the coast. Cooler temperatures often result in higher acidity, which means that Sonoma Chardonnays are less likely to be blowsy and overripe than Napa Chardonnays.

And indeed, this Federalist Chardonnay was a well-balanced beauty. It suckered me right in with its aroma of buttered popcorn and a bit of tropical fruit. The fruit tasted rich and ripe, and there was an overlay of oak. Some people despise butter and oak, I know, but in the right proportions, they can be gorgeous flavors. Especially when they’re balanced, as they were here, by ample acids and a shaft of white pepper spice. This wine sells for about $14-$16 a bottle, which is a fantastic value for the money. Comparable white Burgundies cost twice as much.

I also tried the 2014 Federalist Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, which I approached with no small measure of skepticism. At this summer’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, I tried a handful of Cabernet Sauvignons, and I found only one I could actually recommend. Now, I’m pleased to report, I have two. I enjoyed the cool, clean, rich fruit, the lively and rustic acids, the perk of white pepper spice and the supple tannins. It had some finesse, this Cabernet, and again, it’s surprisingly affordable at around $17 a bottle. Another fine value.

Federalist Dueling PistolsI noticed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and the star of the production on Broadway, standing not far away, and I took the opportunity to ask him about Federalist wines and their partnership with his show. I had just started my question when Mr. Miranda took the opportunity to give me a pithy quote: “I have to go over there now,” he said.

Well, he’s more of a whiskey drinker in any case.

His speedy departure gave me a moment to try the third wine offered at the cast party, the 2012 Federalist Dry Creek Valley “Dueling Pistols” blend of 50% Zinfandel and 50% Syrah. I was especially excited to try this wine, because I can’t recall ever trying such a blend. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Sonoma’s “Dry Creek Valley still has a reputation for some of the finest examples of [Zinfandel],” and certainly this wine gave me no cause to dispute that assertion.

The “Dueling Pistols” smelled of rich, ripe fruit and tobacco — one of my favorite combinations. I absolutely loved its opulent fruit leavened with zesty spice, ample tannins and more of that wonderful tobacco on the finish. This wine is rich, dark and very sexy. It costs more than the others, around $35-$40 a bottle, but every penny you spend is repaid on your tongue.

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone with a bottle of “Dueling Pistols”

Heading back to the bar for more, I turned around to discover Mario Cantone, of Sex and the City fame. He knew the Federalist wines well, since he spends quite a bit of time in Sonoma, and he agreed that the Chardonnay in particular is “delicious.”

The lead of the Chicago Hamilton production, Miguel Cervantes, approached us as we were chatting, and it turned out that he had never tried any of the Federalist wines. My quick-thinking friend Liz Barrett of Terlato (The Federalist’s distributor) offered to get him a glass so that he could give one a try, and she returned with a sample of the “Dueling Pistols.”

Mr. Cervantes proved quite adept at describing his experience with the wine. He gave it a smell, and said, “Oh yes, I like bigger, spicier wines.” After giving the “Dueling Pistols” a sip, he said, “I like the dry start — it’s not a Kool-Aid start like some Syrahs.” He took another taste and continued, “It gets in there dry, and then it’s a big old kick-you-in-the-face finish. I like it a lot.”

Me too. After trying this superb Zinfandel/Syrah blend, I have to wonder why we don’t see that combination more often. It really works. And even at $35 or $40 a bottle, the “Dueling Pistols” goes down a lot more easily than the price of a Hamilton ticket.

Note: The samples of these wines and the tickets to the cast party were provided free of charge.

The German Side Of Lodi

14 September 2016
Dornfelder growing in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Dornfelder growing in Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

After visiting Lodi, California, about a month ago, I can confirm that it’s hot. Hot, sunny, dry and flat. The soils range from sandy loam to loamy sand, and both types feel, more or less, like glorified dust. Zinfandel, famous (infamous?) for producing jammy fruit bombs, is the signature grape.

I’ve also had the fortune to visit German wine regions such as the Rhein and Mosel valleys, and I can confirm that they are cool, wet and frequently quite steep. Slate permeates the Mosel’s soil and some of the Rheingau’s vineyards, with loess and marl also appearing in the latter. Riesling, the best examples of which display steely nerve and focused acids, is the signature grape.

In short, the terroirs of Lodi and Germany have about as much in common as avocados and schnitzel. Lodi is one of the last wine regions on Earth I would expect to find German grapes.

And yet, there they were in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, growing in tidy, defiant rows. The appeared to be flourishing, in fact, like German tourists on a permanent holiday in Mallorca. Even I, someone who regularly seeks out the unusual wines, felt flabbergasted at the sight of Dornfelder grapes ripening happily in Lodi’s semi-desert.

Vineyard co-owner Bob Koth, a former winemaker and paratrooper, explained how he grew to love German wines while visiting his daughter, who lived there for a time as a Fulbright Scholar. He came back wanting to grow German grapes, and that’s exactly what he did, sun and loamy sand be damned. He and vineyard co-owner May Lou Koth eventually converted a pear orchard into Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, where they now grow some 48 different German and Austrian grapes.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Most of the varieties, including true oddities such as Oraniensteiner and Affenthaler, are grown on an experimental basis. So far, nine grapes — Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslaner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — have done well enough to justify larger plantings.

Unlike in Germany, ripening the grapes is never a concern. The trick is to pick them after they fully ripen but before the juice turns flabby.

Still, the whole idea struck me as frankly insane. Could wines from these grapes possibly be any good? I sat down in a shady glen near the vineyards with a dozen fellow wine bloggers for a tasting. Winemakers from four different wineries poured (Mokelumne doesn’t produce its own wine).

German varietal wines of Lodi2015 Sidebar Cellers Kerner Mokelumne River: As we tasted this wine, Bob exclaimed, “This is the only place west of Michigan that grows Kerner!” I believe it. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions plantings outside of Germany in England, Japan and South Africa, but says nothing about Kerner in the U.S. (you can read more about Kerner in this post). This example had a green, spicy aroma. There was a sense of richness, with its ripe fruit balanced by grapefruity acids and plenty of spice. Delightful, and priced well at $25.

2015 Holman Cellars “Uncharted” Bacchus:  I started this blog in 2011, and yet this was my first time tasting its namesake grape, Bacchus! This cross of Müller-Thurgau with a cross of Silvaner and Riesling doesn’t often appear as a varietal. According to The Oxford Companion, “Unlike the more aristocratic and more popular crossing Kerner, however, the wine produced lacks acidity and is not even useful for blending…in poor years since it needs to be fully ripe before it can express its own exuberant flavors.” The Companion also notes that warm-climate examples can be “flabby.”

Lodi Bacchus should by all rights be a real Jabba the Hutt of a wine, but this example had ample lemon/orange acids to balance the rich fruit. I got notes of fresh herbs, like bay and sage, and even some minerality on the finish, both of which also contributed to the balance. Against all odds, I really liked this wine. It offers a lot of flavor for its $25 price tag.

Winemaker Markus Riggli

Winemaker Markus Riggli

2013 Borra Winery Markus “Nuvola” Gewürztraminer: The name of this wine comes from its winemaker, Swiss expat Markus Niggli, and the Italian word for “cloud.” A warm-climate Gewürz sounds like a terrible idea. As The Oxford Companion notes, “Many wine regions are simply too warm to produce wine with sufficient acidity, unless the grapes are picked so early… that they have developed little Gewürztraminer character.” That character is unmistakable — perfumed and spicy, commonly with a strong note of lychee.

Some Gewürztraminers are too perfumed for my taste, in fact, and if you agree, this is the Gewürz for you. The aroma had more of an undertone of flowers — lily of the valley, to my nose — along with notes of dried herbs. The fruit tasted quite peachy, and it even veered into caramel territory, but balance was restored by a shaft of ginger/white pepper spice. The finish felt sweetly chalky. I’m not sure this qualifies as a classic Gewürztraminer, but I liked that the perfume didn’t slap me in the face. A good value for $19.

We also tasted two blends of Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling and Gewürztraminer by Borra Winery, the 2015 Markus Nativo, which tasted delightfully cool and clean, and the 2014 Markus Nimmo, which included a higher proportion of Gewürztraminer. It tasted creamier — almost buttery — but refined spice and a long mineral finish kept it balanced. $19 and $22, respectively.

Hatton Daniels Zweigelt2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt: You may not have heard of this dark-skinned grape, but as The Oxford Companion explains, “It is widely grown throughout all Austrian wine regions and can increasingly make a serious, age-worthy wine, even though most examples are best drunk young.” This Lodi example had a classic Zweigelt aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. I wouldn’t call this light-bodied wine “age-worthy,” necessarily, but I liked its cherry fruit, notes of leather and meat, and the quick burst of acids. Some tannins on the finish kept things grounded. $25

I suppose that 50 years ago, it would have seemed crazy to the people of Cahors, France, that their Malbec would grow exceedingly well — dare I say even better — in Mendoza. Now Argentine Malbec is in every corner liquor store. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked to discover perfectly lovely examples of Kerner and Gewürztraminer in the wilds of central California. The grapes behave differently there, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make tasty wine.

I’m sure people thought Bob Koth was crazy when he said he wanted to grow German grape varieties in Lodi. Some people probably still do. But the proof is in the pudding.

These tastes were provided free of charge as part of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.

Red Wines Of Lodi: Speed Blogging Part 2

14 August 2016
Wine photographed not during speed blogging.

Wine photographed not during speed blogging

In one of the Wine Bloggers Conference seminars, a presenter admonished the audience about the previous day’s speed blogging performance. “I saw a lot of you taking random photos during speed blogging,” she observed, during her talk about Instagram. “Make sure you have a nice background.”

I took an instant dislike to this woman, who, though she had attended the speed blogging session, had clearly not experienced it. Speed blogging is always one of my favorite parts of the Wine Bloggers Conference, because it’s such a challenge. The seven or eight bloggers at each table are trying to get as much information out of the wine presenters as possible, while simultaneously assessing each wine and writing something intelligent about it, all within each five-minute wine speed date. Composing fluffy bottle shots with flowers and candles and such is not within the remotest realm of possibility.

And it’s no picnic for the presenters, either. They’re faced with a table of stressed bloggers who don’t make eye contact (we’re buried in our laptops and phones). We shout a barrage of questions ranging from the simple (Vintage?!) to the irritating (What’s your Twitter handle? Wait — what’s your Twitter handle?) to the borderline rude (Who are you? Who? Oh, the owner?). Meanwhile they’re trying to pour the wine, explain the wine, pass out information sheets about the wine, and give us each a chance to photograph the wine, ideally with a nice background, of course.

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi's Rous Vineyard

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi’s Rous Vineyard

In short, it’s barely controlled chaos, and I absolutely love it. In order to successfully speed blog, I have to find a place of serious focus, shutting out all the noise and confusion around me in order to give each wine the attention it deserves. Learning to focus that way has helped me in all sorts of loud, overcrowded tastings (one of the most common kinds).

After having been in Lodi since Wednesday evening and trying dozens of local reds, this speed blogging event was not particularly surprising. But it was particularly delightful. The reds here tend to be richly fruity and concentrated, with enough spice, acids and tannins to balance. It can be a truly gorgeous combination.

2013 Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard: Lizzy James really is an old-vine vineyard — it was planted in 1904, sixth-generation winery owner Kyle explained. Aged in 100% French oak, this Zin has a gorgeously rich raspberry and vanilla aroma, cool and clear fruit, with forceful white pepper and plenty of heady alcohol. Ah yes — it’s 15.5% alcohol! And yet it’s balanced. It’s a bit of a monster, this wine, and I love it. At $36 it’s not inexpensive, but now I regret not buying a bottle at the winery when I had the chance.

Lange Twins Nero d'Avola2014 LangeTwins Nero d’Avola: Joe Lange himself poured this Italian varietal, and it’s unfortunately the second-to-last vintage. The Lange family had to rip up the vines after the 2015 harvest because of a couple of serious vineyard diseases. What a lovely dark cherry aroma, enhanced with some purple flowers. There’s a nice calm characteristic to the fruit, and classy, restrained spice with enough oomph to balance. It’s a steal at $20, and based on what I’ve tasted at the conference this week, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase any LangeTwins bottling of any of the 23 or 24 varieties they make.

2013 Prie Winery Cabernet Sauvignon: This Cab comes from the east side of Lodi (they talk a lot about east side and west side here, which have sandy loam and loamy sand, respectively). The aroma smells of pure, clean fruit, and indeed the fruit comes through loud and clear on the palate, but it loses some power after that, fading slowly into spice and surprisingly soft tannins. I haven’t found the Cabs of Lodi especially compelling, I must admit, and this one hasn’t convinced me otherwise. $29

Paul pouring Inkblot

Paul pouring Michael David’s Inkblot

2013 Michael David “Inkblot” Cabernet Franc: The first Cabernet Franc of the conference! Each vintage of Inkblot showcases a different variety that wine drinkers might not expect, such as Petit Verdot or Tannat, or in this case, Cab Franc, as the marketing manager Paul explained. It contains 10% Petit Sirah to round things out, and my goodness, it works. The aroma is heady and dark, the fruit is big and lush on the palate, and it moves to a blast of tannins followed by an elegant shaft of spice on the finish. It’s certainly drinkable now, but I would love to lay a bottle down for five years to see what happens. The $35 price seems perfectly reasonable.

2013 Peirano Estate “The Other” Red Blend: A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Syrah, this wine has an unexpected aroma, with almost jammy dark fruit combined with an underripe green-pepper quality. Though now that it’s been in my glass a few moments, the fruit has started to overpower the vegetable. There’s plenty of rich fruit — even in a $12 wine from Lodi, there better be, followed by black pepper spice and soft tannins. It’s perfectly drinkable, and not at all a bad value for $12.

2014 Klinker Brick Cabernet Sauvignon: Steve Feldman, the winery owner, shared with us Klinker Brick’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, which retails for $19. It has a deliciously rich aroma of dark fruit, a midsection of classy spice and firm but not aggressive tannins on the finish. This is a Cabernet I can really get behind — the first Lodi Cabernet I’ve really loved. It coats the mouth with ripe, chewy fruit, and it’s a superlative value.

Now that's what I call a background. The OZV red blend and the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

Now that’s what I call a background: the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

2013 Cultivar Cabernet Sauvignon: I don’t usually write about Napa Cabernets, because they are exactly the opposite of unusual and obscure, so it’s a nice change of pace. I like its heady dark fruit aroma and up-front fruit on the palate. It makes a quick pass through some spice in the midsection before giving me a slap of tannins, followed by some slow-developing black pepper spice. I suspect it needs another year or two to round and soften. I quite like it, but I would much rather spend $19 on the Klinker Brick than $29 on this one.

2013 Oak Ridge Winery “Moss Roxx” Ancient Vine Zinfandel: Steve, the international marketing manager, poured some the OZV red blend before this, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to taste. I can barely handle one wine per speed taste in this event. Two, for me, is an impossibility. I skipped the OZV in order to move right to this Zin from vines which average 105 years in age. I love the rich red-fruit jam aroma, cool ripe fruit on the palate, classy white pepper spice and notable tannins on the finish. A delight for $22.

2013 Ehlers Estate “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the flagship Cabernet of this Napa winery, with fruit from St. Helena. It’s actually 85% Cabernet with 5% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. I loved the perfumed dark red fruit aroma, ample but classy white pepper spice in the middle and clear but supple tannins on the finish. It’s beautifully made, and if I were rich, I might even consider buying it for $110.

2014 Troon Vineyard Blue Label Malbec, Rogue Valley: Troon Vineyard is not located in Argentina, as you might have guessed, but in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Oregon gained fame for its Pinot Noir, but those grow mostly in the Willamette Valley — the Rogue and Applegate valleys are near the California border in a relatively dry area at 1,600 feet of altitude. The wine certainly smells ripe, with ample dark fruit and a touch of vanilla, and it tastes rather delicious,with ripe dark fruit, plenty of spice, notable tannins and some underlying freshness. I would never have guessed that a Malbec could work in Oregon, but Troon Vineyard has proved, without a doubt, that it can. $29

Read about Speed Blogging session #1 — Lodi whites, rosés and bubblies — here, or for more red wine Speed Blogging action, read last year’s red report here.

These wine tastes were provided free of charge.

The Most Unusual Wine Of Gevrey-Chambertin

28 July 2016
Gevrey-Chambertin

Gevrey-Chambertin

As we drove along Burgundy’s Route des Grands Crus, each sign we passed sent a shiver of excitement up my spine. Vosne-Romanée… Chambolle-Musigny… Morey-Saint-Denis… And finally Gevrey-Chambertin, our destination. Even to this old goat of a wine blogger, the thought of doing a wine tasting in Gevrey-Chambertin had me tingling with anticipation.

We pulled up to the Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet (which also makes wine under the name Domaine François Trapet), a relatively modest stucco house on the edge of the village with a tractor parked in front. This is a family winery, and the son, Laurent greeted us at the door. When you picture the scion of a winemaking family located in one of France’s greatest wine towns, you might imagine some sort of grandee in a flawlessly tailored sport coat and trousers and name-brand loafers. But here, in unpretentious and informal Burgundy, Laurent wore a blue athletic shirt, red shorts and hiking boots. He had been working in the vineyards.

Winemaker Laurent Trapet in his family's cellar

Winemaker Laurent Trapet-Rochelandet in his family’s cellar

The cellar served as both a functional winery and a tasting room, though it clearly was much more the former than the latter. Laurent led us through a fascinating vertical tasting of Trapet’s Le Carougeots, from a village-class vineyard kitty-corner to the La Perrière Premier Cru vineyard and just south of the village itself. We started with a taste right from the barrel.

The 2015 Le Carougeots tasted “noisy,” as Laurent remarked, with youthful acids that still felt a touch overpowering, but this was not at all a bad sign at this point in its life. There was plenty of ripe fruit, too, and I have no doubt the wine will be delicious by the time it’s released. The 2012 had wonderful dark fruit, gentle spice and velvety tannins on the finish, but it was the 2008 that really seduced me, with its sumptuous aroma and flavor of cassis (currant), a note of violets and more forceful tannins. Both vintages were difficult, Laurent explained, but both these wines were delicious, as was the 2007, which had an earthier, more savory character along with stronger spice. Tasting these wines together made it perfectly clear why vintages in Burgundy are so important — each wine had its own distinct character.

Laurent also poured us a taste of the 2013 Les Champs-Chenys, the first vintage of this wine, also made from a single village-class vineyard. Les Champs-Chenys has Grand Cru vineyards bordering it on two sides, which made Laurent think that its fruit might be worth vinifying on its own. He was right. The wine was deliciously complex, with ample dark fruit lifted by notes of fresh hay and vanilla, and after a shaft of white-pepper spice, the finish felt minerally — almost saline.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Bel-AirThe two Premier Cru wines we tasted, the 2012 Petite Chapelle and the 2013 Bel-Air, each offered a notable increase in finesse. I loved both — the dark fruit, fresh herbs and peppercorn notes in the Petit Chapelle, and the rich cassis and long finish of the Bel-Air. But I felt truly smitten by the rich Bel-Air, a funny little Premier Cru located just above the hillside from a Grand Cru. Usually Grand Cru vineyards occupy the highest parts of the hills, but because the soil in Bel-Air is so rocky, the vines are “too stressed” to make Grand Cru-level wine, Laurent explained.

Then Laurent absolutely floored me. He produced a bottle of sparkling wine; a bottle of sparkling red Pinot Noir, in fact. “What?!” My voice went up about a dozen decibels and at least an octave, and it echoed briefly in the cellar. “This is a sparkling red Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown in Gevrey-Chambertin?” I asked, again a little too loudly. I had no idea such a thing existed. Who on earth makes sparkling Gevrey-Chambertin?

Laurent didn’t seem entirely surprised by my reaction. “It is unusual. Actually, this kind of wine was popular in the late 19th century,” he explained, as I listened wide-eyed. He thought it would be interesting to resurrect the style. And indeed, sparkling red Burgundy is officially recognized, as evidenced by the words “Appellation Bourgogne Mousseux Rouge Contrôlée” on the back label. The grapes come from village-class Gevrey-Chambertin vineyards, but because Trapet has no sparkling wine production facilities, a winery in Savigny-lès-Beaune vinifies and bottles it.

Domaine Trapet-Rochelandet Petill' RougeThe 2014 Petill’ Rouge was most definitely a red sparkling wine, not a Blanc de Noirs, the much better-known bubbly made from Pinot Noir. It looked brick-red in the glass, and it smelled of cherries and earth, as many non-sparkling Pinot Noirs do. The flavor was juicy and earthy, with elegantly small bubbles and some delightfully surprising tannins on the finish. I bought a bottle for about $16 (try finding a Gevrey-Chambertin in your local wine shop at that price).

I think of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or as one of the world’s most settled wine regions. For centuries, its terroir has been studied and carefully classified, and now its wines, while gorgeous, seemed more or less set in stone. Yet here stood Laurent, pouring me something I’d never even heard of, a wine he wanted to try making just to see how it would turn out.

The Côte d’Or, as I discovered first hand, is not entirely ossified after all. And it won’t become so, as long as winemakers like Laurent continue to take risks and experiment.

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.

The Concentrated Malbec Of Salta

16 June 2016

Don David MalbecYou may well wonder what a post about Argentine Malbec is doing on a blog about unusual/obscure wines and spirits. Few wines are less obscure than Argentine Malbec. It makes an appearance at almost every BYOB party I attend. At a recent one, I asked a fellow attendee if she liked the Malbec she was drinking. She shrugged and replied, “It’s Malbec,” as if to say, “How good do you think this can get?”

Cheap Malbec is everywhere, which isn’t at all a bad thing — it’s usually fruity and drinkable, at least, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So ubiquitous is cheap Malbec, in fact, that I suspect that many wine drinkers out there would balk at the idea of paying $15 or $20 for a bottle, even though the jump in quality easily matches the jump in price. It’s just Malbec. Why pay those kind of prices?

My recent visit to Salta, Argentina’s northernmost wine region, rekindled my love and respect for the grape. In the right terroir, a conscientious winemaker can work real magic with Malbec. Mendoza makes the most famous Malbecs — and many of them are an absolute delight — but these days, I seek out the gorgeously rich and concentrated Malbecs of Salta.

What’s so special about Salta? According to The Oxford Companion of Wine, the region has “soils not dissimilar to those of Mendoza,” but it has “a mesoclimate that ensures a combination of good sugar levels at harvest… and above-average total acidity, thereby ensuring a wine of depth and balance.” Ample sugar combined with above-average acidity makes for very exciting wines indeed.

Salta’s remarkably high altitude is one of the biggest factors in its success. The Oxford Companion explains:

Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.

And just as important, the region’s winemaking has recently made a major leap in quality. Alejandro Nesman, the winemaker at Piattelli‘s Salta facility, explained the changes: “When I arrived five years ago, Cabernets were herbaceous and tannic,” he said. “Now they have more balance. Everything is starting to change.”

He noted that winemaking in Europe is “much easier,” but in Salta, “we’re discovering something — we are new. I think there is a lot of future here in Argentina, and especially in Cafayate.” (The town of Cafayate is at the heart of Salta’s vineyards, but you’re much more likely to see “Salta” on a wine label.)

In many cases, the future is already here. These Malbecs were especially memorable:

El Esteco "Elementos" Malbec at Legado Mitico

El Esteco “Elementos” Malbec at Legado Mítico

2014 Bodega El Esteco “Elementos” Malbec: The hotel Legado Mítico welcomes guests with a complimentary glass of this dark, dark wine. It smelled of plums, raisins and something savory. It felt dark and meaty, with an almost chewy texture and some velvety tannins on the finish. It tasted ripe and luscious, but it had notable focus keeping it all together. Available in the U.S. for about $18 a bottle.

2014 Bodega El Esteco Michel Torino Estate “Don David” Reserve Malbec: Again, this wine smelled rich and dark. It tasted very fruity, with lots of plum and blueberry, balanced by plenty of acid, a touch of wood and some light white-pepper spice. I loved how smoothly it shifted from flavor to flavor. Paired with a llama steak, it became even bigger and spicier. Available in the U.S. for about $14 or $15 a bottle, a ridiculously good value.

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

Vineyards at Estancia de Cafayate

2014 Estancia de Cafayate Malbec: You’ll likely have trouble finding this example, the house wine of the Grace Cafayate resort, but in the event it’s exported to the U.S. in the near future, you can expect a similar rich, dark aroma, but inflected with a bit of chocolate. This Malbec had plummy fruit to spare, leavened with some green peppercorn spice, and a smooth, voluptuous texture. “A feather bed of a Malbec,” I wrote in my notes.

2014 Piattelli Vineyards Malbec Reserve: A lovely opaque magenta color, this wine had an enticing aroma of dark fruit, vanilla and a hint of violets. Again, it tasted of ripe, dark fruit, but the acids and spice were especially zesty. Although not without density, this Malbec felt impressively light on its feet, and even the finish was bright. I craved some steak with chimichurri to pair with it. I had trouble finding somewhere to buy this wine, but if you encounter it, it should run about $15 (not to be confused with the winery’s Malbec from Mendoza).

2014 Piattelli Grand Reserve Malbec: The “best of the crop” goes into this wine, and after drinking a glass with lunch at the winery, I believe it. The aroma was sensationally rich, with notes of blackberry jam, fresh wood and some tobacco. I loved the sumptuous dark fruit, focused acids and gorgeously supple tannins, as well as the whiff of tobacco on the finish. We all have personal preferences when it comes to wine, and this Malbec checked just about all of my boxes. I found a store on the Wine Searcher website selling it for $22 a bottle, which is an absolute steal. (Again, not to be confused with the Grand Reserve from Mendoza.)

Finding Malbecs from Salta requires a little effort even in stores which carry them, because rarely does a wine shop separate those bottles from Mendoza wines. But spend a little time squinting at the wine labels, and you’ll be amply rewarded.

If you like rich, dark fruit balanced with vibrant acids and focused spice, Malbecs from Salta will be right up your alley.

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.

Torrontés Reconsidered

7 May 2016
Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

Overlooking the vineyards in Cafayate

I had my last glass of Torrontés about 10 years ago. A cross of Muscat of Alexandria and Mission (Criolla Chica), the signature white wine of Argentina, as I remembered it, felt a little off-kilter. I recalled an overabundance of flowers and a rather bitter note on the dry finish. It lacked balance. And though Torrontés may be much more obscure than Chardonnay, with so many delicious Chardonnays now coming out of Mendoza, it seemed foolish to opt for a Torrontés instead.

On my recent trip to Salta and Cafayate, I had little choice. Even the “wine bar” in my resort offered only one still white wine by the glass: Torrontés from the surrounding estate. In the high-altitude vineyards here in the Calchaquí Valley, Torrontés has few white competitors.

Vineyards at Piattelli

Vineyards at Piattelli

Seeing the actual vineyards didn’t fill me with confidence, I must admit. Although scenically spectacular, with a backdrop of rugged mountains in every direction, the sandy vineyards are home not only to grapevines, but the occasional cactus as well! Vines are supposed to have to suffer to produce great wine, but this seemed a bit extreme.

Nevertheless, the conditions in the Calchaquí Valley can foster wines that are truly world-class. Vineyards receive some 300 days of sun each year, and as I can attest, the winds blowing through the valley ensure that the grapes remain free of mold, mildew and fungus. Elevation is an even more important consideration, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains:

Even the lower vineyards in Salta are at 1,650 m/5,413 ft, and because of this elevation, the vine is forced to protect itself from extreme weather, resulting in lower yields and thick skins, which produce concentrated, full-bodied wines that are also extremely fragrant.

I certainly tasted no shortage of sensational Malbecs, as well as the occasional superb Bordeaux-style blend. They were rich, ripe and sometimes even chewy, with lush fruit, velvety tannins and frequently impressive focus. If you have yet to taste a red wine from Cafayate (Salta), I encourage you to set aside your other plans and drink one immediately.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

Some of the lights have gone out at House of Jasmines.

But I couldn’t keep eating beef at every meal, and I didn’t want to drink a rich, chewy Malbec with a dish of local trout. I finally capitulated and ordered a glass of Torrontés. I was in the restaurant of the House of Jasmines, a Relais & Chateaux member which should theoretically have a restaurant of high quality. It was with some surprise, then, when I saw the waiter bring over a bottle of Torrontés with “16/4” written in pen on the label. I realized that those numbers indicated the date the wine bottle was opened, which meant that it was a week old! I requested that he uncork a fresh bottle.

The food at House of Jasmines matched the service in its mediocrity, but the (newly opened) Torrontés was a delight. The 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Torrontés had a clean, crisp and exotically spicy aroma. The pear/apple fruit tasted ripe and taut, and I appreciated the ample lemon/lime acids, which were followed by some gingery spice. It felt quite balanced, this Torrontés — it wasn’t at all the flower bomb I feared.

Piattelli's winery and restaurant in Cafayate

Piattelli’s winery and restaurant

Nor were any of the other Torrontéses I tried. The organic 2015 Nanni Torrontés had delicious melony fruit undergirded by zesty acids and more of that fine gingery spice. An unusual 2015 Amalaya “Blanco Dulce de Corte” Torrontés/Riesling blend had notes of sweet corn and hay, forceful orangey acids and a surprisingly dry, ethereal finish. And a fresh 2015 Piattelli Torrontés Reserve had wonderfully round fruit shot through with sharp acids and warm white-pepper spice.

I had a chance to chat with the winemaker of Piattelli, Alejandro Nesman, shortly after I tried his Torrontés. I mentioned how I barely recognized the examples of Torrontés, I tried, such was the leap in quality. He told me that things really started to change in Cafayate only recently. “That [high-quality] Torrontés started five years ago,” he said.

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

Torrontés right from the tank at El Porvenir

The last winery I visited was El Porvenir, where I had the chance to sample the 2016 vintage straight from the fermentation tank. Still cloudy, it felt rather rowdy and rough, but the component parts — tropical fruit, racy acidity, sharp spice and floral overtones — were all there.

But the wine I’ll never forget was the 2015 El Porvenir “Laborum” Finca El Retiro Vineyard Oak-Fermented Torrontés. Unlike the similar wine I had at House of Jasmines, this Torrontés ferments for one month in oak barrels. It had a huge aroma of both flowers and buttery oak. “I’ve never smelled anything quite like it,” I exclaimed.

“It’s very strange,” the export manager remarked, with admirable candor. The flavor was absolutely fascinating — a combination of tropical fruit, butter, cream, flowers and green peppercorn spice. I really liked it. Who would have ever guessed that you could successfully oak Torrontés?

Vineyards in SaltaSomething truly exciting is happening in Cafayate. If you have long ignored wines from Salta and the Calchaquí Valley, as I have, consider giving them another try. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bottle for more than $30, and most retail for $15 or less. They’re fantastic values for the money. They’re making great wine in those sandy, cactus-riddled vineyards, and I have a feeling that it won’t remain under the radar for much longer.

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