Grape Varieties

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 it’s 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 Nessman, 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.

Burgundy Versus California: Two Contrasting Pinot Noirs

11 April 2016
Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Cote d'Or

Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Côte d’Or

Tasting Pinot Noirs side by side never fails to be revealing. That’s why when my friend Liz told me she planned on bringing a California Pinot to the BYOB restaurant where we were meeting, I knew exactly which wine I wanted to taste next to it. The last bottle of Burgundy on my wine rack.

I’ve had the fortune to visit Burgundy three times now, and though I’ve toured numerous other top wine regions in both Europe and the Americas, Burgundy remains my favorite. It combines picturesque vineyards and exquisite architecture with a grace found in only a handful of places around the globe. And despite its fame, it doesn’t feel especially touristy, especially if you get a bit off the beaten track. There’s more to Burgundy than just the three- and four-figure Grands Crus of the Côte d’Or.

Marche aux Vins

Marché aux Vins

On my last visit, which took place far too long ago in 2008, a colleague and I found ourselves in Rully, the northernmost village of the Côte Chalonnaise. The dollar was quite weak then, and Chinese demand had already begun to drive the price of famous Burgundy names through the roof. But in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d’Or, regular folks like us could still afford to buy a bottle of wine or two.

As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Despite the fact that many [Côte Chalonnaise] wines are little known, their quality in all appellations is very good, and the value for money even better.” I’ve always had good luck with this region. In fact, it was a Pinot Noir from Givry that first clarified my understanding of structure in a wine. When I tasted it, I could feel the layers of flavor building themselves on my palate, as sure as if they were being assembled by a construction crew. I remember when my father took a sip, he let out a laugh because it was so good. Not bad for an $18 bottle I found in Beaune’s Marché aux Vins!

We paid a visit to the Marché in 2008 — it is, after all, perhaps my favorite place to taste wine in the world — but it was our visit to Rully that I most remember from that trip. The words “Wine Tasting in Burgundy” likely conjure images of palatial tasting rooms presided over by some comte or other, and I’m sure you can find that. But we found the thoroughly unpretentious Domaine Michel Briday, a winery Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia cites as one of Rully’s best.

Stephane Briday at Domaine Michel BridayThe tasting room was little more than a cozy dining room in an old house, as you can see from the photo on the right. Pictured is Stéphan Briday, who looks less like a Burgundian scion and more like a farmer in his torn jeans and t-shirt. It was clear he knew his way around a vineyard, which, in Burgundy of all places, is of paramount importance. He is a winemaker connected to the land. His passion for the wine was obvious and his hospitality was gracious, even though it was equally obvious that my colleague and I didn’t exactly qualify as wine experts. But I knew exciting wine when I tasted it.

I came home with two bottles of 2006 Domaine Michel Briday Rully Premier Cru Les Pierres, one of which collected dust on my wine rack until Thursday night. It aged surprisingly well, considering the many temperature swings the bottle had endured. Liz took a sniff and remarked, “It’s temptation in a glass.” I agreed, loving the aroma of dusky red fruit and old wood.

Michel Briday Rully 1er Cru Les PierresAfter a splash of dark fruit, the wine moved to white pepper spice, some serious earthiness and some surprisingly hefty tannins. Wood dominated the almost rasping finish. It was a bit of a wild thing, this wine! Paired with some beef, it felt suddenly in perfect balance. As Liz noted, “That bitch was tamed by the steak.” The tannins of the wine and fat of the steak were an equal and powerful match.

The Pinot Noir Liz brought came not from Sonoma, where so many fashionable Pinots originate these days, but the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco. Despite its proximity to the city, the area is still apparently quite rugged. “No one told me I would be driving 2,600 feet up into the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Liz exclaimed, relating her drive to the David Bruce Winery. “And those falling rock signs? They weren’t kidding.”

David Bruce was an early pioneer of Pinot Noir in the region, and he merits praise in all three of my major wine reference books, The World Atlas of Wine, The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. And a Chardonnay of his competed in the famed “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

David Bruce Pinot NoirIn a rather passive-aggressive entry, Sotheby’s says that “Having gone through a learning curve, David Bruce now produces far more elegant wines than he used to.” I can’t speak about any previous vintages, but the 2008 David Bruce Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir that Liz shared with me positively exuded elegance. It had a gorgeously rich aroma — Liz noted chocolate-covered blueberries — and a sensationally seamless mouthfeel. The wine moved with impressive grace from ripe dark-red and purple fruits to some focused spice, overtones of vanilla and violets, and a finish of plush tannins. What a delight.

The two wines tasted completely different from one another: hearty and earthy versus rich and graceful. It still amazes me how much Pinot Noir absorbs the influence of its terroir and the hand of its winemaker.

I love that a grape can do that.

Czech Wine: An Unpronounceable Delight

24 March 2016

Duck and St. Laurent at U Modre KachnickyIt wasn’t until my third visit to Prague that I tried my first glass of Czech wine. That is partially because in 1998, when I first set foot in this jewel of a Central European city, the country’s wineries had yet to shake off the depredations of communism. And it’s partially because large glasses of local beer could be had for about a quarter.

By the time of my latest visit in 2007, the city had been overrun by British stag parties, beers cost $5, and sizeable sections of restaurant wine lists were devoted to Czech bottlings. We had our first dinner of the trip at the atmospheric U Modré Kachničky (The Blue Duck), in the relatively quiet Malá Strana neighborhood on the castle side of the river. I ordered duck in plum brandy sauce with potato pancakes, and after consulting with the waiter, a glass of Svatovavřinecké to pair with it. I memorialized the meal with the blurry photo to the right.

I still can’t pronounce Svatovavřinecké (St. Laurent), but I remember that dinner — the worn frescoes of wisteria glimmering in the candlelight, the savory duck with crispy skin, the surprisingly rich St. Laurent. Moments like that stay with me.

It will doubtless surprise some readers that the Czech Republic makes wine, let alone wine of quality. Most of its best vineyards are in Moravia, immediately north of Austria’s Weinviertel. As The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “Because of their position north of the Danube, most of the slopes face south and are protected by higher land in the north.” And just as important, “Winemaking techniques have fully recovered from the communist era,” the Companion goes on to say.

That’s all well and good, but quality aside, it remains quite difficult to find Czech wine outside the country, as The World Atlas of Wine notes: “Little [Czech wine] is exported yet, but the potential is there.” Very, very little Czech wine crosses the Atlantic. I never spotted one until about a year ago.

Vino z Czech St. Laurent by Vino MarcincakI was browsing the egregiously disorganized wine section of Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen, which never fails to irritate me. But sometimes I unearth a gem before my patience wears out. As my eye drifted along the jumble of wines on the shelves, a label with an Alphonse Mucha print caught my attention. “Vino z Czech” were the words beneath, and for the first time since 2007, I found myself purchasing a Czech wine.

I assumed Vino z Czech, which translates as “Wine from the Czech Republic,” was the rather uncreative name of the winemaker. It actually encompasses an entire collection of wines made by different Moravian vintners and assembled by Czech Wine Imports for sale in the United States. “Most of these wines are from small wineries,” according to the Vino z Czech website. “Annual production of our varieties range from 180 cases to just under 2200 cases.”

This particular wine, a 2006 St. Laurent, comes from Vino Marcinčák, the Czech Republic’s largest organic winery, headquartered in the Mikulov region of Moravia. Its vineyards “…have excellent locations in the warmest region of the Czech Republic,” if Vino Marcinčák’s website is to be believed, and the winery seeks to produce “…wines with character, intended for the most discriminating wine lovers.”

It all sounded very promising, but I did have some concern that this 10-year-old wine might be past its prime. The Oxford Companion asserts that St. Laurent is “…capable of producing deep-coloured, velvety reds with sufficient concentration — provided yields are limited — to merit ageing in oak and then bottle.” Even so, I poured a glass for myself with more hope than confidence.

Before my nose arrived at the rim of the glass, I could detect the wine’s enticingly dark, purplish aroma. I loved the generous fruit flavors of plum and prune, overlayed with a floral, violet note. The wine moved from cool, dark fruit to rather rustic acids, which morphed into a low-grade but lengthy hum of white-pepper spice. There was a pleasant duskiness throughout, likely because of its age.

My husband decided not to drink that evening, and I managed to finish only half the bottle. I used some inert gas in an attempt to prolong the wine’s life, and put it in the fridge. Two days later, it was time to cook Sunday dinner, and I uncorked the bottle, fully expecting the fruit and acids of this decade-old codger to have flattened or disappeared altogether. It was quite a shock, then, when I took a sip and found the wine to be perfectly lively. I happily finished off the other half of the bottle as we prepared some white bean soup with kale and kielbasa. For $17, this wine struck me as a very fine value.

You won’t find Czech wine in most wine shops, regardless of the extent of their selection. But Vino z Czech does distribute its wines in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Texas and Illinois (see a full list of stores and restaurants here). If you live in one of these states, by all means, visit an establishment that sells these wines and try one out.

And if you go to Prague, which I still recommend doing in spite of the crowds, don’t limit yourself to beer, as I did on my first two visits. The local wines may be difficult to pronounce, but they certainly aren’t difficult to enjoy.

If you prefer cocktails, this Czech concoction is one of my favorites.

The Central Coast’s Italian Side

6 March 2016

Mosby WinesI recently mentioned to a Los Angeles resident that I write a wine blog, to which she responded, “Oh, you must get out to California all the time!” But I don’t. The state produces no shortage of beautiful wines, but bottlings that qualify as unusual or obscure are a little harder to find.

That’s why it was with some excitement that I read an email from a wine marketer offering to send some samples from Mosby Winery, set in the Central Coast’s Santa Ynez Valley, not far from Santa Barbara. Many wineries in the area concentrate on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter made famous by the film “Sideways.” But Mosby, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia describes as “interesting” and “sometimes provocative,” focuses instead on a range of Italian grape varieties.

You might well wonder how grapes from sunny Italy could successfully grow near cool-climate Burgundian varieties, but Italy has its share of cool wine regions, too. Some of the country’s greatest wines come from northern areas like Piedmont and Alto Adige. Nor is the Santa Inez Valley a cool-climate monolith. In fact, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Although far from being the only schizophrenic AVA in California, the Santa Ynez Valley comes close to being the extreme case.” Parts of it grow Pinot Noir well, but other warmer sections, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are perfectly at home.

I had planned on cooking some sort of Italian feast to accompany the six wines I received, but I must admit my grand visions of fresh-made tagliatelle with porcini and osso buco with polenta never quite came to fruition. Instead, one of my tasting crew offered to bring a salad, and I ordered pizza. The food may have been simple, but the wines, by and large, proved delightful.

Mosby Cortese and Traminer2013 Mosby Cortese: According to the Oxford Companion, wine made from Cortese — most commonly Gavi from Piedmont — is, at its best, “clean and fresh.” This example had a heady, rather sweet nose of honeycrisp apple, but it tasted quite dry, its ripe fruit quickly overtaken by tight acids and a hint of something smoky or even burnt. Two friends immediately dismissed the wine, but a third taster defended it. “I like it,” he said, “but then, I like funky, Old World-style wines.” I rather do too. In any case, this wine needs food — I wouldn’t drink it on its own. With the salad of fennel, grapefruit, beets and goat cheese, it felt crisp, clean and balanced. $19

2014 Mosby Traminer: Many wine drinkers are familiar with Gewürztraminer, grown with particular success in the Alsace. Traminer is a clone of this famous variety, which quite possibly originated in the village of Tramin in Italy’s Südtirol/Alto Adige region. The Oxford Companion calls it “non-aromatic,” but this wine certainly couldn’t be classified as such. It smelled of white flowers, like lily of the valley or jasmine. The fruit felt lush on the tongue, but the wine was essentially dry, and it finished with a pop of spice. Dry, floral wines aren’t for everyone though, even when well-balanced, and the Traminer, like the Cortese, proved controversial among my tasting group. $20

2012 Mosby Dolcetto: This grape, which tends to produce relatively soft and fruity wines (“dolce” means “sweet” in Italian), grows most commonly in Piedmont. Dolcetto ripens early, and most Italians plant it in vineyards where other grapes don’t tend to reach maturity. But I have a feeling that Mosby’s Dolcetto grapes receive plenty of sun, because the red fruit flavors in this wine were delightfully rich, balanced by plenty of black pepper spice. Another taster exclaimed, “Asian salted plum!” and indeed, this wine had a pleasant saline note in its finish. The sausage-topped pizza tamed the black pepper notes, which had at first been too prominent for my taste. $28

2011 Mosby Teroldego: Unfamous Teroldego grows mostly in Trentino, a region in Italy’s far northeast near Slovenia. The Oxford Companion makes it sound like an Astor or Rockefeller of the wine world, describing it as an “old, well-connected grape variety.” In the hands of Mosby, it produced a wine universally popular with the group. “Teroldego is the winner so far,” one taster remarked, and I can’t deny that I loved this wine. It had an inviting aroma of dusky, dark cherries. The dark red and purple fruit flavors were very ripe and round, shot through with focused white pepper spice. Soft tannins gave the wine an elegant finish. Superb. $32

Tasters Scott, Sonja and Thom

Tasters Scott, Sonja and Thom

2011 Mosby “La Seduzione” Lagrein: Most commonly found in Alto Adige and Trentino, little-known Lagrein has quite the pedigree as well. According to the Oxford Companion, this grape is “a progeny of Teroldego, a grandchild of Pinot, and a cousin of Syrah.” That heritage qualifies as royalty in my vine peerage. The wine smelled of ripe dark fruit and mocha, and it tasted rich and full. Lots of up-front fruit gave way to a chocolate note and slow-building spice, with a finish of supple tannins and a raisin tone. It felt even bigger when paired with some pizza. I certainly was seduced by this thoroughly delicious wine, and I was left wondering why more people outside of northeastern Italy don’t produce it. $32

2011 Mosby Sagrantino: Mosby claims to have produced the first domestic Sagrantino in 2006, and the winery is surely still one of the very few outside of Umbria growing this variety. It appears mostly in wine from Montefalco, where “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication… is not high,” argues the Oxford Companion. But the variety “shows promise,” it says, and Mosby’s version illustrates that fact. The wine had an enticing, rather brooding aroma of dark fruit. It felt beautifully balanced, with ripe blueberry jam notes leavened with sharp, persistent spice, leading to a dry and softly tannic finish. $38

As evidenced by the polarized reactions of my friends, Mosby’s white wines aren’t for everyone. Buy them only if you’re a fan of Old World-style whites. The reds, however, were quite popular with everyone, including me. Mosby may be provocative, but its wines have real substance to back up their novelty.

Chianti Reconsidered

22 February 2016

Andrea Cecchi Chianti ClassicoFor many of us of a certain age, the word “Chianti” evokes fat bottles in straw baskets, bought not for the cheap wine inside so much as for the bottle, which made a great candle holder. Even today, that stereotype has yet to entirely disappear. Those in search of a great wine might pick up a Super Tuscan, perhaps, but I suspect fewer would look to a wine labeled Chianti Classico. Chianti may be Italy’s most famous wine region, but its name is not necessarily synonymous with fine wine.

The Italians have only themselves to blame for that, I’m afraid. In the 1960s, the government updated the DOC regulations for Chianti Classico, the traditional heart of Chianti and the source of most of the region’s best wines. The bureaucrats of the time decided that the best way to promote the economic health of Chianti Classico was to increase the quantity of wine produced and sold. Quality was of secondary concern. Whereas regulations previously allowed a certain percentage of the white Trebbiano and Malvasia grapes in the Sangiovese-based blend, now the rules required that the blend include 10 to 30 percent of the white grape juice. Fortunately, a number of growers decided to focus on quality instead, planting international varieties and selling what proved to be critically acclaimed (and expensive) wines as lowly Vino da Tavola.

The topsy-turvy situation was a bit of an embarrassment to regulators, of course, and finally in 1996, Chianti Classico became its own DOCG region as opposed to just a sub-region of Chianti. Yields were restricted, the required percentage of Sangiovese was increased, and the white-grape requirement was scrapped. But it wasn’t until 2006 — just ten years ago — that white grapes were banned from Chianti Classico, as the World Atlas of Wine explains.

Andrea Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di FamigliaI relate all this at length because I suspect that many people remain unaware of the recent changes in Chianti Classico. The wines now coming out of this region merit serious attention, a point that was driven home to me at a recent tasting with winemaker Andrea Cecchi.

I had expected to write only about his wines from Maremma, a region with far less fame than Chianti Classico, and therefore more appropriate for this blog dedicated to the unusual (you can read that post here). But the Chianti Classicos Andrea poured proved so surprisingly delicious, I felt bound to write about them.

His Chianti Classico is his winery’s best-seller in the United States, and after trying it, I can see why. A blend of 90% Sangiovese with the remainder composed of the traditional Colorino and Canaiolo varieties, the 2012 Cecchi Chianti Classico ($21) had a bright and cheerful aroma of red fruit, notably strawberries and cherries, and a hint of star anise. The wine filled my mouth with dark-red fruit, but like the other Cecchi wines I’d already tried, this Chianti Classico had distinct dryness to it. Some light spice in the middle led to some supple tannins on the finish. This was no rough-and-tumble Chianti. The wine had real elegance.

Those who prefer their wine with some oak should instead consider the 2009 Cecchi Chianti Classico Riserva di Famiglia ($41), which is produced only in favorable vintages. This wine, composed of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, sees 12 months of aging in barriques (small oak barrels). It smelled of fresh red fruit, but I also detected a raisin note in the aroma. The fruit felt really rich on my tongue, and thank goodness it did, because it had to balance the ample oak that followed. The tannins were wonderfully round, in spite of all that wood, and overall effect was quite refined. The oak notes made it an excellent pairing with some savory prosciutto, which also gave the fruit an extra shine.

Andrea Cecchi COEVOLast, Andrea poured the 2011 vintage of his Super Tuscan, a blend of 60% Sangiovese from Chianti and 20% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot from Maremma. The name, COEVO, which translates as “contemporary,” was chosen “because it conveys the value of time,” according to the tech sheet I received. I could tell from the aroma that this was a wine to be reckoned with. The deep, dark-fruit aroma had a striking freshness underneath, conveyed by a tobacco note.

I took a sip of the wine, and Andrea started saying something or other about it that was probably important, but I didn’t hear a word he said. It was just me and this absolutely gorgeous wine. The fruit was positively sumptuous — rich and round — and just enough spice perked up to keep it in balance. The wine moved seamlessly from one flavor to the next, culminating in the slow and steady development of exquisitely fine-grained tannins.

I can just picture it now, as I write this. What a shame I only had a small glass! I’ve never really considered spending $106 on a bottle of wine, but the 2011 COEVO might convince me to do just that.

Unusual Sparkling Rosé For Valentine’s Day

12 February 2016

ValentineThe final time I went out for a Valentine’s Day dinner was about eight years ago. I haven’t given up celebrating Valentine’s Day, but I have given up going out to restaurants on that most overpriced of nights. The last straw was a miserable $80 prix-fixe dinner at the now deservedly shuttered Terragusto, a BYOB Italian restaurant in Chicago. The chef just phoned it in that night, and each course proved more banal than the last.

Because restaurants jack up their prices mercilessly on Valentine’s Day, I highly recommend enjoying a romantic dinner at home instead. Your beloved would surely appreciate it if you prepared a meal, even if it’s a simple one. Just put a little bouquet of flowers and a couple of candles on the table, and whatever food you make will look very romantic. And, fortunately, it’s really easy to pick out a wine to go with your Valentine’s Day dinner, regardless of its flavor profile: sparkling rosé. (Unless you’re making something spicy, in which case you should opt for something sweeter.)

Readers of a certain age may turn up their noses at sparkling rosé, having been scarred by Mateus in their youth. But nowadays, numerous vintners around the world produce rosé sparklers of real quality and interest, with fine bubbles and carefully balanced flavors. If you haven’t tried a fine sparkling rosé, I highly recommend picking one up, whether you plan on celebrating Valentine’s Day or not.

A rosé bubbly is admittedly a predictable choice for Valentine’s Day, which makes it important to select your sparkler with care. If you choose one from an unexpected wine region or made from an unexpected grape, it will show you put some thought into the wine, and didn’t just grab a bottle from the display of pink Asti by the entrance of the grocery store. I just tasted two unusual sparkling rosés myself, and I would certainly recommend picking up one or the other, depending on your taste.

Francois Montand Brut Rose and Szigeti Pinot Noir RoseFrançois Montand Brut Rosé: The François Montand winery stands in France’s Jura region, a bit northwest of Geneva, because the winery’s founder fled to Jura during World War II. The Germans occupied Champagne, but Jura remained a free zone of France. His winery continues to make wines in the traditional Champagne method, méthode traditionnelle, which means that the wine’s second fermentation — the fermentation responsible for the bubbles — occurs in the bottle, not in a big tank. This more expensive method of sparkling wine production usually produces wines with a finer bead and more elegant mouthfeel.

François Montand’s Brut Rosé follows a very non-traditional, non-Champagne-approved route in terms of its composition, however. In Champagne, and in many other sparkling wines around the world, you find only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This sparkler blends Grenache, a grape found in many wines from the Rhône as well as Spain (where it’s known as Garnacha), and Cinsault, a red grape also popular in southern France, notably in Languedoc.

In Jura, these grapes likely ripen less than they do in southern France, ensuring that they retain enough acidity to make a fine sparkling wine (the wine also contains grapes from “additional vineyard sources outside the Jura”). In any case, the result is a delight, and the wine proved to be a hit at a recent tasting I held. A light salmon pink, it smelled of deliciously ripe watermelon and strawberries. The wine tasted fruity, spicy and essentially dry, with watermelon notes, ample lemon-orange acids and a finish of powdered candy. The bubbles, especially at the beginning, felt focused and prickly.

I would never have guessed, either from the pretty label or the taste, that this sparkler costs only about $15.

Flutes of Szigeti Pinot Noir Brut Rosé and François Montand Brut Rosé

Flutes of Szigeti Pinot Noir Brut Rosé and François Montand Brut Rosé

Szigeti Pinot Noir Brut Rosé: If you or your loved one prefer your sparkling wine with just a light hint of sweetness, choose instead this well-crafted bubbly. What makes this sparkler unusual is not its composition of 100% Pinot Noir, nor its method of production, which is also méthode traditionnelle. This sparkler comes from Austria, a country known far better for its still Rieslings than sparkling Pinots.

Szigeti makes its home on the eastern side of the Neusiedlersee, a large and shallow lake that helps moderate the climate. “This is Austria’s hottest wine region,” explains The World Atlas of Wine, “so red grapes… ripen reliably each year, yet morning mists help keep their acidity in balance.”

I very much enjoyed Szigeti’s sparkling Grüner Veltliner, and when a wine representative offered me another bottle of Szigeti to try, I eagerly accepted. This wine proved more controversial at the tasting, with some people preferring the drier quality of the François Montand.

The aroma smelled rounder than that of the François Montand, with light notes of cherry and something a bit floral. A crisp apple taste quickly gave way to strawberries and cherries. Tart and lemony acids, in turn, supplanted the sweetness of the fruit, and the finish was dry. The bubbles were pleasantly small and sharp.

“It’s like a Sour Patch Kid,” exclaimed one taster, who found the sweet and sour character not to her taste. And indeed, both the fruit and the acidity were powerful. Another friend complained it was simply too sweet. Several other tasters, myself included, quite liked the wine, but then, I enjoy a little racy tartness in my sparklers.

The Szigeti costs $25, which seems like quite a reasonable splurge for Valentine’s Day. The wine has a certain voluptuousness, which, depending on your taste in wine and significant others, might be just the thing.

Note: These wines were samples, provided free of charge. 

The Dark Horse Of Italy’s Cowboy Country

9 February 2016
Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

I recently returned from a trip blessedly free from internet access to discover an aging invitation to have dinner and taste wines with Andrea Cecchi. My recent lack of connectivity suddenly seemed more like a curse. I scrambled to arrange a meeting, because Mr. Cecchi makes highly regarded wines in an obscure but very exciting region of Italy: Maremma.

Until the mid-20th century, Tuscany’s coast was better known for malaria and buttero (cowboys) than fine wine. But Mussolini drained the swamps, the cattle herds dwindled and the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Bolgheri. Now, Bolgheri is its own DOC and the home of Sassicaia, one of Italy’s most coveted wines.

But I don’t have $200 to spend on a bottle of Sassicaia. Instead, I focus instead on what ranks as one of Italy’s best red-wine values: Morellino di Scansano. The hill town of Scansano sits on high ground in Maremma, and the vineyards of Morellino (the local synonym for Sangiovese) reach as high as 1,500 feet above the nearby sea. “This is the Maremma’s classic Sangiovese zone,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and Italy seems to agree. In 2009, Morellino di Scansano was elevated from its DOC classification to DOCG, the most most restrictive and (theoretically) highest-quality designation in Italy’s wine classification system.

Cecchi La Mora Morellino di Scansano RiservaIn 1996, Andrea Cecchi’s father bought 360 acres of Maremma vineyards, expanding his wine company out of Chianti Classico, its home base since the late 19th century. He called his new wines “La Mora,” in honor of the black-skinned horses for which Maremma was once famous, Andrea explained, indicating the horse-head silhouettes on the labels.

We talked about measures the winery takes to improve sustainability and how they continue to innovate, working to make even the most incremental of improvements, knowing that enough small steps forward eventually lead to great leaps in quality. In the not-so-distant past, the fashion was to amp up the extraction and oak flavors. Now, the pendulum has swung the other direction, and Andrea, like many other top winemakers these days, seeks to emphasize the quality and purity of the fruit. It all sounded good, but did it translate into delicious wine?

I smelled the 2013 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano. It had a lovely rich aroma of red cherry fruit and violets. This wine sees no oak. “I want it to be very perfect, clean, into the bottle,” Andrea explained, and he succeeded in that effort. The wine started with ample dark cherry fruit before moving to a brief perk of white-pepper spice, admirably round tannins and a clean, dry finish. It worked well with some tomato and basil bruschetta, becoming a bit bigger and spicier. A very good value for $23 a bottle.

Cecchi La Mora Maremma VermentinoWe also tried the 2011 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano Riserva, aged 12 to 14 months in French oak barriques composed of 40% new wood (older barrels impart less oak flavor). I felt especially excited to try this wine, because only 10% of Morellino di Scansano is riserva. I loved its rich dark-chocolate and cherry aroma overlaid with a note of black licorice. On my palate, the cherry fruit felt cool and ripe, undergirded by mocha notes and well-integrated tannins. Like with the first Morellino, this example exhibited a general undertone of dryness — the wine didn’t feel juicy or jammy. This wine is pricier at $40 a bottle, but if you have that money to spend, you won’t regret spending it on this absolutely delightful riserva.

Maremma can produce notable whites as well, as demonstrated by the 2014 “La Mora” Maremma Vermentino Andrea presented. Demand for wines made from this indigenous grape far outstrips supply, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and I can understand why. This Vermentino smelled fresh and green, with just a touch of creaminess to it. A lengthy amount of time in contact with the yeast gave this wine a wonderfully even keel and elegant mouthfeel. Ripe fruit expanded on the palate, but taut acids underneath buoyed it up without becoming intrusive or overly tart. I also liked the dry, mineral finish. Many Italian whites require food to really appreciate them, but this wine worked just as beautifully all on its own. Very classy, and very well-priced at $20 a bottle.

Honestly, I had expected to end my writing about Andrea Cecchi’s wines here, because though he planned on presenting some Chiantis, they hardly qualified as obscure. But these Chiantis did turn out to be unusual, and well-deserving of an upcoming post all their own.

Note: The tastes of these wines were provided free of charge.

Franciacorta: Italy’s Answer To Champagne

28 December 2015

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisAs we approach New Year’s Eve, thoughts turn inevitably to sparkling wine. The holiday is practically synonymous with Champagne, and it’s the only holiday, alas, during which you’re virtually guaranteed to have plenty of bubbly with which to celebrate. (If you’re looking for a good New Year’s Resolution, I suggest vowing to celebrate every holiday with sparkling wine. Those who truly care about the environment, for example, would surely agree that Arbor Day merits a glass of Champagne as much as New Year’s Eve.)

Recently I was offered a sample of high-end Franciacorta, Italy’s best sparkling wine, crafted in a method similar to Champagne. I hesitated at first, since I had written a post about Franciacorta not so long ago. But I reconsidered and accepted the samples, because the offer came to me just after one of my favorite wine-tasting friends shared a beautiful bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut. This Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles.

Piper-Heidsieck BrutI loved this wine, which can be had for $40 a bottle (it’s a far better value than the ubiquitous and rather underwhelming Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label at $37 a bottle). After feeling so thoroughly seduced by the Piper-Heidsieck, I wondered if these Franciacorta sparklers, which ranged from $45 to $55 a bottle, would compete in the same league. At that price point, they should display sharp focus, perfect balance, notable character and elegant bubbles. I invited five friends over, whipped up some Käsespätzle with melted leeks, and got to the happy work of tasting the wines.

1) 2011 Barone Pizzini Satèn: Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees (dead yeast cells, grape skin fragments and other solid bits left over from winemaking). Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, theoretically developing even more complexity. This organic wine proved very popular with the group. “This is delicious and very easy to drink,” remarked Adam, who also liked its crispness. Patti astutely noted, “It’s like when you bite into a granny smith apple.” I also got some green apple on the nose, along with vanilla and a bit of toast. I loved the very classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit. ($45)

La Valle Brut Rose2) 2011 La Valle Rosé Brut: The vintage on this bottle inexplicably appears only in small font on the back label. If I had a vintage sparkling rosé, I’d want to shout it from the rooftops. This very pretty wine also delighted the group, including me. In order to preserve the character of the grapes as much as possible, this blend of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) fermented in stainless steel and again in the bottle, without spending any time in oak. Like the Barone Pizzini Satèn, this wine spent a significant time aging on the lees, a minimum of 24 months in this case. It had a fresh and light (some in the group argued “undetectable”) strawberry aroma. It had ample watermelony fruit but it felt dry, with rich orangey acids and some chalk on the finish. The bubbles were tiny but forceful, with a “more celebratory feel” according to one fellow taster. A very romantic sparkling rosé that paired deliciously with some asparagus wrapped in crisped prosciutto. ($55)

La Valle Rose and Barone Pizzini Rose3) 2011 Barone Pizzini Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir comes from organic vineyards abutting a forest, which “maintains cool temperatures throughout hotter days of the growing season,” according to the distributor’s fact sheet. It, too, spends 30 to 40 months aging on the lees, but the character of its bubbles made it feel less serious and more fun than La Valle’s rosé. “It’s so bubbly that it melts in my mouth,” Scott reported. “It turns to air!” He was right — on the finish, the ethereal bubbles frothed and evaporated, leaving the palate clean for the next sip. It was a surprising end for a wine that started with ripe berry flavors and dusky orange acids. “I feel like #3 is more extroverted,” Cornelia noted, “but it’s kind of garrulous.” I found this wine to be charming, but then I have no shortage of garrulous friends. ($45)

4) 2009 La Valle “Naturalis” Extra Brut: I saved the most sophisticated wine for last, which was perhaps an error, since the other wines had more residual sugar. La Valle gives this blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir nowhere to hide, aging it in stainless steel (wood can smooth over certain problems) and adding minimal sugar in the dosage (sweetness also helps cover flaws). The winemaking has to be just about perfect if you’re going to attempt a wine like “Naturalis.” And such a wine won’t be popular with everyone; one taster complained of a slight bitter undertone, and she wasn’t wrong. I found this wine exciting to drink, with its zesty acids, pin-prick bubbles and flavors of tart apple and unripe pear. It mellowed when paired with the Käsespätzle, becoming rounder and less austere. If you’re meeting up with some wine geeks and need something to pair with dinner, this is your bottle. But Cornelia said it best: “This is the wine I should be dating — it’s the most emotionally healthy — but I’ll probably end up with #1.” ($55)

This tasting was a pleasure, to be sure. The rosé Franciacortas both could compete with a fine rosé Champagne, and if you seek a romantic sparkler to impress a date — especially a date who knows something about wine — a rosé Franciacorta would be an excellent choice.

The Satèn impressed me with its beautiful balance and perfect bubbles, and the “Naturalis” excited me in the manner of a tightrope walker performing without a net. If I have $45 to $55 to spend on a sparkler, will I purchase one of them? They’re certainly worth the money. But I’m such a sucker for toasty richness, it’s still the Piper-Heidsieck that has me in its grip.

Note: All the wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

Sonoma: A New Home For Malbec?

17 December 2015

Rodney Strong MalbecOn the last evening of the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, it’s not uncommon to encounter winery representatives lightening their luggage loads by giving away their last remaining sample bottles of wine. I always pack extra socks in the hope that I’ll benefit from their generosity (I’ve never lost a bottle packed in three or four medium-thick socks, knock on wood). And so it was that I happened to be chatting with Robert Larsen, Director of Communications of Rodney Strong, who offered me a bottle of a very unusual Malbec from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma.

As we parted to attend different after-parties, he asked me to share the bottle with other bloggers at the conference. I declined his request, much to his surprise. But selfishness was only one part of the reason. I knew that if I opened the bottle then, it would end up like so many other fine wines that evening: probably served in a cheap plastic cup, briefly enjoyed by semi-intoxicated conference attendees, and, after perhaps a tweet or two, promptly forgotten. A wine like this deserved a better fate.

And so it was that I slipped the Sonoma Malbec into some socks, let it rest a while in my wine rack and finally took it to dinner at HB, a cozy BYOB restaurant in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. I met up with one of my favorite wine-tasting friends, Liz Barrett of Terlato Wines, and over plates of pork loin with mustard sauce and lamb tagine, we tasted the 2012 Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Malbec.

HB restaurant in Chicago

HB restaurant in Chicago

“Oh my lord,” Liz exclaimed. “That is sexy.” It really was. It 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 the pork loin.

This Malbec was an absolute delight, but what on earth was it doing in Sonoma? According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Malbec’s “usual fate in California” is to appear as an ingredient in Bordeaux-style blends (sometimes called Meritage, which rhymes with “heritage”). Since at least 1996, Rodney Strong has been doing exactly that, incorporating Malbec into its “Symmetry” Meritage blend. The winery released Malbec as a varietal wine for the first time because “…the exceptional quality of the 2012 vintage provided [it] with an amount of Malbec suited for this special bottling,” according to its website.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Malbec does well in the Alexander Valley, which lies not far from the Pacific coast. In France, the Companion explains, Malbec “is rarely found… far from Atlantic influence.” Although Malbec may have originated in Burgundy, it made its first mark on the wine world in Bordeaux, known for its Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Sonoma, on the other hand, tends to be associated with cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir. Malbec likely works in the Alexander Valley because the region ranks as one of Sonoma’s warmest AVAs, “thanks to some low hills that shelter it,” according to The World Atlas of Wine. It also helps that the valley is in the north of Sonoma, which becomes paradoxically cooler as you move south.

Whatever the reason, Malbec works beautifully in the Alexander Valley, if the 2012 vintage is any evidence, and I’m glad to read that Rodney Strong has planted an additional 60 acres of the variety over the last four years. I’d love to try this wine again; it strikes me as an excellent value for $35. Sonoma wines of this quality often fetch far more.

If you are still looking for a gift for that insufferable wine snob on your list, or if you’re in search of a high-quality crowd-pleasing red to serve over the holidays, Rodney Strong’s Malbec would be an excellent choice.

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