Grape Varieties

What’s Wrong With Wine Labels

20 June 2015

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I made a point of returning to my favorite winery in the state, Casa Rondeña. I ordered a glass of Meritage in the tasting room, and a gentleman next to me asked how I liked it. “Very much,” I replied. “It’s well-balanced, and a fine example of what New Mexico is capable of in terms of wine.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” he responded, “Since I made it!” I went on to say how pleasantly surprised I was by New Mexico wines, the Cabernet Francs in particular, but I didn’t disclose that I was a wine blogger who had written about Casa Rondeña previously. I was off the clock. “Have you visited any other wineries?” he asked. “Which ones do you like?”

I listed off a few, including St. Clair, where I remembered liking the D.H. Lescombes line of wines. He didn’t agree with that selection. St. Clair, he noted, adds corn syrup or other sugars to many of its wines. I can see why — in New Mexico, the local palate skews heavily towards sweeter wines, so much so that most wineries will taste reds before whites, de-emphasizing the reds’ dryness.

While certainly not illegal, that practice of adding sugars isn’t necessarily the hallmark of great wines. “They really should have to disclose that on their label,” I protested. But they don’t. In fact, beyond noting that they contain sulfites, a completely unnecessary declaration, wines need not list any of their ingredients. Nor, for that matter, do spirits. Just what is in Blue Curaçao, anyway?

How is it that in 2015, in an era of ever-greater concern about the quality of the things we’re putting into our bodies, that wines and spirits can still get away without listing anything other than their alcohol content? Some studies promote a glass or two of red wine a day as a healthy  addition to one’s diet, but surely some red wines are more beneficial than others.

Red wines with added sugar, for example, don’t strike me as the healthiest choice. At the St. Clair Bistro, our waitress offered us free samples of Chenin Blanc. And indeed, it tasted rather flabby and too sweet. I ordered a $13 glass of D.H. Lescombes Cabernet Franc instead, thinking that this more expensive line of wines would surely adhere to higher standards of winemaking.

It tasted quite ripe and free from any vegetal, green-pepper notes which can sometimes plague Cabernet Franc. But vanilla notes overwhelmed the palate, and indeed, it tasted jammier than I expected. Was I imagining that it was overly sweet because of what the owner of Casa Rondeña told me? I took another sip. No — the too-strong vanilla notes were quite clear. I won’t presume to say whether the wine had added sugar or not, however, because I have no way of knowing for sure.

Of course I wouldn’t have to guess, if wines and spirits actually declared their ingredients! All non-alcoholic beverages in the supermarket have lists of ingredients. Even unflavored water lists “Water” as the sole substance in the bottle.

It’s time spirits and wines followed suit. As a consumer, I want to know if my wine contains “Grape juice” or “Grape juice, high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #32.” Price, as indicated by my rather expensive glass of Cabernet Franc, is not necessarily a guide.

Time to write my Congressman!

Regal Wines: Sachsen’s Schloss Proschwitz

9 June 2015
The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

Schloss Proschwitz ranks among the unlikeliest — and therefore most delightful — wineries I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. First, consider its location in Sachsen in former East Germany, at about the same latitude as London. The fact that the Elbe River and its south-facing bluffs create a microclimate well-suited to grape growing is a bit of a miracle. (You can read more about Sachsen in general here.)

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz's custom-designed fermentation tanks

Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe among Schloss Proschwitz’s custom-designed fermentation tanks

Then there is the winery’s tumultuous history, which I learned about when I met Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe for a tour and tasting. A former television news reporter, the unfailingly gracious Prinzessin (that’s what everyone called her at the winery) ordered flutes of sparkling rosé for us as we sat on patio. As we sipped this unusual fruity and rather smoky sparkler made from Frühburgunder (Pinot Madeleine), she began relating the winery’s dramatic post-war story.

The parents of the current owner, the Prinz zur Lippe, did not fare well when the Soviet Red Army invaded eastern Germany. Communists did not look kindly on royalty. They imprisoned his parents and expropriated all their property. Fortunately they were not murdered — instead, after several months spent apart in prison, the Soviets “chucked them into West Germany” with only the clothes on their backs, the Prinzessin exclaimed, her understandable indignation not quite concealed.

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace),  ancestral home of the zur Lippe family

Schloss Proschwitz (Proschwitz Palace), ancestral home of the zur Lippe family, now used for weddings and other events

In need of housing and income, Christian Prinz zur Lippe took a job as a gardener, working for his mother-in-law. His son, Georg Prinz zur Lippe was not, as you might expect of someone with that title, raised in unabashed luxury. He built a successful career for himself as an agricultural engineer, and then the Berlin Wall fell.

His father, still alive at this time, suggested that Georg attempt to recover the family’s property in East Germany. But because the property had been expropriated by the Soviets, not East Germany, the government refused to give anything back. So Georg did things the hard way, negotiating with landowners and convincing banks to loan him money. Eventually, he managed to buy back a large portion of the family’s original vineyards.

The story did not end there, however. The Prinz zur Lippe was not welcomed with open arms back to his ancestral home. In the minds of the East Germans, “My husband was the incarnation of evil,” the Prinzessin explained. “From the West. A prince. He had property that had been expropriated. And he was an entrepreneur!” Like today’s Progressives in the United States, the East Germans had been brainwashed into thinking of capitalists as evil, and that mindset didn’t immediately change with the fall of the Wall. Georg lived for a year in a house on a hill overlooking his new vineyards, during which time all of his neighbors refused to speak with him. It isn’t always easy being the prince.

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

Entrance to the Schloss Proschwitz winery in Zadel

He also didn’t win any friends when he replanted his vineyards with historically correct but lower-yielding grape varieties, nor when he started employing the latest viticultural methods. Many thought he was insane to drastically reduce pesticide application and restrict yields by cutting off half the grapes and using them to make balsamic vinegar.

But finally Georg and Alexandra started to win the local people over. The sympathetic mayor of the bluff-top town of Zadel offered to sell them a courtyard of historic but dilapidated buildings for their winery. After extensive renovations, Schloss Proschwitz opened a winery, shop and restaurant on the property. It became the first in Sachsen to be admitted to the prestigious VDP, Germany’s top winery association.

In the tasting room, the Prinzessin poured several delightful wines, leaving no doubt as to the potential of Sachsen terroir. A rare Goldriesling (a seldom-cultivated Muscat crossing) had an enticingly floral and spicy aroma, food-friendly green-apple tartness and a mineral finish. The Proschwitz Elbing, an ancient and now-unpopular variety cultivated since Roman times, had a surprisingly colorless hue, a powdered candy aroma and fun, juicy acids. Either would be perfect for a pool party.

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

The Schloss Proschwitz tasting room and shop

We also tried some more serious wines, such as the 2014 Weissburgunder Kabinett from the Schloss Proschwitz Vineyard. This Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder translates literally as “White Burgundy”) smelled fresh and spicy. It tasted fruity and cheerful but very focused, with clear minerality. The 2012 Weissburgunder from the Heiligenkreuz Vineyard, in contrast, had more white fruit and cream in the aroma. It tasted very ripe, even with a note of caramel, and it finished on quite a spicy note. I never thought to age Pinot Blanc, but the 2012 clearly illustrated the benefits of a couple of years in the bottle.

But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned.  When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

Terrace of the winery's restaurant

Terrace of the winery’s restaurant

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk. But I had spit everything I’d tasted up to that point. It smelled so good, this wine, that I couldn’t help but laugh and shout. “Grosses Gewächs” translates as “Great Growth,” a designation something like Grand Cru in Burgundy. And this wine was great.

I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, but not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. It was a gorgeous, elegant wine.

I had to have it. Terrified of what I might have to spend for a wine of this quality, I looked at the price list on the bar. It cost 25€, or about $28 a bottle. I must admit I’m not used to spending $28 on a bottle of wine, but it seemed like a crazy bargain in this case. Who knew Pinot Blanc could reach such heights?

We had yet more delicious wines over lunch, notably a surprisingly ripe 2011 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) redolent of red currants and earth. And I thought, my God! How wonderful how completely the communists had failed. They took everything from the zur Lippe family except one set of clothes per person. And yet here they were, once again making truly world-class wines from their ancestral vineyards, providing jobs to about 100 people. The power of history — and the power of the entrepreneur — couldn’t have been clearer.

Chablis: An Underestimated Treasure

25 April 2015

Chablis TastingChablis, as I wrote in my previous post, is not to be confused with “Chablis” from California, a mistake I made myself until I was in my mid-20s. Bland Californian “Chablis” has nothing to do with the real thing from northern Burgundy, a fact driven home by the deliciously focused and forceful examples of Chablis I tasted at a recent lunch held to promote the wines.

Californian “Chablis” harmed (and continues to harm) the reputation of real Chablis, but the region had even bigger problems to overcome before it became the generally stable and successful appellation it is today. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Chablis owed much of its early success to its proximity to Paris. But the railways bypassed the region in the mid-19th century, cheap wines from the Midi became more popular in the French capital, and by the 1950s, Chablis vineyards had shrunk to just 1,250 acres.

In the 1960s, technology enabled the Chablis winemakers to better guard against frost damage, a serious problem in these northerly vineyards, giving them more income security and stability. Vineyards were replanted — in fact, some even argue that too many are now in production — and Chablis has expanded to more than 10,000 acres of vines today.

Petit Chablis, such as the one described in my previous post, come from the least-desirable vineyards, though that doesn’t mean they’re bad wines. The categories move up from there to Chablis, Premier Cru Chablis and Grand Cru Chablis, with the vineyards’ exposure to the sun counting as the most important factor. At this lunch, we had the fortune to sample at least one example of each category, allowing us to easily compare and contrast.

The Petit Chablis made for a refreshing aperitif, and I also quite liked the 2012 Domaine William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis made from “the best grapes from a variety of vineyards,” according to one of our hosts, vintner Louis Moreau. It had a very fresh and green aroma with some spiciness, like green peppercorns mixed with fresh green hay. It felt focused and fresh and tight, with amply juicy acids and some slate-like minerals on the finish.

Mr. Moreau also poured one of his own wines, a 2012 Domaine Louis Moreau Vaillons Premier Cru, which comes from the southeast-facing Vaillons vineyard on a hillside immediately southwest of the town of Chablis. I loved its aroma, a mix of white pepper and some brininess, like perfectly fresh raw scallops (that may not sound appealing to some, but it really was delightful). There was that wonderful Chablis focus again, with tightly controlled white-pepper spice and the classic minerality on the finish. This Premier Cru had such clarity and elegance, but it had a rounder, richer character than either the Chablis or the Petit Chablis.

Mussels with ChablisWe tasted two other expertly crafted Premier Cru wines, a well-balanced 2012 Domaine Laroche Vau de Vey Premier Cru and a delicate 2012 Louis Michel & Fils Montée de Tonnerre Premier Cru. Like the Louis Moreau, both had zesty acids making them work beautifully with food.

And then there was the superlative 2011 Domaine Christian Moreau Père et Fils Valmur Grand Cru. My World Atlas of Wine calls Chablis from the Valmur vineyard “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute delight. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. It started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice. Gorgeously balanced and very elegant.

Cheese plate with ChablisThat these wines are so delicious is perhaps not especially surprising, but the prices for which they can be had are truly eye-popping. I checked Wine Searcher for prices on the Grand Cru described above, and I found retailers offering it for as little as $54 (though $65 is more representative). It’s rare to be able to drink wine of this caliber for $65, and it’s an absolute steal when you compare it to the prices for Grand Cru wines from the Côte d’Or a little to the south. The hard-to-find Louis Moreau Premier Cru runs for about $60, the Domaine Laroche costs $42, and the Louis Michel can be had for $35. Excellent values, all.

Some of my sources, notably the curmudgeonly Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, complain that Chablis can be inconsistent, and that may very well be. I recommend chatting with a trusted wine shop employee or sommelier in order to get a reliable recommendation, because different producers working with fruit from the same vineyard can handle it very differently, and vintages can vary significantly.

With that caveat in mind, I highly recommend giving Chablis a try. It’s not necessarily an inexpensive wine, but the value for the money is hard to beat. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “For all its fame, Chablis is one of the wine world’s most underestimated treasures.”

“Chablis” and Chablis

18 April 2015
Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

Photo of Chablis by Christophe Finot

I’m afraid that until I was in my mid-20s, I thought of “Chablis” as a low-quality California wine, not far removed from “Blush.” I must have realized Chablis was a French word, but that was as close as I got to the truth. It wasn’t until I was laid off from a luxury travel company that real Chablis revealed itself to me.

My boss felt guilty about having to let me go, it seems, and he offered to arrange a free week on a canal barge in Burgundy. I had nothing better to do, certainly, and I was more than happy to help assuage his guilt by taking a mostly free trip to France. It was early in 2003, and I was able to find airfare for just $385 to Paris. That was just one unemployment check, so I figured, why not?

The vineyards of Chablis

A map of the vineyards of Chablis

The barge arrived one morning in Tonnerre, and we made an excursion to the town of Chablis for a tasting in a cellar. It was eye-opening, to say the least. How had I never tried this wonderful wine, I remember thinking. It was nothing at all like the wan “Chablis” of California. Later we took in views of the grey-stone village from the Grand Cru vineyards rising directly above it. The ground was littered with fossilized clumps of oyster shells, making it clear why Chablis has such wonderful minerality and why it pairs so well with oysters. The vines’ roots suck up microscopic oyster bits every day.

I went through a bit of a Chablis phase after that visit, but since starting this blog, I must admit I’ve been ignoring them in favor of less famous wines. But just because Chablis is famous doesn’t mean it’s especially popular or well-understood.

It may be part of Burgundy, but its vineyards are actually closer to the southern part of Champagne than they are to Beaune, the heart of the Côte d’Or. The wines of Chablis are completely different from those of the Côte d’Or, even though both are Chardonnay. The best rank among the world’s top whites. In spite of this high quality, “Grand Cru Chablis, largely ignored by the world’s fine-wine traders, remains even now half the price of Corton-Charlemagne,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, which goes on to argue that “Parity would be closer to justice.”

And therein lies the beauty of Chablis, and why it belongs in this blog devoted to the unusual. Top Burgundies, now unfortunately popular with status-conscious millionaires in China and oligarchs in Russia, have skyrocketed in price, putting them out of reach for most of us. But top Chablis regularly sells for $70 to $90. A splurge, certainly, but not out of the realm of reason for a special occasion.

Chablis LunchAt a recent lunch promoting Chablis, I was reminded what a startling value this wine can be. We tasted the full range of styles, from the much-maligned Petit Chablis all the way up to a Grand Cru. The wines brought me right back to that revelatory tasting in 2003.

I can’t deny I felt skeptical about the Petit Chablis, because in doing some research before the tasting, I read in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that “…this appellation should be downgraded to VDQS or uprooted.” Harsh words, even for ever-curmudgeonly Sotheby’s.

But the 2012 Domaine Millet “La Perle” Petit Chablis tasted quite good, in fact: fresh, bright, cheerful and juicy. It made for an excellent aperitif. I wouldn’t recommend picking any old Petit Chablis off the shelf, but as this example illustrates, even grapes from the region’s lowliest vineyards can be crafted into something quite pleasant.

Because of Chablis’ northern location, its vineyards tend to be classified according to sun exposure as much as anything. Southern-facing slopes are the most prized, because grapes there will ripen most fully. Petit Chablis vines occupy land with the least favorable aspect. But that is less of a problem than it used to be, according to vintner Louis Moreau, one of our gracious hosts at the lunch. “We achieve ripeness every year now thanks to global warming,” he asserted, “and there is no greenness as we used to get in some vintages.” He went on to explain that 30 years ago, they harvested the grapes in October, but now, the harvest has moved as much as three weeks earlier, well into September.

What does this mean for the consumer? Vintages in Chablis are as inconsistent as ever, Moreau admitted, because of stormier weather and unpredictable temperature fluctuations. Nevertheless, ripeness, which is so important in northern regions like Chablis, is less of a concern. That means that even grapes in vineyards classified as Petit Chablis, which are the least likely to ripen fully, will tend to produce rounder and more balanced wines than in decades past.

Of course, Chablis is more than just a pleasant aperitif, as amply demonstrated by the wines paired with our lunch. But they deserve a post all their own.

Up Next: Delving into the most exciting wines of Chablis, and defending the sophistication of the Chicago wine consumer.

Vernaccia Di San Gimignano Reassessed

25 March 2015

Tuscan Wine TastingWhat I read about Vernaccia di San Gimignano was not especially encouraging. The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia says, in its usual pull-no-punches style, that “most are bland.” A more diplomatic Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “the wine has attained only modest quality and price levels.”

Both sources agree that the best versions of Vernaccia di San Gimignano are “crisp,” with Sotheby’s praising its “vibrant fruit” and the Oxford Companion extolling its “refreshing quality,” “attractively bitter finish” and “unquestioned superiority over the standard bland Tuscan white blend of Trebbiano and Malvasia.” That’s better, but even these positive comments seem to be a case of damning with faint praise.

Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San GimignanoNevertheless, because Vernaccia di San Gimignano ranked as one of the most unusual options at a recent tasting of Tuscan wines, I dutifully gave a few a try. Each producer I visited offered at least two versions, an unoaked wine and a wine that had spent some time in barriques (oak barrels). The Oxford Companion takes a vaguely dismissive attitude towards “attempts to give it additional complexity with small barrel maturation,” but the technique worked for me. Each of the barrel-aged versions I tried, as indicated by the word “Riserva” on the label, was delicious.

The unoaked Vernaccias di San Gimignano I sampled tended to have cheerful fruit, limey acids, some white-pepper spiciness and often a hint of salinity. They tasted refreshing, and with their tartly bright acids, I suspect they’re at their best with food.

The barrel-aged wines achieved another level entirely, mellowing the texture and adding additional layers of flavor. The 2012 Fattoria Poggio Alloro Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Le Mandorle”, aged in new French oak, was more brooding than the unoaked Vernaccias, with notes of dark orange and cream and broader, rounder acids. I also enjoyed the 2012 Cantine Guidi 1929 Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “Aurea”, with its aroma of creamy white fruit and roasted grapes. It tasted rich, but it had a delightful green freshness and distinct focus, with a zap of spice.

Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San GimignanoAs tasty as these wines were, my personal favorite was the 2013 Podere Canneta Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva “La Luna e Le Torri”, which translates to “The Moon and the Towers,” referencing the amount of time the wine ferments — one lunar month — and the famous medieval towers of the city of San Gimignano. A blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, this wine spends a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to the complexity of the wine. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

Unfortunately, Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines can be difficult to find. But keep that name in the back of your mind, because at some point, you’ll likely encounter a shop or a wine list that has one. I highly recommend trying it. A scan of Wine Searcher revealed that most Vernaccia di San Gimignano Riserva wines retail between $15 and $30, and that’s a steal, even towards the higher end of that scale.

Serious Wines From Seneca Lake

11 March 2015

Villa Bellangelo WinesAlthough New York makes more wine than any other state except for California, it’s far easier to find bottles from Washington and Oregon than the Empire State. A characteristically grumpy Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia explains why:

As New York has just one-tenth of Washington’s vinifera area, yet makes twice as much wine, the bulk of New York’s production can only be from native grapes. Only a bigot believes it impossible for native grapes to ever make a fine wine, but they are few and far between — certainly not even half of one per cent; it is the 99.5 per cent of New York’s native grape wines that are ruining the efforts of this state’s best vinifera wineries to create an international reputation for New York wine.

One might reasonably wonder how vinifera grape varieties (classics such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Riesling) could even survive — let alone thrive — in New York, a northern state subject to harsh winters. In the case of the Finger Lakes region, the answer lies in a lucky stroke of geography.

Glaciers carved deep lake beds with steep banks of slate-rich soil. The lakes, notably Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka, store heat and help warm the surrounding landscape. “…Cold air sliding down the steep slopes is warmed by the lake and rises,” as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, “permitting more cold air to drain from the hillside.” This satellite photo, also found in The World Atlas of Wine, shows how the land adjacent to the larger lakes has less frost than land farther away. The steep banks also drain water well, important for healthy vine roots.

Villa Bellangelo Seyval BlancWine growing in the Finger Lakes region dates back to the 1820s, according to the Oxford Companion, and one of its newest fine vinifera wineries is Villa Bellangelo, set in a prime location on the west shore of Seneca Lake. The current owners of the winery, the Missick family, discovered the property on a wine-tasting tour following a 2009 wedding nearby. When it went up for sale in 2011, the Missicks acquired it and initiated extensive renovations, including installing new stainless steel fermentation tanks and a new crush pad.

Christopher Missick recently sent me free samples of six Villa Bellangelo wines, mostly from the 2013 vintage. I assembled a small group of friends to try them, and we were all impressed by the quality, especially considering that these wines represent the Missick’s third vintage ever. Here’s what we discovered:

2013 Seyval Blanc: This variety is a French hybrid well-suited to cool climates, according to the Oxford Companion. Although this hybrid has some non-vinifera genes, it can make a very pleasing wine, as evidenced by this example. We noted aromas of green apple, dried herbs and light honeysuckle, and tasters liked its “Rieslingly flavor.” It had taut white fruit, smooth white-pepper spice, a hint of sweetness and enough acids to keep it balanced. The acids became more prominent and orangey with some caramelized onion and Parmesan crostini. Not too shabby for $16.

Fellow Taster Cornelia

Fellow wine taster Cornelia

2012 Gewürztraminer: A “very perfumy” wine, as one tasting companion noted, this Gewürztraminer had a delightful aroma of honeysuckle. It feinted briefly towards honeyed fruit, but moved almost immediately to warm, gingery spice and some hay. The finish had a not-unpleasant bitter note, punctuating the dryness of this floral and fruity wine. One fellow taster remarked, rather distressingly, that this wine “tastes like [his] grandmother’s neck.” Now there’s a tasting note you don’t hear every day. $20.

2013 Chardonnay: The grapes for this wine come from the Sawmill Creek vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake, opposite the winery. I smelled a light caramel aroma, and another taster detected “something burnt — but in a nice way.” Others smelled wet stone and dried pasta, and I would concur. It had a buttered popcorn flavor, but this was no butter bomb. The wine was quite lively and balanced, with judicious oak, notable spice and a long finish. It worked especially well with olives, which brought out more of a vanilla note. An excellent value for $20.

2013 Dry Riesling: The soil composition came through clearly in this wine, which had a slatey aroma with something rich underneath (some also described the nose, not unfavorably, as “shower curtain” and “Band-Aid”). It tasted very juicy, with green-apple fruit, lemony acids and a very dry finish. Paired with bleu cheese, it felt richer and rounder. I liked its austerity, as did about half the group, but one taster called it “the least compelling so far.” $19.

Villa Bellangelo Cabernet Franc2013 Semi-Dry Riesling: The surprise hit of the evening, this wine had appealing aromas of honeyed red apple overlayed with some bright freshness. I liked its appley fruit and orangey acids, which balanced out the light sweetness. The entire group was enthusiastic about this wine, exclaiming, “This is by far the best,” and, “I don’t usually like Riesling, and I like this,” and even, “This is the wine I would like to go home with.” Very fun, and a very good value for $18.

2013 Cabernet Franc: As The World Atlas of Wine notes, “some very fine Cabernet Franc is made in the most benign years” in the Finger Lakes. This example smelled of ripe red fruit and vanilla, and on the palate it had cherry fruit, black pepper spice and an aromatic almond note. “Maraschino cherry pits!” exclaimed a fellow taster. I liked its ample fruit and rustic texture, but the wine again divided the group. $18.

Although some of these wines were controversial, each was clearly crafted with care. I especially loved the floral but dry Gewürztraminer, the rich Chardonnay and the well-balanced Semi-Dry Riesling. These wines leave no doubt in my mind that exciting things are happening in the Finger Lakes.

I can’t wait to discover more of what the region has to offer when I head there in August to attend this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. I have a feeling we’ll all be pleasantly surprised by what we’ll find.

Zenato’s Super Veronese

4 March 2015

Zenato "Alanera" Rosso VeroneseMany of you might be familiar with wines nicknamed “Super Tuscans,” high-quality but rule-breaking bottlings which originally had to be labeled as lowly vino da tavola. The great expense of these “table wines” made the dysfunction of Italian wine regulations all too clear, and they shamed the bureaucracy into action. In 1992, Italy created the new Indicazione Geografica Tipica category, or IGT, which alleviated the embarrassment and gave innovative winemakers a new home in which to experiment.

And experiment they have. This inspired (if forced) act of deregulation paved the way for a host of exciting new wines produced up and down the boot of Italy, not just in Tuscany. I’ve written about several delicious IGT wines in the recent past, including examples from Soave, Maremma and Lazio. Now, thanks to a free sample provided by importer Winebow, I had the chance to try a “Super Veronese.” This wine offered yet more evidence of the great success of the IGT category.

At first glance, the 2012 Zenato “Alanera” Rosso Veronese looks rather like an Amarone, the famous red blend made from partially dried grapes. Drying the grapes concentrates the sugars and chemically alters the grapes’ acids and the tannins, “something that explains the richness yet balance of a good Amarone,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Botrytis, the fungus which beneficially desiccates grapes in Sauternes and Tokaj, is undesirable in this case. Only healthy grapes are used, and they are loosely packed in order to prevent fungal growth. As the Oxford Companion explains, “anything like botrytis that degrades the skins diminishes the intensity and purity of the wine,” because unlike a white Sauternes or a Tokaji wine, red Amarone depends on grape skins for color, flavor and tannins.

The Alanera blend contains the three classic Amarone grapes, with 55% Corvina, 25% Rondinella and 10% Corvinone. Corvina, according to the Oxford Companion, has the capability to make “serious, barrel-aged reds,” as long as yields are low. “Particularly suited to drying” because of its “loose bunches and large berries,” Corvinone was long thought to be a clone of Corvina, but ampelographers showed it to be a different variety altogether. The black sheep of the blend, Rondinella is allowed in Amarone DOCG wines, but “its produce is rarely sufficiently flavorsome to please consumers,” the Oxford Companion argues. But Rondinella dries well, according to Wikipedia, and Wine Searcher notes that it adds roundness and herbal notes to Corvina-based blends.

The Zenato Alanera differs quite dramatically from Amarone, however, in two important respects. It includes 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot in the blend, and only half the grapes are dried for any length of time. By not drying half the grapes, the Zenato Alanera would seem to combine the best of both worlds: concentration and intensity together with bright, fresh fruit. Or is it just Amarone lite?

I opened the bottle last weekend to find out. The deep, almost opaque garnet color looked immediately enticing, and the aromas of dusky red fruit and earth were quite encouraging. The first sip revealed very taut red fruit, broadly generous acids and a raisiny, earthy finish, with a top note of something floral — roses perhaps.

The Alanera was clearly well made, but it didn’t seduce me until about an hour later. By then, the fruit opened up and integrated beautifully with the rest of the wine. Some spicier notes came to the fore, particularly when paired with some rigatoni Bolognese. The wine felt big but controlled, with a focus that went above and beyond its $20 price tag. It’s a great value for the money.

The Zenato Alanera may be innovative, but it builds on a centuries-old tradition. Veronese dried-grape wines “are the direct descendants of the Greek wines shipped by the Venetians in the Middle Ages,” The World Atlas of Wine explains. The Alanera represents the next generation in this storied lineage, and it is without question a worthy successor.

Chardonnay Shame

21 February 2015
Sunday asado in Mendoza

A Sunday asado in Mendoza

The wine drinking culture in America is so much more open than it used to be. Notions such as “sweet wines are for amateurs” hold less weight than ever, and yet, it’s still surprisingly common to encounter people who feel some shame about the wine they like to drink.

I recently had the fortune to spend some time in Mendoza, Argentina, where I met Meredith and Jeff, a friendly American couple, at a Sunday asado. As our plates were filled with beef and pork and sausages and sweetbreads, our conversation turned to wine, as most conversations in Mendoza do.

“We’ve been so impressed by the wine here,” Jeff said, and I certainly did not disagree. I chose the wineries I visited carefully, but even so, the refined craftsmanship, ripe fruit and focus of almost all the wines I tried had left me thoroughly impressed as well. The quality to price ratio of wine in Mendoza is incredibly high.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Meredith said with a sigh. “But I think we’re going home with more Chardonnay than Malbec! I know I’m not supposed to like it, but…” and she shrugged, seemingly embarrassed about her taste in wine.

Catena Zapata

Catena Zapata

Her remark pushed my buttons. “What?” I exclaimed, a little too loudly. “Of course you like it. The Chardonnays here are beautiful!”

And they are. I remembered the 2012 Catena Alta Chardonnay I tasted in the Mayan pyramid-shaped winery of Catena Zapata: “Ample spice balancing creamy fruit —  well-integrated wood, spice and fruit,” I wrote in my notes. The 2013 Chardonnay I tried in the historic Terrazas de los Andes winery had a luscious mouthfeel, zesty acids and focused white-pepper spice. A delight. At The Vines Resort, I tried a lively 2014 Chardonnay straight from the steel tank, their first attempt at an unoaked Chardonnay. The fruit tasted surprisingly rich, balanced by some sharp, gingery spice.

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

The author about to taste some fine Chardonnay at Viña Cobos

And I especially loved the two single-vineyard Chardonnays I tasted at Viña Cobos, the winery of famed winemaker Paul Hobbs. The gorgeous 2013 Bramare Marchiori Vineyard Chardonnay had very ripe fruit and sweet notes of caramel and vanilla, but bright acids kept it from being heavy. Even the entry-level 2014 Felino Chardonnay was delicious, with some tropical fruit notes, a focused shaft of white-pepper spice and something savory on the finish.

Malbec or no Malbec, how could someone not like fruity, well-balanced Chardonnays like these? I told Meredith that she was absolutely right to like the Chardonnays, and, fully surrendering to the button Meredith had pushed, I demanded that she proudly own her preference: “I want you to say, ‘Yes! I like Mendoza Chardonnay, and there is nothing wrong with that!'” Though slightly startled, Meredith, to her credit, did exactly what I asked.

I had bad boundaries with Meredith, and I’m going to have bad boundaries with you as well. Don’t let anyone tell you that the wine you like is wrong, even if the person telling you that is yourself.

The Remarkable Red Of Viña Vik

14 February 2015
Viña Vik

Viña Vik

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

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

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

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

Carmenère Grapes

Carmenère Grapes

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

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

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

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

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

Viña Vik Varietals

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

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

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

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

A Festive Sparkler From The Holy Land

20 December 2014

Gilgal BrutToday marks the midpoint of Hanukkah, and Christmas is just days away. What better time, then, to celebrate with a bottle of sparkling wine from Israel?

Many people still associate sickly sweet Maneschewitz-like wines with Israel, but in recent decades, the country has quietly undergone a quality revolution. “It was the late-1970s planting on the volcanic soils of the Golan Heights, from 1,300 feet above the Sea of Galilee up to 4,000 feet towards Mount Hermon,” The World Atlas of Wine explains, “that signaled a new direction.” The Oxford Companion to Wine concurs, noting that “Planting vineyards with noble varieties in cooler, high-altitude areas, combined with internationally trained winemakers and expertise… had dramatic effects.”

But winemaking in Israel dates back thousands of years, and wine appears frequently in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments. That tradition continued under Roman and Byzantine rule until AD 636, the Oxford Companion relates, “when the spread of Islam brought about the destruction of the vineyards.” Crusaders started wine production again in about AD 1100, but maintained it for only about 200 years: “With the exile of the Jews, vine-growing ceased.”

As Jewish people returned from the Diaspora centuries later, winemaking began once again. Galilee in northern Israel is the best-quality region, according to every resource I’ve consulted, its high-altitude vineyards offering a beneficially cooler climate than the coast. Jesus grew up in this region, in Nazareth, and it makes sense: If you’re the son of God, of course you would choose to live in the best wine region you could.

The Golan Heights Winery is the third largest in Israel, and it helped lead the quality revolution by planting vineyards of noble international varieties in the Golan Heights in 1976. The winery’s 28 vineyards “range in altitude from 400 meters (1,300 feet) at Geshur, up to almost 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) at Odem,” according to its website, and these vineyards are further divided into 400 separate blocks. The grapes from each are stored and handled separately throughout the winemaking process, allowing Golan Heights to get a real feel for each parcel’s terroir and determine which varieties grow best where. I was also excited to see that Golan Heights was the first winery in Israel to grow its grapes organically.

I picked up a bottle of its NV Gilgal Brut, a 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay blend named after the Gilgal Refaim, an enigmatic 5,000-year-old assemblage of some 42,000 basalt rocks arranged in concentric circles located near the winery. This light straw-colored wine proved to be delightful, with aromas of red berries, yeast and round, orangey citrus. It felt full and ripe in the mouth. The berries and yeast were there, along with zesty acids and a froth of prickly bubbles. The finish was quite tart, with pronounced notes of green apple. I tried it again after it sat open in the refrigerator for two hours, which gave it time to develop a rounder note of vanilla.

What a fun, cheerful sparkler, and food-friendly, too. Its racy acids paired especially well with some crab Rangoon, cutting right through the richness. The Gilgal Brut would surely do well with just about any cheese or cream-based dish, making it ideal as an apéritif with cheese and crackers. I really want to try it with cheese fondue.

Making a sparkling wine in the Champagne method with traditional grapes requires great effort and significant investment in infrastructure. But it makes sense that Golan Heights would want to dive into such an elaborate project. The head winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, worked at Jacquesson, a 200-year-old Champagne house in France, before he joined Golan Heights. His Gilgal Brut clearly reflects that experience.

I purchased the Gilgal Brut at Binny’s for about $14, which is quite a value for the money. If your wine shop has a Kosher section, you might also find it there (it’s Kosher for Passover).

There are any number of wonderful wines you can serve during Hanukkah and Christmas, but I found it particularly satisfying to sip the Gilgal Brut, which has a direct connection to the Holy Land. It’s a very fun and festive wine, but it offers an opportunity for reflection as well.

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