Grape Varieties

Is Older Better? Top Bordeaux From The 80s

15 April 2018

Like a fine wine, I get better with age.” This cliché appears on countless birthday cards and sparkly t-shirts in the more commercial winery tasting rooms. It’s a nice turn of phrase, but it’s a lie. At least for wine — even the very best, even the stoutest of Madeiras — there inevitably comes a period when it peaks, followed by decline.

I wrote about this at least once before, but it’s a fact easily forgotten, even by me. I still have two of those bottles of 1975 Inglenook Charbono that I wrote about in that post five years ago. What on earth am I waiting for? They’re not getting any better! Like most wines, that Charbono was surely meant to be consumed on release, or shortly thereafter.

Certain wines, however, do benefit from a few years in the cellar. Great Bordeaux, for example, can improve for some time, especially if stored in optimal conditions. The tannins integrate better, and additional aromas and flavors reveal themselves. And so I felt absolutely thrilled when Liz Barrett, my cohost on Name That Wine, called me up and alerted me that her friend had four bottles from tip-top Bordeaux producers, ranging in age from 30-34 years, and had finally decided to open them up.

Would we like to shoot an episode of Name That Wine around them? Hell yes we would! It’s a blind tasting show, but screw it — how often do we have the chance to try a Mouton Rothschild, young or old?

These four bottles — a 1984 Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a 1985 Château Beychevelle, a 1986 Château Pavie and a 1988 Château Mouton Rothschild — had spent some of their time in good basement conditions, but many of their years at room temperature as well. A couple of them bore their original price tags. Wow, you could get good deals on great Bordeaux in the 1980s!

Some of the bottles, alas, did not make it. Flavors and aromas in these ranged from “funk” to “fecal.” Some of them did, however, and wow. Which bottles made it and which tasted like stinky French socks?

This was a tasting I won’t soon forget.

If you liked that video, please subscribe to our YouTube channel! Recent episodes include a gefilte fish pairing, French versus Argentine Malbec, and an Irish Cream taste test.

Malagousia And Other Greek Wine (Re)Discoveries

1 April 2018

At a recent tasting of Greek wines, I had expected the bottlings from Santorini to be some of the biggest stars. I’ve long loved the sunny whites from this volcanic Aegean Island, where most vines are trained into unusual basket shapes to protect them from the wind. Accompanied by Liz Barrett, who cohosts Name That Wine with me, I made a beeline for the Santorini table.

Indeed, I quite liked some of the Santorini wines — I’m always up for a good Assyrtiko, which often has ripe fruit, brightly lemony acids and a minerally finish. But the biggest surprise came at a table on the opposite side of the room, where winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou was pouring.

Gerovassiliou’s winery stands near the coast south of Thessaloniki, in the north of mainland Greece. My World Atlas of Wine considers this general region to be “red wine country,” but Gerovassiliou is famous for rescuing what is now one of Greece’s best-known white grape varieties: Malagousia. As he poured us tastes of his 2016 Single-Vineyard Malagousia, he told us how in the 1970s, he had been working with a University of Thessaloniki ampelographer, Professor Vassilis Logothetis. Logothetis found some Malagousia vines, planted them in his experimental vineyard and showed them to Gerovassiliou, who was working at a nearby winery as an oenologist.

Evangelos Gerovassiliou

Gerovassiliou recognized the vines’ potential, and his success with the nearly extinct grape drew the attention of other winemakers. Now numerous wineries in Greece work with Malagousia, which “yields full-bodied, perfumed wines in many Greek regions,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Gerovassiliou’s Malagousia certainly fit that description, with notes of ripe stone fruit, honey, orange flower and mango in the aroma. Yet it tasted spicy, clean and fresh, enhanced by zesty acids. A delight.

But Gerovassiliou is no one-trick pony. Each of the wines he poured us proved delicious:

2016 Gerovassiliou Fumé Sauvignon Blanc: Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs slap you in the face with grass and grapefruit. Those notes were in this wine too, but it had a lighter, subtler touch. Well-integrated and well-balanced. Retsina this is not! ~$30

2016 Gerovassiliou Viognier: Viogniers can sometimes feel ponderous, but this version had a bright, almost soapy aroma with a hint of cream, and a mouthfeel that seemed almost ethereal. A hint of butter kept the exotic fruit flavors and light spice grounded. ~$21

2015 Gerovassiliou Chardonnay: I loved the aroma of fresh butter and light wood. The fruit felt rich and lush but not heavy, lifted up by focused acids and spice. And whenever there’s a note of buttered popcorn in a Chardonnay, as in this one, I end up thoroughly seduced. ~$32

2015 Gerovassiliou Estate Red: This blend of 70% Syrah, 15% Merlot and 15% Limnio smelled of currants and vanilla. Rich, ripe fruit was blasted aside by an explosion of spice, followed by some cleansing (and not unpleasant) bitterness on the finish. Bracing and lively. ~$20

2013 Gerovassiliou “Avaton”: Here’s a blend I suspect you haven’t tried before: 50% Limnio, 25% Mavrotragano and 20% Mavroudi. Limnio, Gerovassiliou told us, is the oldest documented Greek grape variety, mentioned by Aristophanes in the 5th century B.C. Mavrotragano is an “increasingly appreciated” red grape indigenous to Santorini, according to an unusually brief description in the Oxford Companion to Wine. The book is even more laconic about Mavroudi: “generic name for several Greek grape varieties,” is the entirety of the entry. (You can read more about Mavrotragano here and Maroudi here.) I wrote in my notes that this blend “smells expensive,” with rich red fruit and some oak. Full of sumptuously ripe fruit, the wine was so graceful and delicate, it felt as if it hovered just above my palate, like some sort of wine ghost (quite surprising, considering the 14% alcohol content). I rather loved it. ~$40

2013 Gerovassiliou “Evangelo”: A Rhône-style blend of 92% Syrah and 8% Viognier, this dark beauty had a dusky, plummy aroma with notes of raisins and chocolate. I tasted it, and wow. It felt lithe and elegant, moving with slow power from prune-like fruit to focused spice to fine-grained tannins. Absolutely gorgeous. ~$65

2012 Gerovassiliou Late-Harvest Malagousia: Gerovassiliou makes this wine only in vintages when the conditions are right. I really loved it. It smelled enticingly of peach crumble and honeysuckle, and though it had sweet honey notes, the wine was quite light on its feet, leavened by green peppercorn spice, cardamom and lively acids. What a joy. ~$30

Too often in wine shops, Greek wines are shunted off in a corner along with various Eastern European oddities (and many of those deserve better as well). Yet Greece’s winemaking traditions go back thousands of years, and contemporary winemakers are making world-class wines that any sommelier should be proud to pour. Ask your wineshop for a recommendation. And if you happen to find a bottle by Ktima Gerovassiliou, don’t hesitate to snap it up. Anything by that winery is sure to be a pleasure.

Value In The Médoc: Bordeaux’s Moulis Appellation

9 March 2018

Christophe Labenne of Château Poujeaux

The words “Bordeaux” and “value” don’t often appear in close proximity. Some of the world’s most highly prized and most expensive wines come from Bordeaux, and many of those come from the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde estuary is home to great châteaux like Mouton Rothschild and Margaux, which, at hundreds of dollars a bottle, don’t really qualify as values (whether they’re worth it is another matter).

But just because Bordeaux is one of the wine world’s most famous names doesn’t mean that there aren’t values to be had. As usual, it’s in the region’s lesser-known nooks and crannies where one must look. One of the value crannies of the Médoc is Moulis, an appellation between the more august names of St. Julien and Margaux.

With just 1,500 acres of vineyards, Moulis (moo-lee) ranks as the smallest appellation in the Haut-Médoc. It has no classed growths, but that’s not to say Moulis doesn’t produce wines of quality. In a 2003 Cru Bourgeois reclassification, two of Moulis’ châteaux earned ratings of “Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels,” the highest possible distinction. This classification system has since been scrapped, but the châteaux that earned top honors remain.

According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “…the best wines [of Moulis] can offer good value, being as well-structured as any Haut-Médoc, often with some of the perfume of Margaux to the east.” And of the châteaux in Moulis, “The finest of these is usually long-lived Château Poujeaux,” according to the Companion. The World Atlas of Wine agrees, more or less, noting that Poujeaux is “showing increased polish recently”.

At the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I had a chance to chat with Poujeaux’s managing director, Christophe Labenne, who explained that “Moulis wines are usually well-balanced, with the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon and the suppleness of Merlot,” the varieties which form the main components of its blend. “Moulis is popular with many people,” he went on, “because it goes with lots of food, and because prices tend to be in the $25-$40 range.” That’s not inexpensive, but it’s exponentially less than one of the Médoc’s most famous wines.

I tasted the 2015 Château Poujeaux, which had an aroma of cassis (currant), vanilla and violets. Its rich dark-red fruit flavors were buoyed up by freshness, and though the tannins weren’t the finest-grained in the Médoc, they felt well-integrated. The 2016 Poujeaux futures at Binny’s currently sell for about $30 a bottle, which is a steal (older vintages sell for $40-$45).

Just to the north of Château Poujeaux is another big name in Moulis, Château Maucaillou, which “can sometimes offer exceptional value and is, unusually for this less-glamorous stretch of the Haut-Médoc, open to casual visitors,” according to the World Atlas. The 2015 Maucaillou had an enticingly dark aroma, with a savory note and again that delightful perfume of violets. The wine had “some real stuffing,” I wrote in my notes, with excellent balance and integration. On Wine Searcher, the 2015 sells for about $25-$30, a superlative value.

To the south of Poujeaux is Château Chasse-Spleen, which, together with the two châteaux above, accounts for about half of Moulis’ production. So when seeking out Moulis, Poujeaux, Maucaillou and Chasse-Spleen are the names you’ll most likely encounter. According to The World Atlas of Wine, “Chasse-Spleen can be viewed almost as an honorary St-Julien for its smoothness, its accessibility, and yet it does not lack structure.” I quite liked its aroma of plummy fruit and vanilla, and indeed, I wrote that it felt “supple; softer than the others,” with mouth-watering juiciness. Yet it had some kick from white-pepper spice, and no shortage of tannins on the finish. At Binny’s, the 2015 vintage sells for $33, which strikes me as another very good deal.

So if you’re in the mood to splurge on a bottle between $25 and $35, Bordeaux’s lesser-known Moulis appellation is a fine place to turn.

Ideally give these wines a little time to age, so that the tannins soften a bit, but even the 2015 is perfectly drinkable now, especially if you decant.

Pomerol: Making The Case For Merlot

29 January 2018

“If anyone orders Merlot I am leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Those two little sentences from the 2004 film Sideways continue to f*** up Merlot to this day. Certain large California wineries didn’t do the grape any favors, producing all too much flabby, overripe, jammy, unbalanced Merlot. It’s understandable that it developed an unfortunate reputation in the United States.

At a recent Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I mentioned that reputation to Eric Monneret, Managing Director of Château La Pointe in Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation. He sighed and said, “In the U.S., people don’t believe that Merlot can be fresh. People can’t imagine a fresh Merlot. The window to the harvest is very short — Merlot becomes overcooked very quickly.” Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are more forgiving, he said, but Merlot — you have to be precise.

Dany Rolland

And I suspect that few places are as precise with their Merlot as Pomerol. “Merlot was born in Pomerol,” Dany Rolland, sister to Michel Rolland, explained to me. “It’s difficult to make elsewhere,” she said, though Pomerol’s neighbor, St-Émilion, might disagree.

The World Atlas of Wine also has kind words for Pomerol, saying that “…an astonishing number of small [Pomerol] properties, for an area no bigger than St-Julien, are generally agreed to be among the best in the whole of Bordeaux.” And if properties are among the best in Bordeaux, that means they’re among the best in the world. Not bad for poor old Merlot!

Unlike many of Bordeaux’s appellations, Pomerol is unclassified, which means that all wines from the region are simply Pomerol. The soil changes too frequently, it seems, and the terroir doesn’t necessarily follow vineyard boundaries. But as The Atlas explains, “Rather than being overwhelmed by the complications of Pomerol, it is worth knowing that the average standard here is very high.” So if you pick a Pomerol more or less at random, you’re likely to get something quite good. Unfortunately, as The Atlas goes on to say, it likely won’t be inexpensive.

I had the chance to taste six Pomerols at the tasting at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, and oh my, they really were a delight.

2015 Château La Pointe: Mr. Monneret told me that in 2015, the Merlot was strong and fresh (sometimes, it’s just one or the other). And certainly his wine was both. A blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, it had an aroma of fresh dark cherries mixed with some spiciness and a light vanilla note, and it tasted very well-balanced, moving slowly and deliberately from rich, ripe dark-red fruit to ample acids and spice. There was a delectable chewiness to the wine at first. I suspect that will lessen as time goes on, but the wine is a pleasure to drink even now.

Eric Monneret

2015 Château Le Bon Pasteur: The Rolland family used to own this château, but Michel sold it in 2013. Nevertheless, Dany still serves as the winemaker. She told me that 2015 was a sunny vintage that had rain at just the right time. This Pomerol, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, had an aroma dominated by mocha, with a cherry note underneath. It tasted rich with chocolate-covered cherries, leavened with hint of coffee-like bitterness. A shaft of acids and spice kept the wine tight, and it had a long, fresh finish. The tannins sneaked up on me, meaning that they were more-than-usually well integrated.

2015 Château Beauregard: This château’s representative was ill at the time of the tasting, so we didn’t have the chance to chat. It’s too bad, because this wine smelled particularly fresh, with the dark-cherry fruit and vanilla notes buoyed by a bright leafiness. It tasted wonderfully fresh as well, with round fruit and supple tannins. All that freshness likely comes from the higher percentage of Cabernet Franc — this bottling is 70% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. Cheerful and refined.

2015 Château Rouget: This château has fallen into the hands of Burgundians! The only Burgundian château-owners in Bordeaux, according to Edouard Labruyère, who represents a family of winemakers going back some 250 years. The Labruyères bought Rouget in 1994, and they farm the vineyards totally organically. “As a Burgundian,” he confided, “I use whole [grape] clusters — I don’t de-stem.” His crazy Burgundian techniques seem to be working, even in Bordeaux. His Pomerol’s aroma had an almost electric tension between ripe dark cherries and bright freshness. It tasted big and juicy and fresh, and the finish went on for ages.

François Estager

2015 Château La Cabanne: Owner François Estager went all-in with Merlot in 2015. Well, almost — his wine is 95% Merlot blended with 5% Cabernet Franc. I loved its aroma of dark cherries mixed with a bit of chocolate and a violet-like perfume. This wine also moved with slow grace, changing effortlessly from ripe fruit to focused spice to supple tannins to a fresh eucalyptus finish. “Zowie,” I wrote in my notebook. You could surely age this, but it’s gorgeous now.

2015 Château Gazin: Gazin’s Technical Director Mikaël Obert used the same blend as La Cabanne. In some years, he explained, he uses a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon too, but in 2015 it didn’t ripen as well, so it ended up in the château’s second-label wine. He also uses just 15% new oak, because he prefers “for the grapes to express their personality, not the barrel.” There was that dark cherry aroma again mingled with dark chocolate, and the flavor was lush and velvety. It moved seamlessly and luxuriously from fruit to spice to a finish of dusty mocha. Or rather, I thought that was the finish, until it moved yet again, on to some eucalyptus freshness. Very polished, and very delicious.

The point of all these tasting notes is that Merlot can be ever so much more than a flabby jam bomb. I most certainly am drinking some f***ing Merlot, and I suggest you do the same. Especially if it’s Pomerol.

A Sparkling Wine Guide For New Year’s Eve

29 December 2017

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, and, really, at any time of day. But certain moments practically demand the pop of a cork: weddings, anniversaries, births, occasionally a divorce or funeral… And, of course, New Year’s Eve. The festive nature of sparkling wine works particularly well at that moment, regardless of whether things are going well for you or not. You can toast to the exciting prospect of the new year to come, or drink a relieved good riddance to the 12 months past. Either way, the change of the year is something to celebrate.

I’m excited about the year to come because of my new web series, Name That Wine. My friend Liz Barrett — who is one of the most fun people with whom to taste wine that I’ve ever met — and I have filmed a few more episodes, and we are having a blast doing it. In the most recent episode of this blind tasting-themed show, we attempt to identify two bottles of bubbly and figure out which was the more expensive. We also offer a sparkling wine tips we’ve learned over the course of many years of sparkling wine… research. Check it out, and if you haven’t already, please subscribe! (It’s the red button below the video when you watch it on the YouTube website.)

I’ve also compiled a sparkling wine guide for New Year’s Eve, so that regardless of your taste or budget, you can find something fun and tasty to drink.

CHEAP

If you get a sparkling wine for less than $10 or $11 a bottle, it’s likely not going to be particularly good. The bubbles might be a bit big, or it might taste unbalanced. But you might get lucky and find something perfectly drinkable.

To increase your chances of getting lucky, I recommend avoiding Spanish Cava, the cheap versions of which I find barely drinkable, and opt for Prosecco instead, or perhaps something French.

Regardless of what bubbly you buy, if it costs less than $10 or $11, serve it as cold as possible. That will mask the aroma, which may or may not be a good thing, and it will help even out the flavor.

Alternatively, you can hide flaws in the wine by turning it into a cocktail. As Liz recommended in the video above, you can add a couple of drops of Campari if the wine is too sweet for your taste. Alternatively, I like to add a splash of Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), which turns the sparkler into a classy Kir Royale cocktail. A splash of elderflower liqueur like St-Germain also works wonders, as does a very small dose of Crème de Violette (violet liqueur). The latter three options work best in dry sparkling wine.

INEXPENSIVE

If you can find it, Gilgal Brut from Israel is a great value at about $15

If you can swing between $12 and $16 a bottle, it’s almost surely unnecessary to adulterate the wine, and you can successfully serve it closer to the temperature of a refrigerator.

My favorites in this price range include:

Blanquette de Limoux claims to be France’s oldest sparkling wine, and it rarely costs more than $12 or $13 (you might even find it for less). It comes in both Brut (dry) and Demi Sec (fairly sweet) versions, so be sure to check the label.

Gruet comes from New Mexico, and perhaps that unhallowed terroir explains the low price tag. I spotted some today in Whole Foods on sale for $13 a bottle, though $15 or $16 is more common. Nevertheless, the wine has very small bubbles and fine balance, both in its Brut and Rosé versions. A superlative value for the money.

Cava starts to taste very good towards the top end of this price range.

MID-RANGE

A wine costing between $16 and $25 is ideal to bring to someone else’s party, because it shows that you appreciate their hosting efforts without going overboard. You can also have a little more fun in this category.

Crémant, a sparkling wine from France that’s not Champagne, can be an excellent choice in this price range. Crémant d’Alsace can sometimes be a little austere for my taste, but Crémant de Bourgogne tends to be more juicy and acidic. Crémant de Loire and Crémant de Jura both tend to be safe and delicious bets. Wines from the Jura region (bordering Burgundy) are quite fashionable now, so if you’re attending a wine geek’s party, a Crémant de Jura is sure to please.

Riesling Sekt from Germany also tends to sit in this price range, and it can be a delight. Don’t be seduced by a (cheap) bottle simply labeled “Sekt,” however. If it doesn’t say “Riesling Sekt,” it could be made from some random crappy grapes from God only knows where, as opposed to Riesling from Germany. These sparklers are drier than you might expect, and they’re a fun surprise for guests. You can read more about Riesling Sekt in this post.

Prosecco in this price range also starts getting quite interesting, because you start having access to the region’s best grapes. Look for the words “Valdobbiadene” or “Conegliano” on the bottle, indicating that the grapes come from one of those favored locations. The letters DOCG, as opposed to just DOC, are also encouraging.

Franciacorta

EXPENSIVE

Once you get above $25, sparkling wine becomes a real life-affirming joy to drink, with (hopefully) more complex flavors and sharper focus.

Champagne, of course, is always a delight. Well, almost always. Certain ubiquitous Champagnes, notably Veuve Cliquot, have expanded to such a degree that it’s simply not possible for them to include high-quality grapes in every bottle. Yellow Label Veuve, the brand’s entry-level Champagne, is the Santa Margherita of Champagne. It’s no longer worth the money. Seek out a lesser-known brand that spends its money on winemaking instead of marketing. I’m especially fond of trying Grower Champagnes, indicated by the tiny letters RM on the label, as opposed to NM. (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with NM Champagne.)

Franciacorta, which I describe in more detail in this post, is also an excellent choice if you’re willing to spend a little more. This sparkler from northern Italy has great elegance and is as satisfying as Champagne. Again, it’s an ideal choice if you want to splurge on a wine geek.

California also has some remarkably fine sparkling wines these days. In the video above, Liz recommends Schramsberg in particular, and far be it from me to disagree. Chandon, which tends to be less expensive, is a very good value.

ESOTERIC

As Odd Bacchus, I love throwing the occasional vinous curve ball. If you want to surprise and delight your guests with something a little off the wall, consider one of the following:

Sparkling Shiraz from Australia has something of a bad reputation, but I quite like it. It’s great fun to have flutes of bubbly purple stuff for a change, and it’s usually mid-range in price. You can read more about Sparkling Shiraz in this post.

Sparkling Furmint from Hungary is harder to find, but if you see one, it’s worth snapping up. Furmint ranks among the world’s great white wine grapes, and though it’s most famous as the main component of Tokaji, Hungary’s answer to Sauternes, Furmint makes superb dry wines (including sparkling wines) as well.

Cap Classique from South Africa can be quite good nowadays, and the better brands make thoroughly delicious wines, often in the inexpensive category. Graham Beck is reliable and not too difficult to find.

Sparkling Grüner Veltliner from Austria is a little pricier, usually within the mid-range bracket. Szigeti makes a particularly delightful Brut. I love its tiny bubbles combined with Grüner’s acidity and freshness.

And, if you happen to find yourself in Burgundy, don’t miss the chance to try some Sparkling Gevrey-Chambertin.

Most important is that you have a splendid time with those that you love, and you don’t need a super-expensive bottle of wine to do that. Though, of course, it doesn’t hurt, especially if you plan on bringing that bottle to my house.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you have a 2018 worth many a toast!

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