Grape Varieties

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!

Beaujolais Reassessed #Winophiles

14 November 2017

Poor Beaujolais. Who drinks it anymore? There must be people who pay attention to the release of the new Beaujolais Nouveau vintage each November 16, but I don’t know any of them, and I’m a wine blogger. The last time I had a Beaujolais Nouveau in my wine rack was in May of 2006. I remember the moment very clearly: A wealthy couple attending my 30th birthday party presented me with a 2005 Beaujolais Nouveau as a gift. Mm, Beaujolais Nouveau in May… yum. Merci beaucoup.

Honestly, I can’t imagine why anyone would buy Beaujolais Nouveau, at least in the U.S. It often costs more than $15 a bottle, which is insane for a wine that’s supposed to be simply fruity, cheerful and gulpable. The last time Beaujolais Nouveau was stylish was in the 90s. I know this because The Oxford Companion to Wine tells me that consumption of it peaked in 1992, when “nearly half of Beaujolais AC was sold in this youthful state.” And also because I was flipping channels a couple of months ago and came across an old “Frasier” episode in which the titular character offered his sophisticated date a glass of the stuff.

Brouilly, a Cru Beaujolais

Nowadays, if Frasier were attempting to impress a date with his wine sophistication, he would likely present something from Jura, or at least Alto Adige. Beaujolais is simply not chic.

This is a shame. Beaujolais still squirts out far too much overpriced and overhyped Nouveau (which would be an OK value for $10 or $11 a bottle), but it also produces thoroughly charming and sometimes quite intense wines. These wines are “compulsively drinkable,” as the cliché goes, and usually very food-friendly. But many of the best, problematically, don’t even have the word “Beaujolais” on the label, except perhaps in fine print on the back.

What Beaujolais should you buy then, if not the famous Nouveau? Skip over basic Beaujolais and start with Beaujolais-Villages. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “It is almost always worth paying more for a Villages wine for its extra concentration.” Beaujolais-Villages wines have more oomph because they come from hillier vineyards in the north of the appellation, as opposed to the flatter sites in the southern half.

I recently received a bottle as a free sample from the Vignerons de Bel Air, a cooperative of some 250 wine growers in Beaujolais. Its Beaujolais-Villages comes from 50- to 60-year old Gamay vines in vineyards around the southern edge of the region’s hilly northern section. The Gamay variety, which tends to be frankly boring almost everywhere else, for some reason flourishes in the granitic soils of Beaujolais, where it can make wines of real interest.

Manti (they taste better than they look)

Certainly the 2016 Beaujolais-Villages was a pleasure. I sampled it over a delightful dinner with one of my favorite tasting partners, the inimitable Liz Barrett, at an underrated restaurant on Chicago’s North Side: Turkish Cuisine (the owners aren’t the euphemistic sort). I liked the wines aroma of dark fruit with a touch of vanilla, and its juicy, mouthwatering acidity. The acids shifted to warm spice, and together they provided a through-line, ensuring that the wine never sagged. It didn’t quite stand up to the yogurt-rich sauce on our manti (little lamb-filled raviolis), but it worked beautifully with our next course of roasted lamb. Interestingly, this wine was labeled “Natural,” indicating, according to the press materials, that it experienced softer filtration and has less sulfites.

The other three wines I received as free samples from the Vignerons de Bel Air were from Beaujolais’ best vineyards, classified as Cru Beaujolais. These are the Beaujolais wines really worth seeking out, and these are the wines that often lack the word “Beaujolais” on the label. There are 10 Beaujolais Crus: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié and Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. They all have distinct characters, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll concentrate on the three Crus of the samples.

First, we tried what proved to be my favorite of the four wines, the 2015 Domaine Baron de l’Écluse “Les Garances” Côte de Brouilly had a tighter-grained, more expensive-seeming aroma than the Beaujolais-Villages, with notes of prune and a meatloafy savoriness, as well as a whiff of violet that Liz first detected. It looked quite dark and concentrated, but it proved to be light on its feet, with ample dark fruit, warm spice, juicy acids and an iron tang on the finish. It felt well-integrated and refined, and it stood up well to the manti, with enough heft to punch through the yogurt. It also paired wonderfully with all the roasted meat we tried (chicken, lamb, spiced ground lamb and gyro).

According to The World Atlas of Wine, bottlings from the large Brouilly Cru “can vary enormously. Only those grown on the volcanic slopes of Mont Brouilly in the much smaller Côte de Brouilly Cru are really worth ageing.” I believe it — I’m sure this wine could have easily handled several more years in the bottle.

The 2015 Domaine de Briante Brouilly, another “natural” wine like the Villages above, had an earthier character, with an aroma of blackberry fruit, mushroom and sausage. I liked how the wine started with clean, clear fruit and then mussed it up with those wonderful juicy acids and some forceful (but well-integrated) tannins. It didn’t manage to cut through the yogurty manti, but it paired perfectly with the chicken kebap and became even spicier with the lamb. This wine proved to be Liz’s favorite, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to drink it again myself, given the opportunity.

Finally, we tried the 2015 Dominique Piron Côte du Py Morgon. The World Atlas tells us that “Morgon is the second-largest Cru, associated with its famous, volcanic Côte du Py, whose wines are particularly strong, warm and spicy.” Liz called it on first sniff, noting the wine’s distinct tart cherry aroma. I thought it smelled rather like sweet barbecue. “Yes, cherry wood-chip smoke,” she agreed. There were those characteristic juicy acids again, leavening the ample black-cherry fruit. The wine felt lighter-bodied, but with plenty of spice and supple tannins. It was heavenly with the chicken, but it also worked well with the lamb, which brought out more of a violet note in the wine.

What a joy of a tasting. I had to be careful not to consume too much — we had four bottles between the two of us — because these Beaujolais were such fun to drink. Each had ample fruit and juicy, mouthwatering acids, ensuring that even the most concentrated of them remained lively and light on its feet.

The Beaujolais-Villages was good, but I fell in love with the Cru Beaujolais. These wines would be perfect for a dinner party, because they’re food-friendly and easy to drink, yet they also offer a sense of refinement. Best of all, because they’re unfashionable, Cru Beaujolais wines are not expensive. I see on the Binny’s website that Morgon starts at just $16, Brouilly can be had for as little as $17, and Côte de Brouilly for $24. The wines we had tasted far more expensive than that.

Yes, Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! But it is the “vieux” Beaujolais, the Cru Beaujolais, that has now truly arrived.

For additional perspectives about Beaujolais in general and these wines specifically, check out these #Winophiles blog posts:

  • Our host for the month, Jeff from Food Wine Click!, shares “Tasting the Beaujolais Pyramid over Dinner”
  • Jill from L’Occasion shares “No Sleep ’til Beaujolais: The French Wine That’s Keeping Us Up All Night
  • Martin from Enofylz writes “Ready To Elevate Your Beaujolais Game? Go Beyond Nouveau!”
  • Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares “Savoring and Sipping Bottles and Bottles of Beaujolais”
  • Wendy from A Day in the Life on the Farm writes “Say Yay for Beaujolais
  • Jane from Always Ravenous shares “Beaujolais Wine: A Foodie’s Dream”
  • Nicole from  Somms Table writes “Cooking to the Wine: Stephane Aviron Cru Beaujolais with Pork Tenderloin While Jumping Life Hurdles
  • Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Thanksgiving for Two: Mushroom-Stuffed Pork Loin Paired with Beaujolais Cru”
  • Michelle from Rockin Red Blog writes ”Exploring Cru Beaujolais with #Winophiles
  • David from Cooking Chat shares “Food-Friendly Red Wine from Beaujolais”
  • Gwendolyn from Wine Predator writes “Do you know the way to Beaujolais?”
  • Liz from What’s in that Bottle writes “Discover Real Beaujolais”
  • Lynn and Mark from Savor the Harvest shares “Beaujolais Beyond Nouveau”

Chablis Versus The World: A Chardonnay Blind Tasting

30 October 2017

Someone recently asked me if I could drink wine made from only one grape variety for the rest of my life, what would it be? My first instinct was Chardonnay. It can be everything from steel-spined Chablis to rich California butterballs, and — no less important — some of the best Champagne. But those over-oaked, over-extracted California butterballs ruined Chardonnay for a generation of wine drinkers, and many people, quite understandably, avoid the grape entirely (try Googling “Anything But Chardonnay”).

Even those who like Chardonnay often have misconceptions about the grape, as evidenced by a recent blind tasting I held, in which a Master of Wine took a sip of a New Zealand Chardonnay and exclaimed, “France!” I did no better than she, even though I had purchased the wines. Blind tastings are a wonderful way to keep one’s ego in check.

The Chablis component of the tasting

A bottle of Chablis inspired the blind tasting. I had agreed to sample a 2015 William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” Chablis, because how could I resist a free bottle of one of my favorite wines? The marketer who sent it wanted me to evaluate it as an example of the vintage. I decided the best way to do that was to compare it to some other 2015 Chablis.

But then, why not also compare it to some Chardonnays from elsewhere in the world, in a modified Judgment of Paris tasting? I assembled seven other 2015 wines ranging in price from $8.50 to $57, produced in Chablis (France), New Zealand, Argentina and California. In order for me to also participate in the blind tasting, I bagged the bottles, mixed up the bags and numbered them. My husband then presented the wines to the group, so that I wouldn’t be able to cheat by looking at their necks.

The results were absolutely fascinating. The $57 wine was rather unpopular, and the $8.50 wine tasted better than expected. There was broad consensus in our group of nine tasters about the best and the worst of the bunch, but not such broad consensus regarding the grape variety we were tasting. A few people guessed that we were sipping Chardonnay, but just as many thought the wines were Sauvignon Blanc, and another guessed Viognier. Chardonnay can take many forms!

Here is what we tasted:

WINE #1

This wine proved immensely popular, garnering seven Loves and two Likes on my rating scale of Love, Like, Meh and Dislike. All but one of us guessed correctly that it came from France, an indication of France’s enduring reputation for quality. People praised its creamy mouthfeel and long finish, as well as its zesty and sharply focused acids. No one thought that it cost less than $18 a bottle, and two of us (including me) guessed that it cost $57.

In fact, it was the sample bottle I’d received, the 2015 William Fèvre “Champs Royaux” from Chablis! It costs just $18 at Binny’s, where I purchased the other wines for the tasting. At that price, it’s a screaming steal. It was the hit of the tasting.

WINE #2

Wine #2 was less popular. One taster asked, “Why does this taste cheaper to me?” I noted that it smelled richer than #1 but that it didn’t taste as complex. It felt hotter, more alcoholic, and rougher around the edges. Others liked its lightly buttery quality, and only two tasters rated it as low as Meh. One gave it a Love, and everyone else rated it as Like. Guesses as to its origin ranged across the map, though three people correctly labeled it as an Argentinian wine. A couple of people thought it cost $22 a bottle, but most wrote down the actual price.

In fact, it was the 2015 Salentein Reserve Chardonnay from Argentina’s Uco Valley, a high-quality region just to the south of Mendoza. It cost me $15 a bottle, and judging by its reception, it seems fairly priced.

WINE #3

Chardonnays from Argentina, New Zealand and California

Our third bottle fared worse, earning only two Likes and a bunch of Mehs. I liked its creamy and citrusy aroma and bright acids, but another taster remarked, “It’s acid that I don’t love.” Another commented that it was “oak city,” and a third complained that its “finish is like a teenage boy” (i.e. too fast). Others approved of its white pepper spice, however. As to its origin, the guesses divided among Argentina and New Zealand, and most people thought it cost between $16 and $18.

In fact, it was the 2015 Domaine Costal Premier Cru Vaillons Chablis, which cost me $32.29 at Binny’s. Yikes! A Premier Cru Chablis comes from one of the region’s best vineyard sites, and it should in theory be better than a standard Chablis. I think this one might need a little more time in the bottle to settle down.

WINE #4

My contribution to the pot-luck dinner accompanying the tasting: tomatoes from our garden with basil and olive oil

People enjoyed this wine much more, with only one person giving it a Meh — everyone else gave it a solid Like. And again, almost everyone assumed it was French. “It’s more expensive and it’s France for sure,” one taster asserted. Only one of us guessed its true country of origin. I certainly liked it, with its citrusy and mineral aroma, bright lemon-orange acids and finish of focused spice. Almost everyone thought it cost $22.

In fact, it was the 2015 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay from New Zealand’s East Coast, which cost just $16. If you prefer your wines bright, fruity and juicy, this Chardonnay is ideal for you. And considering that most people thought it cost $6 or more than its actual price, it’s a fine value as well.

WINE #5

This wine divided the group more than any other. Reactions ranged from “Dislike from me” to “It was OK” to “I like it!” One taster complained that it was something of an oak bomb, but I found it more balanced. I was one of the three people in the room who actually liked this wine for its creamy/buttery start and cleansing shaft of sharp spice. I wrote “Rich and zesty, but disjointed.” It earned three Love ratings, two Likes, three Mehs and one Dislike, and people priced it anywhere between $15 and $57, with most clustered around $18. Almost everyone thought it came from California or Argentina. Tellingly, the only people who correctly guessed its true country of origin, France, were two of the people who enjoyed it the most.

In fact, it was the wine that should have been the star of the tasting, the 2015 Jean-Paul & Benoît Droin Grand Cru Valmur Chablis (Valmur is one of Chablis’ Grand Cru vineyards). It cost a healthy $57. The problem with this wine, I suspect, is that we drank it far too young. Its components hadn’t yet integrated, and so the oak stuck out like a sore thumb. Give this wine five years in the bottle, and I have no doubt that it will be gorgeous.

WINE #6

Wine #6 was a great big Meh. Only one person rated it as Like. Everyone else rated it as Meh, aside from two Dislikes. I wrote that it was pointy — “maybe too pointy” — and others noted its spicy aroma and general roughness. Even so, people generally guessed that it cost around $15. Only two people guessed its true price.

In fact, this was the 2015 Alamos Chardonnay by Catena from Mendoza, which cost just $8.50. Four people guessed that it came from Argentina, which means either that they’re very good at blind tastings, or that they assume that a cheap-tasting wine is an Argentine wine (only one person guessed France).

WINE #7

I quite liked the balance on this wine, and others complimented it as well, saying, “I don’t want to spit this one out,” and “It’s crisp and well-structured.” Our Master of Wine in the group remarked on its lemony character, exclaiming, “It’s like lemon meringue pie!” But others complained of a “funk aroma” redolent of “dirty feet.” This wine earned one Dislike, one Meh, three Likes and three Loves, making it the second-most popular wine of the tasting, after the William Fevre “Champs Royeaux.” People thought it was expensive, too. One taster thought it cost $18 and another $22, but the rest thought it cost either $32 or $57, and came either from France or (to a lesser extent) the USA.

In fact, this was the 2015 Etienne Boileau Chablis, theoretically a step down in terms of quality from the Premier Cru and two steps down from the Grand Cru. It cost me $19, which is quite a bargain, considering that most of the group thought it cost much more.

WINE #8

And then we came to the real disaster of the tasting, Wine #8. Only one person liked it. The entire rest of the group rated it as Dislike. As people tasted it, I heard things like, “Oh God, it’s horrible,” and “It smells like Mott’s apple juice in a box.” There was a touch of pétillance, which was surely unintentional, and an odd olive brininess. No one thought it came from France — most people assumed it was from Argentina or the U.S., aside from a couple of New Zealand guesses.

In fact, this was the 2015 Mer Soleil “Silver” Unoaked Chardonnay from Monterey in California, and it cost $18. Most people assumed it cost $8.50, but I wouldn’t pay even that for this wine. Ugh. Interestingly, Binny’s no longer seems to carry this wine.

CONCLUSION

If this tasting is any indication, the notion that French wines are quality and Argentine wines are not persists unabated. When people liked a wine, they almost always guessed it came from France. Few of us guessed that a high-quality Chardonnay could come from New Zealand. The versatility of Chardonnay is also still a surprise, as evidenced by the number of people guessing that we tasted Sauvignon Blancs. And we learned that whites aren’t necessarily at their best right out of the gate. Some of them, such as the Grand Cru Chablis, clearly need more time in the bottle to settle down.

Others, such as the William Fèvre “Champs Royeaux,” are drinking beautifully right now. That wine is relatively easy to find — I’ve seen it on a number of restaurant wine lists — and it’s an incredible value for the money. Seek it out, along with the delicious Kim Crawford Chardonnay from New Zealand.

You can read a another post about the delights of Chablis here.

Germany? Ja! Riesling? Nein!

16 August 2017

On my recent 12-day trip to Germany, I decided to try an experiment. Would I be able to have high-quality German wine(s) every night with dinner — and sometimes with lunch — and never drink a single Riesling?

One could be forgiven for thinking that such an experiment was misguided at best, or quite simply impossible. I suspect that few casual wine consumers can name a single other top grape variety grown in Germany off the top of their heads. For better or worse, Germany and Riesling are inextricably linked.

But Germany has far more to offer than beautiful Rieslings. Any guesses as to how much vineyard area in the country is devoted to other grapes? Maybe 20%? Maybe 40%?

In fact, Riesling composes just 23% of Germany’s vineyards as of 2013, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. Second place goes to the unglamorous but productive Müller-Thurgau at 13%, followed by Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) at 12% and Dornfelder at 8%. Indeed, red wine grapes represent a whopping 36% of Germany’s vineyards.

I love well-made Riesling, both sweet and bone-dry, but it’s time to give the other 77% of German wines some attention. Here are some of the discoveries I made.

WEISSBURGUNDER (Pinot Blanc)

Pinot Blanc barely registers in its birthplace of Burgundy nowadays. You might have seen a bottle or two from the Alsace, but there, too, it’s on the wane. But it’s one of my very favorite German whites. The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to agree: “Under the fashionable name Weissburgunder, it is now Germany’s fifth most planted white wine cultivar, with vinous personalities ranging from the full, rich, oaked examples of Baden and the Pfalz to relatively delicate, mineral-inflected variations along the Nahe and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, and with quality aspirations ranging from workaday norm to occasional brilliance.”

Consider the following two examples I tried side-by-side at Hamburg’s Louis C. Jacob restaurant:

2014 Weingut Dreissigacker “Louis C. Jacob Edition” Weissburgunder, Rheinhessen

This less-expensive example had a spicy aroma marked with a note of burnt popcorn. Its lively acids worked well with food, and I very much enjoyed its clean pear fruit, green peppercorn spice and dry finish. Later at Heldenplatz, a restaurant in central Hamburg, I tried Dreissigacker’s top Weissburgunder, called “Einzigacker.” Wow. It tasted rich, balanced, focused and elegant, truly earning the name Weissburgunder, which literally translates as “white Burgundy.” Sublime.

2015 Weingut Franz Keller “Oberbergener Pulverbuck” Weissburgunder, Baden

The Franz Keller Weissburgunder (pictured with the Dreissigacker above) is more expensive than the Louis C. Jacob Dreissigacker, but its quality is unimpeachable. The aroma was more buttered popcorn, and though the lively acids were here too, they felt more refined and more focused. The arc of polished spice lasted ages. From the start to the lengthy finish, the wine developed and built with gradual determination. Oo, I love when that happens.

*****

GRAUBURGUNDER (Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio)

The total vineyard area of this grape has increased 90% in Germany since 2000, “[making] it the country’s fourth most planted white wine grape and far more popular than Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc),” according to The Oxford Companion. I can understand why people love Grauburgunder, which typically has ample fruit and zesty spice, but my heart remains with Weissburgunder. Even so, many dishes call for a spicier wine, and Grauburgunder can stand up to all sorts of recipes.

2016 Weingut Klumpp Grauburgunder, Baden

In the cozy bistro restaurant of Ole Liese near Germany’s Baltic Coast, I paired this Grauburgunder with a rich cod appetizer. It had a melony, spicy aroma, and flavors of ripe apple and honeydew. Peppery spice kept things well in balance, and the wine finished clean and dry.

2016 Weingut Bercher Grauburgunder, Baden

Back in Hamburg at traditional Casse Croute, the Bercher Grauburgunder had a more citrusy aroma along with the telltale spicy note. It tasted mouthwateringly juicy, with almost prickly lemon-lime acids, reminding me of a full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc. Just the thing to pair with some veal-and-black truffle Labskaus.

*****

SILVANER

In the first half of the 20th century, this variety was the most widely planted in Germany, but after World War II, it was overtaken by Müller-Thurgau and now, Riesling. I remember drinking a few Silvaners when I lived in Germany in the late 90s, and I don’t have fond memories of the stuff. It probably didn’t help matters that the bottles I bought cost less than $5. I know this, because all the bottles I bought that year in Germany cost less than $5. The Oxford Companion to Wine gives the grape tepid praise, calling it a “suitable neutral canvas” on which to display terroir, and noting that “encouraging examples” can be found. So don’t buy just any Silvaner you come across.

2015 Weingut Bickel Stumpf “Kapellenberg Frickenhausen” Silvaner, Franken

The sommelier of Michelin-starred Courtier recommended this Silvaner to me, and I have to think it’s one of the best out there. It’s got a mouthful of a name, and it certainly worked well with food. The wine had a slightly burnt, spicy aroma, and its most notable characteristic was its big, lemony acids. Unexpectedly, the finish went on and on. If you like juicy Sauvignon Blancs — or zippy Grüner Veltliners — a well-made Silvaner should be on your list.

*****

SAUVIGNON GRIS

This little-known grape is the “non-aromatic version of Gewürztraminer,” according to The Oxford Companion, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc.” I’ve tasted a few of these over the years, and I can’t recall a single disappointment. Should you encounter a bottle, particularly the bottle below, I highly recommend snapping it up.

2015 Weingut Lichti Sauvignon Gris “Royal,” Pfalz

For a “non-aromatic” grape, this wine certainly had an enticingly spicy and buttery nose. Ripe pear flavor moved to butter and taut spice, as the wine sharpened to a point. Rich but amply balanced, and tense with excitement. I loved it.

*****

ROSÉ

Like just about anywhere with red wine grape vines, Germany also makes rosé. I had a couple of charming examples, including the one below.

2014 Weingut Geisser “Strawberry Fields” Rosé Trocken, Pfalz

 

A blend of 90% Spätburgunder, 5% Merlot and 5% Dornfelder, this rosé was ideal for my beachside seafood dinner at Bootshaus. Its spicy, watermelon-candy aroma sucked me right in. I loved its ripe watermelon fruit (and yes, the touch of strawberry), lively limey acids and clean, dry finish. Simple, refreshing and delicious.

*****

SPÄTBURGUNDER (Pinot Noir)

It’s not just Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon that make superlative Pinot Noir. Germany’s Spätburgunder can achieve sublime clarity of fruit and refinement of spice, and sometimes even some richness. But don’t just take my word for it. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Today [Spätburgunder] is at least as deep coloured, dry, alcoholic, and well structured as red burgundy…”. Because of Spätburgunder’s popularity within Germany, all too little is exported.

2013 Weingut Friedrich Becker “Schweigener” Spätburgunder, Pfalz

This Spätburgunder had a wonderful aroma of spiced dark cherries, and flavors of dark cherries and cough syrup. Light-bodied but not a lightweight, this wine held its focus for quite some time, with polished spice serving as a backbone. Superb with some Poltinger lamb at Hamburg’s Heldenplatz restaurant.

2007 Weingut Stigler “Freiburg Schlossberg” Spätburgunder GG, Baden

The “GG” stands for “Grosses Gewächs,” indicating that this wine comes from a vineyard classified as a “Great Growth,” or “Grand Cru,” one could say. There was no way for me to resist this wine, made as it was in Freiburg from a vineyard on the Schlossberg. I spent many happy evenings at the beer garden on top of the steep Schlossberg hill when I was a student in Freiburg, and I remember seeing the vineyards there, rising from the edge of the exquisite old center.

Considering my heavy nostalgia, the wine could have easily let me down, but it did not disappoint. It smelled of dark cherries, with a savory/meaty undertone. It started quite light — it seemed like nothing at first — but dark cherry fruit firmed up, and white pepper spice focused the wine into a laser. With time in the glass, it became richer and earthier.

When I tried this beautiful wine, it brought me to tears for a moment. I never drank a wine like this when I lived in Freiburg, but it took me right back there all the same.

For more about unusual German wines, read about tasting Elbing, Goldriesling and Weissburgunder with German royalty here, and discovering the delights of Kerner here.

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