St. Laurent

Top 10 Wines Of 2012

22 December 2012

It's raining wine (glasses)!As when I wrote the previous Top 10 post about spirits and cocktails, compiling this list filled me with a sense of gratitude. What fortune, to have tasted so many fascinating and unusual wines this past year!

The title of this post is a bit misleading, however. I certainly won’t pretend to claim to know what the “best” wines of the year were. Instead, this rather idiosyncratic list highlights the wines I thought were the most exciting, whether it was because of superlative quality, unusual grape variety or off-the-beaten-track vineyard sites.

If this list demonstrates one thing, it’s that there’s a whole world of delicious unusual wine out there, and it’s bigger than even I imagined. There’s never been a better time to take a risk on something off the wall.

Links lead to the original posts about the wines:

10. MEXICAN WINE — Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the year, the Mexican wines I tasted proved to be refined and satisfying. There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch! One representative wine is the 2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard, a blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard. This wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos.

9. 2010 PAGE SPRINGS CELLARS “LA SERRANA” — Wine from Arizona surprised me as much as that from Mexico. But the Mediterranean terroir there seems to work quite well for certain varieties, especially those usually associated with the Rhône. This blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Rousanne had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet.

8. AUSTRIAN ST. LAURENT — It can be hard to find, but this sexy, earthy red will reward the hunt. The single-vineyard 2007 Johanneshof Reinisch “Holzspur” Grand Reserve St. Laurent is a fine example. A brick red, the Holzspur sucked me in with a dusky nose of very dark fruit. It had a medium body, powerful spice, big fruit and a long finish. It’s Eartha Kitt in a bottle.

7. PESSAC-LÉOGNAN — A mere 650 acres are devoted to white grapes in this highly regarded but little-known corner of Bordeaux, producing some positively sumptuous wines. My favorite was the 2005 Château Malartic-Lagravière “Le Sillage de Malartic”, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose were voluptuously ripe peaches, and tropical fruit worked its way into the palate. Some minerals kept things grounded, as did a rather woody finish. A joy to drink.

6. NV MICHEL TURGY RÉSERVE-SÉLECTION BLANC-DE-BLANC BRUT CHAMPAGNE — Champagne can hardly be classified as an obscure beverage, but it is all too unusual in my household. I had been saving this bottle of grower Champagne (made by the same person/company which owns the vineyards, in contrast to the vast majority of Champagnes on the market) for a special occasion, and it rose to the moment. The elegantly tiny bubbles felt delicate on the tongue, and the lively acids hinted at by the appley nose balanced the rich flavors of caramel corn and a bit of toast. And the finish! Nearly endless.

Brian at Keswick Vineyards5. 2010 KESWICK VINEYARDS MERLOT — Virginia boasts an array of fine wineries these days, and Keswick Vineyards is one of the very best. Most of Keswick’s production gets sucked up by its wine club, meaning that you either have to join the club or visit the winery. It’s worth the effort. The Merlot had a beautiful nose that reminded me of when I used to spread raspberry jam and Nutella on toasted rolls. On the palate, it was voluptuous but well-structured — like a 40-something Sophia Loren.

4. 2004 CHÂTEAU FLUTEAU CUVÉE PRESTIGE BLANC DE BLANCS — The only thing more unusual than a grower Champagne is a vintage grower Champagne. This example, made in part by a Chicago native, had nose-catching aromas of lime, peach and yeast . On the palate, it moved from popcorn to tart apple to a whisper of limestone on the finish. The ample bubbles felt very fine, delicate and elegant, and there was some real depth there as well. As it breathed, the Fluteau mellowed, becoming even richer.

3. RARE WINE COMPANY “MALMSEY” SPECIAL RESERVE MADEIRA — Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, tends to appear with dessert, if at all. But at Stella! in New Orleans, the creative sommelier paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk. Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The Madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but startlingly bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

2. 2006 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC — You could be forgiven for wondering why something from one of the most celebrated wineries on the planet makes an appearance on a blog “dedicated to drinking the unusual and obscure.” Well I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty unusual for me to sample a $1,035 bottle of wine. I tried it in a wine bar in the city of Bordeaux, near where it’s made, and though it’s still very young, it tasted dazzling. It had a chocolatey nose, and a more open character than the other Bordeaux First Growths I sampled. It felt racier — sexier — with voluptuous fruit corseted by strong tannins.

1. 2010 SATTLERHOF TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE — Crafted from Sauvignon Blanc fruit affected by Noble Rot, which concentrates the flavors and sugars, this Austrian beauty blew me away. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. A deeply golden hue, it had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.

St. Laurent In Chicago

18 July 2012

I sampled an array of fantastic wines at the “Austria Uncorked” tasting held in Chicago this past April, but nothing impressed me so much as the luscious red wines made from St. Laurent. This relative of Pinot Noir originated in France centuries ago, perhaps in the Alsace region, but it grows particularly well in eastern and southeastern Austria. Not that we would ever know.

This variety, despite “producing deep-colored, velvety reds with sufficient concentration — provided yields are limited — to merit aging in oak and then the bottle,” remains essentially unknown in the United States (source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). Precious few restaurant wine lists have a St. Laurent on the menu. Indeed, it’s still rare to see many wines of any kind from Austria, despite the rising popularity of Grüner Veltliner, that tart, peppery white for which Austria has become well-known.

We’re really missing out. After tasting several excellent St. Laurents at Austria Uncorked, I was hooked. Determined to add a few St. Laurent varietals to my wine rack, I paid a visit to Binny’s. Although the service is laughably awful, the selection of wine is unequaled in the city (or almost anywhere, for that matter). Binny’s even boasts an entire “Austria” section. Unfortunately, it’s dominated by Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, with barely a red in sight.

(UPDATE: Binny’s happened to see this blog post and took pains to find out where their service went wrong. Our correspondence gives me great hope that their customer service has markedly improved.)

I found but one lone St. Laurent, a 2010 Sattler St. Laurent from Burgenland, a large wine region along Austria’s Hungarian border. It cost $18, which is honestly a little more than I usually spend, but I had a feeling it would be worth it. And in any case, what choice did I have?

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Austria’s Sexiest Red

9 May 2012

Austria has an quite an uphill climb ahead of it. When most people think of Austrian wines, should they even think of them at all, I suspect they think of them as basically like German wines, but cuter. Some people perhaps think of Grüner Veltliner, which has become a sort of national grape, or perhaps even fine Riesling from the Wachau.

Almost none of us, myself included, think of red wine. I imagine Austrian reds consigned to the “Other” or “Eastern European” section of the wine shop, next to bottles of cloyingly sweet stuff with mysterious semi-Cyrillic labels.

Fortunately, many Austrian winemakers ignore our ignorance and produce delicious dry reds anyway. I had the fortune to sample a remarkable array of these red wines at the recent “Austria Uncorked” tasting in Chicago, and though I’ve been to Austria a number of times, this tasting was revelatory. A variety called St. Laurent was particularly divine.

I first sampled St. Laurent not in Austria but in the Czech Republic, where the variety is known as Svatovavřinecké. (Don’t worry about remembering that name or trying to pronounce it — you’ll have a hard time finding any Czech wine here in the states.) This direct descendant of Pinot Noir impressed me then, but I can’t even remember trying a St. Laurent (“Sankt Laurent” in German) in the years since. It was a real joy to taste several expressions of this exciting variety all together:

2009 Pfaffl “Altenberg” St. Laurent: Pfaffl’s Altenberg vineyard lies in the large Weinviertel district north of Vienna. Its proximity to a forest keeps the grapes cool in the evening, according to Pfaffl’s website, allowing the ordinarily quick-ripening St. Laurent more time to develop on the vine. A deep garnet color, this wine smelled of ripe red fruit and iron. On the palate, the flavors moved from fruit to green pepper to black pepper on the finish. Very fun.

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