The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

Red wine from the Pfalz at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald's Vivaldi restaurantThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better. Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

August Eser Spatburgunder

August Eser Spätburgunder at the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz in Mecklenburg, Germany

2010 AUGUST ESER MITTELHEIMER SPÄTBURGUNDER BARRIQUE TROCKEN

First, a quick translation: This dry (trocken) Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Mittleheim section of the Rheingau is aged in small oak barrels (barriques). It had a surprisingly dark, almost porty aroma, full of red currant fruit. It felt deeply flavored but light-bodied, with some slow-building black-peppercorn spice and a woodsy note on the finish. An excellent pairing with some duck.

 

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

2007 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO “CEMBALI” NERO D’AVOLA

I’ve long enjoyed Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and this example ranks among the best I’ve tasted. The grapes come from 45-year-old vineyards and the wine sees nine months in barriques and 36 months in the bottle before it’s released. Although 2007 isn’t an especially new vintage, the wine still felt young. I could detect its aroma well beyond the rim of the glass: red fruit, fresh green herbs, spice. It had big, ripe fruit, focused green-peppercorn spice and a finish of wood and leather. Just beautiful.

 

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata's experimental winery

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata’s experimental winery

2013 CATENA ZAPATA ADRIANNA VINEYARD MALBEC PASSITO

I tasted this remarkable wine, made from partially dried grapes in the Italian passito method, right from the barrel in the experimental section of Catena Zapata’s pyramid-shaped winery. The Adrianna Vineyard ranks among the very best in all of Argentina, and after sampling this Malbec, I could see why. The wine exhibited gorgeously rich, jammy fruit, with lots of plum and raisin flavors. Bright spice, which built to a blast at the finish, kept things well in balance. Sensational.

 

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

2013 CELLERS UNIÓ “PERLAT”

Catalonia has more to offer than just Cava — the Spanish region’s red wines can compete with the best Rioja has to offer. I felt particularly impressed at a recent tasting by the 2013 Cellers Unió “Perlat,” a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Carignan and Syrah from Montsant. The wine exuded elegance with its well-integrated and notably supple tannins, and it had a striking purity of fruit. Its red fruit aroma was clean and clear, and the dark cherry flavor rang like a bell.

 

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur Ocio at right

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur “Ocio” at right

2012 CONO SUR “OCIO” PINOT NOIR

If this wine is any indication, Pinot Noir apparently grows exceedingly well in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley, just off the coast. Cono Sur (note the pun) made Chile’s first premium Pinot Noir, according to its website, and the Ocio certainly lives up to the “premium” designation. It had a rich aroma of deep red fruit along with a surprising mocha note. When I tasted the wine, ripe black-cherry fruit was quickly shoved aside by forceful spice, followed by some earth and a softly tannic finish. I loved it.

 

Element's oversize bottles were quite the hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Element’s oversize bottles were wine blogger catnip at this year’s Finger Lakes conference

2013 ELEMENT LEMBERGER

Sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates gave an excellent presentation at this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and his winery’s Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) proved just as memorable, if not more so. It had a seductive aroma of dark fruit and violets, and though it was light-bodied, it displayed big dark fruit offset by ample and refined spice. Riesling gets all the press in the Finger Lakes, but Lemberger is equally at home there.

 

Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc

2012 HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARDS CABERNET FRANC

Wiemer winemaker and co-owner Fred Merwath also knew how to impress a table of wine bloggers, pouring his Finger Lakes wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It had power, but it remained cheerful and light on its feet.

 

Rodney Strong Malbec2011 QUINTA DA LAPA TINTO RESERVA

From Portugal’s Tejo region, this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute joy. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with some pork cheeks. The price of about $25 is higher than many Portuguese reds on the shelf, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value.

 

2012 RODNEY STRONG ALEXANDER VALLEY MALBEC

“Oh my lord,” my tasting companion remarked about this wine. “That is sexy.” It really was. Rodney Strong’s first Malbec varietal (usually the grape appears in Bordeaux-style blends) had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to some pork loin. Sonoma isn’t known for its Malbec, but maybe it should be.

 

Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference

2012 SALTON “INTENSO” TANNAT

The wine representative who poured this Brazilian wine promised me that it would be “light and elegant.” A light and elegant Tannat seemed about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nearly spit this wine out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

 

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah's restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah’s restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

2012 STELLA BELLA MARGARET RIVER VALLEY TEMPRANILLO

I mentioned to the sommelier how much I enjoyed this wine, and he nodded, saying, “It’s really hard to make bad wine in the Margaret River Valley,” a distant wine region set on the coast in the far southwestern corner of Australia. The aroma of this Tempranillo sold me right away, with its notes of dark fruit, earth, vanilla and violets. Powerful but classy, the wine moved from plummy fruit to big white-pepper spice to supple tannins to a savory finish. Some lamb made for a superb pairing.

 

Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

A hotel’s “house red” doesn’t usually quicken the pulse, but Viña Vik, standing like an alien space base on a Chilean hilltop, is not your usual hotel. Its onsite winery makes just one wine, and it’s a doozy. I could tell from its enticing aroma of dark, rich fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla that the wine was going to be memorable. 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 a bottle down for another few years. The finish went on and on.

 

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

2012 VIÑA PEÑALOLÉN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

This elegant and complex Chilean Cabernet impressed me most with the finesse with which it shifted gears from ripe red fruit to focused white-pepper spice to velvety tannins. It’s yet another illustration of Chile’s great success in developing its fine-wine industry.

You might also enjoy reading about my favorite whites and spirits from 2015. And you can see past red winners from 2014, 2013 and 2012

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: White & Sparkling

14 January 2016

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisFor this idiosyncratic list, I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

The wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets.

You won’t find all of these particular wines with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the 13 most memorable white wines I tried in 2015:

 

2011 BARONE PIZZINI SATÈN FRANCIACORTA

Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees. Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, giving this organic wine time to develop additional complexity. It had a nose of green apple and vanilla with a bit of toast, and I loved its classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit.

 

Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano

2009 CROCIANI VIN SANTO DI MONTEPULCIANO

The World Atlas of Wine calls Vin Santo “the forgotten luxury of many parts of Italy, Tuscany above all,” and with good reason. This example had an enticing aroma of taut, dark honey and wonderfully complex flavors: dates, figs, orange peel, walnuts. It had evident concentration, feeling rich until the finish, which took a wonderfully surprising turn towards dry, bright freshness.

 

2011 DOMAINE CHRISTIAN MOREAU PÈRE ET FILS VALMUR GRAND CRU

TheWorld Atlas of Wine also has high praise for Chablis from the Valmur vineyard, calling it “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute joy. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. With sublime balance, it started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice.

 

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

2013 FULKERSON ESTATE SEMI-DRY RIESLING

The words “semi-dry” strike fear into the hearts of many a sugar-phobic wine drinker, but there’s nothing to be afraid of in this case. An attractive green-gold color, this Finger Lakes Riesling had a ripe and full aroma, and lush fruit perfectly balanced by orangey acids and gingery spice. Languid and very pretty.

 

2012 MITCHELTON CENTRAL VICTORIA MARSANNE

Marsanne, a traditional Rhône white grape variety, doesn’t ordinarily spring to mind when one thinks of Australian wine. But perhaps it should — this example from Central Victoria, Australia’s southeasternmost state aside from Tasmania, had a delightfully fresh aroma of pear, and it tasted rather sexy, I must say. Delicious roasted peach fruit moved to a little wood and some dusky spice, and the finish lasted quite some time. A most pleasant surprise.

 

NV PIPER HEIDSIECK BRUT

Piper-Heidsieck BrutThis Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles. You may not feel very surprised to learn that a Champagne is delicious, especially one coming from a relatively well-known brand. What is surprising is the huge disparity between this richly flavorful Champagne (priced at about $40 a bottle) and the underwhelming but nevertheless ubiquitous Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (priced at about $37  bottle). Those three extra dollars buy you a giant leap in character.

 

2013 PODERE CANNETA VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO RISERVA “LA LUNA E LE TORRE”

Most Vernaccia di San Gimignano (a Tuscan white) doesn’t see any time in oak, resulting in cheerful, fruity and spicy wines that tend to go well with food. But the “riserva” wines, which age for a spell in new oak barrels, achieve another level entirely. This example, a blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, spent a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to its complexity. 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.

 

2014 QUINTA DO CASAL MONTEIRO “MARGARIDE’S”

This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto from Portugal’s Tejo region paired wonderfully with some savory Parmesan crisps. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. A fellow taster also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and it’s a sensational value at $12.

 

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

2013 SCHLOSS PROSCHWITZ WEISSBURGUNDER GROSSES GEWÄCHS

I had already tasted a number of excellent wines with the Prinzessin zur Lippe, owner of Schloss Proschwitz in Germany’s little-known Sachsen region. 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.

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk (I was not). This wine, quite simply, was great. I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, 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. What a gorgeous, elegant wine.

 

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutNV SZIGETI GRÜNER VELTLINER BRUT

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes during the vacation when I tried this sparkling wine from Austria, but it proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s successful use of bottle fermentation. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to some turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

 

2012 TERLANER VORBERG PINOT BIANCO

As I tasted this wine, Casey Squire, division manager of Banville Wine Merchants, told me that “The hallmark of Terlano wines is their ageability,” and went on to relate how he once tried a 1955 Terlaner Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) that still retained some acidity and freshness. I’m not sure I’d hold this wine from the Vorberg section of Italy’s Alto Adige region that long, but who knows? It smelled of subtle spice and herbs and mellow white fruit, and the mouthfeel felt rich and full. Voluptuous fruit quickly gave way to tight, limey acids which moved into paprika-like spice. The wine was big and lively, but it held together firmly and exhibited great balance.

 

The tasting room at Vina Cobos

The tasting room at Viña Cobos

2013 VIÑA COBOS “BRAMARE” MARCHIORI VINEYARD CHARDONNAY

This single-vineyard Chardonnay from Mendoza had a very spicy aroma marked by dried herbs, belying the rich fruit I tasted. I also detected some vanilla and even a note of light caramel, but in spite of all this richness, bright acids kept the wine perfectly in balance. I liked it so much, I ended up buying a bottle for my boss for Christmas.

 

2013 WAGNER VINEYARDS RIESLING ICE WINE

When I tasted this beautiful Finger Lakes wine, I wrote in my notebook, “If you think you don’t like sweet wines, try this!!” I loved it from start to finish. It had an enticingly spicy and rich aroma, and sumptuously rich fruit leavened by surprisingly zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice. Sheer delight.

Up Next: My favorite reds of 2015.

The Best Things I Drank In 2015: Spirits & Cocktails

7 January 2016

Xoriguer Gin & Lemon in MenorcaAt this time of the year, it seems to be the thing to make “Top ____ of 2015″ lists. I love a good list, and making a few myself has given me the chance to reflect on the past year. I certainly did not go thirsty.

Posts about spirits and cocktails are some of my most popular, and with good reason. The world of spirits has never been more exciting, with fine craft distilleries popping up all over the place. Cocktails, too, have experienced a major renaissance, as bartenders resurrect beautiful classic drinks and mix new concoctions with a creative energy not seen in half a century.

Nor are these trends confined to the United States, as you can see from the short list below. How fortunate, to have been able to experience such an array of delicious drinks in such a variety of memorable bars!

Here are the best spirits and cocktails I drank 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

Adlerbrennerei Wildhimbeergeist

ADLERBRENNEREI M. PIRCHER WALDHIMBEERGEIST

The Adler distillery, in a small town a little north of Nuremberg, Germany, produced this delightful Obstbrand (fruit brandy) from wild raspberries. The words “fruit brandy” don’t necessarily inspire confidence, but nowadays, Germany boasts quite a few distilleries dedicated to producing high-quality small-batch spirits from a range of gorgeous local fruits.

I tried this example neat (as is traditional) in the clubby bar of Berlin’s Regent hotel. It smelled like creamy raspberries, and it had a remarkably smooth texture, with very little roughness or burn in spite of its alcoholic strength. I loved its warm and fruity character, light texture and spicy finish.

 

Brennerei Rochelt Williamsbirne

BRENNEREI ROCHELT WILLIAMSBIRNE

I couldn’t help but put another Obstbrand on this list, and honestly, there are two or three others that I would have added if space permitted. If you find yourself in Germany or Austria (or in a particularly well-stocked liquor store), seek out high-quality Obstbrand. It rewards the effort and then some.

This example, made by the Rochelt distillery in Austria’s Tyrol region, clocked in at a high 50% alcohol. Even so, the nose smelled of Williamsbirne (Poire William, or Bartlett pear), not booze. I can’t deny that the first taste knocked my socks off — the alcohol hit a little hard — but on the second try, with my palate properly primed, it tasted far more balanced.

Ripe pear flavor filled every nook and cranny of my mouth, and it kept developing and changing from there, moving from ripe fruit to pear skin to focused spice to alcoholic heat.

Sipped at Berlin’s Hotel de Rome, this exquisite digestive wasn’t inexpensive at €40 a glass — fortunately a food-and-beverage credit covered the charge — but my word, it was certainly memorable.

 

BUDDHA’S HAND DAIQUIRI

I came up with this cocktail myself, and it proved to be one of my all-time favorite inventions. The recipe is easy, as long as you can find a Buddha’s hand, a seductively fragrant alien-shaped citron in season for about two weeks each year.

First, prepare some Buddha’s hand simple syrup: Zest about half a large Buddha’s hand (being careful to avoid the pith) and muddle the peel with a cup of sugar, which helps release the fragrant oils in the rind. After letting it sit for a bit, mix the sugar and zest with a cup of water and heat on the stove, dissolving the sugar and extracting additional flavor from the zest. Once it cools, strain the mixture to remove the peel and store the contents in a little jar in the refrigerator. It keeps for about a month.

With the syrup prepared, keep to a traditional daiquiri recipe, mixing two parts rum (either white or aged can work, depending on if you prefer a fresher or mellower flavor), one part fresh-squeezed lime juice and a half-part simple syrup.

The Buddha’s hand simple syrup makes for an exceptional lime daiquiri, adding a floral note to the tart citrus and round molasses sweetness of the rum.

 

Cocktail at Vina Vik

COCKTAIL OF THE DAY AT VIÑA VIK

As you might guess from the name of this hotel, Viña Vik is far better known for its wine than its cocktails. But this design-heavy resort in Chile delighted me with its “cocktail of the day” the last evening of my stay.

As far as I know, it didn’t have an official name, but this drink certainly deserves some sort of title. The mix of vodka, Aperol, fresh watermelon juice, fresh lemon juice and fresh ginger tasted refreshing, complex and beautifully balanced. In a high-wire act of mixology, the sweet watermelon, tart lemon, bitter Aperol and spicy ginger worked together with impressive grace.

 

Bartender Tila at Nanuku in Fiji

Tila bleaching hibiscus blossoms

HIBISCUS BLEACH

Tila, the vivacious bartender at Nanuku, a resort in Fiji, made this rather distressingly named cocktail for me. “Tila Tequila,” as she is affectionately known, did indeed bleach five hibiscus blossoms in the course of making this drink, draining them of color as she steeped them in hot water. This fresh hibiscus tea, when combined with honey, fresh lime juice and Fijian Bounty Overproof Rum, makes for a powerful Hurricane-like cocktail. But what a difference from the sickly-sweet concoctions people carry around in plastic cups in New Orleans! You can see the full recipe here.

 

Rum House

Rum Old Fashioned (right)

RUM OLD FASHIONED AT THE RUM HOUSE

Fans of the film “Birdman” will recognize The Rum House as the Manhattan bar in which Riggan confronted the drama critic. We visited on a Saturday afternoon at about 5 p.m. and had no trouble getting a table, which felt like a mini-miracle in a neighborhood thronged with theater patrons. I loved the buzzing-but-cozy atmosphere, and the drinks we ordered were beyond reproach.

In particular, my Rum Old Fashioned, though unorthodox, worked absolutely beautifully. It moved from molasses sweetness to an appealingly bitter and spicy finish.

 

Up next: The Best White and Sparkling Wines of 2015

Franciacorta: Italy’s Answer To Champagne

28 December 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonoma: A New Home For Malbec?

17 December 2015

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

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

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

HB restaurant in Chicago

HB restaurant in Chicago

“Oh my lord,” Liz exclaimed. “That is sexy.” It really was. It had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to the pork loin.

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

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

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

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

The Finger Lakes: New York’s Mitteleuropa

4 December 2015
Keuka Lake, New York

Keuka Lake, New York

“You’ll never see big-time production in the Finger Lakes — it’s boutique production,” explained sommelier Christopher Bates at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, New York. “We’re like the Mosel,” he continued, “where there are small spaces where grapes can grow and a lot of spaces where they can’t.”

Reviewing my notes from the conference got me thinking that perhaps Bates’ analogy was just a bit too far to the northwest. Most of the Finger Lakes wines I liked best — Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) — all grow exceedingly well in Austria. According to The World Atlas of Wine, the Wachau, for example, is “…a rich mosaic of different soils and rocks,” where “There are plots of deep soil and others where a mere scratching finds rock…” The description reminded me of the Finger Lakes soil map Bates displayed, which looked like a pointillist fever dream.

The climates of Austria and the Finger Lakes have something in common as well. In Austria, large rivers and lakes mitigate the otherwise rather tough continental climate, just as in the Finger Lakes, where vineyards cluster along sloping shorelines. There, summer warmth stored in the lakes helps prevent the vines from freezing during the extreme winters.

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

Lettie Teague’s 2013 Wall Street Journal article about the region bore the subtitle, “Where Riesling Rules.” The spectrum of Rieslings I tasted during the course of the conference gives me no cause to disagree with her. The 2014 Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard Riesling, for example, exhibited impressive finesse while shifting from ripe fruit to exotic spice to a dry finish. A languid 2013 Fulkerson Estate Semi-Dry Riesling offered lush fruit balanced perfectly by orangey acids and gingery spice. And in the 2013 Wagner Vineyards Riesling Ice Wine, sumptuously rich, sweet fruit mixed with zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice — what a delight.

It’s tempting to go on and on about the beautiful Rieslings I tried. Ravines Wine Cellars, Heron Hill, Barrington Cellars, Keuka Spring Vineyards, Vineyard View and McGregor all make exciting examples marked by ripe fruit, balanced acids and often something exotic, like jasmine, incense and/or ginger. And the prices! Most of these Rieslings cost less than $20 a bottle, a magnificent value for the money.

But Riesling isn’t the whole story in the Finger Lakes. Another one of Austria’s most popular grape varieties grows exceedingly well here: Grüner Veltliner. It does well in Austria but rather less well in Germany, because it ripens too late to be successful in vineyards that far north. But the hot summers of the Finger Lakes seem to agree with Grüner Veltliner. John Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries and Estates agreed, going so far as to argue that “Grüner — it’s going to take over. Take the best parts of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer, smash ’em together, and you get Grüner.”

Jon Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries & Estates

Jon Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries & Estates

His 2014 Stony Lonesome Estates Grüner Veltliner proved to have great personality, with a rather sultry, humid, greenhouse-like aroma, round fruit, tight acids, orange-peel spice and some minerality on the almost bitter finish. Other Grüners were equally as refreshing and exciting. I especially liked the 2014 Dr. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner, which had an aroma of fresh green hay and dewy fruit undergirded by taut, racy acids. These are wines worth paying attention to.

In addition to fine Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, Austria also produces a number of delicious red wines, including Blaufränkisch. The Finger Lakes is right on Austria’s heels with this variety, which goes by the synonym of Lemberger in New York (I find “Blaufränkisch” to be a little sexier than “Lemberger,” but I’m a sucker for umlauts). As The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, Lemberger produces “wines of real character, if notably high acidity, when carefully grown.”

I’d argue that Finger Lakes Lemberger is capable of standing toe-to-toe with Austrian Blaufränkisch. The 2012 Goose Watch Lemberger proved particularly striking, with ripe cherry fruit and juicy acids. Its white-pepper spice slowly grew in intensity through to a big finish. It felt light but powerful. Just as memorable was the 2012 Fulkerson Estate Goose Watch LembergerLemberger, with its surprising combination of cheerful freshness, ripe dark fruit and tart acids. And I loved the 2013 Lemberger by Element, the winery owned by Christopher Bates, which had a sexy aroma of dark fruit and violets, a light body, big fruit and big spice.

If Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Lemberger do so well in the Finger Lakes, I’ve been thinking, why not other noble Austrian varieties? I would be especially excited to try a Finger Lakes St. Laurent. This grape, though still not very well-known, produces velvety, sexy red wines, of which I dearly wish more were imported into the United States. I would love to have a local source.

Austrian wines, especially Grüner Veltliner, have become very popular with sommeliers because of their food-friendly acids. You may have noticed that all the wines above have ample acidity, making any of them a fine addition to a restaurant wine list. Finger Lakes wines can’t be found in every corner wine shop, but if I were a New York sommelier fond of Austrian bottlings, I would be sure to include at least one or two choices from the Finger Lakes on my menu. And if I were a traveler fond of wine, I’d put the more-than-usually picturesque and friendly Finger Lakes region on my bucket list.

Not Your Usual Holiday Meal Wine Pairings

24 November 2015

Christmas TreeThis season, banal lists of the best wines to pair with your holiday feast clog the internet. Riesling and Pinot Noir rank among the usual favorites, and indeed, fine Riesling and carefully crafted Pinot will work beautifully with your turkey and stuffing. But fine Riesling and carefully crafted Pinot don’t tend to come cheap. The most exciting Rieslings imported from Germany, Austria and the Alsace usually cost more than $20 a bottle, and excellent Pinot Noir from almost anywhere costs the same (or more) because the variety is one of the wine world’s finickiest.

And let’s be honest. If you’re buying wine for a Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah meal, you’re likely buying it for relatives who may or may not especially care what’s in their glasses. Even if you have the means, it seems a shame to pour expensive wine for Aunt Susie who just wants to get buzzed to dull the feelings of resentment and anxiety that surface at every party at which Grandma is present.

On the other hand, it’s considered impolite, alas, to drink expensive wine while simultaneously serving your guests the cheap stuff. Holiday parties therefore require something inexpensive but delicious. You can find inexpensive Riesling and Pinot Noir, to be sure, but you’re likely to be disappointed on both counts.

If you’re willing to deviate a bit from the beaten track, you can find all sorts of exciting, reasonably priced options to serve with that turkey, ham, goose or turkey-shaped tofu mold. Bring the list below to your wine shop, and you’ll surely find at least one example of each sparkling, white and red recommendation.

 

SPARKLING

Dr. Loosen Sparkling RieslingRiesling Sekt: Cheap Sekt from Germany can be made from who knows what from who knows where, but Riesling Sekt is 100% German Riesling. Dr. Loosen makes a delightful example with just a hint of sweetness, but any Riesling Sekt you find in the U.S. is likely to work well.

Cava: The least expensive versions of this ubiquitous Spanish sparkler can have unappealingly large bubbles. Stick to Cava in the $13 to $16 per bottle price range, and/or Cava including an international grape such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in the blend. If in doubt, ask a wine store employee for the Cava in your price range with the smallest bubbles.

Prosecco: This northern Italian bubbly is hardly a secret, and so much of it is bland and one-note. There are notable exceptions, however. Seek out Proseccos with the word “Valdobbiadene” or “Conegliano” on the label — they tend to have the most character.

Kir Royale: For this cocktail composed of sparkling wine and crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur), it’s traditional to use Crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy. But really, just about any dry (brut) sparkling wine will do, because the cassis covers over a lot of imperfections, including big bubbles and lack of complexity. I like a ratio of about 1/6 crème de cassis to sparkling wine, but add more if the guest has a sweet tooth or if the bubbly is particularly cheap.

 

WHITE WINE

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-BrisDry Furmint: I was lucky enough to find a couple of bottles of this exotic and spicy Hungarian white wine at a new shop down the block. This grape features most prominently in Tokaji, one of the world’s greatest dessert wines, on par with Sauternes. Hungarian winemakers have now started to realize the great potential of dry Furmint as well, but unfortunately, they can be hard to find. If you do spot one, snap it up: It’s likely to be a sensational value for the money.

Saint-Bris: I’ve only had one example of this unusual Sauvignon Blanc from Burgundy, a region known almost exclusively for Chardonnay, but it was one of the best values for the money I’ve tasted. Elegant, floral, tart and great with food. Who would ever expect to find such bang for the buck in Burgundy, of all places?

Rhône-style white blends: Whether from the Rhône Valley or elsewhere, white Rhône blends have an appealing richness matched with food-friendly acidity that make them ideal for a hearty turkey dinner. Look for wines including Marsanne and/or Roussane in the blend.

Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige: Pinot Grigio is the grape all wine geeks love to hate. It tastes almost invariably insipid and wan, and pairs well only with Wonder Bread-mayonnaise sandwiches. The great exception to this rule is Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, a high-altitude region north of Venice on Italy’s border with Austria. These Pinot Grigios are anything but boring. Expect ripe fruit and impressively focus. Pinot Grigios from Friuli can also be interesting, but at all costs, avoid those from the Veneto.

Argentine Chardonnay: Expensive Californian and French Chardonnays are outstanding, if you can afford them. Argentina also makes some standout Chardonnays, but because Malbec is the grape everyone thinks of, Argentine Chardonnay can be a stellar value.

 

RED WINE

Argentine Malbec or Pinot Noir: There are a lot of cheap Malbecs on the market, and you can go that route, but if you invest a little more and keep to the $12 to $15 range, your palate will reap great rewards. Even Aunt Susie is worth the upgrade. I’ve also noticed a smattering of Patagonian Pinot Noirs on American shelves, and these can be a very fine value for the money, too. Look for Pinot from Neuquén or Río Negro.

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard Carmeneres

Lapostolle’s Single-Vineyard Carmenères

Carmenère: Chile’s signature grape, a formerly obscure Bordeaux variety nearly extinct in its birth home, can produce supple and richly fruity reds of great character. Again, you can find cheap examples, but if you keep to the $12 to $18 range, you’ll quite likely strike gold. Ever more single-vineyard examples showcase the beauty of Chilean terroir.

Beaujolais: Beaujolais Nouveau used to be a fun, simple and inexpensive red released around this time of year that made for an ideal Thanksgiving choice. Now it’s a marketing juggernaut, and I’ve seen prices reach dangerously close to $20 a bottle, which is lunacy for such a wine. Opt instead for a heftier Beaujolais-Villages, or better yet, a Cru Beaujolais from one of 10 specific villages in the area. My favorite for the money is Morgon.

Nero d’Avola: This red grape encountered most frequently in Sicilian wines tends to have big cherry fruit and rustic spice without overpowering tannins. That makes it a fine choice for a hearty poultry-focused feast. Again, you can find examples for $9 or $10, and you might even get lucky with such a bottle, but keeping between $12 and $15 is safer.

Grenache: A cheerful grape variety, Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) produces fruity, soft reds that don’t tend to be especially tannic. I’ve got a couple of old-vine Garnachas from near Toledo that I’m itching to open on Thanksgiving.

St. Laurent from Austria: If you can find some bottles of this sexy red from Austria, you win the prize. Not nearly enough bottles of this dark, velvety descendant of Pinot Noir make it to the U.S. Any of these would be a delight, but the only one I’ve managed to purchase myself is Sattler’s.

 

Saint-Emilion Grands Crus ClassesDAMN THE TORPEDOES

If you feel like splurging on your holiday guests but don’t want to serve the obvious, opt for white Pessac-Léognan, redolent of rich tropical fruit, and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé, a sumptuous Merlot-driven wine full of rich cherry fruit and mocha. A Grower Champagne or a top-quality Franciacorta would make for an ideal aperitif.

 

If your wine shop doesn’t have at least some examples of the wines listed above, well, you need to find a new wine shop. I wish you much merriment this season, and holidays filled with delicious and wallet-friendly drinking!

Cocktails: The Season For Unusual Citrus

16 November 2015
Pink variegated lemon

Pink variegated lemon

In Chicago, we’re slowly running out of seasonal produce to look forward to. We’re in the midst of kale, cabbage and carrots, and then there’s quite a dry spell until the first ramps of spring poke out their heads in April. Fortunately, this is also the season of citrus (well, somewhere it is), and all sorts of exciting tart fruits start appearing in grocery store produce departments. And citrus, of course, is a key ingredient in countless cocktails which can be made quite sexy and seasonal with an interesting citrus substitution.

The easiest “unusual” citrus to find tends to be blood oranges, which look either like small navel oranges or oranges rubbed with blush. The juice tends to be tart and delicious, and it turns any cocktail a gorgeous reddish color. I experimented with it a few years back and came up with some delicious drink recipes in this post.

But I must admit I don’t always have the energy to come up with exciting new cocktail recipes to showcase an unusual piece of citrus. When faced with an irresistible piece of fruit, but unwilling to devote the time and money necessary to come up with a fancy new recipe, the lazy mixologist in me turns to a simple and tasty classic: the daiquiri.

This restorative cocktail combines just three ingredients: rum, citrus (traditionally lime) and simple syrup (one part sugar dissolved in one part water). I like the ratio of two parts rum, one part citrus and a half part of simple syrup. The result is balanced, refreshing and boozy. Just how I like. Lime and rum work beautifully together, but other tart citrus fruits can work just as well.

Pink variegated lemon daiquiriFor example, at Whole Foods, I recently found a display of pink variegated lemons, and I certainly was not about to pass up the chance to work with them. I purchased a couple, juiced them and mixed up a daiquiri using five-year-old Ron Centenario from Costa Rica. (I ordinarily recommend using unaged rum in a daiquiri, but I was fresh out and impatient.) The resulting drink tasted sour and sweet, with a pleasant note of powdered candy.

And every year at Whole Foods, there are about two weeks when Buddha’s hands appear. This citron looks like a little alien or sea creature, with several finger- or tentacle-like segments extending out from a central hub. These fruits have no juice to speak of — the interior is almost entirely pith — but the peel smells sensational. It has a wonderfully floral, perfumed character, and even just having a Buddha’s hand in the room can make it smell like sunshine.

The Buddha’s hand lack of juice doesn’t mean it can’t be used in a daiquiri, but it takes a little more effort. I zested about half of my Buddha’s hand (careful to avoid the pith) and muddled the peel with a cup of sugar, which helps release the fragrant oils in the rind. After letting it sit for a bit, I added a cup of water and heated the mixture on the stove, dissolving the sugar and extracting additional flavor from the zest. Once it cooled, I strained the mixture to remove the peel and stored the contents in a little jar in the refrigerator.

Buddha's hand

Buddha’s hand

This Buddha’s hand simple syrup made for an exceptional lime daiquiri, adding a floral note to the tart citrus and round molasses sweetness of the rum. But the syrup doesn’t keep forever, as I learned to my chagrin, even in the fridge. Be sure to use it within a month or so.

Next, I’m looking forward to trying some daiquiris with Meyer lemons, which have both tasty juice and a fragrant peel. It’s hard to go wrong when you combine citrus of just about any kind with rum.

If you try making a cocktail with some unusual citrus, be sure to let us know how it goes in the comments section of this post. I’d love to see your recipes!

The Potential Of Pinot Meunier

3 November 2015

Bouchaine Pinot MeunierThe Oxford Companion to Wine feels rather judgmental of those who grow Pinot Meunier outside of continental Europe. “Elsewhere,” it pronounces, “Meunier tends to be grown by those slavishly following the Champagne recipe (as in England and California, for example).” Last I checked, the Champagne recipe seemed to be working just fine. I haven’t had any English sparklers, but Champagne-style wines from California can be delicious. Why shouldn’t they use a recipe with such a successful track record? Perhaps the Oxford Companion would rather that the Californians and English make sparkling wines with indigenous grape varieties? But I digress.

Unfamous Pinot Meunier ranks among the world’s most ubiquitous obscure grapes. According to the Oxford Companion, “…until recently, it was Champagne’s most popular variety by far, but [it] has now been overtaken by Pinot Noir.” (Chardonnay completes the Champagne grape variety trinity.) I’ve twice been to Champagne, and though I sampled many a Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noir, not once did I taste a Blanc de Meunier. The grape, a mutation of Pinot Noir, features almost exclusively in Champagne blends.

I did once find a German Pinot Meunier varietal, as I described in this post, and I very much enjoyed its fruity character, focused spice and undertones of earth. But that post dates back to September 2012. It took another three years for me to encounter a second Pinot Meunier varietal wine.

Bouchaine Pinot Meunier at Jibek JoluBouchaine, based on the Napa side of Los Carneros in California, sent me a complimentary bottle of its 2013 Pinot Meunier. According to Emily in the winery’s tasting room, Bouchaine planted the Pinot Meunier with the intention of making still wine — no “slavish” imitation of Champagne was ever planned. It had a lovely dusky red-fruit aroma overlayed with some violet. A light-bodied wine, it’s not for those who gravitate towards Napa Cabernets or Argentine Malbecs. But I immensely enjoyed its ripe red fruit, broad and well-balanced acids, and light but rustic-feeling tannins. It cut right through the creaminess of a cheese blini at Kyrgyz restaurant Jibek Jolu, and it became bigger and spicier paired with a savory carrot salad. It even stood up well to beef pelmeni (tortellini-like dumplings) with sour cream.

Pelmeni dumplings at Jibek JoluThe wine was a delight, but Bouchaine grows only 3.2 acres of Pinot Meunier, planted in the lowest, most frost-susceptible plots on the winery’s estate (Pinot Meunier requires a shorter growing season than Pinot Noir, budding later and ripening earlier). I love that Bouchaine exploited the full potential of this vineyard’s terroir by using this little-known grape, rather than growing a more famous variety not as well.

It’s a shame more wineries don’t follow Bouchaine’s example. I suspect Pinot Meunier’s lack of name recognition is the biggest stumbling block. I’d love to see more wineries take a risk on the variety. I wonder how Pinot Meunier might fare in the cooler vineyards of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, a region already famous for its Pinot Noir. But for now, unfortunately, Pinot Meunier varietal wines remain quite a rarity. Should you encounter one — even though they tend to be rather expensive — I recommend splurging and buying it.

Note: The Bouchaine Pinot Meunier was provided free of charge. The wine usually costs about $40. Read about my side-by-side tasting of two different clones of Pinot Noir by Bouchaine here.

The Unusual Pinot Clones Of Bouchaine

24 October 2015

Bouchaine Pinot Noir and MeunierThese days one hears a great deal about terroir. A single-vineyard wine might be described as “terroir-driven,” meaning that the bottling reflects the characteristics of the vineyard’s geographic location, such as soil composition and rainfall levels. Terroir used to be more of a European obsession, but winemakers the world over now bottle wines illustrating the merits and differences of various vineyard sites. Entire wine collections are devoted to expressing terroir. But when is the last time you had the opportunity to taste the difference between two grape clones?

Like any other living thing, grapevines of the same species and variety still have genetic variation. It’s perhaps no surprise that Germans first developed clonal selection, demonstrating the practice in 1926, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine. The concept is simple: When you find a vine that has especially appealing characteristics, you propagate it by taking cuttings. Each of the resulting vines is genetically identical to the parent, barring the rare mutation.

And, as clearly illustrated by last night’s tasting, different clones can result in big differences in the bottle. Bouchaine, a winery on the Napa side of the Los Carneros AVA, kindly sent me samples of two of its Pinot Noirs made from different Pinot clones.

Los Carneros (or simply Carneros) encompasses southern sections of California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, but breezes off San Pablo Bay make this AVA cooler than AVAs farther north. Pinot Noir, which arguably reaches its apotheosis in the still wines of Burgundy and the sparkling wines of Champagne, grows best in cool-climate wine-growing regions, and it’s long been popular in Carneros. Louis Martini first planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines here in the late 1940s, according to the World Atlas of Wine, and since the 1970s, Carneros has been highly regarded for both its still and sparkling wines. In addition, the World Atlas notes that Carneros vineyards are “regularly plundered by wineries in the warmer country to the north,” which seek cooler-climate fruit to round out their blends.

Bouchaine itself merits its own description in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, which deserves quoting in its entirety:

Noticeable by its absence from most American critics’ thoughts, Bouchaine’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are probably too light and elegant to stir up much opinion in the U.S., but have a purity and finesse much appreciated by European palates.

In other words, these aren’t Robert Parker‘s Pinots.

Indeed, the two Pinot Noirs I tried over dinner with a couple of friends struck me as more Old World than New World, with their relatively light bodies and earthy undertones. They were controversial. I really liked them, one dining companion expressed general support, and another, who gravitates towards hefty Malbecs and Cabernets, turned up his nose at them entirely. (We also tried an unusual Pinot Meunier varietal, but that’s for another post.)

So if you prefer jammier wines with lots of richness and heft, don’t fork over the $40 required to try one of these Pinots. But if you’re an Old World kind of wine drinker who ordinarily avoids anything with the word “California” on the label, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by Bouchaine’s Pinot Noirs.

The first we tried, the 2013 Swan Pinot Poir, comes from a clone “clouded in mystery,” according to the wine’s tech sheet. It goes on to say that some think it came from the Romanée-Conti vineyard, one of the most famous patches of land in all winedom, but all we know for certain is that Joseph Swan brought the clone to the U.S. and first planted it in the Russian River Valley. It had a subtle and round red-fruit aroma underpinned by earth, and on the palate, it exhibited very taut fruit, ample acids and even some tannins on the finish. This Pinot had some power, but it kept itself firmly together in the center of the mouth.

The 2013 Mariafeld Pinot Noir, by contrast, had a more open nose of dark cherry and a bit of cough syrup. It felt lighter and fruitier, with even a floral quality, but there was still an undertone of earth keeping it grounded and balanced. This clone originated in Switzerland, according to the wine’s tech sheet, and it “produces large, loose clusters which promote airflow and prevent rot in cold, wet weather,” important characteristics in cool, foggy Carneros.

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

The Media Relations Consultant who sent me these wines will likely be distressed to learn that I paired them with Kyrgyz cuisine at Jibek Jolu, a friendly hidden gem of a restaurant just north of Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. I ordered my favorite, lagman, a dish of tender beef, bell peppers and delectable hand-pulled noodles in a savory broth. Both wines paired quite well, standing up admirably to the lagman’s hearty flavors. The Swan became fruitier and more focused, and the Mariafeld grew bigger and more powerful.

It was absolutely fascinating to do a side-by-side tasting of these wines, highlighting their surprisingly distinct characters. They’re not inexpensive at $40 each, but the high level of craftsmanship is clear. And if you’re a wine geek like me, it’s money well-spent. The wines are delicious, and opened together, they offer the rare opportunity to taste the difference clonal selection can make.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge.

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