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.

The Eye-Opening Experience Of Blind Tasting

15 January 2018

I still get a little nervous before every shoot of Name That Wine, a blind tasting-themed web series I recently started with my friend Liz Barrett. There are so many wines in the world, and attempting to identify where a wine comes from and what it’s made out of, based just on how it looks, how it smells and how it tastes, is a daunting business. There’s no surer way to decimate your ego as a wine writer than to go down in raging flames in a blind tasting. Indeed, for every success I’ve had on Name That Wine, I’ve had at least two spectacular failures.

Fortunately for me, my self-esteem isn’t closely associated with my blind-tasting skills, and filming Name That Wine has been a hoot. What a learning experience! Some of the lessons I’ve learned so far:

Trust my instincts. In a recent episode we filmed, I had reason to suspect that a wine was Old World (European), and yet in the end, I went with New Zealand. What? Why did I do that?? Argh! I realize now that I was thinking about what the wine shop owner would most likely have chosen for our tasting. I was doing as much psychology as analyzing the wine itself, and while that might sometimes be helpful, that kind of thinking has bitten me in the backside more often than not. From now on, I have to pay more attention to the wine than who chose it.

I’ve got blind spots. Egad, do I have blind spots. In one episode we were presented with a Tempranillo, but Spain never even crossed my mind. And that wine I thought was from the Old World but then decided was from New Zealand? It was from Spain. I’ve been to Spain several times, but I realize that I’ve never been to Spanish wine country. That makes a huge difference. I also realize that I haven’t written about Spanish wines in ages and ages. Which is so odd, because I love Spanish wine. Clearly, it’s time to reacquaint myself with it.

There are lots of delicious non-odd wines out there: This likely isn’t news to anyone but me, but it’s something that bears repeating. Wines that everyone has heard of — Champagne, Argentine Malbec, Rioja — are not famous by accident. They are famous because they are very frequently very delicious. If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely because you too enjoy ferreting out unusual treasures, and certainly we should continue to do that. But if we ignore the famous names, we deny ourselves some of the world’s great vinous pleasures.

If you’ve never tried a blind tasting yourself, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even if you think you know little about wine, a blind tasting can be great fun and easy to organize.

A blind tasting is a great way to learn more about the kind of wine you like. For example, let’s say you always gravitate towards Cabernet Sauvignon. You might purchase three Cabs — your favorite, one that’s less expensive and one that’s more expensive — and do a little comparing. Can you pick out your favorite? What is it about that Cab that makes it your favorite? And heck, throw a curveball or two into the mix, and add in a Malbec or Nero d’Avola or some other hearty red. Can you differentiate it from the others?

Or let’s say you’re not sure what kind of wine you like, but you know you prefer white. Assemble a German Riesling, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Chablis, a California Chardonnay and an Alsatian Gewürztraminer. Bag them and mix them up, and have someone else number the bags, open the wines and pour. With that selection, the traits you value in a white wine should become clear.

If it’s reds you prefer, purchase a New Zealand Pinot Noir, a French Pinot Noir, a Spanish Garnacha, an Argentine Malbec, a Washington Syrah and a California Cabernet. And have a party! The results should be most illuminating.

Tasting the wine and thinking about what precisely you like or dislike is immensely helpful, particularly when you’re faced with an unfamiliar wine list or when you’re in a large wine shop. Do you prize juicy acidity? A lush, round mouthfeel, perhaps? Or maybe minerality? Or sweetness or dryness?

I’ve discovered that in whites, though I adore all sorts of different kinds, there are two that I love above all others. I love whites with a note of butter and/or popcorn balanced with bright acids (like white Burgundy), and I love whites that have ripe fruit, or even sweetness, mixed with sharp acids and spice (including wines like Mosel Rieslings as well as Sauternes). In sparkling wines I seek toasty, bready notes paired with pinprick bubbles. Rosés that I love are lusciously fruity but bone-dry, with a strong shaft of minerality. In reds, I look for ripe, cool, clear fruit; focused acids; and notes of mocha and/or sweet tobacco really float my boat.

If you haven’t made a study of wine but you know what it is you like, you’ll never be lost. A good sommelier or wine store employee can direct you to exactly what you’re looking for, as long as you can give them a little guidance.

So what is it you look for in a wine? Have you tried doing a blind tasting yourself? I would love to hear about either or both in the comments below! And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the Name That Wine channel on YouTube. It’s the red button. Thank you!

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!

Wine From The Holy Land For The Holidays

11 December 2017

What’s most shocking to me about Israeli wine is its consistent freshness. I wonder if winemakers there — all-too-aware of Israel’s reputation for ponderous, syrupy Maneschewitz-like wines — have reacted, consciously or subconsciously, by crafting wines with bright acids and lively spice. They are ideal for holiday entertaining because most of them pair well with food, and they tend to be excellent values for the money. The fact that the wines come from the Holy Land is an extra bonus.

I must admit that until recently, I was generally unfamiliar with Israeli wine. A tasting of Galil wines earlier this year surprised and delighted me, and so I jumped at the chance to try the bottlings of other Israeli wineries at a tasting at Chicago’s Naha restaurant. The wines impressed me time and time again.

But why, if the wines are so good, does Israel have a reputation for being vinously compromised? The short answer is that its ancient traditions of winemaking were obliterated by hundreds of years of Muslim rule, and only in the last half-century or so has Israel been able to reclaim this heritage. But reclaim this heritage they have.

You can read a bit more about Israeli winemaking history in this post about the Galil tasting. 

The wines I tasted at Naha confirmed that Israel now crafts wines that are world-class. Yes, they are thematically ideal for serving at Hanukkah and Christmas, but these aren’t holiday sweater wines, to be brought out once a year and then put away on the bottom shelf. As The World Atlas of Wine says, “The three leading [Israeli] wineries are supporting the wine-quality revolution by diligent vineyard site selection and investment in technology. Israeli farming prowess and determination is good at coaxing wine from challenging environments that will stand international comparison.”

I tried 19 wines at the tasting at Naha, and there wasn’t a stinker in the bunch. There were certain wines that positively caused a sensation.

If I could have taken any three bottles home from the tasting, they would have been:

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery “Katzrin” Chardonnay

This beauty had an extremely enticing aroma of buttered popcorn with a hint of citrus. It felt big and creamy, but limey acids and white pepper spice gave focus to the lushness. Yarden’s Vice President of Sales, Anne Marie, told me that the Katzrin (named after the town in the Golan Heights where the winery is located) saw 75% new oak! But the balance was amazing. I loved it. This vintage costs about $30, according to Wine Searcher, which is a smoking value considering the quality of the wine.

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery Petit Verdot

Shalom, owner of Chicago’s Kol Tuv kosher grocery store, exclaimed, “This is one of the best wines I’ve tried — I’d recommend it to anyone!” I would as well. It looked dark and thick, and smelled of ripe plums and blackberry jam. It tasted rich but strikingly clean, with big but supple tannins. Bold, brightly acidic, rich and fresh; what more could you want? Petit Verdot, historically a Bordeaux blending grape, “is well suited to warm, dry parts of Spain… and it has performed exceptionally well in varietal form in the irrigated inland regions of Australia…” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. It’s no surprise that it also does well in warm, dry Israel. Another fine value for about $35 a bottle.

2014 Yarden Golan Heights Winery “2T”

A blend of two Portuguese varieties, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão, this wine (along with the Petit Verdot) had everyone at the tasting talking. I can see why. It had a very appealing aroma of ripe raisins and baking spice, and it tasted rich and just a bit funky. Refined spice cut right through the big, raisiny fruit, maintaining ample balance. A delight, and an excellent deal for $25-$29.

The above three wines should be purchased on sight. They’re something of a splurge for most of us, but you deserve it! Look for other Golan Height Winery wines as well (“Yarden” will be prominent on the label). The Sauvignon Blanc felt wonderfully exotic with its note of passion fruit, the organic Odem Vineyard Chardonnay felt taut and zesty and just a touch buttery, the Syrah was refined and rich, and the Cabernet had ample plummy fruit balanced with freshness and spice.

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But should you see any bottle from a reputable Israeli winery, you should consider snapping it up. Below are some descriptions of several of the other wines I tried in the tasting. A pattern of general high quality and value becomes clear:

2016 Mount Hermon “Indigo”

Mount Hermon is a more inexpensive brand of Yarden, and its wines are a great value for the money. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah had notes of cheerful dark cherry and vanilla, with some exotic spice, like jasmine. It sounds sweet, but it dries right out on the palate. I found the 2014 vintage for $13 at Binny’s.

2016 Mount Hermon Red Wine

A classic Bordeaux-style blend, this wine tasted freshly fruity, with ripe red fruit, refined juicy acids and a long finish with subtle spice. A lift of freshness supported the wine throughout. The 2014 vintage is also $13 at Binny’s, which is a steal.

2016 Mount Hermon Moscato

I tend to avoid Moscato nowadays, because it tends to be too simple and sweet for my taste. This version, however, had an alluring aroma of orange flowers, lychee and jasmine, and mouthwatering orangey acids complemented by foamy bubbles. It gives any Moscato d’Asti a run for the money, especially considering it costs only $10 or $11, according to Wine Searcher.

2016 Gilgal Riesling

Gilgal is more of a mid-range offering of Yarden, and its wines taste sophisticated. I also like the label, which depicts an ancient and enigmatic henge near the winery. The Riesling was thoroughly dry, so those with a phobia of sweet wine have nothing to fear. Taut and citrusy and rather forceful, the wine moved from pear to lemon/lime acids to ginger and white pepper spice, followed by a dry finish. It costs about $13, a magnificent value considering that a comparable German Riesling would cost twice as much.

2016 Gilgal Chardonnay

Whereas the Yarden “Katzrin” Chardonnay tasted rich and luxurious, the Gilgal version felt fresh and spicy. It moved seamlessly from ripe fruit to focused white pepper to juicy lemon/lime acids to something like fresh straw. Very classy, and, surprise, it’s a superb value. It runs about $14.

2016 Gilgal Pinot Noir

Light-bodied with plenty of fresh dark-cherry fruit and some refined black pepper spice. Some inexpensive Pinots can be a little too earthy for my taste, but this one, which costs $13 or $14, is fresh and fun.

2013 Gilgal Cabernet Sauvignon

Even the Cabernet had impressive freshness. It had a huge aroma of raspberry jam, and big, rather raisiny fruit on the palate, but lively spice and underlying freshness kept it light on its feet. And, of course, it’s an excellent value for about $13 or $14 a bottle.

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Finding Israeli wine might take a little effort, but your work will be amply repaid by wines that are generally ripe, fresh and very well-priced. I’ve now tried quite a few of the wines made by the Golan Heights Winery, Galil, Gilgal and Mount Hermon, and I’m hard pressed to think of one I didn’t like.

I also recommend checking out this pairing guide produced by Yarden, the first latke-themed wine chart I’ve ever had the pleasure to encounter.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, everyone!

Note: I was invited to this wine tasting and did not pay for the wine I sampled.

Name That Wine: The Debut Episode!

28 November 2017

What’s the scariest thing you could possibly do? For many wine writers, the answer is likely the same: blind tasting. What could be more embarrassing than, say, guessing a wine is Pinot Noir when in fact it’s Cabernet?

In fact, the only thing scarier than doing a blind tasting is doing a blind tasting on video, so that everyone can watch you get it wrong. So that’s exactly what my good friend Liz Barrett and I decided to do.

In our new web series, Name That Wine, we get other people to buy us wine, and we challenge each other to figure out what it is. We had a blast doing our first tasting:

Subscribe to our channel on YouTube (hit the red “Subscribe” button below the video on this link) to be among the first to watch future episodes!

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