Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Garden of France
Wines from the Loire Valley

Also known as the “cradle of the French Language,” the Loire Valley gets the above nickname from the vast vineyards and orchards interspersed among over three hundred historical chateaux. The vineyards extend from the Muscadet region near Nantes on the Atlantic coast (known as the Lower Loire), through the Middle Loire (Anjou, Saumur, Bourgeuil, Chinon, Cheverny and Vouvray), to the Upper Loire (Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé), near the city of Orléans.

The vast majority of white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne, and almost all the reds from Cabernet Franc with a small amount of Pinot Noir and Gamay. Although mostly still wines are made, Crémant de Loire, a sparkling wine made primarily from Chenin Blanc is second only to Champagne in total bottles produced in France.

The Romans first planted vines along the Loire in the first century, and by the High Middle ages the region produced  the most esteemed wines in France and England, more so than even Bordeaux. The Loire River has a significant effect on the immediate climate, adding the few degrees in temperature to make viticulture possible so far north. Frost in the spring can be a problem, as can under ripening. Chapitalization (addition of sugar to prevent stoppage of fermentation from high acid and under ripe grapes) is legal and occasionally used during poor vintages. Chenin Blanc vines can overproduce, and high density planting, pruning, and canopy management have all successful lowered yields, producing better grapes.

Because of the cooler climate, difference in vintage years affect the wines more greatly here than almost anywhere in France, with white wines being much more lush and full flavored in warmer vintages and much more acidic and mineral driven in cooler vintages. The Cabernet Franc tends to be lighter and more herbaceous in cool vintages and more round and fruity in warm vintages.

Lower Loire

Muscadet is home to the Melon de Bourgogne grape and a very dry, light bodied wine that is  citrusy, fresh, and crisp with a good acidity.

Middle Loire

Anjou, near the town of Angers, is known mostly for its rosés made from Cabernet Franc. Some whites made from Chenin Blanc are similar to Vouvrays and usually  less expensive.

Saumur is the third highest producing sparkling wine appellation in France, with twelve million bottles of Mousseau made from Chenin Blanc every year. Cabernet Franc is made here, and the wines tend to be medium bodied and fruity. Domaine Filliatreau Chateau Fouquet Samur 2011 is a great little gem. Biodynamically farmed, this wine has serious depth, with  beautiful fruit and mineral character. It’s one of my favorite Cab Francs at $16.99.

Chinon and neighboring Bourgeuil are sources for most of the Loire’s Cabernet Franc. Those from the former tend to be round and lush, while the latter tend to be more reserved and tannic. Cabernet Franc is known as Breton in this area. Flavors of raspberry and aromas of green pepper and graphite are typical, and the wines are often served a bit cooler than most reds. Bernard Baudry Les Granges 2011 is a particularly good example of Chinon, with deep cherry, blackberry, and currant flavors with an earthy finish for $19.99.

Moving eastward along the river we next come to Vouvray, home of the world’s most famous Chenin Blanc. The wines produced are full flavored with a high acidity making them very age worthy. They are made in many styles from dry (sec) to off dry (demi-sec) to sweet (moelleux). Aromas and flavors of nuts, apples, honey, ginger, and flowers can be found with an underlying minerality and acidity that make these complex wines stand up to many full flavored dishes. One of my favorites is the 2011 Clos Le Vigneau. From a fifteen acre single vineyard, this wine has the aromas of fresh flowers and melony fruit. On the palate there is fresh fruit in a clean, crisp, dry presentation with plenty of acidity and minerality. Super flexible, it is a great food wine at $19.99.

Upper Loire

As we continue eastward, approaching Orléans, we come to the Upper Loire regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. Both of these regions are known mostly for their white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, although there is a bit of Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre. The styles differ from the two regions, with the wines from Sancerre having typical flavors of grapefruit and gooseberry with a crisp acidity, and those of Pouilly Fume being more full bodied and richer. Both are delicious. Truly a gorgeous wine, the 2010 Chais St Laurent Les Varennes du Clos is a classic Sancerre. Mineral driven, flinty, citrusy, and very deep and long, this wine is wonderful with all sorts of food. A great value at $20.99.

The Loire is a beautiful place to visit, with its vineyards, gardens, and orchards, as well as its amazing architecture. The wines are some of the world’s finest examples of their respective varietals. Despite the rather difficult growing climate, they are also reasonably priced. If you are planning that special dinner, check out the Loire for a great wine to accompany it.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Piedmont, Bocchino, and Iuli
Italy’s Wine Mecca and Two of its Superstars

Piedmont lies at the foothills of the Alps in the Northwest of Italy and is arguably one of the two or three greatest wine producing areas in the world. Piedmont is home to  Nebbiolo, the source of Barolo and Barbaresco, often called Italy’s Noble Grape. Barbera is actually the most abundantly grown grape there, and Dolcetto is also very common. Although known for red wines, three grapes grown give rise to magnificent white wines: Arneis, Cortese from the appellation of Gavi, and Moscato from the Asti region.

Piedmont wines are grown mostly on hillsides. Nebbiolo and Barbera are planted on the warmer south-facing slopes and Dolcetto and Moscato on the cooler slopes. The summer temperatures are similar to those in Bordeaux, but with less rainfall, and the winters are harsher. Fog is common and aids in the proper ripening of Nebbiolo (the grape’s name is from the Piedmontese nebbia, which means fog.)

Piedmont is the most strictly controlled region in Italy with eighty-four percent of its producers falling under DOC/DOCG designation. Despite this, the majority  of  producers are very small—often family run estates.


This grape is truly unique to Piedmont. In fact it essentially is found nowhere else in the world despite being one of its most cherished varietals. It grows in the hills of Langhe. The wine is called Barolo if the grapes are grown in the vineyards surrounding the small town of Barolo, and Barbaresco if grown near Barbaresco. Otherwise it's called Langhe Nebbiolo.

Barolo is produced southwest of the town of Alba, near the town of Barolo. The appellation is only five by seven miles in area and produces 500,000 cases annually of one of the world's most sought after wines. The clay and marl soils lessen the natural acidity of the grape and produce a big tannic age-worthy expression of the grape. Often requiring ten to twelve years to mature after release, these wines evolve into elegant medium-body wines with amazing power and depth.

Barabaresco, although only about ten miles from Barolo, has a more maritime climate and different soils. The wines produced there are slightly less tannic and more approachable, but still have all the elegance and grace of Barolos. This smaller area produces 200,000 cases per year.


This grape is planted all over Piedmont but grows best near the towns of Alba and Asti. It produces juicy, fruity, muscular wines with rich red fruit flavors and a nice acidity that makes them wonderful food wines.


Dolcetto is also grown everywhere in Piedmont and gives rise to light to medium body wines that are fresh, dry and slightly tannic with a wonderful spiciness. Probably the less consistent of the three, Dolcetto wines can be very good or quite insipid, but the good ones are awesome values and wonderful to drink. Dolcetto is meant to be drunk young, and is the every day drinking wine in Piedmont.

A Rising Star

Eugenio Bocchino and his wife Cinzia have farmed 5.5 hectares on their estate in LaMora since 1996. Eugenio is the winemaker and Cinzia biodynamically manages the vineyards. For their first vinification, they used an old restored wine press, four used barrels obtained by selling their only car, and Cinzia's parents’ garage. In 2001, they built a house and winery and are now producing amazing wines.

Bocchino Nebbiolo Roccabella: This vineyard is only a few hundred feet from the border of Barolo, and although the vines are young (fifteen years old), it is destined for fame. The wine is aged for only one year in wood and is a fresh and vibrant expression of, and perfect introduction to, the Nebbiolo grape. There are aromas of roses, red fruits and spice, with violets, blackberry, mint, and licorice on the palate. The tannins are soft but ample, and there is a fresh acidity. Dark and powerful yet elegant, this is an absolutely awesome wine for only $25.99.

Bocchino Vino Rosso del Popolo: This wine is made only occasionally by Bocchino and is one of the best new wines I've tried in the last two years. I always have a bottle or two at hand. It is a blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo grown by Bocchino and Dolcetto purchased from a friend. The Nebbiolo is aged for eight months in oak while the Barbera and Dolcetto are kept in stainless steel until they are blended. The wine melds the characteristics of all three. It’s bright with red and black fruits, spices, and a lively energy. The aromas are of fruit and flowers with light tannins on the finish. This wine is limited in production, and at $16.99 a bottle, get it while it lasts.

A Barbera Master

Fabrizio Iuli calls himself a “barberista” for his love, focus, and dedication to the Barbera grape. Located in Monferrato, home of many of Piedmont's top Barberas, the Iuli estate is organically farmed and his old vine vineyards have a strong core of limestone which adds a distinctive “terroir” to his wines.

Iuli Barbera del Monferrato Rossore is, in my mind, one of the best Barberas in the world. It is made from one hundred percent organically farmed fruit, some from his ancient plot known as Barabba. The wine has a nose of ripe fruit and chocolate followed by a palate packed with flavor, ripeness, and a beautiful balance of underlying acidity and tannin. It is aged one year in old French oak. Fabrizio calls this wine “Rossore” because “that's the color of your cheeks when you drink it”. A steal at $23.99.

The many great estates in this picturesque wine region all make great wines from these three very different grapes. Treat yourself to a bottle of Bocchino or Iuli soon.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Looking for Power AND Elegance in your Red Wine? You Want Priorat!

Spain is a place for wonderful value. Big bold wines, sometimes with surprising complexity, are available for very little money. For some very serious and elegant wines, look no farther than Priorat.

Priorat is a tiny appellation of about 1800 hectares (4400 acres) of vines just southwest of Catalonia in Northeast Spain. It began getting recognition for its powerful yet elegant red wines in the 1990s. Priorat is one of the only two regions to qualify as a DOCa, the highest quality in Spain (Rioja is the other).

The prior of the monastery of Scala Dei introduced viticulture in this region in the late 1100s, hence the name Priorat. All the vineyards were tended by monks until 1835 when they were expropriated by the state and distributed to small holders. At the end of the nineteenth century, phylloxera devastated the vineyards and caused economic ruin and mass emigration from the area. The vineyards were replanted in the 1950s.

The soil in Priorat is an unusual mixture of black slate and mica called llicorella. This soil holds heat (but not water) well. Many of the vineyards are on extremely steep slopes and require hand harvesting. On this rocky soil, the traditional grape varietals of Garnacha and Carinena flourish; many vines are fifty to one hundred years old. Also authorized in the region are Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot, which are becoming more popular in the blends, although the traditional grapes make up the majority of the mix. Some white grapes are grown, but they make up less than four percent of the total harvest.

Because of the climatewhich is harsher than usually seen in temperate areas, the rocky soil, and the steep hillsides, yields are low and the cost of making the wine is higher than most of Spain. Prices average in the $25.00 to $50.00 range and can reach well over $100.00 per bottle. However, there are some awesome wines available that won’t hurt your cash flow and will still give you an excellent introduction to the wonder of this region.

The Alvaro Palacios Camins del Priorat 2010 is a perfect place to start. This blend of Garnacha, Carinena, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah stays true to the vision of Priorat—powerful yet elegant, approachable but restrained. The perfumed nose displays dark berry preserves, licorice, minerals, and pungent flowers. There are sweet vibrant flavors of black raspberry, cherry, minerals and white pepper. It is dense and chewy but lively. The finish is well defined and gently tannic. This wine grossly outperforms its price point of $22.99.

The Onix Classic 2010 is a blend of fifty percent old vine Garnacha and fifty percent old vine Carinena and is one of the best values in the Priorat. The wine is completely unoaked. There is a lovely nose of mineral, black cherry, plum, and Asian spice. The wine is intensely flavored with blackberry, black cherry, tea, and cinnamon . There is a lengthy finish of leathery tannins—a lot of wine for $20.00.

The Vall Llach Embruix 2008 is outstanding and acts like a $50.00 wine in a $26.99 bottle. This is a blend of Garnacha and Carinena from fifty to ninety year old vines, along with a bit of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is aged fourteen months in used oak. There are beautiful aromatics of mature dark  fruits, minerals, tar, leather, and spice, with a hint of freshly roasted coffee. The palate suggests warm berry compote followed by espresso and dark chocolate. Very full bodied and complex, yet elegant—a great bottle of wine.

Spanish wines are sexy, spicy, and fun to drink. There are wonderful Garnachas, Tempranillos, Mencias, and Monastrells from all over Spain at great prices to enjoy with tapas and barbeques, but don’t neglect the serious wines found in the Rioja and especially in the tiny picturesque region of Priorat.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Take a Price Break After the Holidays—The Languedoc

January is here and we are all dealing with our credit card bills from the holidays, but have no fear—you don’t have to give up good wine! The Languedoc-Roussillon region of France offers up some affordable big, bold reds perfect for cold weather, as well as an interesting white to go with a healthy seafood dinner.

The Languedoc-Roussillon region spans the Mediterranean coastline from Spain to Provence. The area boasts 700,000 acres of vines and is the single largest wine producing area in the world. It accounts for over a third of France’s wine production, and as recently as 2001 produced more wine than the entire U.S. The region has been producing wines since the fifth century.

It is the hottest and most arid of France’s wine growing regions, which allows for full ripening and maturation of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, Mauzac, and Chenin Blanc. International varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot, and Chardonnay thrive there as well. The region is known for its fruit-forward, bold wines that are screaming values. Despite all this, it is probably France's least well-known wine region.

The Languedoc is divided into several appellations, the most well-known being Corbieres, Minervois, Limoux (the birthplace of sparkling wine), and Coteaux du Languedoc. The latter is further divided into several sub districts such as Pic St Loupe and Picpoule de Pinet. This results in a wonderful variety of wines.

Chateau Millegrand  Minervois 2010 is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Carignan. This barrel-aged blend is perfumed with dark cherries, black pepper, and vanilla spice. Hints of herbs and minerals add to a rich palate of dense dark fruits and subtle oak. Although medium-bodied, it is well structured with a good backbone of fine tannins and restrained acidity. All for $13.99.

Chateau de Vaugelas Le Prieure Corbieres 2009 is a blend very similar to the previous wine. This 270 acre estate lies in the hills of Lagrasse, reputed to be the best of the Corbieres growing zones. This estate was the preferred source of wine for The Abbaye Lagrasse in the sixteenth century. (This monastery was an instrumental outpost for the merciless eradication of the Cathars and suppression of other alleged heretics). There is a powerful ripe flattering nose of black fruit and spices. It is warm and velvety on the palate with rich black fruit flavors. The finish is full and rich, with hints of chocolate. Simultaneously exuberant and elegant. Again at a bargain price of $12.99.

Domaine L’Hortus Le Loup Dans la Bergerie 2010 is a wonderful wine resulting from an ancient reclaimed vineyard squeezed between two mountain peaks in Pic St Loup. A blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Merlot grapes that are grown organically and aged entirely in stainless steel, this medium-bodied wine is fresh and lively with cherry and plum fruit spiked with white pepper, black tea, stone, and spice. Hortus is Latin for garden, and the French name literally means “The Wolf in the Sheep Pen.” The price is $11.99

My suggestion for a white is one of the oldest varietals in France, Picpoul. Its name means “lip stinger” and refers to the grape’s high acidity. Picpoul de Pinet is a designation which may be used if the wine is 100% Picpoul and made only in the town of Pinet. It can be recognized by the tall slender bottle embossed with the Languedoc Cross. Gerard Bertrand's bottling is full bodied with rich, slightly buttery green apple and lemon flavors and has remarkable freshness and acidity for a warm weather wine. It has a bright clear finish. This wine sees no oak and is meant to be drunk young. The appellation covers only 1300 hectares overlooking a lagoon where mussels and oysters are farmed (fitting, as this is a perfect seafood wine). The wine costs only $13.99.

Try a wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region today. You’ll likely uncover a new favorite...and still pay off your holiday bills!