Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yes, There ARE great Sparklers that are not French!

After talking about the wonderful sparkling wines from France, it’s important to talk about the great wines from other regions of the world as there are some excellent ones and they are often great value plays.

Spain perhaps offers the best bargains in the wine world and sparkling wines are no exception. These wines are made by the Methode Champenois like their French counterparts (secondary fermentation in the bottle). The grapes are different – Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo being the major varietals. Spanish Cavas are minerally, dry with crisp flavors. The bubbles tend to be a little bigger and more exuberant than the French bubblies, and for this reason, Cavas are one of my two choices when making Mimosas and Bellinis as they stand up to the juice. They are wonderful on their own, though, and the prices are amazing. My favorite is Mercat, which comes as a Brut or a Brut Nature (see last week’s article). There are mineral driven aromas of orchard fruits, with a perfectly balanced acidity. Both are awesome for a mere $13.99. So you can buy it by the case for your New Year’s party and still impress.

Freixenet, in its familiar black bottle, is also a Cava, and is a bargain for making those mimosas at under $10 a bottle. For a mere $22.99 you can get an outstanding Cava, Raventos i Blanc, a beautifully balanced wine with delicate minerally stone fruit aromas and flavors. This will give $40 Champagnes a real run for their money.

There are many fine sparkling wines made in America, especially in California, Washington and..…New Mexico. The Gruet family, owners of a champagne house in France, were vacationing in the American Southwest when they ran into a group of vintners in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. They gave it a whirl and now make a wide array of wonderful sparkling wines priced at about $16.99. They are all good, but for those liking sweeter wines, the Demi Sec is one of this country’s best and their Brut Rose is outstanding.

California has many estates that make good sparkling wines in partnership with French houses. Mumm Napa, Domain Carneros (with Tattinger), Chandon, and Piper Sonoma all make good sparkling wines in the $15-20 range. Schramsburg makes beautiful sparklers, and they are vintage wines. The Blanc de Blancs was served at Nixon’s “Toast to Peace” with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 and has been served at state functions by just about every administration since. Priced at $29.99, these wines are an excellent alternative to $40 and $50 Champagnes. Roederer Estate makes a great Brut for $20 and a more costly ($50) L’Ermitage Vintage version that is really, REALLY good.

Treveri is a family owned estate in the Columbia Valley in Washington State, and their sparklers are fantastic for the price. They make a Brut and an Extra Brut with zero dosage (meaning very, VERY dry) that drink like they cost $30 or $40 instead of the $13.49 price tag.

All of the above wines are made in the traditional method, but another group of sparkling wines from Italy are made in a different way. The secondary fermentation is done in tanks and then the wine is bottled, the so called Charmat method. This is less expensive, and these wines, called Prosecco, are great values. The grape used is called Glera, and although most are called Brut, there is enough residual sugar to make them somewhere between a Brut and an Extra Dry. The bubbles are big and exuberant, which, along with the low price, make Prosecco ideal for Mimosas and “Champagne cocktails.” La Marca, at $12.49, is a top seller as is Cavit’s Lunetta for the same price. My favorites are Le Coulture Sylvoz, a true Brut at $12.49, and probably the best one made, Alice (pronounced a-LEECH-ae). This estate is owned by a woman, the winemaker is a woman, and the wine is named after the owner’s grandmother. The bubbles are surprisingly fine and there are wonderful flavors of stone fruit and minerals. The label is even elegant in this $22.99 wine.

New Year’s is a time for celebrating what was and what is to be. Hopefully this and my previous installment will help you in your endeavors to do so. I, as well as the staff at Liquor Mart, want to wish you all the happiest holiday season and the happiest of New Years. I am looking forward to another year of writing what I hope are enjoyable and informative articles to help expand your wine knowledge and appreciation.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Time for Bubbly!
Part One - France

Once again the holidays are approaching and everybody is turning his attention to sparkling wine to ring in the New Year. Many people come in the store looking for “Champagne” but when I tell them a drinkable Champagne starts at $25.00 or so on sale, they realize that what they are looking for is sparkling wine. Champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. The grapes must be from that region and secondary fermentation must occur in the bottle (Methode Champenois or Traditionelle). The wine is fermented and bottled. Yeast is then added, and the secondary fermentation results in bubbles which are trapped in the bottle. Champagnes tend to be pricy, starting in the upper twenty dollar range, with most being in the $40-80s and some reaching several hundred dollars. Champagne is made from three grape varietals—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Sparkling wines are made in many other parts of France and the world, and many are extraordinary. I will talk about those made in France today, and in the next article I’ll explore those from other countries. All the wines discussed here are made in the same way as those in Champagne, although they may be made from different grapes. More importantly, they are significantly less expensive.

Sparkling wines from the tiny town of Limoux, in Southwestern France offer great value. This is actually the birthplace of sparkling wines. The monks in the Abbey of St Hilaire discovered secondary fermentation and put it to use in 1536. A local varietal, Mauzac, is the primary grape used, along with small amounts of Chardonnay. These wines are fresh and dry with flavors of apple and pear and a beautiful acidity. Elegance Blanquette de Limoux is my every day sparkler and is a bargain at $12.99. Buy cases of this for your New Years Eve party!

The region of Burgundy is home to Cave Lugny Cremant de Bourgogne. (cremant basically means a sparkling wine made in France but not made in Champagne). This wine is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and has a beautiful minerality and acidity, delicate perlage (tiny, delicate bubbles) and nuances of brioche and apple. This is an elegant, flavorful bubbly that costs only $16.99 and drinks like it is a lot more expensive.

Alsace is a region famous for its white wines – Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Gewürztraminer. They make wonderful sparkling wine as well, and my favorite is Lucien Albrecht’s Cremant D’Alsace, a beautiful sparkler made from 100% Pinot Blanc. It has a very fine perlage and delicate nose and flavors of apple and pear. This is a delicious wine that rivals $40 Champagnes and has performed very well against them in private tastings that I have done. At $18.99, a single bottle simply will not suffice.

Our final stop before Champagne is another northerly region, the Loire Valley. This is the home of sparkling Vouvray. Wines from this appellation are made from 100% Chenin Blanc. The Francois Pinon Brut is a fantastic example. Sourced from organic vineyards, this wine is a perfect expression of terroir, orchard fruits, spices, and minerals. This would be $22.99 very well spent.

This leads us to the “Mother of all Sparkling Wine,” Champagne. Nothing suggests celebration more than a bottle of this sparkler. Of course, the most well known are those from the big houses that buy from up to hundreds of growers and then literally assemble the wines in the cellar from many lots, thus keeping their style consistent year after year. Well known examples are Moet Chandon Imperial Brut and Veuve Cliquote Yellow label Brut. Priced in the $39-45 range during the holidays, these are beautiful, minerally wines with hints of apples and pear, creamy delicate perlage, and bracing acidity. One of my very favorites in this group is Billecart – Salmon Reserve Brut. At $52.99, this is one of the very best non vintage champagnes one can find done in a traditional house style. Rosé versions of most of these Champagnes can be found but are in limited quantities and are more expensive. Billecart makes probably the best non
vintage rosé Champagne I’ve ever had but will set you back $86.99 for the experience.

There are two versions of Champagnes that are becoming better known and are well worth searching out. First is the so called Brut Nature or Extra Brut. After fermentation, a small plug of yeast and debris is removed from the bottle. The resulting space is filled with a tiny amount of still wine and sugar. If the amount of sugar is small, the result is Brut (every wine discussed so far has been Brut). A little more sugar results in Extra Dry and a little more results in Demi Sec. With Brut Nature or Extra Brut, essentially no sugar is added and these are bone dry, steely, minerally wines that are truly beautiful. Francis Boulard Les Murgiers Brut Nature, a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is my favorite at a cost of $49.99.

Grower Champagnes are the wines I feel that anyone who wants to experience the true “Champagne Experience” needs to search out. These estates have their own vineyards and bottle their wines after each harvest. They often save lots from previous vintages to blend in with the current vintage to make the wine more consistent year after year, but they still demonstrate incredible character approaching that of vintage Champagnes. Champagne Piollot, a blend of 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay, is loaded with minerals, orchard fruit, and notes of fresh baked bread, the latter being a characteristic usually only seen in vintage Champagnes. At $37.49, this is probably the best value on the entire sparkling wine aisle. Champagne Aubry is another excellent example at $48.99.

Finally, at the top of the heap, are the Vintage Champagnes. These wines are made only in years when conditions allow for the best quality grapes and only grapes from that vintage are used and the bottle is labeled with the year of the harvest. These are the very best Champagnes that are meant to age into otherworldy wines. Perhaps the most well known are Moet’s Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame. These wines are excellent at release, but if you have the will power, put one in your cellar for ten years and you’ll find out what all the fuss is about. Upon opening, the nose of yeasty brioche makes you feel like you are standing in a bakery. This is followed by complex aromas and flavors of apple, honey and minerals, and baking spices. These wines are magnificent. You might actually forget you paid $130-$200 for the experience.

You can celebrate with style no matter what your budget, so get in on the act and enjoy! Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nebbiolo—Italy’s Noble (and finicky) Grape

Most people who know me at the store will attest to my love of Italian wines. So it was inevitable that I’d write about Italy’s noblest of grapes, Nebbiolo. It is essentially found only in the region of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy at the foot of the Alps, and is grown almost nowhere else in Italy or in the world for that matter—only a few small and relatively unsuccessful attempts in the U.S, Australia, South America, and Mexico. That is because the region’s unique continental climate tempered by the Tanaro River combined with the soil type cannot be replicated anywhere else.

Nebbiolo is derived from nebbia, which is Piedmontese for the fog that envelopes the region during harvest in October. It dates back to the fourteenth century, and plantings in the region increased until around 1860, when phylloxera wiped many vineyards. Many were replanted with other varietals, especially Barbera. Nebbiolo is the first grape in the region to bud and the last to ripen, being harvested in mid to late October, long after the more prevalent Dolcetto and Barbera. It needs to be planted on south and southwestern facing slopes at an altitude of 820 to 1500 feet. It is susceptible to coulure (failure to form fruit after flowering), is genetically unstable with frequent mutations, and is very sensitive to soil type. It is so difficult to grow that only about 3% of Piedmont’s (and therefore, the world’s) production consists of Nebbiolo wines.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? Because the WINES…oh my God, the wines! The wines produced, especially those from the tiny DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco, begin as lightly colored, very tannic, highly acidic wines with characteristic aromatics of roses and tar. After proper aging (and some of these wines require ten years and many improve over forty years), they transform into majestic, complex wines, intensely aromatic with notes of tar, roses, violets cherries, tobacco, herbs, and raspberries on the nose and palate. The characteristic almost brick–orange color and medium body belies the complexity and power that sits in the glass before you. These wines are among the most extraordinary in the world.

Nebbiolo wines are made with traditional or more modern methods, resulting in very different wines. The traditional methods include long maceration (20 to 30 days) and maturation in older large barrels. Modern methods include shorter maceration at cooler temperatures and aging in small new oak barrels, resulting in wines that are more approachable earlier. Many producers are now combining the techniques with good success.

Nebbiolo wines are produced mainly in the Lange appellation of Piedmont, and the most famous come from the vineyards surrounding the small towns of Babaresco and Barolo. Barbarescos are a bit lighter and more elegant of the two, and DOCG rules require that they are aged in oak at least nine months and a total of at least twenty-one for ormale wines and forty-five for Riservas. Barolos are more powerful and require one year of oak aging and at least thirty-six months total aging for the normale and a whopping fifty-seven months for the Riservas. With the tiny amount of plantings and the fact that a producer’s wines may not be sold until up to almost five years after vinifying them, it’s small wonder that they are so pricey on the shelf. Consequently, it’s hard to find a decent Barolo or Barbaresco for under $35.00, and you are more likely to pay over $50.00 or $60.00. Some of the great producers command hundreds of dollars for their wines, and they still sell out quickly.

We have lots of great Barolos in the store. Brovia is a great one, with the entry level 2010 selling for $51.99. However the otherworldy Brovia Rocche 2008, rated 96 points by Critic Robert Parker, will cost you $94.99. The Ceretto 2010 DOCG Barolo 2010 and Barbaresco 2011 are wonderful to taste side by side at 59.99 each. The Vietti Barolo 2010 Castiglione is wonderful at $52.99. Finally, if you want to taste what a Barolo or Barbaresco tastes like without breaking the bank, Natale Verga makes very good, if not world class, examples for $27.99 and $24.99.

Nebbiolo wines are being made from younger vines and vinified by more modern techniques. They are very approachable young and are delicious (and much more affordable), often being a bit bigger in fruit than the more traditional wines and they are delicious! Eugenio Bocchino’s Roccabella Nebbiolo 2012 is fantastic at $20.99. Vietti Perbacco 2011 at $25.99 is worth every penny. Rivetto makes a nice lighter version for $18.99.

If you want to venture outside of Langhe to the far northern reaches of Piedmont, the areas of Gheme and Gattinara make wonderful Nebbiolo wines that are a bit lighter and earthier. Travaglini Gattinara is awesome at $33.99.

While Nebbiolo wines are not cheap, they are incredibly good. Anyone truly interested in experiencing the best the wine world has to offer needs to try them. Cheers!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Meritage—California’s answer to Claret

Bordeaux, France is well known as one of the world’s greatest wine producing regions. The red wines from Bordeaux (known as Claret by the British) are almost all blended wines and can contain one or more of only the following grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenere. Carmenere is rarely used anymore because of difficulty getting it to ripen. It has been introduced to Chile, where it has become that country’s signature red grape.

In 1988, a group of Napa Valley vintners banded together and petitioned the BTFA to allow them to start a brand for a blend that would be considered on par with single varietal wines. The group sponsored a contest to name the brand and 6000 people responded. The winning name was “Meritage”, a cross between “heritage” and “merit.” Although many people try to pronounce it “mer-eh-TAZH”, the proper pronunciation rhymes with “heritage.”

For “Meritage” to be on the label, the wine must have only the allowed Bordeaux grape varietals with no more than 90% being any one varietal, and the winery must be a member of the Meritage Alliance.

There are a great many of these wines on the shelves, and many of them are outstanding. Some are labeled Meritage, some call themselves Claret, and some have names that don’t suggest their blend. They can be very structured and complex, resembling the French wines they are patterned after. They tend to be more fruit forward and less earthy than Bordeaux and are usually less tannic, although the latter characteristic varies widely. They are great wines to have with roasted, grilled, and braised red meats, game, and strongly flavored hard cheeses.

Marietta Cellars, maker of the very popular Old Vine Red, has just released a new wine called Arme’ that is outstanding. Primarily Cabernet with some Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, this wine has wonderful aromatics of red fruits, mocha, and espresso. There is cassis and red cherry fruit on the palate supported by superbly integrated but ample tannins. This is worth every bit of the $24.99 price tag. The same four grapes are used in Coppola’s Diamond Collection Claret producing wonderful plum, blackberry, anise, and espresso aromas and flavors. Supple tannins make this very approachable, and at $15.99, it is a great bargain.

Newton Claret 2010 is a delicious wine made from Merlot, Cabernet, and Petit Verdot. Aromas of mocha, expresso, and dark red cherries are followed by vanilla, red fruit, and plum on the palate. Supporting tannins add just enough complexity and structure to balance the fruit. 

Finally, Lyeth Merita 2011, made from the all five of the classic Bordeaux grapes, demonstrates aromas of black cherry and currants with subtle notes of dark chocolate. Flavors of cassis and boysenberries are prominent on the palate with a hint of roasted coffee joining on the ample finish. There are supporting but not interfering tannins giving a good backbone to this surprisingly inexpensive wine ($14.99).

It is possible to enjoy the structure and complexity of Cabernet based blends without heading for the Bordeaux section, especially if one prefers the bigger fruit of New world wines to the mineral driven, less fruit forward style of old world wines.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Barbera—The Ultimate Food Wine

A good red wine to match with food must have enough flavor to stand up to what you are eating but not so much to overpower it. If the food has a high fat content, such as a nicely marbled ribeye steak, the wine should have ample tannins to cut through the fat, but in the absence of fat, tannins should be moderate to low. Perhaps the most important trait of a food friendly red is ample acidity. This keeps the wine refreshing, vibrant, and palate cleansing and enhances the flavors of the meal.

With this in mind, one of my favorite wines to recommend is Barbera. Native to the Monferrato region near the town of Asti in Piedmont, Italy, where it has been documented as far back as 1240 in the records of the local cathedral, it is the third most planted red grape in Italy behind Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Although over 70,000 acres grow in Piedmont,  and it was a favorite of Italian immigrants resulting in 8000 acres growing in California, it is surprising how few people know about it.

In the early 1980s, over 120,000 acres of Barbera were planted in Piedmont. Then, in 1985, unscrupulous producers added methanol to their wine to give it a little extra “kick.” As a result, 30 people died and over 50 were blinded. This bad publicity along with growers switching to more profitable Nebbiolo led to a marked decrease in production.

Barbera grows best in warm climates and tends toward high yields, so it must be aggressively pruned. It is very thin skinned, so it is prone to mildew, disease, and sunburn. It ripens two weeks earlier than Nebbiolo and two weeks later than Dolcetto, the other two major Piedmont grapes. The grape has a very high acidity, approaching that of white wine grapes. Leaving the fruit on the vine longer to lessen the acidity results in higher sugar levels, denser flavors, and a higher alcohol level in the finished wine. When this balancing act between acidity and fruit concentration is performed well, the wine is delicious.

Barbera is dark in color, has medium to low tannins, a high acidity, and flavors of red fruit and black cherries There are two styles—a lighter style that is usually made without oak aging, and a richer more complex style that is aged in used oak. They are both delicious and are wonderful with food, from pasta with red sauce, sausages, and pork to stews and braised and roasted meats. In Italy, the spicy fruity Dolcetto is the everyday and (ALL day) drinking wine, while the Barbera is the wine enjoyed with the main meal. (The higher priced Nebbiolo is for special occasions).

Besides being delicious and food friendly, really good Barbera can be found in the 15 to 25 dollar range. Mauro Molino Barbera d’Alba, aged in stainless steel, is fresh and vibrant with a mouth watering acidity and lots of red berry fruit and costs only $15.99. Rivetto Barbera d’Alba Nemes, also $15.99, is aged for a short time in Slovenian oak but retains its freshness and lightness of fruit.

If you are going to try Barbera, you absolutely HAVE  to try the Barbera di Monferrato from Fabrizio Iuli. He calls himself a “Barberista” because although most Piedmont estates that make Barbera also make Nebbiolos and Dolcettos, he concentrates only on Barbera. His Umberta, at $15.99, is aged in stainless steel and is an explosion of exuberant red berry fruit fruit in your mouth. The Rossore (named because that will be the color of your cheeks when you drink it) is aged in French oak and is lush and complex with the underlying acidity and ample red and purple fruit that is classic for Barbera, This is one of my very favorite wines with Italian food and is well worth the $22.99 price tag.

Natale Verga makes a very drinkable Barbera for only $8.99.  Although not world class, it is varietally correct, and a good way to find out if you like this grape without spending much money.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, if you want to taste what is probably the ultimate expression of the Barbera grape, try G.D. Vajra’s Barbera d’Alba Superiore. I first tasted this wine at a large trade tasting a year ago featuring at least a hundred wines including some very expensive Barolos and Barbarescos. Vajra’s Barbera was THE wine of the tasting. With beautiful aromatics of flowers, red and purple fruit, and massive complex layers of black cherry, plums, red currants, and vanilla, it has a bracing acidity that makes your mouth water and makes you want to consume the entire bottle with a very large amount of food. In a word, this wine is ridiculous. It will be $44.99 well spent.

Barbera is a wine that anybody who loves a good meal needs to try. It will bring even the simplest of dishes to life…and it will become a common occurrence at the dinner table. Cheers!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Donald Hess—Entrepreneur and Visionary

Donald Hess, a Swiss entrepreneur, bought 900 acres on Mount Veeder (situated between Napa and Sonoma Valleys) between 1978 and 1982, setting aside 600 acres to support wildlife corridors and biodiversity. Immediately, sustainable practices, as defined by the Wine Institute, were utilized in the vineyards. The old stone winery, originally built in 1903, was opened to the public in 1989. Since that time, the Hess Collection of wines has become synonymous with quality wines and green farming.

I had the opportunity to visit Hess a few weeks ago, and it was a memorable experience. Within a few hours of landing in San Francisco, my new friends and I were sitting at a picnic table in the middle of the Allomi Vineyard looking out over 210 acres of vines. The vineyard, purchased in 1997, sits at the base of Howell Mountain in the beautiful and remote Pope Valley. Although Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and Petite Verdot are also grown here, this vineyard is best known as the source for the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Allomi. Mike, our host, poured the 2012 as we enjoyed an incredible picnic lunch prepared by Hess’s chef. This wine is a quintessential valley floor Cab with luscious red fruits that are joined by a bit of blackberry and black currant. The tannins are ample enough to lend support and complexity but are well integrated for a soft, round mouth feel. Selling for $28.99, this is a delicious wine! The six of us polished off two bottles before leaving this beautiful place and resuming our adventure.

We then headed up Mount Veeder, almost to the very top, to the Veeder Summit vineyard. Hess is so dedicated to sustainable green farming that dozens of goats are released before bud break each spring to clear undergrowth around the vines so there is less dependence on vehicles. There are fully a dozen varietals grown here, with the early ripening Malbec and Merlot being the most dominant. Looking southwest, we could see as far as the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and 115 acres of vines spread out before us.

We gazed out over the magnificent vista as we drank a bottle or two of Hess 19 Block Cuvee. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, and Malbec sourced mainly from the vineyard we were sitting in, this wine has beautiful red berry fruit, clove, and cinnamon on the nose followed by a mouthful of red fruit. A soft tannic finish laced with raspberry and a hint of vanilla make this a wonderful wine. It sells for $31.99 and is worth every penny.

We then went to the beautiful old stone winery, where we tasted several wines in the garden. We tasted a few winery-only wines that were very good, especially an awesome Petite Sirah. We also tasted through the Hess Select series. These entry level wines are sourced from all over California and are very well made for the price they sell for. There is a Monterey Chardonnay, fresh and vibrant without being overwhelmed with oak, and a very correctly made citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, both of which sell for $10.49. The Pinot Noir was a pleasant surprise, with cola, cherry fruit, and spice. The Treo, a blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Merlot, full of cranberry, pomegranate, black cherry, and spice, is jammy and easy drinking, a perfect BBQ wine. Both these wines sell for $12.49 and are great values.

The tasting completed, we now walked up to the library, gazing at Mr. Hess’s amazing art collection on the way. We enjoyed a wonderful meal and, of course, wonderful wines to match each course. The most noteworthy wine was the 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay, served with a pan seared halibut. This delicious Chardonnay, is sourced from the Su’skol Vineyard on the Napa Valley floor, barely ten miles from San Francisco Bay. Morning fog from the bay cools the hot Napa Valley microclimate, providing perfect growing conditions for Chardonnay, and it shows in the wine. I tend to be an ABC kind of guy (anything but Chardonnay) but this wine is remarkable. The musque’ clones used in the vineyard result in beautiful floral aromatics and flavors of honeysuckle and apple with a background of citrus and tropical fruits. Acidity is perfectly balanced against a rich mouth feel. Only 25% malolactic fermentation and aging in neutral oak result in a perfectly balanced, vibrant Chardonnay. This wine is a must for Chardonnay fans at $21.99.

The next day we visited the 175 acre Su’skol vineyard, and Kate, the winemaker gave us a tour of the massive 850,000 case facility that Hess has nearby. From there we continued our adventure in wine country, but we are not soon to forget our experience at Hess. If you go to Napa Valley make sure to visit the winery. But in the meantime, enjoy the wonderful wines that come from this venerable estate, whether they are from the excellent value Hess Select series or the amazing estate wines. You will be impressed.


Monday, October 13, 2014

Looking For a Few Good Men—Sardinia’s New Winemakers

Sardinia is Italy’s second largest island and lies about 150 miles off the western coast. Interestingly, the island not only is isolated in terms of geography, but also regarding grape varietals. Instead of finding typical Italian red grapes like Sangiovese,  Nebbiolo, or Negroamaro, we find those commonly associated with France and Spain—Grenache, Carignan, and Bobal.  The whites have a little more Italian feel, with Malvasia and Vermentino being dominant, as well as the ubiquitous Muscato Bianco. There are as well some indigenous grapes, like Monica, Torbato, and Nasco, and a host of others.

The Italians’ love of complex bureaucracy is evident in the fact that there are more D.O.C. and I.G.T designations than in nearby Calabria and Basilicata combined despite there being fewer vines per overall hectare than any other wine region in Italy.

Unfortunately, despite the climate and soil being ideal for grape growing, this is a rare part of Italy where the growing of wine grapes is not a priority.

In the sixteenth century, Sardinia was abundant with vineyards, to the point that it was called the “Wine Island,” but then the number of vineyards declined until the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time, several cooperatives arose and bought grapes on a guaranteed price per volume.  As a result, high yields were prized far above quality, and Sardinia became known for producing cheap low quality “plonk” wines.

In the early 1990’s a few serious winemakers decided to change the face of Sardinian wines. They improved vineyard management, and soon yields were low and qualities were high. They brought in new winemaking techniques and combined the best of these with the best of traditional methods to ensure that the “terroir” would be preserved in the wines.

While few Sardinian wines actually get to the U.S., three estates send enough wine across the ocean to be found at very good prices. First is Sella and Mosca’s Canonnau di Sardegna Riserva. Cannonau is the Sardinian word for Grenache, and this is one of the finest wines made from that varietal that you’ll ever find. Aromas of violets, bright red berries, and jam. On the medium bodied palate, there are spices and herbs beneath the ample red fruit. Medium bodied with supple tannins, this wine was once called the world’s best wine under $25.00 by Robert Parker. It is considerably less than that—a steal at $16.99.

Argiolas makes a bevy of wonderful wines. They make a Cannonau as well, called Costera, that is of similar flavor profile and quality as the Sella and Mosca—and a similar price as well. The Perdera is made from the indigenous Monica grape, and shows more blue and black fruit on the palate than Grenache and is delicious.

Finally, there is a wonderful Vermentino called Costamolino. Full of bright citrus and tropical fruit with a nice underlying mineralty, this is an outstanding food wine.

Last and certainly not least is the Santadi Carignano del Sulcis Grotto Rosso. This wine bursts with savory dark fruit, leather, and earth and is an awesome wine to have with your next beef stew. I love this wine, and at $14.99, it is an awesome value.

Italy is one of the greatest wine regions on earth. There are hundreds upon hundreds of different varietals made into wine. Each of the many regions has its own expression of its wines, and Sardinia is no different. Try them, and you’ll be very happy that you did. Cheers!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Have a Nice Wine…From WHERE?

When people are looking for something interesting in wine I commonly turn them on to a different varietal—a grape they never heard of—perhaps Friulano or Aglianico. It’s also fun to suggest wines from unexpected places—and some real treasures can be found.

Looking for bubbly? An obvious choice is one from New Mexico. Yes, New Mexico. Gilbert Gruet, a successful Champagne producer from France, was vacationing in the American Southwest with his family in 1983 when he happened on some European winemakers who had planted successful vineyards near the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. He stayed, planted a vineyard at 4300 feet, and released his first bottle of Brut in 1989. The rest, as they say, is history. His sparkling wines rival those from California and France, often selling for a lot more. For about $15.00, you can enjoy his wide array of sparklers, and I guarantee you’ll be amazed at the quality.

Looking for an interesting white? If you are looking for a match to go with your asparagus soup and chicken with anchovies, it is not easy, as these foods release a chemical which can make wine taste a bit metallic. You’ll find your answer in the Austrian section. Gruner Veltliner is probably the most food friendly white wine on earth and goes with almost everything. Fresh and bright with beautiful minerality and acidity, these are wonderful wines. Nigl makes a really nice one for $21.99, but Berger makes a one liter bottle with a crown cap that is a really great value at $12.99.

There are a couple of really interesting whites that’ll make you look really smart when you bring them to dinner. Malvasia Bianco is a very aromatic, minerally dry white that is round and full bodied with wonderful flavors of stone fruits. You can find it in Italy, Greece, and various other countries, but one I really like comes from that other country you must be thinking of. Yes—Slovenia. Rojac Malvazija (Malvasia in Slovenian) is delicious at $18.99.

Now let’s do an exotic grape and an unusual place! The Royal Tokaji Company from Hungary is well known for its dessert wine, which I will describe in a few paragraphs. However, they make a mineral driven dry white from the Furmint grape that has aromas of lime and gooseberry and similar flavors on the palate with a little smoke and pear thrown in. It sells for $16.99.

Looking for a new red to go with that game bird, stew, or roast? Naturally, I would look at Lebanon. Chateau Musar was founded in 1930 in the Bekaa Valley where viniculture has flourished since biblical times. Fifty-odd vintages have been produced with the occasional interruption by gunfire and bombs (actually I’m not kidding here). The Hochar is a single vineyard wine that is an unusual blend of Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Grenache. There are wonderful flavors of sour cherry, plum, and earth supported by supple tannins in a medium body. It is a tasty wine that tells a great story priced at $30.00. There is another great wine made by Slovenia’s Rojac that would fit the bill. Refosco (Rofosk) is a rare grape found in parts of Italy and Slovenia that makes a medium-bodied, spicy, racy wine with lots of red fruit and earth for $18.99.

Finally, as winter approaches, dessert wines can become more interesting. Ice wines (Eisvein) are famous in Germany, where the grapes are allowed to freeze on the vine. They are then crushed, releasing the ice, resulting in extremely concentrated sweet wines. The other place these wines reach their zenith is, of all places, the Niagara Penninsula of Ontario, Canada. Here the grape varietal is Vidal, and the wines are extraordinary, with flavors of nuts, rich stone fruits, and caramel, with a beautiful underlying acidity. Inniskillin is probably the most famous, but a half bottle will set you back $55.00. Jackson-Triggs is a very good alternative at half the price. Probably the most famous dessert wines are the botrytized wines from Sauternes in Bordeaux. Here, sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes are infected with a fungus known as “noble rot” and they shrivel to look like raisins. The sugars and flavors become dramatically concentrated, and the resulting wines are incredibly sweet and complex with acidities to keep them from being cloying. Hungary’s famous Royal Tokaji Aszu is a great example of this type of wine and is not as pricey. The quality is measured in “puttonyos” and the three puttonyos costs about $22.99 while the six (highest) costs about $47.99 for 500 ml bottles. That may sound expensive, but this is about half the price of Sauternes.

Wine seems to be produced everywhere. I’ve enjoyed local wines in Zimbabwe, Morroco, Mexico, and Switzerland as well as many states in the U.S. Having barbecue tonight? How about a good Texas Zinfandel?


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sake—A Great Alternative to White Wine

Sake is a very misunderstood beverage. Most people think of the warm stuff served in Chinese/Japanese restaurants.  Sake is served warm when it is inferior, the heat covering up the roughness and the impurities. Premium Sake is wonderful, with often intense, pleasant aromatics and delicate flavors of apple, pear, melon, and banana. It is an excellent accompaniment to food.

Although considered rice wine by most Americans, it is actually brewed  rather than fermented. In winemaking, the naturally occurring sugar in the grapes is fermented. In beer production, a starch must be converted to sugar, which is then converted into alcohol. While these steps are done separately in beer, they are done simultaneously in Sake production.

A special type of rice is used for Sake. It is larger and stronger than edible rice, with less protein and lipid. The rice is then polished to remove the bran. The greater the percentage of rice polished, the higher the grade of Sake, as further polishing removes impurities and lipids.

Water is very important in Sake making. Hard water that is full of minerals is nutritive to the yeast in the fermenting process so it converts more sugar into alcohol. Hard water results in drier Sakes, while softer water is used for sweeter Sakes.

A scale, known as the Nihonsgu-do (SMV), measures the sweetness of Sake, with zero being neutral, positive being dry, and negative being sweet.  Acid levels affect the sensation of sweetness much like in wine, with acidity making sweeter Sake taste drier.

Most Sake is filtered so it is clear. However, Nigori Sake is unfiltered so it is extremely cloudy with sediment. Nigori Sakes are rich and flavorful and tend to be sweet.

When considering filtered Sakes, look at the various grades. Futsu is the everyday drinking Sake made from lightly polished rice and is the equivalent of VDP or table wine. Tokutei are the premium Sakes:

Junmai: the outer 30% is polished leaving rice grains 70% of their original size

Junmai-Ginjo: at least the outer 40% is polished

Junmai Daiginjo and Daiginjo: at least 50% of the outer portion is polished leaving grains less than 50% of their original size.

Each grade results in more delicate pure flavors—and higher prices.

Some great representative Sakes to try:

Tozai Nigori Snow Maiden.  Junmai grade. Great body, long finish, fruity, bright acidity. Fairly sweet, around -6 SMV $16.99 720 ml

Rihaku Wandering Poet. Junmai Ginjo grade. Wonderful tropical fruits, pear and appl, dry, beautiful acidity. Intense aromatics $36.99 720 ml

Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto. Kimoto means using a traditional and very time consuming method of producing the mash, giving this sake a beautiful oily, earthy richness along with flavors of apple and pear. SMV +2.  A great bargain, especially good for Junmai grade. $16.99 720 ml.

Konteki Tears of Dawn. Daiginjo grade. Slightly sweet, very aromatic, wonderful aromas and flavors of apple and tropical fruit. $32.99

There are lots of cheaper Sakes, but these are representative of what really good Sake can taste like. Sake is wonderful with light fresh foods such as seafood, sushi, fish, and chicken dishes that aren’t too spicy or rich.

So give Sake a try. You my very well find yourself turning to this beverage a lot more than you ever thought.