Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years Resolutions

Forget about traditional New Years resolutions: As wonderful as they sound today, they lose their luster, for most of us, somewhere around brunch on January 1st. Who, after all, can really follow through on their vow to eat healthier in the face of New Year’s day brunch? And that gym membership you swore you’d purchase this year? Well, maybe it can wait till bathing-suit season is a bit closer at hand…

So forget about those unkeepable promises for the new year; instead, focus on something you’ll actually want to keep.

Drink better.

Now, after all, is the time to make the vow to drink more broadly, with a more open mind, a more willing palate, and a wholehearted acceptance of the three key rules of wine consumption:

The wine world is a big place; explore wines from all parts of it.

Great wine often comes from grapes you may not be familiar with; don’t shy away from unusual or unfamiliar varieties.

And don’t ever assume that you know what to expect from a specific producer or region; change happens all the time, and smart consumers will embrace it.

If you follow these rules—if you allow them to provide a framework of sorts for your vinous decisions from here on out—then I promise that your wine life will be far richer, and far more rewarding, than it ever has been before.

The hard part, though—as always—is knowing where to start.

Personally, I can think of no better place (especially this time of year) than Champagne. As readers of this blog know, I visited the region this past September during the harvest, and spent a week tasting the wines and speaking with producers. I cannot stress enough how impressed I was with both the quality and the range of styles.

Indeed, now is the time to branch out and start exploring the region as a whole. Whatever you buy, though, go beyond your usual comfort zone: Champagne is a far more nuanced, and far more finely mapped, region than most people realize, and the range of wines coming from there is just astounding.

It’s also a great idea to re-familiarize yourself with producers you thought you knew. Of all the affordable wines from California that I’ve tasted in the past year, few have surprised and impressed me quite as much as Blackstone. I had the chance to sit down to lunch with winemaker Gary Sitton this past summer, and his passion for wine, and his desire to express the unique terroirs that his grapes are grown in, are infectious.

The Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay 2007, for example, incorporates fruit from four specific vineyards in Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast, and showcases all the rich, warm characteristics you’d expect (brown butter, almonds, lovely fruit), as well as a sense of minerality and energy-held-in-reserve that you may not have. And the 2006 “Rubric” bottling, with its grilled graphite, red plums, chocolate, minerality, and spice, is a marvel at a great price.

Grape varieties to keep your eyes open for in the coming year and beyond include bright, often very gently perfumed Albariño from Spain, particularly Rias Baixas in the North West of the country; Torrontes, with its typical notes of melon and flowers, from Argentina; white Rhone Valley varietals like Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier from France and California and Australia; Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch, and St. Laurent, the excellent red Austrian grapes that I reported on here several months ago after my trip to the wine regions in the East of the country; the wines of Long Island; the new generation of high-end whites from Italy’s Alto Adige; and the list goes on.

Here’s the point: There is no longer any excuse to drink the same as you always did, no matter which direction your tastes run in. And this time of year, with all the days off from work and the many large meals centered around the holiday and New Year’s celebrations, offers the perfect excuse (as if you needed one!) to start exploring.

Plus, promising to venture off into the ever-growing world of wine is infinitely more fun than resolving to go to the gym more in the new year.

This, indeed, is one New Years resolution you’ll actually want to keep.

(Note: This blog post has been adapted from a column I recently wrote for Affluent Magazine.)

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

News (and Cabernet) from Chile

South America has no shortage of great producers, and whether the wine in your glass is made by a locally owned firm or one from outside, say, Chile or Argentina, chances are it’s a winner. These two countries are, after all, home to some of the most drinkable, delicious, and affordable wines around.

And soon, there will be a new entry to the market: Famed Burgundy producer Nicolas Potel. is reporting that he “will head to Chile to make Pinot Noir in 2010. The winemaker will produce his first vintage of Chilean Pinot Noir in the up-and-coming Bio Bio region, in a joint venture with Chilean group Vina Corpora...”

This is great news for Pinot fans, and yet another example of how important South America has become in the global wine industry. The full story is available right here.

And while we’re on the subject of South America, I recently tasted the Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008, a charming, well-balanced red that’s perfect either on its own or at the dinner table. The nose is unmistakably Cab, with notes of black currants, tobacco, mint, cedar, and dark cherries. On the palate, it’s both medium-bodied and rich, seamlessly textured, and speaks of charred oak and minerals, with nods in the direction of more black currant, mint leaf, vanilla, and a whiff of sandalwood. Well-made and wonderfully affordable.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

Rosés from Provence: Perfect for the Holidays

Rosé, now that it has finally broken through the American wine-drinking consciousness as a serious option for serious consumers--it’s no longer seen in the same light as sweet, simple white zinfandel, thank goodness--has one more hurdle left to surmount: The perception that it is strictly a warm-weather treat.

Fans of rosé know very well that it is one of the great treats of the spring and summer; indeed, the arrival of the new vintage each year symbolizes the coming change in season as well as a sunny forecast by the TV weatherman. And, yes, there are few moments as charming and as evocative as nibbling on, say, a salade niçoise at a sidewalk cafe table while a glass of rosé gently sweats before you.

But to limit your rosé consumption strictly to the warm-weather months is to miss out on one of the top pleasures of the wine world the rest of the year.

Here, then, I’d like to make a suggestion: That you consider rosé right now, in the dead of winter. It may go against common practice, sure, but lots of worthwhile things do.

Right now, as the days are just about as short as they’ll be until next winter, we all could use a little sunshine. And few things provide it in such abundance as a bright glass of rosé. The fruit, the acid, the quaffability: It’s all there, and perfectly appropriate for the season in exactly the opposite way that rich reds are.

Then there’s the food-pairing part. For this gluttonous time of year--with fried potato latkes for Hanukkah and hearty hams for Christmas and who-knows-what-abominable-combinations on New Years Eve--my money is with rosé and Champagne in the pairing department. Few wines offer the same level of versatility at the table as these two.

Great rosé is made all over the world, from Europe to South America to the United States and beyond. Exploring examples from all of these places is bound to be a rewarding and delicious endeavor. Still, though, rosé finds its ancestral homeland of sorts--and one of its greatest expressions--in Provence.

I recently had the opportunity to taste a number of excellent examples from that famed French countryside, and was blown away by the range and quality of them. What really amazed me, though, was the ability of many of them to last (and, indeed, evolve) well beyond the point at which they are traditionally “supposed to be consumed.” In fact, it’s a good idea to look for successive vintages of Provençal rosés: Tasting a young one alongside a bottle that’s slightly more mature is educational in the most delicious way possible. And the slightly older ones, with their more pronounced earth and spice notes, provide a whole added layer of complexity with which to pair heartier holiday-season foods. That kind of versatility is awfully hard to beat.

Here are my tasting notes for a handful of standout rosés from Provence. Keep in mind, though, that this list is far from exhaustive, and that there are all kinds of rosé treasures out there right now, just waiting to be plucked from shelves.

Chateau du Rouët Coeur Esterelle Rosé 2008 - The color here is a beautiful light salmon that’s almost autumnal in hue. Hints of flowers and underbrush on the nose lead to flavors of red berry fruit, spice, and something just the slightest bit herbal. The fact that some of the fruit has fallen away at this point is actually a benefit, as the underlying complexity really has the chance to shine through. Excellent.

Rimauresq Selections Rosé Classique Cru Classé 2008 and 2007 - Fresh, springlike aromas and a burst of peach precede a palate more concentrated and slightly more powerful than the Coeur Esterelle. This 2008 tastes of peppercorn, spice, and garrigue, and shows more linearity than the previous one. The 2007, on the other hand, gives evidence of its extra bottle-age in its more amber-toned color, as well as in the mushroom and dried fruits and flowers of the nose. The palate of the 2007 is far creamier than the 2008, with unexpected hints of caramel and chocolate, all of it lifted by excellent acidity.

Rimauresq Selections Petit Rimauresq Rosé 2008 - Summertime notes of watermelon jump from the glass, buttressed by rhubarb and a creamy sense of richness that make this appropriate for the heartier dishes of the holiday season, or, really, with nothing else at all--just a glass and a half-hour to savor it.

Cellier Saint Sidoine Cuvée Entre Coeur Rosé Coste Brulade 2008 - Classic pink color and a nose so quiet it almost whispers give little indication of how complex this wine really is. It tastes of marzipan and sesame paste with brioche, wild strawberries, and spice, all of it balanced and subtle and calling out for food to enjoy alongside it.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Perfect Holiday Wines: Port, Part 1

With all the guests and all the food this time of year, choosing the right wine is of the utmost importance. Unfortunately, most people get mired in the same old habits year after year. I see it and hear it all the time: Consumers claiming only to drink one type of wine, whether it’s Australian Shiraz or Napa Cabernet or Oregon Pinot Noir. The truth is, though, that as wonderful as these wines can be, limiting yourself to the same kind of wine each time you pop the cork will result in missing out on the majority of the pleasures that the world of wine has to offer.

Today and Monday, then, I’d like to discuss two wine options that are more than worth your attention right now, yet that too many people still don’t take full advantage of: Port and rosé. (I’m breaking these up so that you’re not confronted with an over-abundance of tasting notes and recommendations.)

Port offers some of the great cool-weather pleasures of the wine world. (It’s actually fantastic year-round, but these days, with the vice-grip of coldness locked down on us here in the Northeast, it’s impossible to think of the warmer days all those months ahead.) And right now, with all the rich dinners and chocolaty desserts of the season, it’s impossible to beat in terms of enjoying with those big holiday meals.

For consumers, though, Port can be confusing: There are so many different terms that are employed on labels that it can occasionally seem a bit overwhelming. From tawny to vintage to LBV to crusted and more, Port terminology is daunting. For an excellent overview of the various styles, click here--it’s a link to an easy-to-use guide, and an indispensable tool if you’re just getting into Port. Or, for that matter, if you need a refresher.

I’ll be posting more tasting notes here throughout the winter, but for now, I’d like to focus on four bottles of Dow’s and one of Graham’s, their Six Grapes Reserve. All of these wines would be perfect to open up as a treat for dinner guests around the holidays, and pair beautifully with everything from rich blue cheeses to dried fruits and nuts. And if you’re a cigar lover, you’ll have a hard time finding a better partner for your smokes than these.

Below are my tasting notes--the first of what will be ongoing coverage these next few months. (As an aside, the Dow’s notes first appeared in a column I wrote for Affluent Magazine earlier in the year.)

Graham’s “Six Grapes” Reserve Porto - High-toned aromatics jump from the glass--this is far more nuanced than most ruby Ports I’ve tasted lately, with hints of chocolate, raisins, and spice. The palate, all tongue-coating velvet, shows wonderful cherry, black tea, and caramel flavors, with even a hint of sultana thrown in for good measure. The finish lingers on with cooked sugar and a hint of the spice from the nose. One of the best deals in the Port world right now.

Dow’s 10 Year Old Tawny – Aromas of pecans and hazelnuts are balanced beautifully by a surprisingly fresh fruitiness and a barrel character that adds seasoning without overwhelming. This is a Port of remarkable structure, its body lighter than you might expect, though without sacrificing any sense of richness. The mid-palate shows both flowers and toffee, and the finish ends on a pleasantly bitter almond note. Delicious and almost dangerously drinkable.

Dow’s 20 Year Old Port – The nose here is much more dramatic, more exotic, than its 10-year-old counterpart, both spicier and possessed of greater density. And, despite the more obvious vanilla and alcohol, it still maintains a real sense of freshness, which is remarkable for a tawny this old. The nutty finish and bolder complexity make this both a perfect digestif and a steal for the price.

Dow’s 30 year Old Tawny Port – Cardamom and sweet tobacco are carried along a nose than can only be described as silky in its subtlety and elegance. This is a Port for contemplation, with warm brown sugar, grilled fruit, dried herbs, and earth all adding a fabulous sense of dimension and depth to the palate.

Dow’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port – The fact that this tawny still maintains a lively zip of acid and freshness is remarkable. So, too, is the sense that it is a completely unified whole, with spice and fruit and darker, deeper flavors in perfect balance. The overriding characteristic here is one of gently spiced caramel, but there’s so much more going on that you’ll need at least an entire glass—and maybe two—to parse it all. Call it the T.S. Eliot of Port: It demands rapt attention, but the work is more than rewarded in the end.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wine and Chocolate

I’ll be writing about Port and rosé tomorrow--two of my favorite wines this time of year--but for now I thought it would be interesting to focus on a pairing that divides people as much as it unites them in agreement: Dry red wine and chocolate.

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan, even with the best chocolates, of pairing them with dry reds...and even then I tend to be skeptical. Except for a very few instances, the chocolate tends not to bring out the best in the wines, making them a touch astringent. Still, some people are passionate about the pairing, and I thought that this would be a good time to include a video (this one is from the Wine Spectator) that discusses some of the details and strategies for making the most out of this high-wire act. It’s risky, but the rewards can be substantial.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Science of Wine

As much as we enjoy wine, and despite all the rapturous poetics penned by everyone from Aristophanes (“When men drink, then they are rich and successful and win lawsuits and are happy and help their friends...”) to Goethe (“Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues.”), to the uber-descriptive lines of modern critics like Robert Parker (“This full-bodied, wide, thick, focused, harmonious, and intense wine releases amazingly powerful layers of candied black cherries and blackberries,” he wrote of the 1996 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache), wine, in the end, is science.

Takes the romance out of it, no?

Two recent articles made this clear. The first, reported widely around the world, indicates that even something as seemingly innocuous as the color of the room in which a wine is tasted can have an impact on how it is perceived. British paper The Telegraph reports that “Drinkers' brains are tricked into thinking a glass of white wine is better and more expensive tasting when exposed to the red or blue background lighting than those in rooms with green or white background lighting.”

This isn’t to say, of course, that bad wine can be saved by flattering lighting, or that bad lighting will ruin a perfectly lovely bottle, but it is food for thought: Context, like with so much else in life, is one of the keys to how an experience is perceived, wine included.

The second article ran recently in The Wall Street Journal, and is a very good follow-up to recent posts here about Champagne. It begins: “There are 20 million bubbles in a bottle of champagne and every one of them alters the taste, scent and fluid dynamics of the sparkling wine, say researchers studying the chemistry of carbonation and the physics of fizz.”

And while analyzing the bubbles in Champagne might seem akin to trying to wrap your mind around how the punctuation in Shakespeare’s sonnets affects meaning, it does have its benefits: Specifically, a greater understanding of what makes Champagne so special.

“[The] experiments, described recently in Science, the American Scientist and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal the unexpected ways in which the microscopic and molecular behavior of carbonation make champagne tingle in the nose and tap-dance on the tongue. Champagne owes much of its magic -- its savor, scent and glow -- to the micro-mechanics of CO2 bubbles, they reported.”

It continues: “Every bottle of champagne is a blend of many wines, but it owes its signature sparkle entirely to pent-up carbon dioxide. In fact, an average bottle of champagne contains about five or six times its volume in carbon dioxide, so compressed that when the champagne cork pops, it typically kicks out of the bottle's neck at about 30 miles per hour, Dr. Liger-Belair says. The champagne will actually taste better, he says, if the cork can be released with a more subdued CO2 sigh.”

The lesson here? Enjoyment of wine is a personal and subjective experience, but it is not wholly separated from science. Which is a good thing: Understanding typically leads to greater pleasure in the long run. And that’s something to which we all can raise a glass--full of bubbles, of course.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Champagne: It's Good for You!

There’s a potentially severe snowstorm heading towards the east coast this weekend, which provides the perfect excuse for locking the door, cranking up the heat, lining up a bunch of movies to watch...and celebrating the break from the routine with a bottle of bubbly.

Precious few treats in life are quite as charming as opening a bottle of Champagne for absolutely no reason at all. And I honestly can’t think of a better reason to pop the cork on a bottle than being forced to stay in the entire day.

If, however, you’re one of those people who feels bad about a bit of luxury for no reason at all, then here’s your excuse to find some fizz this weekend: Champagne is good for you.


“British academics have found that champagne is packed with polyphenols - plant chemicals thought to widen the blood vessels, easing the strain on your heart and brain,” reported British newspaper The Daily Mail.

The article continued: “And researchers believe the health benefits aren't limited to the expensive stuff but are also found in cheaper alternatives such as cava and prosecco.”

Fans of fizzy have always known that a glass or two relaxes them. But now, we finally have scientific proof that it does more than that, benefiting you on levels that are not immediately felt.

So whether you pour yourself and your snowbound companions glasses from one of the great Champagne houses, or something a bit simpler and less money, the point is clear: We all have something to celebrate this weekend...regardless of the weather forecast.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Changing Tastes in Champagne

Wine styles and tastes exist in a constant state of flux. For the past several years, the big story has been Americans’ gradual movement away from the big, over-oaked and overripe fruit-bomb style of wine. The pendulum of California Chardonnays, for example, seems to be swinging back from the buttery brink and toward a more balanced style.

Now, it seems, it’s Champagne’s turn. For far too long now, the focus with Champagne was trained most intensely on its brand image as opposed to on the wine in the bottle. That meant that most people found themselves gravitating toward richer, indeed slightly sweeter styles. (For a Champagne to be called “Brut,” it can have up to 15 grams per liter of sugar added.) And while the most popular bubblies weren’t (and aren’t) the far sweeter demi-sec bottlings, the average Brut seemed to grow ever softer.

Now, however, as more people understand the nuances of this great wine, tastes seem to be shifting a bit (albeit slowly and tentatively) to a drier style. In fact, during my visit to Champagne this past September, hardly a tasting went by without the winemaker or cellar master discussing their generally lower dosage, or, in English, addition of sugar. When the fruit is ripe and blended well, and not obscured by too much sugar, this allows the terroir to shine through more clearly--typically that beautiful sense of minerality that sets great Champagne apart.

Now, Roederer Champagne is getting in on the trend: They recently announced, according to, that they are “in the final stages of developing a new Brut Nature cuvee - an ultra dry Champagne with no added sugar or dosage.”

This is a bold move, but ultimately, I think, a smart one: It will introduce consumers to a style that expresses the fruit and the land more completely, and should lead to more well-informed, smarter buyers...which is good for business.

Decanter adds that Roederer winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon has a prediction that seems to bear all this out: He “believes that we will be seeing a lot more ‘brut nature’ wines in the future as tastes change and as warmer summers mean riper vintages requiring less added sugar. ‘In the last hundred years,’ Lecaillon said, ‘tastes have become drier and drier.’”

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Markets Moving East

The old American and European centers of gravity in the wine world are moving east. Among the most striking trends in wine in recent years is the increasing importance of the Asian markets, from retail to auction to media.

This morning, for example, reported that “Hong Kong has overtaken London as the second-biggest wine-auction market after New York.” The news item explained, “Lifting all wine taxes in February 2008 spurred demand for wine, creating an auction market that was 'zero' before the tax exclusion, Boris de Vroomen, chairman of the Hong Kong Wine & Spirits Industry Coalition, told”

Of course, this movement east is about more than just Hong Kong’s tax policy.

As Wine Spectator reported in August of 2008, Vinexpo Asia-Pacific, a huge trade show “sponsored by Bordeaux's chamber of commerce and held in Hong Kong in May [2008], broke attendance records with more than 8,000 visitors, an increase of about 24 percent from 2006.

China's and Hong Kong's gross domestic products are continuing their double-digit growth, and other Asian economies are close behind. Newly wealthy consumers are flocking to wine.”

Add to that the growing power of the wine media--Sommelier India, the very highly regarded wine magazine [NB: I have an article coming out in the magazine in 2010], recently held “the first Indian organized competition to assess wines produced in India, as well as international wines available for consumption in India,” the competition’s web site said; judging was conducted under the expert eye of the renowned Steven Spurrier--and you have a recipe for a powerful, growing, and passionate wine culture. Which is a very good thing for wine lovers all over the world.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Cornas Hero

Jean-Luc Colombo, one of the great winemakers of the Rhone Valley, is responsible for some of the best, most influential wines of that ancient region, especially in the north. As the Wine Spectator put it in an April 2007 interview: “[I]t's hard to imagine where the Rhône would be without him, since Colombo was among the first to travel outside the area and not only aggressively market his own wines, but also tell the story of the entire region. Colombo...purchased his parcels of vines in the 247-acre Cornas region in 1986. From that humble start, he now makes his small-production, sought-after Cornas cuvé well as a range of other wines, mostly from purchased grapes, reaching all the way down the valley to...Côtes du Rhône.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to taste a number of his wines in recent years, and have found myself regularly impressed by both the accuracy of expression of their terroirs of origin and their almost dangerous drinkability. A close friend of mine, Ryan Davis, the Beverage Director of Daniel Stern Restaurants in Philadelphia, was the first person to really turn me on to Colombo’s full range of wines, in particular a 1999 Cotes du Rhone Blanc “Les Figuieres” whose nutty, waxy, still amazingly lively character was stunning after all those years in bottle.

This past weekend, I headed back to Colombo’s origins with a bottle of 2002 Cornas “Les Ruchets” at a family dinner. Now, ’02 is a bit of a misleading year in the Rhone: Though the southern part of the region was clobbered by a severe late-season rain storm, “the north,” according to a Wine Spectator report form 2004, “was not as severely hit. Though rot and low ripeness levels provided some challenges, producers were slightly more upbeat than their southern colleagues.”

And with good reason. I’ve had generally good luck with the Northern Rhone 2002’s, and this one was a standout. It led off with a mature nose of truffles, leather, perfume-y violets and a hint of smoked meats. The acid on the palate was a touch high, but that really just served to keep it all fresh and make it that much more useful at the table. The fruit leaned in the red and black raspberry direction, with lingering notes of cinnamon, white pepper, green olives, and black licorice on the finish. In other words, perfect right now, and a great expression of this tiny, ancient piece of the Rhone Valley: Tied to the land, expressive, a hint rustic, and altogether as honest as wine gets. Delicious.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Trend Report: Single-Vineyard Bottlings

It’s probably a statement of the obvious, but one of the trends you’ll see more and more of in the coming year is an increasing focus on site-specificity, on bottlings that express the unique character of a particular terroir. And in few places is this more true right now than in the United States, particularly California, Oregon, and Washington.

It only makes sense, of course: As vineyard managers and winemakers continue to understand their land better, they become better able to match it up with the perfect clone of the perfect grape variety, coax out its essence through smart vineyard practices and well-considered winemaking, and create wines that, ultimately, hopefully, only could have come from that unique piece of the earth.

This is nothing new in the wine world--the Burgundians, for example, have known about it forever--but the increasing frequency with which it’s happening on this side of the ocean is an excellent sign.

And, in fact, some of the most exciting wines I’ve tasted in the past year have been from single vineyards. I recently had a chance to sample the wines of Knights Bridge, whose single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons were stunners. Their Knights Valley estate vineyard, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard, and Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard bottlings were nothing short of profound. Dutton-Goldfield, the standout Russian River producer, crafts great wines (I love their Pinots) from a number of single vineyards, including Sanchietti and Devil’s Gulch, among many others.

Heading north to Oregon, one of my favorite producers is Bergstrom, whose powerful and often Burgundian Pinot Noirs typically find a way to both be tied to their land and to nod in the direction of a thousand years of elegant Pinot tradition across the Atlantic. Their Bergstrom Vineyard, de Lancellotti Vineyard, and Shea Vineyard bottlings are some of the best this country has to offer. (Their 2007 Bergstrom Vineyard, in fact, was recently named one of the top 100 wines of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle.)

In the end, great wine is often separated from merely good wine by its honesty and by the way it expresses either the vision of the winemaker or the land in which its fruit is grown. When those two come together--well, that’s when the real magic finds its way into the bottle.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

2007 Chateauneuf-du-Pape: The Reviews Start Rolling In

I hope the prices of Châteauneuf-du-Pape stay about where they are, because, despite the fact that they’ve gone up in, say, the past decade (and what hasn’t!), they still represent one of the best values at the high-end of the French wine market.

Sure, they’re not bargain-basement cheap; but when considered in light of the prices being charged for top wines from other regions in France (Burgundy is a great example), they’re really quite reasonable. Factor in the longevity of the best of these bottlings, and the return on the investment is actually very good.

Personally, I’ve always felt that Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a great wine to start a collection with. In fact, it’s what I started filling my own cellar with when I decided to buy one and begin laying bottles down for the future. And while I hope to one day be able to dedicate shelves to, say, Romanée-Conti or Latour, I’m very content to keep on building the Southern Rhone end of my collection right now...and for a great price, too.

The New York Times published an interesting piece on the 2007 Châteauneufs today, and it presented an interesting counterpoint to the glowing assessment of the vintage by critic Robert Parker, who said that 2007 is “[t]he finest vintage I have ever tasted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape... In my thirty years of evaluating these wines, I don’t think any vintage has achieved the heights of complexity, richness, and overall purity and balance as 2007.”

On the other hand, Eric Asimov wrote in this morning’s New York Times: “I was thinking about the overbearing side of Châteauneuf recently after the wine panel had completed a tasting of 20 bottles from the 2007 vintage...We found some wines we liked very much, yet on the whole the 2007s left me unexcited. Stylistically, they presented Châteauneuf’s too-friendly side. Châteauneuf is always a big wine, but these wines were huge — full of lush, opulent fruit with powerful, jammy flavors.”

Personally, I find myself leaning toward Parker on this one, though I have not yet had the chance to taste enough of the ‘07s to formulate a formal opinion. (I will in the coming weeks and months, and will report back right here.) Still, from what I’ve tasted, I am very impressed with the vintage. Yes, these are wines with a real sense of opulence, but so far I have also found elegance, detail, and terroir-specificity generally balancing out that richness.

But that’s the beauty of wine: Its ability to elicit passionate, deeply personal responses from consumers, and to keep them arguing even as they sip, slurp, and savor.

(On a less vintage-specific note, I found an interesting video on the 13 grape varieties permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and employed by Château de Beaucastel. It's posted below.)

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Primitivo's Turn to Shine

Whenever I’m asked for a good go-to wine to pair with summertime meals by the grill, I immediately think of Zinfandel or Primitivo. And whenever I’m asked for a good go-to wine for heartier wintertime dishes like braised short ribs or stovetop burgers--well, I think of Zin and Primitivo then, too.

These are wines that deserve to be considered and consumed throughout the year. Something about their typically exuberant berry fruit, balanced out by a telltale hit of spice and, often, licorice, makes them exceptionally useful pairing partners for a wide range of dishes.

These two grapes are, as has been reported and discussed ad nauseam in recent years, genetically very similar. According to, “Primitivo and Zinfandel are actually both clones of a Croatian grape called Crljenak.” And, in a more detailed exposition on the subject, David Lynch, the Wine Director of New York’s acclaimed Babbo Ristorante and co-author, with Joseph Bastianich, of the excellent book “Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy,” writes the following:

Many American wine drinkers have found their way to Puglia via a grape called primitivo. Several years ago, researchers at UC Davis proclaimed that primitivo, thought to be a native vine of Puglia, was genetically identical to American red zinfandel — and thus the progenitor of all those rich, spicy “zins” from the likes of Turley and Ridge. This Italian-American connection got a fair amount of press, to the point where at least one Puglian primitivo producer, Sinfarossa, began using the word “zinfandel” on labels to enhance its wine’s international appeal.

“Turns out that primitivo, too, came from somewhere else. Researchers at the University of Zagreb recently determined that a Croatian vine called Crljenak Kasteljanski, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is the “original zin,” if you will...

“Still, that connection between primitivo and zinfandel remains — both genetically and in the glass. Americans dig primitivo because it reminds them of wines made at home: It’s chunky, fruity, a little spicy, but so super-ripe and (relatively) tannin-free that those in search of an ‘easy drinking’ red need look no further.” (Click here for the full text.)

Of course, all of this, while fascinating, is really secondary to what matters most--the juice in the glass. And when it comes to both Primitivo and Zinfandel, the pleasures are many and varied both when the wines are enjoyed on their own and when paired with food.

I recently tasted one of the most enjoyable Primitivos I’ve had in a long time, the Tormaresca “Torcicoda” 2003 from Salento. This wine is everything that great Primitivo should be, the color starting to show its maturity in hints of brick and amber at the edges (though the center still retains its glistening black-cherry hue), the nose intriguing with its aromas of bonfire, scorched earth, dried mushrooms, black licorice, lavender, warm clay and, with some air, hints vanilla and nutmeg and the intimation of blackberries. All of this complexity on the nose leads to flavors of black raspberry, blueberry, mixed-berry compote, more hints of licorice, and an aromatic element at the back of the soft palate that reminded me of black peppercorn. The maturity also makes itself known in the texture of the wine, an infinitely giving silkiness that carries on through a finish that runs the gamut from scorched earth to an exotic note of sandalwood.

The Tormaresca “Torcicoda,” in fact, demonstrates everything that great Primitivo (and Zinfandel) can achieve. And the fact that it’s evolved into such a complex wine, without losing the qualities that make the grape variety so charming in the first place, is a real sign of great fruit and smart winemaking.

I can’t imagine a better wine to pair with matter what’s on the menu.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Napa Cabernet: Notes and Links

As I recently noted here, I flew to California the week before Thanksgiving to attend the Harlan Estate 25th anniversary dinner at Poggio trattoria in Sausalito, California. And, as was entirely expected, the experience--from the wine to the food to the company--was spectacular.

My account of the dinner, with tasting notes and a bit of background on Harlan Estate, is in the current issue of John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. (Click on the link to see the story.)

For an excellent primer on Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, click here--it’s a very good overview from the Wine Spectator of the storied region in terms of history, geography, and the main players there. And for a more exhaustive list of Napa Cabs from the magazine, click here.

I’ll be tasting a number of other Cabernets in the coming weeks and posting my notes right here. In just the past couple of weeks, though, I’ve had some very good experiences with the wines, from classics like Harlan’s and a bottle of Phelps Insignia 1997 from my father’s cellar that he brought over for dinner recently, to a new producer called Knights Bridge whose limited-production bottlings were excellent.

And this past Friday night, at Wine Chateau’s new location in Piscataway, the 2007 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon was open for guests to sample and savor. Its ripe dark berry and currant fruit, coupled with a lovely note of violet and a softening hit of new oak, are perfect for drinking right now or for holding onto for several years to allow the underlying complexity to shine through the exuberant primary fruit it’s showing right now. Utterly delicious wine.

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Week of Drinking Pinotage

Unexpectedly enough, I’ve tasted two great Pinotages in the past week. I say unexpected because, though I enjoy the grape, it’s typically not one of my favorites. But the past seven days have gone a long way toward changing my mind.

First, during a class at the Wine School, was the Southern Right Pinotage 2006, which showed all of the deep asphalt and hot rubber character that so many people associate with the grape, but which here was balanced out by wonderfully rich cherry fruit. The combination was by turns thought-provokingly complex and dangerously gulpable. I just wish I’d had a grilled rib eye with me to enjoy alongside it.

The second one was also a 2006, but more mature than the Southern Right. This one, produced by Wildekrans, simply stunned me with its perfumed nose of mint, eucalyptus, rich black cherry, oolong tea, leather, and, with some air, a hint of asphalt. On the palate, sweet cherry fruit sang through the velvety texture, all of it edged with a spine of minerality and still-fresh acidity. Oddly enough, it reminded me, in a lot of ways, of some sort of cousin to a Leoville-Barton, though it never lost its own identity. Just gorgeous.

Unfortunately, too many people still aren’t familiar enough with Pinotage. But it’s a grape worth exploring. You never know when you’ll find a standout...or two, like I did this past week.

For more information, check out the Pinotage Association’s web site, linked up right here.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Daily News: Conflict Resolution Edition

Despite the occasionally baroque nature of French wine-labeling law, the wine press recently has been full of good news, resolved conflicts, and clarifications. is reporting two pieces of note.

First, the dispute between Chaume and Quarts de Chaume in the Loire Valley has been resolved. The web site reports: “The regional committee of the INAO has agreed that Quarts de Chaume should become a grand cru, while Chaume will become a premier cru.” The full article is here, but the result of this decision is important, especially considering the confusion that was caused by the dispute, and the on-going questions and misperceptions as to which one existed at what specific quality level. Clarity, in this case, seems to have been achieved.

Decanter is also reporting that the rules for a revamped “Cru Bourgeois” have been approved and are set to be put in motion. What’s different this time around is that the term will be “an assurance of quality,” as Decanter reports, as opposed to a classification. For full details, click this link.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Rhone History

It’s sometimes easy to forget, what with the typical focus on the details of the bottle in front of you, but wine ties us to our earliest days of civilization. Every time you open a Grand Cru Burgundy, for example, you’re actually benefiting from a thousand years or more of human endeavor in the Cote d’Or, of the meticulous plotting of the land by generations of monks and then, later on, hundreds of years after that fact, of the labors of vineyard managers, winemakers, scientists, and others.

An article that ran in this morning’s New York Times, about a recent archaeological discovery in the Rhone river, reminded me yet again how ancient the wine world really is. And while the article does not actually deal with wine at all--the discovery was of a bust of Caesar, made in the murky depths--the fact that it was found in the Rhone River is a reminder of just how ancient a land that home of Syrah, Grenache, and other great grape varieties really is.

This seems especially relevant around the holiday season, as the focus turns both to richer, heartier wines as well as to ones that don’t put too deep a dent in the budget. The wines of the Rhone fit this bill as well as any in the world right now; in fact, Wine Spectator recently ran a list of their top Rhone values for under $25, and it’s full of great wines that far outperform their low price tags, proving yet again that this slice of land in Southeastern France has been providing spectacular drinking pleasure for a very long time indeed, and that this is as good a time as any to explore all that it has to offer.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Cognac and the Holidays

I ate too much yesterday, as I do every Thanksgiving. At this stage of my life, of course, I should know better, but logic doesn’t usually factor into my holiday eating routine. Rather, I tend to be guided by a more primal impulse that goes something like this: The food looks good so I think I’ll eat it all.

It’ll be like this through brunch on New Years Day, after which I’ll revert--like most people--to a healthier, more logical dining philosophy. In the meantime, there is one important step that you can take to minimize the discomfort that comes with all this overindulging: Treat yourself to a digestif after the day’s gluttony is over and done with.

The New York Times just ran a story on the benefits of Italian amaro. And while I enjoy them, nothing, for me, works quite as well as a nice glass of grappa, Cognac, or Armagnac. For soothing overworked stomachs and laying the groundwork for a better next morning than you otherwise would have had, they just can’t be beat.

Unfortunately, I failed to follow my own advice last night, and feel a bit sluggish this morning. If only I’d come home from dinner and poured a glass of Cognac, my Friday might feel less like a Monday than it does right now.

To compensate, I wandered around the Internet and found this excellent video on Cognac that ran on last year. It’s long (about 17 minutes), but provides a very good overview of Cognac and its uses in cooking, cocktails, and on its own. It’s too early in the day to indulge in a glass, but tonight, I think, I’ll treat myself. After last night, I'm pretty sure I deserve it.

The Art of Blending from GrapeVisions on Vimeo.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Holiday Wines: Thanksgiving Edition

Last week, as part of my trip to California, I made an appearance on "View from the Bay," the afternoon talk show on ABC 7 in San Francisco. The segment, which focuses on unusual wines for the holidays, is below, and includes two wines that are available right here at Wine Chateau, the Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc - Viognier and the ForeFront Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Time to Take Stock

I’ll be posting my Thanksgiving wine advice tomorrow, but today I wanted to focus on some end-of-the-year housekeeping. Because this week traditionally signals the beginning of the end of the year (that extended stretch between Thanksgiving and New Years often seems like one really long week, one really long meal), thoughts naturally turn to the past, and what we’ve accomplished (or, in this case, had to drink) in 2009.

Back in January, The Wall Street Journal’s Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher wrote a column called “For 2009, a To-Do List for Wine.” In it, they offer 20 achievable goals that will make your wine life better or, at the very least, more interesting. Some of my favorite items include trying a wine from a different country, opening a sparkler at home for no reason other than that you want it, attending a restaurant wine dinner, and trying wines that you haven’t loved all that much in the past.

This is the time of year to take stock of what you’ve done to improve your wine life in the eleven months that have passed since ’08 rolled over into ’09. (The Journal recently posted letters and emails from readers highlighting what they have done since the original column was published--it’s good inspiration.) Which is all to say this: Despite the advice you’ll inevitably get during the holidays (including here, starting tomorrow), it’s always a good idea to make some changes yourself. Break free from wine orthodoxy this holiday season, and get a head-start on setting yourself up for an interesting, tasty 2010. Experiment with wines and pairings. Explore the wine world. And, most of all, have fun every time you pop the cork of a bottle. After all, that’s (hopefully) why you’re opening it up in the first place.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Back from California...and Weekend News Roundup

What an amazing experience. Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to California to attend the Harlan Estate 25th anniversary dinner at Poggio in Sausalito. I’ll be posting tasting notes and impressions here in the coming weeks, and will be writing a longer piece on the experience for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet (which I’ll link up as soon as it runs). But for now, it’ll have to suffice to say that everything about the experience--from the food and the wine to the people I met at the dinner--exceeded even my highest expectations. Wine highlights belonged to the 1999 Bond Vecina and the 1997 Harlan, though all of the bottles opened this past Thursday night were spectacular. Keep an eye out for tasting notes and photos in the next week or two.

As far as wine news, here are a couple of links to check out as you ease your way back into the work week--shortened though it may be by Thanksgiving...

The New York Times ran its annual roundup of wine books for the holiday season. They make great gifts for both wine lovers and people just getting into it. The link is right here.

Yesterday, The San Francisco Chronicle’s web site featured an article on American sparkling wines for the holidays. There are some great ones out there these days, and Thanksgiving week is the perfect time to start sampling them. For details, click here.

Finally, Wine Spectator has posted the videos for its top 10 wines of the year. The link for the number-one wine (produced by Columbia Crest) is right here.
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