Friday, June 12, 2015

A Singular History of Wine

Wine books are as popular as ever, but when it comes to books about the history of wine, that's a different story. That's not a surprise, given that most readers would rather learn about new wines and trends as opposed to winemaking practices from decades and centuries ago.

So the history of wine is usually relegated to an opening chapter in most books, if at all. I'm happy to report then, that British author Oz Clarke has changed all that with a wonderful new work called The History of Wine in 100 Bottles. It's a typical Clarke opus, full of wit and style; it's a breezy read and it also has dozens of beautiful images as well as the labels of the significant wines that Clarke writes about in this historical overview.

What Clarke has done here is to highlight 100 historically important wines - or trends - that he believes are worth considering when it comes to a broad history of wine. Note that this is not a Top 100 list; there aren't discussions about the 1945 Mouton Rothschild, Petrus or Latour in this book. Rather the author has selected some famous wines as well as famous moments to make his argument.

For example, while specific wines such as the 1915 Vega Sicilia and 1979 Opus One are among the 100 entries, Clarke is more interested in milestone moments on the history timeline. Thus entries include "The Modern Wine Bottle - 1740s", "The Concept of Chateau - 1855-1870s",  a look at the famed Bordeaux classification and its role in pricing, as well as "Robert Mondavi & The Rebirth of Napa - 1966", and "Central Otago - Furthest South - 1987" about the birth of this marvelous wine district on New Zealand's South Island.

Clarke also discusses "International Consultants - 1980s and 1990s", about consulting winemakers such as Michel Rolland and Stéphane Derenoncourt, who became overnight celebrities for their work in Bordeaux and around the world; and of course, the influence of Robert Parker (who was one of the biggest cheerleaders for these consultants), is another chapter in Clarke's book.

The author doesn't only single out the so-called great wines, as he also writes about bag-in-box wines, white zinfandel and screw caps. I love the fact that Clarke has included these topics, as they are certainly an important part of wine's history; it also shows that he isn't so caught up with famed chateaux or hilltop Napa Valley estates - the balance of this book between celestial wines and everyday ones is admirable.

So too is Clarke's writing style. I've read several of his books over the years (full admission - I did a modest amount of research for one of his books many years ago) and have always loved the way that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Even better is his honest and often quirky approach to his subject. Writing about bag-in-box wines, he pens:

Getting the last glass of wine out is not always easy. You can just cut the bag open and drain the dregs. But that means you won't be able to enjoy the bag to the full since, when it's empty, you can blow it full of air - and it becomes a very comfortable pillow.

Where else would you find text such as that?

From the beginning of wine production some 6000 years ago to the invention of sparkling wine in the 1660s through the 1971 German wine law and up to winemaking in Chile's Atacama Desert as well as the unfortunate tale of fraud with Rudy Kurniawan in 2014, Oz Clarke has woven an entertaining and disarming history of wine. I do disagree with one theory he proposes about some of the wines of Angelo Gaja - this producer, while celebrated, did not make "the best Piedmont wine a Piedmontese could make", as he writes - but that is a minor criticism of this book. Each chapter is only two pages, so it's an easy read, but more importantly, it's a brilliant tale of the highs, lows and wonders of wine over the course of several millennia. I've never read a more entertaining history book on any subject. Highly Recommended


The History of Wine in 100 Bottles
By Oz Clarke
Sterling Epicure
Hardcover - 224 pages

order here

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Loving Sauvignon Blanc - from all corners of the globe

I recently served as a member of the tasting jury for the renowned Concours Mondial Sauvignon competition; held in Buttrio in the Italian region of Friuli Venezia Giulia, this was the sixth annual tasting of Sauvignon Blanc from around the world.

As a judge, I was part of a five-person jury, who would be assigned to taste about 35 wines a day; the wines were served blind- we did not know what country or region these wines were from. The only thing we were told was the vintage and the fact that the wines were oaked or unoaked.

The panels were a nice mix of wine personalities from around the world; joining me as part of my team were a journalist from Italy, one from Luxembourg, another from Croatia, and finally, a winemaker from Spain. I met many of the other judges; there were winemakers and writers from France, New Zealand, South Africa and Slovenia, as well as a few other nations.

I mentioned how we were not told the country or region of origin on the wines, but anyone with just a touch of experience can pick out most examples of Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand's South Island. Perfumes of gooseberry leap out of the glass, with notes of passionfruit in warmer years, while there is tangy acidity and often a flinty note in the finish. Marlborough receives more sunshine hours than virtually any wine region in the world, so the fruit in these Sauvignon Blancs is quite expressive, indeed!

I tasted five different cuvées of 2014 Sauvignon Blanc from Saint Clair Winery during one flight; these are rich, assertive wines, ones that are definitely not shy in their approach. I was especially impressed by the "Pioneer Block 1 Foundation" offering, which is very expressive with its powerful concentration, ripe gooseberry fruit and tangy acidity. 

However, at the end of the day, this is a rather showy wine - another winemaker from a different jury who tasted the wine wondered if two people could sit down and drink a bottle of this wine. I have to admit he was right- this is more of a wine made to show what can be done with the variety in this area, somewhat of a tasting wine, if you will.

However, my panel was also impressed by this wine, as it did receive a gold medal in the final results.  Interestingly, the same winery's "Wairau Riserve", also from 2014, was awarded a gold medal as well. This is a more toned-down style with beautiful harmony of all components, one that arguably would be a better option for two people for a dinner with shellfish or most seafood. Two outstanding wines - the wonderful 2014 vintage had something to do with the quality here as well - two different approaches, but beautiful varietal purity with both wines; Saint Clair doesn't receive the press heaped on other Marlborough estates for their Sauvignon Blancs, so it was nice to see them be awarded these gold medals (for the record, others New Zealand producers that received a gold medal in this competition were Clos Henri, Sileni and Stoneleigh).

I also tasted two flights of Sauvignon Blancs from South Africa and came away impressed with some wines, but a bit puzzled with others. I must admit to not having tasted too many examples of this country's Sauvignon Blancs before, so I went in with eyes wide open - remember however, that we were not told that the wines were from South Africa when we tasted them and I did not correctly identify them when I was asked for my guess.

My thoughts were primarily positive, as I enjoyed the structure and acidity of these wines; there were a few with muted aromas, but most offered bright fruit notes along with subtle herbal tones, resulting in very complex wines. One of my favorites was the 2013 "The Black Swan" offering from Steenberg, that was quite elegant with attractive spicy notes; this wine was awarded a gold medal by my jury. Other Sauvignon Blancs from South Africa that won gold medals at this competition were from the 2014 vintage from three other producers: Delaire Graff, Diemersdal and Mastricht

Finally, I have to report on the French wines I tasted, especially as the Loire Valley is the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc. I've always been a big fan of Sancerre; interestingly, I did not taste any in this competition. But I did taste several examples of Pouilly-Fumé, the other great Loire Sauvignon, and did I love these wines! Medium-full with notes of green pepper, asparagus and distinct grassiness with an assertive herbal note, these were classic examples of Sauvignon Blanc in my opinion.

A gold medal award from our panel (and myself) went to the 2014 Domaine Seguin Pouilly-Fumé, a wine with excellent concentration and persistence as well as ideal ripeness; just a lovely wine with amazing complexity. Our panel also awarded a Gold to the 2014 Domaine de Riaux from Bertrand Jeannot, a Pouilly-Fumé that was less assertive than the Seguin, but no less delicious. Most impressive about these wines winning gold was the fact that the cold, rainy 2014 growing season in the Loire (as well as the rest of France and much of Europe) was rather difficult, to say the least. (Other gold-medal examples of Pouilly-Fumé were from the following producers: Bernard Petit & Fils, Jean-Pierre Bailly and Domaine Champeau).

One final wine to comment on, the 2014 Domaine de L'Ermitage Menetou-Salon, which was awarded a silver medal. I was very high on this wine, giving it a gold medal score; regardless of its ranking, here was a classic Sauvignon Blanc with gooseberry and yellow pepper notes backed by excellent persistence and acidity. This has outstanding complexity as well as varietal focus and is a delight to drink. I have only had a handful of examples of Menetou-Salon, a small production zone south of Sancerre, but I will keep an eye open for more examples, as this was a terrific wine!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Riesling Paradise

After reading the headline of this post, chances are you're thinking this is about Germany or Alsace or maybe even the Clare Valley in Australia, as they're all home to great Rieslings. But no, this is about a specific district in the United States where some pretty special Riesling is also produced. This is about Riesling from the Finger Lakes in upper New York; the producer I will talk about today is one the area's finest, Villa Bellangelo.

Wine has been produced in the Finger Lakes since the mid-19th century and today there are almost 100 producers in the area. There are eleven lakes in total that comprise the Finger Lakes, with the two longest being Lake Cayuga and Lake Seneca. About 50 wine firms are in the Seneca Lake area; Villa Bellangelo is a relative newcomer, having been established in 2002. The current owners, the Missick family, took over in 2011 and have remodeled the winery.

There are several varieties produced at Bellangelo, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. However, their star variety here - as it is throughout the area - is Riesling. I recently tasted three examples of Riesling from Villa Bellangelo and was quite impressed by two of them. Here are notes:

2013 Bellangelo Semi-Dry Riesling
Aromas of yellow peach, apricot and a note of mango. Medium-bodied with very good concentration. Lovely varietal purity, good acidity, ultra clean finish with a light note of sweetness. Beautifully balanced and delicious! Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. $18  Rating: 3 and 1/2 stars (out of five).

2012 Bellangelo Riesling "1866 Reserve"
This is the winery's finest Riesling; the grapes are sourced entirely from a single vineyard (Gibson), situated a bit north of the winery. Attaractive aromas of dried apricot, yellow pear and hyacinth. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Very impressive complexity, ripeness and freshness. Excellent persistence, remarkable balance. Beautifully made wine that is sleek, elegant and displays breeding. Dry finish with notes of spearmint. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. $32 Rating: 5 stars

This last wine is as fine an American Riesling as I've had in many years! The only American Riesling I've ever tasted that is as complex and varietally pure has been from Stony Hill in Napa Valley, a legendary producer.

Bravo to the team at Villa Bellangelo for these beautiful examples of Riesling!

Note: This is my first post on this blog for some time. I've been recovering from heart surgery and it's been some time since I have had the energy to write. Hopefully, I'll write more posts soon.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

It's Only Wine!!!

From time to time, I  receive emails from a few retailers letting me know about new releases they have in stock. To get readers of these emails excited about how great these wines are, they include an excerpt from a leading wine "guru" along with his or her point rating.

That's standard stuff these days, so nothing particularly newsworthy regarding this. However, it was the language of one of the reviews I read earlier this week that made me sit up and pay attention (and frankly, laugh out loud.) Here are a few words of a review by David Schildknecht of The Wine Advocate about the 2011 Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese:

"Muller's 2011 Scharzhofberger Riesling Auslese delivers a penetrating and multifarious nose of heliotrope, lily, candied lime rind, quince preserves, white peach preserves, distilled herbal essences, marzipan and brown spices... a kaleidoscopically interactive array of those diverse and exotic elements that on the nose signaled its ripeness and botrytis enoblement."

"Multifarious", "heliotrope", "kaleidoscopically"? Say what? Does anyone even know what the word "heliotrope" means? More importantly, why is a word like this being used to describe the perfumes of a wine?

I mean, I guessed the writer liked the wine, but this is ridiculous. It's no wonder that so many people poke fun at wine critics and wine reviews in general.

Then you have Antonio Galloni, who has essentially found a pet phrase that he loves to use again and again. That's "drop-dead gorgeous." He uses this term a lot - you could look it up. Drop-dead gorgeous - are we talking about a wine here or Angelia Jolie?

Look, I've been writing about wine for more than fifteen years and I know that you can only write pear, melon and apple aromas for white wines and cherry, plum and tar for red wines so often. Thus I can understand a critic wanting to break the mold from time to time.

That's fine, but talk to us in terms that first, are relevant to the wine (I don't consider, "drop-dead gorgeous" a proper term to describe a wine) and secondly, use words that we can understand. Yes, wine lovers, especially those searching for great wines made in limited production are intelligent people, but most of us don't use the word "multifarious" and we certainly don't talk about "an interactive array" of elements.

Writing such as this, it seems to me, is all about the critic trying to impress, trying to let everyone know about his vocabulary. He's basically talking down to us, letting us know he's more intelligent than we are.

Which brings me to an even more basic argument. When did the individual describing the wine become more important than the wine itself?

It's bad enough that too many people learn about wines with scores - basically the ultimate sound bites for wine. But writing such as this? It helps no one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Greatness from Laurent Perrier

There are some brands of Champagnes that are very familiar to consumers and connoisseurs alike; Laurent-Perrier is certainly one of those. Situated in the town of Tours-sur-Marne, a bit west of Epernay, the house recently celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2012.

Like most Champagne houses, Laurent-Perrier produces a range of wines, from its non-vintage (or multi-vintage, if you will) Brut to a vintage (or millésimé) Brut to a luxury cuvée. Last week I tasted almost the entire range at a special event in Chicago; the tasting was conducted by Michelle DeFeo of Laurent Perrier USA.

I won't write about every wine, preferring instead to focus on three wines, starting with the non-vintage Ultra Brut. This wine differs from the firm's regular non-vintage Brut in that the Ultra Brut has no dosage, making it extremely dry. Only a few medium-to large-sized houses make a wine such as this, as an Extra Brut is often too dry or slightly bitter for most consumers. However, this is a splendid wine, beautifully balanced and very appealing, produced from 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir. Displaying aromas of lemon rind, kiwi and chamomile, this has lively acidity, as you might imagine; here is an excellent wine to be enjoyed over the next 2-3 years, especially with oysters, mussels or about any kind of shellfish.

The Cuvée Rosé needs no introduction to those who are familiar with Laurent Perrier or who are fans of rosé Champagne in general. I've tasted this on several occasions, most memorably in a special dinner in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago about ten years ago, when the wine was paired with eighteen different courses!

Last week's tasting was not as remarkable as that one - how could it be? - but the wine again tasted out beautifully. This is a very distinctive rosé, not only for the fact that it is 100% Pinot Noir (there are some rosé Champagnes that, if you can believe it, are sometimes 80% to 90% Chardonnay), but also that is it made in the saignée method. This means that the color of the wine comes from the skins of the Pinot Noir grapes and is "bleeded" off during fermentation (or after a short maceration); this differs from other rosés where still red wine (Pinot Noir) is added to the cuvée. Most Champagnes are made in this latter method; the saignée process is carried out in much smaller numbers throughout the Champagne region.

The wine, with its beautiful light copper color, is simply delicious, offering aromas of pear and dried strawberry, very good richness on the palate and very good acidity. As Pinot Noir lends more weight to a Champagne, this is an ideal match for game and many red meats - I love it with duck breast or suckling pig. Enjoy this over the next 2-3 years; the flavors of this wine combined with its uniquely-shaped bottle make this a great gift!

Finally, I had the rare opportunity to taste the Les Réserves Grand Siecle, the luxury cuvée from Laurent-Perrier. This cuvée, first produced in 1955, is rarely made and when it is, it is produced in incredibly small lots; this is released in magnum and only 1000 bottles were crafted. This particular release - Cuvée 571j - is a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir from three outstanding vintages: 1990, 1993 and 1995. Yes, here was a Champagne in which the youngest wine was almost twenty years old!

Additionally, the grapes for this cuvée were sourced exclusively from Grand Cru villages; eleven in total, including Chardonnay from Avize, Cramant and Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger (all in the Cote des Blancs), with the Pinot Noir from six villages, including Tours-sur-Marne, Ambonnay, Bouzy and Verzenay. 

Thus we have a best-of the best situation with this cuvée - grapes from the finest villages from three memorable vintages. The wine does not disappoint, in fact, it is, as the saying goes, greater than the sum total of the parts. Full-bodied, with explosive aromas of chalk, yeast, dried pear and honey, this has layers of flavor that coat the palate. The persistence is excellent and there is very good acidity, along with notable complexity. While a big Champagne by nature, it is never forceful; rather it is a Champagne of great elegance as well as breeding.

Think of the greatest Champagnes you've ever tasted - your list will not be complete until you have tasted the Les Réserves Grand Siecle from Laurent Perrier. I rate wines by the star-system with 5 stars being my highest rating; this is a true 5-star wine and clearly one of the most memorable I've ever tasted. I don't think I'll ever have the opportunity to taste it again, as there are only a handful of bottles remaining (less than ten magnums, I believe), but in case I do, I want to taste it in another 7-10 years when it is at peak. I only hope I can enjoy it with something or someone as special!