Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Classy Sparkling Wines

Just in time for the end of one year and the beginning of another, here are some thoughts on a few of the sparkling wines that have greatly impressed me over the past months. While there are beautiful examples from many locales, I’m going to discuss only two types in this post: Franciacorta and Champagne.

While everyone knows Champagne, not that many people are familiar with Franciacorta. Produced from vineyards in Italy’s Lombardia region, this sparkler (bollicine in Italian) is produced in the same method as Champagne (known as the classic method), where the secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle and the wine spends several years on its own yeasts. This is a time-consuming and costly procedure, but it clearly is the finest approach to producing the most flavorful and complex sparkling wines.

Franciacorta wines are also quite special as only three grapes are used: Chardonnay and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) that are also used in the production of Champagne, along with Pinot Bianco (Pinot Meunier, a red grape, is used in Champagne). These varieties are used as they are cool climate varieties that have excellent natural acidity, a necessary component of a balanced and vibrant sparkling wine.

While I don’t have access to as many of the top Franciacorta estates here in America as I would like, I do get to taste the offerings of two of the finest producers: Bellavista and Ca’ del Bosco. The wines of Bellavista are quite subdued and graceful; the 2004 Gran Cuvée Rosé Brut ($76), a blend of roughly equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Nero, is a beautiful statement of this style. Medium-full with aromatics of strawberry, pear and dried cherry, this is quite delicious with excellent complexity and a long, satisfying finish. I know that some wine drinkers don’t like too sharp or acidic a finish; if you are in that school, you will love the elegance of this wine, which pairs with a wide variety of foods, from seafood to lighter meats (I tried this with monkfish is mushroom sauce and it was a great match!).

The 2001 Annamaria Clementi bottling from Ca’ del Bosco ($100) is a very different style of sparkling wine and is certainly one of the finest I’ve ever tasted from Italy. Full-bodied with outstanding concentration, this has intense aromas of golden apples, biscuit and dried pear that are backed by a long finish with excellent acidity. This is a powerful Franciacorta with amazing complexity and richness; qualitywise, I could stack this up against a lot of Champagnes that are priced $20-30 higher. This is gorgeous now, but given the concentration and balance of this wine, I expect this to drink well for another 3-5 years. Pair this with shrimp, crab or lobster or even veal or roast chicken or pork.

I’ve tasted so many impressive Champagnes lately, so I’ll need to be brief with my descriptions. Pol Roger has a no-dosage cuvée called “Pure” ($60, non-vintage) that is as nicely balanced as any of this style that I’ve tasted. I normally am not a fan of no dosage (or natural) Champagnes, as they seem to lack richness in the finish, but not this one; this is very flavorful and has classic Champagne structure. I loved this with simple take-out Chinese food (hey, we’re all watching our pocketbook, aren’t we?), but this also works beautifully with white meats and lighter game.

The Bollinger Special Cuvée ($70, non-vintage) is a Champagne I hadn’t tasted in years, so I was delighted to become accustomed to its charms again. Quite rich on the palate, this is a powerful, very dry Champagne that I can best describe as being old-fashioned (in the best sense of that term). This is Champagne as I love it; interestingly this is vinified in used oak barrels inseatd of stainless steel as with most Champagnes. Pair this with a variety of foods ranging from flavorful fresh water fish (trout) or Asian cuisine.

I’m also a big fan of Rosé Champagnes, especially as I find myself pairing this style of sparkling wine more often with food. The house of Nicolas Feuillatte is a Rosé specialist and while the luxury offering known as Palmes d’Or (in a stunning bottle) is one of the most amazing bottlings from anywhere in Champagne, this is an extremely limited find. Go with the more widely available non-vintage Rosé ($50), which is a superb value. This has a beautiful bright strawberry color with lovely strawberry and currant aromas, deep concentration and a long finish. This is one of my textbook examples of what a Rosé Champange is all about.

Finally, the non-vintage Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut ($100) is, in a word, classy! This is an elegantly styled Rosé that is delicious with so many types of food, from oysters to suckling pig (see previous post). Copper-pink in color, this is all about fresh raspberries and cherries and while this is rich enough to stand up to just about any food, the key descriptor here is finesse. This combination of power and elegance makes this wine – as well as the finest sparkling wines – a great choice for a meal at this festive time of the year – or any time!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Another Great Sauvignon Blanc from Chile

I have a love affair with Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, so when I hear about a new release that looks intriguing, I have to try it. So when Margaret Snook profiled the Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc in her blog recently, I was determined to find this wine.

Fortunately for me, the importer of this wine – Vin diVino – is about a five minute’s walk from my home, so I was able to get a sample bottle, as the wine had just arrived a day or two earlier. I tried the wine this week and can tell you it is worth the early raves.

Casa Silva recently released this 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from their new Paredones Estate (planted in 2006) located just five miles from the Pacific Ocean. Vintners in several areas in Chile have been looking to cool climates for Sauvignon Blanc as well as Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir to a greater degree over the past decade and the results have often been spectacular, as with the bottlings from San Antonio and Leyda Valleys, a bit west and south of Santiago. This estate of Casa Silva is an exciting new venture, at it is located in the Colchagua Valley, approximately one hundred miles south of Santiago. As Colchagua is best known for its powerful red wines, it is fascinating to see Casa Silva turn to Sauvignon Blanc in this region (this new estate is also planted to Pinot Noir, a variety that must have a cool climate to thrive.)

The wine is truly special – here are my tasting notes:

Brilliant straw with a slight youthful effervesence. Room-filling aromas of grapefruit, lime and pear zest. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Richly textured with great persistence of fruit, vibrant, lip-smacking acidity and outstanding texture. Superb varietal character. So appealing now, but should drink well for 3-5 years.

Simply put, this is an outstanding Sauvignon Blanc that is among the three or four best I have ever tried from Chile. How exciting that another new zone in Chile has emerged for extraordinary cool climate Sauvignon Blanc. This has been one of the major developments in the wine industry over the past five or six years and if you haven’t tried a Sauvignon Blanc from a producer such as Casa Marin, Leyda, Matetic (EQ) Amayna or now Casa Silva with their Cool Coast bottling, you need to find these wines and discover what all the excitement is about!

The 2009 Casa Silva Cool Coast Sauvignon Blanc will be available on a limited basis in a few US markets. Suggested retail will be a very reasonable $22 per bottle.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"The Winemakers" - Lacking Balance

If I were reviewing the PBS TV series “The Winemakers” as a wine, I’d give it two stars out of five, meaning it’s passable, but I’d hardly recommend that anyone go out of their way to find it.

At the outset, let me say that I think a reality series on winemaking is a bit silly. But given the identity of reality series these days, this idea is not as silly as most and truthfully, this one had a bit more dignity to it than most.

The series is either running on a PBS station in your area now or had just completed its run. This past weekend, the local PBS station in my hometown of Chicago ran all six episodes back to back, so I thought I’d watch and see how this would take shape.

Twelve contestants – six men and six women – were selected for this competition which took place largely in Paso Robles wine country (fittingly, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance was one of the sponsors of the series). Most of these contestants were in their 30s with a few a touch younger or older. Some were in the wine business already, while others were not.

Now a program called "The Winemakers" would make you think that the contestants would spend a lot of time in the winemaking process. The initial show was certainly a nice introduction to this subject, from harvesting grapes to taking those grapes into the winery and then crushing them. Watching these would-be enologists try and handle pumps and hoses was entertaining to say the least.

The problem for me with this series is that winemaking became almost secondary as the contestants were submitted to different challenges throughout the series. These ranged from pouring wines at a wine bar and discussing the qualities of those wines with the public to creating a label for their own wine as well as a business plan for selling their wine in the marketplace. The contestants who did not perform well at a particular challenge were eliminated from the competition; this was done until one winner was chosen from the final three participants.

Some of the challenges were quite good, especially the one in which the participants had to purchase wines to accompany a special dinner. God knows how much I have preached about wine and food being natural partners, so it was nice to see this point being covered in the series. Other challenges, especially the one where the contestants, organized into teams, had to create a table top presentation on a wine of their choosing - be it Champagne, Rioja or whatever - were dull and had little to do with anything.

My major problem with this series was that winemaking wasn’t that big a part of the overall presenatation. Maybe the producers thought that viewers would be bored by shots of the contestants in the cellar, but the series is called “The Winemakers” after all. And now many programs today, be they on cooking or carpentry, get quite detailed on the how-to of their topics? I would have liked to see more winemaking.

Also, during one program, the judges asked wine questions of several contestants to find out which of them they could eliminate. Some of the questions were rather difficult and trivial, in my opinion. Yes, it helps if a winemaker has a working knowledge of wine, but do they really need to know the appellations in France’s Loire Valley where Cabernet Franc is the principal red variety?

One of the questions was about the three varieties used to produce Cava. There must be hundreds of talented winemakers in California who have no idea what the answer to this question is. In fact, is it important to know this answer, except as a piece of trivia? The answer is no. If you are a retailer selling a bottle of Cava to a consumer or a wine salesperson trying to sell Cava to an account, I’d have to think that this topic will probably never come up. I know, as I spent several years both as a retailer and salesman.

In fact, having questions like this is something that drives me crazy, not only on this show, but also for sommelier exams. I understand that knowledge is power and people going into the wine industry need to have a good foundation, but enough is enough sometime. If you want to sell a bottle of Franciacorta, Italy’s great sparkling wine made in the classical method, it is important to know the varieties used. That’s because these grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (pinot noir) and Pinot Bianco - are used in other great sparkling wines (the first two used in Champagne). So there’s a way of comparing the flavors (and arguably qualities) of Franciacorta with Champagne, the sparkling wine everyone knows. But to worry about the varieties of Cava, well, I’m sorry, but that borders on being a bit geeky. I almost felt a little bit sorry for the contestants that were eliminated via the wine knowledge questions, especially as they probably believed going in that they were being judged on their winemaking prowess.

Finally, the show fell into the clichés of so many other reality series these days. You know the drill by now, as there is a line that is delivered to send a contestant off. In one episode set in a winery cave, the contestant sent home was told, “Please leave the cave.” How creative!

An even worse example took place during one of the later episodes, when the final four contestants were outside a winery standing in front of a beautifully manicured hillside vineyard. As three contestants learned that they were moving on to the next challenge, the one sent packing was told, “Please leave the vineyard.” I almost gagged, except I was too busy laughing. “Please leave the vineyard?” Why? Was this guy trespassing? Did he steal a barrel from the cellar? Did he call someone a bad name? Honestly, what a dumb line!

As I said earlier, this wasn’t as mind-numbing as some reality shows out there, but it could have been a lot more focused. I understand that a second season for this series is in the works. Let’s hope they filter and fine the rough edges, to use winemaking terms.

Text and photos ©Tom Hyland

Monday, November 30, 2009

Out of Touch - Again

Serralunga d'Alba, one of Barolo's finest communes
Photo ©Tom Hyland

Wine appreciation is, at its most basic, an individual thing. What I think about one particular wine may not be in snyc with what you think. That’s fine – we can agree to disagree.

Yet along the way when wine lovers turn to someone for guidance, they want an accurate account of what certain wines have to offer. Again, you may disagree with one particular review, but for the big picture, you want the reality of the situation.

The December 15th issue of The Wine Spectator offers more evidence that James Suckling, who covers the Italian wine scene for the magazine, cannot be trusted to offer an accurate representation of that country’s wine industry.

This is nothing earth shattering, as Suckling has come up with some very strange accounts of Italian wines (more on that later), so this is just the latest in a string of faulty reports. But given the importance of this publication in many people’s eyes, it is worth reporting on.

This issue has Suckling’s take on the recently released bottlings of Barolo from the 2005 vintage. Basically, he has written that he slightly prefers this vintage to 2004. This may come as a shock to many who have had the experience of tasting a number of examples from each vintage. I am fortunate enough to taste more than 125 Barolos from every new vintage when the wines are presented for the worldwide press at the Alba Wines Exhibition, held in Alba each May, so I believe I am qualified to discuss this issue.

This year the 2005 Barolos were presented and overall, I thought the vintage was quite good, if a little uneven. As with every year, there are outstanding bottlings (Bartolo Mascarello, Francesco Rinaldi “Brunate”, e.g.), but there are not the sheer numbers of memorable wines as there were from 2004. That vintage was a classic, with excellent depth of fruit, beautifully defined structure and stunning aromatics. Many of the top bottlings of Barolo from 2004 can age for 20-25 years, in my opinion, while there are a few great bottlings that will peak at 35-40 years.

Comparing 2005, I think it is a very good vintage, as the wines have good depth of fruit and very good acidity. These are wines for the most part that will peak at 12-15 years after the vintage- a typical assessment on my part. Thus I’d give the 2005 vintage a rating of 3 stars (very good) while I awarded the 2004 vintage a rating of 5 stars or outstanding.

Others agree with me; one fellow journalist attending this event told me that the 2005 Barolos are nice wines to drink while you wait for the 2004s to come around. That’s pretty typical of what most journalists I spoke with thought of these wines – very nice, but hardly great and certainly not the equal of the 2004s.

Yet here comes Mr. Suckling professing his preference for the 2005s over the 2004s. Why? Basically he writes that the 2005s will offer more pleasure over the next decade. This is arguably true, as the wines are not as deeply concentrated, and thus are more approachable.

Yet, Suckling also writes that the 2004s will probably last longer than the 2005s when it comes to cellaring. Think about that! He admits that the 2004s will age longer, yet he prefers the 2005s. So what is he saying here? Basically he is saying that he likes more approachable wines when it comes to Barolo. Is this an accurate portrayal of what Barolo represents? Barolo is one of the world’s greatest reds, in large part, due to its aging potential as well as its ability to offer greater complexities and reveal more flavors as it ages. That’s a rare combination and one that should be prized.

For Suckling, Barolo can be a rich, powerful wine, but it can only be great if it is approachable at an early age. At least, that’s the best I can figure, given his ratings of recent Barolo vintages. His description of the 2000 vintage in Piemonte as a 100-point year (how ridiculous it is to rate a growing season on a 100-point scale?) is his most famous misrepresentation of Barolo. 2000 was a year that produced soft Barolos, ones with moderate acidity to go with the forward fruit. This easy-drinking vintage was in Suckling’s words, the “best ever” for Barolo, an absurd statement. Don’t take my word for it, ask any winemaker in Barolo about the 2000 vintage – you won’t find one who would even say that it was the best vintage in the last decade. So how can Suckling think that 2000 was the best vintage ever? (Further proof comes from tasting the wines – most are now at or nearly at peak and the fruit in many bottlings has dried out. Barolos peaking at 10-12 years of age? Hardly a description of greatness.)

You should realize that Suckling is an American living in Tuscany; it’s clear to me that he brings a California palate to Italian wines. He prefers a riper, more forward style of wine; thus a more traditionally made wine that has naturally high acidity with a subdued fruit profile is not something that he rewards with high scores. Winemakers in Piemonte call wines made in the fruit-forward style that Suckling prefers, “California Barolos”, referring for example to the wines from 1997 and 2000, two vintages Suckling lavished with high praise.

It’s easy to understand then that he is a fan of many Italian reds (especially Super Tuscans) that have little to do with the more classic approach of many Italian winemakers who respect the heritage and terroir of their land. (I could also argue that he favors wines of many of his friends in Tuscany, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Whether Suckling’s preference for forward, fruit-driven Italian wines is merely his preference or part of the requirement for any journalist at the Spectator is open to question, but let’s face it, his bias is all too obvious. Thus a classic vintage such as 2001 doesn’t get as high a rating as 2000, which is ridiculous- I don’t know how else to put it. And for 2005 to be rated as a better vintage than 2004 for Barolo, that’s more proof that long-lived Barolos aren’t what Suckling is looking for. That to me is not an honest portrayal of what Barolo is all about.

Vineyards at Verduno in the heart of the Barolo zone
Photo ©Tom Hyland

If this wasn’t bad enough, he also wrote a short piece on the 1999 Barolos and Barbarescos in this same issue. He writes that the 1999s were "never destined for greatness.” That did it for me! 1999 is an outstanding vintage as these wines offer excellent concentration as well as beautifully defined acidity, a combination winemakers – and wine drinkers – seek.

So why does Suckling believe that the 1999s are not great? According to his thinking, this wines are “lean.” Lean? The 1999s? He writes that they are not as concentrated as those from 1989, 1990, 1996 or 1997. He is arguably correct here, but does the fact that a vintage offers less depth of fruit that another mean it is not as good? What makes a Barolo or any wine great (and let me say here that the word great is overused by too many wine writers) is a combination of fruit, acidity, tannin and above all, balance. Bigger does not necessarily mean better. I have no problem with Suckling prefering the 1989, 1990 or 1996 vintage over 1999 (though I believe 1999 is far superior to 1997, as do many winemakers in Barolo), but to say that the 1999s from Barolo and Barbaresco aren’t great because they are not as intense as other vintages is futher proof of his misunderstanding of balance and structure as key roles in these wines. Callling the 1999s “lean” is like saying a 50-year old man who is 5’10” and weighs 175 pounds is lean. Compared to what, another 50-year old man of the same height who is 250 pounds? Maybe that man is overweight!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you look to James Suckling for advice on Italian wines, you get what you deserve.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Carmenère turns 15 - at least by its proper name

Vineyards of Carmen Winery, Maipo Valley
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

The 15th anniversary of Carmenère

Happy 15th Birthday to Carmenère! Or maybe I should say, Happy Discovery Day, for it was 15 years ago – on November 24th, 1994, to be exact - that the Carmenère grape was correctly idenitifed in Chile by the French ampelographer, Jean Michael Boursiquot.

Carmenère was brought to Chile from France when phylloxera devastated the vineyards in Bordeaux in the second half of the 1800s. As the grape did not provide a meaningful part of the finest Bordeaux wines, most growers gave up on it when they replanted their vineyards. As Chile had a phylloxera-free environment, Carmenère and several other grapes from Bordeaux were introduced to Chilean soil.

However for years, most growers thought the grape was Merlot and treated it as such. Finally, some 15 years ago, the mistake was corrected and since then, there has been greater research conducted with this variety. For a while, it was named Grand Vidure (Carmen in Maipo Valley was one of the first to identify the grape as such), but today all producers label the variety as Carmenère.

Given its higher acidity and more pronounced spice than Merlot, it is surprising that Carmenère was incorrectly identified for such a long time. Because of this mistake, the grape was probably planted in some areas that were wrong for the variety. Carmenère needs a warmer climate, as underripe examples are green and overly herbaceous. Today many of the finest plantings are from Colchagua Valley and Maipo Valley.

Here are notes on a few bottlings of Carmenère available in the market today, both as monovarietal bottings along with a few examples blended with other red grapes:


2008 HACIENDA ARAUCANO Carmenère (Valle de Colchagua) - François Lurton
Deep ruby red-light purple with aromas of ripe black plum and tobacco. Medium-bodied, this has a spicy finish (tobacco, clove) with moderate tannins and slightly tangy acidity. Enjoy this over the next 1-2 years. ($12)

2008 MONTGRAS Carmenère Reserva (Colchagua Valley)
Bright ruby red with aromas of black plum and dried flowers. Medium-bodied, this has tasty plum fruit and notes of black licorice in the finish. Enjoy this easy-drinking wine over the next 1-2 years. ($12)


2006 CASA SILVA Carmenère Reserva (Colchagua Valley)
Bright ruby red with aromas of black cherry, coriander, black pepper and vanilla. Medium-full with very good concentration. Rich mid-palate. Big finish with medium weight tannins, ample oak and balanced acidity. Give this a bit of time to settle down. Good varietal character, but a bit too much oak and alcohol. Best in 5-7 years. ($12)

2007 TERRA ANDINA Carmenère (Rapel Valley)
Beautiful bright purple with aromas of black plum and notes of black pepper and clove. Medium-bodied, this is tasty with a finish that has elegant tannins and very good persistence. Very nice value for only $13.

2007 MONT GRAS ANTU NINQUEN Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenère (Colchagua Valley)
A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Carmenère. Black currant, blackberry and vanilla aromas. Medium-full, this is rich on the palate and has a lengthy tannins with robust tannins, ample oak and balanced tannins. Give this time to settle down – best in 5-7 years. ($19)


2006 CARMEN Carmenère-Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva (Maipo Valley)
Bright ruby red with aromas of sage, black pepper, cherry and menthol. Medium-full wth very good concentration, sensual flavors of vanilla and black cherry and a lengthy, well-balanced finish with harmonious tannins and good acidity. Good varietal character without the bittnerness you might expect. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($20)

2006 CASA SILVA Carmenère Reserva “Los Lingues” (Colchagua Valley)
Deep ruby red-light purple with aromas of black plum, myrtle and clove. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate and excellent fruit persistence. Youthful tannins, ample oak and balanced acidity. I’d like to see a bit less oak, but otherwise this is an impressive wine that should be at its best in 7-10 years. ($24)

2007 SANTA RITA Carmenère "Medalla Real" (Colchagua)
Bright purple with aromas of black plum, molasses, black licorice and vanilla. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, round, elegant tannins and wonderful varietal character. Best over the next 5-7 years. Excellent value at $20 (and perhaps less in some markets).

2007 MONTES “ALPHA” Carmenère “Marchigue Vineyard” (D.O. Colchagua)
Deep ruby red-light purple. Aromas of black cherry, black raspberry and black plum preserves. Medium-full with very good concentration. Ripe and forward, but nicely balanced with appropriate oak and acidity and supple tannins. A pleasant note of black pepper in the finish. A very appealing wine to be enjoyed over the next 3-5 years with leg of lamb or grilled pork loin. ($24)


2005 CARMEN Winemaker’s Reserve Red (Maipo Valley)
A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Carmenère and 25% Petite Syrah. Deep ruby red-light purple with aromas of tar, blackcurrant, black peppercorn and hints of bitter chocolate. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Elegant entry on the palate and a long finish with silky tannins, lively acidity and nicely integrated oak. Very classy! Elegant through and through, enjoy this over the next 12-15 years. ($44)

2005 HACIENDA ARAUCANO Carmenère “Alka” (Colchagua Valley)
100% Carmenère from vines with an average age of 40 years. Bright ruby red with beautiful aromas of morellino cherry and lavender. Medium-full, this is a beautifully structured Carmenère with lively acidity, subtle oak and fine grain tannins. The lengthy finish features notes of tar, mincemeat and orange zest. This is notable not only for its varietal purity, but also for its finesse. A few producers have turned up the volume of oak with their bottlings of Carmenère, whlie the Lurtons have opted for a more subdued approach with their oak. First-rate, this is approachable now thanks to its elegance, but will be at its best in 10-12 years. ($60)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Values from Chile

Sign identifying Sauvignon Blanc Clone 242 in a Leyda Valley vineyard
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I love the wines of Chile and I’ve done my share of writing about the qualities of this country’s efforts, especially with the vibrant white wines of San Antonio and Leyda as well as the gorgeous reds from Maipo and Colchagua Valleys. These wines represent the upper tier of Chile’s wines and frankly are not as well-known as they should be.

What everyone knows about Chile are the moderately priced wines that are well made and offer fine values. While I don’t want to perpetuate a myth that Chile only produces these values offerings, well, I don’t want to dismiss these wines either, especially today, when so many people have to save money to make it through difficult times. So here is a brief list of some notable values from Chile.

2008 Leyda Sauvignon Blanc “Classic” (Leyda Valley)
Close by the Pacific Ocean, San Antonio Valley and the sub-zone Leyda Valley have become the home of some amazing examples of Sauvignon Blanc. Here is one of the finest values from this area; a wine that offers aromas of grapefruit and Anjou pear, has good richness along with lively acidity and textbook varietal flavors. A great match for shrimp and clams, this is a great way to discover the characteristics of Sauvignon Blanc from Leyda Valley and is an amazing value at $12! I can’t imagine a better example of Sauvignon Blanc for the price from anywhere in the world.

2008 Carmen Sauvignon Blanc Reserva (Casablanca Valley)
This has been one of my favorite Chilean Sauvignon Blancs for some time and the 2008 is another lovely bottling. This has a nice note of spearmint along with flavors of lime and grapefruit and is very round and elegant in the finish with cleansing acidity and excellent depth of fruit. Drink over the next 2-3 years with sautéed shrimp or risotto. ($16)

2008 Santa Rita Chardonnay “Medalla Real” (Limarí Valley)
The grapes for this wine come from the cool northwestern zone of Limarí Valley, only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Beautiful lemon custard, spiced pear and ginger aromas with tropical fruit flavors on the palate, this is quite rich with nicely integrated oak and a rich, lightly spicy finish. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years with a variety of seafood, from tilapia to sea bass. ($16)

2007 Calcu (Colchagua Valley)
Here is an excellent blended red from Colchagua Valley, home to so many flavorful, bold offerings. A mix of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Carmenere, 15% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot, this has plenty of red cherry and currant fruit along with notes of red pepper. Medium-bodied with tart acidity, this has moderate tannins and a clean, round finish. A fine match for most red meats or stews over the next 2-3 years. A steal at $12!

2007 Ventisquero Cabernet Sauvignon/Carmenere (Colchagua)
This blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon/30% Carmenere is a nicely balaned, middle-weight red with red cherry, cedar and sage aromas. This is not a powerhouse, but a nicely styled, subtle offering for foods such as pork chops, grilled meats or ligher game over the next 2-3 years. ($12)

2005 Maycas Cabernet Sauvignon (Limarí Valley)
At $23, this is priced higher than some consumers want to spend for a value wine, but to me that word is relative; this is a wonderful value. Deep ruby red, this has perfectly ripe black currant fruit with notes of menthol and subtle oak. The tannins are refined and ultra smooth, giving this wine a graceful and elegant finish. This has ideal strucure for aging another 5-7 years (or perhaps even longer). While filet is a natural match, I love this with roast duck, especially with the big fruit flavors of this wine. Mouthfilling and delicious, this is a great success and proof that a cool climate such as Limarí can be an ideal zone for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gambero Rosso's quirks

The 2010 guide from Gambero Rosso has been out for a few weeks now and I wanted to discuss their latest look at the top Italian wines of the year. While this admittedly is a far more important publication in Italy, there are many wine buyers and Italian wine fans in this country that look to this guide as a barometer of the finest bottlings from Italy.

I am not writing this to take them to fault with any one particular wine; that is an exercise in futility. If you like a wine and I don’t, it’s not a matter of one of us being wrong or right. Rather we can agree to disagree on a wine. It’s the same with Gambero Rosso, especially as they prefer riper, oakier wines more often than I do. But that’s the nature of the beast – you take them at face value. I may not like a particular Brunello, Barolo or Amarone that GR favors due to its style (and style is a large part of why any of us like a wine, whether we admit it or not), but at least if Gambero Rosso gives a wine its top award of Tre Bicchieri (three glasses), I want to know the wine is worthy of that honor.

Thus I have a problem with the 2010 guide awarding their highest rating to 33 examples of Barolo from the 2005 vintage. Barolo is certainly one of the two or three most exemplary red wines of Italy, but that doesn’t mean it’s great in every vintage and 2005 is proof of that. I tasted more than 150 examples this past May at the Alba Wines Exhibition, a first-rate event for journalists from around the world that I attend every year. Of the 150, I found four (that’s F-O-U-R) wines that I thought were of the highest quality.

Now granted, there are some famous bottlings I did not try then, so perhaps there are a few more examples I might have rated as outstanding. But it’s hard for me to believe that there are 30 Barolos from 2005 that are exceptional, as Gambero Rosso would have us believe. As I said previously, I want to know a wine is worthy of that honor and I don’t believe 2005 was the type of vintage that yielded greatness.

Perhaps Gambero Rosso has a quota for awarding a certain number of Barolos with Tre Bicchieri. How elese do you explain that last year (in the 2009 guide) they awarded 31 bottlings of 2004 Barolo with this award? Add in three additional 2004 Barolos given the award this year (these three wines were released later than most examples from 2004) and you have basically the same number of 2004 Barolos getting the top award as those from 2005. This is quite remarkable and in reality, quite a strange ranking of Barolo. I do like the 2005 Barolos very much (see my tasting notes on several dozen of these wines at the vinowire blog), but the vintage doesn’t come close to 2004. That was an outstanding vintage, as the wines were more deeply concentrated, with more pronounced aromatics and greater complexity. Quite simply, it’s a bit ridiculous to award as many Barolos from 2005 as highly as their counterparts from 2004. How else can you explain this except to think there is an allocation each year in the guide for a certain number of Barolos?

Contrast that with Brunello di Montalcino. While wine writers argue about the merits of 2004 for Brunello (I think it was excellent, while others have written that the wines are a bit light for the vintage and not that great), no one questions that 2004 was a far superior year for Brunello as compared with 2003. Happily, Gambero Rosso agrees, as last year they awarded only one 2003 Brunello (Biondi-Santi) with their top rating, while 16 bottlings of 2004 Brunello earned that award. This is a little more like it, so why the discrepancy between Barolo and Brunello? (By the way, GR, yes on the Tre Bicchieri to the 2004 Brunellos from Talenti – a wonderfully underrated traditional producer – Poggio di Sotto and Poggio Antico “Altero”, but why not Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia or Pian dell’Orino?)

I do want to point out that there are some very good Tre Bicchieri awards this year, especially to some wines that don’t get anywhere near the attention given to Barolo or Brunello. The 2007 Etna Rosso “Musmeci” from Tenuta di Fessina was honored with the top award and it’s nice to see this recognition for this new company. I visited the vineyards this past March and tasted the new releases and was thoroughly impressed. The “Musmeci” is a lovely, supple Etna red made from 80 year old vines; the morel cherry and red floral aromas are gorgeous and the wine is quite velvety. This is NOT a wine that favors power over elegance, so nice work by GR in recognizing this wine with their top honor.

Also, nice of GR to recognize Villa Monteleone with the award for their 2005 Amarone. Monteleone is managed by Lucia Raimondi, who has been responsible for everyday operations since the death of her husband a few years back. Her wines are as gentle as she is – she is such a lovely person and how nice that all of her hard work has paid off. This is an Amarone of suppleness; it’s nice to see another producer depart from the ultra ripe, oaky approach taken with too many examples of Amarone these days. By the way, if you like the Villa Monteleone Amarone, I think you’d love their Ripasso bottling labeled “Campo San Vito”; I think it’s a better wine than the Amarone.

Finally, congratulations to the superb Soave producer Ca’Rugate for two Tre Bicchieri awards, one for their 2008 “Monte Fiorentine” bottling (a wonderfully rich no-oak Soave Classico that is simply delicious) and for their 2007 Recioto di Soave “La Perlara”. For several years, Ca’Rugate has been one of the very best producers of Recioto di Soave (only Pieropan can match their consistency with this product, in my opinion) and it’s about time that GR gave them this award. In fact, I believe this is the very first time GR has given a Recioto di Soave their top rating. If you haven’t tried a Recioto di Soave, you will love this lush, lightly sweet dessert wine with a delicate nuttiness – it’s quite rich and it ages for a long time. Congratulations to winemaker Michele Tessari and the rest of his family for their work with these two wines and their entire lineup. Ca’Rugate is a great Italian winery and how nice that Gambero Rosso has noticed that (for several years now, I must add) as well!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Weekend in Torino - white wine wise

Entrance to the Wine Forum, Torino
Photo ©Tom Hyland

I just returned from a weekend in Torino attending the Wine Forum fair. This show focused on the lesser-known wines of Piemonte, so while it was possible to taste examples of Barolo and Barbaresco, wines such as Erbaluce, Gavi, Carena and Barbera were the featured attractions.

I’d like to mention just a few of the wines I thought were most special. Most Americans aren’t familiar with the Erbaluce grape, but when grown in the Caluso area about twenty miles northeast of Torino, it shines. The grape has naturally high acidity along with lovely aromatics, so it is produced not only as a richly flavored dry white wine, but also in a sparkling version. A few estates also make a passito version, which is lush and moderately sweet; some versions have a lovely crème caramel character to them. The best producers of Erbaluce di Caluso include Orsolani, La Campore and Cieck.

I also tasted some notable versions of Gavi, which is probably Piemonte’s most famous white. Produced from the Cortese grape from vineyards in the region’s southern province of Alessandria, Gavi is also made in several styles. These include the typical stainless steel-aged version as well as oak aged and there are even a few producers that make a sparkling Gavi. I attended an excellent seminar on Saturday that profiled the different approaches vintners take with this wine; especially noteworthy were the late-harvested bottling (finished dry) from La Toledana, the barrique-aged “Monterotondo” bottling from Villa Sparina and the dry sparkling offering from La Giustiniana.

Other whites that impressed me this past weekend were the 2008 Favorita from Pietro Olivero (Antica Cascina di Conti Roero), the 2008 Arneis from Casetta and the 2008 Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato and the “Riva Granda” (barrique-aged Chardonnay) from Cerrutti.

I also want to mention the notable examples of Timorasso from Franco Martinetti. This indigenous variety is grown in the Colli Tortonesi area northeast of the Gavi zone, almost on the border with the Lombardia region. I sampled two versions of Timorasso from Martinetti: the 2007 Biancofranco, a stainless-steel aged along with the 2008 “Martin” bottling aged in barriques. The former is quite rich with juicy acidity and delicious pineapple fruit, while the latter is excellent, displaying vanilla custard aromas to go with its tropical fruit; the wine has admirable length and complexity and is a standout Piemontese white.

Various labels of Moscato d'Asti
Photo ©Tom Hyland

I tasted a few examples of Asti Spumante, thanks to my friend Rita Barbero of the Asti Consorzio; two of my favorites were the Cocchi and the “La Selvatica” bottling from Romano Dogliotti. As for Moscato d’Asti, the irresistible lightly sparkling wine with the gorgeous peach and apricot flavors that is as light as a feather on your palate, my preferences included the "La Caudrina" from Romano Dogliotti, the “Oroluce” from Paolo Pizzarin (both from 2008) and the 2009 bottling from Massimo Rivetti – a beautiful bottling that is one of the most delicious I taste ever year!

I’ll comment on some of the best red wines I tasted at this event in my next post.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gems from Sicily

Vineyards at Avide Estate, Vittoria

This week I conducted a seminar on the wines of Sicily for the VinItalyUSA tour in Chicago. I’ve had the pleasure of conducting a seminar for the past five years for this event and several times it’s been about Sicily.

This is a region that has exploded in terms of quality over the past few decades. Long known as a producer of bulk wines as well as being the largest wine-producing region in the country – these two factors are tied in – the image of Sicilian wines has changed to one of a greater number of small and mid-size estates being established in growing zones around the island. Particularly important is the emphasis of vintners working with red grapes on the eastern part of the island – in fact, more than 90% of the red grapes in Sicily are planted in the four eastern provinces of Catania, Messina, Siracusa and Ragusa. Arguably the most important plantings are of Nero d’Avola in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria zone and in the far southeastern reaches of the island, near the towns of Avola (where the grape’s name originates), Gela and Noto.

We sampled eight wines during the seminar as well as dozens more in the walk around tasting held later in the day. I’d like to focus on a few of my favorites. Avide, a producer in the Cerasuolo di Vittoria district in the province of Ragusa, offered a well made bottling of Frappato under its Herea label. Frappato is one of the two varieties used in Cerasuolo di Vittoria and is not seen as a monovarietal that often. This 2008 bottling has tasty red cherry fruit, soft tannins and tart acidity. It’s a charming red meant for consumption over the next 2-3 years and would pair beautifully with chicken with a red wine sauce or arancini (rice balls); this would even be enjoyable with a slight chill.

Their 2007 Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG is a 50/50 blend of the two grapes necessary for this wine, Nero d’Avola and Frappato. When this was a DOC wine, the blend from virtually every producer was 60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato, but when the wine was elevated to its DOCG status beginning with the 2005 vintage, more blending freedom was allowed. Today many producers who create a DOCG bottling (producers are allowed to produce a DOC, a DOCG or both) often go with a greater percentage of Nero d’Avola (as much as 70%) to give the wine a little more power, but I actually prefer this bottling, as it is more to the subdued, softer, less tannic style I prefer. This has aromas of fresh red cherry and red roses with an intriguing hint of china bark and there is plenty of perfectly ripe fruit along with an long, elegant finish. This is as well-crafted a Cerasuolo as I’ve had for some time. It’s absolutely delicious and I’d love to pair it with any number of dishes from couscous with vegetables, to swordfish to pasta with tuna.

Abraxas Winery, Pantelleria

From the island of Pantelleria, south of Sicily, Abraxas is a typical small estate that makes the world famous dessert wine Passito di Pantelleria. More on the later, as I want to focus on two reds this producer also bottles. The 2007 Kuddia di Moro is a 100% Nero d’Avola that has the signature marascino cherry flavors of this grape and is quite rich, yet there is a restrained quality about the wine. A few too many bottlings of Nero d’Avola focus merely on ripeness, so it is nice to see this subtle style with a distinct earthiness in the finish.

The second red, Kuddia di Ze from the 2006 vintage, was like finding a treasure map. A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignane, this is an old-fashioned Sicilian red with a wonderful rustic quality, very good acidity and a beautiful spiciness. I generally prefer traditional reds over the modern reds that show off oak and ripness, so this was a real treat for me and I heard so many positive comments on this wine from those who sampled it at the seminar or later at the tasting. This is a wine that screams out for food – pair it with dishes such as eggplant parmigiana, grilled sausage or pasta with fennel. How nice that a producer from Pantelleria has chosen to produce a red as wonderful and as singular as this. We need more producers who are willing to make wines that tells the story of their land instead of bottlings that are market driven.

As for the 2006 Passito di Pantelleria from Abraxas, well, the word outstanding may not do justice to this bottling! Displaying a light orange color and gorgeous aromas of dried apricot, orange peel and subtle notes of dried honey and graham crackers (!), this has terrific depth of fruit and an ultralong, lightly sweet finish with cleansing acidity and notes of orange peel. This is a classic and as rich as it is, it is quite restrained and beautifully balanced. What great complexity – this has everything you would look for in a dessert wine!

The Mille e una Notte from Donnafugata has become one of the most prestigious bottlings of Nero d’Avola from Sicily. Sporting a deep ruby red color with hints of purple, this is quite rich with sumptuous black cherry and blackberry fruit backed by very good acidity and elegant tannins. This has been one of the most consistent bottlings of this variety in Sicily and the 2005 continues that track record. The firm’s pleasant 2008 Anthilia, a dry white blended from Ansonica and Cataratto, has fresh pear fruit, good richness, a dry, tasty finish and is quite a fine value for around $16.

A few other Sicilian wines that caught my attention included three lovely bottlings of Grillo from the 2008 vintage; the Tonnino with a lovely copper color and aromas of pear and canteloupe, the Aquilae with pretty aromas of pear and creamed corn along with the Fina, which displayed interesting aromatics feauturing kiwi and lemon. These medium-bodied whites also had good texture (especially the Aquilae and Fina) and are evidence that Grillo is becoming one of Sicily’s best aromatic whites.

There’s never an end to discovering new Italian wines and producers and the vintners of Sicily are certainly doing their part to make this journey a fascinating and enjoyable one!

One last note: I would like to thank Marina Nedic and Ina Majcen of I.E.M., the management company that organizes this event as well as Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications of Napa for their help and for showing their faith in me for all these years. I couldn’t lead one of these seminars without their help, so thank you Marina, Ina and Paul and I look forward to doing this again next year!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lunch with Laura

Text and photo ©Tom Hyland

I enjoyed lunch with my friend Laura Bianchi at the Trump Tower in Chicago a few weeks ago. I’ve known Laura for several years now, first meeting her during a visit to Castello di Monsanto, the gorgeous Chianti Classico estate owned by her father Fabrizio and her. Laura travels the world, overseeing sales of the wines; this lunch was my chance to catch up on the latest wines as well as trends in Chianti Classico.

She told me that business is down (thanks to the realities of the economy) in just about every region where they sell their wines, but she didn’t seem overly concerned, especially as they are a small producer that doesn’t need to sell hundreds of thousands of cases. She's confident that sales will improve soon and return to normal levels. I’d say she probably wasn’t all the concerned, given the quality of the wines, which are as good as ever. Laura, being the humble spokesperson, wouldn’t comment on the excellence of her family’s products, but she certainly realizes it.

I tasted three wines at lunch and each was a delight. The 2006 Chianti Classico Riserva was first and talk about a stylish wine! There are aromas of red cherry, plum and currant with notes of cedar; the finish is elegant with moderate tannins, very good acidity and subtle spice. This is so good now and will offer pleasure for another 5-7 years.

The 2003 Il Poggio was next; this being the single vineyard wine that made Monsano such a famous producer in Chianti. This has greater richness on the palate than the Chianti Classico normale, yet is beautifully balanced with a big finish with excellent persistence. This is a beauty and will last for another 10-12 years. Depending on the market you live in, this may be the current offering or perhaps the 2004 has come on the scene. That wine is superb with the difference clearly being the wonderful growing season of 2004, but each wine is very classy.

The final wine that day was the 2001 Nemo, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from an estate vineyard some 850 feet above sea level. This is a bit more modern-styled bottling with aging in small French oak barrels, yet the oak is nicely integrated in this bottling. There are lovely aromas of black currant and myrtle and the tannins are quite graceful. Look for this wine, from an oustanding vintage, to be at its best in another 10-12 years.

Three different wines in three various frameworks, but all quite elegantly styled, like all of the wines of Castello di Monsanto. I never tire of beautifully made wines and as that’s all that Monsanto seems capable of producing, I don’t think I’ll ever get blasé about tasting their wines – especially when I can do that over a lunch with Laura Bianchi!

These wines are imported by Moët Hennessy of New York. Prices vary depending on what market you live in, but expect to pay about $25 for the Riserva, $50 for the Il Poggio and $55 for the Nemo.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Rosé dinner like no other

Laurent Perrier Rosé Shines in a Dinner in the Kitchen at Charlie Trotter's

Text ©Tom Hyland

How many foods can you think of to pair with a Rosé Champagne? The answer depends on your imagination and if the wine is to be served at one of the country’s greatest restaurants, there might be no end to dishes that work with this wine.

Last week, I was invited by the Champagne firm of Laurent Perrier to meet their president, Bertrand de Fleurian, for dinner at Charlie Trotter’s Restaurant in Chicago. The purpose was not only for us to learn more about each other, but also to enjoy a dinner in which each course was specially created to accompany the firm’s Cuvée Rosé Brut. Aurélie Baetche, local manager for Laurent Perrier, was co-host and she also invited a local journalist from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Now I love Rosé Champagne and if they had hosted this at a hot dog stand, I would have attended! But of course, they went first-class and celebrated this event at Charlie Trotter’s. Meeting de Fleurian at Charlie Trotter’s for dinner is my kind of great evening, but what made this even more special was the fact that they reserved the kitchen table for us. There is one table of four in this kitchen and it’s quite an experience to see up close how a great restaurant staff works as a team. No orderly chaos here; this is a group whose work has been carefully choreographed and comes off as gracefully as a ballet troupe.

We began dinner at 6:00 and three hours and fifteen courses later (yes, 15!), dinner was complete. First things first, the Rosé is excellent with delicious strawberry and currant fruit, lively acidity, lovely complexity and beautiful freshness and balance. When you have a 100% Pinot Noir Champagne made this well with this depth of fruit, it’s only natural that you can pair so many types of food with the wine.

But while most of us could think of four to five dishes to accompany a Rosé Champagne, great chefs come up with so many more inspired ideas. Executve chef Matthias Merges presented a dazzling array of foods, from the opening course of Kumomoto Oyster with Miso and Lime to the final touch of Olive Oil-Chocolate Chip Parfait with Fraise des Bois. Now there’s something you don’t have every night!

Lemon Verbana Spoon Bread with Honey & Chervil
(Photo by Tom Hyland)

A few of my favorites along the way included Confit of Tasmanian Trout with Rose & Black Tea, Lemon Verbena Spoon Bread with Honey & Chervil as well as Ricotta with Vidalia Onion Marmalade and Arugula. If I had to pick one course that I thought was a perfect match with the Champagne, it would be the Japanese Fresh Water Eel with Orange and Grains of Paradise. I’m not normally too big on eel, but this was quite meaty, without the oiliness I so often associate with eel. This was my favorite, but let it be said, that there were another nine or ten courses that worked equally well. Best of all, each of the 15 courses was so beautifully prepared with such specific flavors, yet all were so light on the palate.

Swan Creek Farm Ricotta with Vidalia Onion Marmalade & Arugula
(Photo by Tom Hyland)

I don't think I’ll ever have a meal like this again, so thanks to Aurélie and Bertrand for the invitation as well as their company and thanks to Chef Merges and his brilliant team at Charlie Trotter’s for their incredibly inspired work. The moral of the story is simple; Rosé Champagne – especially the Laurent Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut – is a perfect match for almost any food. I doubt many of you will have Tempura of Sardine with Peach Consommé & Spanish Chorizo or Cold-Poached Cod Cheeks with Heirloom Tomato Relish with the wine when you open your bottle, but try it with duck breast, tuna or even with a simple roasted chicken breast – you’ll love it!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Casanova di Neri cleared

I just received word from the national importer of Casanova di Neri, the famed Brunello producer, that the winery has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the ongoing Brunello scandal. Owner Giacomo Neri, whose deeply extracted, modern take on Brunello has won him a legion of fans, had been suspected of incorporating grapes other than Sangiovese into his various bottlings of Brunello di Montalcino.

Giacomo Neri obtained a document directly from the Minister of Justice, issued 9/21/09. This document says "NULLA."

Below is the translation of a letter Giacomo sent to his importer, basically stating that he had been removed from the allegations list:

Casanova di Neri in response to news that has circulated through the media, states that as one of the more important wineries in the zone, they were checked and controlled by the required authorities.

The winery states that Casanova di Neri has been removed in the course of the investigations from the list.

For what has happened we inform our clients that the wines of Casanova di Neri are even more guaranteed post-investigation than before, having completed also the analysis that were requested by the authorities for the commercialization of Brunello di Montalcino.

Giacomo Neri
Propietor Viticulture

I'd love to hear some thoughts on this. Anyone?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Treasure Trove

I’ve made 40 trips to Italy and during those visits, I’ve been able to meet so many wonderful people throughout that beautiful country. For me, this is the best way to learn about the wines of a particular region or country; head there and meet with the people who grew the grapes or harvested them or made the wine in the cellar. Pairing the wines with local foods has been icing on the cake. I wouldn’t trade these journeys for anything in the world.

However, there are still some great wines from Italy I’m managed to miss while I’ve been over there. You just can’t be everywhere, so there are some famous bottlings I’ve never had, as a particular producer didn’t participate in a wine fair or tasting and I didn’t get the time to visit him or her. When that happens, I’ve had to taste them at events in this country. It’s not Italy, but the opportunity to try these wines is too good to pass up.

Recently, I had the good fortune to catch up on some great Italian wines I wasn’t that familiar with when I attended the Domaine Select Grand Tasting, held at The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. This was the 10th anniversary of the company, founded by Paolo Domeneghetti and his wife Allison. Together with a committed team, thay have assembled an outstanding portfolio of artisan Italian estates (they also represent some great producers from Germany, Austria, France, Chile, Argentina and a few other countries). Here are just a few of the Italian producers they represent: Massolino, Fontanafredda, Villa Sparina, Il Palazzone, COS, Le Macchiole and J. Hofstatter.

If that wasn’t enough, they also have some true gems that I think are among the best wine estates in the world. Foremost among these is Soldera, the great Brunello estate operated by Gianfranco Soldera, who labels his Brunello di Montalcino as Case Basse. Soldera is committed to traditional winemaking, in the sense that he ferments and ages his wine in large wooden casks – no small oak here. Yet, he also ages his wines for various periods of time, usually surpassing the minimum time frame necessary in Montalcino. Thus while the current release of Brunello from almost every Brunello producer is the 2004, the newest release from Soldera is the 2002 Riserva. I sampled that wine at the event along with the 2001 and was truly amazed at these wines. Both offer great varietal purity; these wines are all about red cherry fruit with light cedar and spice notes – no toasty vanilla notes in these bottlings! Soldera’s 2002 is clearly the finest Brunello I’ve tasted from that rather dull vintage, while the 2001 Riserva is a spectacular wine, with great concentration of fruit and textbook structure. All of those producers that think they need to wow consumers with flashy wines need to taste these bottlings. Why go for the instant gratification of super ripe fruit and big oak when you can make a wine in this fashion? Thanks to Gianfranco Soldera for making these wines and thank to Domaine Select for tasting them out.

I also tried one exceptional white wine I’ve never had before and it was quite rare; the 2005 Vitoska from Vodopivec aged in amphora. Vodopivec specializes in this rare variety, grown in the Carso district of the Friuli region. This zone is located in the far southeastern reaches of Friuli between the Adriatic Sea and the border with Slovenia. This is natural winemaking at its most intense, as the grapes are kept in contact with the skins for six months in amphora pots buried underground. Afterwards the wine is then aged in large casks for two years; the final result is magnificent. This is a richly textured white with an explosion of pear and melon fruit on the palate and a rich, lengthy finish with bracing acidity. It’s quite a statement and it’s a testament to the philosophy of brothers Paolo and Valter Vodopivec and of course, the growing area of Carso.

Both the Soldera and the Vodopivec were served later that evening at a superb dinner at the Four Seasons; the Brunello acompanying Filet Mignon, while the Vitoska was paired with Brooklyn Ricotta Ravioli (yes, you read that right!). Each course was served with four special wines from the portfolio of Domaine Select, so the filet was also matched with the Le Macchiole Paleo (Cabernet Franc) along with two other wines while the ravioli could be tasted with the unique 2003 Ribolla Gravner, an “orange” wine if there ever was one (I’m referring here to the cult craze of wines such as the Gravner, which have very deep color; the orange hue is not a flaw in the wine.)

In closing, thank you to the vintners who made these special wines and thank you to Paolo and Alison Domeneghetti for arranging this wonderful day and congratulations on ten successful years!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Terra Andina - Great Values from Chile

No matter how many distinguished, expensive wines I get to try in my travels (as well as not-so-distinguished, expensive wines), I always look forward to tasting moderately-priced wines from any number of countries. Quite often, I select wines like these for my my dinners, as these wines play up to food rather than overpower it. To me, that’s what winemaking is all about – making offerings that are about balance and not power.

Some countires offer more great values than others; much of this has to do with the image of the country or wine region. It’s difficult to find value wines from Napa Valley these days, but go to Monterey, and you’ll discover many more reasonably priced wines. The question in not quality, rather it’s with the perception of quality. Napa has been praised for decades as one of the world’s greatest wine regions, but it hasn’t been that way for Monterey, despite the first-class wines crafted in that region.

For several reasons – for which we can be thankful - Chile has remained a haven for value-oriented wines. There are some incredible red wines (and even a few whites now) that are world-class, but the media tends not to focus on these wines as much as their counterparts from California or France. Thus Chile is viewed as a country that produces some very nice wines at moderate prices. While this is an incomplete picture, at least it’s a positive situation for consmuers.

All of this leads me to some of the most attractive, value-oriented wines from Chile I’ve had in some time. Terra Andina is a producer with a variety of white and red wines, most of which are priced at $12.99 retail (these are from the Reserva line) and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them. What’s nice is unlike some labels where each red wine tastes pretty much the same, with Terra Andina, the wines have very good varietal character, so the Carmenere isn't a carbon copy of the Cabernet Sauvignon.

The winemaker is Oscar Salas (pictured left, Photo ©Tom Hyland), who has done an admirable job with these wines, as each is balanced with good ripeness and character with minimal winemaking intervention. Salas has the advantage of sourcing grapes from some of Chile’s finest viticultural regions. Thus the Sauvignon Blanc hails from the cool Leyda Valley, less than 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, while the Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the famed Maipo Valley, home to many of the country’s finest examples of that grape, while the Carmenere is from the Rapel Valley.

For me, the two best wines in the lineup are the Carmenere and the Cabernet Sauvignon. Vintners in many parts of Chile have been trying to craft better bottlings of Carmenere over the past few years and are succeeding, as they are finding warmer sites to highlight the grape’s fruit and limit its green tannins and sharp acidity. The 2007 Terra Andina has deep color (a beautiful bright purple hue) and attractive aromas of black plum with notes of pepper and clove that emerge from a well-made example of Carmenere. This has plenty of fruit for the price and sports a flavorful, nicely balanced finish. This can be enjoyed now or over the next 2-3 years and will pair well with foods ranging from roast chicken to duck to sirloin. This is something you shouldn’t miss!

The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon has pure black currant aromas and flavors and elegant tannins, so this is a well-rounded wine that is a natural with food. There is plenty of character throughout and the wine has an elegant finish with gentle tannins. Enjoy this now or over the next year or two with just about any red meat.

Also recommended is the 2007 Altos, a blend of Carmenere and Carignan. The latter grape has flavors of raspberry and red currant that are a nice contrast to the black fruit of the Carmenere and has very good acidity, which gives the wine a nice balance. Slightly spicy, this will accompany game or vegetable dishes such as eggplant extremely well. This is priced higher than the other Terra Andina wines but even at $18.99, this is a relative bargain.

Congratulations to Oscar Salas and his Terra Andina team for crafting such flavorful delicious wines at sensible prices that the everyday consumer will want to enjoy!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

2005 Barolos - Many Promising Wines

Brunate, one of Barolo's finest crus and the source of outstanding and excellent Barolos from the 2005 vintage
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Enough about the mess in Montalcino, let’s turn our attention to a positive subject for Italian wines at the moment – the release of the new Barolos from the 2005 vintage.

You should realize that you will be subjected to a number of reviews in the coming months about the 2005 Barolos stating that these wines are not like the 2004s, which were outstanding. This is true, but unfortunate, as 2004 was a brilliant vintage for Barolo and brilliant just doesn’t come along every year – in fact, it doesn’t come along but once or twice a decade, if that much. So remember that, please.

So let’s be fair with the 2005 Barolos; this was a successful vintage and there are some excellent wines and even a handful of outstanding ones. The best offerings are medium-full with very good to excellent concentration, offer very good acidity and refined tannins. This is not a powerhouse vintage and the wines are not as complex in aromatics as the 2004s, but overall, these are very well made wines. The finest Barolos from 2005 will age for 15-20 years and while that is not as long as a great year such as 2004, 2001, 1999 or 1996, that is still impressive.

I tasted over 100 different Barolos from the 2005 vintage this past May in the city of Alba at the annual Alba Wines Exhibition. The wines were tasted blind, and as usual with this practice, I found many pleasant surprises along with a few disappointments. This is always an excellent tasting and my thanks to the hard-working staff of wellcom for their organization.

There were a few outstanding wines including the Bartolo Mascarello, Prunotto, the “Brunate” from Francesco Rinaldi and the “Gabutti” from Giovanni Sordo. The Prunotto was beautifully styled and is one of the best bottlings I’ve had from this producer in some time, while the Mascarello and Rinaldi are classic bottlings, made in a traditional style (aged only in large casks). These wines offer a lovely combination of spice, fruit and gentle tannins and are textbook representations of terroir. Barolo to me is all about terroir; the roundness and floral aromatics of the wines from La Morra standing next to the structure and firm tannins of the wines from Monforte or Serralunga, so I prize this distinctiveness far more than power or ripeness. As for the wine from Sordo, I’ve always liked the offerings from this small estate in Serralunga, but this cru bottling is as good as I’ve tasted; it’s a lovely wine with beautiful complexity.

Sergio Barale produced an excellent Barolo from the Cannubi vineyard in 2005
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Other excellent Barolos from 2005 include the Sergio Barale “Cannubi”; the “Brunate” from Oddero; Marcarini “Brunate”; Michele Chiarlo “Cerequio”; Fontanafredda “La Rosa"; the Massolino "Margheria"; the "Ravera" from Elvio Cogno; the Prapò bottling of Ceretto and the Famiglia Anselma bottling.

There are several more bottlings I’ve rated as excellent; you’ll be able to read about these wines in the upcoming Fall issue of my Guide to Italian Wines. This will include reviews not only reviews of the 2005 Barolos, but also the excellent 2006 Barbarescos (tasted in Alba the same week as the Barolos) as well a few dozen new releases of wines from Campania. To learn about subscribing to my Guide to Italian Wines, click here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Style Points

Various skyscrapers in Chicago. Do you rate them with a score or do you identify each one's singularity?

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Regarding wine education, arguably the most unfortunate and regrettable tool introduced over the past 25 years has been the 100-point scale for rating purposes. First used by Robert Parker at The Wine Advocate and then at The Wine Spectator (and now hundreds of wine publications around the world), this system replaced the 20-point scale that was in use for decades. Admittedly, the 100-point scale is easier to understand for almost everyone than the other system (90 points for a wine is far simpler to comprehend than 17 points), yet I find it ironic that the 100-point scale has in essence, become a 20-point system itself. After all, does anyone treat a wine below 80 points with any seriousness today? And how many wines do you even read about that receive less than 80 points these days?

To me, there are two principal reasons why rewarding a wine with a score is a mistake. First, what do these scores mean? Tasting wine is a sensory experience – it’s not a scientific endeavor. A score of 92 or 88 represents a specific number in black and white, but how does one arrive at that particular score? This isn’t like a geography quiz most of us took back in the fifth grade where there were 20 questions, each worth five points. If you scored 95 and I earned a score of 90, you got one more question correct than I did (congratulations!)

That score is based on mathematics as is a batting average in baseball and you can easily arrive at these numbers. What’s more, you can’t argue the math; if a baseball player has 30 hits in 100 at bats, that’s a .300 batting average – no more, no less. But what does it mean if a wine receives a score of 92? More to the point, what’s the difference between a 92 and a 93? Going back to the baseball analogy, if a player with 100 at bats has 31 hits, then his average is .310, while the player with 30 hits per 100 at bats has that .300 average. So the higher batting average is based on math. But more often than not, the reason one wine gets a 93 instead of a 92 is based on the writer breaking a tie.

Of course, that’s the American way- we have to list things in order of importance or rank. I agree that consumers need guidance, but why do we need these specific numbered scores? What’s wrong with putting a group of wines into a particular category, such as very good, excellent or outstanding? Give the wines a star rating as with restaurants or a movie. Sure some people would disagree with that rating, but that’s fine – everyone has their likes and dislikes. But everyone would understand the difference between very good and excellent. I’m not so sure consumers (or even most wine professionals) understand the difference between 92 and 93 points. So much for the ease of numbered scores.

The other problem is the induced meaning of the score. Most publications reward higher scores for more intensity, deeper color and more extract; in other words, bigger is better. Well as one winemaker in California once told me, “Bigger isn’t better, bigger is different.” Amen to that! We’re all free to like or dislike what we want, so don’t tell me that a more approachable wine that is a bit lighter on the palate is less of a wine. Generally, I prefer more drinkable wines, especially as they work better with food. That’s why I drink wines and that’s why I think most people drink wines.

To me, if wines existed in a vacuum, numeric scores would make more sense. Then you could judge a wine simply on the merits of which is the biggest or boldest. But since wine is meant for food, then we need to look at balance in a wine and not power.

Then of course there are wines that have nothing to do with power. Try a beautiful Greco di Tufo from Campania or a tangy Sauvignon Blanc from Chile or New Zealand. Does someone choose one of these white wines because they are searching for power? No, they look for a well-made, balanced white that is delicious and has good varietal character. That means that the most influential wine publicaions rarely rank white wines such as these with big scores. But why not? Shouldn’t a beautifully made, complex white get 92 or 94 points (assuming we’re stuck with this rating system) just like a big red wine? Of course they should, but it rarely happens, thanks to the caste system of most publications that equates powerhouse reds with the highest scores.

I bring all of this up as an introduction to a wine I tasted last week that I loved. It’s a wonderful Pinot Noir from a new producer in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands; the 2007 Puma Road “Black Mountain Vineyards” bottling ($40 retail). It’s a new project from Ray Franscioni, who owns several gorgeous Pinot Noir vineyards in this appellation. For me, there are a few areas in California that are ideal for great Pinot Noirs with beautiful varietal character, lively acidity and distinct spice; Russian River Valley and the far western reaches of the Sonoma Coast appellation in Sonoma as well as Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County are among those select zones and so is the Santa Lucia Highlands district.

My notes specify the distinct characteristics of this wine, especially in its notes of brown spice such as cumin and cinnamon. This is a wine redolent of West Indies spice, so think of the foods it would work with; I’d love this with grilled lamb or pork or vegetarian dishes with eggplant or zucchini.

So my rating of this wine is all about its special character and complexity as well as the array of foods it would accompany. That’s my rating and it has nothing to do with points. How could you award a specific point rating to this wine and do it justice? This wine isn’t about power (although it is a big wine); it isn’t about finesse (although it is an elgant wine); it’s about the spiciness that sets it apart. This isn’t a simple Pinot Noir with pleasant cherry fruit that you pair with duck with cherry or orange sauce. Rather this is a particular wine that needs a particular pairing. You can’t discover that with a numbered rating.

There are countless wines such as this and this is just the latest I’ve tasted. So forget the scores and dig a little deeper. Learn what the flavors are of a specific wine and then pair it with the proper foods. You’ll enjoy both the food and the wine even more when you do it this way!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc- Reaching Greatness

Sauvignon Blanc Vineyard of Santa Rita, Leyda Valley
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

In the July 22 edition of the New York Times, Eric Asimov contributed a column entitled, “Summer’s Background Music.” Asimov, an excellent wine writer who doesn’t take himself or his subject too seriously, wrote about the simple pleasure of South American Sauvignon Blancs (primarily offerings from Chile) and how these attractively priced wines (many less than $16) make for nice “summer sippers.”

The article is fine and it gives readers a shopping list of some very good Chilean Sauvignon Blancs, many from the cool climate areas of Casablanca and San Antonio Valleys. Yet I have to take Asimov to task a bit here for what he did not say in the article.

Basically, what many consumers will take away from this article is that Chilean Sauvignon Blancs are nice wines, but little more than summer sippers. Yes, there are many examples of well made bottlings of this type of wine from Chile that are priced between $10-15 that are ideal for lighter fare and should be consumed sooner than later. Examples of this include the Montes and Veramonte, which scored well in the paper’s tastings as well as the Santa Rita 120 (I have no idea if this was one of the 20 wines tasted or not).

But one of the most exciting developments in the wine industry over the past five to seven years has been the dramatic increase in complexity and quality of Chilean Sauvignon Blancs. In fact, Sauvignon Blancs from the Southern Hemisphere have been quite a revelation lately, especially those from New Zealand (duly noted about everywhere) and South Africa.

Vintners in Chile have taken their game to the next level over the past decade, as they have begun to search for the proper microclimates in which to plant particular varieties. In this respect, they are similar to the vintners of California in the early 1990s, when areas such as the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey and Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County were targeted for Pinot Noir; these are now two of the most sought-after areas for this variety in California. (This is just one example- there are many in California and elsewhere.)

The same is now true in Chile, as Sauvignon Blanc is now being planted in the cool zones of Casablanca, Leyda and San Antonio Valleys. These valleys are west of Santiago and thus much closer to the Pacific Ocean, meaning the hot Chilean sun that ripens the grapes is moderated by the coastal breezes. Thus an ideal mix for Sauvignon Blanc with great flavor as well as vibrant acidity.

The Casablanca examples from wineries such as Pablo Morandé, Kingston, Santa Rita and Carmen are first-rate, offering lovely melon and spearmint fruit, usually unhindered by oak. These are from excellent sites and are farmed to low yields in order to increase concentration; while these are approachable upon release, these tend to drink well for 3-5 years.

The best examples from San Antonio and Leyda are the real revelations of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, as they are quite intense and offer beautifully structured finishes and lovely complexity. These characteristics come from the fact that yields here are generally quite low (less than 3 tons per acre and often less) and that the vineyards are within five miles of the Pacific. In fact, the Sauvginon Blanc vineyards of Casa Marin are within 2 miles of the ocean; she told me that others thought she was crazy to do this, but she has persisted and has become one of the world’s great producers of Sauvignon Blancs.

The EQ from Matetic and the Casa Marin “Cipreses Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc were tasted for the Times article and did score well. It’s great that these wines were included, if only to give them some notoriety. But I think that including them in a “summer sipper” article does these wines a great injustice. I actually have to wonder why the Casa Marin “Cipreses” bottling was included, as this is anything but a light, refreshing sipper. This is an intensely flavored, assertive, layered Sauvignon Blanc with piercing acidity and a lengthy finish. I think of summer sippers as something to accompany lighter fare, such as salads or simple sautéed shrimp, while this Casa Marin bottling is big enough to stand up to halibut, sea bass and even roasted chicken or pork medallions.

Maria Luz Marin has been producing this wine since 2003 from her vineyards and the style today if anything is a touch lighter than at first (she admitted to me that the initial 2003 offering was “too much”). In fact, if one were to choose a Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc for a tasting like the Times organized, the proper choice would have been the “Laurel Vineyard” bottling, which is more fruit-oriented and less forceful than the “Cipreses,” although it is still a big, complex wine. (I wonder if Tasting Coordinator Bernard Kirsch knew this when he selected the wines for this grouping.) I also think that the relatively conservative rating of 2 and 1/2 stars for this wine had to do with the fact that it is so robust in style; after all, if you’re looking for a summer sipper, you’re bound to be thrown for a loop with a wine like this.

For my own evidence, I tasted several excellent to outstanding Chilean Sauvignon Blancs on a recent trip there. Tasting notes are below. I had tasted most of these before and had fallen in love with the overall quality and distinctive style of these wines. On this trip I also discovered a great wine from a relatively new project called Maycas, produced by Concha y Toro from grapes in the northern region of Limarí Valley. There are a few other excellent Sauvignon Blancs from here, especially Tabalí, while Santa Rita has recently planted the variety here for their Sauvignon Blanc program. The Maycas is extraordinary Sauvignon Blanc (both the 2007 and the currently available 2008) and is a steal at $21.

Chilean Sauvignon Blanc

2008 Santa Rita “Medalla Real” (Valle de Leyda)
Aromas of melon, bell pepper and Bosc pear; medium-full with a beautiful texture on the palate. Very good acidity and excellent fruit persistence. Quite delicious with wonderful complexity. These vineyards are only five miles from the Pacific Ocean and are quite shallow, ensuring low yields. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($16) Excellent

2008 Carmen Reserve (Casablanca Valley)
Rich aromas of spearmint, lime and grapefruit – nice varietal intensity. Medium-full, this has beautiful acidity and a light herbal touch. Quite delicious! Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. ($16) Excellent

2008 Maycas (Limarí Valley)
Intense aromas of green pepper, asparagus and spearmint. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Rich, generous mid-palate; long finish with vibrant acidity and beautiful fruit persistence. Gorgeous wine with great varietal character. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. ($23) Outstanding

2008 Casa Marin “Laurel Vineyard” (San Antonio Valley)
Beautiful aromas of gooseberry, lime and grapefruit. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Vibrant acidity and a long, beautifully structured finish with great fruit persistence. Lovely wine with great varietal purity. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($28) Oustanding

2008 Casa Marin “Cipreses Vineyard” (San Antonio Valley)
Persistent aromas of gooseberry and bell pepper. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Vibrant acidity and a long finish with excellent fruit persistence. This is an assertive style of Sauvignon Blanc and compares favorably with many of the top Sancerres and bottlings from New Zealand. This vineyard is less than two miles from the ocean- a razor’s edge climate that provides great intensity and pronounced aromatics. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. ($28) Oustanding

Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc - Laurel and Cipreses Vineyards (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I also recently tasted the 2006 Cono Sur “20 Barrels” from Casablanca Valley. Offering aromas of spearmint, honeydew melon and dried yellow flowers, this has great texture and richness on the palate and is aging beautifully; it’s great now and should offer pleasure for another two years or so. There are many more wonderful Sauvignon Blancs from Chile I’m excited to try- consumers should do the same!

Finally, a note to Eric Asimov. Having read your column for some time now, I know you love Sauvignon Blanc and I've enjoyed your defense of this grape with excellent columns on Sancerre and New Zealand. I hope you’ll try more of these upper tier Sauvignon Blancs from Chile and write an article about them. I’d love to see you spread the word that these wines are certainly more then refreshing offerings for warm weather - they’re among the finest white wines made today!