Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sauvignon Blanc - The Greatest Grape? (Part One)

A Three Part Series on one of the World's Greatest Wine Grapes

The title of my post is of course, debatable. It's simply impossible to name one grape as the greatest. Just to my own way of thinking, there are times when I think the finest grape is Gewurztraminer or perhaps I go with a red variety such as Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo. Others maintain that Riesling is the world's finest and you won't find much of an argument from me on this matter.

But I'm going with Sauvignon Blanc, if only for the fact that there are so many great examples from so many corners of the globe. Of course, the Loire Valley in France - especially with the marvelous examples of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé - is the reference point for this variety. Then you have Marlborough Valley in New Zealand with its gooseberry-laden versions; another great Southern Hemisphere zone for Sauvignon Blanc is the Leyda Valley in Chile - truly underrated wines!

California has some lovely examples from Sonoma and Napa that of course, take a back seat to the more renowned reds produced there, while South Africa is home to some notable Sauvignon Blancs that are truly vibrant. Let's not forget northern Italy, especially in Friuli and Alto Adige and there are also some expressive Sauvignon Blancs from Australia as well.

So I'll be celebrating the world's great Sauvignon Blancs in this three-part series, with this initial post focusing on France, with the remaining two posts dealing with California/Washington and then the rest of the world (New Zealand, South Africa, etc). There are several varieties that perform well in numerous countries, but I honestly don't think there are as many complex, beautifully structured wines from so many places as there are with Sauvignon Blanc. 

So on to France and its beautiful examples of this great variety. 

Mention Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé to wine lovers and there is an instant connection with the Loire Valley and the Sauvignon Blanc grape. These are the two most famous versions of this variety in the Loire and all of France and they care certainly among the most celebrated versions of this variety anywhere in the world. These two appellations are at the furthest eastern reaches of this region in eastern Central France (as a reference point, the Muscadet zone is situated at the western edges of the Loire Valley, near the Atlantic Ocean).

I find that these two wines are quite different in character, with Sancerre often being a cleaner, more "pure" expression of Sauvignon Blanc with Pouilly Fumé being a bit more aggressive in the aromas (Fumé means "smoky) and in the finish. While both offer traces of minerality, it is Pouilly Fumé that for me, has a more distinctive note of this trait, along with more of a wet stone nuance in the aromas. Depending on the vintage and producer, the best versions drink well for 5-7 years, though some lighter versions need to be consumed earlier, while other more powerful versions can drink well a decade after their release.

Other Sauvignon Blanc appellations in the Loire Valley include Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Touraine. These wines are not seen much outside of France, but there are a few importers bringing in these wines to America. I recently tasted very fine versions of all three (notes below); each has its own unique set of characteristics and make for a fascinating comparison of how Sauvignon Blanc performs in the Loire.

There are a few other areas in France where 100% Sauvignon Blanc wines are made (please note that I am not including Bordeaux in this study of the variety, as most of those wines are actually blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon - lovely wines, but quite different). In the western Rhone Valley, the appellation of Cévennes is home to medium-bodied, very distinctive 100% Sauvignon Blancs that fly under the radar.

A bit south of Bordeaux in the Southwest-Armagnac region, Sauvignon Blanc is one of several white varieties planted here; these are medium-bodied, elegant versions of Sauvignon that are simple and direct, offering very fine varietal purity.

Tasting notes (in order of suggested retail price; the first two wines are outside of the Loire Valley, while the final wines are all from the Loire).

2012 Domaine de Gournier Sauvignon Blanc (Indication Géographique Protégée Cévennes) - This wine is from the Southwest-Armagnac region in far southwestern France. Light yellow; aromas of melon, passionfruit, eucalyptus and freshly shucked corn. Medium-bodied with very good acidity and distinct herbal notes of basil and chervil in the finish. Clean, flavorful and well balanced over the next 1-2 years. I think this would pair beautifully with Oriental chicken or pork with peapods. At $12, this is an excellent value. (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Domaine du Tariquet Sauvignon (Cotes de Gascone)
The Cotes de Gascone is in southwest France in the Midi-Pyrénées region. Straw/light yellow; aromas of melon, a touch of mint and a hint of freshly cut grass. Medium-bodied, this has good acidity and is nicely balanced. Well made, this is a straightforward wine that is a nice introduction to the variety - I'd be quite pleased to be served this at a restaurant as a house white (what's also nice is the very reasonable 12.5% alcohol). $14 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Domaine des Corbillieres (Touraine)
Light yellow; aromas of Anjou pear, chalk, wet stone, chamomile and a touch of eucalyptus. Medium-full with very good concentration. Richly flavored finish with very good acidity, a subtle note of minerality and notable persistence. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years. Excellent value at $17.

2012 Domaine de Cabotieres (Touraine)
Straw; aromas of freshly cut hay, lime, marjoram and even a touch of pastry cream. Medium-full with very good concentration. Very good acidity and persistence, this is quite stylish ( no oak aging, as with most of the wines here) and will drink well for three to five years. Quite a lot of character for only $18! (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Philippe Portier Quincy
Straw/light yellow; aromas of dried pear and dried herbs - a bit closed now. Medium-bodied with very good concentration. A bit lean and austere, this has good acidity and a distinct minerality in the finish. Give this a bit of time to round out - best in 2-3 years. For now, pair with a vegetable terrine. $22 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2011 Domaine Assadet Menetou-Salon
Bright, deep yellow; aromas of capsicum, passion fruit, wet stone and a touch of honey. Medium-full with very good concentration. Very good acidity and notable persistence, this is a very expressive wine that is old-fashioned Loire white at its best! Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. $25 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Chateau de Sancerre Sancerre
Brilliant light yellow with golden tints; aromas of Anjou pear, a hint of gooseberry and a note of hay. Medium-bodied, this has good ripeness and is cleanly made; there is good acidity and the overall balance is impressive. Fairly straightforward, this is easy-drinking and will show well for 2-3 years. $29 (Terlato Wine International)

2012 Thomas & Fils Sancerre "Les Creles"
Straw; lovely aromas of Bosc pear, chamomile and elderflowers. Medium-full with very good concentration. Clean and very well made with very good acidity and beautiful balance. Lovely as a food wine or on its own. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years. $30 (Robert Kacher Selections)

2012 Domaine Seguin Pouilly Fumé
Straw/light yellow; expressive aromas of lemon peel, chamomile and wet stone. Medium-full with very good to excellent concentration. Rich mid-palate, excellent complexity and varietal purity. Lengthy finish with notable persistence and very good acidity. A classic styling of Pouilly Fumé - outstanding! Enjoy over the next 5-7 years. $30 (Robert Kacher Selections)

Next post: Sauvignon Blanc of California and Washington State

Text ©Tom Hyland

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Spending Time with some "Old" Friends

I used to really like Zinfandel, once upon a time. In fact, there would occasionally be a bottle I would love. I can't say that it was ever my favorite variety, but there was much to admire about this gutsy wine.

Trouble was, Zinfandel became pretty boring to me. I'm sure some of this had to do with me moving towards Italian wines, which in most cases offer higher acidity, red or white. But it also had to do with the prevailing winds in California during the 1990s and even to this day, to some degree. This big wine became a bear, often wild and untamed in its approach. Alcohol levels, which were high to start with - simply became unacceptable as far as serving this wine at the dinner table. Yes, proper ripeness for a Zinfandel in warm climes in California - 15% and 15% were standard - soon inched up to 16%, 16.5%, even 17% in some cases, as new strains of yeast had been developed to make this possible. Clearly, bigger is better was the mantra for Zinfandel (and a lot of Cabernet Sauvignons, but that's a story for another day); of course, as these higher alcohol wines were flashier and often resulted in higher scores from a few influential wine magazines, it because a situation of follow the leader. Well, I stopped following.

So how nice to report that not every producer of Zinfandel in California went that way. Last week, I tasted two new releases from Dry Creek Vineyards in Healdsburg, in the heart of Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. The two wines were the 2011 Heritage Vines Zinfandel (Sonoma County) and the 2011 Old Vines Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley). The common theme in these wines were older vines and not percentage of alcohol or intensity; clearly the Dry Creek Vineyard folks have their priorities straight.

The Heritage Clone story is a marvelous one, in that winery owner David Stare (he founded DCV in 1972 when Dry Creek Valley was little more than prune orchards and a few family farms) grafted old-vine budwood onto new rootstock, thus giving new plantings the foundation or "heritage" of classic old vine Zinfandel. The first vintage of this Heritage Clone Zinfandel was 1997; the wine is now known as Heritage Vines Zinfandel.

My tasting notes describe perfumes of raspberry, black cherry, tar and anise - classic stuff! Medium-full on the palate, the tannins are medium-weight (thank you!) and the oak is well integrated (thank you again!). The wine has very nice varietal character and impressive balance; as you drink this, you don't get the idea that you're being hit over the head. No, this is about pleasure and what a nice food wine this is, be it pastas with marinara or bolognese sauce, grilled ribs or even pizza. By the way, this wine tasted even better the second and even the third night. At a suggested retail price of $19, this is an excellent value.

As for the Old Vines Zinfandel from 2011, the front label has text that reads "Vine Age - 90 years plus." I think it's great that it's right there upfront for the consumer to see and I like the fact that the principals at the winery - first Dave Stare and now his daughter Kim and son-in-law Don Wallace - have always tried to emphasize the "old" in old vine. This term is not legally defined in California, so old, as far as vine age, is whatever the winery chooses to call it. Stare was always pushing for a definition of this - he wants old vines to refer to plantings that are at least 50 years of age - and anyone who's tasted a Zinfandel made from vines that are at least a half of a century old knows the character that age can bring to the wine.

The 2011 Old Vines Zin (83% Zinfandel and 17% Petite Sirah, basically the same blend as in the Heritage Vines Zin) has aromas of blackberry, prune (typical of very old vines) and purple iris. Medium-full, this has an elegant finish with medium-weight tannins and balanced acidity. This is a wine of restraint - notice a theme here for Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandels? - and again, a lovely wine for food (pork roast would be ideal); enjoy this over the next 5-7 years. This is a more limited production, as you might imagine, so the price is higher (the yield is an incredibly small 1-2 tons per acre!), but at $30, you're getting your money's worth as far as quality and you're drinking history!

Keep up the good work at Dry Creek Vineyards, everyone! We need more refined Zinfandels such as these!

Note: One final story. I go back quite a few years with Dave Stare, meeting him in the mid-1980s in Chicago at a distributor where I sold his wines. I always liked Dave's slightly irreverent style, as he never took himself too seriously and often drew attention away from himself, directing it to his wines or his team at Dry Creek that helped him craft these products.

One of my favorite memories of him (and for many of us in the wine business in the 1980s) was a television commercial Dave did for Augsburger beer, a wonderful Midwestern brew (sadly, no more) made in a classic pilsener style. I don't recall all the details, but in the ad, he was introduced and asked to speak about the beer in wine terms. He held up a glass, inhaled the aromas and declared, "Hops dominate the nose." Great stuff and pure Dave Stare!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Eataly Comes to Chicago

Eataly, the one-of-a-kind market about all things Italian has arrived in Chicago! This store, which gives consumers a chance to purchase the finest Italian wines, cheeses, oils and many other specialty foods, was the vision of Oscar Farinetti, who opened the first Eataly in Torino in 2007; there are now ten in Italy, including one in Rome, Bari, Milan and Bologna. There are 13 in Japan, even one in Turkey and Dubai. New York City was home to the first Eataly in America and as of December 2, Chicago is now the second.

This new store is huge, some 63,000 square feet, which is more than 10,000 square feet larger than New York. The wine selection is great, as you would imagine with a great cross section of Italian wines, from Prosecco - and several other lesser known Italian sparkling wines - to famous reds such as Barolo and Brunello along with many excellent reds and whites from Campania, Lazio, Abruzzo and vitually every region in Italy.

There's also a wine bar, but if you prefer beer, La Birreria has dozens of artisanal brews available, Italian and American. Of course, there are also several eateries in the store, ranging from La Pizza, Il Pesce (fish), La Carne (meat) and Il Gelato (I love them all, but especially this last one!)

And if you're like me and adore artisanal cheeses, this is the store for you. I've never seen such a great array of Italian cheeses - be they famous such as Grana Padano or more of a hidden gem such as Toma from Piemonte (the Toma D.O.P that I purchased was great!) - and there are also many excellent examples from American cheese makers as well.

So whether you want to just have an espresso or pizza or you want to purchase some incredible meat, seafood, pasta, cheese, wine, beer, biscotti, etc, etc, etc, Eataly is highly recommended. Get in there!

Joseph Bastianich, partner, Eataly (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Amazlng Alsatians - My Dinner with Gustave

I absolutely love the wines of Alsace and believe that this is the finest collection of white wines in the world; taking into mind the whites from Burgundy as well as Friuli, Alto Adige and Campania in Italy, that's a strong statement, but one in which I'm convinced. Add to that the marvelous array of wines, from Pinot Gris to Riesling to Gewurztraminer as well as a few others (including one red, Pinot Noir) and you've got a collection of wines that can pair up beautifully with a wide range of foodstuffs.

Recently, I tasted through the wines of Gustave Lorentz, an excellent producer situated in Bergheim near the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. The family has been producing wine there since 1836 and today is managed by Georges Lorentz, sixth-generation vintner. They own a total of 85 acres of vineyards of which 34 are Grand Cru, with four at Kanzlerberg and thirty at Altenberg de Bergheim. In 2012, their vineyards were certified organic by Ecocert.

I've tasted a few entry level "reserve" wines from Lorentz over the years - quite often the Pinot Blanc- and have been very happy with the overall balance as well as the typicity of the products. They represent Alsace well and they're also fine values, with the Pinot Blanc coming in around $16 a bottle (sometimes even less).

I recently tasted through six of the current Gustave Lorentz wines at two dinners: one with Thai food - I find that Alsatian wines and Thai food are a match made in heaven - and then with the traditional Thanksgiving turkey and all the trimmings. The opening wine was the Cremant d'Alsace, which is a unique sparkling wine from Alsace. This is made according to the methode champenoise system; the wine is under less pressure than a traditional Champagne, hence the name cremant, translated as "creaming." The Lorentz version is a blend of 1/3 each Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir and is a delight. My tasting notes are as follows:

"Delicate yellow, fine perlage; aromas of golden apple peel and a hint of lemon custard. Medium-full with very good concentration. Nicely balanced, very good acidity and very good persistence. Well made, this is a very flavorful cremant that is quite dry; it is also one of the nicest I've had in some time. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years."

I enjoyed this with turkey and the Thai food; it worked well with both, as the acidity and cleanliness of this wine cut through the spice of these foods. The suggested retail is $25.

Lorentz also produces a very nice rosé, made entirely from Pinot Noir. This has a beautiful strawberry color with fresh watermelon and strawberry fruit, very good acidity and impressive depth of fruit. This is quite dry and nicely balanced. It also worked well with turkey (with gravy) and an array of Thai dishes. The suggested retail is $16.

Three other wines that are of excellent quality are the 2011 Gewurztraminer "Reserve", the 2007 Pinot Gris "Schofweg" and the 2008 Riesling "Burg". Gewurztraminer is a specialty in Alsace and it's always been a favorite of mine; this 2011 from Lorentz with its exotic lychee, pineapple and lemon tea aromas and dry finish is first-rate and a wonderful partner for all of the foods I've mentioned in this post. Enjoy this over the next 2-3 years; suggested retail of $25, which is quite fair.

The 2007 Pinot Gris from a single vineyard (an extension of Altenberg) offers inviting flavors and aromas of red apple and oragne peel backed by impressive depth of fruit and a lightly spicy finish; this was especially nice with Thai curry. This has the concentration to drink well for another 5-7 years; this is a delightful wine with a suggested retail of $30.

The 2008 Riesling "Burg," also from a single vineyard, is medium-full with lovely aromas of petrol and apricot (classic for this variety); the finish is long and very dry. 2008 was an excellent vintage in Alsace with expressive aromas and very good natural acidity; though not a year that produced the "biggest" wines, 2008 in Alsace yielded wines of beautiful varietal purity and structure. This is superb at present with pork and lighter game and white meats and should drink well for another 3-5 years, though I may be a bit conservative in that estimate. Riesling is certainly a hallmark of any Alsatian producer's portfolio and this is one that the Lorentz family should be proud of; suggested retail is $30.

Finally, let's talk about the 2006 Gewurztraminer from the Altenberg de Bergheim Grand Cru vineyard (depicted in the above map). The Grand Cru appellation in Alsace was certified in 1975 with many of the first vineyards being designated as such in 1983; there are a total of 51 Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace. Altenberg de Bergheim, located a bit north of the town of Colmar in the Haut-Rhin ("Upper Rhine") section of Alsace is considered an exceptional site for Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

The Gustave Lorentz 2006 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim is clearly a wine of great breeding, as you would expect. Light golden yellow with sumptuous aromas of lychee, apricot, mango and white roses - just this description alone makes me want to try this wine! - there is a richness and lushness, even an oiliness on the palate. Full-bodied with outstanding persistence and excellent acidity with ideal ripeness, this is a superb wine; my dining companion at the Thai restaurant (whose name was not Gustave) called this wine a "show stopper" and I heartily agreed. This is so delicious on its own, but it would be a shame to not pair this wine with food; this is perfect with Thai pork or chicken or even duck, while it would show off turkey and lighter game beautifully and would also be ideal with foie gras. This is such a unique wine for so many reasons; it has great complexity and power, yet it is always in balance, while the varietal purity is spectacular. This should drink well for another 7-10 years and the suggested retail price of $50 is quite fair, considering where this wine is from as well as its limited production.

Tasting through a lineup of wines such as these is a great exercise in discovering what the wines of Alsace are all about. Being able to experience such first-class offerings from Gustave Lorentz merely reinforced the marvelous quality of this renowned family producer.

The wines of Gustave Lorentz are imported by Quintessential Wines, Napa, CA.