Thursday, November 12, 2015

Hugel - The Wines of Alsace (Part Two)

Photo ©Hugel

There are so many days to celebrate, so why not a day for a winery? I never knew this until a few weeks ago, but November 14 is Famile Hugel day - Hugel, being the famed Alsatian producer, of course. 

Well, I'm game, so I tasted a few of their classic wines to get me in the mood. A few words about Hugel first; the firm was established in 1639 (!) and is today located in the charming village of Riquewihr in the Haut-Rhin section of Alsace (this is the southern half of Alsace and is considered the best wine area in the region). The winery is still family owned - how nice in this era of corporate buyouts and mergers - and is being managed by the 12th generation of the Hugel family.

There are several lines of wines produced by Hugel. Here are notes on three wines from the classic range:

2014 "Gentil"
"Gentil" is the name of a blended wine from this house; the wine is primarily Gewurztraminer, backed by smaller amounts of Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscat and Sylvaner. There are pleasing aromas of Anjou pear along with hints of jasmine and peony. Medium-bodied, this is round with appealing fruitiness, good acidity and has a dry finish with a slightly bitter edge. I'd pair this with crayfish or quiche. The $15 price tag represents a good value.

2013 Riesling
Riesling is considered the jewel of Alsatian wine; for that reason alone, most examples will cost you at least $25, with most priced much higher. Here's one for $13, which is a rarity. It offers subtle notes of pear, elderflowers and a hint of petrol (a classic descriptor for Riesling). It's medium bodied and perhaps a bit shy on the finish, but for a dry Riesling at this price, one that will be even better in another year or two, it's a winner!

2012 Gewurztraminer
Here is the best wine of the four. Offering beautiful varietal aromas of lychee, yellow roses and grapefruit. Medium-full with very good weight on the palate. Very good acidity, impressive persistence, good complexity and excellent varietal character. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years, perhaps longer. Excellent!

If you think about it, November 14, being Famille Hugel day, is just in time for Thanksgiving. All of these wines would work well with your holiday meal, especially the Gewurztraminer with turkey. But if you prefer a more muted aromatic wine, opt for the Riesling or "Gentil" - they work beautifully with turkey, chicken, pork or many other dishes. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pierre Sparr - The Wines of Alsace (Part One)

I love the white wines of Alsace; I honestly believe that this may be the greatest wine region in the world. I say that, partly as I adore Gewurztraminer, one of the region's best wines, but I'm also such a big advocate, thanks to the overall quality of the other famous whites from here, especially Pinot Gris and Riesling. I'm referring to the dry versions of these wines, and then there are the amazing vendange tardives, late harvest wines that offer outstanding complexity and can age for decades.

I've tasted a lot of Alsatian wines from small and mid-sized family estates, but until recently, none from a cooperative. This type of producer is one that you see in many zones in France, Italy and other European countries; the fruit is sourced from growers that are also members of the cooperative. Generally the quality is quite good - sometimes very good - with a few wines being of excellent or outstanding quality.

Situated in the town of Beblenheim, the Pierre Sparr winery was founded back in 1680; nine successive generations have continued making wine. Pierre Sparr took over in the early 1900s and rebuilt the estate after damage during World War II. Today the winery owns 37 acres in the Haut-Rhin and has contracts with growers in another 370 acres in the region.

Vineyards of Pierre Sparr

Tasting through the wines, the Selection line offers clean, well made wines at a fair price ($14-$20 US retail). While these wines are pleasant and offer good varietal character, it is the Pinot Gris (2013 vintage) that is the standout. Medium-bodied with good acidity and complexity, this has very good richness on the palate as well as distinctive floral perfumes to accompany the ripe apple notes; enjoy this now and over the next 2-3 years.

Of course, you judge an Alsatian producer by the Grand Cru wines and it's no different with Pierre Sparr. I tasted three- here are my thoughts on the wines:

2011 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Mambourg
Beautiful varietal aromas of lychee, yellow rose and grapefruit. Medium-full with very good concentration. Nice wine, excellent ripeness, nicely balanced, easy-drinking. While I like the wine, I would have preferred a drier finish - this has a light sweetness, which is pleasant and may attract some drinkers, but I am a fan of the classic dry style of Alsatian Gewurztraminer. Enjoy over the next 2-3 years -perhaps longer.

2011 Riesling Grand Cru Schonenbourg
Lovely aromas of apricot and yellow peach with hints of petrol. Medium-bodied with good concentration; excellent balance, good acidity, and very good varietal character. This is not the most complex or lush style of Alsatian Riesling, but it is well mad and very satisfying. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years.

2011 Pinot Gris Grand Cru Mambourg
Deep yellow; aromas of nutmeg, Anjou pear, pine and brioche - just lovely! Medium-full with very good concentration. Excellent varietal character, good acidity and persistence with impressive harmony. Excellent- enjoy over the next 3-5 years. (The $45-$50 US retail price tag is very reasonable for this wine type.)

The wines of Pierre Sparr are imported in the USA by Wilson Daniels.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Champagne Campus - A Great Way to Learn about Champagne Online

When I think about education and Champagne, I'm reminded of the famous line about the weather - "Everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it." Regarding Champagne education, change that saying to "Everybody knows what Champagne is, but almost no one knows much about it."

It's true, to a large degree. Champagne has become a generic word for sparkling wine. With all due respect to Franciacorta, Prosecco, Cava and other classic method sparkling wines, they're not Champagne. Champagne is a specific product from the Champagne region in France and to put it simply, you cannot replicate that anywhere else in the world.

So Champagne is unique, but there is a lot more to Champagne than just a sparkling wine from France. It's about a specific process with specific varieties from vineyards spread out over several districts. It's about a wide array of styles, from non-vintage Brut, the most widely available Champagne to particular cuvées, such as Blanc de Blancs to Rosé to Blanc de Noirs and several others.

In my opinion, few people in America - and many other countries - have a good grasp on the complexities of the subject of Champagne. Ironically, some of these same individuals know a great deal about the various differences in classified Bordeaux and why the wines of Pomerol taste different than those from Pauillac or why a Burgundy from the Cote de Beaune varies so greatly in style than that of a wine from the Cote de Nuits. There are countless other stylistic differences from great wines around the world, but for too many consumers, Champagne is Champagne.

So education is desperately needed. I conduct small Champagne classes/dinners from time to time in Chicago, tasting out 5 or 6 Champagnes, representing cuvées ranging from Blanc de Blancs to Vintage Brut to Rosé and match these wines up with food. But I can only reach a small group of individuals.

There are detailed books on Champagne, several of them excellent (especially from Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan, Tyson Stezer and Gerhard Eichelmann). I highly recommend their books, as they are excellent studies of the leading Champagne houses as well as examinations of how Champagne is made.

But given today's need for quick information, books suffer, unfortunately, compared to the internet. You can argue all you want about whether books or the internet are better sources for information, but you have to accept that the internet has changed the way we look at things, and it's here to stay.

That's why it's such great news that the Comité Champagne - the CIVC, headquartered in Epernay in Champagne - has put together the Champagne Campus on their website ( This is an excellent way to learn about Champagne, as this online course is loaded with facts about numerous topics, from vineyard classification to grape varieties to production information. There are detailed maps as well as beautiful photos and it's a pleasure to read and look at.

What I love about the Champagne Campus is the fact that you learn about Champagne at your own level. When you first go to the site, you are asked four introductory questions to test your knowledge. Depending on how many of these you answer correctly, you are then told that you should study one particular level of the course, ranging from Novice to Lovers to Enthusiasts. Neat idea!

There is so much in this course, not only maps and basic facts, but also a great deal about history, climate, soils and even vine training (yes, this is a serious site about Champagne!). It's extremely well done and you can go back and forth between levels to make sure you're not missing anything.

While the best way to learn about Champagne is to open several different bottles and compare and contrast, Champagne Campus is a great complement to tasting Champagne, as you'll get a better understanding of what this wonderful beverage is all about.

A toast to the CIVC for creating Champagne Campus. I hope that millions will visit the site!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Simply Italian - Chicago and San Francisco

Simply Italian, one of the best Italian wine events held annually in the United States, is returning to Chicago and San Francisco soon. The events will be held on Monday, October 26 in Chicago and again on Wednesday, October 28 in San Francisco (details below).

Simply Italian has been a great success for a decade now, with its combination of seminars and a gala tasting for the trade. This year, seminars include one about the wines of Veneto, Piedmont and Tuscany; one on Frascati; one on Emilia-Romagna, and finally, one on Sardinia (I will be conducting that seminar in Chicago).

Following the seminars will be a gala tasting featuring more than 50 producers from various regions of Italy, including Friuli, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Sardinia and Tuscany.

Here are the details:

Chicago - Monday, October 26
Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile
633 N. St. Clair St.

San Francisco - Wednesday, October 28
The Fairmont - San Francisco
950 Mason Street

For more information or to register (trade only), go to ieem.usa 

or call them at: 305-937-2488

Friday, October 2, 2015

Two from the Maremma: Fertuna and Sette Cieli

A guest post from my friend and colleague Bill Marsano

Two Italian estates of the Maremma—Tuscany’s southwest coast—uncorked their wines in Manhattan recently. Both Tenuta Fertuna and Tenuta Sette Cieli are hard by Bolgheri, the sub-zone of the Maremma that shot to prominence with Tenuta San Guido’s Sassicaia in the 1970s (it’s home to other Supertuscan producers as well, including  Tenuta Dell'Ornellaia, Gaja’s  Ca'Marcanda and Antinori’s Guado al Tasso). The wider Maremma now has stature despite its history as an obscure terra infida, or treacherous land: a haunt of bandits (long suppressed), malarial mosquitoes (now purged) and cattle-poking cowboys, or butteri, (now mostly a tourist lure). That stature comes from its wines, and because it is so hospitable to French vines, the Maremma is sometimes referred to as “Italy’s Médoc.” (Giacomo Tachis, godfather of Supertuscans, has called it the home of “deluxe enology,”no doubt with prices in mind.) Sangiovese remains inescapable nevertheless, and happily so.

Tenuta Fertuna, a mere stripling (founded in 1997), threw its luncheon at Mulino a Vino, a new cellar-dwelling “creative Italian” place on West 14th St. in the Meatpacking District. I like a darkish restaurant, so I think The New Yorker was a tad unkind in calling MaV a “dungeon-like space, gloomy and gilded, like Christian Grey’s guest room,” but “to each his,” etc. An example from the menu’s creative side is the smoked-cured wild salmon and saffron caviar topped with Amarone 2001 glaze and served on fennel panbrioche. It was fine, but stodgy me leans toward the large and tomato-sauced Mamma’s meatball and the properly cooked homemade pastas. It’s worth noting that MaV has a list of about 100 wines, all Italian, all available by the glass, all in the care of not only a sommelier but a mini-sommelier. That’s what the website says, anyway.

Fertuna’s wines were creative too—they were all IGTs, that category which allows much freedom from the sometimes-stifling DOC rules—but without punishment or humiliation. (Remember when Tignanello had to be labeled vino da tavola, Thirsty Reader? If not, I envy your youth.) Anyway, the first Fertuna was Dropello Toscano Bianco, a white Sangiovese (really) with a little Sauvignon Blanc. Straw yellow, it’s crisp and engaging, and it’s what Fertuna calls “accessible,” meaning affordable: I’ve seen it at about $10 a bottle, although the suggested retail is $16.

A bigger surprise was the Pactio Toscana Rosso: 60% Sangiovese, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot. Normally such a large dose of Cabernet absolutely flattens Sangiovese, but not this time: The Pactio still had Sangiovese’s distinct delicacy and elegance, the result of using only second- and third-fill barriques obtained from Marchese Nicolo Incisa della Rocchetta’s Tenuta San Guido. Indeed, Fertuna’s winemaker, Paolo Rivella (nephew of the renowned Ezio) worked hand-in-glove with San Guido’s team. Imagine: all that for $19. The final wine, LODAI (about $32), had even more Cabernet, 40%, and so, for me, missed the mark. Cab’s heft was certainly there for its innumerable devotees, but the dancer’s grace of Sangiovese was overwhelmed. If you’re not expecting Sangiovese, you won’t mind a bit.

Tenuta Sette Cieli actually hit town earlier by a month or so, and their luncheon was held at Upland (Park Ave. South & 26th St). My restaurant-savvy pals were floored, impressed, gob-smacked: “Justin Smillie’s place? You’re kidding! It takes months to get in there!” Had I but known I’d have put on airs instead of my pajamas.

It’s a handsome, airy, open-kitchen kind of place featuring “California cuisine,” which here means a lot of Italian, lots of local produce, and obscure ingredients (dentile, anyone? puffed farro?). Sette Cieli's wines were presented by the winemaker, Elena Pozzolini, a very pretty and enthusiastic young woman with a high-beam smile and a taste running to Cabernet and Prada handbags. She served her itinerant apprenticeship in the customary international way (Mendoza, Mornington Peninsula, Santa Ynez Valley, and Tuscany, where she was winemaker to Bibi Graeta at Testamatta, in the Fiesole Hills overlooking Florence. The wines she poured were from 2011, and so were not "her" wines; she came to Sette Cieli only two years ago (the estate itself dates to only 2001). But they certainly showed it to be capable of impressive wines. 

Elena Pozzolini

Elena offered three IGTs and one DOC, all of them excellent. The former were the Yantra (60% Cabernet, 40% Merlot), $25; Indaco (40% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot), $55); and Scipio (100% Cabernet Franc), $120.  The DOC was the oddly named NO14, whose Bolgheri-born uvaggio, or blend, is 70% Cabernet, 15% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc. It retails for about $45. Possibly you were not expecting to see a Bolgheri DOC going for so much less than a Maremma IGT, and possibly you will struggle to find it. The estate produce a mere 3400 cases of these wines, of which 60% go to export: that’s about 2000 cases, which makes a good case for online shopping.

There’s another reason for online shopping: The SRP, or Suggested Retail Price, would cop the Pulitzer for Fiction every year if only prices were considered literature. They are fiction, however, to the extent that most retailers use them solely as a basis on which to discount.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Latest and Greatest from Champagne - Part One

I'm working on a book on Champagne and believe me, I can't really call this work! (Well, the writing part is work, I'll give you that.) Not when your research is tasting Champagne, whether in France or even at home. I toured the Champagne region in late June and was able to visit about a dozen producers and taste wines from a few others when I visited VinExpo in Bordeaux. Since I've been back, I've been tasting a lot of Champagne and have a lot more to enjoy (note: I'm not calling this sampling, as I won't sample a Champagne - I'll drink it all, along with whoever is with me at the time).

So to get caught up, here is an overview of the best Champagnes I have tasted over the past three or four months, broken down into a few categories. I have plenty now and I'll do this again in a few months, after I get through another 40 or 50 Champagnes.

Best Non-Vintage Bruts
While some think of this category in modest terms, I enjoy these wines and tasted several that were a notch or two above most of their competition. These included Bereche, a superb grower firm in Ludes, Palmer and Mailly Grand Cru, two excellent cooperatives, and the super dependable, consistent, Pol Roger, which has been my favorite non-vintage Brut from a famous Champagne house for many years. Finally, the Leclerc-Briant non-vintage Brut Reserve, from a small producer in Epernay, offers great freshness and harmony and best of all, it's made according to biodynamic practices.

Best Blanc de Blancs
So many beautiful wines in this category - here are just a few:

Palmer (non-vintage)
Besserat de Bellefon "Cuvée des Moines" 
Henriot (utterly charming)
Collard-Picard "Cuvée Dom. Picard (single vineyard in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger) 
Michel Gonet (latest release, 2011 base, light touch of minerality) 

Several small houses and growers specialize in Blanc de Blancs; two of these, namely Philippe Gonet and J. L. Vergnon, both located in the famed Côte des Blancs village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, where Chardonnay reigns supreme. From Gonet (who produces as many as seven different Blanc de Blancs cuvées!), standouts included the "Roy Soleil" with its distinct minerality and excellent persistence, and the "Belemnita" 2005, the winery's prestige cuvée, a Blanc de Blancs of outstanding purity and elegance. From a vineyard in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger planted in 1929, this is a gorgeous wine that will drink well for the next 7-10 years.

From J.L. Vergnon, every Blanc de Blancs made by Christophe Constant at this firm that has become a rising star, is noteworthy. The two finest are the 2008 Expression, which has a rich, yet delicate finish with notable finesse, and the 2008 Confidence Brut Nature, meaning zero dosage. 2008 was an exceptional vintage, as the wines have beautiful acidity, and though currently a bit austere, they should age magnificently. This cuvée has appealing aromas of yellow plums and golden raisins, excellent harmony and light minerality; it should peak in 7-10 years.

The 2008 Blanc de Blancs from Deutz and Pol Roger are lovely wines with great varietal purity; the former is a restrained wine with a light minerality and excellent harmony, while the latter is as appealing a Blanc de Blancs as I've had from Pol Roger in years. Offering a light chalky character in the nose, this has beautiful freshness, rich minerality and impressive weight, as this wine coats the palate. The Deutz should peak in 5-7 years, while the Pol Roger should age even better, peaking in 7-10 years. 

Other first-rate vintage Blanc de Blanc de Blancs include those from Bruno Pailard, 2009 Pierre Paillard "Les Motellettes", 2005 Polyez Jacquemart and Thiénot. My favorite cuvées from Bruno Paillard are the Blanc de Blancs, both the Reserve Privée and the 2004 Blanc de Blancs; this last my favorite wine of all his cuvées I tasted with Bruno at VinExpo. Offering excellent persistence, very good acidity and beautiful complexity, this is ideal for most seafood tonight or over the next 3-5 years.

Regarding Thiénot, there are two special Blanc de Blancs produced at this small gem of a Champagne house. The Cuvée Stanislaus 2005 (Stanislaus is the son of Alain Thiénot), has lemon and pear aromas and a touch of yeastiness and is quite dry with lovely complexity, while the Le Vigne aux Gammes Cuvée 3435 is remarkably rich, as it is made from late-harvest grapes from a vineyard in Avize. Some will not like the style, but I love the nutty, yeasty quality of this cuvée that displays a powerful finish and a distinct minerality.

Best Rosé Champagnes
I admit to loving rosé Champagne, actually being almost obsessed with these wines. Maybe it's because they're different, or maybe it's because most examples are primarily Pinot Noir-based, which give these wines a bit more power and richness. 

I was quite pleased with virtually every rosé I tasted on my recent trip; a few examples include the non-vintage offerings from Perrier-JouetHenriot, which is quite delicious with excellent freshness, and the Mailly Grand Cru "L'Intemporelle", which has bright fruit and delicate Pinot Noir flavors.

Moving up a notch or two as far as texture and weight, the 2005 Philipponnat "1522" Rosé (named for the year of the firm's founding) is extremely classy with notes of dried pear and sour cherry; there is outstanding persistence with great finesse; this is a beautiful rosé that does not get the attention it deserves. Enjoy now and over the next 5-7 years.

The 2005 Bollinger "La Grande Année" Rosé is stunning, with its exquisite aromas of dried cherry and red plum, excellent concentration and persistence and very good acidity. Perfectly balanced, this is delicious with great purity and varietal character. This should drink well for 7-10 years. How good is this wine? It is the best current cuvée from this house in my opinion, even better than the 2002 R.D. (recently disgorged).

Veuve Clicqout has been making a name for itself with its beautiful rosés for some time; this makes perfect sense, as this is a house where every cuvée is primarily Pinot Noir-based. The 2004 Vintage Brut Rosé is full-bodied and very rich with explosive fruit on the palate and in the finish. While this is quite flavorful and impressive now at 11 years of age, it needs time and will be at its best in another 3-5 years or longer. If you do consume it now, pair it with veal or a game bird.

Two rosés from Paul Bara in Bouzy are notable for their varietal purity and balance. This should come as no surprise as this grower uses Pinot Noir from their own vineyards in this beautiful village in the Montagne de Reims, one known for its rich, ripe Pinot Noir. The Brut Grand Rosé (non-vintage) has appealing raspberry jam and morel cherry flavors and is utterly delicious. Their 2009 Special Club Rosé is also very tasty, with more of a mandarin orange flavor profile. Displaying excellent ripeness, this is quite sleek, with admirable finesse. Offering excellent complexity (there are notes of red spice in the finish) and beautiful balance, this is a lovely wine, to be consumed at dinner (halibut would be an ideal pairing) over the next 3-5 years.

Finally, the rosés from Dom Perignon are simply breathtaking. As much as I've loved Dom Perignon Brut (and the current 2005 release is first-rate), I've always believed that their rosé was a wine of greater complexity. The current release is the 2004 and it is another outstanding example of Dom Perignon Rosé. Offering great depth of beautifully ripe black cherry fruit with excellent persistence and very good acidity, this has magnificent harmony. This has a long, long finish and is extremely satisfying. This offers great pleasure now, but you don't need to be in a hurry to drink this, as it should be in great shape in another 12-15 years.

Even more remarkable is the 1995 Rosé P2 (pictured). The "P" stands for Plenitude, a term that chef-de-cave Richard Geoffroy is using for recently disgorged examples of Dom Perignon (this replaces the term Oenotheque, used for several years). Combining excellent ripeness - 1995 was an outstanding year in Champagne - with a rich mid-palate, very good acidity and a lengthy finish, this has great Pinot Noir purity. The two things that struck me the most about this rosé were its elegance - as rich as this was, the wine offers lovely delicacy and finesse - and its amazing freshness. Here is a twenty year-old rosé that seems more like it is four or five years old. It's a remarkable wine, arguably the most complex, refined and yes, greatest rosé Champagne I've ever tasted. This will offer great satisfaction now and over the next 10-15 years. Stunning!

In my next post on the latest from Champagne, I'll focus on some of the best examples I've recently tasted of Blanc de Noirs, vintage Bruts and of course, prestige cuvées (preview: the 2002 Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill is magnificent!) Cheers!

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Next Champagne Class/Dinner

Vineyards at Epernay (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I will be conducting another of my popular Champagne class/ dinners on Saturday, August 22 at Yindee Thai Restaurant in Chicago. Details are below - seating is very limited, so if you want to attend, you need to enroll as soon as possible.

At $40 a person, this is a great value, as you will enjoy dinner with six Champagnes from producers such as Deutz, Taittinger, Charles Heidsieck, Lamiable, Veuve Fourny and Gosset. Don't miss this opportunity, as I will taste out these wines and talk about recent developments in Champagne, where I visited in June. (Note that the retail price of these wines combined is more than $400.)

Champagne Class/Dinner - Saturday, August 22

6 Champagnes plus food

Gosset Brut "Excellence"
Veuve Fourny Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru Vertus
Charles Heidsieck Brut Vintage 2005
Lamiable Rosé Grand Cru
Deutz Rosé Vintage 2009
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2005

$40 per person for the food and champagnes (and handouts). Yindee Thai, 1824 W. Addison Street (just under the Addison Brown line "L"). 7:00 PM start. (Please note- do not call the restaurant for information- you must enroll through me.)

This will be limited to 8 or 9 people, so everyone can enjoy enough Champagne.

As this is limited to a small number of people on a first-come, first-serve basis, I want to be sure I fill each set. Please email me at to let me know how many people you want to reserve for and I can let you know if there are still seats available.

Payment will be to my PayPal account. The email address is The fee is $40, which covers everything.

When I receive your payment, I will contact you and let you know. No cancellations after August 20.

I look forward to seeing you on August 22, for an educational and fun evening with the many styles of Champagne – paired with Thai cuisine!

Friday, July 31, 2015

It's Time for Albariño!

August 1 is Albariño day. There's something I bet you didn't know - I didn't until a few weeks ago. I always thought it strange that there would be a special day for a particular wine - why not a week or a month? I'm not going to drink it only on that day; regardless, at least this business about a special day gets us thinking about Albariño- and that's a good thing.

Albariño is a dry white that is becoming ever more popular in America; certainly the public is moving away from big reds, preferring more elegant, drinkable wines and Albariño is there to fit the bill. The fact that it's a lovely aromatic wine with delicious fresh fruit is also a big plus - here is a wine that is a crowd pleaser and one that can be paired with gourmet fare.

Albariño is a dry white made from the eponymous grape grown in the Rias Baixas region of northwest Spain, not far from the border with Portugal (there are also some excellent versions of Albariño produced in Portugal, but for this post, we'll only deal with those from Spain). 

This is a continental climate, with the advantage of being located not far from the Atlantic Ocean, meaning that local vineyards receive cooling breezes from the sea, moderating temperatures. This helps preserve freshness and acidity, which make this an ideal region for the Albariño variety. In fact, 90% of the plantings in Rias Baixas are Albariño. 

This means dozens and dozens of producers craft their version of Albariño. I've enjoyed these wines for years; Albariño has become one of my favorite summer whites, although I enjoy it in the spring and autumn as well. Most are unoaked, letting the pear, melon and apple fruit aromas shine through; they're ideal paired with shellfish (paella would be a great match), risotto and lighter vegetables such as carrots and peas. I also love taking an Albariño to a BYOB Thai restaurant here in Chicago - they are especially great with spring rolls, noodles or chicken or pork with lime and peanut sauce.

Here are notes on a few I've tasted recently:

2014 Don Olegario - Light yellow; lovely aromas of lime, golden apple, white peach and lilacs. Medium-bodied with a dry finish with a hint of minerality. Very good complexity and balance. Great typicity - a delicious Albariño for enjoyment now and over the next year. Suggested retail price: $20 (Imported by Kobrand)

2011 Trico - While most examples of Albariño are enjoyed upon release, the best can age a few years. This 2011 is one of the finest examples of aged Albrariño I've tried in a few years. Deep yellow- still fresh aromas of Bosc pear, geranium, saffron and magnolia. Medium-full with very good concentration. Very good acidity, excellent concentration and nice structure. Enjoy on its own or with paella, risotto or a summer vegetable salad. $25 (Imported by Michael Skurnik)

2013 Trico "Tabla de Sumar"- Straw/light yellow; attractive aromas of honeysuckle, yellow peach and lilacs. Medium-full, this has bright, juicy varietal fruit, very good acidity and a zippy, zesty, finish. Tasty and very delicious! $15 - very good value (Imported by Michael Skurnik)

2013 Martin Codax Albarino - Straw/light yellow; aromas are a bit closed at present - hints of Anjou pear, white peach and lilacs. Medium-bodied, clean and well balanced with good acidity. Good typicity - this is pleasant now, but should open a bit and will probably reveal more complexity within another 10-12 months. $15 (Imported by Gallo)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Champagne Class/Dinner

Champagne cellar in Bouzy (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I will be conducting another of my popular Champagne class/ dinners on Saturday, August 1 at Yindee Thai Restaurant in Chicago. Details are below - seating is very limited, so if you want to attend, you need to enroll as soon as possible.

At $35 a person, this is a great value, as you will enjoy dinner with five Champagnes from producers such as Deutz, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Duval-Leroy and Drappier. Don't miss this opportunity, as I will taste out these wines and talk about recent developments in Champagne, where I visited in June.

Champagne Class/Dinner - Saturday, August 1

5 Champagnes plus food

Drappier Blanc de Blancs “Signature”
Taittinger Vintage Brut 2004
Duval-Leroy Rosé Premier Cru
Veuve Clicquot Rosé Vintage 2004
Cuvée William Deutz 2000

$35 per person for the food and champagnes (and handouts). Yindee Thai, 1824 W. Addison Street (just under the Addison Brown line "L"). 7:00 PM start. (Please note- do not call the restaurant for information- you must enroll through me.)

This will be limited to 8 or 9 people, so everyone can enjoy enough Champagne.

As this is limited to a small number of people on a first-come, first-serve basis, I want to be sure I fill each set. Please email me at to let me know how many people you want to reserve for and I can let you know if there are still seats available.

Payment will be to my PayPal account. The email address is The fee is $35, which covers everything.

When I receive your payment, I will contact you and let you know. No cancellations after July 29.

I look forward to seeing you on August 1, for an educational and fun evening with the many styles of Champagne – paired with Thai cuisine!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Italian Wine Classes- From North to South

The Italian Wine Specialist Certification program organized by the North American Sommelier Assocation will be presented in Chicago, starting on July 25 and continuing on July 26, August 1 and 2 with a final exam on August 8.

Students will taste wines from every region in Italy - all 20 and will also learn about the country's complex regulations as well as history and of course, grape varieties. The total cost is $650.00

The class will be taught by John Cressman, who is the Chicago delegate of the Association and is an AIS (Associazione Italiana Sommelier) "Gold Pin" Sommelier.

To enroll for the classes, click here.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Champagne - Deserved Honors and Success

Champagne Caves (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Great news for the Champagne region! On July 4, UNESCO made the decision to include the caves, houses and slopes of Champagne as a UNESCO Heritage site. This means that the Champagne region is now on a list of other World Heritage sites such as the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty and the Aachen Cathedral in Germany, to name only a few (there are more than 1000 Heritage Sites across the globe). It now joins other wine regions on the list, such as the Upper Middle Rhine Valley in Germany and the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Italy.

Champagne Vineyards in Bouzy (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

For me, this is great news, as it will only help the sales of Champagne. You might think that Champagne might not need this acclaim to improve their market performance, but I believe that when people understand the meaning of these hillsides and their terroir, as well as the secrets of the cellars where wines are aged for years, transforming white and red wines into stunning sparkling wines of great individuality, they will realize how truly special Champagne is. They will also understand how singular Champagne is - there are notable bubblies produced in many territories around the globe, but Champagne is unique and is the reference point for sparkling wine.

I raise a glass of Champagne to the growers and producers of Champagne and congratulate them on this wonderful commendation!

Click here for a copy of the press release.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Singular History of Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where else would you find text such as that?

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


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

order here

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Loving Sauvignon Blanc - from all corners of the globe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 6, 2015

Riesling Paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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