Monthly Archives: August 2008

Rosé Is Catching On

A Decanter.com article confirmed what we have been observing at The Wine Merchant over the last few years – wine drinkers are coming around to rosé. And why not? It’s delicious! There is no more hedonistic beverage than a dry rosé.

Rosé

Rosés are made from the same black-skinned grapes that are used to make red wine. The pulp and juice of the vast majority of these grapes is clear. The skins impart the color during maceration, which occurs just after the grapes have been crushed. In the case of rosé, this period of skin contact is much shorter. Traditionally a portion of the juice being used to make red wine was run off to concentrate the wine. This run-off juice became the rosé. Today’s best examples are made from grapes that are specifically grown for rosé production. These grapes are often harvested a bit earlier to maintain higher acid levels, which makes the wine more thirst quenching and a better food pair.

A rosé can be produced from any red grape, but some are more widely used than others. Grenache is probably the most popular, especially in Spain and the south of France. Pinot Noir works particularly well, too. Italy has begun to present some interesting rosés from all corners of the peninsula and a wide range of grape varieties. Darker-skinned grapes like Cabernet Franc and Malbec are used in the Loire Valley and Argentina.

The style is most closely associated with the south of France, particularly Provence, where the climate is warm and arid. White grapes do not do particularly well here, so rosé is typically the drink of choice to relieve the hot days. It pairs particularly well with the cuisine of the region – bouillabaisse comes to mind. It also works particularly well with tomatoes. Gazpacho! Lastly, no wine is a better complement to barbecue sauce. Be sure to bring an extra bottle because it will be gone before you know it.

Among the fine wine drinking public, resistance to the idea of drinking pink wine has fallen rapidly; however, I still get some quizzical looks when I suggest a rosé. This is rooted in the association with Mateus, White Zinfandel and other blush wines – a term that implies sweetness, and therefore poor quality in the eyes of many consumers. I’ve found that for the majority of customers that come into my shop, convincing them that quality sweet wines exist is more difficult than convincing them that quality rosé exists. I’ve never had a sweet rosé that I found to be delicious, but it has to exist. There is too much wine in the world. (Anybody know of one?)

The Producers:

The South of France: Domaine Tempier (importer: Kermit Lynch), Domaine de Nizas (importer: Clos du Val Wine Co.), Mas de Guiot (importer: Robert Kacher), Mas des Bressades (importer: Robert Kacher), Chateau Morgues du Gres (importer: Peter Weygandt), Chateau Revelette (importer: )

Spain: Artazuri (importer: Eric Solomon), Muga (importer: Jorge Ordoñez)

Loire Valley: Domaine Thomas Sancerre (importer: Robert Kacher)

California: Ojai (Missouri distributor: Pinnacle Imports), Wellington (Missouri distributor: JJ Gazzoli)

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Italian Reds For Value?

I was working in an Italian restaurant when I fell in love with wine so it was only natural that Italian wines were my first favorite genre and my first area of relative expertise. The thing about restaurant wine lists is that they don’t often feature the every day wines that one would typically enjoy at home. These wines fall in the $8 to $15 retail price range; meaning that if a restaurant were to sell them, they would be $16 to $30. This is less money than the restaurant wants you to be able to spend, so they simply don’t offer wines that cost less than $20 retail. Thus, when I was first getting into Italian wine, I was exposed to a great number of excellent bottles, but none that would find their way onto the average wine drinker’s dinner table on a Tuesday night. My exposure to the high-end wines gave me a great respect for the wines of Italy, but when I made the switch to retail I found the general perception of Italian wine to be a far cry from mine.

In retail, it’s all about volume. Lower priced wines move out the door quickly and our greatest challenge is to find wines under $20 that really impress us. The perception among my fellow employees was that Italian wines, the reds in particular, could reach heights of excellence, but they cost a great deal and rarely if ever were worth what you paid for them. Italian wines of even acceptable quality under $20 were a rarity in the store. When I first started at the shop I took a sabbatical from Italian wine. I was being exposed to so many new things that the Italians seemed a bit old-hat to me. I couldn’t afford the things I was used to drinking and the everyday stuff was wretched. But the tide is turning.

There are three regions that are the best known for red wine production: Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto. I’ll be brief in my summation of their wines under $20 – avoid them. If you are unable to try the wine before you buy it, then you will more than likely be wasting your money. Of the three, Piedmont is far and away the best bet. As in every region throughout the world, this is not an absolute rule. Good wine under $20 does exist, but it is not something to take chances with.

Why is this? I think that there are two main factors at work. First, the land is expensive in these areas, so the grapes have that extra cost built into them. The other is the level of prestige that the great wines of Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto have lent to the regions as a whole. Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti Classico (which have problems of their own) have enough prestige that they have created the impression that Tuscany as a whole produces great wine. Many producers rest on these laurels and depend on the regional reputation to sell their product, rather than improve their practices.

The Italians realized that they were well behind in this most important of market sectors. If they were unable initiate new drinkers with acceptable products on the low end, why would they try the high end wines when they wanted to splurge? A new source of quality fruit had to be found. Thus began the move to the South.

The southern and island regions are poised to be the next major player in the value wine sector. The inflammatory Euro will pose some problems for the American market, but the land in the south is so cheap that the producers will be able to compensate. I am very excited about this development. I feel it will help to fuel the quality revolution that producers in the traditional regions sorely need.

It is a story that draws many parallels to the state of Spanish wine in the eighties and early nineties. Outside capital comes to a backwater region that has been growing native grape varieties for centuries. The modern winemaking methods reveal the true potential of the grapes. The positive results inspire others to do the same and soon you have a revolutionary new player on the world scene. If we look twenty years to the future do we see a $200 Nero d’Avola from Sicily? It is entirely possible. In the mean time let’s discuss the places and the grapes.

All these regions have the definitive Mediterranean climate. During the growing season it is very dry and windy. This eliminates threats of disease and rot due to moisture, which greatly increases the potential for organic and biodynamic farming.

Puglia is often cited as the region most at the forefront of this value movement. It occupies the heel of the boot between the Adriatic Sea and the Gulf of Taranto. The two red grapes that have come to define Puglia are Negroamaro and Primitivo.

Negroamaro produces fleshy reds with a mixed berry nose. My new favorite producer is of the wine is Cantele. Yesterday their Salice Salentino DOC was the hit of our weekly tasting at the store. This wine is $13 and is one of the first products to arrive from their new wine making facility. According to those who have followed the winery throughout the years, the new equipment is making a world of difference. Previously they had to pump their wine to move it from one place to another. Pumping exposes the wine to an extreme amount of oxygen and the wines were best described as being “rustic”. Now they are very clean and very enjoyable.

Primitivo is the more famous of the two Puglian grapes. It created a stir in the 1990s when it was genetically linked to Zinfandel of California. The majority that I have had are still best given the “country wine” moniker, but I imagine that the strides in quality will yield a Cali-Zin-style wine sooner rather than later.

On the opposite side of the peninsula is Campania. This region was the primary provider of wine for the Romans and created the world’s first legendary wine which was called Falernian. It is rumored that Falernian was made from the grape variety Aglianico, which is still the basis of Campanian red wines. It produces rich, deeply colored wines that are quite full-bodied. The primary sub-region for Aglianico production is the Taurasi DOCG, which is referred to as the Barolo of the South.

In addition to Puglia, Sicily is considered to be the future for value wine production. It has long been the most productive region in Italy, often sending bulk grape must for distillation to mainland Italy and France. It is also home to the much maligned Marsala region. Many producers here have experimented with the “international” (i.e. French) grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah, which has yielded the best results thus far. Still, the best hope for the Sicilians to make their mark is with the local Nero d’Avola. In fact it is often compared to Syrah for its peppery characteristics and black fruits. Colosi is one of the producers to seek out.

Lastly, I have to mention Sardinia if for no other reason than I can’t think of another situation when I would get to write about it. My experience with these wines is limited, but very positive. The island was under the rule of the Kingdom of Aragon in the 1300s. During this time, the Grenache and Carignan grapes were brought to the island from modern-day Spain. Here Grenache is called Cannonau and Carignan is Carignano.
The only wines I have extensive experience with are from Argiolas, which is a producer that should be widely available. Their “Costera” Cannonau combines the fleshy red fruits of Grenache with just the right amount of Italian stank and at $17 it is one of the best wines around under twenty bucks.

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My Favorite Wine Under $15

Juan Gil

The Juan Gil Monastrell is my favorite wine under $15. I certainly hope that the price is the same next year, but I imagine that the tumbling dollar will take its toll. Many of the wines we regularly see from Spain are poised for price increases. This winery is located in Jumilla, on the central plateau called the Meseta. The region is a virtual desert, which makes for interesting wine production.

Usually vines are trellised to allow air to flow over the grapes, which prevents mold from growing on them. This is not an issue in arid Jumilla, so they have bush vines (like the one on the label). The dry conditions prevent diseases from thriving in the area, so the vines grow to be very old. Older vines produce less grapes and more concentrated wines. The lack of water also restricts yields, so these grapes are packed with flavor. The Monastrell grape is native to this area. It has a very thick skin, so it requires abundant sunshine to become fully ripe. In France it is called Mouvédre, and is mainly used as a blending grape in the wines of the Southern Rhone and Provence.

The wine is opaque violet and its fruit profile reminds me of dark-skinned berries like blackberry and black cherry. The wine has some oak influence, mainly with used barrels. The used barrels impart earthy flavors in the wine – a damp, autumn forest and mushrooms. There are chalky, mineral flavors in the wine as well. The tannins are very soft and the acid is low, so the wine has no edges; it coats the entire palate without focusing on one area, which is the mark of a well-balanced wine.

This is the second wine from Spanish Importer extraordinaire Jorge Ordoñez that I have covered. He does not have a website.

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My Favorite Wine Under $50

Over the past couple of decades, the market for fine wine has increased dramatically. What has not increased is the size and production capabilities of the world’s best wineries, which leaves most customers priced out of the classic, great wines. So what are we to do? Should we resign ourselves to the idea that we cannot afford to be intellectually stimulated by our wines? Certainly not! We simply have to be better informed than our fellow drinkers.

The best wine under $50 that I have come across is Finca Sandoval. For those who know me, it will come as little surprise that this wine is Spanish, as I am obsessed with the country’s wines. Now is the time to buy the wines of Spain. Demand for their product is rising and the Euro is killing us. I can’t imagine that this wine, currently $37 a bottle, will be under $50 much longer.

Finca Sandoval hails from a sub-region of Castilla-La Mancha called Mancheula. It is the only wine from the region I have ever come across. The wine is a Syrah-based blend, with a variety of other grapes used from year to year including Bobal, Tempranillo and Monastrell. I discovered the wine over two years ago during a Syrah tasting. There were excellent Syrahs available from around the world. The Finca was the last of the night and it was the best of the tasting, regardless of price.

Since then I have had wines from the ‘02-‘05 vintages. It throws a great deal of sediment, even in its youth, but it ages gracefully. I am currently revisiting the 2005. For those familiar with with Syrahs of the Northern Rhone, which are earthy and peppery, and those of Australia (Shiraz), which are bold and rich, you will find a combination of the two in the Sandoval. The climate in Manchuela is much warmer than the Northern Rhone, which results in a riper, fuller-bodied and more fruit forward wine akin to the Aussie Shiraz. But this is a high quality producer in Spain growing grapes in arid conditions, which makes the wine highly concentrated, and aging the juice in French oak barrels, which softens the wine and imparts additional spice character. The palate is lush and full. The alcohol is well integrated and does not burn. The finish is very long, the wine hangs around. All in all, it is the complete package and worth snapping up if you can find it.

Importer: Jorge Ordoñez

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The State of South African Wine

Although wine has been produced in South Africa for three hundred years, the modern wines of the Cape are still in their infancy. Since the late 1980s the industry has exploded thanks to foreign investment and interest in the wines. South Africa is now a hotbed of viticultural exploration, with new wineries, newly planted regions and grapes that were never planted in the country.

This rapid change left the Cape fighting for a wine identity. Were they to produce lean, earthy wines or bold, fruit-forward wines? Which markets could they compete in, and what kinds of wines did those markets demand? This lack of identity has become the identity. South Africa has it all.

Today’s South African wines are said to reflect the classicism of the Old World, while at the same time being influenced by the contemporary fruit-driven styles of the New World. The concept of New and Old World wines refers to the finished wines and the qualities that they present. Old World wines are lean and taste like the earth they were born in. New World wines are bold and fruit forward. They are clean, but simple.The wines of South Africa as a whole reflect both Old and New World qualities, but that is not necessarily true of each individual wine from the Cape. Some combine both qualities, others focus on one or the other. Quality wine comes from all three camps, but so does disappointing wine.

Like anywhere else, South Africa has producers that are excellent, those that are mediocre, and those whose wines are simply not good. As technology progresses throughout the world, the standards of winemaking are becoming more refined, and in the case of South Africa, this trend will inevitably continue.

Three factors determine the quality of any wine: the grape, the climate, and those who tend the vines and produce wine from them. Due to South Africa’s relatively late arrival into the modern wine industry, all three of these factors are still being polished.

The winemaking process begins with vineyard site. Before South Africa was opened to the world, the grape-growing industry was dominated by co-operatives that mandated which grapes could be planted and where. These rules often excluded sites in cooler regions, where the grapes did not produce as much juice. In a climate as warm as South Africa’s, finding those cooler sites is essential to wine quality. It is from these sites that one can find wines with both fruit and acidity. Wines of the classic, warmer regions all too often are dominated by alcohol, both on the nose and on the palate.

Once those sites are found, the focus shifts to planting grapes that work well. Though it is generally a warm region, the Cape’s vineyards now supply more diverse grape varieties than any other region. They have not pigeon-holed themselves into one grape variety. Quality wine is still produced from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc, but also from Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc.

Finally, there are the growers and winemakers. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of wineries grew from around 150 to over 550. This growth is most responsible for the diverse identity that South Africa has acquired in the wine industry. How can one expect a distinct style to arise during such an outburst of new talent? Each of these producers has a different concept of the style of wine they are pursuing.

To see a wine producing country as youthful and dynamic as South Africa is exciting, but in wine there is a direct relationship between maturity and overall quality. No matter how experienced the winemaker is, or even how well the grape pairs with the soil, the maturity of the vineyard itself can only come with time. The vines need to age.

Unfortunately, the aging process has been thwarted by the prevalence of viruses in the Cape’s vineyards. This outbreak is now on the mend, but it will take time to eradicate them and for the vines to fully mature. Only after further trial and error will South Africa produce its greatest wines.

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Ruinart and LVMH

What better way to begin a blog than with a celebration of a new favorite wine. The non-vintage Ruinart Blanc de Blanc is a stunner. I’ve never been so excited by a Champagne.

As this is my first entry, I’ll give you some background info. I never thought much of the idea of working with wine or food. I took restaurant jobs that were supposed to tide me over until I found some elusive passion. It never crossed my mind that waiting tables would lead me to that enterprise. During a staff training three years ago, my boss gave us a taste of the 2002 Adrian Fog Pinot Noir from the Savoy Vineyard in Mendocino. It was a revelation; the most profound sensory experience of my life. I have been immersed in wine ever since.

Now I’m working in a retail shop. Every day the local distributor reps bring wines by for us to taste and decide if we want to carry them in the store. The other day, one of these reps brought the Ruinart and a Frenchman named Roc Hennessy. I was surprised that someone from such a prestigious background would be out selling his wares. He turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve met in the wine business. I took the opportunity to talk to him about LVMH.

Hennessy is one of the better known brandies from Cognac. Over the past twenty years, Hennessy has merged with Moet & Chandon and Louis Vuitton to create the luxury goods group LVMH. The holdings of the group have increased significantly since the merger. Aside from wines and spirits, they have controlling interests in Christian Dior, TAG Heuer, Fendi, Donna Karan and a bunch of other names I didn’t recognize that I’m sure make very expensive things. The quality level of the company’s wine holdings is staggering. In Champagne they control Moet & Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart and Krug, which I along with many others regard to be the epitome of sparkling wine. They have Chateau d’Yquem of Sauternes, often called the world’s best wine, and Chateau Cheval Blanc, whose 1947 is the most acclaimed wine of the 20th century. Two months ago they acquired Numanthia, one of Spain’s best bodegas.

Usually when a fine product is acquired by a larger company, one expects the quality to decrease. In the case of LVMH, the commitment to quality takes such priority that it is not a concern. The influx of capital that the group brings typically results in a quality rise.

It’s my understanding that Ruinart is currently being reintroduced to the American market, hence Roc’s presence in the country and my opportunity to taste it. It has everything you look for in a great blanc de blanc. The color was a pale gold and the bubbles were extremely fine. The nose was delicate, but complex. When I smelled it, I knew it was going to be good, but the quality of the palate still caught me off guard. It was precise and focused. It massaged every crevice in my mouth. Undoubtedly the best Champagne I’ve had under $100,(it retails for $70) and certainly in my top ten overall. Thus far it is the wine of the year for 2008.

It may be difficult to come by at the moment. We are waiting for more to return to the distributor before we can start selling it. If you are looking to find it, let your local retailer know its part of LVMH to ease their search.

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