TASTY, SUB-$15 CABERNET

Wines like this really test our communication skills. So many times whether or not someone might be interested in a wine we are offering can hinge on a single word. As merchants, it is to our advantage to be as honest as we can and convey as much information about a wine’s profile and value to consumers and explain what we saw in it to bring it in. This wine came in primarily because it answered one of the great dilemmas on our time…delicious Cabernet for under $20.

The search for Cabernet values can take us some pretty far-flung locales, in this case the Gilgal Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 comes from the Upper Galilee mountain range. Sitting atop the mountain range, the innovatively designed winery is committed to revitalizing the region’s rich history of winemaking. Over 2,000 years ago, these mountains, among Israel’s highest at more than 1,000 meters above sea level, was a choice location for the cultivation of quality grapevines.

Gilgal has an American winemaker, California-born and UC Davis educated Victor Schoenfeld, who has occupied the post as head winemaker for Golan Heights Winery, makers of Yarden and Mount Herman as well, for some 28 years. The area is warm enough to ripen grapes, but also has the cooler evenings to help preserve a wine’ freshness. This is a generally competent producer that makes a lot of solid wines but has the occasional hits. This Cabernet is one of those that stood out of the lineup.

If you want to profile the flavors, think ripe blackcurrant and a plush texture reminiscent of a warmer vintage in California, with a round mouthfeel and just enough acidity for brightness. We sure as heck can’t do a Cabernet like this for this kind of price here at home, so in that regard this is potentially an important find. Apparently, 2016 in the Golan Heights was one of the shortest harvests on record and there were no weather ‘events’ during the growing season to create issues. Maybe next year won’t be as easy, but we concern ourselves with the here and now with respect to go-to Cabernet candidates.

In the end, the only question was the winery telling us we shouldn’t say the ‘K’ word (kosher). Why not? We have been told that before but we don’t see the argument. We bought the Gilgal because we thought it was quite a performer for the fare and good value Cab isn’t easy to find. We wouldn’t buy something we didn’t like because it was ‘kosher’ any more than we would do that because something was ‘organic’ or ‘natural’. Quite the contrary, we see that fact that it serves the Kosher need as an added utility bonus for a tasty, low-priced, 100% varietal Cab that saw 12 months in oak and sells for under $15.

SOLANERA’S BEST YET, AND UNDER $10

We never stop looking out for the rare, amazing deal.  These can come at any time, from anywhere, and we have turned more than our share of these kinds of opportunities over the years.  But, frankly, given what is currently available in the marketplace, something has to be pretty spectacular to get our attention.  This one is.

Yes we know we have gone to the well with Solanera  number of times in the past, but the darn wine just keeps delivering, consistently improving and presenting one of the best bang-for-the-buck options out there.

It all starts with Eric Solomon, a consistent source for some of the best wine deals on the planet and his massive portfolio of wines.  Simply put, when you are trying to market some 300+ wines in the marketplace, and transitioning through various configurations of purveyors to accommodate distribution of so many brands, there are times a wine or two can get lost in the shuffle. 

It’s nobody’s fault, but opportunities get created all the same and, when the wine is already a pretty sensational value with a long proven track record, an aggressive deal can make the offer almost laughable.  We have told this story more than once with Solanera, and here we go again with the latest and greatest, the Castano Solanera Vinas Viejas 2015. 

Over the years a lot of Solanera has passed through our doors.  Why wouldn’t it?  You’ve got Monastrell, Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha from 40-100 year-old vines in clay/limestone soils at nearly 3000 feet elevation.  It’s ‘always sunny’ in Yecla, and the altitude keeps everything in perspective as the nights cool to preserve sufficient freshness in the wine.  You get a rich, substantial, character-filled red year in and year out and, because the real estate isn’t as famous here in southeastern Spain, you don’t pay a lot of money for the quality of juice you are getting. 

Hey, it might seem like unfair competition, but it’s just the way it is.  It is no wonder that we have sold so much Solanera in our history, and why all thirteen vintages of the stuff that were reviewed in Wine Advocate have scored 90 points or better.  Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez was pretty high on this one  again, handing it a 92 point score with lengthy comments, “The 2015 Solanera used to wear the ultimate Spanglish label, which said “Viñas Viejas of Monastrell” even if it was always a blend (in this vintage, the blend includes 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Garnacha Tintorera)…

“… they used part of full clusters and sourced the grapes from Casa Marta, a nine-hectare, head-pruned, dry-farmed plot on very stony soils in the north of Yecla at the foot of the Mount Arabí. It fermented in concrete vats and open-top barrels and matured in barrique, each variety separately, for some ten months, after which it was blended and bottled. This is the vintage of the big change in this wine, where, as with the majority of its siblings, there is better balance and more integrated oak, more freshness and better balance.

“The nose is quite captivating, especially after some time in the glass, when it starts developing some floral aromas, perfect ripeness, no warmth or alcohol and a powerful, yet terribly balanced palate with concentration and elegance, fine-grained tannins and clean, focused flavors. This is my favorite Solanera to date.” 

Like we said, ours, too.  This is a more refined effort that definitely plays above its category in the glass even more than past efforts.  This jump in quality may have had something to do with the vintage and most assuredly reflects the touch of Jean-Marc Lafage who consulted on this vintage for the first time.  It’s a kinder, gentler, more polished and more engaging bottle of Solanera and for under $10 (the best price in the country), it’s almost like stealing.  Good hunting.

BRIEFS 5-28-19

~~They grow Sauvignon Blanc in a lot of places world-wide, from the Loire to Australia, South Africa and the Americas.  But some of the most intriguing come from the high country of northeast Italy.  There’s a distinctive take on the varietal with aromas of tomato leaf, grapefruit, wild herbs, and yellow stone fruits.  The flavors are hauntingly insistent but also delicate.  When it’s on, it is a lovely and unique take on Sauvignon Blanc, pretty unlike anything else from this varietal.  Some of our favorites are Vie de Romans, Venica, and Venica, and Terlano’s Quarz.   In that vein of elite level, captivating, almost haunting ‘high country’ Sauvignons, add the Tiare Sauvignon Collio 2017, a beautiful example of exactly what we are talking about and a “tre bicchierre” selection from Gambero Rosso.

~~Not all Pinot Grigios are created equal, and some of them are even pink.  As many of you know, Pinot Grigio grapes actually have a pinkish tint.  Through a process called ramato, the Pinot Grigio grapes spend some extra time in contact with the skins which changes the phenolic feel of the wine in the mouth, adds a little punch to the mid palate and, depending on the length of the contact, imparts a pinkish hue to the wine itself.  There aren’t a lot of folks that do it this way and it takes a certain level of talent to pull it off.  But done right, it is a delicious, distinctive take on the varietal that most folks haven’t tried.   Definitely for adults, the Specogna Pinot Grigio Ramato Friuli Colli Orientali 2017 ($22.99) is a marvelous example of this style.  Who knew Pinot Grigio could be this interesting?

~~Vintages play an important part in most of what we do.  A new vintage of something is news in itself.  Not so for sparkling and fortified wines that are non-vintage.  So unless there is some sort of seasonal or event-related relevance, things like the Mikulski Cremant de Bourgogne, which we highlighted this year, the Perez Barquero Gran Barquero Amontillado Sherry that we highlighted last year, and the Lustau Palo Cortado Peninsula (that we highlighted a long time agoor the Drusian Prosecco Superiore Valdobbiadene Extra Drya house favorite that we have been selling for more than a decade, will be forgotten.  We’re going to use things like the ‘Briefs’ section to mention products like these again because the whole way wine is being marketed has changed.  In the past, there were conversations where walk-in consumers would ask about products and categories from people on the floor.  Buying online with a mouse click is a completely different dynamic.  Items like these were exciting enough for us to buy them initially, and still are.  No reason not to remind people about them once in a while and possibly introduce a few new folks that missed it the first time in the process.

GO FOR THE BOLD

It’s pretty common for sommeliers and even Masters of Wine to try their hand at winemaking.  The results have been, ahem, varied to say the least.  But if you try enough of them, you will eventually run across someone who ‘gets it’.  In this particular case, master Sommelier Chris Miller, and the winery he founded called Seabold Cellars, were sent our way by a sommelier friend here in the OC who thought we should check these out. 

Miller established Seabold in 2014 with the focus on producing small lot site-specific Burgundian and Rhône varietals from the Monterey Bay region. He believes that cooler is better for certain varietals and such vineyards produce balanced wines that showcase their origin more than their winemaking. Miller learned winemaking working with the folks at Gramercy Cellars, Brewer-Clifton and Melville.

The Seabold wines impressed as they were both tender and lifted, and each one showed a few nuances that were definitely site specific.  They were very pleasing examples of cool climate juice that showcased the style yet were tender enough and possessed enough flesh to be engaging in the glass rather than, as so many are, more ‘intellectually challenging’ then enjoyable.  Had we not already had quite a selection of serious wines in the $40-50 range, we certainly would have bit on these.  We still might.  But we couldn’t pass up the Bold wines which were superior stylistically and well priced given the juice.

The concept of Bold was rather unique.  First one must understand that, while a lot of people say the same thing, these guys really are about the dirt.  Part of their ‘mission statement’ is “…During the year, more time is spent in vineyards than the winery. Our winemaking is as hands-off as possible, respecting traditional techniques and practices without being beholden to them.”  It shows in the wines. 

Where Bold diverts from the typical ‘second line’ scenario is quite specific.  The Bold wines are not made from the leftovers of the Seabold wines, but rather are ‘first run’ efforts with vineyards the winery has not worked with before.  They like to get really comfortable with the vineyard before they slap a Seabold label on a wine with that designation,  and Bold is part of that “getting to know you” process. 

No one we know thinks of the Arroyo Seco area as a hotbed for Sauvignon Blanc.  But maybe that’s because they haven’t been looking in the right place.  Miller found Zabala Vineyards in one of the warmest subsections of this narrow west-facing valley shielded by the Santa Lucia Mountains.  Planted in 1972, it is one of Monterey County’s oldest vineyards with soils of sandy loam covered with round riverbed stones.  The vineyard is family-owned, impeccably cared-for, and certified organic.

The Bold Wine Co. Sauvignon Blanc Monterey 2018 itself is an intriguing expression of the varietal.  There is plenty of richness in the herb-laced grapefruit, melon and pear fruit, plenty of freshness while the acids are not overly aggressive, and a remarkable sense of harmony.  It lacks the edgy bite that a lot of California Sauvignons possess and rather presents a rounder yet still lifted presentation of the varietal.  For under $20, it is an excellent choice and given the production (a mere 268 cases of wine) we’d consider this pretty much ‘insider trading’.

The same holds true for the Bold Wine Co. Pinot Noir Monterey 2017The story here seems typical of this producer, and focuses on the Balestra Vineyard which lies just north of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, on a very cold climate benchland property owned and farmed by a multi-generational family of farmers. Because it is closer to the valley to the sea, the wines from the property always show a certain bright, fruit-forward character which is often balanced out by a judicious inclusion of whole clusters during fermentation.

There’s a lovely texture here and a dusty, musky presentation of dark cherry and ripe cranberry fruit kissed with a little bit of woodsiness and some elements of spice.  For a generally savory Pinot, the edges are rounded and engaging and the wine has both flesh and lift to create a very pleasing experience in the glasss.  The terroir nuances rise above anything you can typically buy at this kind ofrprcie.  We think the ‘Bold’ wines present a pretty exciting option in a price range like this and there is legitimate excitement as to whether Miller has do with these in the purchases moving forwards.  They are certainly off to an impressive start given what we see here.  With only a few hundred cases this isn’t going to be a game changer for the market as a whole.  But it will certainly prove shrewd value ‘harvest’ for those that move quickly.

OUR FAVORITE NEW (TO US) PROSECCO

Prosecco has been gaining popularity over the last decade or so, but the wide variety of styles and price points makes it a little difficult to get a feel for any particular wine by virtue of the label. Sure they are principally made from the grape Glera and typically bulk fermented. But beyond that it’s anybody’s guess how sweet or aggressively fizzy any individual selection might be just from looking at the bottle. As we have learned, there are a number of very appealing selections out there at a variety of price points.

Of course any time you have a category, somebody will ask you what the best one is. Admittedly in our case, since we taste so much, that answer could vary over time. But certainly right now our first choice is the Loredan Gasparini Asolo Prosecco Brut Superiore NV.   It is the most singularly impressive Prosecco we have had in quite some time. The area of Trevigi itself is no newcomer, having been known for wine production since the 1300s and even being praised by the historian Bonifacio in 1590. But the real story here starts in 1973 when current owner Giancarlo Palla took the reigns. Clearly the exceptional quality of the site is reflected in this clean, bright, elegant Prosecco.

The bead is sleek, the bubbles are fine, and the attack is not too aggressive. The wine itself is at the driest end of the spectrum for the genre and the clean, refined fruit, elegant mousse, and lingering, fresh finish play like a lighter on its feet, user-friendly version of a fine Champagne. That was a lot for us to find in a wine that sells for less than $14, we aren’t trying to oversell it. The estate makes a number of other still wines, and we didn’t find any magical reviews.

But at some point the origins in the Asolo DOCG Superiore subzone seems to have made its mark on the finished wine and this is deceptively polished. Suffice it to say that this is a well made Prosecco that can play to a more sophisticated audience while being sensibly priced.  That alone is good reason to pay attention to this quiet little find.

Domaine du Gour de Chaule Gigondas 2015

Given how long and extensively we have worked with the Rhone, and the southern Rhone in particular, it’s a little surprising that this is only our second go around with this stylish Gigondas estate.  Our first foray, the 2010 Gour de Chaule Gigondas was a huge hit and lot of boxes disappeared from the old location.  This is actually the first volley in the newer spot, and the price is a little bit more than it was five years ago (that’s to be expected), but we are big fans of what this estate is doing.

The fact sheet reads something like this, with deference to the importer’s extensive and accessible information.  The Domaine du Gour de Chaulé, situated in the heart of the village of Gigondas, was founded in 1900 by Eugene Bonfils, the great-grandfather of the current proprietor, Stephanie Fumoso. All the wine produced at the estate was sold in bulk to negociants until 1970 when Madame Rolande Beaumet, Eugene’s daughter and the grandmother of the current owner, Stéphanie, began to bottle a small percentage of the estate’s wine for sale to private clients.

Madame Beaumet’s daughter, Aline Bonfils, took the reins of the domaine in the early 1980s and it was she that broadened the tradition of estate bottling significantly.  Stephanie was at the helm when we flipped over that 2010, and we were immediately captivated by a wine that, while it had all of the moxie one would expect from a Gigondas, it also had a polished presence that was considerably less ‘rough and tumble’ than most of the other ‘local produce’.

Were going to go out on a limb and suggests that a woman’s touch is clearly evident here (are we allowed to say that any more?) as the wine has the size and substance to stand among most Gigondas, but without the gritty tannins that are so often a part of wines from this appellation.  Dark berries, stony minerality, pepper, and garrigue here, typicite is not an issue but this is a more white tablecloth version of the genre.

This Grenache based cuvee comes from three separate plots with the average vine age approaching age 60.  Yields are most and the grapes are hand harvested, never destemmed, and sees no new oak.  The wine is put into large foudres for 18 months before it is bottled unfiltered and unfined.  Bottom line, this is a classy example from an often rustic area.

This is still kind of an under-the-radar property in the broad market, but the media is starring to take notice.  Wine Advocate’s  Joe Czerwinski had this to say, “Still in foudres and concrete, the 2015 Gigondas Cuvee Tradition is incredibly creamy, ripe and fresh. This full-bodied wine is bursting with ripe Grenache fruit, while the finish displays plush tannins. It’s not hugely complex—or maybe the fruit is just covering some of that complexity right now—but it sure is delicious…90-92 points.”  He got the delicious part right, but that review was posted in Oct., 2017, which means it was tasted well before that.  A lot can change in a year and a half (or more).

Even more upbeat was the prose from Josh Raynolds of Vinous, “Brilliant ruby. A heady bouquet evokes ripe red and blue fruits, Indian spices and smoky minerals, along with a hint of candied lavender in the background. Deeply concentrated yet energetic black raspberry, boysenberry and spicecake flavors unfold slowly, picking up a licorice quality that expands on the back half. Shows excellent clarity and mineral cut on a sweet, seamless finish shaped by smooth tannins…92-94 points.”

We know a lot of folks out there aren’t necessarily convinced by ‘barrel scores’.  We tasted the Domaine du Gour de Chaule Gigondas 2015 out of the bottle.  It’s delicious, complex and all we can say is ‘you go, girl’.

A QUICK LOOK AHEAD…

As we always do, here’s a look ahead at what promise to be some of the hottest topics in 2019:

2016 BORDEAUX:  This is another great vintage and better priced than the last two iconic years, 2009 and 2010.  It’s going to get hot and heavy early on as the critics race to beat each other to get the final ‘in bottle’ scores to market and the Bordeaux negociants move to strike while the iron is hot as far as making sales.  Like they did with 2009, things could heat up quickly.  This is a vintage to own of you are a fan of Bordeaux and it was successful throughout the appellations for reds.  The 2015s are no slouches either so there is plenty for the Bordeaux aficionado to look through.  Bargains may avail themselves if the market moves quickly to focus on the 2016s and leaves the 2015s by the wayside, but that’s a lot to hope for with Bordeaux.

Having just run through a good sampling at the Union des Grands Crus tasting in January, we can tell you that these wines in bottle are impressive and the real deal.  ‘Classic’ Bordeaux fans will be very happy with the performance of the old, familiar names as a number of the iconic Left Bank properties were at the top of their game in 2016.

2016 SOUTHERN RHONES:  We have been banging this drum for a while now but there are still a few producers to be heard from in 2016 as well as the opportunity to pick from all of the remaining cool stuff that has already hit the market.  The supplies are definitely dwindling and we are starting to see 2017s.  The 2016s, as we have said many times, certainly rank among the very best without question and may be the best in the southern Rhone we have ever tasted.   There are still a few bits of the 2015s from the northern Rhone as well, again a vintage of historic proportion for Syrah.

2015/2016 TUSCAN REDS:  There are a few 2015s to still come to market, though 2015 Brunellos are still a ways out (like a year).  The 2016 Rossos are starting to come to market and they are polished and fruit driven.  In many cases the 2016 versions from Chianti and Bolgheri are even better than the vaunted 2015s.  Like the 2016s in the Rhone and Bordeaux, the 2016 Tuscans have a unique combination of tender, powerful, harmonious fruit and surprising buoyancy.  Rest assured we will not be saying the same thing next year or the year after that as some merchants might.  The 2016s are the real deal for both current applications or for the cellar.  Given what we have seen of the ‘second wines’ of people like Sassicaia and Guado al Tasso, the ‘big dogs’ should be epic.  Chiantis continue to amaze from 2016.

BURGUNDY/BEAUJOLAIS-The watchword here is tasty.  While we don’t expect either area to be heralded by the critics in the same way as the 2015 versions were, there will be a number of very appealing wines hitting the market in both categories and some that will probably get serious ink simply because they are very likeable (critics are people, too) .  As a vintage, 2017s are generally tender and well liked, though likely earlier maturing than either of the two prior vintages.  It’s all relative though.  We suspect there would be considerably more fuss about 2017s following 2013s rather than 2015s.  But there is plenty of pleasing juice coming down the pipeline.

SOUTH AMERICA There’s no reason not to expect the upward trajectory in this category to continue.

SPAIN– Since so many different vintages will be arriving at various levels, it would be hard to make any sweeping statements.  There are always Reservas and Grand Reservas from a variety of vintages and you can bet we will be all over those.  At the value end, some of the ‘little’ 2015s are starting to show up and they are delicious on the whole.

WHITES– The 2017 whites from northeastern Italy, western Spain and Germany will be some of the first places we look this year while they are around.

BORN IN THE USA– Oregon Pinots will be strong choices again, and a renaissance of Oregon Chardonnays will provide some real surprises.  Vintages are strong up and down the Coast so the potential exists for all manner of exceptional wines.  California, as usual, will provide plenty of thrills.  The category is not without issues however, but they are not relative to the very good harvests (though we don’t know the full effects of the fires as yet).

There is plenty of smoke (and mirrors) with regards to pricing.  Simply there are too many $40 wines selling (OK, maybe just ‘asking’) for $60 fares and $60 bottlings trying to get $100+.  We think (and have seen) many consumers say ‘no’ to the inflated prices while wineries act like everything is just peachy.  Something will give and, after so any years of this same dance, the truth might start seeping out.

Finally, sadly, the ‘control group’ style of manipulating wine with all sorts of ‘winemaking tricks’ seems to be getting more pervasive.  We’re noticing that whiff of artificial ‘cake frosting’ and shameless residual sugar showing up in a growing number of wines.  The purpose is to give consumers a consistent, familiar profile by dumbing down the wine.  To us that isn’t wine, it’s Pepsi (or Coke).  Pricing and the lack of true soul in so many of our local value wines is one of the most disturbing trends in the market and part of the reason we will likely be concentrating on imports at the value end once again.

LEGAL STUFF– While there are always lots of things going on in the wine world, this year one of the most significant will be happening in the court room, The Supreme Court no less.  Depending on the rulings, the outcome of Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association vs. Blair could possibly have sweeping effects on how wine and spirits are sold in this country and change the landscape for consumers, retailers and wineries.  Without getting too far into the arguments (hey, we aren’t lawyers), it looks to be yet another spin on the good old Commerce Clause vs. the 21st Amendment story, but from a different angle.

You heard a lot of the same things back with Granholm v. Heald in 2005, but the court ruled within very specific points of law which, while it benefitted a few people greatly (wineries), kept the post-ruling interpretations rather narrow.  This time around could be very different depending on the outcome and how ruling is written.  One can only hope…

 

 

 

‘BRANDING’: FRIEND OR FOE OF WINE

There have been similar rants on these pages in the past about the current trend toward ‘branding’.  But it seems that every time a situation arises that demonstrates exactly what we object to, we feel the need to speak out.  Maybe no one is listening.  We do realize that a lot of fermented grape juice of marginal quality is sold out in the world and we are but a microscopic (if vocal) speck on the landscape.  Maybe our rants are some sort of therapeutic exercise we need to go through, but we are becoming somewhat concerned about things that are happening in the wine industry that we feel are completely counter to what we find to be in its best long term interest.

Yes we are very passionate about what we do here and get excited to come to work and see what the day will bring. Sadly there are burgeoning trends we feel are encroaching on the true beauty of the business.  One supposes it would be a good time to state what that ideal is.  Well, for us, it is about the diversity and personality of wine.  As importer Eric Solomon so eloquently stated on his philosophy of selecting wines, ‘place over process’.  We want Bordeaux to taste like Bordeaux, Napa Cab to taste like Napa Cab, Rhones to taste like their place of origin and so on and so on.  To us the joy of wine is in the diversity of expression that aspect is an inherent part of quality.

We still believe vintage matters because in each year the variables of weather have an impact on the finished wine, for better or worse.  That is the essence of what the wine experience is all about.  If you want something to taste the same every time, drink whiskey or one of those canned cocktails.  Wine has never been about that to us.  But now there are large forces in the world that are trying to make it that way.

We first noticed It with the distribution companies and wholesalers.  We would order a particular wine and, if the distributor was out of it, he would just ship the next vintage as if that was perfectly OK.  Same label, right?  Doesn’t vintage kind of matter with wine?   We, in our archaic mind sets, still think it does.

More recently we have noticed a couple of disturbing trends.  First is the homogenization of wine.  More and more we have noticed a certain artificial twang and overt primary grapeyness in a number of red wines.  We have very specific ideas about who perpetrated this attempt to mediate ‘vintage’ with excessive manipulation in the cellar.  For a number of reasons we will not name names.  But these successful market brands, even though they don’t necessarily taste like their stated varietal because of additions of various winemaking ‘ingredients’, have spawned a whole series of imitators.  Pretty soon everything will be made to formula and will all taste the same, or at least that is the fear

If, say, a 2011, 2012, and 2013 version of a Napa Cabernet, from vintages that are about as different from one another as it gets in California, are virtually indistinguishable from each other, what does that tell you?  It tells you that there is ‘winemaking’ happening, and we don’t mean that in a nice way.  Sadly, instead of being spurned by the marketplace, some of these companies are selling for ungodly sums of money because of ‘branding’.  Big conglomerates don’t seem to care about quality at all, only having a name that has a certain public appeal so they can ramp up production even more.  Is it good business?  There are those that think so.  Is it still wine?  Technically and chemically, we suppose it is.  But such beverages do not inspire a lot of passion in us.

We have been pretty vocal about ‘natural’ wines, too.  We are all for organic farming and minimal handling in the cellar as long as it provides exciting juice.  But we aren’t interested in buying something based on how it is made, only how good it is.  If there is a compelling story about the wines process, great, but only if we like it in the first place.  Sadly, the term ‘natural wine’ has become an excuse for shoddy winemaking as well as a philosophy.  If something is oxidized, tawny, lifeless or full of mercaptans, that is perfectly fine if it is ‘natural wine’ and we must not ‘understand it’.   To us it is simply flawed wine.  Natural doesn’t mean ‘bad’ per se, but it has become an explanation for a lot of flaws when the process isn’t executed perfectly.

The other day really got us going on the branding thing again.  Some new purveyors who were pretty full of themselves because they had been a part of another grocery store brand, were in to present their newest project.  They proceeded to lay out a few wines that were essentially brand new labels and we tasted through.  Frankly only one of them was even noteworthy and it had the strangest name and label from the standpoint of marketing a ‘food product’.

The rest were unremarkable in every way but that didn’t seem to matter.  These guys were intent on making them part of the ‘Nielson 300’ (the list of top selling commercial wines that is the bible for grocery stores).  Based on what was not so clear.  Here you were marketing a name and, presumably, some sort of story that might cause people to pick up a bottle.  Clearly these folks had a pretty low opinion of the people who they were marketing to in terms of sophistication.

They continued to represent these wines as competitive in the marketplace (not sure it was our marketplace, nor what kind of stuff these guys were used to drinking), even going so far as to say their Oregon rose was ‘the best in America’.  Huh? Based on what?

Not sure what kind of conversations these people have with grocery store buyers but clearly they weren’t used to people like us that asked them about sourcing and how the wines were put together and had certain expectations about a wine’s viability based on how it tasted.  Essentially these wines, we found out, were predominantly blended to achieve specific market flavor profiles, or as we like to call them ‘control group cuvee’.  Is this the kind of thing people are  drinking these days?

 

What we came away with was that there wasn’t any particular thought to giving people tasty, character-filled alternatives to the current spate of innocuous mass marketed wine, just the same old stuff in a different package.  We’d venture to say little thought was given to the wine at all.  This was a classic case of the ‘branding’ being the central issue.   The concept of ‘branding’ is fine for Pepsi, Green Giant Nibletts, and Tide laundry soap, all of which can be manufactured to be the same every time.  The concept plays a little differently in a product that can vary in quality and expression based on vintage.

Step one, dumb down character.  Step two, sell the ‘brand’ because that is the key to success. Sadly more and more folks in this industry are acting as if the label and image are more important than what is inside the bottle.  Maybe that is the real world.  For us, wine doesn’t work that way…at least it didn’t used to.

 

 

 

 

PENFOLDS KOONUNGA HILL: STILL ONE OF THE BEST VALUE REDS

Back when we first discovered Penfolds in the 80s, the wines represented some of the most compelling values in the marketplace.  A lot has changed since that time.  In fact it would take quite a bit of space to go over all the changes.  Perhaps the key points are that Penfolds is not the same entity we sold all those years ago.  A purchase by Southcorp some years ago, and subsequent ‘market factors’,  changed the brand forever.

Since that time there has been financial intrigue, an explosion of demand in Asia that shot prices of Penfolds Bin 389 and 407 to 2-3 times their norm, and a period where most of the moderately priced Penfolds wines bordered on undrinkable (they were ferociously over-acidified).  We won’t even get into some of the bizarre marketing moves that have recently come about.  It would be very easy to let this behemoth go the way of the dinosaurs except for one small thing…they still have the ability to make some pretty interesting wines.

The 2016 Penfolds Shiraz/Cabernet Koonunga Hill South Australia  is still one of the more compelling and straightforward value reds in the marketplace.  It is a blend of 65% Shiraz and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from a variety of locales (Padthaway, McLaren Vale, Wrattonbully, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra if you want to know) that sees 10 months in American oak.  Stylistically it is round, plump, surprising ample for the price but not overdone.  No self-respecting critic is going to give this more than an upper-80s type review simply because it is a ‘little wine’.  But it is a delicious, engaging little wine and that should always be the point.

The Syrah is the star here imparting a good bit of blackberry fruit and spice, with the Cabernet providing some redder fruit, a touch of olive and a hint of vanilla.  Is it a ‘fastball down the middle’?  Absolutely, and what’s wrong with that?  You would be hard pressed to find a more crowd-pleasing red for this kind of price.   Up-front, expressive fruit, straightforward flavors, just enough acidity and laid back tannins, it’s an outstanding, budget-friendly choice for  parties, grillin’, and everyday applications.  We don’t really need to sell commercial stuff like this, but when it’s this good, why not?

JUFFER SONNENUHR TWO WAYS

There are lots of ways to present a wine and we thought that, over all the time we have been doing this, we had probably done all of the possible permutations at one point or another…until today.  But then offer like this have never came along before.  We had the opportunity to purchase two different Rieslings at great discounts, from one of the greatest vintages in Germany in this century and from one of the most storied vineyards in the Mosel.  Same price, same pradikat levels, both knockout deals, but the wines are from two different producers.  You talk about wine being made in the vineyard? You will never have a better chance to see that it action, and get some pretty wicked spatlese in the bargain.

We’ll start with the vintage.  As we have said on multiple occasions, the 2015 vintage in Germany (OK, a lot of places in Europe for that matter) was special.  It stands alongside the 2001 as the icon vintage of the 21st Century (thus far anyway).  The wines have unique power and cohesiveness to the fruit and surprising palate length.  Wine after wine has exhibited the same vintage personality as we have tasted through probably 200+ examples.

The vineyard?  Maybe Brauneberger Juffer isn’t quite as well known to the broad market as Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Graacher Himmelreich, and Bernkasteler Doctor because producers like Prum and Thanisch have been here much longer promoting them.  But among those more tuned in to great Mosel vineyards, Brauneberger Juffer is one of the great ones.  We have come to appreciate the vineyard a lot over the last three decades as we have been presented several striking examples from the likes Fritz Haag and Schloss Lieser.  More specifically the Sonnenuhr part of the Brauneberger Juffer is the best part, the ‘sweet spot’ if you will.

Given those similarities, and the strong characteristics of both the site and the vintage, our ‘tale of two Juffers’ would seem to come down to the producers.  Or does it?  That is what makes this exercise so exciting.  Besides the fact that the producers are different, and presumably the grapes came from different plots in the vineyard, we don’t actually know the harvest must weights.  There is a range to qualify for spatlese designation, including declassified auslese.  The alcohols are .5% apart (8% vs 8.5%), but that is all we know.

Both the Karp Schreiber and St Nikolaus Hospital labels boast long histories, the Karp Schreiber tracing its roots back to 1664 and the St. Nikolaus Hospital winery having existed for more than 500 years as the money-raising arm of the  foundation that runs  the actual hospital in Bernkastel-Kues, the hospital itself founded in 1458.  As we opened these two side by side, they started in different places.  The Karp Schreiber Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 shows a more delicate, filigreed profile, with whiffs of slatey minerality to the peach and pear fruit, a livelier, more active mid-palate and an airier finish of spice and slate.  It is a bit higher pitched on the palate with a more evident mineral element.

By contrast, the  St Nikolaus Hospital Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese 2015 is a more centered wine that shows a more direct, pronounced element of peach and pear, with a little hint of apricot possibly as a result of a greater must-weight (this is the one that is the .5% higher in alcohol), but not necessarily.  The sweetness level seems slightly more overt out of the gate and the palate is more concise.

As we sat there going back and forth and between the two, it was fascinating to watch them change in the glass, and certainly even more intriguing to watch as they began to show a much more familial streak that we have to presume is the vineyard talking.  The Karp got more mid-palate-focused as time passed while the St. Nikolas more high-pitched minerality and lift than it had presented early on.  In short, as they developed they became much closer to each other as the elements of one of the middle Mosel’s best terroirs took hold of the proceedings.

While there were still slight differences in line with their original profiles, it was Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr that won the day with the strongest voice.  As to our preference, it was not unanimous and way too close to call.  We highly recommend taking the opportunity to experience this unique comparison yourself.  As to predicting a winner, the winners would be those that take advantage of these two exciting spatlesen from a great vineyard  in an epic vintage for a good 40% less that you would typically find anything from this esteemed dirt.  These are steals for under $20, the educational/geeky opportunity merely a special bonus here!