Marvelous Muscadet: Classic Oyster Wine A Cut Above

Most people who have had any extended exposure to French wine eventually run across Muscadet.  The overwhelming image is of a crisp, dry,relatively serviceable wine to wash down some oysters or a chilled seafood plate popular in French bistros.  That’s pretty much what we knew about it until one day our world was seriously rocked by a wine from a fellow named Pèpiére.  It had more body and density than any Muscadet we had ever run across, and delivered an unforgettable palate experience.  ‘Great’ Muscadet?  Who knew?

The ‘old knowledge’ also reinforced the idea that Muscadet was at its absolute best when it was at its freshest.  For the typical mass produced Muscadets that populate the majority of the marketplace, that is probably true.    But we came in contact with some remarkable examples that were given extended lees contact that enriched the wine and gave them the structure to last a decade or more.  These ‘super-Muscadets’ took the genre to unexpected heights and today’s offering is one of those that will give you a whole new perspective on the subject.

Founded in 2005 by the talented winemaking duo of Jérémie Huchet and Jérémie Mourat, Les Betes Curieuses (literally translated ‘The Curious Beasts’) is a collaboration to explore the distinct terroirs of Muscadet and showcase a more serious and age-worthy side of the region. Jérémie Mourat, from the Vendee (south of Nantes) initially met Jérémie Huchet, whose winery is located in Muscadet at Chateau Thebaud, through a shared interest in organic viticulture. Huchet was heavily influenced in his approach to farming and winemaking by Marc Olivier (of Domane Pepiere).   Besides their technical skills, the partners draw on generations of experience in knowing the best sites of the region.  They make four different single cru bottlings.

This is not your grandfather’s Muscadet.  While Muscadet has long been recognized as one of the world’s great value wines, there is much more to the region. The cru communaux (communal crus) were initially set up in 2011 and now total 11 in number (as of 2017). These are distinct crus (think cru Beaujolais as a comparison) that were associated with unique soil types where exceptional examples of Muscadet’s grape, Melon de Bourgogne, were consistently harvested. Lower yields and longer aging sur lie (a minimum of 18 months on the lees and 2 years total elevage is required) help to ensure only the very best wines carry the cru names on them. Only 1% of all Muscadet is cru communaux!

The ‘Curious Beasts’ vinify the crus separately using the same farming and winemaking techniques for each. They focus on old, head-trained vines (most are more than 50 years old), organic farming, and minimal intervention winemaking. After fermentation the wines are aged for long periods of time in underground cement tanks on the lees. By keeping everything the same between plots, they clearly demonstrate the differences in terroir.  Chateau-Thebaud is comprised of 50-year-old vines planted at a dense 7000 vines/ha on clay gravel atop granite.   The grapes are hand harvested, slowly pressed and cold settled. The native yeast fermentation occurs in underground tanks with no lees stirring and the wine is aged on those lees solids for 5 years before bottling.

 The result is this riveting white.  The Jérémie’s Chateau Thebaud Muscadet Sevre et Maine 2010, at age eight, is remarkably vigorous, and shows no sign of tapering off.  The bright flavor band hurls intense stony minerality, skin-on pear, lime, honey, orange and almond, with a changing profile every sip.  High pitched yet creamy through the middle, this engages all of the palate and finishes with a snappy salinity.  It gets your attention, shows invigorating complexity, and has plenty of tension and grip to keep everything nicely humming along.

Great producer, outstanding ‘cru’, exceptional vintage, this is Muscadet at its very best.  This is Muscadet that can play with the ‘big boys’ from anywhere and change people’s expectations of what the region can do, even though only a handful of vignerons work at this level.  If you are a fan of Chablis, northern Italian or Austrian whites, or crisp whites in particular, this will be right in your wheel house.  The best part is that you can get this ‘game changer’ for under $20.

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Book of Bubbles: 2018

NO1 FAMILY ESTATE CUVEE NO1 BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS MARLBOROUGH NV We figured the perfect place to start our bubbly piece was with No1.  It was only logical.  Actually it might seem a little audacious to call themselves that, but then Daniel Le Brun is from Champagne where the Le Brun family can trace its roots back to the mid-1700s.  The knowledge came with Daniel, instilled in him by his father in Champagne.  It was simply a matter of finding the fruit.  The Wairau Valley in Marlborough was where they found Chardonnay grapes they could turn into a world class sparkler, and they use only their own estate fruit.   By controlling the viticulture, like a grower Champagne in France, they get the fruit exactly the way they want it.

To be honest, we were a little skeptical going in but the wine speaks for itself and can hold its own with ‘real’ Champagne.  The Wine Advocate comments make the point, “The NV Cuvee No 1 is 100% Chardonnay and stays on the lees for two years prior to disgorgement. It’s light-bodied and delicate, with toasty, biscuity and faintly nutty notes over lemon-lime fruit. It would be great with oysters on the half shell now, but you might also hold it for a few years to let it develop richer, nuttier nuances. Dosage is seven grams per liter, so the wine finishes crisp and quite dry… 91 Points.”

Made in the methode champenoise (fermented in bottle) it is super clean, with a fresh, insistent, surprisingly fine bead and creamy-yet bright-texture.  If you are going to step outside the box, this one delivers, and that’s from folks (us) that are ‘Champagne first’. ($29.98)

LUCIEN ALBRECHT BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS CREMANT D’ALSACE NVFor years this was a go-to for us in the value sparkling arena.  Then there was a period of, um, financial unrest where the wines really weren’t delivering the way they had previously.  We kind of forgot about Albrecht for a while, but a recent tasting showed they had found their mojo again.  They were one of the pioneers of this genre here, beginning production in 1971.  Pinot Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay are the workhorses here with the grapes harvested by hand early in the vintage mainly from the Orschwihr area.

Fine bead, creamy mouth feel, a little more weight to the mid-palate than most probably as a function of the grape blend, this plays big with citrus, apple and pear notes highlighted with notes of terroir. It was kind of our little secret as the press didn’t talk much about it.  But the Brits know a good buy when they see it and this one got some kudos from the prestigious Decanter Magazine.  Their panel, made up of a number of MWs, said, “Clean, light but aromatic nose – lemon, grapefruit, with a slight yeasty character. Vigorous ripe fruit flavours mingle within a gently creamy texture, balanced by crisp acidity and fine bubbles on the long, citrusy finish…92 points.”

At about half the price (or less) of most Champagnes, this will fill the bill nicely.  ($15.98)

LASSALLE BRUT CACHET D’OR NVThe ladies of Lassalle have been a part of our program in various capacities for a long time.  Lately it has been their Cachet d’Or that has been a winner in our tastings.  Made from roughly one-third each Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, all from estate vineyards, this is a brisk, yeastier, more citrus-focused flavor profile with some volume to the mid-palate and pleasing lift to the finish.  The vines here average 50 years old situated in limestone and clay, and there’s a sneaky depth to the fruit probably as a result of those older vines.

There is a verve to this bubbly and florality to the nose.  Wine Spectator had some positive notes, “There’s an open-knit, almost airy feel to this vibrant Champagne, which carries a concentrated range of juicy pear and black raspberry fruit, with hints of crystallized honey. Shows gingersnap biscuit and verbena flavors on the chalky texture, gaining momentum on the racy, zesty finish. Drink now through 2022…92 points.” While this is fine on its own, it definitely elevates with some nibbles and again, offers excellent value for the genre. ($34.98)

HENRI BILLIOT BRUT RESERVE GRAND CRU- This house is one of those where our lasting impression is that, if you don’t like Billiot, you probably don’t like puppies or rainbows either.  There were a couple of turbulent years but this is the first front to back vintage for Laetitia Billiot who spent a few years cleaning up the cellars after dad pretty much coasted into retirement.  In its normal mode, this is a round, mouthfilling, creamy offering that highlights broad engaging apple and pear fruit, with flecks of spice and toast.

As importer Terry Theise correctly stated, “This calling-card wine is 50% 2015 (and without grassiness) and 25% each ’14 and ’13, … mostly Pinot Noir, and it’s 98% of the (quality of) Billiot some of us remember (so fondly); lively, animated, fruit-driven and spicy. Essentially this is Laetitia’s first wine—that is, the first wine she controlled entirely from harvest to vinification to tirage to disgorgement.” Billiot, as it should be, is a lovely thing…a full flavored, expressive bubbly that will grab your attention. ($44.98)

HENRIOT BRUT SOUVERAIN NVIf there is anything that can serve as an example of how wine is constantly in motion, it is Champagne.   The whole idea of a non-vintage cuvee is to have something that tastes virtually the same every year.  It’s a great concept but with the variation of vintages in the blend and how those blends interact and develop over time make it near impossible to have it come across exactly the same. Some wines vary year to year more than others. Henriot’s Brut Souverain is one of those Champagnes.  Sometimes it’s a near miss, other years it is pandering and pleasing mouthful.  This is one of those exceptional years where it makes for a rather joyous beverage.

The mix here is 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir, and 5% Pinot Meunier, and 2/3 of the blend comes from Grand and Premier Cru sites.  It is on the lees for a minimum of three years and the dosage is on the drier side at 8 g/l.  To illustrate our point here’s the description from the 90-point Spectator review from a couple years ago, “A firm Champagne, with a lively bead and a minerally undertow, this offers flavors of fresh-cut apple, lemon pith, spring blossom and smoke.”  This version is much more outgoing but still has a serious side.  Their verbiage is much more appealing, too, “A finely balanced and creamy Champagne. Smoky mineral and toast notes on the nose lead to flavors of crunchy white peach and lemon curd, with a green waft of spring blossom on the fresh palate…91 points.”  The difference on the ‘scoreboard’ is only a point, but in the glass is another matter.  Delicious fizz. ($39.98)

SANGER BRUT GRAND CRU NV BLANC DE BLANCS TERROIR NATALIt’s not often you get to tell a story like this one and it’s also important to understand that this probably couldn’t happen here.  True we don’t have Champagne vineyards close by like the high school that is the center of this story does.  But, honestly, high school students being allowed to get involved with the production of alcoholic beverages simply wouldn’t play in America.  Anyway, in 1919, the war and phylloxera had pretty much trashed many wine producing areas in France.  The Puisards, a successful merchant couple with no heirs, decided to donate their lands to the government on the condition that there would be a winemaking school created in Avise.   That school, Avize Viti Campus, was officially founded in 1927 and, in 1952, the students and teachers along with local cellarmasters and winemakers, collaborated to produce a Champagne at the school.

Champagne Sanger is that Champagne, and it is a nod to the success of the school and the collaborative process.  Sanger is 100% Chardonnay, coming exclusively from the Grand Cru vineyards belonging to the school and from the areas of Cramant, Oger and Avize, some owned by the school and some from local growers who are alumni.  It sees 60 months en triage (the minimum is only 15 months for the appellation) and is finished to a dosage of 6g/l.

It is extra brut without being overly aggressive, comes off as bone dry yet shows plenty of fruit (so many low dosage efforts are painfully dry) and plays sensationally with both food and by itself.    This is truly Champagne made by Champenois and we recommend it highly for its price performance (all Grand Cru fruit for under $45!) and distinctive styling.  It also has some unique character points as, along with the typical brioche, citrus and apple elements one typically finds from the area, there is also and engaging spice nuance and notes that remind one of red berries.  Very cool bubbles from a very unique source. ($44.98)

DELAMOTTE BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS LE MESNIL 2008Since we got the early word that the 2008 vintage was something special, wee have been patiently waiting (OK, maybe not that patiently) for the single harvest bubbles to come along.  Here we have this rather marvelous vintage, some of the best dirt in all of Champagne in the esteemed Grand Cru Le Mesnil, and at the helm the Delamotte team who also dabble in another project called Salon.  We and others have always promoted the low-keyed Delamotte as ‘the best Champagne you never heard of”.  Given it’s exceptional vineyards, the winery sticks to a very simple formula of reflecting the site in the wine.  That means that instead of the rather fat, ripe styled bubbly that seems to be more broadly popular in the marketplace, Delamotte by contrast is sleek, racy and refined.  It isn’t necessarily for everyone, but for true Champagne aficionados it is a very special choice.

Considering the whole great vintage, great vineyard and great producer we posed, it certainly will encourage great expectations.  In that rather demanding spot, it succeeds admirably.  A pair of 93 point scores from Vinous Media and Wine Enthusiast (very good scores for non Grand Marques), the words tell the real story.  From Antonio Galloni, “The 2008 Delamotte is a deep, resonant Champagne endowed with stunning lays of depth. In 2008 Delamotte has all of the kaleidoscopic, multi-dimensional personality of the vintage, but the full malolactic fermentation softens some of the natural angularity of the year. Pastry, vanillin, baked apple, dried flowers and chamomile are all beautifully sculpted in the glass. This is one of the most accessible young 2008 Champagnes readers will come across, but there is real staying power and more than enough depth to support many years of fine drinking. Dosage is 6.5 grams per liter.”  ($79.98)

ROEDERER BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS 2010In truth, sometimes we wonder why we do things like this.  For most of the world Roederer is about their broad market offering, Brut Premier, and the iconic Cristal.  It’s actually a common problem in Champagne where some pretty fantastic work in between the entry-level and the ultra-premium simply gets ignored.  Maybe it is the pricing that people don’t reconcile, perhaps the fact that these specialty efforts reflect a different style and expression than the mainstream offerings, but it is certain that getting people to pay attention to wines like this represents something of a challenge.  Undaunted, however, we will continue to try.

People don’t typically think about Roederer as a Blanc de Blancs producer, and this represents somewhat of a step away from what people think is a typical Roederer profile that relies heavily on Pinot Noir.  The 2010 was not a cachet vintage either.  But Champagne is a big place and the Cote des Blancs is a unique spot, so you can’t presume you know without tasting and this sleek gem really caught our attention not only for its exceptional ‘performance’ but for its well-executed departure from the house style.  A delicious surprise, one could make the point that Champagne types are artists too and like to work different canvases and there wouldn’t be much point in making several different bottlings if they all tasted the same.  Antonio Galloni seems to have found a lot to like here as well, but touches on the same subject, “An overachiever in this range, the 2010 Brut Blanc de Blancs is terrific. Green apple, mint, white flowers and mineral-driven notes give the 2010 freshness vivacity and lift. The Blanc de Blancs is one of the hidden gems in the Roederer lineup and does not seem to get much attention. That is a shame, as it is a first class wine all the way.”

By the way, no Cristal was produced in 2010 so the Chardonnay used for that cuvee found its way into this little gem…($74.98)

HUET PETILLANT RESERVE 2009We have repeatedly stated our love for outstanding sparkling wines.  We would also not be afraid to put forth the statement that there are few people on the planet that are bigger fans of Vouvray Huet than we are.  But those have always been separate issues.  Huet’s ‘petillant’ has been on our shelf on a few occasions simply as one of the best versions of the eclectic category sparkling Vouvray.  But prior examples have been just that, good examples of the genre but not necessarily transcendent.  So given that, no one was more surprised than we were when this version caused our jaws to drop.  We kept going back and retasting it to see if we had just had a moment or the wine was really that amazing.  The wine performed every time.

We have never had a sparkling Chenin Blanc this good.  Not even close. These wines are usually serviceable and clean, if a bit on the lean side and not overly expressive.  The Huet 2009 simply had more of everything.  It was vigorous and zesty as one would expect from the category. But the expression of the varietal aspects of Chenin here were extraordinary.  Peach, lemon drop, apple skin, hints of honey and cinnamon, a pure and clear expression of the varietal which created a lot of interesting nuance and a rounder palate feel.  Not sure what elevated this particular version above the previous renditions, but the 2009 Petillant Reserve is at a level far above anything we have ever had from this category in general or even Huet in particular.  Based on our tastings, we’d go so far as to say this is a consideration even against Champagne.  That is a rare statement for us.

The grapes for this sparkler in 2009 came from the younger vines of all three of their storied parcels; Le Mont, Clos du Bourgand Haut Lieu.  The largest portion came from Haut Lieu where the average vine age was younger overall in 2009. The grapes were then sorted on the table to separate bunches destined for the vintage pétillant and for the reserve.  Their petillant spends a minimum of 6 years on lees.   Bear in mind it says ‘minimum’ as the wines are disgorged as orders come in.  So the later into the release period, the longer that bottle has on its lees. This applies to all pétillant, and is often a reason why there is such a vast difference between the prior vintage and the new release.

In the end of course, it’s the product of some pretty outstanding fruit.  As Stephan Reinhardt of Wine Advocate calls it, “The golden-yellow colored 2009 Vouvray Pétillant Brut Réserve offers a beautifully pure, deep, rich, intense and refreshing mineral bouquet of perfectly ripe (tropical) fruits and chalky flavors. Full-bodied, highly complex and very long, this is a gorgeous sparkling wine from Vouvray. Dry, firmly structured, mouth-filling and finesse-full, with great elegance and a delicate mousse, the 2009 has a persistently intense and fruity finish with a stimulatingly salinity and grip in the aftertaste. This Réserve should have an excellent aging potential….93 points.”  As we said, this one caught us completely off guard, and, if you are going to step outside the box bubbly-wise, this is the direction to go first.

MICHEL GONET BRUT BLANC DE BLANCS GRAND CRU- This is something of a throwback in today’s world of ‘low’ and ‘no’ dosage, single vineyard, sometimes painful Champagnes.  This is a beautifully put together expression of Chardonnay from the finest terroirs in Champagne such as of Avize, Oger and Le Mesnil sur Oger.   Classic toasted brioche and citrus in the nose, the same through the palate with the addition of a little apple and pear and the expected subtle but insistent minerality.  Perhaps most important, there’s a nice lift to the finish which is definitely a plus as toasty styles don’t always end cleanly.  Simply put, even with our hard and fast rules, this one was too good to leave out.

Champagne Gonet was founded in 1802 and since then, six generations of family members have kept the project on an upward path. In 1973, Michel Gonet, whose Champagnes bear his name today, modernized and enlarged the cellars with the goal of further improving the quality of the wine making.  Today, the estate covers 40 hectares of the best champagne soil stretching from South of Epernay Grand Cru villages to the hillsides of Sezannes to Vindey.   Because the fruit is all from Grand Cru sites, this non-vintage Brut can carry the title Grand Cru and the Champagnes demeanor clearly demonstrates the pedigree of the fruit.

Even with the centuries of history, the family seems to be doing what it takes to get better and better.  Daughter Sophie is now at the helm and they have brought in Marco Pelletier, sommelier extraordinaire, Paris restaurateur, and a partner in the avant guard Bordeaux project Le Jardin de Galouchey (we did an offer on it some months back) to be involved in the assemblage.  A precise, racy, fresh, and very classy Champagne with a very low 3g/l dosage, this can play alone or with lighter dishes.  Given the pedigree, the price is another plus.

BUENA VISTA CHAMPAGNE BRUT LA VICTOIRE NV- Say what?  Isn’t Buena Vista a California wine and therefore unable to call itself Champagne?  Well the story here is anything but ordinary.  It starts with Agoston Haraszthy, most recognized as being the Father of California viticulture.  He was also the father of six children and his third son, Arpad, spent over two years studying in Champagne to learn the craft of sparkling wine.  He later became the first to introduce Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wine into California winemaking.  Arpad’s sparkling wine, Eclipse, was one of the most celebrated in the nineteenth century.

The wine itself is made up of 70% Pinot Noir, from Premier Cru vineyards from the Montagne de Reims, and 30% Chardonnay, mostly from Grand Cru in Le Mesnil sur Oger and Chouilly.  The wine received a dosage of 8.7 g/L and was aged for more than three years (the law in Champagne requires aging 15 months minimum for non-vintage wines). The nose here is fresh apple, stone fruits, and pear with a touch of honey and a whiff of brioche though far from ‘doughy’.  In the mouth, it is the freshness that impresses, all of the flavors bright and lively without being the least bit shrill.

This is, as one might expect from Buena Vista, something true to type but made to appeal to a broader audience.  If we were making a slogan, here it would be ‘you don’t have to think, you can just drink’.  Most of the new things we see coming out these days are zero or near-zero dosage focused on esoteric elements of terroir.  They are often angry and aggressive, the small dosage a clear attempt to avoid ‘masking’ those terroir notes.  Mean-spirited wine ‘gurus’ aside, Jean-Claude Boisset, like us, sees Champagne as a beverage of pleasure.  He tailored this bubbly with that in mind.

As you can probably imagine, it wasn’t easy for an American company (albeit one owned by a French dude!) to be able market something as Champagne.  French ‘authorities’ weren’t particularly receptive at first even though it came from the appropriate dirt and was made in Champagne.  In the end, the bottle is here, Boisset won.  We imagine that’s what the term ‘la Victoire’ (the victory) on the label refers to.  It’s a fine choice for under $40.

Palazzo for the People (Master’s Blend 2016)

Scott Palazzo is not your ordinary Napa vintner.  His boundless enthusiasm for his wines and the Napa Valley in general are not uncommon among winery owners, but his demeanor seems perhaps a bit more ‘Hollywood’ than ‘wine country’.

But, while the guy can definitely ‘talk the talk’, he also walks the walk.  His numbers speak for themselves.  Take for example his Wine Advocate reviews.  For 25 wines over the course of a decade (2003-2013), Palazzo never received a score below 91 and there were a number of ‘95s’, ‘96s’, and even some ‘98s’ sprinkled in the mix.

We have worked with Scott a few times over the years because his wines are quite good.  But being wine merchant types as we are, the ‘relationship’ has always been subject to price concerns.  While we appreciate the best of breed from Napa as much as the next guys, we are a little conservative when it comes to offering that $80-and-up category for sale.  It is a common problem for us with ‘the Valley’ these days.

We could go off (and have) on the present state of affairs in Napa Valley as it seems most wineries are only willing to do as much as they need to do to promote their own ‘direct to consumer’ sales.  But what is relevant in this case is that we are starting to see a few Napa-ites starting to take stock of serving a broader market with a wine or two that isn’t just some unembellished effort that just bears the winery’s name.

Not long ago we profiled a new effort from Conn Valley that really delivered quality for a much more modest fare than their usual ‘reserve level’ offerings.  Most important, the wine showcased the style of the house and gave the luxury feel of the winery’s top cuvees for substantially less of an outlay.  So many wineries are putting out uninspired bottlings for the ‘little people’ that are little more than token offerings.  They rarely reflect the house style.    The Conn Valley is a notable diversion from that format.

So is this new effort from Palazzo (the second of the series we are told).  Unlike a lot of ‘value’ (by Napa standards) wines, this tastes and stylistically presents a legitimate Palazzo experience.  The style of all of Palazzo’s wines have the plush elegance and balance of Bordeaux as their reference point.  It is Napa with an eye to Saint Julien.  The Palazzo Left Bank Red Cuvée Master Blend Series 2016, while the name is too long, represents more the rich Napa texture and presence with a Bordeaux elegance rather than, say, the pedal-to-the-medal trophy style typical of most vintners here.

The ‘Left Bank’ is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% each Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  It sees 20 months in oak, 50% new.  The result is a pleasing, layered effort with lush black-cherry and blackberry fruit on the nose and palate, along with hints of chocolate, coffee and cassis. Because some of the components come from top Carneros sites, there’s a cool, fresh underpinning of ‘savory’ to play against the lusher, sweeter  Cabernet core.  It’s about complex aromatics and harmony and it performs like wines costing a lot more while accurately conveying the style of the house, which is exactly the point!

 

‘BARGAIN’ CABERNET FROM ANDERSON’S CONN VALLEY NAPA VALLEY

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  This would seem to be a fine example of that saying.  No one has time to read the whole story of Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards.  Their website claims four generations have been here though the label only started with the 1987 vintage and their website states “Since 1983 we have been family owned and operated by the Anderson’s.” (this is a direct cut and paste showing the incorrect use of the possessive for all you English nigglers out there).   They got a lot of attention pretty soon in their history, rattling off a series of 92+ scores in successive vintages in Wine Advocate (and a Wine Spectator cover with their incredibel 1988) and the label was generating some buzz ahead of the emergence of a number of now iconic ‘trophy styled wines’ shortly thereafter.

Conn Valley is a little different from the heart of Napa.  Located roughly ten minutes up the hill east of St. Helena, sort of on the back side south of Howell Mountain, this 40 acre estate sits in a sort of elevated cleft known as Conn Valley.  It has a completely different and more serene vibe than the Valley below and this all-by-itself property has cave cellars, a sort of throwback facility, and what one might call its own ‘zen’.  We visited the Andersons there many years ago, met Todd and his father, and got a real feel for the wines.  We sold the many renditions from Conn Valley for many years but, as has happened so often in this part of the world, prices started to creep up beyond the point where they were slam dunks.

They made their bones on a series of ‘reserve level’ bottlings called Eloge, Reserve, Signature and Right Bank built from Bordeaux varietals.  It should also be mentioned that they have had some occasional enthusiastic kudos for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but their reputation was based on wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Merlot.  The style has always been of a luxury bent with broad, creamy fruit well-seasoned with top flight oak.  It seemed to be the perfect recipe for the market, and it had a pretty good run.

No one can say for sure what happened but production started to outpace sales.  One could suggest a gradual slowdown in the super-premium market and their signature wines ran from $80 to $150, though they got reviews commensurate with that level of pricing.  Maybe it was the move from just making a wine called Cabernet to making a number of different bottlings (until this wine, the last review we saw for something called simply Cabernet was 1995) that confused consumers.  Maybe it was the label, which they changed to something else rather distinctive (but also difficult to read) not long ago.

Maybe it was Todd Anderson’s focus on his super-super-premium Ghost Horse project that took away from the attention devoted to Conn Valley.  There are many conjectures, and the story can get pretty complicated.  But the bottom line is that the winery decided it needed to produce a wine that got the attention of a whole new set of buyers and was within the price range of a larger audience.

To that end, the 2016 Anderson’s Conn Valley Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was born (or ‘reborn’ depending on how you interpret the history).  The blend is 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot & 5% Cabernet Franc, the Cabernet Franc the only part to come from another site (Reinke Family Vineyards, a hillside vineyard in west Carneros…the wine still qualifies as estate bottled under the law).

They really nailed this one.  This has a lot in common with their ‘reserve’ level wines (except the price)…creamy fruit, notes of chocolate, spice and vanilla, along with pretty ripe, melty tannins for a wine so young.   The winery’s story is this, “A new product for us is this first ever ‘non-reserve’ Cabernet. It is a fruit forward, friendly, easy to drink style of Cabernet produced from the barrels that don’t quite make the cut for the Reserve and Eloge bottlings. What you may enjoy though is knowing that this is an estate grown, estate bottled Conn Valley Cabernet for HALF what you’d normally have to pay…”

It certainly tastes like it had the luxury treatment and showed surprising presence and polish on both occasions that we tried it.  This definitely has a ‘wow’ quality to it, and the kind of plush refinement you simply don’t see for under $40.  If you are a fan of Cabernet, it would be hard not to like it.

We don’t think the media has seen this one yet as this just hit the market.   No doubt it will be tasted among the other, much more exotic (and more expensive) Conn Valley wines and probably not get its due with respect to numbers.  It’s our version of the ‘theory of relatively’ where, if there are ‘upper cuvees’, most writers will focus on those and work backward.  As to timing, you are definitely ahead of the game as the wine was literally just released.

Are we going to tell you it’s as good as their $150 reserve bottling?  We know human nature far too well to promise that.  Are we going to tell you that if you drop this in among what is out there for $35-60 it will likely steal the show? Absolutely!  It is one of the sexiest Cabernets we have had for this kind of fare but it’s all estate fruit from a place that has been making top notch reds for a long time.  They created this wine to make an impression.  That it does!

 

 

RANDOM RAMBLING: THE PINK ‘TAX’

The prevailing wisdom is that there are two things in life that are inevitable, death and taxes.  While we are not seeking to disturb anyone’s comfort zone (one has Donald Trump and Elon Musk for that already), there are a few other things that come to mind in the discussions of ‘absolutes’.  The ocean is always salty for example.  The whole gravity thing works pretty consistently as well.  You drop an apple, it hits the ground.   And, rosé Champagnes always cost a lot more.  Unlike the oceans and gravity, which have perfectly sound explanations, that last one doesn’t necessarily.

It all started with a presentation of one of our favorite larger Champagne houses, Bollinger.  As usual, we loved the Bollinger Special Cuvee.  We always have, but haven’t always carried it because the price point doesn’t always hit a logical spot vis-à-vis all of the other Champagnes that we carry.  Still, no faulting the juice.

At the same time we were presented Bollinger Rosé.  Curiously, though the two of us tasting that day have nearly seventy years in the wine business between us, but neither of us could remember ever tasting this particular bottling.  Sure we taste a lot of stuff, and can forget things.  But we rarely do, and when something is this good, you don’t forget it.

Intrigued, we looked at the ‘stats’.   The Special Cuvee was  60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Meunier from vineyards of which over 85% were Grands and Premiers crus sites.   The Rosé is 62% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay, 14% also from vineyards that are over 85% Grands and Premiers crus.  A percent or two difference in the blend but, otherwise, not a lot of evident separation points between the two bubblies…except one.  The Rosé has 5 to 6% still red wine added to provide its color.

The kicker is that we were interested in the Rosé as well as the Special Cuvee and inquired as to the price.  The cost of the pink version was 60% more!  How does the addition of a little still red wine cause the price to vault so precipitously?  Was that ‘still red wine’ some unnamed Grand Cru Burgundy?  We’re not bagging on ‘Bolly’ mind you.  This seems to be common practice throughout Champagne.  Those of you who have seen the super elite certainly have noted that the cost of the pink versions of, say, Krug, Dom Perignon and Cristal are substantially higher than their already very costly ‘regular’ cuvees.  The practice is widespread.   The only question in our minds is ‘why?’

The first thing out of most vintners’ mouths is something about ‘rarity’.  But limited quantities don’t always justify extreme prices (see also Napa Valley).  I mean is still red wine that hard to come by that you couldn’t make more rosé?  Champagne is a big place.  So, then, is the rosé version of someone’s Champagne always better by comparison to that house’s go-to Brut?  Not in our experience.  In fact it is surprisingly close to a 50/50 proposition.

So what’s the deal?  It seems to be standard operating procedure in Champagne.  Is rosé Champagne worth so much more simply because it is ‘pink’?  Some aren’t even that pink!  The bottom line is that this is all baffling to us when we stop and think about it.  As a wine store, we spend a lot of time trying to educate folks on a wide variety of topics to try and explain why things look, taste or cost a certain way.  Here? We got nothing.

Maybe it’s just a case of a French region trying to pull ‘la lain’ over everyone’s ‘yeux’.  Hey, we love a good rosé Champagne as much as anyone.  We also understand the whole ‘perceived value’ thing.  We just aren’t ‘perceiving’ why we are expected to pay so much more for the genre.  Just sayin’…

GREAT WHITES

I FAVATI FIANO di AVELLINO PIETRAMARA 2017This house has been one of a small number of Fiano di Avellino sources we have worked with over the years, and probably the most consistent as far as quality goes.  This is a definitive Campanian white with plenty subtle white stone fruit and floral aromatics alongside a high-toned minerality.  The wine is fleshy and fairly unctuous, yet all is nicely defined by well-positioned, well-integrated acidity which gives a nice lift to everything.

The I Favati Fiano di Avellino Pietramara 2017 absolutely ‘blows up’ with lighter handed, herb based pasta or risotto dishes and whitefish and shellfish preparations.  There’s a certain density and relaxed acidity that are kind of a surprise if you are coming from other genres of Italian whites, but that is exactly the charm of wines like Fiano and Greco di Tufo which make up their own unique stylistic subset.  There are few frames of reference for these wines but this is one of the textbook examples of the breed and a consistent favorite around here.  It has been a tre-bicchieri choice of Gambero Rosso on multiple occasions (this one not yet rated) as well.

PHILIPPE RAVIER CHIGNIN BERGERON 2017First, for those that don’t know the genre, it’s probably not a bad idea to define our terms.   This term Chignin-Bergeron refers to the appellation here in the Savoie which is, in turn, named for its only permitted grape variety.  That grape variety is called Roussanne everywhere else.   But it is fair to say that the character of the varietal is quite a bit different  here in these pristine foothills in eastern France.

Sparkling streams, blue skies, this almost idyllic area yields wines of uncommon freshness with bright stone fruit and minerality taking the forefront and the typically heavy, soily, almost oxidative nature of Roussanne definitely not a major part of the profile here.  These crisper, cooler versions have the honeyed tones and the earth elements present  but dialed back.  Bergeron gives a whole different impression when lifted and paired with a higher toned minerality that is a signature of this region.

Philippe and Sylvain Ravier cultivate 7 hectares of Roussanne (called Bergeron here as we said).  The vines are between 10 and 30 years of age and are planted on very steep, due south-facing slopes of the Massif des Bauges at 1100-1500 feet altitude. The soil is rocky, decomposed white limestone which drains well while retaining heat to help ripen the grapes and the cool nights keep everything crisp.   The fruit is harvested by hand, carefully sorted and moved into the press by gravity. After a light pressing, the must is protected from oxidization by a blanket of CO2.

The Philippe Ravier Vin de Savoie Chignin Bergeron 2017 has a rather surprising density to the delicate fruit that sits atop firm but giving acidity.  Honey and  nut elements play against the white stone fruit and flower core with subtle minerality throughout.  Fresh and light on its feet, it’s a fine example of the category.

CHRISTIAN MOREAU CHABLIS 2016:   Chablis has been a bit of a ‘sticky wicket’ of late thanks to the fact that quantities have been erratic over the last couple of vintages and the currently widespread 2015s are generally overtly ripe and not quite so Chablis-like in terms of lift and acidity.  A few producers got it done right in terms of delivering wines that are true to type but still possess that essential combination of  flesh and zip to pull it off.   The Christian Moreau Chablis 2016 fills an important role as something the Chablis lover can go to with confidence.

Yes there is some volume in the mid-palate, but also the kind of zip one expects from Chablis with plenty of evident apple/citrus fruit up front that fades into a pleasing minerality.  As Burghound puts it, this has ‘… enough Chablis character to be persuasive. The round, rich and more voluminous flavors possess good punch and concentration while delivering better depth and length on the somewhat drier finish.”  That’s fair enough as a comment.

We like this as a great choice by virtue of the engaging, ‘drink me’ style that still says ‘Chablis’ in the glass and sells for a reasonable tab at a time where successful executions in this are much more scarce.  This was not an easy vintage from a farming standpoint and quantities have been erratic thanks to quirks in the weather.  So it’s great to have delicious a go-to in this important category.  Few are this ‘on target’.

 

 

 

LA RIOJA ALTA’S BRILLIANT 2009 GRAN RESERVA 904

It doesn’t take a lot to convince us about the quality of wines from this producer. As you probably know, we’ve been fans for a long time.  It’s hard for us to even imagine why wines like La Rioja Alta aren’t the first choice of most wine drinkers.   We have worn our affection for Rioja on our sleeves for, what, a couple of decades?  La Rioja Alta has been a house favorite for a long time as well and is one of the bastions of quality juice in the ‘traditional’ style.  They perform well at all of the price levels at which they play, from their Reserva Viña Ardanza and Viña Alberdi to their super-premium Gran Reservas 904 and 890.   You’ve got high quality, very modest prices relative to similar examples in other genres, and those wacky Spaniards even throw in a bit of bottle age at no extra charge.  Where’s the down side?

Not long ago we wrote an offer for the sensational 2009 La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva.  The pitch was pretty straight forward.  How about a 96-point (from James Suckling) Rioja in a plush, ripe style (2009 was a warm vintage), with a few years of bottle age, for under $30?  Pretty compelling, no?  Correspondingly, we sold quite a bit of it.  No surprise there.  In the piece we wrote about the fact that we tasted two wines that day, the Vina Ardanza 2009 and  the Gran Reserva 904 2009.  It was one spectacular day of ‘research’.

It was also a little bit of a surprise.  Alongside the 2001, 2004, 2005 and 2010 vintages in Rioja, the 2009, while certainly no slouch, simply isn’t thought of as an elite vintage.  Apparently La Rioja Alta did not get that memo because both of these wines were among the most engaging out of the gate that we had ever had from these folks over great number of releases. Plush, packed with supple but substantial cassis, black cherry and spice character, ripe tannins and well tucked in supporting acidity,  If you were going to ‘design’ a super sexy Rioja, this pair of 2009s would be great models.

La Rioja Alta is one of Spain’s greatest and most beloved wineries.  It produces classically elegant and polished Rioja wines that are always released after quite some time aging in their cellars. They do all the work, you don’t pay the price.

The variety of vineyards La Rioja Alta has to work with allows them to maintain the vintage’s unique imprint on the wine while still maintaining a simply ridiculous level of quality for the money.  As far as hedonism goes, the bodega hit home runs with these two.  Hey, we’ll gladly admit that we would drink either one of them with relish.  We know that many of you out there prefer to buy at the top-level, in which case the 904 is the clear choice.

The 904 is a complete, engaging, stylish beverage with enormous food versatility yet a roundness and complexity that will reward those that just want to haul off and drink it.  The reviewers seem to share our excitement with this effort.   James Suckling wrote, “This is a driven and super tight Gran Reserva with dark berries and hints of spice and cedar. A spicy red-pepper undertone and some dried flowers. Full to medium body, integrated tannins and a superb finish. A great wine.- 97 Points!”

Wine Advocate’s Luis Gutierrez was, as usual, a bit more loquacious.  He offers, “Time flies, and the 904 for sale is already the 2009 Gran Reserva 904, as they didn’t bottle it in 2008. They are only going to bottle their top wines in very good and excellent vintages, so there will be a 2010 and 2011 but no 2012, 2013 or 2014. This super classical cuvée showcases the wines from Haro, silky and elegant after long aging in oak and a good future in bottle. 2009 was a powerful vintage, ripe but with good balance. The blend is approximately 90% Tempranillo and 10% Graciano, fermented in stainless steel with a 78-day natural malolactic. The aging was in four-year-old American oak barrels crafted by their own coopers; the wines aged from April 2010 until April 2014. During that time, the wine was racked every six months, to be finally bottled in November 2014. This is usually my favorite wine from the portfolio, where the balance between aging and youth reaches its highest point. It’s developed but it keeps some fruit character, plenty of spices and balsamic aromas. The palate is polished but has some clout, with clean, focused flavors and a long, spicy and tasty finish. This represents good value for the quality it delivers…95+ points.”

The only question left to answer is for the ‘numbers’ set who would say that, since the Ardanza got 96 from James Suckling and 93+ from Advocate, as opposed to the 97 and 95+ respectively for the 904, why would one spend the additional funds for a point or two?  We could unleash a lengthy argument on several fronts but, for time’s sake, because it’s better.  It is from a different vineyard, with older vines (60 years as opposed to 30).  It’s also a different blend (90% Tempranillo/10% Mazuelo in 904 compared to 80% Tempranillo/20% Garnacha in Ardanza).

There’s more complexity, structure, and a different profile in the 904, plus it is a different expression of Rioja.  It is simply not, in our minds, an either/or proposition.  Ardanza is one of the best $30 wines in the world, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in 2009 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904’s price category that was better for the fare.  You need both! It’s a wonderful ‘problem’ to have.

 

 

 

FANTASTIC ‘DESIGNER’ FRANC DEAL

The connection between fine wine and fashion is a successful and recurring one in the wine industry. Of course, the most visible is LVMH with Louis Vuitton partnering with Moet Hennessey and also owning Cheval Blanc, Chateau d’Yquem, and Clos des Lambrays among other things. Salvatore Ferragamo makes some distinctive, if less famous reds on his Il Borro estate in Tuscany. Chanel owns Napa Valley’s St. Supery winery as well as Chateaux Canon and Rauzan-Segla in Bordeaux. Roberto Cavalli owns vineyards in South Africa and Tuscany. The common thread? Creativity and the opportunity to take the proverbial blank canvas and turn it into something special.

Podernuovo a Palazzone is one of those stories. The family involved is the Bulgari family (yes that Bulgari family). The same kind of passion and creative energy that goes into successful fashion companies is dangerously close to the kind of spirit it takes to succeed in the world of wine. The ‘best’ are the best because of passion, energy, uncompromising effort and attention to detail among other things. Just like we make the point that it is best to buy little wines from top of line wine producers because they simply work on a different standard than anyone else, so it is with fashion folk. Success is expected. Cutting corners is out of the question if the goal is to achieve the best result. So, in this case, fine watches, jewelry, hand bags…wine? Why not?

The story of the estate goes like this. From jewelry to grapes, Giovanni Bulgari’s venture into winemaking has to be seen as another form of creative outlet. After years of traveling the world to seek out the best gems for his family’s jewelry company, Bulgari is now living his dream of working outdoors on the land, with products that reflect the territory he loves located near Siena in Tuscany. In 2004, Bulgari, together with his father Paolo Bulgari, longtime chairman of the Rome-based jeweler, bought the abandoned Podernuovo estate and transformed it into a full-fledged international agricultural firm and award-winning vineyard.

The 42 acres of vineyards at PoderNuovo were planted in 2007. Their terrain is rich with clay, sand and chalk in differing proportions, a good match for different varieties of grapes. To that end they have planted several grape varieties on this estate in the southern tip of Tuscany near Siena and make three different reds on the property. The Argirio is their stylistic nod to Bolgheri, the blend being predominantly Cabernet Franc with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the mix. The name is a derivative of the term argile which refers to its clay-based soils.

Lovely, very polished, this one boasts a sleek core of black fruits with savory notes of smoke and grilled herbs alongside dark chocolate, leather, and spice. This shows the best side of Franc with a ‘slippery’, elegant, medium weight palate and deceptive length, with none of the detracting evergreen notes. Like a fine Bordeaux or Bolgheri wine the breeding of the Podernuovo A Palazzone Toscana Argirio 2014 is evident from first whiff with the balance precise and the edges supple. This one really sings with meats though we see a wide range of applications and a very enticing drinkability that make it a wine for all seasons.

The wine is definitely liked by the media as well as us. James Suckling offers “An extremely pretty 2014 with blackcurrant, spice, hints of rose petal and vanilla. Medium to full body, firm and velvety tannins and a flavorful finish. Drink in 2018 but already beautiful. 93 Points!”

Wine Advocate’s Monica Larner had these comments, “… Those Cabernet aromas reign supreme. Inky dark fruit is followed by grilled herb, rosemary twig and cured leather. This is a full-bodied red wine with luscious dark fruit and savory spice. Those spicy flavors follow through with persistence and power on the finish…92 points”

As the Bulgari’s admit, they can’t expect the aura of their other brand to shine on this one and that wine is an entirely different arena than fashion even if the passion, quality and attention to detail are the same. While their $35 list price isn’t crazy for a wine this good, the market did not react to the Argirio 2014 enthusiastically enough and fast enough. As always, we were there to help out. That’s why we are able to sell this flashy, polished, fashionable red for half of the ‘list’ price ($17.98). Bellisimo!

MAGIQUE: TARDIEU-LAURENT COTES DU RHONE VILLAGES BECS FIN 2016

It’s a bit of a mixed bag for us from the standpoint of history.  We were heavily involved with this dynamic duo of winemakers a decade ago, only to barely see them at all for a substantial stretch of time since then.  The story here makes for a great instructive tale on what a difference an importer can make in the marketplace by virtue of their ‘marketing’ regimen and pricing.  That, however, is a story for another day and we mainly want to make the point that we are glad to have this house as an option once again.

Even though this isn’t a new brand label (in fact it was one of the most talked about labels during the 90s and early ‘oughts’), we are going to treat it as if it is because we are pretty sure a lot of people new to Rhones, or to wine in general, have little awareness of who these guys are.  So we are going to do the quick ‘cliff notes’ version to get everyone caught up.  It’s a pretty interesting story that gives great insight into why this is a negociant house unlike any other.

It is the partnership of two important wine entities.  Dominique Laurent, who we met in the mid-90s, was one of the People Magazine stories of the time.  A producer of Burgundies, with a style that showed a modern flair and new school philosophy, gained a lot of notoriety during those formative years for his use of ‘200 % new oak’ on his top bottlings.  Simply stated, it was said that he would put certain wines in a new oak barrel and then, after a period of time, put the same wine in another new oak barrel.  Whether or not that was the literal goings on, that was the buzz.   But the result was a style of Burgundy that had a unique sheen of well-integrated vanillan oak tones.  When we asked Dominique how it was done, he said simply ‘magique.’  Magic.

Michel Tardieu was a Provencal local who knew his way around the vineyards of the Rhone and South of France.  He was a former state employee that had a passion for people, wine and a nose for sniffing out important vineyard sites with distinctive characteristics and old vines.  The mantra was always to use the oldest vines from the best parcels in the Rhône, work with organic and biodynamic farmers, and establish long-term relationships with the growers they work with.

Together Dominique and Michel established quite a reputation for meticulous winemaking, polished wines and a rather modern flair for the genre.  The reviews were consistently enthusiastic and we were huge fans as well, as their wines offered a unique choice stylistically for the genre.  In all honesty though, they didn’t fly off the shelf back then because the prices were at a bit of a premium for the category.  Subsequent ‘marketing arms’ sadly only added some additional tariff but little in the way of significant exposure in the market.

Since 2008, when Laurent decided to dial things back, the Tardieu family has been in control of the operation with Michel’s son, Bastien, at the helm of the winemaking.  While they have apparently backed off the wood elements, the wines still have that distinctive textural ‘polish’ no doubt in part as a result of more experience with this particular site and having worked so long with a ‘Burgundy guy’.  In other words, they still have the ‘magic’, and this is still a very sophisticated ‘Cotes du Rhone Village.’  Also note the price is about what it was ten years ago, which means that they have a more realistic approach to pricing and have found a new distribution scenario that doesn’t add excess to the fare.

The vineyard is comprised of 60-year-old Grenache and 30-year-old Syrah, with the Syrah the star of the show (it makes up 60% of the blend) while the Grenache wraps around and gives the wine a sexy mouth feel and an outgoing fruit component.  The Tardieu-Laurent Cotes du Rhone Villages Becs Fin 2016 is no ordinary ‘Cotes du Rhone. ’ It plays well above its ‘station’.  The fact that 2016 was a special vintage was not lost on these folks either.

As the esteemed MW Jancis Robinson summarizes, “Very ‘serious’, savoury, dense nose for a wine with this appellation. This tastes so much better than many a Châteauneuf I have had from less irreproachable sources! This is the first ambitious 2016 southern Rhône red I have tried and I am knocked out by the quality and concentration. No heat on the end. It would be a shame to drink this too young.”  Sorry Jancis, that ‘early drinking’ is likely to happen with this one.

Jeb Dunnuck echoes Jancis, and us for that matter, in saying, “The 2016 Côtes du Rhône Les Becs Fins is slightly more forward and charming, with a modern style in its cassis, vanilla bean and blackberry jam aromas and flavors. Possessing both richness and elegance, it’s going to a delicious red that drinks well above its price point…90-92 points.  We’re glad to have Tardieu-Laurent back in the house!

‘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.