Wines of the Week

Wines from Way Down South

You can’t get much farther south than South Africa, but as it turns out, it’s a perfect place to make fine wine.  The major winegrowing regions are on about the same latitude as the prime regions of Australia, and the location at the very tip of the African continent provides important cooling winds from the (very) cold ocean waters around the Cape.

Plus, they have a lengthy wine history, with the first record of vines being planted way back around 1650.  An influx of French Huguenots, who fled religious persecution and wound up in South Africa, added to that heritage.  (There is an area called Franschoek, which means “French Town” in Afrikaans.)  However, the prominence and popularity of these wines is relatively recent, due to a series of complex (and wrongheaded) government regulations that prevented the growth of the industry and have only now been relaxed.  And, of course, the institution of apartheid resulted in boycotts by other countries, preventing even the good wines from being exported.

At one time, the wine industry was controlled by a central co-op known as KWV, the initials standing for an Afrikaans name that’s about a mile long and contains dozens of vowels.  The KWV encouraged the cultivation of native grapes, particularly Pinotage and Chenin Blanc, which the South Africans call Steen.  Problem was that Pinotage does not make a wine that compares all that favorably with more popular varietals, so it was a local beverage for quite a long time.  And the KWV outlawed the importation of foreign varietals and vine cuttings, so aspiring winemakers were pretty much stuck with what they had.  The organization dominated the industry in this way until the end of apartheid, at which time things opened up…a lot.

Today, the influence of winemakers from France, Italy, Spain, and the US, plus the presence of so-called “flying winemakers,” has elevated the quality of wines across the board.  Too, investments by prominent South Africans like golfer Ernie Els have had beneficial effects.  International varietals are being planted:  Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, and the ever-popular Cabernet and Merlot have all found a place on wine store shelves (and in collectors’ wine cellars) around the world.

The country also got into the global game by establishing a “Wines of Origin” (WO) program that controls how winegrowing regions are defined, and what information can appear on wine labels.  Unlike the French AOC system, the WO designation does not restrict which grapes can be grown in what areas, or specify blends or yields.  Still, it gives buyers some indication of the wine’s characteristics.

The major wine regions you’ll find listed on South African labels are Constantia, Stellenbosch (perhaps the most common), Paarl, and the previously-mentioned Franschoek.  While each region may specialize in certain grape varieties, you’ll find all types coming from all regions.

So what’s good?  As I mentioned, they grow everything down there, so whether you like zingy whites, rich reds, or fortified sweet wines, there will probably be something to suit your taste.

Bowe Joubert Chardonnay
The French name tells us that this family is descended from the Huguenots, and that the wine is made in the typical Chablis style, with a light touch of oak, and flavors of citrus, tropical fruits, and vanilla undertones on the finish.

Warwick Sauvignon Blanc
The New Zealanders aren’t the only ones who have a way with Sauvignon Blanc.  Since South Africa is on roughly the same parallel, there are areas that enjoy the long cool nights that bring out the zippy acidity of this varietal.  There are typical tropical fruit, gooseberry, peach and pineapple flavors that work nicely with shellfish and other seafood dishes.  For wine and food pairing, remember my “Lemon Law.”  If you can put lemon on it, you can drink Sauvignon Blanc with it.

Fort Simon Shiraz
This is made in a fruity New World style, with cherry and plum flavors upfront, and just a hint of violets.  The oak makes itself known, but is supported with spice and the peppery quality that’s most associated with Shiraz.

So for something a little different, get to know the wines of this fascinating country.  Even though the place names may be a bit strange, the wines have climbed in quality, and most are terrific bargains.  If you’d like to visit, Capetown is a mere 19-hour flight from New York.


Estancia – A Long-Time Favorite

Scott Kelley is the chief winemaker at Estancia, and from what I saw the other day he can hit a golf ball from here clear into the next county.  But that’s not the only thing about him I admire.  There are also the ten great wines made under his supervision.

Scott Kelley

Back when I started getting serious about wine, one of the first bottles I discovered (through a recommendation by a fellow wine geek) was Estancia Meritage.  This was one of the first wines made in California as part of the Meritage movement…which was an effort to brand California wines blended from traditional Bordeaux varietals.  It was a success, and still is.

After our recent golf game (during which I couldn’t hit the ball worth a damn), a few of us sat down with Scott for a tasting through several Estancia offerings.  Great afternoon, and my thanks to Scott.

Estancia Pinot Grigio 2011 – The thing I like about American Pinot Grigo, and Estancia’s in particular, is that they’re much bolder than what the Italians put out.   A few sips of watery PG from Italy, and you’d swear off the stuff forever.  Not this.  Although the Estancia effort is very pale yellow in the glass, it gives you floral scents and honey on the nose, with a nice light mouthfeel, melon flavors, and bright acidity.  Great summer refresher.  WW 88

Estancia Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – This wine triggered something of a discussion around the table, because it’s absolutely not New Zealand.  We’ve become so accustomed to the obvious grapefruit and pineapple flavor profile of many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs that when something different comes along, we take notice.  If you gave this wine to me blind, I’d be tempted to say it was from Sancerre, because it has great acidity and a note of green apple.   Not the Marlborough style by any means, and a refreshing change.  WW 89

Estancia Chardonnay Pinnacles Ranches 2010 – This wine is 50% barrel fermented, and you can tell.  There’s a big oak bouquet on the nose, with some smoky overtones.  I asked Scott if the barrels were heavily toasted, and he said they were only medium toast…but there are plenty of pleasing characteristic vanilla and coconut flavors on the palate.  WW 89

Estancia Chardonnay Monterey County Reserve 2007 – What a difference a few years can make.  Everyone at the table agreed that this Chardonnay was much more elegant and refined than the 2010.  First, of course, a few years in the bottle is a big help, but the reduction in oak exposure also lets some characteristic flavors stand out a bit more.  There’s great minerality on the nose, with hints of lemon and thyme on the back end.  WW 91

Estancia Pinot Noir Pinnacles Ranches 2010 – Frankly, I never knew Estancia made a Pinot, because I’ve spent so much time drinking their Meritage.  This offering gives off strong strawberry on the nose, which I’ve found to be characteristic of many California Pinot Noirs, but the flavors settle down in a few minutes, and the earthier notes, like mushroom and forest,  come to the fore.  WW 90

Estancia Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 —  Right out of the bottle, this wine was as tight as could be, but it settled down and opened up in a few minutes.  I’d decant it for an hour or so before pouring.  Nice aromas and flavors of violets emerged once the tannins lost a bit of their grip. WW 90

Estancia Meritage 2008 – Finally, the big dog.  This blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, and 11% Petit Verdot is deeply colored in the glass, with a lot of spice on the nose.  Round in the mouth, it offers bold flavors of black plum, along with blueberry and blackberry.  WW 92-93


It’s Will-AM-ette, Dammit!

Drives the Oregonians nuts, when they hear people say “Or-uh-gone” instead of “Or-uh-gun.”  And “WILL-a met” instead of…what it’s supposed to be.  Maybe it’s their own fault for giving those places such difficult names.

 They can be forgiven, though, because, aside from the priceless French region of Burgundy, the folks up around the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys – and especially Willamette — have been turning out Pinot Noirs that may just bring tears to your eyes.

 Looking back over my previous columns, I note that I haven’t written very much about the Pinot Noir grape, so now is probably a good time.  Thing number one:  There are a ton of reasons Pinot is called the “heartbreak grape, and you have to be more than a little crazy to grow it.  If there’s any disease a grape can get, Pinot Noir gets it first.  And it has a disconcerting tendency to mutate on the vine, so what you plant may not be what you actually get when you harvest.  And that’s just the good news.

 That said, the Oregonian wine industry grew in the early 1970s by attracting a group of dropouts, burnouts, and highly successful people who just wanted to Get Away From It All.  If you got tired of making millions as a corporate lawyer in San Francisco, or you were a statistician who just couldn’t possibly crunch one more number, you went to Yamhill County and tried your hand at Pinot Noir.

Just as Robert Mondavi put California wines on the world stage, David Lett (one of the dropouts) did the same for the wines of Oregon.  In 1979, at an international wine tasting competition, his Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir came in third among 600 wines, beating out a whole lineup of legendary and obscenely expensive Burgundies.  It was like the American Olympic hockey team defeating the Russians in 1980.  Or the 1968 New York Mets.

 The French went, bananas, or bananes, the way they say it.  They exclaimed, “Sacre bleu!  C’est imposible!” or words to that effect.  They absolutely could not accept that an American wine could compare so favorably to the best of Burgundy.  So they did what anyone would do:  they demanded a rematch.  A second blind tasting competition was held the next year, staged by Robert Drouhin, one of the most legendary figures in Burgundian winemaking.  At that contest, the Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir did not come in third.  It came in second. 

 Robert Drouhin immediately went to Oregon and bought as many vineyards as he could get his hands on.

 Today, the Drouhin family, along with other legendary names such as Grace and Ken Evenstad, create silky, sensuous, Pinot Noirs in several Oregonian valleys, and do so with style and elegance.  Of course, where you grow Pinot Noir you grow Chardonnay, and the cool climate in this region produces a lean, minerally version that’s very different from the buttery, oaky,Californiastyle.  Other cool-weather grapes, such as Pinot Gris, also do well here.  Grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which like somewhat warmer climes, are generally not well suited to this region.

 So what’s the attraction?  Among all red grapes, Pinot Noir is capable of producing the silkiest, most elegant, complex, and seductive wines.  Really fine Pinots from Burgundy can cost upwards of $3,000 a bottle, and are customarily described in the most rhapsodic, sensual terms. 

 The regional name you’re most likely to encounter on an Oregon wine label is Willamette Valley.  It’s kind of the Napa of the state.  Also look for efforts from the Rogue and Umpqua Valleys.  All those regions are turning out extremely attractive wines.

 Now for the somewhat discouraging news.  Since Pinot Noir is so finicky, and so difficult to grow, it’s hard to find decent examples in the under-$30 range.  Be prepared to spend a few dollars more, but the extra cost is almost always worth it.

 Sidebar:  the winemakers of New Zealand, justly famous for their tasty Sauvignon Blancs, are making some killer Pinot Noirs at very attractive budget prices.  Don’t be afraid to try them.

 Since Pinots tend to be extremely variable in quality and style, the trick is to select your wines by producer.  Sample widely (of course), find a few producers you like, and stick with them.  My recommendations for the month….

 Anything by Domaine Serene – Ken and Grace Evenstad, who spend a lot of time here in Southwest Florida, make incredible Pinots and Chardonnays from several vineyards, including Mark Bradford, Grace, Jerusalem Hill, and Evenstad.  While their wines are not cheap, usually running in the $55-$60 range, they are uniformly excellent.

Debi with Grace Evenstad (R)

Argyle Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2009 – At $25, this is a great value Pinot, with characteristic strawberry flavors, a hint of licorice, and a nice silky mouthfeel.

 Anything by Eyrie – This pioneering winemaker hits home runs with Pinot Noir in the $35-$65 range, and refreshing Pinot Gris (the white version of Pinot) for around $15-$18.  Well worth a try.

 Anything by Chehalem – A major force in the Willamette Valley, this producer offers a full line of characteristic wines:  Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris, even the exotic Gruner Veltliner.

 Anything by Beaux Freres – This vineyard is owned by wine critic Robert Parker and his brother.  If you’re not familiar with the name, Parker is arguably the most influential wine critic on the planet, so his wines have to support his reputation.  The wines are usually in the $50 range, so it’s a bit of a splurge, but not too bad.

 Pinot Noir may well be the pinnacle of all red wines.  Try some.


The Many Kinds of Cabernet

Mostly, when we hear the word “cabernet,” we immediately think of Cabernet Sauvignon.  That’s reasonable, because Cab Sauv is the big dog in the red wine world.  Most of the finest, longest-lived wines are made from this grape, which is known as one of the six “noble” varietals.  (The others are Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, and Pinot Noir).

However, there’s more than one kind of Cabernet to enjoy.  One of my favorites is the somewhat obscure alternative of Cabernet Franc.  This grape also makes big, bold reds, just like its genetic cousin. The difference is that, while a really fine Cabernet Sauvignon can cost hundreds, a decent Cab Franc will cost a fraction of that.  Bargains abound.

 Sidebar:  the real fame of Cabernet Franc comes from the role it plays in the so-called “Bordeaux blend.”  Wines from France’s justly-famous Bordeaux region generally consist of a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and yes, Cabernet Franc.  The grape gives Bordeaux wines a measure of finesse, and an interesting, subtle, peppery edge.  Vinified on its own, it produces a wine that ranges from medium to full-bodied.  We enjoy drinking it alone, as well as pairing it with grilled meats and similar dishes.

 The spiritual home of the Cabernet Franc grape is right in the middle of France’s Loire valley.  I wrote a bit about the Loire over 18 months ago, and at that time I was enchanted with the beautiful, crisp, fruity Sauvignon Blancs that made the region famous.  (Still enchanted, by the way).  But even though the region is known for white wines, the Cab Francs from the central part of the valley can be blockbusters.

 Since I spend a good deal of time inspecting the selections on local wine store shelves, I’ve recently noticed a flood of very respectable, highly rated wines in the under-$20 range.  And, since most people may not recognize the names of the somewhat obscure winegrowing regions, those who do (that’s us) can pretty much have our pick. 

The big bargains right now are coming from the aforementioned regions of Chinon and Bourgueil, and also from another central Loire region called Samur-Champigny.  This area is mostly known for sparkling wines, and for whites made from the Chenin Blanc grape.  The red wines are made from Cabernet Franc.

A castle tower in Chinon...and you should see the chateaux

So…what’s it taste like?  When sampling wine, it’s helpful to remember that there are five major characteristics to look for:  fruit, floral, spice, vegetal, and oak.  Most Cabernet Francs offer fruit flavors of black currant, raspberry, and plum.  Floral notes are usually of violets.  The spice flavors are often reminiscent of black licorice, and aging in oak barrels imparts flavors of vanilla, coconut, and sometimes caramel.

Here are my favorite new discoveries, all under $20 a bottle.

Reserve des Vignerons 2009 – This Cabernet Franc from Samur Champigny was a nice surprise.  We enjoyed it with grilled salmon.

Vignobles du Paradis Cuvée Signée Chinon 2009—This is one of the wines I discovered in Fort Lauderdale.  Bought a bottle, tried it, went back and bought a case.

Two other great finds:  JV Fleury Carianne 2009, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre from the Cotes du Rhone area, and Jean Marie Arnoux Vacqueyras 2007, a Grenache-based wine from the Southern Rhone.  The 14.5% alcohol content makes this a big, bold 


Mendocino Makes a Mark

Pax Syrah Mendocino County Alder Springs Vineyard 2006

I’ve been visiting California wine country for over fifteen years and somehow never made it up to the Mendocino area.  Looks like I’m going to have to make the trip because the wines coming out of there are nothing short of stupendous. 

Cousin David (pictured here with his incredibly fabulous wife Caroline) turned me on to Pax wines a few years ago, and we bought some together.  They’ve been resting in my cellar ever since, but last night I took the plunge and opened a bottle.  What was I waiting for?

Well, I knew these would be big wines and require some time in the bottle to develop, but the waiting is over.  I’m going to be hitting the rest of the bottles on a regular basis.

The Alder Springs Syrah (only 428 cases made…maybe that’s why I was saving it) is a deep ruby color in the glass, with a very subtle nose of smoke and dark flowers.  On the palate, there’s earth and dark flowers, some black pepper, blackberry, and perhaps a little creosote, with very well-integrated tannins.

The wine lingers on the midpalate, rather than farther back, and is relatively chewy even though it’s medium-bodied.  Wish I had more.  WW 93-94


Meet Mike Smith – Ordinary Name, Extraordinary Wines

The Envy Winery in Calistoga

If you take Route 29 up through Napa Valley, go through the blinker light at Calistoga, and continue past Petrified Forest Road, you’ll come to a little street called Tubbs Lane.  It is here, at Envy Winery, that Mike Smith does his thing.  And what a thing it is.

Mike makes some of the most blockbuster wines to come out of the area, and the only bad news is that he doesn’t make enough.  Not surprising, considering that he performs every aspect of the winemaking operations his own self.  But the good news is you can probably get some.

Debi in the barrel room with Mike Smith

On a trip to the area in January Mike was kind enough to host us in the barrel room, and even nicer enough to pour samples of his latest efforts.

Quivet Cellars Kenefick Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 –Dark purple in the glass, with ripe tannins that help it drink well at this young age.  The flavors are of dark plum, smoke, and sage.  A great effort.  WW 94-95

Mike pours for Debi.

Myriad Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 – Another deeply colored, inky effort with profound dark fruit flavors and hints of sage on the long finish.  WW 94-95

Myriad Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 —  I love Spring Mountain, because some of my favorite wines come from there.  This is a new favorite.  There’s more fruit and minerality on the nose than in Mike’s other efforts, which makes it sort of a more “typical” Napa Valley Cabernet, but the big up-front fruit is the only typical thing about it.  There are deep flavors here, and a lingering finish.  WW 94

He's very handy with the wine thief. We love him for that.

I don’t know much about Mike’s distribution, because, as I said, his production is limited.  Still, it’s worth trying to get your hands on some.  Try contacting Mike at winejunkies@sbcglobal.net.


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