A new Super Tuscan?

I bought the I Guisti & Zanza Nemorino Toscana Igt 2010 on WTSO a while back, and kind of forgot it was in the cellar. I don’t usually do that, especially since the label has such a whimsical Bacchus kind of guy on the front.

I won’t forget it again. I opened one the other night and was completely knocked out. The blend is 60% Syrah, 20% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot. I think the Merlot makes this young wine approachable right now. There’s sweet fruit and smoke on the nose. It’s inky in the glass and at first sip I noted some briar flavors, close to what the French call garrigue, and I swear I tasted salt water taffy. That’s a first.

I’m going to have to open another bottle very soon and try this again.

Snail Wine? Maybe It’s Time!

Go ahead and browse the shelves in your local wine emporium.  Chances are you won’t find many bottles that come from the Côtes de Gascogne.  That’s because Gascony, southeast of Bordeaux, due west of Toulouse, and a hop and skip from the Spanish border, has yet to make a real mark on the American wine buyer.  If I remember correctly, Edmond Rostand’s famous character Cyrano de Bergerac was from there.  And the Three Musketeers, if I’m not mistaken.

Before my friend Lou put a bottle of L’Escargot Sauvignon Blanc 2012 in front of me during a recent weekend, the only wine from Gascony I knew about was Tannat, a deep purple wine that will stain your teeth and pull the enamel right off.  Tannat is known for being very highly tannic (get it?) and is normally used to fortify and give structure to other red wines.  When it’s bottled as a single varietal, it often goes through a process called micro-oxygenation.  This involves putting the wine in a big vat and blowing air through a kind of grating with tiny little holes.  It’s kind of like power decanting, and helps to break down the stiff tannins and make the wine drinkable.  Otherwise, you’d have to cellar it for about a century.

Down Gascony way, they also make wine from other grapes, many of which do not occupy the top of our consumer awareness:  Abouriou, Duras, Petit Manseng, Ugni Blanc, like that.  Others, however, like the previously mentioned Tannat, join Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, and Merlot on the shelf…if you can find them.

Anyway, since Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite whites, I spent some time sniffing and slurping the L’Escargot, which, as the name implies, would go very nicely with that delicacy, as well as other seafood and shellfish dishes.

This white is pale in the glass, subtle on the nose, and doesn’t give off any of the huge in-your-face fruit aromas you’d get from the same varietal from New Zealand. The minerality is evident, along with a subtle vegetal hint, and a bit of lime. Much more of a Sancerre style, and even a bit more restrained.

Slurp it, and the slight vegetal edge comes through, along with unmistakable lime, kiwi, and gooseberry flavors. The finish, while not long, is perfectly acceptable. This is a wine for summer sipping, or for the first glass when you come home from work. And since it’s in the $10-$11 range, there’s no reason not to buy it by the case. WW 89-90

Greek to Me? Not any More!

My friend Lee, whom I’ve known since the 7th grade, has been married for decades to a woman who was born in Greece. So it’s maybe not surprising that, being a dedicated wine collector who got into it in the Seventies, Lee isn’t afraid to pick a Greek wine off the shelf once in a while.

Problem is, for generations, even millennia, the Greeks have been spicing up their wines with retsina, which is basically the sap of pine trees. To say that it’s acquired taste is the world’s most laughable understatement.

But over the last 10-15 years the Greeks have ditched the resin and brought to the international market wines that are (much) more to the liking of folks like you and me. Problem is, the names of the grapes are not only foreign to us, they’re pretty much unpronounceable.

Mavrodaphne. Assyrtiki (which sounds like a conquering tribe of heathens from the South Pacific), Xinomavro. But the good news is, if you can get over the polysyllabic spelling and do just a bit of research, a whole world of new savors and flavors awaits.

A few weeks ago, Lee came over from Miami, and instead of bringing a bottle or two like a normal person, brought six or eight. Among them was Boutari Moschofilero, which we didn’t get to drink because we were too busy polishing off the 1996 Chave Hermitage and some of the grand cru Burgundies he had in the bag.

So I chilled it down and opened it up the other night, and…well, we gotta get more of this. Moschofilero (pronounced mos-ko-FEE-lero…and I’ve been saying it wrong) is a light- to medium-bodied white, and if you tasted it blind you’d think it was a Chardonnay on its way to becoming a Sauvignon Blanc, or the other way around. It offers the best qualities of a fruity unoaked Chard with the zippy acidity and refreshment of a New Zealand Sauv Blanc. Sensational.

On the nose, there’s a faint hint of rose, which is supposedly characteristic of this varietal, and lots of lemon and other citrus scents. On the palate, you’ll get the acidity mentioned above, along with a nice smooth mouthfeel, and dashes of roses, white flowers, and tropical fruit.

At trade tastings, I’ve sampled — and enjoyed — some of the Greek reds, like Mavrodaphne and Agiorgitiko (a deep red fruit bomb). I get the idea that the Greek marketing people think that reds are an easier sell in the US, and they might be right. But for summer refreshment, Moschofilero will give you an unusual and intriguing drinking experience. I’m going to try and find a case of itd a

Sensational Wines from Southwest France

Guy Whitesman is my attorney and primary care spiritual advisor.  Some time ago, he conned meinto splitting a case of red from the Languedoc.  It turned out to be clean, tasty, and inexpensive, so I hauled out my trusty wine atlas and asked some Serious Questions.  Where is the Languedoc, anyway?  What’s the weather like?  Do they have any good Mexican restaurants?

As it turns out, the Languedoc is in the south of France (I actually guessed France right away), running roughly parallel to the Mediterranean coast.  There are pitifully few enchilada establishments, but the inhabitants compensate by growing sensational grapes and making wonderful wine which they insist on selling at comically low prices.  They all live in tiny villages with names like Nissan-les-Enserune, which means “Your Japanese car has leaked brake fluid on my new Reeboks,” and Aspiran, which means either “heavy breathing” or “headache relief,” depending on the local dialect.

The big discovery:  sometimes wine is the way it is not just because of the grapes, or the ground, or the guy or gal who made it, but because a tide of happenstance that swept across the place centuries ago.

The Languedoc is a perfect example, thanks to the Albigensian Crusade, which was so named because it was centered around the town of Albi, the birthplace of Toulouse-Latrec, though he was not home at the time.

The Albigensian Crusade was a wave of religious persecution, a common pastime back then (and still today), and it had a direct effect on what was in the case of wine Guy forced me to buy.

Lotario di Segni was elected Pope in 1198, and took the name Innocent III, which just shows what a puckish sense of humor he had, because innocence was far from his most distinguishing character trait.  He immediately started to convince everyone in Western Europe that the Pope was superior in power and authority to any earthly or lay ruler.  This, unsurprisingly, did little to endear him to the kings and princes of Europe’s many fiefdoms and city-states, most of whom told him to go pound salt in several languages, and most of whom Di Segni excommunicated on a depressingly regular basis.  He threw the Count of Toulouse out of the church twelve times.

Which is why the wines of the Languedoc are so good.

During that era a bunch of Christians around the town of Albi decided that traditional Catholicism wasn’t exactly blowing their collective skirts up, and adopted some pretty weird beliefs that were far outside of Catholic orthodoxy.

The beliefs of the Cathari, as they were known, spread fairly rapidly because they preached incessantly until people converted just to make them go away, and they quickly rose to positions of influence.  Remains of their castles can still be seen in the Languedoc.

Remains of a Cathar castle in the Languedoc

Remains of a Cathar castle in the Languedoc

Anyway, Innocent III finally got fed up with the fact that there were people running around the south of France believing in weird stuff, though I have it on responsible authority that people in the south of France believe in weird stuff to this very day.  Neither was he warm to the fact that the Albigenses made an unpleasant habit of starving themselves to death because they thought life itself was inherently evil and should be ended as soon as possible.  Had he been a more patient Pope, he would have waited until they all died off.  To get them to mend their ways, he sent St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Dominic, wandering friars, papal legates, everybody but the Vienna Boys’ Choir, to preach around Albi and gently show the Cathari the error of their ways.  Didn’t help.

Finally, Innocent declared the Albigensian Crusade, which sent throngs of knights and soldiers into the area to root out the heresy once and for all.

Not surprisingly, the crusaders quickly directed their efforts toward political and economic, rather than spiritual, ends, and spent their days doing what most invading armies of the time did — looting and burning.  That’s why the wines of the Languedoc are the way they are.  Not because of the looting, but because of the burning.

Winemaking villagers in the Languedoc mostly didn’t give the Crusaders the Right Answer when questioned about their beliefs.  So the Crusaders would kill every living thing in sight and then burn the vineyards.  Over time, as the vineyards were restored, new and exciting grape varieties were introduced, and sprouted up.  Today, the area grows mainly carignan, cinsault, grenache, syrah, and mourvedre.  There is also a healthy amount of chardonnay.

The wines of this region are spectacular bargains.  My favorites are

Domaine Gardies Cotes du Roussillon-Villages Les Milleres 2011 – Plum, raspberry and plenty of red currant…with a firm tannic structure.  Should age well.

Cave de Roquebrun Coteaux du Languedoc Terrasses du Frigoulet 2011 – Don’t let the polysyllabic name scare you off.  This one is powerful and concentrated, with plum, cherry pie, and dark chocolate.  They made 12,000 cases, so it should be available somewhere.

M. Chapoutier Cotes du Roussillon-Villages Les Vignes de Bila Haut 2010 –Chapoutier is a major quality producer.  This bottling was a Wine Spectator Top 100 selection, it costs $13, and they made 35,000 cases.

The above article is an excerpt from my new book Secrets of the Wine Whisperer,” – buy now.

It Costs More. Is It Better?

Many things in life are a puzzle to me.  Almost everything, in fact.  But among the most confounding is the relationship between how wines are rated by critics and how they’re priced in the stores.

Let’s consider ratings first.  All the major wine publications, like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter and others, have panels of supposed experts who sample hundreds of wines and give them scores on a 100-point scale.  Anything below 80 is generally considered not very worthwhile.  But when scores get up around 94 and higher, those wines are much to be desired…and much to be paid for.

But is there really a strict relationship between how good a wine is and how much it costs?  The answer is…not really.  Wines are priced according to many considerations.  Makes sense that if you produce 200 cases of a wine you want to charge more for it than if you produced 16,000.  Economies of scale, supply and demand, that sort of thing.

But then there’s the marketing angle.  A wine is worth what producers say it’s worth…and how much they think they can get for it.  Nice heavy bottle, fancy label…kind of like perfume.  The market decides.  In the case of a so-called “cult” wine, like the famous Screaming Eagle, the combination of quality, rarity, and legend causes collectors to shell out a hefty $750 per bottle, but you’ll never get it at that price because you’re not on the list…or the waiting list…or the waiting list for the waiting list.

As an avid reader of the major wine magazines, I pay special attention to highly-rated wines, and I covet them.  (I know…coveting is against the 10th Commandment, but still…)  But, as a resource-deprived individual, I pay special attention to the prices.  And it simply staggers me that there is so often absolutely no earthly correspondence between what the critics call quality and the price of the bottle.

This hit me pretty hard last month, when I was eagerly devouring my latest issue of Wine Spectator.  The last 25 or so pages of every issue are devoted to mini-reviews of hundreds of wines, with the points assigned, tasting notes, and prices.  I can’t read it without laughing, choking, or suffering some extreme physical reaction.  Here’s why.

They listed an Italian wine called Campo Alla Sughera, a somewhat unusual blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Only about 400 cases of the stuff were produced, and it’s priced it at $175 a bottle.  The critics gave it 92 points.

Three lines down from that item appears another Italian wine:  Mazzei Toscana Badiola.  Another red blend, another 92-point rating.  The price?  $15 a bottle.  Fifteen dollars!  And to put the cherry on top, they made almost 17,000 cases, so the chances of mortals such as we finding it are pretty darn good.

Another example that caused me a few gastrointestinal eructations:  Le Macchiole 2009, made entirely from Merlot.  It’s $315 a bottle, and got 93 points.  Now look down that same page, where you’ll find Tenuta di Trecciano, also rated 93 points, for which you’d (gladly) pay a mere $30.  What’s up with this?

This same disconnect exists throughout the wine world, but is less staggering in some places than others.  This is why I seek out wines from relatively unknown or less-than-popular regions, made from grapes that are somewhat off the beaten track.  Example:  The area of Bandol in France’s Provence region makes great wines from Grenache, Mourvedre, and some other varietals.  Since the area isn’t Bordeaux or Tuscany, producers are hard pressed to charge above around $50 a bottle.  This same issue of Wine Spectator featured Domaine du Gros Nore Bandol, rated 94 (!) points, for a mere $38 a bottle.  Unless I’m completely mistaken, a 94 point Bandol that costs 10% of the price of a 94-point Super Tuscan seems like a better deal.  Of course, it all depends on what you like.  Many people would pay more for a 91 point Burgundy than a 91-point Zinfandel.  Burgundy is Burgundy.

My suggestion for the month, however is Italian.  There’s a red grape called Morellino that usually packs alluring flavors of black currant, violet, and vanilla.  The Cecchi Morellino di Scansano Val delle Rose Riserva 2008 is a great buy at $20.

Killer Columbia Cab — Milbrandt

With Butch Milbrandt at the LA Wine Experience in 2012

Where has this stuff been all my life?  While the wine scene in Washington State seems to be dominated by giants like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, there are smaller wineries turning out big, bold reds that are definitely worth a try.

Milbrandt is one of them.  Even though their web site says the family has been farming their vineyards for over 60 years, this one was way under the radar for me until I discovered the Traditions Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 in Costco.  I bought a bottle, drank it over the weekend, went back on Monday and bought a case.

This big red offers flavors of coffee, mocha, cassis and maybe a little mint somewhere on the back end.  It’s ripe, round, and full-bodied.  The 2009 vintage is a bit tight, however, so decanting is a good idea.  I’m putting a few bottles way in the back of the cellar so I don’t drink them too soon.  I’ll be back in a couple of years.

And don’t let the screw cap fool you…this is a high quality offering, and I think it’s worth at least 91-92 points.

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