Wines of the Week

Red Table Wine -- Only $250 a Bottle

Red Table Wine.  Only $250 a Bottle.

Seems a little steep, doesn’t it, to pay over $100 for a bottle of something that says “table wine” or just “red wine” on the label.  It isn’t one of those rare blockbuster California cabernets, or a precious vintage from the sacred vineyards of Burgundy.  It’s just…well, red table wine.

But wait.  Take a closer look at where it’s from, and what’s inside the bottle, because that humble title can conceal a drinking experience that’s well worth the price.  And more.

Most likely, the label you’re looking at comes from Italy, or some other ancient winemaking area that’s steeped in long tradition and strict custom.  So if you’re confused about what’s in the bottle, you can thank the Italian government.  Over the years, they passed a whole spate of laws defining specific wine zones in the country, decreeing what kind of “recipe” each wine should conform to, how long it should be aged, all that.  Unfortunately, they forgot one thing:  the most innovative winemakers make not want to follow the ancient recipes.

Say you’re sitting out there in your vineyard in the middle of Chianti, a few miles from Castellina or some other ancient winemaking center, and you just don’t want to make your wine the way the Official Recipe demands.  Maybe you’re feeling puckish and you throw in a little of that cabernet you’ve been growing, or a couple of Merlot grapes.  You’ve got a problem.  Follow the traditional recipe, and you can call your wine Chianti.  Don’t, and you can’t.

There’s no official name for wines that don’t conform, so what do you call it?  Probably, you’d call it a Super Tuscan, which is exactly what the major producers, over the past decade or so, have done.

In the most popular – and expensive – Super Tuscans, sangiovese is still the major component, and the wine serves as a sensational accent to all kinds of traditional Italian cuisines.  The rest (there are maybe about 20) are made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and other international varietals.  As I said, wines from Chianti that do not follow the rules don’t have an official terminology.  What’s worse, they get classified in the lowest designation of quality, which is called IGT, down there with the $8 bottles.   The lack of an official name for nonconforming wine has driven producers to make up clever names of their own, all of which contain lots of vowels.  There’s Ornellaia, which is made primarily from cabernet sauvignon.  And Tignanello, which is mostly sangiovese.  Then there’s the wine that is said to have started the whole Super Tuscan revolution, Sassicaia, made from cabernet sauvignon and aged and barreled differently from any other Chianti regional wine up to its time.

While Super Tuscans like Solaia, Summus, or Fontalloro may cost well over a Franklin apiece, some are priced a little more mercifully.  My bargain favorite, Monte Antico, is made mostly from sangiovese, but not entirely, and costs under $15 a bottle.  While it can’t compare to the juice that Marchese Antinori is putting in his Tignanello bottles, it’s a nice step away from your typical Chianti, and it’s absolutely sensational with pizza.

It’s easy to become a dedicated Italian wine lover.  Just pick up a decent Tuscan blend like Monte Antico (great value at around $10),Terrabianca Campaccio ($25),orBalzini ($20), which has white label, red label, and black label versions, each indicating a different blend.  For pasta and pizza, it’s the way to go.

Ask the Wine Whisperer
In the bottom of a bottle of white wine, I saw some clear crystals.  What are they?  Has the wine gone bad?  Ron H., Fort Lauderdale

Wines contain many types of acid.  The crystals you’re seeing are actually bits of solidified tartaric acid, or plain old cream of tartar, which is tasteless and harmless.  Sometimes you also find them at the inside end of a cork.  The wine is fine to drink, but don’t eat the crystals.

Blind Tasting--The Masochistic Way to Enjoy Wine

What the Heck Am I Drinking?

For many people (me included) the most entertaining – and maddening – activity in the wine world is a little thing called the blind tasting.  This is where you have a glass (or two) of wine in front of you with no idea what kind it is, and you have to sniff, sip, and identify it.  I call it the “guess the smell” contest, and it’s just about impossible to do…for me at least.

There are national blind tasting contests, championships, even, where people can actually taste a wine and identify not only the varietal, but many times the place of origin, the vintage, and – most remarkable of all – the producer.  Not me.  Not ever.

Recently, I was invited to a different kind of event.  Jessica Weeks, a restaurant manager in the area, was preparing to take her Level II sommelier test, which would require her to taste two wines blind and identify them.  She wanted to practice, and asked a few of us to taste along. 

Jessica Weeks was raised in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, which is one of America’s original and historic winegrowing regions.  We held the practice session in the very impressive wine tasting classroom at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 16 years old,” she says, “but it wasn’t until I joined the Guild of Sommeliers that I realized just how much goes into each bottle.  It’s given me a great respect for what it takes to grow and harvest grapes at the precise time to make a successful wine.  It’s all very fascinating.”

That fascination led Jessica to prepare for her Level II exam, where she would be required to demonstrate a Wikipedic knowledge of wine varietals, regions, soils, producers, and a lot more.

“The test consists, among other things, of 40 multiple choice or short answer questions,” she notes.  “I also have to blind taste two wines and explain the makeup of the varietal, where it came from, how old it is, the tasting notes, if it was stored in oak or not, the climate and soil in which it was grown, and many other factors based on sight, smell, and taste.” 

No simple task.  The first mystery wine we tasted was a white, which I immediately and confidently identified as a Reisling from Germany.  Jessica said it was an Albariño from northern Spain.  She was right.  I was wrong.  Then there was a red which I absolutely knew was a Pinot Noir from Burgundy.  Jessica begged to differ, suggesting a Gamay from Beaujolais, which is kind of like Burgundy’s twin cousin.  Once again, her sipping sophistication exceeded mine.  Jessica two, Jerry zero.

Then, she nailed the Nebbiolo from northern Italy, along with the other two blind bottles.  If anybody was ready to take the test, it was her.  I had no doubt she’d be able to achieve what she described as a “personal goal.”

“It will definitely make a difference in my career,” she notes.  “I am pursuing the more advanced certifications to become more knowledgeable and qualified when recommending wine to a restaurant guest.  Most of them may know a certain type of wine they enjoy, so it’s a great pleasure to introduce new styles by explaining the selections in detail.”

I hope Jessica will agree with the suggestions and details for this week’s column…

Lawer Estates Rosé of Syrah 2015 – You can make rosé out of any red grape, but the ones from Syrah are generally fuller-bodied.  This example from a winery in Calistoga has characteristic strawberry and cherry aromas and flavors, with some nice zippy apple notes.  The winemaker suggests pairing it with ceviche.  WW 89  About $22

Scacciadiavoli Montefalco di Sagrantino 2012— Sagrantino is one of my favorite Italian varietals that isn’t Chianti.  This bold, fruity wine needs some time in the bottle or plenty of decanting.  It will deliver flavors of plums, spices, sage, thyme, and black leather.  Great with any rich Italian cuisine.  WW 94 About $35

Ask the Wine Whisperer – Once I open a bottle, how long will the wine keep?
--- Jon F., Fort Myers
Most everyday wines are at their best right away, and if you don’t finish the whole bottle (never a problem at our house) you want to prolong the life of what’s left.  One method is a vacuum stopper, such as the Vac-u-Vin, which is what we generally use.  The rubber bottle stoppers have a valve in them, and you remove the air from the stoppered bottle with a little hand pump.  This generally allows the wine to stay fairly fresh for one or two days.

The Latest from the Golden State

It’s probably no surprise that over 90% of the wine made in the US comes from California

And the 4,400 wineries in that state make it the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, after Italy, France, and Spain.  Now, that doesn’t mean other states don’t make great wine; they do.  Some of our favorite cabernets and syrahs come from Washington State, and incredible pinot noirs come out of Oregon all the time.  We’ve sampled some surprisingly good wines from Virginia.  But in terms of sheer volume, the Golden State tops the list.

And not all the great wines come from Napa and Sonoma.  Other regions, like Paso Robles, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Barbara are producing terrific whites and reds in all price and quality ranges.

As if I needed to be convinced, a tasting seminar at VinExpo in Hong Kong just reinforced what I already knew, in the most delicious way.  The “California Style!” tasting session, headed by four prominent wine world women, was as entertaining as it was informative.  And we all got a free pair of sunglasses.

Two of the speakers, Master of Wine Debra Meiburg and author Karen MacNeil, were joined by Sara Jane Evans, who is the Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine.  And Sarah Kemp, host of the TV Series “New American Cuisine,” added some interesting perspectives.  There was another dimension at work, as well.  It has long been debated whether women taste and perceive wine differently than men, as French wine critic Isabel Forêt maintains.  She’s the author of several wine guides aimed specifically at female wine lovers.  So it was interesting to hear the four women on the panel offer their evaluations of the 16 (yes) California wines we sampled, which came from all over the state.

The good news is most of them are readily available locally.  However, if you’re going all the way to Hong Kong to conduct a tasting seminar, you don’t bring $3 bottles.  These wines are a bit in the splurge category, but highly recommended.

Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard 2012 – This is a very well-known vineyard, and many winemakers use these grapes in their products.  Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen takes a very technical approach to his winemaking, and this example offers lemon and lime notes with old world flavors of apple and vanilla.

Mondavi Fumé Blanc To Kalon Vineyard 2013 – Back in the 1960s Robert Mondavi put California Sauvignon Blanc on the map, along with the rest of California’s wines.  And the To Kalon vineyard is another one of those blessed pieces of ground where grapes grow their best.  This wine offers classic grapefruit and lemon blossom flavors, along with cantaloupe and guava.

Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2010 – One of the best known premium cabernets from Napa Valley, the grapes from this vineyard are known for offering a tantalizing faint mint flavor, along with classic cassis, cigar box, and spice.  Get a bottle for your birthday.

Shafer Syrah “Relentless” 2012 – This was my wine of the day.  It’s 89% syrah and the rest petite sirah with jazzy dark flavors of plum, chocolate, smoke, and blackberry.  The finish goes on forever.  Buy it now, and open it in about five years.

Ask the Wine Whisperer
How important is the vintage in a wine? – Don S., Bonita Springs
The quality of a particular vintage depends on the region the wine comes from.  There are no vintage years that are great in every locale, though critics generally agree on good years from the most famous winegrowing regions, like Bordeaux and Burgundy.  Most wines in the under $50 range are made to achieve a consistent style from year to year.  Hot vintages produce wines that are fruity and high in alcohol, while cooler years generally produce lighter-bodied wines with a bit more acidity.

Send questions and comments to me at  Cheers!




VinExpo --- Where the Wine World Happens

Hong Kong ---Where the Wine World Happens

Once a year, everybody who’s anybody in the wine world gathers for a global industry trade show called VinExpo.  This year, they held it in this magical world capital, and the dimensions of the event are, to put it mildly, overwhelming.

Over 45,000 people flocked to Hong Kong to sample the wines of over 1,300 wineries and wine marketing associations.  In addition to the thousands of wines on the expo floors there were seminars and conducted tastings throughout the building.  Did I make any discoveries?  You bet.  Now I just have to remember them.

This event is not like a grand tasting where you stroll from table to table, enjoying a small pour at each.  Not by a long shot.  At VinExpo, the trade associations build booths the size of respectable houses, sit you down, and make you sample all the 15 or 20 wines from their region.  Filthy work.  The wines you remember are the wines you buy.

More informative, though, are the master classes held throughout the three day event.  I especially enjoyed a blind tasting led by Jon Arvid Rosengren, who recently won the title of World’s Best Sommelier.  If you recall my last column, identifying wines blind is not one of my happiest talents, and this event was no exception.  I was elated to nail the first wine, identifying it as a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire.  Things went straight downhill after that, as I got eight of the last nine completely wrong.  (I came close on one of them).

Still, there was a lot to sample and a lot to learn over the three days.  There was an excellent tasting of ten top shelf California wines led by Karen MacNeil, who wrote The Wine Bible.  If a writer has the guts to name a book The Wine Bible, she better know her stuff.  Karen does.

The big takeaway for me was a master class sampling of Chiantis that have been given a new, higher quality designation recently created by the Italian wine authorities.  As you know, Italian wines are classified from lesser to greater quality, with the designations IGT, DOC, and DOCG.  (Never mind what they stand for).  The new top-level designation is Gran Selezione, to distinguish what the district considers the best of the best.  So if you’d like to seek out what are now considered the very highest quality Chiantis to go with your pizza and pasta, my favorite Gran Selezione wines included:

Principe Corsini Don Tommaso GS, San Casciano Val di Pesa 2013 – The Corsini family has been making wines for 1,000 years (really), so they know what they’re doing.  The wine is 80% sangiovese and 20% merlot, with earthy notes and fresh black fruit on the nose.  There are also typical aromas of violets and back tea leaves.  A bit tight to start, there is plenty of red fruit on the palate.  I’d decant it for a couple of hours.

Rocca delle Macie, Sergio Zingarelli CS, Castellina 2011 This was a lot more approachable, with 90% sangiovese and the rest a minor grape called colorino because (guess what) it adds color.  It’s inky black in the glass but very smooth on the palate, with black fruit and a bit of vegetal flavor.

Felsina Colonia GS, Castelnuovo Berardegna 2011 --  Castelnuovo is the southernmost town in the Chianti Classico region, so this wine is a bit more ripe all the way around.  There are meaty, herbal notes and a strong minerality in the mouth.  A favorite.

And here’s one a bit off the wall:  Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay 2011 – We bought this wine in the duty-free shop in Hong Kong airport, only to discover that it was not made by Grace Family Vineyards in California, but by someone named Grace in Shanxi, which, as you surely know, is about 300 kilometers southwest of Beijing.  The nose is round, fragrant, and buttery, with strong but not overwhelming aromas of oak and apricot.  The apricot and peach follow through on the palate with a very pleasant, soft finish.  We’d buy this again, next time we’re in China.

A New Look at a Noble Grape

I have a confession to make...

As widely as I sample and write about wine, there has always been something of a vacant space in my wine appreciation, and it’s the wines of Germany.  Our collection is packed with bottles from California, Washington State, France, Italy, and some stranger places like Moldova.  But I’ve never been able to get my arms around the way German wine producers classify and label their products.

Until now.

On a recent trip to Germany, I set out to get myself educated about Riesling, which is the predominant varietal in the region, as well as some of the lesser-known wines, like Gruner Veltliner, Müller-Thurgau, and Gewürztraminer.  Glad I did.

The problem has been that the Germans classify their wines – and label them – in a very unconventional way:  by level of sweetness.  Second, a producer might make fifteen or twenty different wines from various blocks in the vineyard.  And third, until recently, German wine labels were gorgeously colorful works of art with completely unreadable Gothic lettering.  Add to that descriptive terminology like “Trockenbeerenauslese” and “Qualitatswein mit Pradikat,” and American consumers (like me) can perhaps be excused for scratching their heads in puzzlement.  And, like many people, I originally believed that most, if not all, Rieslings were very sweet.

But here’s what I discovered.  Not only are Rieslings at all levels of sweetness great food wines, but the winemakers have started labeling their bottles in a much more contemporary – and readable – style.

Our visit to the village of Bernkastel on the Mosel River was a revelation.  We were hosted at a private tasting by Bart Kroth, whose family has been making wine in the area for about 500 years, though he doesn’t look that old.  Bart guided us through about nineteen styles of Rieslings that he creates from some of the world’s steepest vineyards.

Many of his samples were quite dry, acidic, and complex, but, of course, there were some sweeter styles, which are designated Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese, in order of increasing sugar content.

As you’ve probably surmised already, Riesling is capable of being made in a very wide range of styles.  Characteristic flavors of this varietal include peach, honey, citrus, and apricot.  In a way, it’s the opposite of Chardonnay.  What’s even more fun is that it’s grown with great success not only in Germany, where it’s indigenous, but in Alsace, Washington State, Australia, the Finger Lakes of New York, and even South America.

The Mosel River at Bernkastel

Now for the bad news and good news.  Many of the best examples of Riesling from Germany are imported in very small quantities, often less than 100-200 cases, and they can be pricey.  The good news:  Rieslings from the US and other parts of the world are plentiful, respectably rated, and reasonably priced.

After some conscientious sampling, I’ve settled on the following recommendations.

A.J. Adam Riesling QbA Mosel Dhroner 2013 – This wine is from the Mosel region, the place with the really steep vineyards.  It has an herbaceous style, featuring grassy flavors and creamy citrus on the finish.  $36

Penfolds Riesling 2014 Eden Valley Bin 51 – Nicely acidic, with characteristic peach and pear flavors.  About $40.

Xabregas Riesling Mount Barker 2014 – This offering from Australia tends more toward citrus flavors, like tangerine, with a nice long finish.  Around $20

And don’t forget Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington State.  Their Rieslings come in a wide range of styles, all very attractively priced.

Sample widely.  Please email questions, comments, or suggestions for future articles.  Here’s to you!

It's Time to Think Pink

In a way, wines styles are like skirt hemlines...

They’re up, they’re down, in fashion and out of fashion.  One day everybody’s drinking Chenin Blanc, and a few months later it’s all Pinot Grigio.

Rosé wines are sort of like that.  They were extremely popular in the mid-1950s and have come back strong of late, partly because that’s just the way things work, but mostly because new offerings are coming onto the market, providing wine lovers (that’s us) with interesting and unique flavors and sensations.  After all, if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie can spend $60 million to buy a vineyard in France just to make rosé wines, how bad can they be?

Unfortunately, the pink wine that most readily comes to mind for most of us is the inevitable sweetish, low-alcohol white Zinfandel.  In 2014, over 7.7 million cases were sold in the US (less than previous years) but it’s still a biggie.  However, we’re interested in more serious stuff.

And now that summer is upon us, let’s not turn to those traditional light whites as our first sipping solution.  For picnic purposes, we can forsake the traditional Pinot Grigio and enjoy the many rosé wines on the shelf that give us bright refreshing flavors, plus a really pretty pink liquid to look at while we sip.

First of all, there are two ways to make rosé wines.  You can mix a white and red together.  Indeed, many big red wines contain a percentage of white, like Australian Shiraz, which is often enhanced by about 5% of Viognier, a white grape.  The second, more legitimate way, is the saignee method.  You crush red grapes, leave the juice on the skins until it just turns pink, then drain it off.  That’s the kind we’ll discuss here.

Rosé can be made from just about any red grape.  It is also made in an incredibly wide range of styles because it’s entirely the winemaker’s choice as to how long the juice stays on the skins, how dark it gets, and when it’s drained away.  That’s why it’s critical to drink a lot of wine, to sample widely, and find producers who make wine in a style you enjoy.

In a way, the spiritual home of rosé wine as a specific type is the area around Tavel and Lirac in Provence.  These are tiny areas, just north of Avignon, and Tavel is the only appellation in the Rhone that produces rosé wines exclusively.  The rosés in this area are based primarily on Grenache and Syrah, but tradition allows several other grapes as minor components of the blend.  In other parts of the world, as mentioned above, just about any red grape can be used.

The flavors of rose wines are traditionally light, because it’s long-term contact with the skins that makes red wine big and bold.  But that’s okay, because these delicate flavors are perfect not only for summer sipping, but also for pairing with a wide range of foods and cheeses.  The flavor profiles will be the same as the major grape in the blend, but lighter and more delicate.

In my last column we reviewed the enjoyable Mulderbosch rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon.  Here are some other examples that will give you a wide range of choices…and pleasures.

Sample widely.

Melior de Matarromera Cigales Rosé 2013 (80 tempranillo/20 verdejo) –. Bright deep pink in the glass, the Melior offers sweet fruit flavors with honey and notes of red flowers.  It’s a dry style, with some spice on the long finish.  WW 90

Otazu Merlot Rosé 2014 --  A favorite at our sampling session.  It’s a very rich rose color in the glass with ruby highlights.  Jammy strawberry and raspberry flavors make this wine surprisingly rich for a rosé.  WW 93

Waxwing Blair Vineyard Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir Rose 2014 –Winemaker Scott Sisemore (and we’ll review some of his other wines at a later date) crushes whole Pinot Noir clusters, with no destemming.  The juice stays on the skins for only an hour or two before racking and fermenting in stainless steel.  The result is a very light salmon color with aromas and flavors of roses and rose petals.  About $23.  WW 91.

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