Varietals You Should Know — And Love

Wines You Never Heard Of.

As we’ve noted before in this space, the world of wine is vast and extensive.  There are many countries where wine is made (including China, and much of the wine is better than you’d think) and over 200 varieties of grapes to make it from.  The wall chart in my office lists 184 varietals, and that’s probably not all of them.  In fact, I’ve been a wine geek for over 20 years, and people will still pull out a bottle of something I’ve never heard of.  That’s what makes this all so much fun.

Recently, I received a bottle of Bombino Bianco, which was a bit of a surprise, because we’ve sipped our way all over Italy, from Sicily to Milan, and had never encountered it.  This was a light refreshing white from the ‘heel” of Italy’s boot, and we’ll be looking for more of it.

Many wine grapes are obscure, or unknown for many reasons.  First is that some are used in wines that never leave their area of production.  In the far eastern reaches of France near the Alps, for instance, they make a wine called vin jaune, or “yellow wine.”  It’s produced from a grape called Savagnin, which grows only in that region.  While the wine is available from several online retailers, I have never seen it on a wine store shelf.  And there are many other varietals and regions just like that.

Teroldego makes a really interesting Italian red.  And Touriga Nacional is a major component of red table wines from Portugal.  The situation is complicated even further by the fact that in the Old World, the wines are known by their place names, and not the name of the grape.  So you’d never know that Sherry, which is a place name (in Spanish it’s Jerez) is made from a grape called Palomino.

Also, many varietals are grown specifically to be used in blends, and are rarely, if ever, bottled all by themselves.  Here, good examples would be Petit Verdot, a significant component of the Bordeaux blend, and Tannat, which comes primarily from Southwestern France, but is also grown very successfully in Uruguay (of all places).  They can be delicious on their own, but finding them is a bit of a chore.

But when you come right down to it, this is all part of the real enjoyment of discovering wine.  There are always new regions, new varietals, and new sensations.  So sample widely, and enjoy some of this week’s recommendations.

Contrade Malvasia/Chardonnay Puglia 2016 ($10) – This wine is 90% Malvasia, with a bit of Chardonnay blended in for body.  It’s a light straw color with white flowers on the nose.  It’s slightly sweet, and refreshing, offering flavors of white flowers, and white peach.  Our tasting panel says it’s a perfect “boat wine.”  WW 86

Damilano Barolo Lecinquevigne 2010 ($30) – I’m convinced that the Nebbiolo winemakers up in northern Italy are pushing a lighter style, because most Barolos in the past have been huge, extracted wines.  This is a much lighter version, with earth aromas, light tannins, and well balanced dark fruit flavors.  WW 89-90

Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap 2014 ($78) – Gorgeous.  Deep inky black color with nose of black currant.  Rich mouthfeel and abundant complex flavors of dark currant, blackberry, cassis, and chocolate.  Decant it, or give it some time.  Your wait will be rewarded.  Sensational.  WW 95

Salentin Malbec Primum 2013 ($65) – We all liked this one.  Dark ruby color, cherry, smoke, brown leather, all kinds of flavors going on in the glass.  A bit tannic, so it will need some time.  WW 91

This Week’s Wine Discoveries


Salentin Malbec Reserve Valle de Uco 2014 ($19) – Smooth and quite approachable for a full-bodied wine. Bright fruit, minerality with notes of plum and dark cherry. WW 88

Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2016 ($13) – This wine will go with just about any food you like. Pronounced leather and cedar on the nose, with a firm spine of strawberry and watermelon flavor. Since it’s 100% Cabernet, it tastes just like the big red version, only much lighter – and pinker. WW 88

Contrade Negroamaro Puglia 2015 ($10) – The Negroamaro grape is characteristic in Puglia, which is the heel of the Italian boot. Deep ruby color offering a nose of dark flowers and honey. Interesting flavors of warm cherry, blueberry, and cocoa. Just a bit on the sweet side. WW 89

Second Labels — And Who Makes Them

Second Labels – The Best-Kept Secret

We all want to enjoy great wine, but not all of us want to fork over a mortgage payment for a big Bordeaux or Super Tuscan.  Fortunately, there are less expensive alternatives.

I suppose there are people who drink major bottles as an everyday matter.  A thousand dollars to them is like ten dollars to the rest of us.  Just a matter of scale and proportion.  But those people don’t live at our house.

We divide our meager collection into maybe three parts…

  • Everyday drinking wines, like the corks we pop when we get home from work after a bad day…or any kind of day.  These are generally under $25-$20 a bottle.
  • Somewhat special wines that we’ll enjoy if some part of our lives has gone exceptionally well that day or week.  Something like we signed a new client.
  • The collectibles…wines we’ve purchased over the years that have increased insanely in value.  These we open only to celebrate anniversaries, births, or in the company of people who open similar bottles for us.

But it’s still possible to find and enjoy high quality wines made by globally famous wineries.  They’re called second and even third labels.

World class wineries such as ChateauMargaux or Screaming Eagle carefully sort their grapes by hand during harvest.  Since grapes don’t ripen evenly in bunches, this is a painstaking and laborious process.  The first quality grapes are selected for the major label.

The remaining grapes are sorted again, and the best ones are retained and vinified for the second label, which is sold at a fraction of the price.  For example, a bottle of 2005 Chateau Margaux, a Grand Cru Bordeaux, costs around $700.  Their second label, Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, is going for about $170.  Not cheap, but not completely outrageous.

Here’s a bit of help for when you’re ready to buy something really nice, but not insanely priced, for that birthday, anniversary, or holiday.

The most highly-prized and expensive Bordeaux wines have second labels, such as the above-mentioned Pavillon Rouge du Chateau Margaux, Carruades de Lafite, Les Forts de LaTour, and La Mission Haut Brion.  Other well-known Bordeaux producers offer second labels such as Echo de Lynch-Bages.  There are many others, as well.

In America, things are a bit different.  Wineries generally make several wines in many price categories.  There is Caymus, which is a reasonably priced California Cabernet at about $65.  Then there’s Caymus “Special Selection,” which will set you back over $250.

The Italians are especially good at this, so watch for these comparative bargains, and sample a few on those occasions that call for something a bit more special.

Until then, here’s just the kind of second label to look for:

Le Volte dell’Ornellaia Red Blend Tuscany 2015 ($30) – The top wine from Ornellaia sells for around $250 a bottle, so this is one of their value labels…and it is a value. Dark ruby color in the glass with interesting aromas of milk chocolate and faint pine. Dark red plum on the palate, along with wet stones and bright mixed fruit. Very drinkable young, and great wine for the price. WW 90

Also from Ornellaia, there’s Le Serre Nuove ($75)…a bit higher priced, but this wine has outscored even the top Bordeaux in competitive tastings for many years. Medium ruby color with lots of red berries and fine, silky tannins. WW 95

Lucente 2014 ($18)…is a great value. This “super Tuscan” is a blend of Sangiovese and Merlot and the new oak aging gives it black cherry, vanilla, and coffee aromas and flavors. WW 90

Ask the Wine Whisperer
A restaurant we went to had “Draft Wine” on the list. I had never heard of it so I ordered a cab/syrah/merlot blend called Triple Threat. The waiter didn’t know what draft was or the winery this came from. It was surprisingly pleasant. Have you heard of draft wines before? Marna L., Seattle

Some very prestigious wineries are now putting their wine in kegs for use in restaurant by-the-glass service. This preserves the wine much better than leaving opened half-bottles standing around, and does not affect quality. I wouldn’t be hesitant to order a draft wine anywhere it’s offered.

Great Wines from Unusual Places

In the Mood for Moldova

One of the most fascinating things about the world of wine is that it…well, covers the world. Example: I guess we can be excused if we can’t instantly find the country of Moldova on a map (it’s sandwiched between Romania to the east and Ukraine, just off the Black Sea), but we recently received some sample wines from there, and guess what. They‘re worth a sip. And a second.

To have a viable wine industry, a country needs a stable central government, an institution which had been sadly lacking in that area until fairly recently. But now winemakers are free to take advantage of their soils and climate and bring some interesting and previously unknown varietals to the market. Moldova has over 275,000 acres of land under vine, so they’re not exactly new at this, and they’re cultivating both familiar international grapes and some that are very indigenous.

We sampled the Asconi Feteasca 2014 and were pleasantly rewarded. This grape grows as both a white and a red, but our enjoyment came from the white. It’s a light straw color with aromas of fruits and flowers, mainly white peach. The palate is sour apple, jasmine and a nice zingy acidity. We liked it. WW 89.

The “Other” Bordeaux
On the east side of the Gironde River, or the Right Bank, there are several well known appellations, including St. Emilion and Pomerol.  But some growers from lesser-known areas deserve recognition, and they know it.  So they’ve banded together to create an overall “brand” for wines that come from areas such as Castillon (southeast of St. Emilion) and the areas of Bourg and Blaye, directly across the river from Margaux.  Sure, we all think of the famous grand cru wines like Lafite, Petrus, and others, but there are bargains – and great taste experiences – to be found in many, many other areas.  Here are some of our recent discoveries.

Château Moulin de Clotte Castillon 2010 —  This blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc gives off a nose of earth and minerals, followed by flavors dark earth and black fruit.  A bit tannic, so needs time or a good decanting.  WW 89-90

Château Roland La Garde Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux 2010 – Earth and smoke on the nose with flavors that are very true to type.  Unmistakably a Bordeaux.  Made in a lighter style, it’s ready to drink today. WW 90

Château de Francs “Les Cerisiers” Côtes de Bordeaux 2009—In French, cerisiers means “cherry blossoms.”  The wine is well named.  Inky black in the glass, it certainly offers aromas of dark cherry. On the palate, the black cherry pays off with just a hint of oak.  Another blend of mostly Merlot, it’s still tannic and needs time or food.  WW 90-91

Unfindable Wines
We’re painfully aware that some of the wines we review may not be available locally, but they’re all worth the search.  Even though I like to support my local wine merchants, and I always look around here first, you might consider visiting  This website gives you a list of retailers that have your wine in stock.  Click on their link, order online, and they’ll deliver it right to your home or office.  Hint:  if you order now, ask them to hold your purchase for delivery in October or November, when the weather cools off.

Ask the Wine Whisperer
“We’re seeing a lot of arguments in print about wine bottles sealed with corks vs. screw tops.  Which is better?”  Jim M., North Fort Myers

This is an argument that probably will never subside.  Cork is, after all, an organic product – the bark of a certain type of oak tree.  It breaks down over time, and worst of all, is subject to a fungus called TCA that robs the wine of its freshness or spoils it completely.  Screw caps (the makers would prefer that we call them “twist-offs”), seal a bottle completely, and most likely can last forever.

Volumes have been written on this topic, but I’d say that wines you’re planning on drinking over the next few years are perfectly fine with a “twist off.”  The more expensive wines will likely still be sealed with corks, at least for the immediate future.

What Makes a Wine Natural?

Natural Wines – The Next Big Thing

There’s a reason why so-called “natural” wines are making such a big impression these days. Mostly, it’s an indication of the overall trend for foods and lifestyles that are closer to the earth. Non-GMO products, all-natural ingredients, yoga, and the like.

One Florida resident is betting the farm (so to speak) on the quality and appeal of natural wines. He’s Peter Rizzo, and his new store, Natural Wines Naples, is educating both wine lovers and newbies to the flavors and appeal of natural wines.

More about Peter in a second, but first let’s figure out what natural wines really are. Basically, they’re made in the purest, simplest way possible. Vineyards are organic or even biodynamic. Winemakers use only naturally-occurring yeasts to induce fermentation – no addition of other yeast strains.

Plus, the winemaking is what’s known as “non-interventionist.” That means no filtering, no additives, no manipulation. Grow the grapes, crush them, and let nature take its course.

“These wines have a place on every wine lover’s shelf,” says Peter Rizzo. “They’re very expressive, and a lot more interesting than wines made in a more commercial manner. I really believe in this.” And so do I, after the tasting session we shared.

Even though natural wines are something of uncharted territory for most of us, there are plenty of reasons to get to know them. These winemakers believe that great wine is made in the vineyard. The growing areas are free from any insecticides, pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals. The wines are made without any additives, no extra acid or flavoring compounds, no industrial yeasts or enzymes, and extremely minimal sulfur content. There’s no weird manipulation, like micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, or concentrators. As you might expect, vineyard yields are low, so quantities are not very high.

The result: wines that are alive, that express a sense of place, and that improve – quickly – over time.

Rizzo, who spent most of his career in advertising, relocated with his family to Naples in 2002 and opened Natural Wines Naples in October of 2016. Since then, he’s seen a steady increase in interest, and in store traffic. While some natural wines are made from fairly exotic out-of-the-way varietals (I saw a bottle of Romortin and Orbois blend), you’d recognize the vast majority of wines in his extensive selection.

“I need to show people classic representations,” he believes. “Even though many makers of natural wines push the envelope with non-traditional varietals, we have all the classic wines, and all the classic flavors. Just because a wine is natural, it doesn’t sacrifice the familiar taste profiles we all enjoy.”

He makes sure of that, with extensive descriptions of each wine’s flavor and aroma profiles on bottle tags that he hand-writes. And he’s especially proud of the fact that his wine selection offers interesting choices in all price ranges.

“There’s nothing rare or exotic about natural wines,” says Rizzo. “You might be surprised to see some bottles with crown caps on them instead of corks, and we do have some wines made from grapes you may not be familiar with, but you’ll find all your favorites here, with many priced under $20.”

He was kind enough to offer me samples of his selection in several price ranges, and the quality was striking. Here are some we especially enjoyed.

Les Quarterons Sancerre 2013 ($30) – A sweet floral nose, completely unlike traditional Sauvignon Blanc from this region or New Zealand, with flavors of apple, peach, and quince.  WW 90

Skeveldra Sancerre 2012 ($42) – Absolutely zero sulfites in this zippy, fragrant version.  Exotic floral, lemon, apricot, and vanilla aromas and flavors.  I’ve never decanted a white wine, but I’d give this one an hour or two in the glass before sipping.  WW 91

Donkey & Goat White Blend California 2014 ($35) – As mentioned above, some makers of natural wines stray a bit off the reservation.  This is a blend of Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and a few other northern Rhone varietals with interesting flavors of red apple peel, yellow peach, and cantaloupe.  A boldly structured white.  WW 92.

New Favorites for Summer

So much wine, so little time…

One of the things I like best about being a wine columnist is the opportunity to sample and review the gratifying number of sample bottles that show up in my office from time to time.  Recently, I called together a few friends who have great palates (and great wine collections) and asked them to help me sample through about 20 or so bottles that have been waiting forlornly in my cellar for me to open them and swirl, sniff, and sip.  Although everyone, of course, has different tastes and likes and dislikes, we were all pretty much in agreement that these wines were worth looking for and enjoying.

They should be in fairly wide distribution, so if you try any, let me know how you liked them.  Cheers!

Ciù Ciù Passerina Evoè Marche 2015 ($7) – This wine would be a steal at three times the price.  The Passerina grape is an ancient white varietal, not seen much these days.  In fact, it was new to me.  The nose offers fragrant flowers and cantaloupe, with similar flavors on the palate.  Highly recommended.  WW 89+

Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino 2008 ($32) – A rich, powerful Sagrantino with a nose of leather, smoke, and deep black fruit.  The palate of dried plums, prunes, and chocolate goes on forever through an amazing finish.  Killer stuff.  WW 92

Fontanafredda Barolo 2012 ($46) – Possibly the most translucent Barolo we’ve ever seen.  Pleasant

Matanzas Creek Merlot Sonoma 2013 ($30) – A full-bodied effort, dark ruby in the glass and bold aromas of chocolate and red fruit.  Very fruit forward, and certainly a great food wine.  WW 90-91

Avignonesi Rosso di Montalcino 2014 ($17) – This “baby Brunello” would be great with grilled meats.  Medium-bodied on the palate, flavors of red currant, cherry, and violets.  WW 89

Concannon Petite Sirah 2014 ($11) – Great value, and a steal at the price.  A big, dark, black wine in the glass, it delivers aromas of warm earth and smoke, but fruit flavors on the palate.  You’ll enjoy the complexity of the blackberry, raspberry, black pepper, baking chocolate and mushroom.  Lovely.  WW 89-90.

Bousquet Malbec Tupungato Valley Mendoza Grande Riserva 2013 ($25) – A wine that’s very much about the place and the soil…an Old World style.  Bold flavors of earth, truffle, and black tobacco.  WW 88

Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Grand Reserve 2015 ($14) —  From the middle-range of the KJ portfolio, this is a great everyday sipper.  Medium bodied, with balanced oak notes supporting apple and lemon flavors.  WW 87-88

Meomi Chardonnay California 2015 ($13) – Grapes are blended from three very diverse regions in this wine.  It’s bold and creamy with a buttery mouthfeel and an entertaining hint of buttered popcorn. Straightforward flavors of pear and white peach. WW 88

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