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.

Pay More, Get More? Not always.

One of the most discussed (and disagreed-upon) issues in the wine world has to do with the idea of price versus quality.  And that bitter debate ties right in to how critics award ratings points.

Let’s start with that one.  As we all know, reviewers in magazines such as Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast taste wines blind, and rate them on a 100 point scale.  Open any issue of these magazines (and lots of others) and you’ll see a $250 bottle of wine rated 95 points right next to a $40 bottle with the same rating.  We call this QPR – quality to price ratio.

Then there’s the issue of demand.  For example, the finest, most famous wines from France’s Bordeaux region (think Chateau Margaux and Lafite Rothschild) used to sell for around $220 a bottle, and not that long ago, either.  Now, that’s not cheap, but many people would agree that the experience of drinking them is worth it.  Was worth it…because today those same wines, on release, are priced upward of $1,000 each.  The reason?  The rise of wealthy classes of people in previously-unwealthy parts of the world.  There are thousands of newly-minted millionaires in China who want “the best” and don’t care how much it costs.  They’ll pay the thousand dollars, which pretty well leaves the rest of us out of the game.

And don’t forget marketing.  A wine called Screaming Eagle is sold to a select mailing list of collectors who pay $2500 for a three-bottle case.  They can sell the wine as soon as they get it for $2,000 a bottle.  Go figure.

So, how do we find those highly-rated wines for prices that don’t equal our mortgage payment?  For me, any wine generally rated above 90 points is worth buying.  Of course, there are many wines in the 85-89 point range that shouldn’t be missed, either.  The way to find them is to drink a lot of wine.  Sample widely, try wines made from unfamiliar grapes, or that come from parts of the world you never heard of, or ones that are made by newer, less well-known producers.  There are bargains to be had.

Since my role as your wine columnist and reviewer demands that I sample dozens of wines a month (you know what they say about dirty jobs), I have, over the years, become quite attached to several wines that offer excellent value for their price.  They have complexity, layers of flavor, and elegance, and they don’t require you to cash in your IRA.

Here are some of my perennial favorites, as well as some new additions.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc — This zingy, refreshing New Zealand wine costs about $12 a bottle, always gets 90-92 points from the critics, and is consistent from year to year. Great aromas of citrus and white flowers, with grapefruit, cut grass, and pineapple on the palate.  Terrific with seafood.

Milbrandt Traditions Cabernet Sauvignon – The western part of Washington State has the perfect climate and soil for growing rich reds, like Cab and Syrah.  The Milbrandt family does it especially well.  About $12.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc – A bit higher priced than many New Zealand examples, this wine offers a whole ‘nother level of complexity and elegance, and is well worth the difference.  About $30.

Chateau Hyot Côtes de Bordaux – There’s blackberry, currant, chocolate, tobacco leaf and spice on the nose, and a solid core of fruit.  Great value at around $15.

Sample widely.  Write to me.

Austrian wines — definitely worth a try

The wine world knows all about the Australians.  Big bold reds…zingy whites.  But what about the other Aussies…the Austrians?  Even though they’re also making bold reds and zingy whites, this country’s wines haven’t resonated with American consumers as much as they deserve to.  That needs to change.

Problem is, the Austrians faced extreme hardship in the mid 1980s when several wineries were discovered diluting their wines (and you really don’t want to know with what).  The scandal virtually destroyed the country’s wine market, but good things come from bad.  Stringent new laws were passed — and enforced — so Australian wines are not only better than they used to be, they’re well up to international quality.

It’s also a bit confusing to American consumers that Austrian wines are labeled with much the same system used in Germany.  They’re classified by sweetness, then by the region of origin, and then by quality, from ordinary table wine to the higher end versions.  So if you see a label that reads “Velich Welschriesling Trockenbeerenauslese Neusiedlersee,” nobody would blame you if you stood there scratching your head.

Today, however, the Austrians have climbed aboard the international bandwagon in a big way. They’ve simplified the labeling, put the name of the grape on the bottle, and directed their efforts to creating more commercial – and more fulfilling – reds and whites with traditional flavor profiles.

The major winegrowing regions are all located in the agricultural eastern part of the country. The premiere areas are Wachau, along with Burgenland and Styria, all of which are divided into several subregions.

As mentioned before, the wines are classified in a manner a bit strange to us in the New World, so look for the “Qualitätswein” designation.  Not surprisingly, it means “quality wine,” and it will come from a single district.  The bottle top will have a red and white seal.  One level up from that is “Kabinett,” which is Qualitätswein and then some.

About those grapes: they’re not your typical international varietals with names we all know and love.  Even though the Austrians are becoming internationally minded in their marketing and labeling, the grapes they grow are very much their own.  And that’s a good thing.

For white wines, aside from the sweet ones, Grüner Veltliner is well worth a try.  It’s generally dry, with tropical fruit overtones, and we enjoy it with Indian food, Thai, and similar dishes that are hard to match with conventional wines.  Of course, they grow Riesling, and another white grape known as Müller-Thurgau (don’t forget the umlaut…), though you’re not likely to see it bottled as a single varietal.

The reds are big.  While they do grow international varietals like Pinot Noir, the real interest is in the native grapes like Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, and St. Laurent.  For me, the St. Laurent grape is capable of producing wines of true elegance and power.  However, about half the red wine produced in Austria comes from the Zweigelt grape, and that’s not a bad thing.

Zweigelt is an easy-drinking wine, not too tannic, that usually displays cherry and cassis flavors, much like a Cabernet, only lighter.  Blaufränkisch is more structured, more powerful, and capable of aging.  The cherry and cassis notes are there, but you’ll get more complexity, and more levels of flavor, including blackberry, earth, and spice.

(Sidebar…Austria is also the home of the Riedel family who, as all wine lovers know, makes probably the finest wine glasses in the world.  They come in a staggering array of shapes and sizes for all kinds of wine.  The family stays in business not only because of the quality of their glassware, but also because of the fragility.  Riedel glasses will explode into glittering crystal shards if you so much as look at them the wrong way.)

My new favorite Austrian wine is a blend of several international varietals and some characteristic Austrian grapes.  It’s Weingut Kadlec Lyss Excellence 2011, mostly Blaufränkisch and Zweigelt, but with a dash of Merlot and Cabernet, just for fun. The wine spends two years in large oak barrels, where it develops complexity along with notes of raspberry, chocolate, sweet smoke, and a firm yet rounded tannic structure.  It’s about $45, and well worth a try.

A new look at old favorites

Favorite wines, huh? Where to start?

Well, before we go off the beaten vineyard path, it might be a good idea to take a new look at some of the most famous wine types.  In the wine world, as everywhere else, fashions evolve, and styles change.  So if you got fed up with, say, those heavily-oaked superbuttery California Chardonnays a few years ago, maybe a sip of the more modern offerings will bring you back.  Worked for me.

Chardonnay is the world’s favorite white wine, but wines, as I mentioned, go in and out of fashion.  To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “Chardonnay is so popular nobody drinks it anymore.”  But people drink plenty of it, and the shelves at the wine stores groan under the weight of all the different bottles.  Beside, winemakers love this grape because they can make it in an enormous range of styles.  Oaky and buttery.  Lean and minerally.  And just about everywhere in between.  Best of all, unlike some other wine grapes, it’s not all that particular about where you plant it.

In the wine world, certain grapes are classified as “”noble varietals.” Chardonnay is one of these, because it’s capable of gaining elegance as it ages. White Burgundy is an excellent example.  Chablis, which is a district of Burgundy, is another. And Champagne is generally a blend of Chardonnay with other grapes.

A few years ago, wine lovers started yelling, “A-B-C!” Anything But Chardonnay.  The reason?  Winemakers, mostly in California, had, almost en masse, swung toward a style that was soaked in oak, which pretty much covered up all the other elegant flavors that this grape is capable of delivering. Too bad, because these days, the style has come back in the other direction, and many wines deliver a wide range of “tutti-frutti” flavors that make Chardonnay so much fun.

Why not do a taste test, and find out for yourself?  For example, buy a bottle each of Mer Soleil Chardonnay with the gold label, and a Mer Soleil Silver, that comes in a very cool-looking white stone bottle. Same wine, same producer, same vineyards…but completely different styles. The Silver will be clean, minerally, with a nice zippy acidity on the palate. The Gold will be much richer on the nose, and the aroma of oak will be unmistakable. On the palate, there’s a buttery feel, a mouth filling weight to the wine that’s both very pleasant and very different from the unoaked style. Each has its fans, and each can be paired with a wide variety of cheeses and other foods.

Since there are so many Chardonnay styles, a stroll off the beaten track can provide some tasty new discoveries, and not always at the price of a new BMW. Bargains can be had.

Don’t ever be shy about trying new wines from new places. The Chileans are making some very fine examples, as are the South Africans. And even in Burgundy, there are some excellent Chardonnays available for under $30 a bottle. Our favorites right now:

Wente Chardonnay Riva Ranch – This is a California creamy style, but the oak isn’t overwhelming.  There are nice notes of honeydew melon, fig, and spice.

Domaine Chenevieres Chablis  — One of my favorite moderately-priced white Burgundies, this style is an attractive straw color in the glass, with crisp apple, citrus, apricot and peach flavors. The lively acidity keeps it from that old fashioned “buttery” style, as does the minerality.

Rhone Whites? Really?

How about a nice change of pace in that daily white wine experience?  We usually have a glass or two when we come home from work, and y’know, sometimes it’s refreshing to reach for something other than the old Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Pinot Grigio.

The answer:  a white blend from the Rhone, like Pierre Henri Morel Laudon Cotes du Rhone Villages Blanc. For around $14 a bottle, you’ll like the change as much as we do.

A blend of 50% Grenache Blanc, 30% Roussanne, and 20% Viognier, Morel puts the traditional white grapes from the Rhone into a very tasty blend.

You’ll sense the Viognier right on the nose…the sweet honeysuckle aroma is unmistakable. The wine is very soft on the palate, with an excellent balance of acidity, minerality, and other components. It’s a bit tart on the palate at first, but softens with a bit of swirling, and offers nice pear notes on the finish. We’ll buy more. WW 90.

What’s Up with Portugal?

What’s Up with Portugal?

Since about forever, the Portuguese who live up north along the Douro River have been making legendary wine; almost all of them are Port.  That’s okay, because vintage Port is highly prized, and the British have been swigging so much of the stuff that several of them bought into the Port winemaking business a few hundred years ago.

Port is one of the most manipulated wines, right up there along Champagne.  Fortunately, the Portuguese have started making unmanipulated wines:  hearty reds from the same traditional grapes.

The names are not easy to remember, because you don’t hear them every day like “Chardonnay” or “Syrah.” No, these babies are named Touriga Nacional, Touriga Frances, Tinta Barroca, and even Xarel-O, which sounds more like an instrument you’d find in a Calypso band.

It’s all good. The wines are, for the most part, great…and you can’t beat the value.  As soon as the world finds out that there are drinkable reds coming out of Port country, the prices are going to (ahem) reflect the rise in consumer interest.  Basic economics.

We were especially impressed with the Cedro do Noval Regional Duriense 2009. Very dark purple in the glass, it gave off a nose of earth and dark fruit. The flavors were quite rich and extracted, with a nice balance between the dominant cherry flavor and other red fruits. It’s still a bit stiff and tannic. Either decant the hell out of it or put it away for a few years. Nice.  WW 91

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