Thursday, February 28, 2019

8 Wines (way) Under $20 To Get You To Spring

Winter blues got you down? Get yourself to your local wines shop (or online retailer) and chase the cold weather doldrums away with some uplifting vino!  The selections below, mostly reds with a couple of whites thrown in for balance, reflect an ongoing evolution of taste.  Neither white is a chardonnay, as I can't seem to choke down the domestic versions of it these days. Most of the reds have bright acidity in common, and half are what I'd consider on the lighter end of the density (bit not flavor) spectrum.  All of these wines, however, I'd consider slam dunk recommendations.  If your local retailer can't put their hands on these, check and/or, two of my go-to online retailers.  And if you can't find these specific wines, fret not, just ask for a reasonable facsimile (same wine/region.)

Palladium Soave $11
Soave has become one of my favorite areas to explore for value and drinking pleasure. These whites shine with life and are consistently balanced. Look for subtle floral aromatics, medium-weight fruit, and food-friendly acids.

Muralhas De Moncao Vinho Verde $8  
Vinho Verde gets a bad rap from a lot of wine lovers because it's become synonymous with what I call "breakfast wine" - wine wines low in alcohol, light on substance, and in tall, skinny bottles. This stereotype has done wonders keeping the price ceiling on these wines low.  But what few drinkers know is that Vinho Verde is not a type of grape, but a region in northern Portugal.  And some of the whites made there are excellent. Case in point is this brilliant wine made of 70% albarino. Don't let the bottle shape (or price) fool you - this is good stuff.

Le Paradou Grenache $9

This insanely drinkable $8.99 red bursts with energy and flavor. It found its way into my shopping cart on impulse a year or so ago.  Since then I've re-ordered it multiple times, so it must be good.

Julia James Pinot Noir California $11
A terrific little wine perhaps best described by what it isn't: cloying, overheated, cola-infused fruit syrup. Which leaves pinot noir just as God intended. Yum. Poured by the glass at a local wine bar, the distributor told the wine shop down the street that they were out of stock. Which is industry speak for "we're only selling it to bars/restaurants who don't want their customers to know the glass they're paying for is buying us 1.5 bottles.  Fine.  (I ordered it online.)

Ruffino Chianti Superiore $9
I recently wrote about this wine and have enjoyed it twice more since.  It's nothing fancy, but available just about all over the place and a darn honest Chianti.

Thymiopoulos Naoussa Xinomavro 'Young Vines' $19
Head and shoulders the most expensive wine in this cataloging, and worth it. Saline and sublimely complex, this unusual red is like a Barolo that's been rolled down a steep hill planted to herbs and wildflowers and into deep blue seawater.

Domaine Cabirau Cotes du Roussillon $13
Bordering on intense, this meaty, structured red drinks like a Cotes du Rhone that grew up with chiseled muscles and a pair of hairy balls. Higher octane than I'd prefer, but it pulls it off just fine and that only adds to its swagger.  One of those wines you'll be squeezing the last drop out of the bottle.

Louis Latour Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir $15
Grown more than 400km from Burgundy (that's why it doesn't cost four times as much), this domain is in the mountains between Marseille and Nice way in the south of France, lending this a bit more heft without being clumsy. Though not terribly sophisticated, it's got a fantastic one-two punch: classy lines and a friendly price tag.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Sangiovese's Siren Call

As we try to wrangle from winter's grip, much of our diet remains squarely in the category of comfort food.  So, it stands to reason that hearty reds find their way onto our dinner tables to match the warming, robust flavors of the day. Whether looking ahead to sunnier days or just looking for a change of pace, sangiovese has been making more regular appearances in our home lately.  And why not?

Sangiovese's versatility and variety is incredible. Chianti, Brunello, rossos from Montalcino and across Italy all reflect their origins in radically different - and beautiful - ways. What all iterations share, however, is an indelible structure of acidity that cuts through fat like a hot knife, making these wines very food friendly - especially with winter fare. Osso bucco, I'm looking at you!

One recently enjoyed case in point is this sub-$10 pleasure to drink, 2016 Ruffino Chianti Superiore. Clean and bright, this medium-weight refresher is irresistible, especially with a little chill on it. And at this price, you can have it with pizza on a Tuesday night or a weekend grilled steak with green olives. Pro tip: open and decant one hour before eating, putting it in the fridge for the last 20 minutes.

A note for the wine nerds: Superiore is the designation given to Chianti wines of a higher quality (as defined by yield, alcohol, and ageing) from outside the Classico region. These wines must be aged at least 9 months, 3 of which have to be in bottle.  Though we tend to be enamored with Chianti Classico's, there's a whole lot of great (and affordable) drinking to be had in the broader Chianti region. Salut!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A(nother) Word On Suckling Points

Had James Suckling had been my high school teacher, I would've gone to Harvard.

In my 2018 year end wrap up, I wondered if critics playing fast and loose with points would devalue the 100 point scale. I also pointed the finger at Mr. Suckling who, for the record, knows his way around the wine world far better than I ever will. Despite swearing that I would no longer be tempted by affordable wines adorned with heaps of points, I fell sucker once again this week. This time the siren was Cline's 2017 Sonoma pinot noir, on sale for $15 and wearing a 93 point shelf talker.

To be clear, any producer bringing a drinkable California pinot to market for under $20 is okay in my book. Hat's off to Cline because that's what they've accomplished here. But 93 points is attention-getting and, as much respect as I have for Cline Family Cellars, a laughably high award. It's a serviceable wine. Nothing less, nothing more.

With yet another example of a wine bearing an overly generous rating from Mr. Suckling, I decided to look a little closer at his grading. First, I went to his website for an explanation:

"We rate wines using the 100-point scale...A wine rated 90 points or more is outstanding (A). A a wine rated 95 points or more (A+) is a must buy. A wine rated less than 88 points might still be worth buying but proceed with caution...We don’t recommend spending your money on anything rated lower than that."

There are some typos in this section, so some meaning may have fallen through the cracks.  As it reads, that's not a 100 point scale, but more like a 12 point scale - and one on which everything is wonderful. What a wonderful world that must be.

Next, I went looking for comparative data. Many online retailers allow you to filter by scores (further evidence at the power of points), so I ran some searches and filtered down to a couple of hundred wines rated 93 points or more by Mr. Suckling. How do his scores compare to those of other major reviewers? Nine out of ten time his ratings were equal to or higher than ratings from other outlets (including Wine Spectator, Decanter, Wine Advocate, Vinous, and Wine Enthusiast.) Translated to his 100 point scale, that's an "outstanding" feat.

If it were 30% or even 50% percent of the time, you might think he's an eternal optimist, but 90%? You could reasonably wonder if there isn't a game of one upmanship at play. Or perhaps its just an attempt to differentiate in an increasingly crowded marketplace. As already mentioned, high points are attention-getting and clearly they work to move product. Regardless, even if only by this simple observation, 90% is far from occasional. In fact, it's very much the opposite.

Which brings us to a question that could be uncomfortable: which master does a wine critic serve, the producer, the consumer, or themselves? This points-like-candy-on-Halloween trend also makes me wonder if other publications will follow suit and adjust their scale to a similar curve.  We shall see.  In the meantime, no more getting lured in by points. For real this time.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Australia: Easily Overlooked

A rising darling of the wine industry just a decade ago, Australia’s fine wine star has faded into near obscurity in recent years. After a long string of spotty quality and overheated monsters, I pretty much abandoned the Oz section of wine shelves completely.  Until last night, anyway.  Mistakenly stocked among some domestic reds, the 2015 Barossa Valley Estate Shiraz ($11) caught my eye in a 'what the heck' kind of way. And at $10.99, what the heck, right?  Besides, I needed something with enough backbone to stand up to marinated roast split chicken breasts.  Surely any Barossa red would have enough cojones to do the trick.

Well, I was right.  It certainly has the stuffing to complement even the heartiest of fare, but it was much more than that - and way over-delivered on QPR.  Full of bright and exuberant fruit mounted on a solid frame of brawn and acidity, it offers a hint of mouth-quenching savory that had me squeezing the bottle for every last drop. Tagged at 14% (which seems reasonable these days), it was on the right side of bigness.

Hopefully I can be forgiven for forgetting what a pleasure a simple shiraz can offer. Maybe it's time to revisit this region.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Audax: Serious Cabernet

What do oligarchs drink on the weekend? Probably this.  If they're lucky, that is.

 2013 and 2014 Calla Lily Estate Napa Valley Cabernet 'Audax' ($120)

Sample shipments are often composed of wines promoting the breadth of a producer's portfolio. For example: a chardonnay, a sauvignon blanc, a merlot, and a cab. For producers specializing in a single variety, on a rare occasion the shipment will be smattering of single vineyard bottlings. But the rarest is a shipment including the same bottle from different vintages. Being able to taste sibling wines from different vintages allows for identification of commonalities and the winery's thumbprint. So, when the package containing one cab from 2013 and another from 2014 arrived from Calla Lily Estate, I was intrigued.

Calla Lily Estate is a relatively young, small production winery founded in 2010 in the Pope Valley, a quiet valley in the northeast corner of Napa county.  And Audax is their top tier cabernet label.  I had never heard of the winery, but that's not surprising as Napa is home to hundreds of small producers.  based on these releases, however, this estate won't remain under wraps for too long.

Packaged in polished, dark, bunker-buster bottles (more than twice the weight of typical 750ml bottles) finished with raised gold lettering and and ancient looking coin emblem, these bottles just look expensive. With that as an introduction, you might expect a viscous, syrupy juice to ease into the glass. Instead, both vintages offered gleaming ruby splashing with confidence.  Could the color indicate what was to come in the palate?

Both vintages are in possession of unmistakable classic Napa Valley characteristics: prominent nose showcasing the brooding side of cabernet, prodigious fruit, broad shouldered framing from a French oak regimen, and elegant mouth-puckering tannins. Cassis, date, and plum dominate, while suggestions of eucalyptus, vanillin, cedar, and dust round out the complex flavor experience. These wines are so clearly siblings, but the 2014 is everything the 2013 is, plus-plus. All the desirable attributes of the 2013 are amplified in the 2014. It’s a more intense version of its slightly older sibling and  bangs a strong tannic drum. A fatty steak would help tame its youthful vigor. These sublime wines will go some distance in the bottle stored under the right conditions.

Not that I am one to score wine on points, but these are solid 95+ pointers just in case you are looking for a relative gauge of quality.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Boring But Important Update

The Supreme Court heard arguments today on Tennessee v Blair, explained in Eric Asimov's article from last week.  To get a handle on what happened, I turned to SCOTUS blog.

The well-written (if on the geeky side) analysis of today's arguments suggests that today's arguments and commentary give little indication of which way the justices will lean on this, and that - as is the norm - we won't learn of the Court's decision until sometime this summer.

My money is on the status quo.  But wouldn't it be wonderful if I were wrong!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Boring But Important

The intersection of wine, commerce, and legal technicalities might seem quite dry (pardon the pun) at first glance, but as Eric Asimov summarizes in his recent New York Times piece, there's a lot at stake in this week's Supreme Court hearing of a case called Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Blair.

Asimov's piece is worth reading and I won't be attempt to regurgitate it, but if you've ever even thought of buying wine online, you should care about the outcome of this case.

As consumer purchasing behavior has moved decidedly in the direction of less friction/deliver to my doorstep, the beverage alcohol establishment (aka the three tier system) has opted to resist rather than evolve.  In a nut shell, it is unlawful for a retailer to ship wine to consumers across many state lines. Resulting largely from arm-twisting by state branches of the Wine & Beer Wholesalers Association, several states have started cracking down on interstate wine shipments, issuing cease-and-desists to major wine e-commerce retailers, and roping FedEx and UPS into the mix. 

I've written about this a couple of times and have not-so-privately speculated that the establishment's entrenchment could invite a fight in a ring they don't own.  Is this case the one?  We won't know until a decision is made and the details become clear, which is likely months away.  But the fact that the Supreme Court is revisiting the subject matter could be good news for consumers.

The case will go in front of the court on Wednesday, January 16, 2019.  I, for one, will be pouring myself a glass of something tasty to enjoy while reading the recap of the court's questions.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

5 Wine Thoughts For 2019

Hello everyone and happy new year! Here’s hoping your holidays were safe, relaxing, and full of delicious goodies. As we head into the new year, I offer the following as food for thought and a peek into some topics I am pondering as 2019 gets underway. 

Under-The-Radar Winegrowing Regions 
Michigan? Really?
First, let’s start with some good news. Perhaps related to/resulting from one of the topics covered below, 2018 provided some terrific drinking enjoyment in the form of wines from under the radar winegrowing regions. Towards the top of my list is my rediscovery of the Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan. Having received a diverse set of samples from them this fall, I can’t overstate how impressed I am with the caliber and value these wines present. A few examples include Château Grand Traverse’s Dry Riesling, Black Star Farm’s exciting sauvignon blanc (both reviewed here), Peninsula Cellar’s Late Harvest Riesling (the world needs more wines like this!), and 2 Lads' very, very good Cab Franc. Though not nearly as obscure as northern Michigan, the alpine region of Italy also known as Alto Adige continues to outperform its price points. In the US this region has become synonymous with pinot grigio, but adventuresome drinkers who explore the region’s reds will be rewarded. This summer will be my first time visiting that part of the world and I am really looking forward to it. 

Aging Wine 
One of the most commonly-repeated misconceptions about wine is that it gets better with age. The truth is that very, very little wine has the capacity to improve with age. If 2018 had a wine drinking stain for me, it was having held on to too many bottles past their prime. Sadly, there were a cluster of these right around the holidays, including a relatively young 2012 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas ($65) that should still have been in its youth, but was likely not stored properly.  Therefore, one New Year’s resolution is to drink up when a wine tastes good. That’s right: less stock piling, more living in the moment. 

Natural Wine
Thanks to millennials becoming more prominent players in the wine consumer market, natural wine seems to be gaining in popularity, at least the idea of it anyway. Very few people (yours truly included) don’t even understand what the term really means, if there even is a consensus.  Is it organic? Biodynamic? Additive-free?  Harvested by moonlight by virgins? I suspect it mostly means the absence of any preservatives.  Sulfites are routinely added to wine as a stabilizing preservative to maintain consistency, quality and resilience through the shipping/distribution process. This has been done for centuries, if not millennia, and for good reason. Though I will gladly admit that one of the best wines I had this year was a biodynamically-farmed California pinot noir (Story of Soil), my overarching experience with natural wines is that they are volatile and inconsistent, particularly if drunk anywhere but within close proximity to where they were grown and bottled. The grinch in me thanks this will be a passing fad, but the trend could spur innovation into organic alternatives that accomplish the same end as sulfites. 

Climate Change 
The current administration’s head in the sand rhetoric notwithstanding, climate change is real. Farmers know this, including those growing grapes. The impact is visible in alcohol levels, sugar saturation, and other distorted characteristics in modern wines. This may be creating space in the marketplace for restraint. Some brave wine makers are attempting to counteract this by harvesting earlier, while others (braver still) are moving vineyard sites to higher altitudes and cooler climates. See my comments above regarding under the radar growing regions. I expect more of these places will continue to emerge and become more widely available as their quality increases. 

Points Relativity 
Finally, 2018 was a year when the 100 point scale went from disputed to indisputably bastardized.  Chief among the culprits is James Suckling.  His generosity with points reminds me of Venezuela’s monetary policy. I’ve uncorked too many “meh” mid-90 point wines to be swayed by those emails touting a “95 point gem for just $14.99.” Will the industry’s infatuation with such low-hanging marketing fruit ultimately doom the credibility of the scale?  I doubt it, but it’s becoming a in increasingly ignored metric for more and more consumers. 

As a parting thought, I hope the new year sees me (and you) drinking more of the following: Greek wine, white wine from Italy, inexpensive Chardonnay from Burgundy, Port, more port, and wine made to be drunk young and fresh. Here’s wishing you many happy glasses!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Inexpensive Gift Ideas For The Winos In Your Life

It's the last day of Hanukkah and we're deep into procrastinator season for Christmas shopping. Still
stumped on what to get that wine lover on your list?  Here is a handful of ideas that are sure to bring a smile to your favorite wino's lips:

Double-Hinged Corkscrew/Wine Key
There are hundreds of these on the market and you can spend a lot if you want to, but the important  thing to look for is a teflon-coated worm.  The worm is the squiggly piece that you work into the cork, and teflon coating makes it slide into the meat of the cork more easily - much more easily - and more quickly.  That translates into less force/trauma going into the cork, decreasing the likelihood of damaging the cork - a real risk when the wine is older.  At a reasonable $16, this handsome one in rosewood won't break the bank, either.

Wide-bodied Decanter
Functional and beautiful, a wide-bodied decanter is a staple in our home.  Features to look for: a wide, flat bottom for stability and a clean (sharp, not rounded) lip for less dripping.  Don't spend more than $25 as these tend to chip and stain easily over time.  I usually find them for around $10 at Marshall's or TJ Maxx.

Expensive Soave
Don't let that header fool you - the most expensive Soave bottle you'll find will likely be under $20.  What you get for that, however, is bottled Italian magic.  The quality of Soave bottlings just keeps getting better and better, offering subtle perfumed aromatics, brilliant minerality and acid, and a friendly texture that wraps the wine in a companionable embrace.  Two names to look for: Pieropan Soave Classico and Tenuta Santa Maria's Lepia bottling.

Tawny Port
If good wine holds the possibility of discovering something wonderful in a glass, good port holds the promise of the comforting experience of contentment. There's a huge range of the stuff out there, but you need not - in fact, you shouldn't - spend a ton on young vintage port.  Instead, give the gift of a tawny, which you'll find for around $20 and is enjoyable right now.  Feel the need to splurge?  Upgrade to a 10 year tawny, which will be in the neighborhood of $35 and is worth every penny.  bonus: it'll keep for a couple of weeks after opening, so can be enjoyed in moderation over several evenings.

Chardonnay was first made famous in Burgundy and for good reason. Though finer Chablis often runs north of $80, there is a universe of more modestly priced options that will give even the most experienced drinker happy pause. One such example is the 2016 Domaine Bernard Defaix, which was the best $20 I spent on wine all year.

Real Pinot
Real pinot noir is translucent in the glass, and channels its energy through intricate acidty into multi-dimensional layers of complexity, sometimes in mind-bending fashion.  It neither drums its message nor leaves the drinker beleaguered from potency.  Sounds like a unicorn, eh?  A couple of examples include a smashing $14 value from the widely available French producer Louis Latour, the 2015 Pinot Noir Domaine de Valmoissine. A higher end option is the J Wilkes Santa Rita Hills ($30.)

Never heard of this Greek grape? I hadn't either until recently. But whoa. Though light on density, it's bright with saline acidity and bountiful flavors.  Unlike any other wine your wine lover has ever had, this will light up a dinner table with adventure and discovery.  One to look for: Thymiopoulos Young Vines Xinomavro from the Naousa region.

Big Red
Finally, no gift giving list would be complete without a hefty red. For exquisite drinking pleasure that overdelivers on price, consider a Lirac. Sitting across the river from Chateauneuf du Pape, it shares many characteristics with its neighbor, but does not enjoy the same notoriety (or premium.)  These reds can be supple, lighter expressions, or serious, deep, profound wines.  For something in the middle, Domaine Lafond's Roc-Epine Lirac will set you back around $20.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

One That Can't Wait

Regular readers know how skeptical I am of Spanish wines these days.  So, when a PR rep for a Spanish wine growing region contacted me about reviewing some samples, I shared my misgivings with her. TRUST me, she said.

I've gotten to three of the four reds that arrived a couple of weeks later. Not all of them warrant a
recommendation, but she was right about the oak thing - turns out that not all of Spain is suffering the bludgeoning plague of American staves. The region in question is Navarra. Situated south of San Sebastian - my favorite city in the whole country (perhaps all of Europe) - Navarra is home to Pamplona, among many other smaller towns and villages, and a diversity of terrain that includes lush mountain forests and and brown, parched hillsides.

When several wines arrive from a region, I normally like to review them all before publishing my findings in a round up piece. Occasionally, however, a wine is too good to bury in with a bunch of others. This is one of those times. And if you're one of those wine-lovers who laments the Parkerization of Spain, give the garnachas of Navarra a try - this recent batch doesn't have a single inky fruit bomb in the mix.

2016 Bodegas Nekeas Grenache 'El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa' Navarra $14

Not at all what I was expecting - and in a good way. A lean, spice-laced nose gives way to an energetic texture full of bright, vivacious fruit integrated into the light-medium density structure. Surprisingly elegant given its vigor. Brief aging in French oak complements rather than masks the fruit flavors. Very extroverted. Even with glass in hand, I’m salivating thinking about my next sip. Very enjoyable indeed. What a screaming bargain on top of it all!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Facebook Hiccup


For those of you who access this site via Facebook, apologies.  It seems that the web service that connects this site to Facebook closed its doors (without notice) in June - hence the lack of anything on Facebook since.  Hopefully the replacement function works now!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

Turkey Day is coming, people.  You're looking for wine recommendations, aren't you?  Well, you're in luck!  (The sappy gratitude piece will come later.)

Note that some of these wines may be tough to find on your favorite retailer's shelves, so I've added notes for on guidance for suitable substitutes.

Gobble gobble!

2016 Black Star Farms Arcturos Sauvignon Blanc Leelanau (Michigan) $17
Boy, I’d like to have this again! Is it a coincidence that such a versatile wine would arrive just a few weeks before Thanksgiving/the Ohio State-Michigan football game?! Either way, credit is due for what is an impressive, brilliant white full of exciting character, multi-dimensional fruit, and a gracious, dry finish. Drinks more like an enigmatic Alsatian or exuberant, floral Italian. Alas, it is from the old Mission Peninsula in Michigan. Darn good! Really.  (I think this is a sauv blanc, but it came as a sample with no front label.) Substitute: Any pinot blanc from Alsace.

2017 Chateau Grand Traverse Dry Riesling Old Mission Peninsula (Michigan) $13    
I really like this wine. A lot. Nothing showy here, just focused riesling that remains true to the variety while exhibiting skill in the cellar. The dry finish is polite and clean, and is followed by an enlivening little surprise kick at the end. Thanksgiving meals offer such a hodgepodge of different flavors requiring versatility for pairing, but if any wine has a chance at tickling all the right spots, this is it.  And a banging deal to boot! Substitute:Washington state dry riesling.

2017 Left Coast Cellars Chardonnay Truffle Hill Willamette Valley $24
Lightly-hued in the glass, but that’s where the subtleties end. This concentrated white strikes a deft balance of power and precision. It’s all here - intense chardonnay flavor, creaminess, even bright acidity - without being overblown or distorted. Can hold its own against Northern California chards a twice the price.  Substitute: Shea Wine Cellars chard.

2015 Beronia Crianza $14
Textbook Rioja. A clean, well-made crianza offering balanced proportions of honest tempranillo character, broad-framed structure, and food-friendly acidity. Old school style and thankfully devoid of the heavy-handed oak regimen plaguing so many Riojas. Could go some years in the bottle, too. Darn good, especially for the money. Nice.  Substitute: Ask your retailer for a fresh, uncomplicated Spanish red fermented in tank (not oak.)

2013 Beronia Rioja Reserva $20
2010 was the first time I had this one and it was in Barcelona. The concierge at our hotel recommended a place on our last night where we could get a decent paella. With our squirmy 18 -month-old in tow, we piled into a cab for what turned out to be a surreal journey. The nondescript façade where the taxi deposited us gave no hint that the maître d’ would be a stiff, mustachioed, tuxedo-clad Spaniard. Completely unprepared for the opulent surroundings, we sat down and began to order/plea for toddler-friendly food ASAP. The people watching was amazing. Among the beautiful clientele: titans of industry, politicians, actors, and even the FC Barcelona soccer player who scored the winning goal that night. It remains the most brief and expensive meal I’ve ever paid for, but the bottle of Beronia Riserva smoothed over a lot of the awkwardness of the evening. Substitute:Go to Barcelona without your toddler.