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A cabernet sauvignon for an occasion

Frank Altamura, the winemaker at his eponymous property in California, is a farmer at heart. ”The big fun is in the vineyards,” he says.

With no formal winemaking training, he learned by doing, first at Sterling Vineyards and then at other notable Napa Valley properties: Trefethen, Caymus, and Dunn. He and his wife, Karen, founded their winery in 1985 on land in the hills in the southeastern corner of the Napa Valley that the Altamura family has owned for 150 years. Twenty years later, it remains a small winery producing about 3,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon annually from about 65 acres of vines. (For comparison, Château Lafite-Rothschild, one of Bordeaux’s most famous properties, produces about 20,000 cases of wine a year.)

Although California winemakers use the same red grapes as their counterparts in Bordeaux, some winemaking practices differ. In Bordeaux, winemakers blend wines made from up to five grapes — cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec — to achieve the final product. It is rare to find a red Bordeaux made exclusively from one variety. The final blend has broader, more interesting flavors than any of the individual wines. Blending wine is also common in California, even in those wines labeled with a single grape name, such as cabernet sauvignon. (By law, only 75 percent of the wine must come from the grape listed on the label.) But many California producers, such as Altamura, make wine exclusively from cabernet sauvignon.

Altamura’s 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon is a staggeringly sumptuous wine with great power and complexity. The vineyard achieves the broad layers of flavor by blending different batches of cabernet sauvignon made from grapes grown in different parts of the 400-acre property. Each vineyard contributes subtle differences to the wine because of different soil, elevation, and exposure to the sun, according to Altamura.

The resulting blend is silky and supple. Its price means most of us will save it for a special occasion, but when that time comes, it will be a great match for a celebratory steak or rack of lamb.

Altamura Vineyards and Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2001 (about $69). Distributed by Martignetti Cos., 800-872-9463.

November 10, 2005

A $10 Spanish Red That’s Easily Sipped

Although Spain has been producing wines since the Phoenicians settled there, they have become fashionable only recently. The modernization of Spain’s wine industry and leap in quality come from an influx of investment after it joined the European Community in 1988. The Spanish, like the French, name their best wines by where the grapes grow. Government regulations recognize 64 regions, 62 of which are known as DO (Denominacion de Origen). Two other regions, Rioja in the north and Priorat near the Mediterranean coast just southwest of Barcelona, are recognized as being on top of the quality and price pyramid and have been awarded a higher status, Denominacion de Origen Calificada or DOC (sometimes written as DOCa). This hierarchy of areas does not mean that all wines from a DOC are better than all wines from a DO. Montsant, a DO, practically encircles the more up-market Priorat. Regulations require the same Mediterranean grapes as in Priorat. But Montsant’s wines are less captivating and less expensive, in part because the vineyards are at a slightly lower altitude. Elevation is key throughout Spain, since the temperatures exceed 100 degrees during the day. If the nights weren’t cool largely because of elevation, most Spanish wine would be heavy and uninteresting. Cool nights retard ripening, allowing grapes to develop more flavors. Celler el Masroig, a large cooperative founded in the early 20th century, initially focused on large volumes of high-alcohol wine. But with more than 300 growers, many of the vineyards are nicely situated and the coop now sees the value in higher-quality wine. The 2003 Sola Fred is a winner and a bargain. A moderately intense wine, it is not marred by the heaviness or coarseness commonly found at this price.

Celler el Masroig, Sola Fred, 2003 (about $10). Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007.

November 3, 2005

A vintage champagne that’s affordable

Like other fine wine, champagne can improve with age, as Duval-Leroy’s nearly 10-year-old vintage champagne demonstrates. Although 1996 produced excellent wines throughout France, no region did better than Champagne, where it will rank as one of the greatest vintages ever.

Most champagne is nonvintage; a blend of wine from several years’ harvests aimed at producing a consistent house style year after year. Individual champagne producers have the option to ”declare a vintage,” which means that they will bottle a portion of the harvest separately. (They save the remainder to maintain the consistency of the nonvintage blend.)

Vintage champagne is still a blend of wines, made chiefly from chardonnay and pinot noir grown in a variety of villages, but all the wine is from one year. (Gently pressing pinot noir or other black grapes delivers clear juice because the color comes from the skins.) Some years, such as 1991, only a rare producer will declare a vintage (Philipponnat’s 1991 Clos des Goisses, about $100, is sensational), but in a year like 1996, virtually every champagne house produced a vintage champagne.

By now most have disappeared from the retail market, but Duval-Leroy just released theirs. It’s a welcome addition because the only other 1996s I’ve seen still available are the luxury cuvees, such as Moët & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot’s Grande Dame, and Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or, all excellent but all routinely priced at more than $125 a bottle.

Duval-Leroy’s location in the Côte des Blancs, the best area of the Champagne region for growing chardonnay, helps explain why their chardonnay-dominant bottlings excel. Additionally, the chardonnay for their vintage champagne, which constitutes roughly two-thirds of the blend, comes only from the best, or grand cru, villages within the Côte des Blancs.

Duval-Leroy’s 1996 vintage champagne is classy, seductive, and combines the elegance of chardonnay with the power of pinot noir. The extended aging has added a toasty-yeasty complexity. Its vibrant acidity, characteristic of this vintage, keeps the champagne fresh. With some nonvintage champagnes selling for more than $50 a bottle, this vintage champagne won’t last long.

Duval-Leroy Champagne, Brut, 1996 (about $50). Distributed by M. S. Walker, 800-238-0607. 

October 27, 2005

Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough: A True New World Terroir

The French speak passionately about terroir, a concept maintaining that the character of a wine comes from the unique climate and soil where the grapes are grown. They claim grapes are mere vehicles for transmitting the flavor of the earth into the wine from which they are crafted. Hence, the French usually name their wines after the places where the grapes are grown rather than after the grape varieties from which the wines are made.

For me, the most compelling evidence for this concept comes from Bordeaux. The blend for Chateau Lagrange, a consistently delicious wine from St. Julien, is different each year depending on how each variety ripens. Marcel Ducasse, the proprietor, uses more or less Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend depending on the vintage. In 2000, the finished wine was comprised of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon and 24% Merlot (with no Petit Verdot). Compare that to the 2002 vintage, when Ducasse used 54% Cabernet, 33% Merlot, and 13% Petit Verdot. Despite the dramatic differences in varietal composition, both wines are easily identifiable as Chateau Lagrange. But the French do not have a monopoly on terroir. Sauvignon Blanc grown in the Marlborough region of New Zealand imparts a “sense of place” as stongly as any wine in the world.

The advantage for consumers of wines that have a sense of place is predictability. Just as you know what to expect in terms of basic character from Chateau Lagrange year after year, you know what to expect from Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Even when a winemaker incorporates a little Semillon in the blend or ages a portion of the wine in oak barrels, the inherently “place-specific” character of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc–a piercing citric quality and electrifying edge–still shines.

New Zealand is probably the only country in the world where vineyards contain more Sauvignon Blanc than Chardonnay. And in Marlborough, located at the northeastern tip of the South Island (and New Zealand’s most acclaimed area for Sauvignon Blanc), there is five times the acreage devoted to Sauvignon Blanc as to Chardonnay.

Sauvignon Blanc thrives in Marlborough and produces distinctive wine primarily because of the place’s climate–lots of sunshine, but not a lot of heat. Blenheim, a town in the middle of Marlborough, usually has more sunny hours than any other place in New Zealand, according to Michael Cooper, a leading authority on New Zealand wine. Marlborough’s climate is cool, especially at night, and is comparable to vineyards on Germany’s Rhine River. The combination of sun without excessive heat means that the grapes ripen slowly, developing deep flavors while maintaining good acidity. Cool temperatures at night prevent the degradation of malic acid in the grapes, and the resulting wines are flavor-filled and lively.

It is staggering to realize how Marlborough has established itself as one of the world’s great areas for Sauvignon Blanc in such a short time. No grapes were planted there until 1973, and the first Sauvignon Blanc vines went in a couple of years later. In about three decades, Marlborough has gone from producing no wine at all to crafting world class Sauvignon Blanc. It is illuminating to compare that time span to the history of the Loire Valley towns of Sancerre, Quincy and Pouilly-sur-Loire (home to Pouilly Fumé), which have been growing Sauvignon Blanc for centuries. Similarly, in Bordeaux where Sauvignon Blanc is a mainstay of that region’s white wine, the grape has been planted for hundreds of years.

Although New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs take top honors every year at the International Wine for Oysters Competition at Washington D.C.’s Old Ebbitt Grill, they are equally well suited to other types of seafood. Their bracing acidity and overall edginess also makes them a good choice for pairing with spicy Asian fare.

These are wines to drink young–upon release. The appealing piercing quality that is their hallmark is lost with age. Kiwi winemakers use every technique they can to capture and preserve that character, which explains why most of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are bottled with screwcaps.

I have been a fan of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for years and have tasted a wide range of them from every recent vintage. The 2004 vintage stands out as a year when it seems that almost every producer made exciting wine. It’s hard to go wrong even if you close your eyes and point randomly at any bottle on a store shelf. But for those who would like some specific advice, here are 20 that I found particularly appealing:

The Crossings, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve “Catherine’s Run” 2002 ($27, W. J. Deutsch & Sons): An exception to the “drink ’em young” rule, the Crossings 2002 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc is a gorgeous, classy wine. Fermentation and aging for a brief time in three year-old French oak barrels added complexity without imparting oakiness. There’s no doubt regarding the originating location behind this wine–the signature cutting edge of Marlborough has not been lost–but there is much more going on in the glass than usual. An eye-opening treat. 95

Babich, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc “Winemakers Reserve” 2004 ($20, Select Fine Wines): This rich expression of Sauvignon Blanc is less angular than most, but still retains attractive zing and acidity. It delivers enticing complexity without losing its focus. 92

Cloudy Bay, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($30 Moët Hennessy USA): Cloudy Bay’s Sauvignon Blanc is credited with introducing American consumers to the category–and perhaps to New Zealand wines in general. The 2004 continues Cloudy Bay’s winning streak of combining an attractive, slightly smoky, almost gunflint quality (which adds considerable complexity) with a vibrant, citric zing. 92

Gravitas, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc St. Arnaud’s Vineyard 2004 ($ distributor): I predict that we will see more single vineyard bottlings as winemakers and viticulturists gain experience with Marlborough’s microclimates and diverse soils. Gravitas has produced a stylish, delicious wine etched with smoke, minerals, and a racy lime finish. 92

Nautilus, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($18, Negociants USA): A lively wine, this has good weight and plenty of fruit and minerality to balance its citric acidity. A stellar example of what Marlborough has to offer. 92

Tohu, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, Davies & Co): One of the few wines of this vintage still sporting a cork closure, this has alluring herbaceous notes intertwined with minerality. Its broad range of flavors is balanced by its zingy citric edge. 92

Brancott Vineyards, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2004 ($21, Allied Domecq): Brancott–known as Montana everywhere else in the world–was the leading company to invest in and develop Marlborough in the 1970s. The company has extensive vineyards from which to select fruit for its Reserve bottling. It’s no surprise that their 2004 Reserve combines great depth and length with the quintessential grapefruit tang of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. 91

Mount Riley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, Quintessential): Mount Riley is riding a string of successful vintages of Sauvignon Blanc. Their 2004 has an appealing pungency and an almost electrifying zip to it. 90

Spy Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($23, Broadbent Selections): Although the name of the winery comes from a nearby electronic surveillance station, there is nothing clandestine about this Sauvignon Blanc. It delivers appealing gooseberry flavors and that signature Marlborough grapefruit-like edginess. 90

Huia, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($23, Via Pacifica): I’ve always liked Huia’s Sauvignon Blancs, and their 2004 is no exception. The lemon-lime flavors are clear, but do not dominate this well-balanced wine. 89

Matua Valley, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($13, Beringer Blass Wine Estates): Matua Valley produced New Zealand’s first Sauvignon Blanc in 1974 near Auckland on the North Island. Their 2004 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, vibrant and long, is a super buy. 89

Wither Hill Vineyards, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($20, Paterno Wines International): A plethora of flavors, buttressed by refreshing and penetrating acidity makes Wither Hill’s 2004 an easy wine to recommend. 89

Coopers Creek, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($16, various importers; refer to Coopers Creek website for importer in your area): Hints of smoke and minerals add intrigue to the lime-infused flavors in this wine. It’s a balanced beauty. 88

Glazebrook, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($17, Frederick Wildman): Even with a slightly less citric signature than most of its counterparts, Marlborough character still shines through in this wine, which culminates in a grapefruit-like finish. 88

Twin Islands, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($11): Lemony and lively, this is an easy-to-recommend example of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. A great value. 88

Redcliffe, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($12, Palm Bay Imports): Redcliffe’s rendition, a more straightforward offering than most, retains the quintessential Marlborough zip and is another great value. 88

Postscript: Marlborough Doesn’t Have a Monopoly on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

Outstanding Sauvignon Blanc also originates from other locales in New Zealand. Martinborough, located at the southern end of the North Island, is a stone’s throw away (across Cook Strait) from Marlborough. Looking at a map, it not hard to imagine that these two areas were attached before being separated by some hiccup during the earth’s formation. Well known for some of New Zealand’s most prized Pinot Noir, Martinborough also makes noteworthy Sauvignon Blanc.

Craggy Range Winery, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc, Te Muna Road Vineyard 2004 ($23, Kobrand): Slightly less piercing than its counterparts from across Cook strait, Craggy Range’s version has a captivating minerality and depth that results in an outstanding wine. 92

Palliser Estate, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($19, Negociants USA): Also a little less edgy than the ones from Marlborough, Palliser’s 2004 Sauvignon Blanc has an extra dimension of minerality. 91

Pencarrow, Martinborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($13, Negociants USA): Pencarrow, the second label of Palliser Estate, offers solid wine at an excellent price. Their 2004 Sauvignon Blanc is flinty with good substance and an attractive bite. 88

Mount Difficulty, Central Otago (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 2004 ($19, American Estates Wines): Located in Central Otago (a tiny area in the southern part of the South Island known best for its Pinot Noir), Mount Difficulty made a dynamite 2004 Sauvignon Blanc. Its name notwithstanding, subtle earthy flavors balanced by cleansing citric zing and a long finish make it easy to enjoy. 92

October 25, 2005

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is Fruity Yet Sophisticated

Chile, initially known for its well-made under-$10 wines, has entered the upscale market with bottlings in the $60-plus range, such as Almaviva, a joint effort of Bordeaux’s Mouton Rothschild and Chile’s Concha y Toro, Casa Lapostolle’s Clos Apalta, and Vinedo Chadwick. These excellent wines upstage many comparably priced Californian cabernets.

But I think where Chile really stands out is with its red wines in the $11-$20 category, which usually deliver far more than their price suggests.

The modern Chilean wine industry traces its roots to Bordeaux, which explains why it excels with wines blended from grapes traditionally grown in that area of southwestern France. The Chilean aristocracy imported winemakers and raw materials, such as vines, from Bordeaux in the mid-19th century as a status symbol. The result was the beginning of a tradition of fine red wine.

In 1856, the Cousino family purchased the established Macul wine estate in the Maipo Valley, just outside of Santiago and home to many of Chile’s best cabernet-based wines. The Macul estate, now a part of Santiago, as that city expanded, remains an important source for Cousino-Macul’s cabernet. But Santiago’s surrounding urban sprawl prevented vineyard expansion and forced them to look elsewhere. In the mid-1990s the family tripled the size of its estate by purchasing another 600 acres of vineyards in Buinv, an area farther south but still within the prized Maipo Valley. The vines there are now sufficiently mature to produce high-quality grapes for their top-of-the-line wines.

In 1927, Cousino-Macul introduced Antiguas Reservas Cabernet Sauvignon as its flagship wine, selected from its best lots. No longer its flagship Finis Terrae assumed that mantel in 1992 it remains an outstanding wine and an astonishing value. Breaking with the Bordeaux tradition of blending wines made from several grapes, including cabernet sauvignon and merlot, Cousino-Macul’s Antiguas Reservas Cabernet is made entirely from cabernet sauvignon. The 2003 has plenty of fruit flavors, as you would expect from a New World cabernet, but its finesse and complexity scream fine Bordeaux. It’s the best of both worlds.

Cousino-Macul Cabernet Sauvignon Antiguas Reservas 2003 (about $15). Distributed by M. S. Walker, 800 -238-0607.

October 20, 2005

Hungarian Tokaji a dry delight

With wine, as with most of life, it pays to listen to people with experience.

George Bardis, who runs the wine department at Martignetti’s Soldiers Field Road store and tastes thousands of wines each year, recently returned from Hungary where he sampled scores. He recommends a wine not usually seen in the United States — a dry Hungarian Tokaji, which he had purchased for the store.

Tokaji, in the northeastern part of Hungary, has been known for centuries for its legendary sweet wines. During the 18th century, this sweet wine was fashionable and in great demand among French and Russian royalty.

But I had never heard of a dry wine from the region. In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that they exist, since every sweet-wine-producing area also makes dry wines.

One of Spain’s leading wineries, Vega Sicilia, was one of those that invested in the area in the 1990s. In 1993, it purchased an estate in the heart of the Tokaji region and renamed it Oremus. Its winemakers replanted the vineyards and renovated the winery to rectify the damage done during the Soviet era, in which corners were cut and quantity was prized over quality. They produce Tokaji Aszu, the name given to the sweet wines, but, according to their website, about 60 percent of their annual production is dry Tokaji, which they call Mandolas. Winemakers use chiefly the furmint grape for both the sweet and dry versions of Tokaji. When the furmint grapes fail to achieve sufficient ripeness — the sugar levels are too low — winemakers use them for the dry wines.

Oremus’s 2003 Tokaji Mandolas, an intense white wine, is clean and fresh. Its honey-like ripeness without the sweetness, atop a base of minerality, makes it an especially good match for take-out Chinese or Thai food.

Oremus, Tokaji (dry) Mandolas, 2003 (about $13). Distributed by M.S. Walker , 800-238-0607.

October 13, 2005

An elite chardonnay without the cost

It’s always a treat to run across a wine that delivers more than it is supposed to. And it’s a special treat when the wine is made from chardonnay, since wines made from that grape can be monotonous.

Although Californian and Australian chardonnay dominate the American market, the finest ones come from Burgundy. The Burgundy wine trade depends on firms that buy either grapes or newly fermented wines from the many growers who have no interest in making and selling wine. The firms, called negociants, finish making the wine, and then age, bottle, and market it under their name. Many negociants own little or no land, but others, like Faiveley, a well-respected family-owned firm founded in 1825, have substantial holdings.

Faiveley has made a name for itself with its outstanding wines from the Côte Chalonnaise, a lesser-known part of Burgundy about 60 miles south of the Côte d’Or, the most prestigious part of Burgundy. But while the towns in the Côte Chalonnaise, such as Montagny, lack the cachet of Burgundy’s best white-wine towns such as Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet, it is still Burgundy. Chardonnay grown here, especially in a year like 2002, can produce a marvelous wine. Precisely because of its lack of pedigree, prices for Côte Chalonnaise wines are lower.

About 15 years ago, Faiveley purchased a vineyard in Montagny, Les Joncs, which it thought had great potential but was underperforming. It not only pulled out all the chardonnay vines and replanted with what it felt was a superior stock, but it relandscaped the vineyard to improve its drainage and exposure to the sun, which should increase the ripeness of the grapes and, hence, the concentration of the wine. (The locals saw the earth-moving equipment and thought the company was building a new highway, according to Faiveley’s export director, Christophe Voisin.)

Faiveley’s vision was correct. Its 2002 Montagny Les Joncs is a stunning wine. With hints of minerals and citric flavors combined with a lush creaminess, it’s a much better wine than its pedigree indicates, a $40 wine with a $20 price tag.

Faiveley, Montagny Les Joncs, 2002 (about $20). Distributed by Martignetti Cos., 800-872-9463. 

September 29, 2005

A Conversation with Christian Moueix, Part II: Dominus Estate

Christian Moueix, perhaps the most influential wine figure in Pomerol and St. Émilion where he oversees his family’s ten properties, also owns Dominus Estate in the Napa Valley. During a recent trip to California to supervise activities at Dominus, he stopped in Boston and we met and tasted for three illuminating hours in my kitchen.

This article, the second and final part based on that visit, focuses on Dominus Estate. Part I, which appeared last month and is available by clicking on “Wine Articles” then “Columns,” focused on his family’s properties in Bordeaux.

Moueix is thrilled when he sees a bottle of Dominus in France because he does not sell it in his native land. A sighting means that a countryman probably has visited the Napa Valley property and thought enough of the wine to bring it back. Dominus, a personal venture for Christian, is entirely separate from the family’s holdings in Bordeaux. He purchased it without using family money and still has no plans to market it with his family’s other wines in France.

Moueix, an articulate and engaging man, spent two years at University of California, Davis where he received his master’s degree in enology in 1969. Two major things he learned there were the limit of technology in making fine wine and how much he loved the Napa Valley.

Upon returning to France in 1970, he was put in charge of the family’s estates, but craved a personal challenge. He knew he couldn’t compete with Château Pétrus or Trotanoy so he decided to look outside of France. Since he had fallen in love with Napa Valley while at Davis, he enlisted the help of Robert Mondavi to look there for a suitable vineyard.

Moueix didn’t want just any vineyard; he wanted one that was capable of producing truly outstanding wine. Mondavi introduced him to the daughters of the late John Daniel, who had owned Inglenook. The daughters owned the 120-acre original Inglenook estate, called Napanook, the grapes from which were responsible for some of California’s greatest Cabernets. He formed a partnership with them in 1982, creating Dominus Estate to make a Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine. A buyout made Moueix sole proprietor in 1994.

The Napanook vineyard has a unique terroir, with a gentle, 5 percent slope up to the Mayacamas Mountains that Moueix regards as perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon. Neighbors thought he was crazy when he pulled out a substantial number of perfectly healthy Chardonnay vines and planted additional Cabernet. But Moueix firmly believed-and today most winemakers agree-that certain varieties of vines should be planted only in specific locales especially suited to them.

As in the Bordeaux tradition, Dominus is made by blending wines made from a variety of grapes. Initial vintages were composed of about 75 to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance comprised by Merlot. In 1986, Cabernet Franc made its way into the blend, with Petit Verdot added in 1989. Cabernet Sauvignon still predominates in current vintages, but Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot continue to contribute.

Moueix adopted a Bordeaux model-unusual for California at the time-by making only two wines, Dominus, the flagship “chateau” or “estate” wine, and Napanook, a “second” wine. The total production, like at his family’s properties in Pomerol and St. Émilion, is relatively small, consisting of just 70,000 to 100,000 bottles (6,000 to 8,000 cases) annually. Half of the production meets his rigorous standards and is bottled as Dominus. The other half is either sold off in bulk or is bottled under the Napanook label.

Since Napanook comes from grapes grown on the lower-flatter and less well-drained-part of the vineyard and from the youngest vines, it is more approachable than Dominus. Made from less intense fruit, it could be overwhelmed by oak flavors and tannins acquired during barrel aging. Moueix uses older oak barrels and keeps Napanook in them for a shorter period of time to maintain the wine’s balance.

Moueix is equally judicious with his use of oak aging for Dominus. Although he ages Dominus in small French oak barrels for 18 months, only one-third of them are new. Christian’s son, Eduardo, who was instrumental in managing Dominus, told me previously that he did not like calling Napanook a “second” wine because he is fearful that the second wine concept won’t be embraced by the US market. After tasting multiple vintages of Napanook, especially the 2001, I think he may be mistaken. Napanook represents an excellent opportunity to buy classy Napa Cabernet at a reduced price, usually less than half that of Dominus.

Christian’s plan in California, based on life-long involvement with making great wine, was to let the terroir speak. He was ahead of his time in California with this focus on the vineyard. The prevalent thinking in California when Moueix started Dominus was that winemaking technology, not the vineyard, was responsible for great wine. Now, most winemakers in California aiming to produce outstanding bottles agree that-as in real estate-making superb wine comes down to location, location, location.

Moueix planned to avoid irrigation and acidification, which he believes reduces quality. (Grapes, like all fruit, lose their acidity as they ripen. In warm climates where grapes can get very ripe, winemakers sometimes add acid to the fermenting juice-acidify it-in an attempt to keep the wine balanced and lively.) He has held to that plan. The vineyard’s proximity to the Mayacamas Mountains provides it with adequate rainfall and explains why he has never needed to irrigate, according to Moueix. And, as with all his wines from Bordeaux (even those from the scorching 2003 vintage), he never has acidified Dominus or Napanook.

Even after 20+ years, Moueix still finds Dominus challenging. Everything-the land, the climate, the predominant grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon-is different from what he grew up with in Pomerol. (The family’s Pomerol estates contain practically no Cabernet Sauvignon.) Even the terms to describe the soil are different than in Bordeaux. In California, when winemakers speak of a gravel-like soil, Moueix says they point to small pebbles of alluvial origin. In Bordeaux, gravel is composed of large pebbles or rocks at least one inch in size.

As we tasted various vintages of Dominus, I got the sense that Moueix-always a perfectionist-was not quite satisfied with many of the wines. He sometimes wonders whether Napa Valley is too warm to produce what he calls “wines of sensitivity.” A problem in Napa Valley is that heat spikes in September can send the grapes’ sugar levels from not quite ripe to over ripe quickly while the ripeness of tannins and flavor compounds lags behind. The dilemma for winemakers is difficult: should one pick earlier at lower sugar levels, when tannins may be astringent but when one can make wines with lower alcohol and more elegance, or later and riper, when tannins are supple but alcohol can be inelegantly high?

Moueix plans to deal with this dilemma in a way that contradicts conventional wisdom. Although it is now widely believed that lowering yields invariably heightens quality, Moueix plans to increase yields slightly at Dominus. His theory is that a larger crop will take longer to ripen, giving tannins time to ripen before sugar levels become excessive. Judging by Moueix’s extraordinary track record, I suspect that Dominus-which is already superb-will become even better in years to come.

THE WINES

Napanook, Napa Valley (California) 1999 ($50): A dry year in California, 1999 produced some concentrated, tannic wines, including Napanook. Despite the great aromas from the glass, the alcohol and over extraction shows. Moueix finds it curious that many pundits ranked this wine higher than the 2001 Napanook, which he believes is a far superior wine. 85

Napanook, Napa Valley (California) 2001 ($50): This is a classy, easy to savor Napa Valley Cabernet. More restrained but better balanced than the 1999, the 2001 is supple and plush. It expands and becomes even better after it has been opened for an hour or two. 90

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 1991 (No longer available except at auction): I remember a vertical tasting of Dominus in Boston in 1996 at which time the 1991 stood out. The wines from the 1980s were quite tannic, but the 1991 heralded a new, more balanced style. Moueix attributes the change to the increasing age of the vines, and more importantly, experience with the vineyard. He noted that every parcel of the vineyard is different and that it takes time to learn how to handle the grapes from each plot. The 1991, even better now, has evolved and developed alluring elements of tobacco and smoke along with a dried fruit character. 93

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 1994 (No longer available except at auction): The 1994 Dominus is a wine with, as Moueix would say, sensitivity. A stunning wine, it has everything: great aromas, plenty of powerful bright fruit, and those seductive, hard to describe, not-quite-fruit flavors that linger in the seemingly endless finish. It has real finesse. 96

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 1996 (No longer available except at auction): This is a real powerhouse of a wine that may still become more elegant as it evolves with more bottle age. I prefer the nuances of the 1994, but this would be hard to turn down with a big slab of charbroiled beef. 90

Dominus Estate, Napa Valley (California) 2002 ($125): This is a voluptuous wine with lots of everything, including black fruit, alcohol, and supple tannins. Consumers who look for intensity and power in their cabernets will love it. 88

Postscript: Although Christian has loved the Napa Valley from the outset, his continuing lament is that he wishes he knew which specific elements of the weather in California made the difference between a good and a great year. In Bordeaux they know exactly what they need-even though they don’t always get it-to make great wine. But in California he is still trying to figure it out. I suspect that’s part of why he makes such great wine; he is always thinking.

Back to Part I

September 27, 2005

New Zealand Bubbly Deserves A Toast

Champagne, without doubt the world’s best bubbly, is a good but pricey way to alleviate end-of-summer blues. Often, we must make do with a less-expensive alternative, sparkling wine.

Notwithstanding the label of some California sparkling wines, true champagne comes only from a specified method using chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grown in the Champagne region of France, about 100 miles east of Paris. But winemakers everywhere, using a variety of grapes, can make sparkling wine. And the pop of the cork, a sound that lifts everyone’s spirits, is the same regardless of the grapes.

New Zealand’s largest wine company, Montana Wines, known as Brancott Vineyards in the United States, has been making Lindauer sparkling wine for over 20 years. Although it is New Zealand’s most widely exported wine, according to the company’s website, it is a recent arrival in this country. The grapes pinot noir, chardonnay, and chenin blanc come from vineyards throughout both islands. Even though the blend is atypical for sparkling wine, the grapes work well together to make a clean, fresh wine. Its restrained fruitiness is a relief compared with many inexpensive sparkling wines, and means you won’t tire of it after one glass. It’s one of the best buys in sparkling wines this year.

If this sparkling wine is any indication, New Zealand bubbly will be met with open arms here, just as the excellent pinot noir from Central Otago in the southern part of the South Island has been.

Like champagne and other sparklings wines, Lindauer is versatile. You can have a glass as an aperitif and continue to drink it during a meal. It is especially good with foods that are hard to match with wine, such as roast pork, slightly spicy dishes, or seafood dribbled with butter or olive oil.

Lindauer, Brut, Non-Vintage (about $12). Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007.

September 22, 2005.

Torrontes offers sweet taste of summer

One sip of torrontes, made from Argentina’s most widely planted white grape of the same name, will keep you in the summer spirit; it is the perfect summertime wine.

It is likely the grape arrived in Argentina from Northern Spain, but its precise lineage and origin remain obscure, so don’t bother looking for a European counterpart. It’s a tricky grape to fashion into wine because its floral nature could easily get out of hand. But when you combine, as Susana Balbo has, the lacey floral aromas with its inherent acidity, it becomes captivating.

Although Chile has captured the allegiance of the American wine consumer — Chile’s Concha y Toro line ranks second behind Australia’s Yellow Tail as our favorite import — neighboring Argentina produces more wine. It is the fifth-largest wine-producing country after France, Italy, Spain, and the United States.

Mendoza is its prime wine-producing area, but, paradoxically, the best torrontes hails from Cafayate in the north, an area known more for quantity over quality, at least in red wine. Vineyards over 4,000 feet, where there are dramatic day-night temperature differences, allow the torrontes to hold on to its natural acidity, which balances its naturally aromatic character.

Balbo started making wine in the early 1980s. She was the first Argentine winemaker to consult outside of her country, and she has a worldwide reputation for her craft. She usually uses Crios (literally, offspring) as her ”second,” less expensive, label for wines made from grapes that do not measure up to her standards for her primary label, Signature. But since she makes no torrontes under her Signature label, the Crios torrontes is the only one you’ll see on retailers’ shelves.

Its honeysuckle-like aromas grab your attention, but the bright citric zing keeps you coming back for more. Try it with spicy Thai food or take-out Chinese. It’s so beguiling, you’ll be tempted to drink it year-round.

Crios de Susana Balbo, Torrontes, 2005. About $15. Distributed by Central Distributing Co., 508-755-0360, and Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007. 

September 8, 2005.

La Posta’s 2003 bonarda is a lively dinner partner

By now, many wine drinkers are accustomed to ordering malbec, currently Argentina’s signature wine. But how many know or have even heard of bonarda, Argentina’s second most important red wine grape? As recently as 25 years ago, it was Argentina’s most popular red grape, as growers planted it after they ripped out malbec. That stopped as growers realized malbec’s potential. But they are still planting bonarda because they realize that it, too, has potential to make unique wine.

It’s a grape found in few locales. Northern Italians refer to several varieties as bonarda and consumers will see some hefty Italian wines called by that name, but most experts believe the Italian and Argentine versions are distinct. No matter, even if you count the Italians, the Argentines still have six times more bonarda planted.

Bonarda has some similarities to zinfandel — lots of fruit and spice without a tannic backbone. But unlike California zinfandel producers, many Argentine winemakers capture bonarda’s intensity and flavor while keeping the alcohol reasonable, in the 13 percent range.

The Armando family started its wine business almost immediately after immigrating to Argentina from Northern Italy in 1886. The family planted bonarda in what is now the Estela Armando vineyard 40 years ago. The age of the vineyard helps explain the exceptional quality of the wine, since mature vines generally produce higher-quality grapes. Wines from a single vineyard are still an exception in Argentina, where growers are fearful that localized hail storms can destroy the entire crop. They opt not to put all their eggs in one basket and prefer to make wine by blending the juice from grapes grown in vineyards spread over several areas.

I am glad La Posta del vinatero (literally, the inn of the winemaker) decided not to blend the juice from Armando’s grapes with others in 2003 and dilute their engaging black fruit and smoky flavors. Despite its intensity, La Posta’s 2003 bonarda does not come across as a heavy wine. Its acidity helps keep it lively and assures it remains fresh, not boring, throughout the meal. La Posta del vinatero, Bonarda, Estela Armando Vineyard, 2003. About $17. Distributed by Central Distributing Co., 508-755-0360, and Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007.

September 1, 2005.

A Conversation with Christian Moueix

Perhaps people who spend their entire life with Merlot become like the wine: easy-going and charming, without hard edges. That describes Christian Moueix, a man who is remarkably straightforward, especially for someone so important and influential in the world of wine. His intelligence and insight were immediately apparent during a wide-ranging, three-hour meeting and tasting in my kitchen last month.

The son of Jean-Pierre Moueix, Christian oversees the family’s ten properties in Pomerol and St. Émilion, including Château Pétrus and Château Trotanoy, and runs a Napa Valley winery, Dominus Estate. The family company also manages and consults with many other châteaux situated on the right bank of Bordeaux’s Gironde River.

This article, the first of two about Christian Moueix, focuses on his family’s properties in Bordeaux and issues related to that great region. Part two, which will appear next month, focuses on Dominus Estate.

Although he was in the US for one of his usual trips to oversee Dominus, his mind was not far from Pomerol. Very involved in the day-to-day running of his family’s French properties, Christian watched the weather reports in France while in the US and called home frequently to direct viticultural practices in preparation for a heat wave. “When a heat wave is predicted, it is very important to afford the grapes maximal shade by not trimming the canopy of the vines. Keeping the grapes cool is essential,” according to Moueix. He thinks that part of the reason his family’s properties did so well in 2003–a scorching year–was an unsightly but beautifully functional canopy.

The other major factor contributing to their success in 2003 was reliance on Merlot, which grows well in clay soils that retain water well. Even their Merlot vines planted on limestone, a less water-retentive soil, did well because they are old enough to have developed very deep root systems in search of water. Not everyone in Pomerol in 2003 was so lucky. Château Le Pin, for example, bottled no wine in 2003; the locals referred to it as Le Pin Grillé (literally, grilled) because the grapes were so roasted.

Moueix also offered an illuminating assessment of so-called “garage wines”–expensive wines made in very limited quantities at small production facilities. He believes that a garage wine is defined not just by small production but also by a lack of reliance on terroir. If size were the only criteria, all the châteaux of Pomerol would qualify because of their microscopic production. Despite its tiny production from 5 acres of vineyard, Moueix does not regard Château Le Pin as a garage wine because of its unique location.

He is optimistic that garage wines will not take over the world. In fact, he believes that consumers’ infatuation with these wines will fade because they are finding that these wines do not develop with age. His older brother Jean-François, who owns retail wine shops in Bordeaux and has a good pulse on consumer reactions, sees sales of these wines dropping. And in the US, prices for La Mondotte and Château de Valendraud, (two garage wines praised highly in American publications) have fallen dramatically.

Moueix vehemently disagrees with those who consider Château Hosanna (one of his newer properties in Pomerol) a garage wine, contending that it does not fit the mold due to its well-defined terroir. The property, which formerly was named Château Certan Giraud, has venerable vines in its well-established vineyard. When he purchased it in 1999, the Giraud family asked him not to use the Giraud name, and he–being a pragmatist–agreed. Since he already owned a brand called Certan, he considered calling it Château Certan. As a courtesy, however, he visited neighboring properties bearing “Certan” in their names to seek approval from their proprietors.

Monsieur Thienport at Vieux Château Certan had no objection, but Madame Bareau-Bader owner of Château Certan-de-May balked (foolishly, in my estimation). As Moueix noted, he is in the business of promoting Pomerol, so the last thing he wanted was a fight, especially over mere words, so he abandoned Château Certan and named the property Château Hosanna. (This anecdote offers a good example of how self-defeatingly rigid some French wine producers can be. Given the family’s track record, Moueix undoubtedly will make spectacular wine from this property, and the 2000 is already stunning. Any other Château entitled “Certan” would have gained cachet from Moueix’s efforts under the intended name, but Madame Bareau-Bader failed to see that.)

In any case, Château Hosanna, immediately adjacent to Château Pétrus, is planted with 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc. Moueix believes that this combination makes a more feminine, approachable wine than Pétrus, which is almost 100% Merlot. He immediately increased the potential quality of Château Hosanna by selling a small parcel that was well situated but nevertheless inferior to the main vineyards, which are contiguous with Pétrus.

Moueix’s family has a long and storied relation to the broader region surrounding Hosannah and Pétrus. Jean-Pierre Moueix started the business in 1937, and was responsible for putting the wines of Pomerol, Bordeaux’s smallest appellation, on the map. The Médoc traders ignored the right bank wines of St. Émilion and Pomerol when producing the famous Classification of 1855, more because of geography than commercial protectionism. The wines from the châteaux of the Médoc, situated on the Gironde river’s left bank, were widely known in the 19th century because they could be shipped easily down the river to the Atlantic and beyond. By contrast, the wines of Pomerol and St. Émilion were effectively landlocked to the north on the right bank of the Gironde, and consequently had narrower commercial appreciation. That changed gradually, largely due to Jean-Pierre’s diligence, and today many wines from Pomerol fetch prices far higher than those of their Médoc neighbors despite lacking classified growth status.

Christian’s current project in France is to raise the visibility of Château Magdelaine, a property in Saint-Émilion that his father purchased in 1952. Most of its 27-acres lie on Saint-Émilion’s centrally located limestone plateau, but a third of them are situated on the surrounding clay slopes. The vineyard is planted with an unusually high percentage of Merlot for Saint-Émilion, 90%, with the remainder devoted to Cabernet Franc. This blend is not unusual for Moueix, all of whose properties emphasize Merlot. (Although Michel Rolland, who owns Château Bon Pasteur in Pomerol and consults around the world, is frequently referred to as Mr. Merlot, I suspect Christian Moueix knows as much about this grape as anyone).

Although Merlot often grows better in water-retaining clay than in limestone, Christian thinks that the Merlot at Château Magdelaine does well because the roots are forced to dig through the limestone to find water and nourishment. He believes wine from vineyards located on the plateau, such as Belair and Ausone, can age “practically forever” because the limestone bedrock supplies structure. Although the main parcels of Château Magdelaine were planted in 1976, the oldest block, planted in 1921, remains in production. The youngest vines, comprising about one-third of the vineyard, are themselves reasonably mature at 15 years of age.

The yield at Château Magdelaine is always among the lowest in St. Émilion, typically averaging 40 hl/ha. Moueix produces only about 60,000 bottles (5,000 cases), about half of which goes into a second label, Château Saint Brice, which is not sold in the US. (With the 2004 vintage Moueix changed the name to Les Sanges de Magdelaine because second wines are not supposed to carry the word Château on the label.) The wine for the second label comes typically from young vines and those planted on the lowest part of the slope, the Pied de Côte, which don’t do as well, especially in rainy years.

Moueix is a great fan of the 2001 vintage in Bordeaux and thinks that it may turn out to be even better than the 2000 after a decade. He believes–and my tastings of a wide range of 2001s confirm–that the individual appellations are distinct and identifiable in a year like 2001, whereas the slightly riper character of the 2000s blurs the delineation between one area and the next. (Angelo Gaja has the same opinion comparing Barolos from 2001 with the riper 2000s.)

Although Moueix described the 2001 Château Magdelaine as having the “typical delicacy of Bordeaux”–which it certainly does–it also has considerable complexity and vivacity, as well as extraordinary length. It is remarkably approachable now, but its fine, supple tannins suggest it will also develop beautifully. Moueix attributes the vivaciousness of Château Magdelaine to the limestone plateau and the approachability to the high percentage of Merlot in the blend. (A 1982 Château Magdelaine, pulled from my cellar and tasted in preparation for Moueix’s visit–I’ll stoop to any excuse to open a great bottle–had developed beautiful mushroomy flavors buttressed by similar vivacity.) I would snap up current vintages of Château Magdelaine, such as the 2000 and especially the 2001, because they are severely under priced (about $50-80 for each) compared to wines from neighboring properties.

Click Here for Part II

August 30, 2005.

2001 Napanook a ‘second’ with first-class traits

Christian Moueix was born with merlot in his blood, which makes what he has done in Napa Valley all the more amazing. His family owns or controls the most prestigious properties in Pomerol, including Chateau Petrus, one of Bordeaux’s finest wines. They don’t own even a single cabernet sauvignon vine since this part of Bordeaux is merlot country. But while earning a master’s degree at the University of California at Davis in 1969, Moueix fell in love with the Napa Valley, where cabernet sauvignon is king.

Moueix wanted to do something different in addition to managing his family’s properties. He searched for land in California and eventually partnered with –and later bought out — the heirs to the famous Napanook vineyard, the grapes from which formed the heart of the legendary Inglenook Cask Selection, historically one of California’s best Cabernets. He formed Dominus Estate and, in the Bordeaux tradition, makes two wines, Dominus and Napanook, both from — Mon Dieu — cabernet sauvignon.

He told me that the challenge in California was that everything — grapes, soil, climate — was different from Pomerol. But it’s clear that the Moueix focus and determination to make superb wine remained constant. Moueix reserves the best wine, about half his total production, for Dominus, which commands about $125 a bottle and needs many years of additional aging in the bottle before its glory shows. He bottles most of the other half under the Napanook label. (He also sells wine that he feels is not up to snuff for Napanook in bulk to other wineries). Made from less-flavor-infused grapes, the product of younger vines or ones planted in less desirable portions of the vineyard, these so-called second wines, like Napanook, are ready to drink sooner than their big brothers. Think of them as junior varsity or ”seconds,” but in this case it’s hard to find any imperfections.

Packed with flavor and surrounded by silky tannins, the 2001 Napanook is perfect now for drinking with a steak. Although some might think that calling Napanook a second wine is pejorative, I think it’s a great opportunity to drink a classy, refined wine at a reduced price.

Napanook, 2001. About $46. Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007. 

August 25, 2005.

N.Y. Riesling lacks cloying sweetness

New York wines lack the cachet of those from California, which is too bad since some, like Riesling, are stellar and more exciting than their West Coast counterparts.

The Finger Lakes region, with almost 100 wineries, accounts for 90 percent of the state’s wine. This region was always known for growing native American grapes, Vitis labrusca, such as Catawba and Concord, which are great for making jelly but not for making fine wine. Winemakers use Vitis vinifera, the species of grape common in France or California, for making premium wine, such as merlot, Riesling, or chardonnay. The Finger Lakes wine industry languished initially because producers thought that Vitis vinifera was too fragile to survive the cold.

It took a German-born, Russian-trained botanist, Konstantin Frank, to show that vinifera vines could thrive in upstate New York. Frank, who had made wine from vinifera grapes in the Ukraine, where the winters are more severe than in the Finger Lakes region, knew that the proximity of the lakes would moderate the climate and protect the vines from freezing. Frank immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, worked under Charles Fournier of Gold Seal Wine, and then founded his winery on the shores of Lake Keuka in 1962. He produces exceptional Rieslings. His 2004 Dry Riesling won a gold medal at the prestigious San Diego International Critics Challenge wine competition this year; the 2003 took a gold at the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition last year.

Riesling, considered by many connoisseurs to be the world’s best white wine, is underappreciated in the United States. Many consumers consider it a sweet wine, an image reinforced by most California versions, which are often cloying because they lack the mouth-cleansing acidity — think green apples — that is the hallmark of great Riesling. And that’s just where Frank’s Rieslings excel. His 2004 has the vibrancy and mineral undertones to balance the peachy flavors.

Riesling in general, and Frank’s in particular, is a versatile food-friendly wine that cuts the summer’s heat and humidity. Try one the next time you opt for spicy Asian cuisine, take-out sushi, or a shoreline clambake.

Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, Dry Riesling, 2004 (About $16). Distributed by United Liquors, 800-445-0076. 

August 18, 2005.

Bring on the Lo Mein, but Hold the Corkscrew

WINE NEW ZEALAND SAUVIGNON BLANC

Carry-out Chinese food has been one way to get through the worst heat spells this summer. That begs the question of what to drink with it.

Some prefer beer, while others complain that it’s too heavy. Chardonnay, America’s favorite white wine, often lacks the verve to cut through the spices and aromatics of this cuisine. One good mate for the food is

New Zealand sauvignon blanc. These wines have always been great with seafood, and their bracing citric acidity is also a perfect match for Chinese or Thai fare.

Perhaps because New Zealand doesn’t have a grand winemaking tradition, winemakers are willing to think outside the box. They are leading the charge to top bottles with screw caps to eliminate those ruined by bad corks (this is up to 5 percent of all bottles opened). Proponents believe that wines bottled under screw caps taste fresher than those bottled with corks. And while the jury is still out on how wine sealed with screw caps will age and develop over the years, it’s a technique that makes perfect sense for New Zealand sauvignon blancs. These bottles are meant to be drunk within a year or two of the vintage.

Wines with screw caps are a hard sell in this country; some associate that closure with low-end swill. If any wine can change that image, it will be New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc. And with screw caps, you can easily save an unfinished bottle to accompany the white cartons that wind up in the fridge.

SIDEBAR:Island hopping

While Marlborough, on New Zealand’s north tip of the South Island, is known for sauvignon blanc, it did not produce the country’s first sauvignon blanc. That honor goes to Matua Valley near Auckland on the North Island; the year was

1974. Matua currently produces sauvignon blanc made from grapes grown in Marlborough as well. Matua 2004 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc (above, about $11) is a great buy.

Also on the North Island, in Martinborough literally a stone’s throw across the strait from Marlborough is the home of the captivating Palliser Estate 2004 Sauvignon Blanc , which has an extra dimension of minerality (about $19).

A winery located in Central Otago, a tiny area in the southern part of the South Island, is best known for its pinot noir, but Mt. Difficulty

2004 sauvignon blanc (about $17) is dynamite. It’s not difficult at all to enjoy its intertwined citric and mineral flavors.

Matua Valley is distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007; Palliser Estate and Mt. Difficulty by M.S. Walker, 800-238-0607.

August 17, 2005.

Critic’s success story is an intoxicating read

Elin McCoy’s ”Emperor of Wine, The Rise of Robert M. Parker Jr. and the Reign of American Taste” ($25.95; Ecco) is an essential book for anyone interested in wine, but it would also be enjoyed by general readers, especially those interested in a uniquely American accomplishment.

McCoy chronicles Parker’s life from his childhood in rural Maryland near Baltimore, when he drank practically no wine (after drinking wine the first time, he vomited into a drawer of clean clothes, to his mother’s chagrin), to his adulthood as one of the world’s most powerful and influential wine critics.

Parker discovered a passion for wine at age 20 visiting his wife-to-be when she was studying in Paris. After slogging through law school, he took a job with the Farm Credit Banks in Baltimore. But his passion remained wine. He had an extraordinary ability to remember what he tasted and, more importantly, described it in terms Americans understood.

In 1977, with a $2,000 loan from his mother and a Ralph Nader-like zeal, he started a local consumer-oriented newsletter, the Baltimore Washington Wine Advocate, reviewing wines and listing their prices at stores. He pioneered the shorthand, 100-point scoring system that is ubiquitous today. The newsletter took off, and was followed by books, a website, and a CD, ”Parker in your Palm.”

Provident Insurance in Tennessee insured his sense of smell and taste for $1 million. He is one of the few Americans, in the company of Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell, to receive France’s highest honor, the Legion d’Honneur, directly from the president of France. And his success has come the old-fashioned way, via perseverance and hard work.

McCoy, who has written about wine for 30 years, writes exceptionally evenhandedly and lucidly about this man, who some credit with improving wine around the world and others damn because they believe that winemakers tailor their wines to his tastes to ensure high ratings. They argue that individuality and subtlety are lost in the process. But whatever you think of Parker after reading this book, you can’t help but be a little envious by how he left his mundane legal job to pursue his passion. It’s a story even teetotalers can embrace.

August 11, 2005.

2002 Red Burgundies: Catch Them While You Can

Although they may lack the cachet of wines from small growers, such as Lafarge or Mongeard-Mugneret, the Burgundies made by négociants, especially in 2002, are not to be missed. Négociants are companies, either large or small, that buy grapes or newly made wines in bulk from growers. If they purchase grapes, the négociant vinifies the wine. If they buy newly made wine, they age and finish them in their cellars, bottle them under their label and market them.

On the label of Drouhin’s Domaine wines it says “Recolte du Domaine” under the name of the wine; those wines that are not Domaine wines will have “mise en bouteille par Joseph Drouhin.” near the bottom. Drouhin feel that all their wines – whether they be Domaine or négociant wines – are equally fine, and therefore they do not try to highlight the Domaine aspect.
Many négociant firms, such as Maison Louis Jadot, Bouchard Père et Fils, Joseph Drouhin, and Maison Louis Latour, own substantial amounts of vineyards themselves, giving them the opportunity to combine their grapes with ones they purchase. Others, like Nicholas Potel or Alex Gambal, own very little–Potel has less than 4 acres–or none at all. A big advantage of négociants is that they produce reasonable–at least by Burgundy standards–amounts of wine that are available on retailers’ shelves.
Négociants have always dominated the Burgundy wine trade. Fifty years ago, it was a rare grower or domaine, such as the Domaine de la Romanée- Conti, that bottled and marketed the wine themselves. For the most part, the entire production went through négociants. Pressured in part by American importers, such as Alexis Lichine and Frank Schoonmaker, small growers started bottling their own wines in the 1950s and the era of the grower began. In the 1970s, négociants actually encouraged growers to bottle because adverse economic pressures prevented them from buying as much wine as the growers wished to sell. Some in the trade feel the development of the French highway system did much to stimulate growers to bottle themselves, as direct sales to visiting consumers became commonplace. In 1970, the négociants controlled about 70% of the market according to Jean Charles Boisset, a leading négociant. Even today, with growers continuing to shift toward bottling and marketing their own wines, négociants still control about 64% of the business, according to Boisset.

Though the total volume lost by négociants to growers over the last three decades seems small, much of the loss was from top-notch growers who owned prized parcels in premier or grand cru vineyards. Faced with the prospect of losing the cream of crop in terms of supply, négociants like Maison Louis Jadot responded by buying additional vineyards as they became available. Négociants have always owned property themselves–Jadot and Drouhin each own or control about 150 acres–in addition to the wines they purchase. Typically, though not invariably, they bottle the wines from their individual vineyards separately, but only subtle differences on the label identify this point to the consumer. The only difference between Louis Latour’s domaine and non-domaine label is the disc on the neck that says either Domaine Louis Latour or Maison Louis Latour, with the latter utilized for the négociant wines.

In my experience, the négociants’ domaine bottlings always have a little extra pizzazz because they have complete control of the grapes from start to finish. But weighing in on the other side is none other than the very straight talking Pierre-Henri Gagey, President of Maison Louis Jadot, who has remarked to me on several occasions that some of the best wines Jadot has made came from vineyards owned by someone other than Maison Jadot.

The 2002 vintage was superb for both reds and whites. Many winemakers told me that the extraordinarily healthy grapes allowed them to conduct an unhurried vinification to extract pure flavors. The recommendations below focus on the reds because I–along with many producers–believe they are more exciting, in the same league as the great 1985s and 1990s. The 2002 reds are immediately charming (as were the 1985s), yet they have plenty of stuffing for protracted aging and development. I am betting that the 2002s, like the 1985s, will evolve beautifully and have stashed many cases in my cellar.

Many 2002s are still available at the retail level and will remain after the microscopic amounts of the much more inconsistent 2003 vintage have disappeared from the shelves. The 2002s also have the advantage of having been purchased with a far stronger dollar, and are bargains compared to their 2003 counterparts. While I’m sure there are many fabulous 2003s–Jadot’s Bonnes Mares springs to mind–the 2002 is a far more consistent vintage and a safer bet for long term cellaring.

2002 vintage reds from five leading Burgundy negotiants are reviewed below, with the negotiant houses appearing in alphabetical order:

Bouchard Père & Fils

Joseph Henriot, of Champagne fame, rapidly reinvigorated this venerable Burgundy firm after he acquired it in 1995. Henriot proved that dramatic changes in the cellars could improve the quality instantaneously and buy time while the necessarily slower improvements in the vineyards took hold. Bouchard Père & Fils, the largest landowner in the Côte d’Or (or “Golden Slope,” the heart of Burgundy), with over 225 acres, had failed to keep pace with the times, but Henriot changed that seemingly overnight.

Bouchard Père & Fils, Santenay (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($24, Clicquot, Inc.): Luc Bouchard told me that he finds the wines from Santenay unappealing in difficult vintages and that Bouchard won’t buy in those years. However, in a year like 2002, Bouchard purchased heavily, the equivalent of just over 3,000 cases. With the appealing characteristic rusticity of Santenay, Bouchard’s 2002 is unexpectedly charming and graceful. It’s a great introduction to Burgundy. 88

Bouchard Père & Fils, Monthélie 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Les Duresses 2002 ($30, Clicquot, Inc.): A domaine bottling, this wine is amazingly intense for a Monthélie. A great perfume, coupled with a long, sweet finish and supple tannins, means it’s delightful now. 90

Bouchard Père & Fils, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Beaune du Châteaux 2002 ($40, Clicquot, Inc.): This wine, which has been sold widely in France, made its first US appearance in 2002. A blend made exclusively from up to 16 of Bouchard’s 1er Cru vineyards in Beaune which are not bottled separately, such as Beaune Marconnets or Beaune Grèves, it’s a great buy. The grapes from the small plots Bouchard owns are harvested and vinified separately and then blended to create Beaune du Châteaux. A pure fruit nose, gives way to up front fresh red fruit flavors, great delicacy and length. 91

Bouchard Père & Fils, Volnay 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Caillerets Ancienne Cuvée Carnot 2002 ($55, Clicquot, Inc.): As Clos des Ursules is Jadot’s flagship from Beaune, this is Bouchard’s standard bearer from Volnay. This portion of the Caillerets vineyard, Bouchard’s first acquisition in 1775, was subsequently acquired by others through inheritance. A marriage to a member of the Carnot family brought it back to Bouchard and explains its elongated name, Ancienne Cuvée Carnot. A vertical tasting of it back to the 1964 in Bouchard’s cellars in 2000 showed how beautifully this wine ages and evolves. Its fabulously floral nose screams Volnay. But its combination of power and delicacy coupled with extraordinary length make it special. Mild to moderate tannins are ripe, not intrusive, and assure a lovely evolution. 95

Maison Joseph Drouhin

Drouhin, one of the great négociants located in Beaune, produced a stunning line of village wines in 2002, perhaps in part because Drouhin’s winemaker, Laurence Jobard, the first woman winemaker in Burgundy, has been with the firm for over three decades. This house, like all négociants, maintains that all their wines–whether they be domaine or négociant wines–are equally fine, and therefore it does not try to highlight the domaine aspect. On the label of Drouhin’s domaine wines it says “Récolte du Domaine” under the name of the wine, whereas negotiant bottlings will have “mis en bouteille par Joseph Drouhin” near the bottom.

Maison Drouhin, Chorey lès Beaune (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($25, Dreyfus Ashby): Wines from Chorey les Beaune, the only village in the Côte d’Or without a premier cru vineyard, offer great value when they are crafted by a talented producer like Drouhin. With pure fresh red fruit flavors, this one is uncomplicated and charming now. An excellent buy. 86

Maison Drouhin, Côte de Beaune, (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($25, Dreyfus Ashby): The Côte de Beaune appellation, less well known in the US than Côte de Beaune Villages, ranks between Beaune and the Beaune 1er Cru in stature, acording to Véronique Drouhin. Primarily made from wines from the young vines of Drouhin’s flagship property, Beaune Clos des Mouches, it has forward, pure ripe fruit flavors, little tannin, and good acid. It is a fine example of Beaune–as good as many producers’ Beaune 1er Cru–and represents an excellent value. 88

Maison Drouhin, Pommard (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($43, Dreyfus Ashby): The denser, spicier, black fruit component makes this a delicious village wine and highlights the difference between it and the more delicate, red fruit-dominated wines of Beaune. 90

Maison Drouhin, Bonnes Mares Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($200, Dreyfus Ashby): A domaine bottling, this Bonnes Mares is staggeringly good, plush and balanced, with a seemingly endless finish. 96

Maison Drouhin, Griotte-Chambertin Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($175, Dreyfus Ashby): Sometimes wines from Grand Cru vineyards are disappointing. Not this domaine bottling. It has a magical combination of power and elegance and the extra umph that should characterize a Grand Cru. 95

Maison Louis Jadot

Jadot indicates a domaine wine, for example, Bonnes Mares, by inserting the domaine name in the small rectangle at the bottom of the label. Label of negociant wines lack the rectangle and say “. . .mis en bouteille par Louis Jadot.”  The Jadot wines from Beaune, where the firm is based, are stunning across the board and–by Burgundy or even California Pinot Noir standards–reasonably priced. The are probably the finest array of Beaune 1er cru I have tasted, which explains why I bought a case of each for my cellar. The three recommended below are just a sampling. If you run across others, don’t pass them up.

Louis Jadot, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Theurons 2002 ($36, Kobrand): A bottling from a vineyard owned by the heirs of the Jadot family–Domaine des Héritiers Louis Jadot–this is a concentrated wine, rather big for a Beaune, with great texture and length. 92

Louis Jadot, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Boucherottes 2002 ($36, Kobrand): This more muscular wine, also from a family owned vineyard on the border with Pommard, has great color and concentration without being overdone. Exceptionally long, it’s even bigger, but not necessarily better, than the Theurons. 92

Louis Jadot, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Clos des Ursules 2002 ($48, Kobrand): Jadot’s flagship Beaune from a portion of the Vignes Franches vineyard, the Clos des Ursules is always a winner. The 2002 is no exception. With more structure than their other Beaune 1er Cru, it should turn out very well. A wonderfully balanced wine. 94

Louis Jadot, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Petit Chapelle 2002 ($55, Kobrand): From purchased grapes, Jacques Lardière, Jadot’s exceptionally talented winemaker, has produced a very good, earthy, surprisingly big wine from a lesser known premier cru. 90

Louis Jadot, Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($100, Kobrand): Also from purchased grapes, this Charmes Chambertin attests to the validity of the appellation contrôllée system. It has more of everything–complexity, length, and power–than the Petite Chapelle. 94

Louis Jadot, Bonnes Mares Grand Cru (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($125, Kobrand): Always my favorite, Jadot’s Bonnes Mares, a domaine wine, is suave, long, layered, and luxurious. The tannins and structure are there, but unobtrusive, and bode well for development. 97

Maison Louis Latour

Always known for their superlative white Burgundies–it’s hard to find a better Corton Charlemagne–Latour has made substantial improvement in their reds starting with the 1999 vintage.

Maison Louis Latour, Marsannay (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($17, Louis Latour, Inc.): Latour has fashioned a remarkable value with this simple Marsannay, a town not known for producing engaging red wines. Its bright fruit makes for a charming, easy to drink wine. Not to be missed. 88

Maison Louis Latour, Chambolle Musigny (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($48, Louis Latour, Inc.): Here is a great village wine, fleshy and plump, with unexpected length. Delicious now. 90

Maison Louis Latour, Volnay 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) En Chevrets 2002 ($34, Louis Latour, Inc.): This has the quintessential Burgundy character of loads of flavor without heaviness. Impeccably balanced, it is unusual to see premier cru wines at this price. 90

Domaine Louis Latour, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Vignes Franches 2002 ($46, Louis Latour, Inc.): Latour owns about a third–over 7 acres–in this prized vineyard from which he makes consistently excellent wine. The 2002 is glorious, concentrated and well structured. I would drink his Volnay En Chevrets while waiting for this one to evolve. This is another one that went into my cellar. 93

Maison Louis Latour, Pommard 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Epenots 2002 ($50, Louis Latour, Inc.): Latour owns a small portion of this vineyard and combines his grapes with others to make this appealing wine. Plumper than his Beaune Vignes Franches–in keeping with the character of Pommard–it’s juicy and supple. 90

Maison Nicolas Potel

Nicolas Potel is a new breed of Burgundy négociant. He and his father, Gerard, the highly regarded manager of Domaine Pousse d’Or (a high-quality estate specializing in wines from Volnay and adjacent towns), started a small negociant business in the mid 1990s. When Gerard died suddenly in 1997, Nicolas focused on the négociant business, Maison Nicolas Potel, which was recently purchased by Cottin Frères (a company that controls a larger Burgundy négociant, Labouré Roi). Armand Cottin, President of Labouré Roi, told me he intends to keep Maison Nicholas Potel entirely separate to allow Nicholas to work his magic with the necessary financial support behind him.

Nicolas Potel, Bourgogne Maison Dieu (Burgundy, France) 2002 ($19, Frederick Wildman): Potel owns just one small, four-acre, vineyard called Maison Dieu between the towns of Beaune and Pommard, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” The wine doesn’t even qualify for a town name, but must be sold under Burgundy’s least prestigious appellation, Bourgogne. Despite its lack of pedigree, it’s a lovely wine, silky and rich, without heaviness. It surprises with layers of flavors expected only in wines from grander locales. (Starting with the 2003 vintage, Potel will label this wine as Cuvée Gerard Potel to honor his father.) A great buy. 88

Nicolas Potel, Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Clos des Vignes Franches 2002 ($36, Frederick Wildman): The pure cherry-like fruit is packaged here in Potel’s signature silky suaveness. Tightly wound at this stage, I expect it will blossom beautifully over the next five years. I also put this one in my cellar. 90

Nicolas Potel, Pommard 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Pezerolles 2002 ($55, Frederick Wildman): Explosively rich, lush and long, it’s hard not to drink this one now. But I’m sure that cellaring it will pay dividends in the future. 92

August 1, 2005.

Let Your Palate Pick What’s Fit to Savor

It’s important to trust your palate when it comes to wine. Recommendations from so-called experts and friends are helpful, of course, but should never be the final word because sometimes reviewers disagree. Take, for example, Grgich’s 2002 Chardonnay. A national specialized wine magazine gave it an average score, 76, earlier in the year, but I’ve tasted it twice recently and thought it was terrific. I’ve always loved Grgich’s style of Chardonnay, more restrained with vibrant acidity, and I suspect the divergent opinions stem more from preference than from inherent quality. Another explanation may be that the additional time in bottle, even a few months, allowed its .avors to develop. Originally from Croatia, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich (pronounced gerr-gitch) studied enology in Zagreb and made wine for a variety of California producers before founding his winery in Napa Valley almost 30 years ago. He’s always had a magic touch with Chardonnay. While winemaker at Chateau Montelena, he made its stunning 1973 Chardonnay that, in 1976, wowed French and America critics in a comparative tasting in which it was favored over France’s .nest white Burgundies. All of Grgich’s wines are estate grown. They come exclusively from his vineyards, which means he has total control, from grape growing to wine making. Although he ferments the juice in oak barrels – a common practice that has the potential to result in overly heavy wines – he blocks malolactic fermentation. This prevents the conversion of malic acid, the biting acid present in fruit, to the softer, creamy lactic acid, present in milk. As a result, the tangy edge makes the wine vivacious and balances the engaging nutty flavors. Not as opulent or butterscotchy as many California Chardonnays, Grgich’s 2002 is a wine to drink, not just to taste. Buy a couple of other similarly priced California chardonnays, gather a few friends to spread the cost around, boil some lobsters or grill some fish, and decide for yourself what to buy the next time you consider spending this kind of money for a bottle of Chardonnay. Grgich, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2002. About $45. Distributed by Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100.

July 28, 2005.

A Match for Either Burgers or Lobsters

Chenin blanc gets no respect, and there’s a reason: Most wines made from this grape are insipidly sweet and characterless.

There are exceptions. The Loire village of Vouvray is home to fruity but racy wines made from chenin blanc that are definitely not insipid and go down quite nicely in the summer heat.

But it is rare to find bone-dry chenin blanc except from Savennieres, the tiny area geographically close to, but vastly different from, Vouvray. The soil in Vouvray is mainly limestone while slate dominates in Savennieres. As a result, winemakers produce markedly different wines from the same grape, which vividly illustrates why the French name their wines by locale instead of grape variety.

Domaine Baumard and Domaine du Closel are two of my favorite Savennieres producers because they make consistently excellent wines. Nicolas Joly is another major name in the area because he owns one of its two best vineyards, Coulee de Serrant, but his wines are, in my experience, inconsistent. Sometimes they are magical, other times disappointing, but always expensive. In 2002, a great year for all Loire wines, Joly made three Savennieres, including the Coulee de Serrant (about $80). The least expensive of the trio, the Les Clos Sacres, is simply stunning.

Joly is a vocal advocate for biodynamic production, an agricultural method articulated by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, that ties the vine’s growing cycle and vinification steps to astrologic events. Although many of the tenets sound crazy such as hanging deer bladders from trees in the vineyards others, like transferring the wine from barrel to barrel only during certain phases of the moon, probably stem from generations of cellar experience.

Whatever the reason, Joly’s 2002 Les Clos Sacres has the quintessential elements of great Savennieres, a unique combination of honeylike ripeness but without sweetness intertwined with an alluring minerality. It’s a versatile wine for food because it complements a steamed lobster but can also stand up to tuna and wasabi.

Joly, Savennieres, Les Clos Sacres, 2002 (about $33). Distributed by Martignetti, 800-872-9463.

July 21, 2005.

A carmenere that’s complex without the cost

Some grapes are unique to a locale. Carmenere is one that used to be. Along with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot, it was used in 19th-century France to make red Bordeaux. But it was exported to Chile at that time, when the modern Chilean wine industry was getting started, and now it is found throughout that nation and rarely elsewhere. Continue reading A carmenere that’s complex without the cost

A wine blend from quality grapes

In 1395, Phillip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banned what he called the ”très mauvais” (very bad) gamay grape from Burgundy, relegating it to Beaujolais, a less prestigious area further south. But as with many royal decrees, not everybody listened. So there is still plenty of gamay planted in Burgundy, even though pinot noir is considered the red grape of that region. Continue reading A wine blend from quality grapes

A cheaper option to chic Brunello

Montalcino, a tiny town perched upon a mountain just south of the Chianti region in Tuscany, is home to one of Italy’s greatest red wines, Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello is the local name for sangiovese grosso, a variety of sangiovese, Tuscany’s most important red grape; it ripens well on the surrounding hillsides to produce a wine with power, complexity, and suaveness. Regulations require four years of aging before the wine is released, so the current vintage widely available is 1999, a superb year for Brunello. The demand for Brunello far outstrips the supply from this small area, so prices start at $50 and move up quickly.

Until 25 years ago, when the American-owned Banfi reinvigorated the entire region, there were still only about two-dozen producers. Now the area claims about 200 growers and wineries.

In the mid-1980s, regulations allowed a new wine, Rosso di Montalcino, which, although made from the same clone of sangiovese, could be sold after only one year of aging and, unlike Brunello, was ready to drink upon release. Rosso is made either from grapes grown in vineyards not suitable for Brunello or from grapes grown in Brunello vineyards but that the producer feels are not quite up to Brunello standards.

Even though Rosso di Montalcino never achieves the glory of Brunello, many deliver surprising complexity. But since they command only a fraction of the price of Brunello and are ready to drink sooner, they are worth discovering.

In addition to Banfi’s consistently excellent Rosso di Montalcino, consumers should search for Argiano’s 2003 Rosso, a ripe, succulent wine with an intriguing overlay of herbs and spice (about $24). Another stunning 2003 Rosso, from the respected producer Poggio Antico, has depth and complexity, perhaps because all of the grapes came from Brunello vineyards (about $25). Col d’Orcia’s new winemaker, Pablo Harri, who was hired from Banfi in the late 1990s, made a sensational 2001 Rosso, labeled Banditello, which delivers a classy combination of bright fruit and captivating earthiness ($34).

Argiano is distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607; Poggio Antico is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000; and Col d’Orcia is distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007. 

March 11, 2005.

Spanish wines are life of the party

Although Spain is firmly entrenched in the Old World viticulturally — they label the wines by where the grapes grow rather than by grape name — talented young winemakers are experimenting as though they are working in California, and no region exemplifies the dynamism of Spanish wines better than Ribera del Duero.

Although Spain’s most famous winery, Vega Sicilia, has been producing exceptional wine in Ribera del Duero since the 19th century, the region attained widespread recognition only in the early 1980s, when Alejandro Fernandez released his wine, Pesquera. In 1982, there were nine wineries in this region, which straddles the Duero River (the extension of Portugal’s Duoro River, home to Port) in Northern Spain. Today there are 190. Vineyards have doubled during the same period and cover 50,000 acres, about the same as Napa. It is now the most expensive red wine region of Spain, according to German Munoz Lopez, a spokesman for the agency that regulates the Ribera del Duero wines.

The key to the quality and distinctiveness of the wines from Ribera del Duero is in its climate. The vineyards lie on a plateau 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, which ensures that the vines receive tremendous sunlight, essential for photosynthesis.

Also, the altitude of this arid region contributes to the dramatic difference in day and night temperatures. Warmth during the day assures ripeness, while cool nights conserve the grapes’ acidity, and hence the wines’, which ensures they are lively rather than heavy. The tempranillo grape, Spain’s most widely planted variety and the grape of choice in the region, thrives in this environment, producing rich, intense wines. Regulations allow for inclusion of a small amount of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, and grenache.

Fernandez owns another estate in the region, Condado de Haza, which produces exceptional wines and offers an excellent example of what the Ribera del Duero has to offer without breaking the bank. The 2002 Condado de Haza (about $23), made exclusively from tempranillo, is luxurious, dense, and remarkably supple. Alluring, non-primary fruit flavors add complexity. It’s a warming wine for winter fare.

Condado de Haza is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000.

March 3, 2005.

Suddenly, pinot noir is the star attraction

Red Burgundies, the vast majority of which are made from pinot noir, have tempted wine connoisseurs for decades. And even though excellent pinot noir from Oregon, California, and, most recently, New Zealand has been increasingly available, it has remained a bit of a cult wine. Then came ”Sideways.” Since the release and success of the film, in which pinot noir plays a leading role, it seems that everyone is looking for wine made from this grape.

Winemaking aside, the problem with pinot noir is the cost of the grapes. Winemakers tell me they can make acceptable merlot from vineyards that yield 6 tons of grapes per acre of land. But for pinot noir, as yields climb over 3 to 4 tons per acre, the wine rapidly loses distinction. Hence, the same acre of land produces less wine. Since most of a winery’s expenses are fixed, they must charge more per bottle to compensate for the smaller volume.

Beaulieu Vineyards of Rutherford, Calif., known as BV, always has been — and still is — known for its superb cabernet sauvignons. Its Rutherford Cabernet (about $20) is consistently excellent. Its Reserve Cabernet, known as Georges de Latour Private Reserve (about $100), is one of California’s greatest wines. Even so, Andre Tchelistcheff, BV’s legendary winemaker who was responsible for the reputation of its cabernets, felt that his best wine was a pinot noir, the 1946 Beaumont, made from grapes grown in BV’s Carneros vineyards. (The 1946 Beaumont was not an anomaly. Both the 1947 and 1949 Beaumont, tasted during a celebration of BV wines in 2000, were spectacular.)

The Carneros district, which spans the southern end of the Napa and Sonoma valleys and abuts San Pablo Bay, is an ideal location for pinot noir. This cooler locale, a result of the ocean’s influences, slows ripening, which allows more flavors to develop in the grapes.

Beaulieu Vineyard’s 2002 Carneros Pinot Noir (about $18) may not evolve into the Beaumonts of the 1940s, but it is delicious now. Full of bright fruit and an attractive meaty component, it is flavorful and layered, without being heavy. It’s a great choice for roast chicken.

Beaulieu Vineyard’s wines are distributed by United Liquors, 800-445-0076.

February 24, 2005.

Don’t overlook village Burgundies

In all of Burgundy there are only six white wine vineyards called grand cru, the French government’s highest ranking. Two of them lie solely within Puligny-Montrachet and two, Le Montrachet and Batard Montrachet (literally, the bastard Montrachet), are shared with Chassagne-Montrachet, the neighboring town.

These grand cru white Burgundies are frightfully expensive, $200-plus per bottle, and, like the greatest red wines, need at least a decade of aging for all their glory to unfold. The French consider these wines unique and label them only with the vineyard name. Forty percent of the vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet have been ranked as premier cru, down a notch from grand cru, and are labeled with the village and vineyard name. The remaining half of the wine from Puligny-Montrachet comes from vineyards that are not classified as grand or premier cru and are labeled with the village name only.

In 1879, the villages, which at the time were called simply Puligny and Chassagne, affixed the name of their most famous vineyard to the towns’ names in hopes of elevating the reputation of the village wines. The resulting confusion (deception) persists today. I know more than one person who has purchased a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet thinking it was Le Montrachet. That not withstanding, these village wines should not be overlooked. Talented producers can make excellent wines even from nonclassified vineyards.

In selecting Burgundy, the producer is critically important, but especially when selecting village wines. A producer, such as Olivier Leflaive, buys grapes or newly made wine from growers throughout Puligny-Montrachet, blends and ages the wine in his cellars, and then sells it under his name. The skill lies in knowing what to buy and how to blend and age it.

The talented Franck Grux, Leflaive’s winemaker since 1988, has that skill. With a captivating creaminess intertwined with a mineral backbone, Olivier Leflaive’s 2002 Puligny Montrachet has an uncommon intensity and grace for ”just” a village wine (about $47). If you are contemplating spending that kind of money for a California chardonnay, try this one instead.

Olivier Leflaive’s wines are distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607. 

February 17, 2005.

A pink champagne that whispers ‘I love you’

Although some occasions call for inexpensive bubbly, Valentine’s Day is the time to splurge on the good stuff, rosé champagne, the most romantic drink in the world. With gorgeous pale pink color and strawberry or raspberry overtones, it is a sensual drink that goes well with a wide variety of foods, including chocolate. It is also delectable by itself.

Most champagne is made from a white grape, chardonnay, and two red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier. By pressing the grapes gently and removing the skins immediately, the juice remains clear, even from the red grapes, since the color comes from the pigments in the skins. (You can prove this to yourself the next time you buy red table grapes. Squeeze one gently; the first drop of juice is clear. Keep squeezing and the juice turns red as the skin is disrupted). Yeast ferments the sugar-rich juice into white wine and carbon dioxide that dissipates into the atmosphere. The winemaker blends these white still wines and starts the secondary fermentation. To make rosé champagne, winemakers usually add a small amount of still red wine, made from pinot noir, to the blend and then start the secondary fermentation as usual by adding a little sugar, more yeast, and corking the bottle. With the bottle corked, the carbon dioxide generated is entrapped in the wine as bubbles.

Billecart-Salmon, a house that has always been known for its stylish rosé, makes a deliciously luxurious non-vintage one that delivers intense red-fruit flavors, yet retains suaveness and bright balancing acidity (about $85, also available in half-bottle, $44).

Duval-Leroy, a family-owned champagne firm headed by a dynamic woman, Carol Duval, is one of the few firms that uses a different method to produce its rosé. It presses pinot noir grapes and lets the juice and skins remain in contact briefly, one to two days, until they achieve the desired pink color. The winemaker removes the skins and continues fermenting the pink juice until it is a dry rosé wine. After blending with other rosé still wines, the yeast and sugar are added for the secondary fermentation. The result, called Rosé de Saignée, is airy and divine (about $43, also available in half-bottles, $21.50).

Billecart-Salmon is distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000; Duval-Leroy by MS Walker, 800-238-0607.

February 10, 2005.

’03 Summer Heat Spurs Ripe, Varied Selections

The blistering heat in Europe during the summer of 2003 explains the character and the enormous variability of the wines made that year. Most parts of France recorded the earliest harvest on record as searing temperatures ripened grapes rapidly. Winemakers in Burgundy, Beaujolais, and the Rhone Valley all told me that they had never experienced conditions like those in 2003. They expected that some producers would make superlative wines from very ripe grapes, while others’ wines would have astringent tannins and be out of balance.

Locales within the southern Rhone Valley faired better than many other regions because the usual Mediterranean climate gives winemakers there more experience dealing with the heat. Still, there is significant variability among the wines labeled Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages. Vines planted in clay soil, which retains moisture, were less parched by the heat and drought than those planted in well-drained spots. Older vines, whose roots penetrate deeply, weathered the effects of the heat better. This is definitely a time to rely on advice of your local wine retailer, who has tasted and purchased only those wines from producers who handled this unusual year well.

In theory, wines labeled Cotes du Rhone Villages are supposed to be higher quality than those labeled Cotes du Rhone because they come from any one of 95 villages that have the potential to produce more distinctive wines. But the skill of the producer, especially in 2003, trumps location and many Cotes du Rhone wines deliver more enjoyment than their more prestigious cousins do. Winemakers use the usual cast of Mediterranean characters grenache, syrah, and cinsault, among others to make these powerful, ripe wines that have overtones of spice. Those from talented producers, such as the four listed below, are perfect for serving with casseroles and other hearty fare because the tannins are ripe, lack astringency, and balance the fruit and spice flavors.

Grand Veneur, Cotes du Rhone, 2003 (About $11, distributed by Atlantic Importing Co., 508-665-4274).

Roger Perrin, Cotes du Rhone, Vieille Vignes (old vines), 2003 (About $14, Ideal Wine & Spirits, 781-395-3300).

Chateau de St. Cosme, Cotes du Rhone, Les Deux Albions, 2003 (About $17, Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100).

Chapoutier, Cotes du Rhone, Bellaruches, 2003 (About $19, United Liquors, 800-445-0076).

February 3, 2005.

Rich, potent vintage or tawny port will take the chill away

In wine, freezing temperatures mean it’s time for port, a fortified wine made from grapes grown in Portugal’s Duoro River Valley. Port starts life like any red wine: Up to five kinds of red grapes are harvested and crushed, sometimes still by foot, which allows the sugar-laden juice to come in contact with yeast so fermentation can begin.

After three days, the winemaker adds brandy, which raises the alcohol to 20 percent (hence, the term ”fortified”) and kills the yeast, stopping fermentation before all the grape sugar has been converted to alcohol. The resulting wine has an engaging combination of fire and sweetness. The wines are shipped down the Duoro River to Oporto (which explains the origin of the name port), where they are aged.

Drinking vintage port, which captures the limelight but accounts for only about 2 percent of the region’s production, is an exercise in serious devotion. A bottle needs 20 or more years of aging in a cool cellar and careful decanting to rid it of the sediment, accumulated from aging, before serving. And, despite the practice in restaurants of offering a glass of vintage port from a bottle that has been opened for weeks, vintage port, like all fine wine, deteriorates rapidly after opening. A bottle should be consumed in one or, at most, two evenings, which, given its alcohol content, means you need a large gathering.

Enter aged tawny port. Aged in barrels for 10 to 40 years after it’s made, tawny port takes on a brown-brick hue (hence, its name) with flavors of nuts, caramel, and dried fruits on top of the sweetness and fire. It has left its sediment in the barrel so decanting is not necessary. Since it has been exposed to air for years while in the barrel, a little more won’t hurt it. You can have a glass, recork the bottle, and enjoy another glass a week or a month later.

W.J. Graham is one of the great port houses. It produces exquisite vintage ports and sublime aged tawny ports. Its 10-year-old tawny (about $28) has remarkable complexity and its 20-year-old (about $50) is gloriously rich. A glass of either after dinner will help dissipate winter’s chill.

Graham’s Ports are distributed by MS Walker, 800-238-0607.

January 27, 2005.

2002 Vintage Burgundy is the Best in Years

The 2002 vintage was terrific for both white and red Burgundy, the best since 1990. Consumers should snap up those remaining on retailers’ shelves because few are available from the wineries. And those that are will be purchased using dollars that are far weaker than when the 2002s were bought initially. Furthermore, prices for the 2003 Burgundies, a far less consistent vintage, will be dramatically higher because, in addition to the falling dollar, a small harvest resulted in half the normal amount of wine.

The best wines usually come from grapes grown in the best sites, those classified by French regulations as premier or grand cru vineyards, and are priced accordingly. But in 2002, even wines made from grapes grown in less-renowned vineyards have real character. Since pricing of French wine in general is based on location, this vintage allows consumers to drink excellent Burgundy without paying premier or grand cru prices.

The AOC (appellation d’origine controllee) regulations identified most of Burgundy’s villages and best vineyards in the 1930s. Santenay, the southernmost village in the Cote d’Or, the heart of Burgundy, was omitted during the initial classification because its wines were not considered distinctive enough. It received official status as a wine village and for its premier cru vineyards only in 1970. In the past, its wines had the reputation for rusticity, but today quality-oriented producers like Maison Louis Jadot are changing that.

Although Jadot purchased the Clos de Malte vineyard only in 1993, it has made excellent wine there for decades from grapes they purchased from the previous owner. Jadot planted some chardonnay in the Clos de Malte, but like most of Santenay, this is red wine (or pinot noir) country.

You can savor the extra dimension imparted by exceptional growing conditions during 2002 even in a wine from a non-classified vineyard, such as Jadot’s Santenay Clos de Malte. With red fruit intertwined with earthy flavors, it has for Santenay unusual suaveness. It is more distinctive than many producers’ premier crus and will go a long way in changing the perception of the village’s wines.

Maison Louis Jadot, Santenay Clos de Malte (red), 2002.

About $25. Distributed by Horizon Beverage Co., 800-696-2337.

January 20, 2005.

White Marsannay is subtle and satisfying

White Burgundy, made almost exclusively from chardonnay, is one of the most sought-after wines in the world.

Despite tremendous advances in California and other New World locales with chardonnay, white Burgundy remains the benchmark for wines made from that grape. But buying Burgundy is not easy. It is expensive because worldwide demand far outstrips the supply that this narrow strip 100 to 200 miles southeast of Paris can produce. And price, sadly, does not ensure quality, which is highly variable. Many of the greatest wines I have tasted came from Burgundy, but so did the ones that have disappointed me the most. Labeling the wines by the village or vineyard where the grapes grow, instead of the name of the grape, adds to the risk and confusion of buying Burgundy.

Louis Latour’s 2002 white Marsannay shows that the producer — the person or firm that made the wine — is the most important factor when buying Burgundy. Latour, one of Burgundy’s stellar producers, has been based in Beaune, in the southern part of the Cote d’Or — the heart of Burgundy — since 1797. It makes outstanding wines from throughout Burgundy either from grapes grown in vineyards it owns or from grapes purchased from others. Latour’s $100-plus a bottle Corton Charlemagne, one of Burgundy’s greatest white wines, is consistently superb and a dazzling expression of chardonnay.

Almost a suburb of Dijon, Marsannay is in the northern-most part of the Cote d’Or. As a wine village it has a poor reputation, known mostly for its rose. Since price follows pedigree in this part of the world, its wines are inexpensive, at least by Burgundy standards. Only about 10 percent of Marsannay’s production is white wine, usually from chardonnay, although regulations allow producers to include pinot gris.

Despite its lowly pedigree, Latour’s 2002 white Marsannay is captivating because of the talent of the producer. Though made entirely from chardonnay, it is very different from the rich, sometimes overdone California versions. Latour’s Marsannay has an attractive minerality and cleansing citric finish that makes it ideal with our region’s seafood.

Maison Louis Latour, Marsannay (white), 2002. About $15. Distributed by Boston Wine Co., 617-666-5939 and M. S. Walker, 800-238-0607. 

December 2, 2004.

French connection lifts Chilean wine

Although Chile is located in the New World, its wine industry is rooted in France. During the prosperity of the mid-19th century, Chilean families who had acquired great wealth, often from mining, imported vines and sometimes winemakers from Bordeaux.

Over 100 years later, in the late-20th century, another emigration of Bordeaux wine talent has reinvigorated the Chilean wine industry. The French connection, both originally and now, explains the appealing style of so many Chilean wines made from cabernet sauvignon, a principle grape variety of Bordeaux.

These wines have an engaging combination of fruitiness characteristic of California and other New World locations, beautifully intertwined with structure and elegance that epitomizes great Bordeaux. Prominent Bordelais such as Paul Pontallier, from the famed Bordeaux property Chateau Margaux, and Michel Rolland, perhaps Bordeaux’s most famous consulting winemaker, are involved deeply in Chilean winemaking projects.

Both branches of the famous Rothschilds have invested in vineyards and wineries as well.

In 1988, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) invested in Los Vascos in the Colchagua Valley, another prime area for grapes. Now, after over a decade of reinvigoration, modernization, and winemaking, Christophe Salin, president of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite), says the vineyards are making wines of which they can be proud.

The Los Vascos 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon is a splendid $10 wine. With refinement and suppleness, it is an excellent everyday choice. What may be a better value, despite the higher price, is their 2001 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Richer with more layers of flavor, it has the signature Lafite smoothness and grace.

Los Vascos, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003 (about $10) and Los Vascos, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, 2001 (about $16).

November 25, 2004.

Sauvignon blanc lightens the atmosphere

The combination of August’s heat and humidity with even mildly spicy fare, like chicken fajitas, is an impediment to enjoying the rich white Burgundies or California Chardonnays. Lighter and zestier wine, such as sauvignon blanc, is the order of the day.

Although grown around the world, perhaps the best-known locales for distinctive sauvignon blanc-based wines are the Loire River towns of Pouilly sur Loire, home to Fume Pouilly, and Sancerre. California also produces excellent sauvignon blanc, named either by the grape or as fume blanc, a moniker invented by Robert Mondavi, the man who more than any other individual was responsible for popularizing California wine. In contrast to Sancerre, with its signature mineral-infused flavor, the range of sauvignon blanc from California is broad and can be bewildering, depending on whether winemakers age it in oak or blend it with semillon in an attempt to tame its potentially pungent character.

Since I have failed to find a consistent stylistic difference between those labeled Fume Blanc – they do not resemble Pouilly Fume – or Sauvignon Blanc, I suggest consumers focus on remembering the name of the producer whose style they enjoy.

Robert Pepi started his eponymous Napa Valley winery in 1966 and sold it in 1994 to Jess Jackson, of Kendall Jackson fame, who changed the name to just Pepi. Since the grapes for the Pepi sauvignon blanc come mostly from Lake County with lesser amounts from Napa and Sonoma, Kendall Jackson could have labeled this sauvignon blanc with the more prestigious North Coast appellation, rather than just California. But George Rose, a spokesman for Kendall Jackson, said that their research showed a California appellation actually had more recognition among consumers than did a North Coast one.

Pepi’s sauvignon blancs are typically pure and vibrant, and their 2003 fits that mold beautifully. With an attractive edge, it’s a perfect choice for a muggy August evening. If you don’t finish the bottle, the screw cap allows you to reseal it easily and sip it a day or two later.

Pepi, Sauvignon Blanc, 2003. About $10. Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007, and M S Walker, 800-238-0607.

August 19, 2004.

Bouchard chardonnay refined and refreshing

Chardonnay, America’s favorite white wine, is an especially good choice in the summer to accompany our abundance of local seafood. Its traditional home – and the place where the world’s best chardonnay is made – is Burgundy. The 2002 vintage there, the best since 1990, is a compelling reason to discover – or rediscover – these wines.

France’s mantra regarding wine – location, location, location – explains why they label their wines by where the grapes are grown, not by the name of the grape. Hence, French wines traditionally carry only the name of the region, town, or vineyard on the label. In Burgundy, chardonnay is the only white grape regulations allow to be planted. (A tiny amount of pinot blanc grows in Burgundy, but it can not be replanted).

Regulations also stratify vineyards according to quality. Wines from the best 1-2 percent of them, the grand cru vineyards, such as Le Montrachet, are frightfully expensive ($100-plus a bottle). The next level, still encompassing only about 10-15 percent of production, is premier cru. (The remaining 85 percent are labeled by name of the town, such as Beaune, or the region, Cotes du Beaune- Villages). The ranking of the vineyard notwithstanding, the single most important determinant of quality is the producer. When you combine a great producer, such as Bouchard Pere & Fils, with premier cru vineyards, especially in a superb vintage, the result is sublime.

Bouchard, a venerable firm dating from the 18th century, is the largest owner of grand and premier cru vineyards in Burgundy. Their wines took a leap up in quality in the mid-1990s after Joseph Henriot, a talented producer from the Champagne region, purchased and revitalized the vineyards and winery. Breaking with tradition, Bouchard uses a proprietary name, Beaune du Chateau, for this wine made from grapes grown in several of their premier cru vineyards in Beaune. It has sold in Europe since the early 20th century, but the 2002 vintage marks its introduction to our shores. More refined than the typical chardonnay from California or Australia, it’s a captivating wine. Its richness, intermingled with mineral and earthy flavors and balanced by refreshing acidity, reminds us why everybody loves chardonnay.

Bouchard Pere & Fils, Beaune du Chateau, 2002. About $30. Distributed by Classic Wine Imports, 781-352-1100.

2000 deemed a good year for red Bordeaux — at all price levels

Robert M. Parker Jr., the world’s most influential wine critic, declared 2000 “a phenomenal year that might turn out to be one of the greatest vintages Bordeaux has ever produced.” The Wine Spectator magazine called it the best vintage for red Bordeaux since 1961.

The marketplace must agree because the prices of these wines, high when they were sold as futures three years ago, continue to rise. (Unlike commodity futures, people who buy wine futures want to take delivery. They buy the wine the spring after the harvest, even before it’s bottled, at a lower price, and take delivery about two years later.) The wines from the most famous properties – such as Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which started at near $300 a bottle – are currently selling for more than $600 a bottle. And these are wines that will not be ready to drink for another decade at least.

One of the great aspects of the 2000 red Bordeaux is that they were excellent across the board, at all price levels. An advantage of the less prestigious properties, in addition to their affordability, is that their wines are ready to drink sooner. Since Bordeaux chateau make relatively large quantities of wine, at least compared to Burgundy, much is still in the marketplace.

The French government has classified the chateau of the Medoc, a major subregion of Bordeaux, according to quality. The top group, known as the Cru Classe, includes just 60 chateaux, about 3 percent of the properties.

Be prepared to pay for these wines and have patience, since they need years of aging before they are ready to drink. The next level down, the Cru Bourgeois, encompasses roughly another 10 percent of the properties and represents great value. These chateaux often make higher-quality wines than their prices suggest.

Chateau Plagnac, one such Cru Bourgeois, made a great wine in 2000, whichis enjoyable now.

A blend of roughly two-thirds cabernet sauvignon and one-third merlot, it conveys ripe, broad flavors supported by supple tannins.

Try it the next time you are grilling steaks.

Chateau Plagnac, 2000; about $15 (distributed by Ruby Wines, 508- 588-7007)

Sauvignon blanc lightens the atmosphere

The combination of August’s heat and humidity with even mildly spicy fare, like chicken fajitas, is an impediment to enjoying the rich white Burgundies or California Chardonnays. Lighter and zestier wine, such as sauvignon blanc, is the order of the day.

Although grown around the world, perhaps the best-known locales for distinctive sauvignon blanc-based wines are the Loire River towns of Pouilly sur Loire, home to Fume Pouilly, and Sancerre. California also produces excellent sauvignon blanc, named either by the grape or as fume blanc, a moniker invented by Robert Mondavi, the man who more than any other individual was responsible for popularizing California wine. In contrast to Sancerre, with its signature mineral-infused flavor, the range of sauvignon blanc from California is broad and can be bewildering, depending on whether winemakers age it in oak or blend it with semillon in an attempt to tame its potentially pungent character.

Since I have failed to find a consistent stylistic difference between those labeled Fume Blanc – they do not resemble Pouilly Fume – or Sauvignon Blanc, I suggest consumers focus on remembering the name of the producer whose style they enjoy.

Robert Pepi started his eponymous Napa Valley winery in 1966 and sold it in 1994 to Jess Jackson, of Kendall Jackson fame, who changed the name to just Pepi. Since the grapes for the Pepi sauvignon blanc come mostly from Lake County with lesser amounts from Napa and Sonoma, Kendall Jackson could have labeled this sauvignon blanc with the more prestigious North Coast appellation, rather than just California. But George Rose, a spokesman for Kendall Jackson, said that their research showed a California appellation actually had more recognition among consumers than did a North Coast one.

Pepi’s sauvignon blancs are typically pure and vibrant, and their 2003 fits that mold beautifully. With an attractive edge, it’s a perfect choice for a muggy August evening. If you don’t finish the bottle, the screw cap allows you to reseal it easily and sip it a day or two later.

Pepi, Sauvignon Blanc, 2003. About $10. Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007, and M S Walker, 800-238-0607.

Riesling keeps its balance

Riesling is the world’s most versatile wine. Its riveting acidity cuts through spicy Asian cuisine as easily as it balances meaty olives, cheese, and anchovies in this pasta salad. Riesling gets a bad rap because consumers think it is a sweet wine. Many, especially from Germany, are a touch sweet, but even with those wines, their sweetness is balanced by the grape’s inherent tartness. California Rieslings are more problematic because the warm climate there is conducive to producing very ripe grapes with lower acidity. Even the image of Riesling from Alsace, arguably the home to the best Riesling in the world, is deceptive. The tall, slender bottles are suggestive of German — that is, slight sweet — wines. In reality, these Rieslings are usually bone dry with enamel-cleansing acidity, perfect for these warm-weather salads.

American consumers should embrace wines from Alsace because they are named by grape name, as in California, as opposed to the customary, and confusing, French system of naming wines by where the grapes grow. We in New England do like these wines. Jean Trimbach, whose family has been making fabulous wines in Alsace for several centuries, notes that New England is their largest market in the United States.

A new entry to these parts, not to be missed, is Domaine Metz’s Rieslings. They make two, a regular Riesling from younger vines planted in a variety of vineyards, and one from a single vineyard, Fruehmess, whose vines are over 35 years of age. Older vines typically produce fewer, but more flavorful, grapes, which translates into more flavor-packed wine.

Metz’s 2002 Rieslings are both well-balanced, beautifully made, refreshingly dry wines. The regular Riesling shows pure mineral and stone fruit character that is the hallmark of wine made from this grape. The 2002 Fruehmess Riesling is a bigger, more intense version.

Domaine Metz, Riesling, 2002. About $12. Domaine Metz, Riesling Fruehmess, 2002. About $18. (Distributed by Atlantic Importing Company, 508-229-0014.) 

June 3, 2004.

In Chianti, tuna kebabs have met their match

The standard rule of white wine with fish, though not inviolate, works most of the time because the subtle flavors of fish generally will be overwhelmed by red wine. A common exception to this food and wine-matching dictum is a meaty, full-flavored fish such as tuna or salmon, which can easily support a red wine.

Chianti, Italy’s most well-known wine, is a perfect foil for these tuna kebobs because its inherent lively acidity cuts the fattiness of the fish. Named for the hilly region in Tuscany surrounding Florence and Siena, Chianti has a bad connotation among many in the over-50 crowd who remember insipid wine poured from pot-bellied, straw-covered bottles. Since the early 1980s, the quality of wines from this region has risen meteorically, and Chianti, especially those made from grapes grown in the smaller Classico subzone nestled between Florence and Siena, are counted among the world’s best.

Winemakers use a blend of grapes, chiefly sangiovese with up to 15 percent merlot or cabernet sauvignon, for Chianti. The best grapes are destined for the bigger, more powerful — and expensive — wines, labeled Riserva, which are best saved for when you are grilling meat or serving pasta with a hearty sauce. For a flavorful fish like tuna, look for those labeled simply Chianti Classico.

Vignamaggio, a wine estate located in the heart of Chianti Classico, just celebrated its 600th anniversary. Owned by Tuscan noble families for centuries, the estate was the birthplace of the woman who was the model for Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” An Italian lawyer, Gianni Nunziante, purchased the estate in 1988 and with the help of the current consulting wine maker, Giorgio Marone, is making wonderful wines. Vignamaggio’s Chianti Classico Riserva, called Castello di Monna Lisa [the Italians spell it with a double n), is sensational, but for these tuna kabobs, I would select their regular — and less expensive — 2000 Chianti Classico. Made entirely from sangiovese, it has the almost magical combination of intense flavor without heaviness. This is definitely not your father’s Chianti.

Vignamaggio, Chianti Classico, 2000. About $25. (Distributed by Ruby Wines, 508-588-7007). 

May 27, 2004.

As a match for seafood, zesty white is a good catch

Both red and white wine go well with seafood with olives and tomatoes. The meatiness of olives and the intensity of tomatoes support a light red wine, such as Ruffino’s 2001 Fonte al Sole, a Chianti-like wine from Tuscany (about $10), or a Valpolicella by Masi (about $12). Although I am drawn to Italian reds when I think of a sauce of tomatoes and olives, any lighter-style red wine from other countries, such as a breezy Beaujolais, or a California pinot noir, would also work well.

A white wine with zesty acidity, such as Orvieto, is a welcome match to balance the richness of seafood and cut through the pungency of the sauce. Orvieto, a hillside town in Umbria perched midway along the main Rome-to-Florence highway, has been a source of inexpensive, and often innocuous, white wines. Made from a blend of grapes, it has a reputation for blandness because many producers aim for quantity over quality.

Sergio Mottura is not one of those producers. His 2003 Orvieto Tragugnano reminds us why Orvieto once had such a good reputation. Made from grapes grown in his Tragugnano vineyard, this Orvieto is distinctive even though it does not come from the central and more prestigious Orvieto Classico subregion. He relies less on trebbiano and more on grechetto and other grapes that provide substance and character.

The heat during the summer of 2003 reduced yields and concentrated flavors even more. Mottura’s 2003 Orvieto Tragugnano is satisfying with slightly nutty overtones, an unexpected richness for Orvieto, and a lively citric zing. Stock up on it for the summer.

Sergio Mottura, Orvieto Tragugnano, 2003. About $12. (Distributed by Violette Wine Imports, 617-876-4126.)

May 13, 2004.

Valpolicella evokes red wine’s good old days

Andrea Sartori has his work cut out for him. A fifth-generation winemaker in his family’s firm, he is trying to remind the wine-drinking world what Valpolicella tastes like. Valpolicella was once a highly regarded wine. But over the last several decades, this red wine, which takes its name from the hills near Verona in northeast-

ern Italy, has become dilute and characterless as giant companies churned out every increasing quantity. Producers such as Sartori, Masi, and Allegrini, to name a few, are trying to reverse that trend. They limit the vine’s yield and as a result produce less wine than government regulations allow. This practice, embraced by quality-oriented winemakers around the world, results in wines with more flavor and substance. A combination of factors including the type and quality of grapes, where they are planted, and aging also determines the quality of the wine.

Valpolicella producers use a blend of indigenous grapes, primarily corvina, rondinella, and molinara. Just as a chef uses different ingredients for a sauce, a winemaker blends the wines that he made from the individual varieties of grapes until he achieves the desired style. Producers aiming for quality over quantity typically include more corvina in the blend, despite its expense. The best grapes, which represent about half the total Valpolicella production, come from the original, or Classico, sub region. Regulations for Valpolicella do not require producers to age the wine before release. However, the better wines, those made from riper grapes and aged for at least a year, are labeled Superiore.

Sartori’s best Valpolicella is made from grapes grown in a single vineyard, Montegradella, located in the Classico sub zone. Like Masi and Allegrini, Sartori uses a high proportion of corvina in the blend for this wine and ages it for a year before releasing it. His 1999 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Montegradella reminds us why Valpolicella was so popular in the past. Rich with intriguing dried fruit character, it bears no relation to the mass-produced Valpolicella saturating the market. Devoid of harsh tannins or astringency, you can enjoy it the next time you have pizza or other take-out Italian food. It’s also great with a simple steak.

Sartori’s 1999 Valpolicella Classico Superiore Montegradella, about $13. 

April 8, 2004.

Cabernet sauvignon is a classic match for lamb

Mature red Bordeaux have always been a classic match for roast lamb. These Cru Classe wines – from the Medoc subregion, where cabernet sauvignon reigns – include

Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Chateau Lynch Bages, and Chateau Lagrange. To allow their glory to shine, they need to sit for at least a decade in the wine cellar. As the wine ages, the tannins (polyphenolic compounds extracted from the grape skins and seeds that act as a natural preservative), become supple and smooth. The tannins in young red wines, especially in cabs, often impart astringency, which explains why these wines are not good before- dinner drinks. If you’re selecting Bordeaux from the already legendary 2000 vintage, avoid the prestigious properties and focus on the more reasonable Chateau Bonnet (about $11) or Chateau Beaumont (about $20), which can be enjoyed now. Good alternatives are cabernets from Australia, California, or Chile, whose lush fruit flavors and tamer tannins make them ready by the Easter parade.

A world of cabernet Penfolds put Australia on the world wine map with their stupendous Grange, a shiraz-based wine, which disappears from retailers’ shelves despite its $200-plus price tag. They also make luscious cabernet, including the flagship Penfolds Bin 707 (a former Qantas marketing manager came up with the name). About a decade ago the Australian winery introduced a more affordable cabernet. The 1999 Penfolds Bin 407 has the winemaker’s signature balance. It’s an engagingly rich wine infused with black currant fruit and wrapped with supple tannins. About $27. (Distributed by Carolina Wine & Spirits, 781-278-2000 and MS Walker, 800-238-0607.)

Simi’s Landslide Vineyard, located in the Alexander Valley portion of Sonoma Valley, supplies the majority of the cabernet sauvignon for their consistently excellent Reserve Cabernet (about $75). Four years ago, Simi bottled some cabernet from Landslide Vineyard grapes separately. The result is a staggeringly good 2000 Landslide Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe and rich, without being overdone, it is polished and layered with flavor. About $35. (United Liquors, 800-445-0076.)

The winery Casa Lapostolle, owned by France’s Marnier Lapostolle family – of Grand Marnier fame – is one of the best in Chile. The family relies on Michel Rolland, a gifted Bordeaux winemaker, as a consultant to the vineyard and the cellar. Their regular cabernet, at about $11, always provides good value. A more upscale version, called Cuvee Alexandre, is made from better grapes and delivers more power and grace. Supple and packed with black fruit flavors, the 1999 Cuvee Alexandre Cabernet Sauvignon is outstanding. About $20. (Carolina Wine & Spirits and United Liquors.)

April 7, 2004.

Vacqueyras at the front of the class

France’s southern Rhone Valley has always been home to great values in wine, and still is. This is red wine country with only small amounts of white wine production. The wines from the region’s most famous town, Chateauneuf du Pape, just north of Avignon, have become extremely popular over the last 20 years, and quite predictably have increased in price, now often commanding more than $30 a bottle. The natural response to this sticker shock is to search for nearby villages whose wines are less well known and are priced the way Chateauneuf du Pape was priced a decade or two ago.

Vacqueyras, a sleepy Provencal hill town, had been lumped together with 16 other villages in the area and labeled as a Cotes du Rhone Villages wine until 1990. It was then “promoted” to its own appellation, which allows the wines to be labeled solely with the name of the village, because growers convinced government regulators that their wines were sufficiently distinctive. Wine makers in Vacqueyras (pronounced vac-key-ras) use the same basic blend of grapes, grenache, syrah, cinsault, and mourvedre as their colleagues do in Chateauneuf du Pape, just down the road. But wines from Vacqueyras are more rustic, less polished.

There are exceptions, as the Domaine Le Clos de Caveau proves with their classy Vacqueyras. They attribute the quality of their wine to the exclusive use of syrah and grenache for their blend, their organic grapes, and the location of their vineyard. All of their grapes come from their organic vineyards, which are located in the hills at a higher elevation where it is slightly cooler. As a result, the grapes ripen later, giving them more time to develop flavors. The higher elevation also means greater exposure to the cleansing winds of the mistral, which makes their job of having an organic vineyard easier.

The year 2000 was the third in a string of four great years for southern Rhone Valley wines. Not surprisingly, the 2000 Domaine Le Clos de Caveau is outstanding. Rich and intense, it is suave and balanced without aggressive tannins or a sense of heaviness. Have a glass or two with a winter roast and relax after work.

Domaine Le Clos de Caveau, Vacqueyras, 2000, about $18. 

April 1, 2004.

A confusing name that you’ll want to know

France’s Loire Valley is known, justifiably, for its broad range of excellent white wines, such as Sancerre, Vouvray, and Muscadet. It is France’s second-largest producer of bubbly wine, after champagne. But it also produces red wines. Since they are less well known, the reds can be excellent value.

The middle of the Loire River valley, between Angers and Tours, is where the cabernet franc grape thrives and produces stylish red wines, which take their names from the towns of Bourgueil, Chinon, or Saumur-Champigny. Many wines from Bourgueil and Chinon need time to resolve their tannins before their glory shines. Wines from Saumur-Champigny, on the other hand, are more forward and user-friendly in their youth. Cabernet franc is well suited to this northern clime.

Producers aid ripening by limiting yields, so that the sun’s energy is focused on fewer grapes. The company Langlois-Chateau, founded in 1855 by Edouard Langlois and his wife, Jeanne Chateau, may confuse us who are more familiar with chateau as a building, not a surname. Although best known for its excellent, well-priced Loire Valley sparkling wine (about $15), Langlois-Chateau also produces a few impressive red still wines.

The 1999 Chateau de Varrains, devoid of harsh tannins, is polished and conveys pure fruit flavors and a nice mineral quality. It is not overbearing, and would be a good choice for take-out roasted chicken or pizza after work.

Langlois-Chateau, Chateau de Varrains, Saumur-Champigny, 1999. About $18. (Distributed by Commonwealth Wine & Spirits, 508-262-9300)

March 4, 2004.

Corvo a complex wine without the high cost

Two decades ago, Corvo captured the hearts, and more importantly the taste buds, of Americans to became one of the leading wines imported to the United States. Sicily’s only widely exported wine at the time, it was a fixture in Italian restaurants across the country because it delivered consistent quality at a low price. Corvo became a casualty of the worldwide privatization phenomenon, though, and lost its dominant position in the US market. Quality plummeted when the company that produced it lost focus as it slowly morphed from a quasi-independent entity under government control to a private company.

Illva Saronno, best known for their liqueur, Disaronno (formerly known as Amaretto), saw an opportunity, purchased Corvo, and hired the famous Italian winemaker Giacomo Tachis as a consultant. They still own no vineyards, relying on growers throughout the island for grapes, a practice that should allow them to achieve a consistent blend every year. The quality has returned, still at a low price, an incredible feat considering the vastly increased competition from a rapidly ballooning number of excellent Sicilian producers. Those include Planeta, Donnafugata, Morgante, Rapitala, Benanti, and Cottanera – all names worth remembering – whose wines are available in Massachusetts and other parts of the United States.

Corvo Rosso is made from a blend of red, indigenous Sicilian grapes, mostly nero d’Avola combined with smaller amounts of pignatello and nerello mascalese. Tachis eschews the use of small oak barrels for aging the wine so as not to mask its fruity character. Still, the 2001 Corvo Rosso has more than just simple fruit flavors. Subtle smoky or gamy overtones, probably from the nero d’Avola, add complexity not usually seen in this price range. A great everyday choice for take-out pizza or pasta, it also would go well with casseroles or roasted meat. At this price, Corvo makes us an offer that’s hard to refuse. Corvo Rosso 2001, about $10.

January 29, 2004.

For the novice or expert, wine books help demystify

To learn about wine, there is no substitute for tasting and drinking it. However, books help unravel the cloak of mystery that often surrounds that beverage. These two books, “Wine for Dummies” and Michael Broadbent’s “Vintage Wine,” while at the two ends of the oenological spectrum, would make fine gifts for the committed or aspiring wine lover in your life. My only complaint about Ed McCarthy’s and Mary Ewing-Mulligan’s 3rd edition of “Wine for Dummies” (Wiley) is the title. Without question, it is an excellent starting place for people who know nothing about wine. It’s easy to read, full of understandable concepts, and devoid of pretentious winespeak. Just as important, it teaches the oenophile a thing or two. To write a book that appeals to both the novice and the expert is a rare talent, but it is not surprising given the background of these authors. McCarthy was a high school English teacher and a highly regarded national wine writer. Ewing-Mulligan, one of only 19 Americans to have received the prestigious Master of Wine degree, runs the International Wine Center, a New York-based wine school.

They deliver detailed information when necessary — such as recommending specific producers, especially important in the maze of Burgundy where the person who makes the wine is more important than the names of vineyards — without being boring or tedious. The pronunciation guide, essential for ordering French and Italian wines, is superb. Their chapter describing strategies for ordering wines in a restaurant is reason enough to buy the book. The detailed index makes it easy to use as a reference the next time you find a wine you like and want to know more about it.

Now, if you want to know whether that 1986 Chateau Lagrange is ready to drink this New Year’s Eve, buy “Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine” (Harcourt). It’s indispensable for anyone who has ever wondered when to pull the cork of that special bottle and great reading for everyone else with a serious interest in wine. Broadbent, hired to head Christie’s wine auctions in 1966, probably has tasted more fine and rare wine than anyone else. He tasted, and drank, the 1870 Chateau Lafte Rothschild on 16 occasions.

“I packed . . . them up (41 magnums of 1870 Lafite) for a great sale at Christie’s in 1971,” he writes. “Naturally, to make sure that the wine was all right, I opened one at a dinner in the boardroom before the sale. . . . A lively drink.”

He has organized his notes for this book, “not . . . to be a gazetteer of every chateaux of every vintage . . . (but) to demonstrate the progress of wines from cask to bottle, thence to maturity.” His 50 years of notes on thousands of wines, mostly French, though he devotes a page to New Zealand and another to Chateau Musar from Lebanon, is captivating reading. His definition of quality in wine is the best I’ve read and something winemakers would be wise to remember: “Quality can be measured by length of flavour, and the way it expands in the mouth and lingers on the palate.”

Sprinkled among his notes is sound advice, such as when to serve a sweet wine (not with dessert, which makes the wine taste dry, but rather with cheese to highlight its sweet richness). Equally important, Broadbent’s assessments allow you to know how a grand wine is developing so you can save your precious cache until it’s ready to drink.

By the way, Broadbent describes the 1986 Lagrange as having “lovely texture and flavor. Complete . . . an unpredicted high mark. 4 (out of 5) stars. Drink now until 2012.” For those lucky enough to have any left, New Year’s Eve would be a good time to drink it.

December 18, 2003.

When is pinot blanc not pinot blanc?

The French proclivity for precise, some would say rigid, regulations regarding their wines makes pinot blanc from Alsace an aberration. Almost all the best French wines are named not by grape name but by the village or vineyard where the grapes grow.

Alsace, the easternmost part of France bordering Germany, is an exception. There, labels of the best wines carry the name of the grape. Maybe because Alsace has been passed from Germany to France and back again repeatedly, for vinous matters, they embrace the German tradition of putting grape names on the label.

Following that logic, a pinot blanc, from the eponymous, widely planted grape in Alsace, should be analogous to a Riesling or a Gewurztraminer from that region and be made from the named grape. If only it were that simple.

Jean Trimbach, who, not surprisingly, is knowledgeable about wines from Alsace since his family has been making them there since 1626, explains that the wine, pinot blanc, need not be made exclusively, or even at all, from that grape. In Alsace, the rules for making pinot blanc are uncharacteristically flexible. The winemaker can use auxerrois, another white variety known for its lushness, as well as any of the grapes in the pinot family, such as pinot gris. They can even include juice from the black-skinned pinot noir since it, too, is a member of the pinot family and, when pressed gently, still delivers clear juice, the color emanating from the skins.

Bob Harkey, owner of the superb wine shop The Millis Package Store, and a local Alsace specialist noted that decades ago the wine we now know as pinot blanc was named, more accurately, pinot d’Alsace.

Although the Trimbach firm is justifiably known for its sensational Rieslings, the 2001 pinot blanc is equally exceptional in its own right. Jean Trimbach describes his 2001 pinot blanc succinctly as “deliciously uncomplicated.” It’s an apt description for what to me is their best pinot blanc to date and one of the best white-wine values in today’s market.

Composed of auxerrois and a number of members of the pinot family (Who cares what grapes they used?), its lovely floral aromas, unusual richness, and citric zing make it hard to resist. It’s a great aperitif after work or an informal and affordable complement to take-out rotisserie chicken.

Trimbach, 2001 pinot blanc, about $12.

December 4, 2003.