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Columns – Jim Clarke

Hungary's Varied, Stylish Dry Tokaji
Jim Clarke
Nov 7, 2017

Looking back at my tasting notes from a large number of seminars, conferences, visits, and other tasting opportunities this summer, I'm slightly surprised to find that the region that seems to have consistently impressed me is Tokaj, in Hungary. The surprise is not because I hold the region in low regard. Rather, it's that the quality I've witnessed has been spread over such a mix of styles and grape varieties.

Pic Saint Loup Earns An AOC Of Its Own
Jim Clarke
Sep 26, 2017

Across the globe many wine regions seem intent on carving themselves up, whether wine drinkers are interested or not. How many place names are we expected to remember? Languedoc, however, seems justified in trying to divvy itself up a bit. As a region it encompasses almost 500,000 acres of vineyards - more than many wine-producing countries. The Languedoc's latest appellation is Pic Saint Loup, and it's one worth memorizing.

Wines of British Columbia: Tough to Find but Worth the Effort
Jim Clarke
Aug 15, 2017

If there's a wine that doesn't travel well, it might be the wines of British Columbia. By this, I don't mean that their wines crack up in transit, but that they barely travel at all. Domestic wine consumption within Canada is strong; as W. Blake Gray pointed out here on Wine Review Online some time ago, Canadians drink ten times more than the country produces, so there is little need to export. Domestic sales are encouraged by the provincial Liquor Boards, too, within their own provincial borders in particular. How provincial are they? Well, enough that it's easier to find an Ontario wine in New York than in British Columbia, for example. But while Ontario wines are starting to dribble across the border, British Columbian wines remain virtually unknown in the USA.

Savennières: Consistent Excellence from the Loire
Jim Clarke
Jul 4, 2017

For what is generally considered a uniformly cool-climate area, the Loire Valley can be confusingly diverse in its wine styles. In terms of plantings it is two-thirds the size of Bordeaux, but as it follows the Loire river inland, it's stretched over a significantly wider range of climates, from maritime to the continental. It is home to red grapes both Bordelais (Cabernet Franc) and Burgundian (Pinot Noir); for whites, Chenin Blanc, in the central stretch, lies in-between Sauvignon Blanc plantings in the east (Touraine, stretching to Sancerre and Puoilly-Fumé) and Muscadet in the west. And Chenin itself is capable of an amazing range of expressions -- dry, off-dry, sweet or syrupy, plus still or sparkling. But smack in the middle of all that is one of the most consistent, distinctive and exciting of all French wines, namely, Savennières.

A Choice White for Summer: Picpoul de Pinet
Jim Clarke
May 23, 2017

With about 1,300 hectares planted, Picpoul de Pinet is a tiny appellation in the grand scheme of things, nestled in among a number of the Languedoc's predominantly red wine appellations but nonetheless responsible for more than 60% of the Languedoc's white wine production. The appellation's vineyards lie southwest from Montepellier along the Mediterranean coast, across the Bassin de Thau lagoons from the picturesque resort town of Sète and its attendant oyster farms, which almost seem to exist solely to prove the 'grows together, goes together' cliché -- oysters are an excellent pairing with Picpoul.

Advent of Arneis
Jim Clarke
Apr 11, 2017

Few grape varieties have a birthday that isn't lost in the annals of time, but a handful of them at least have a turning point, a time when someone took notice of a grape and brought it to the world's attention. While rediscovering 'lost varieties' is a favorite hobby for some sommeliers today, it's easy to forget that similar discoveries have been made in the past, and that grapes we think of as well-established may have been bit players just decades ago. One such variety is Piedmont's Arneis. While we don't know whence it came or when, we do know that it wouldn't be what it is today if one man hadn't given it some renewed attention fifty years ago.

Two Superb Sources of Sauvignon to the Rescue
Jim Clarke
Mar 7, 2017

While sales of Sauvignon Blanc continue to rise, up 13.3% in 2015 according to the Wine Market Council, I come across increasing numbers of wine professionals and more serious sorts of wine drinkers who are giving the grape less and less attention. The top wines of Sancerre -- Dagueneau, for example -- remain highly-regarded, of course, as do a few other examples from around the world. But as a variety, Sauvignon Blanc seems to be a low-priority for many people who really pay attention to what they're drinking. Chardonnay endured the protest chants of ABC ('Anything But Chardonnay') but are the days of 'QRS' -- Quit Reaching for Sauvignon, or Quit Recommending Sauvignon -- upon us?

Grand Cru Chablis: Burgundy's Best Top-Class Whites
Jim Clarke
Jan 17, 2017

When one hears the words 'Grand Cru Burgundy,' it's probably the reds of the Côte de Nuits that spring to mind -- some of the most exciting, age-worthy, and often profound wines in the world. One might also think of Corton, in the Côte de Beaune, so not far away or the white wine Grand Crus of Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne. But there are seven Grand Crus that seem to cross people's minds less frequently, even though they represent the best values to bear the name Grand Cru Burgundy. I'm talking about Grand Crus of Chablis.

An Inside Look at Wine Marketing
Jim Clarke
Nov 29, 2016

Wines of Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Chile, Germany, Alsace…wherever the wine is from, 'Wines of…' has become the preferred first name for the various so-called 'generic marketing bodies' of the wine world. There are plenty of others, of course: The various 'Consorzii' of Italy's myriad regions, InterRhône, and so forth. In any case, no one likes to be called 'generic,' especially when their major goal is to differentiate their region from competitors.

Champagne's Club Trésors
Jim Clarke
Oct 18, 2016

On the north side of Reims' city center you'll find a surprisingly modern wine bar, a sleek and minimal space set at the edge of the city's more staid, stereotypically French pedestrian zone. Inside, a map of Champagne covers the floor; bottles hang on cables from the ceiling. Enter and pull on one of the bottles down to eye-level and you'll get a description of a Champagne producer, conveniently suspended over the region where they're located on the map. Even more conveniently, their Champagne is on the shelves on the wall nearby. Grab a bottle, or a glass…and now you're in the Club.

Savigny-les-Beaune: Strong Value in an Otherwise Pricey Region
Jim Clarke
Sep 6, 2016

Beaune is the obvious place to stay when visiting Burgundy, home to plenty of guesthouses and restaurants and easily navigable by foot. From there you drive north and south on the D974 and pass through all the major communes of the Côte d'Or. Chances are you'll taste many young wines at the cellars of various vignerons, preciously parceled out from half bottles because Burgundy's prices make letting a full-bottle sit open for tasting too wasteful. After these young wines beat up your palate all day, your thoughts turn to what you'll drink with dinner that night. If you're not lucky or deep-pocketed enough for an older wine, one village comes to mind, one you didn't even pass through: Savigny-les-Beaune.

Lee Hudson: Carneros Grape-Grower Extraordinaire
Jim Clarke
Jul 26, 2016

Grapes are probably the only thing grown to be small at Hudson Ranch. Giant pumpkins, gourds taller than a man...perhaps it's his Texas roots, but Lee Hudson grows vegetables with an eye toward size. Since small, concentrated grapes are preferred for quality wine, it's probably for the best that--when turning to viticulture--he keeps that distinction in mind. 'Distinction' is the right word, as Hudson's grapes go into many top wines, with quite a few of those bottled as single-vineyard designates. Not that many, though: 'Only thirteen use the name,' says Hudson, of the twenty-seven producers to whom he sells fruit. For those thirteen, reputation and relationship are important, as is what portion of the vineyard they're sourcing from. 'Vineyard designation has to be driven by terroir. I have to have confidence in the site. It's got a southwest exposure if it's got 'Hudson' on it.'

A Distinctive Spanish Variety: Mencía
Jim Clarke
Jun 14, 2016

For the winedrinker beginning to explore Spain, it can often feel like every Spanish red grape is actually just Tempranillo by another name, be it Cencibel, Tinta del País, or Ull de Llebre. 'Green Spain's' Mencía, however, is definitely its own thing. Found in Galicia and León, Mencía's character varies. It's certainly capable of making big, dark, powerful wines, but does Spain need more of those? In my view, Mencía is at its most intriguing when it doesn't try so hard, and allows aromatics and freshness to dominate.

On the Rise: Terrasses du Larzac
Jim Clarke
Apr 19, 2016

The Languedoc--long France's capital of cheap and cheerful bistro wines--is a going to great efforts to redefine itself, both in terms of pushing toward better quality and more literally, changing appellation laws and names and attempting to bring more clarity and distinction to the region's terroirs. In almost every case this is a work in progress, but the Terrasses du Larzac seems to have started off with a clearer direction than most.

Beer Versus Wine, or a Cooperative Relationship?
Jim Clarke
Mar 15, 2016

California is densely packed with craft breweries, as is Oregon, to the north, and Washington, more northerly still…the whole West Coast of the U.S., really. As it happens, those three states also make up most of the U.S.A.'s wine industry (the other major wine-producing state being New York, actually). Are wine and beer competing? Perhaps a bit; but the notion that they're cooperating would be more like it.

Napa Valley Boot Camp
Jim Clarke
Jan 26, 2016

When did the term 'Boot Camp' take on a positive connotation? In most contexts it sounds like a slog, at best, and one that involves a lot of sweat and work. I'm not adverse to some exercise, but it doesn't sound like my sort of thing. But an invitation to join a group of New York sommeliers for a trip to Napa Valley was not to be turned down, despite the name: The Napa Valley Boot Camp. I was one of the few writers invited; the rest were mostly sommeliers. Having been part of that community not long ago, I expected to see a lot of familiar faces. Given the attitude most of New York City's have about New World wines, about Napa in particular, about ripeness, and about already-famous grape varieties, I was excited not just to taste and learn myself, but to see how these sommeliers reacted to the experience.

Exemplary Patience: Pre-Aged Wines from Rioja
Jim Clarke
Dec 15, 2015

According to researchers, the vast majority of wine sold in the U.S.A. -- 95% or more -- is consumed within 48 hours of purchase. This is fine for a great many wines; only a tiny percentage of wines actually benefit from aging anyhow. However, many of those that do are classics, or come from our most highly regarded regions. Many of these are nonetheless subject to the 48-hour rule, and wineries have adapted their winemaking accordingly, fashioning wines that show more generosity and riper tannins. But few do what Rioja does, despite the fact that it's the simplest answer to the problem: Age the wines longer at the winery before selling them.

Talking Turkey
Jim Clarke
Oct 27, 2015

It's that time of year when wine columns everywhere start talking turkey. What to pair with it, the challenges of the Thanksgiving dinner, and so forth. But (and read this in the voice of Peter Segal from public radio's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me if you can) we've invited you hear to talk about wines from Turkey instead. We've got three things to tell you about Turkish wines; if two out of three catch your interest, you should track down some of these wines. Given its geographical location, it should be no surprise that Turkey makes wine. The entirety of Asia Minor was pretty thoroughly Hellenized; if wine wasn't being made there before the Greeks got to it, it certainly was afterward. However, that hasn't made Turkey a home for the Greek grape varieties we know today. Instead, what varieties would you expect to find there?

Secondary Varieties
Jim Clarke
Sep 1, 2015

First impressions last, and chances are, your first impression of Argentine wine involved Malbec. New Zealand? Sauvignon Blanc. These and other countries have ridden their signature varieties to success in the U.S. market (and elsewhere), but they aren't one-trick ponies, and are worried about being perceived as such. If Malbec's popularity fades, will interest in Argentine wine go with it?

Can VinExpo Keep Pace?
Jim Clarke
Jul 7, 2015

What wine fan wouldn't want to visit Bordeaux? But would you go there to taste wines from Georgia? Or Napa? Or (perhaps strangest of all) Burgundy? But that's exactly what happens at VinExpo, the world's longest running international wine trade fair, attended this year by almost 50,000 people. Taking place in Bordeaux every two years in June (and alternate years in Hong Kong), this year's expo was the first under a new management team. For a little inside baseball, here's a look at what the show--and the show's attendees--seemed to think was important this year.

Bordeaux Knocks…Who Answers?
Jim Clarke
May 12, 2015

For many wine-drinking Americans, even many in the trade, Bordeaux is now something more read about than actually consumed. We read about amazing prices, about the Chinese thirst for these wines, about how that drove up prices, about the fickle Chinese consumer turning elsewhere, but prices not going down. I know there's a certain prestige in being the most expensive product in a category, but it's not really an effective springboard for marketing efforts. Bordeaux = high prices is the main message that gets out, and it seems to hurt as least as much as it helps. The wines, by and large, are good, certainly, and many are great. I do know people who drink Bordeaux, of course, and do so myself on occasion -- but preferably on someone else's dime. Typically that 'someone else' is my parents' age or older, and ideally, has reached the point where they realize there's no way they can consume all the Classified Growths in their cellars so they're eager to share. There are exceptions, but not many, and they tend to be in the wine trade.

The Remarkable Range of Wine Descriptors
Jim Clarke
Mar 24, 2015

'Cat's pee on a gooseberry bush' sounds less than appealing, but it's a cliché description for Sauvignon Blanc, even among people who've never tasted a gooseberry (the smell of cat's pee being more ubiquitous). I learned a more personal grape-aroma association from Greg Harrington, MS, when he was the Corporate Beverage Director at BR Guest Restaurants in New York; he described red Bandol, from Provence, as smelling 'like the burnt ends of a grandmother's pot roast.' He also said Viognier often smells like Fruit Loops. These associations may seem far-fetched, but at the time, they helped Greg pass the blind-tasting portion of the Master Sommelier exam.

Hungary Beyond Tokaji
Jim Clarke
Feb 10, 2015

Outside of Western Europe, many wine-producing countries are often stereotyped by one type of wine: New Zealand by Sauvignon Blanc; Argentina by Malbec…and so forth. It's a sign of maturity, in the market and in the wine regions themselves, when we start recognizing individual regions of a country and their distinctive character -- Marlborough, Central Otago, and Hawkes Bay, or Marlborough Pinot Noir instead of Sauvignon Blanc, to use New Zealand as an example. I say 'outside of Western Europe' advisedly, because as Eastern Europe's wine-producing countries turn toward the American market I think we may start to see the same thing happening. When we do, I think it will happen for Hungary first.

Differing Shades of Sangiovese
Jim Clarke
Dec 9, 2014

I worked as the Wine Director at the Armani Ristorante in New York for about two years, and one of the pleasures I looked forward to when I took the job was the chance to dive deeper into Italian wines. They made up 70-75% of the list there once I had revised it; previously I had worked with a list that reached broadly into any number of countries, New World and Old. I expected to enjoy exploring the country's wealth of indigenous grape varieties, naturally, but as regards the major grapes, I looked forward to working with Nebbiolo much more than Sangiovese. That changed, and in the year or so since I left, it is the daily interaction with Sangiovese that I miss the most.

Whither Washington Whites?
Jim Clarke
Sep 30, 2014

Many regions receive more attention, in the form of press coverage and high scores, for their red wines than their whites. This seems particularly true for Washington state, despite the fact that the state's production is more-or-less evenly divided between the two. Even some of the state's producers don't seem too excited about white wine; several years ago I asked Master Sommelier Greg Harrington, proprietor of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, for some ideas on white wines to create a Washington whites section for my list at Megu...where I worked as sommelier…and he had no recommendations.