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December 25, 2012

It's All About the Bubbles

Tis the season to raise a glass of bubbly and toast the dawn of a new year, a ritual that can be as simple or as extravagant as you like. Whether your beverage of choice is a modest Prosecco from Italy or an expensive tetes de cuvee Champagne, on New Year’s Eve it’s all about the bubbles.
For me and mine, this year we plan to ring in the New Year with extravagant simplicity. That means a roaring fire, grilled lobster tails with mayonnaise, and a fine sparkling wine.

Once upon a time calling for a fine sparkling wine meant popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne. For many wine enthusiasts that remains a truism, but in reality other wine producing regions in France and around the world now make bubbly that can compete with Champagne at virtually every level.

I offer a few suggestions from California and Italy in this week’s tasting notes, as well as a classic tetes de cuvee Champagne from Charles Heidsieck, the 1995 Blanc des Millenaires, which I’ve bestowed with one of those rare 100-point ratings.

The sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region are all made using the traditional Champagne technique of inducing a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. In the United States producers generally call this methode champenoise. Metodo classico is the term used in Italy for the same technique.

The best Champagnes are typically aged anywhere from three to 10 years prior to the time they are disgorged (a process that removes the dead yeast cells that were used to induce the second fermentation) and placed under cork prior to being shipped to market. In recent years more New World producers have adopted the French passion for aging better bubbly, and the J Vineyards 2003 Late Disgorged Vintage Brut recommended this week is an excellent example of the result.

Sparkling wines that are aged longer generally exhibit more richness and complexity. They also are more rare and therefore tend to be more expensive.
Charles Heidsieck 1995 ‘Blanc des Millenaires’ Champagne Blanc de Blancs, France ($170)Rating: 100.

Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs Champagne, France ($110)Rating: 95.

J Vineyards 2003 Late Disgorged Vintage Brut ($90) –  Rating: 95.

J Vineyards 2005 Vintage Brut, Russian River Valley ($48)
Rating: 93.

Ferrari Brut Rose, Metodo Classico, Trento DOC, Italy ($37)
Rating: 92.

Mumm Napa 2007 Blanc de Bancs, Napa Valley ($38)
Rating: 88.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru & @WhitleyOnWine.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:17 AM

December 19, 2012

The Gift of Wine

 Creators Syndicate

I am frequently asked for specific wine recommendations to fit specific occasions. In matters of taste, answering with the appropriate wine is not always easy, for no two palates are exactly alike. You may well present someone a beautifully wrapped bottle of Chardonnay from a wonderful producer only to find out later the person you gifted only drinks red wine.

‘Tis the season, however, and no question shall go unanswered despite the degree of difficulty.
Whether you are taking a wine to a friend or colleague as a thank-you for hosting a holiday event, or simply giving someone a wine as a present because you know of their keen interest in the grape, there are a couple of things to keep in mind, at least for me.

First and foremost, I want to give a gift of extremely high quality without spending so much money it makes the person receiving the gift uncomfortable because they might not have spent an equivalent amount on your gift. Second, I often look for wines that are unusual and intriguing without being bizarre.

I have crafted a wish list that runs the gamut of prices from $14 to $95, with most of my suggestions falling somewhere in the middle. I also tried to have a little something for every taste, with both domestic and imported wines, and sparkling wines, too.

Narrowing the selections was the most difficult aspect of my assignment, for the world is afloat in wonderful wine. I could easily craft a new wish list tomorrow and replace each wine with another selection of equal appeal.

Should you find any of these suggestions to your liking as you do your holiday shopping, do not despair if you can’t find the specific recommended wine. Any competent wine merchant should be able to offer a comparable wine at a comparable price if the wine you desire is unavailable.
With that in mind, I’ve chosen wines that are in national distribution for the most part. And what you can’t find at your favorite wine shop, you should be able to locate online using WineSearcher.com.

Domestic Whites

Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc ($27, Napa Valley) consistently ranks among the finest Sauvignons produced in California. It has plenty of zip and no rough edges. Gifting this wine says you really know your stuff. Zocker Gruner Veltliner ($20, Edna Valley) is one of the hippest new wines from California’s Central Coast. It features bright acidity and minerality and it says you’re hip, too. Morgan Clendenen at Cold Heaven Cellars (Santa Barbara County) makes the most exciting Viognier in California because it has zing, which most domestic Viognier doesn’t. She produces several, ranging in price from $22 to $37, from various “cool climate” vineyard sites. Best way to purchase Cold Heaven is through the website at ColdHeavenCellars.com. The 2010 Migration Chardonnay ($30, Russian River Valley) and Joseph Phelps 2010 Freestone Vineyard Chardonnay ($35, Sonoma Coast) were among the finest Chards I tasted this year, and for Phelps the new vintage may be its best ever.

Domestic Reds

Best way to buy a fab Napa Valley red without spending $100 or more is to go for a Merlot from a top producer. For that I like the 2009 Cakebread Merlot ($54, Napa Valley). This vintage won a gold medal at the San Diego International Wine Competition, but I find it is superb virtually every vintage. But if you must have a Cabernet Sauvignon from a top-notch property, the best option for something special is the 2006 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon ($45, Napa Valley) that’s made from estate grapes farmed on the side of Spring Mountain, overlooking St. Helena. Proprietors Stu and Charlie Smith stubbornly refuse to raise their prices to compete in the status arena with their trendy neighbors. Gotta love how those Smith brothers think. But other Napa Cabs of comparable quality are going to cost a good deal more. If you have Pinot Noir on your mind, three top producers come to mine. Dutton Goldfield (Russian River Valley), Domaine Carneros (Carneros) and Alysian (Russian River Valley) all impressed me over the past year. All three produce numerous Pinots ranging in price from $45 to $60 and you won’t find a clunker in the group. Alysian is the sleeper of the group because it is so new, founded in 2007 by famed winemaker Gary Farrell. The Alysian Pinots, along with those from Calera in California’s Central Coast, are to my mind the most Burgundian in America.

Imported Whites

Burgundy negociant Joseph Drouhin has extensive holdings in the Chablis district, the coldest zone in the Burgundy region. Drouhin’s commitment to Chablis comes through in the wines, which are consistently superb. Chablis (100 percent Chardonnay) may not enjoy the exalted reputation of Burgundian whites from the Cote de Beaune, but the wines are just as good and therefore offer the greatest value. Drouhin Chablis ranges in price from about $20 for its simple Villages Chablis to around $70 for its Chablis from grand cru vineyards. Premier cru Chablis from Drouhin retails for between $30 and $45 per bottle, so there is a good range of pricing throughout the lineup. Both the 2009 and 2010 vintages were superb. No matter which wine fits your pocketbook, you can hardly go wrong. Pazo de Senorans 2011 Albarino ($25, Rias Baixas, Spain) should satisfy the urge for something exotic to gift. Pazo de Senorans is, in my humble opinion, the finest Albarino and has the unique capacity to improve with age (a rare trait for Albarino). Now if you want to gift something exotic and cheap, there’s almost nothing better than the 2010 Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina ($14, Campania, Italy). The packaging is very attractive, the wine is minerally and delicious, and it’s oh so easy on the wallet.

Imported Reds

Perhaps the best way to impress a genuine wine aficionado with a gift is to present a bottle of grand cru red Burgundy, because he or she will know that means rare and expensive. There is one exception, and that is the grand cru wine from the Corton vineyard in the Cote de Beaune. Corton is the largest grand cru vineyard in Burgundy and the only grand cru red vineyard in the Cote de Beaune. The most expensive grand cru wines in Burgundy hail from the Cote de Nuits. One of my favorites from Corton, and it’s relatively easy to find, is the 2010 Domaine Latour Corton Grand Cru ($54, Burgundy, France). This was a superb vintage, better even than the very good 2009. Now $54 isn’t exactly chump change, but for a grand cru red Burgundy it is dirt cheap. Or you could turn to Tuscany for a genuine collectible red such as the Castello Banfi 2007 Brunello di Montalcino ($50, Tuscany, Italy). This is a wine that will improve with age over the next ten years, and modestly priced for such a cellar-worthy Italian red.


If you really want to go out on the bubbly, but don’t want to spend more than $100, try a domestic tetes de cuvee. That’s the prestige wine from any sparkling wine house. A tetes de cuvee from Champagne will run close to $200 a bottle. One of the finest domestic versions is the 2006 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Le Reve Blanc de Blancs ($95 Carneros). It is refined and creamy, as seductive as domestic bubbly gets. For a more affordable sparkler but no less impressive, the 2004 Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee ($32, Carneros) is a splendid bubbly for the price, and this is a domestic sparkling wine that you could easily cellar for up to a decade or more. For those Francophiles on your gift list, the Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve ($65, Champagne, France) is a remarkably rich and complex non-vintage Champagne that was a gold medal winner at the Sommelier Challenge International Wine Competition in September. In a completely different style, the Ayala Brut Nature ($45, Champagne, France) is an elegant non-vintage Champagne that delivers firm structure and minerality. It was a platinum medal winner at the Critics Challenge in May.

Email comments to [email protected]. Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru & @WhitleyOnWine.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:43 AM

December 12, 2012

Holiday Wine Steals, Imports (Reds)

From my Creators Syndicate Wine Talk column, "Holiday Wine Steals, Imports."

These are the suggested red wines, all chosen from evaluations completed over the past year. Wines were selected for quality, price and availability. All are distributed nationally or easily available on the internet.

The reds:

Chateau L'Hospitalet 2009 Reserve La Clape, France ($20)
– This La Clare Reserve from L’Hospitalet is what's known as a GSM blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. It delivers rich, sensuous textures with supple tannins and layered blackberry and black raspberry fruit. La Clape is a small spit of land that juts into the Mediterranean (eons ago it was once an island unto itself) southeast of Narbonne in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. It was once a sub-appellation of the Coteaux du Languedoc, but last year was elevated to AOC Grand Cru status, a long overdue and well deserved promotion in vineyard rank. Chateau L'Hospitalet is the centerpiece of proprietor Gerard Bertrand's impressive wine empire that spans the entire Languedoc-Roussillon region. Rating: 91.

Natura 2010 Carmenere, Colchagua Valley, Chile ($11) – Carmenere, for those not familiar with this somewhat esoteric grape variety, was once common in the Bordeaux region of France, but was eventually abandoned because to thrive it needs more summer heat than Bordeaux typically provides. Chile, as it happened, had copious acres of Carmenere planted under the mistaken impression it was Merlot. But unlike true Merlot, the vines the Chileans thought were Merlot performed poorly in cooler regions and much better in warmer areas. DNA testing eventually outed the truth: What the Chileans thought was Merlot was actually Carmenere, and grown in the right areas it yields wines that are rich, robust and delicious. Rating: 91.

Banfi 2010 Centine Rosso, Toscana IGT, Italy ($12) – I’ve long been impressed by Centine Rosso, which I often call a “baby Super Tuscan.” The 2010 is a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. What’s most impressive is its structure. This is a well-proportioned red that has structure and depth not often seen in wines at this price. Banfi is most famous for its superb Brunello di Montalcino, but it was the success of Centine Rosso and Banfi’s delicious but inexpensive Chianti Classico that influenced me most when I named Banfi my Winery of the Year in 2011.The Castello Banfi Brunellos start at around $60 a bottle. They are wonderful wines that will age well, but if you want a delicious Italian red tonight and your budget is a factor, Centine Rosso is a tough act to beat. Rating: 91.

Dow's Vale do Bomfim 2009, Douro Valley, Portugal ($12) – One of my top candidates for greatest value in red wine this year is the blend from Vale do Bomfim, the primary quinta of the Dow Port house. The Douro region, long recognized for its sweet fortified red wines, has taken a serious turn in recent years toward dry red table wines. This most recent vintage of Vale do Bomfim from Dow is a typical blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Franca and Tinta Barroca. The 2009 exhibits palate weight and complexity that would be difficult to replicate in this price range. The fruit is fleshy and persistent, with notes of blueberry and blackberry, and the ample tannins are supple and smooth. Accents of spice and leather further broaden the palate of aromas. Rating: 90.

Sartori di Verona 2007 Valpolicella Classico Superiore, Veneto, Italy ($15) – Valpolicella was the Italian red wine of my youth. It was a wine of very little color, or character, and in austere vintages the acidity would burn your tongue. It's still cheap, but somewhere along the way Valpolicella came of age. It is now a serious wine for those of you who love good wine that marries beautifully with food. Actually, the renaissance began when producers in this region of northern Italy decided to divert some of their finest Corvina grapes, which had been used primarily to make sturdy Amarone, to the production of Valpolicella. Almost overnight a wonderful transformation took place. The 2007 Sartori di Verona Valpolicella still sports fresh acidty, but with a fair amount of meat on those bones in the form of fleshy red fruit. The '07 is big enough and rich enough to stand up to grilled red meats, and exhibits enough elegance and character to also serve with fine cheeses. Rating: 90.

Peter Lehmann 2010 Shiraz Cabernet Art Series, South Australia ($13)
– The Art Series wines from Peter Lehmann might imply a price premium, but the designation speaks to me more about value. The wines are relatively inexpensive, but have more oomph and complexity than most at the price point. The Shiraz Cab blend offers good intensity with aromas of blackberry and black cherry. It is nicely structured, with enough tannin and acid to provide a good foil for a variety of savory foods. Rating: 89.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:53 AM

December 8, 2012

Holiday Wine Steals, Imports (Whites)

In my Creators Syndicate "Wine Talk" column this week I suggested a mixed case of value imports for the holidays. All of the wines selected are priced in the sweet spot between $10 and $20 and have been evaluated by yours truly over the past year.

Today I give you the value whites:

Pikorua 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($15) – A deserving winner as best of show white wine at the San Diego International Wine Competition, the Pikorua is only now being introduced to U.S. wine markets.  This huge victory in a major U.S. wine competition was accomplished with a stylish blend of richness and pungency, which all of the finest New Zealand Sauvignons have. Rating: 93.

Villa Maria 2011 Sauvignon Blanc 'Cellar Selection,' Marlborough, New Zealand ($20) – This exceptional producer is celebrated for its success with sauvignon blanc, New Zealand's signature wine grape, and there is no better example than this latest release. The Cellar Selection Sauvignon delivers in two key areas of flavor that have made Kiwi sauvignon popular worldwide: the aromas of ripe gooseberry and pungent grapefruit. This vintage is well balanced, with mouth-watering acidity, and intense flavors and aromas that carry through a long, lingering finish. Rating: 92.

Royal Tokaji 2011 Furmint, Hungary ($16) – Light and easy to drink, this Furmint is nevertheless remarkably complex, exhibiting nuances of brioche, honey, and wet stone complemented by fruit-driven aromas of gooseberry, citrus and green apple. Dry and crisp, this is a refreshing alternative for those craving a white wine that is both delicious and different. Rating: 92.

Jacob's Creek 2011 Riesling Dry Reserve, Barossa, Australia ($14) – Year in and year out this might be the finest wine made at Jacob’s Creek. A Platinum award winner at the 2012 Critics Challenge, it was my favorite of the dry Rieslings that advanced to the championship rounds. In the finals some judges thought it a little austere, but its flinty minerality and razor-like acidity is what I loved most. And I also know the history of this wine. It will age out beautifully, gaining flesh and complexity, and in eight years’ time be an extraordinary example of Barossa Riesling. Rating: 91.

Torres 2011 Vina Esmeralda, Catalunya, Spain ($16) – A light-bodied, clean and refreshing blend of Moscato and Gewurztraminer, Vina Esmeralda from Torres exhibits aromas of white flowers and honey, Vina Esmeralda suggests sweetness although its merely off-dry. This vintage exhibits notes of honeysuckle and citrus and delivers crisp acidity. A winner with tapas, including savory Spanish jamon Iberico. Rating: 88.

Bibi Graetz 2011 'Casamatta Bianco,' Toscana IGT, Italy ($13) – Although Tuscany is best known for its red wines, there is a fair amount of white wine, primarily Trebbiano and Vermentino. The Casamatta Bianco is a blend of the two, with a splash of Muscat. The result is a crisp and refreshing white that has both good acidity and decent richness and mouthfeel. This is a tangy wine with aromas of citrus and honeysuckle. Best served soon with light appetizers, mild cheeses or simply as an aperitif. Rating: 87.

Email comments to [email protected]. Follow Robert on Twitter @wineguru & @WhitleyOnWine.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:41 AM

December 4, 2012

Three Days in Paso Robles: Part II

In my last blog I described some of my favorite places to eat and sleep in Paso Robles.  This time I’d like to mention some of the compelling winery tasting rooms I visited when I was there last month.  There are many, many other Paso wineries worth a shout-out, but in this instance I am merely paying homage to the handful of estates I managed to get to during an all-too-brief two-day visit.  

Paso Robles’ AVA encompasses 26,000 acres of vines distributed over 600,000 acres.  Approximately 165 wineries are open to the public for tasting.  Among the wineries whose wines I sampled, in no particular order here are some that I especially liked.

Villa San-Juliette-6385 Cross Canyon Road, San Miguel
Created by celebrity icons Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick (of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance fame) San-Juliette is the region’s brand new premiere estate.  Thanks to the talents of winemaker Adam LaZarre, a star in his own right, San-Juliette turns out several excellent wines including Cabernet, Grenache and Malbec.  The showplace winery includes dazzling vistas and a handsome garden.

Peachy Canyon-1480 North Bethel Road, Templeton
 Sample Peachy Canyon’s iconic Zinfandels in the old Schoolhouse Tasting Room or at a picnic table out on the spacious lawn.

Caliza-2570 Anderson Road, Paso Robles
An all-red house specializing in fine Rhône style wines such as “Azmuth,” a beautiful Mourvedre/Syrah/Grenache blend.

Herman Story-1227 Paso Robles Street, Paso Robles
At this tiny downtown tasting room sample impressive, mostly full throttle wines including the terrific sumptuous and floral “Tomboy” (Roussanne/Viognier blend) and “On the Road,” a big, delicious, juicy 100% Grenache.  

Ancient Peaks-22720 El Camino Real, Santa Margarita
Visiting this vast estate is like stepping into an enchanting time warp.  With its 14,000 acres of rolling ranch land and 1000 acres of vineyards (situated a mere 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean) this is a peaceful, untrammeled place that seems not much changed since Franciscan missionaries planted vines here in the 1780s.  One way to get a great view of the landscape is to sign up for a zip line tour of the estate  (contact Margarita Adventures, Tel.  805 438-3120).  The excellent wines include a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, an aromatic and fruity Merlot, a dense and layered Cab, and a couple of fine red blends.

To avoid drinking and driving, I used the services of the Wine Wrangler (Tel 866 238-6400).  These knowledgeable folks can help set up winery visits and tours.  They’ll even take you to Hearst Castle, which also has a winery and is only a 45 minute drive from Paso. 

Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 8:27 PM