Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reliable Whites Part 2

On to the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) category.

Usually I find wines like this friendlier with more foods than the admittedly over maligned aforementioned variety.

Dry Creek Fume Blanc - The generally safe assumption that Fume Blanc from California has been aged in some oak is not accurate in this case. Robert Mondavi coined the term Fume Blanc for California Sauvignon Blanc that had been aged in oak; while there are some very solid versions of that style available, too many have lost their core Sauvignon nature and have become poor, pale interpretations of Chardonnay. Dave Stare planted the first Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County) in 1972 against the advice of many growers. His dedication and perseverance give us an amazingly intense and vibrant Sauvignon Blanc that perhaps confuses people because he adopted the accepted name at the time. This wine consistently wins oyster pairing competitions and is a favorite of people who want 'real' Sauvignon Blanc from the United States. Racy and full of citrus notes I have often surprised people by revealing this wine's country of origin. $11-$13.

Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc - The first New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to impress me, this wine continues to be a fantastic example of the style. It never hits the overly intense grapefruit aromas/flavors that make so many New Zealand Sauv Blancs both famous and difficult to pair with food. Here, I find more moderate citrus notes and even some tropical notes of melon and passion fruit. It is a solid example without some of the extremes that can be a bit overwhelming on the palate and at the table. This is the most expensive wine I have recommended in the 'Reliable' posts, but it is worth it if you are a Sauvignon Blanc fan. Importer - Negociants USA, $12 (a ridiculous deal, don't count on this price) - $17.

In the interest of full disclosure, I do currently sell the Negociants portfolio, although that relationship will cease before year's end as I leave my current employer to explore new options. I have been excited about the Nautilus since early on in my wine career though. I also sell the Oxford Landing wines, but was concerned about needing to sell them until I tasted the full line.

Oxford Landing Sauvignon Blanc - I have NEVER tasted an Australian Sauvignon Blanc as fresh and bright at this price point. Quite fantastic actually, this wine is aged in all stainless steel and offers the classic citrus notes we all look for in Sauvignon Blanc. The fact that it is priced so attractively and is so reliable (three vintages for me) is, frankly, awe inspiring. 'nuff said. Negociants USA, $7-$9.

Oxford Landing Viognier - Okay, I hear you, this guy's a shill. There is nothing better than finding a winery that consistently produces wonderful wines, it is the entire premise of these 'Reliable' posts. I will point out that I find their reds from Oxford Landing only correct, not exciting. The whites though, are in a class by themselves! Luisa Rose is simply the best winemaker I have ever seen with the finicky variety of Viognier. This grape goes from 'just right' to 'too late' in a matter of hours. She has been well awarded for her work with the variety and justifiably so. When done properly it is full of honeysuckle, peaches, apricots and pairs beautifully with spicy seafood and Thai food. Having been lucky enough to meet her and taste her wines, I will remain a devoted follower. Bravo, bravo! Imported by Negociants USA, $7-$9. On a somewhat related note, experiment with any Yalumba Viognier you come across as well. A tasting of the full line will be featured here at some point

Sorry, no Riesling to be presented here as I find the vast majority that are widely distributed enough to be represented here are much too sweet and innocuous for me. so, if you must have Riesling I recommend looking for Mosel (a region) wines from Germany.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Reliable Whites Part 1

In the continuing quest to save you from damaging your palate while in unfamiliar environs, I now present white wines that are fairly ubiquitous but are actually tasty and reasonably priced.

Today, we'll deal with Chardonnay and I must disclose that I rarely, if ever, drink this variety at this price point. I find the great majority of them to be totally interchangeable, undistinguished, over-oaked and lacking acidity. So, these wines lean toward what I would describe as a cleaner style, which both makes my mouth happier and pairs better with food. If you want a big oaky Chardonnay, you can nearly close your eyes and grab one from California or Australia. If you're disappointed with the results, let me know; I might enjoy the wine.

Louis Latour - Chardonnay Ardeche and Grand Ardeche - The Latour family has grown grapes since the 17th century. That long history has lead to a well deserved reputation of excellence. Although I am not a big fan of their reds generally, the whites are outstanding. These two offerings come from the Ardeche region, well south of Burgundy. Grapes from within Burgundy proper, the Cote d'Or, are relatively expensive and they could never use that source to produce wines at these prices. The regular Ardeche, in a fat, green bottle, is aged in stainless steel only and this creates a wine that can be a bit light for Chardonnay fans, but works beautifully with lighter fish dishes and goat cheese. The Grand Ardeche is aged in oak, I believe all French, and has a nutty, buttery aroma and palate but retains enough acid to provide balance. It is much more the full throttle style of Chard, but with the expected French restraint. Various importers. Ardeche $7-$10, Grand Ardeche $10-$14.

Okay, I admit it, I am more than a bit of a Franco-phile, especially when discussing Chardonnay.

Here's another option...

Louis Jadot Macon Lugny - Another Burgundy producer, this wine comes from just north of the Beaujolais appellation well south of the Cote d'Or proper. The region, called the Maconnais, produces wonderful Chardonnay with plenty of vibrant and complex minerality from the limestone soils. The better known Pouilly-fuisse hails from this area, but carries a heftier price tag. Jadot's Macon-Lugny is vinified in stainless steel to preserve the bright fruitiness, although my recollection is that it does spend time in oak for a short period of time. The wines of the Maconnais are not big, broad shouldered Chardonnays, but they offer wonderful depth, complexity and intrigue for the price. Imported by Kobrand, $11-$14.

Oxford Landing Chardonnay - Mark the date...I am recommending an Australian Chardonnay that costs less than $10. It may never happen again. Too many inexpensive Aussie whites are over-oaked, lack acid and focus, while offering little more than the simplest of exotic fruit notes. Not so with Oxford Landing. I feel the need to share some technical information here both to shed light on why this wine works so well and to show the care the winery shows in making a wine that is incredibly inexpensive. Twenty percent of the wine was fermented with wild yeasts, which generally leads to more complexity on the nose and palate than using a specific cultured yeast. That portion then spends time on the lees after fermentation, adding richness and depth for the mid-palate especially. About ten percent undergoes malolactic fermentation which converts malic acid, like that in green apples, to lactic acid, like that in milk. Lower percentage of malolactic fermentation retains more fresh acidity, something I find lacking in too many Aussie whites. Additionally, some portion of a reserve wine from the previous vintage is added to the wine which adds more excitement to this nearly miraculous bargain. Melon, hints of peach, some creamy, buttery notes and an undeniable gulpability make this a great choice for dedicated Chardonnay lovers but I also found at recent tastings that even non-Chardonnay people found pleasure here. Imported by Negociants USA, $7-9.

The next post will wrap up the whites and move us into some bubbles.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reliable Reds Part 2

Here are a few more wines that can satisfy at any time, especially when faced with a potentially poor selection of mass produced plonk.

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais - Any of their wonderful array of Beaujolais will make you happy, but you're most likely to see the Villages version. The designation, a step up from the introductory level Beaujolais, is made from Gamay, the red grape of the appellation. The grape offers bright red, juicy fruits with lively acidity and some floral notes, on the nose especially. Too many people associate Beaujolais with Nouveau, an unfortunate connection. (More on Nouveau as the season gets closer). 'Real' Beaujolais is much drier, although certainly fruity, and more complex. Pair with fish, lighter cheese, chicken or just have a glass. If it is warm outside, feel free to drop this in a bucket of ice for a few minutes, or a fridge for 25 or 30 minutes. Find it for $9-$11, imported by W.J.Deutsch & Sons.

Bogle Petite Sirah - The confusingly named Petite Sirah (sometimes spelled Syrah) is not 'little Syrah'; it is, in fact, a nearly unknown grape called Durif that came from the south of France to California. The grape bunches look a lot like Syrah, but smaller, no doubt how the name began. Generally darker and more tannic than Syrah the wine often lacks finesse, and the hallmark peppery notes of Syrah, but makes up for it with a power and depth that often entrances. Bogle has been one of the best known producers of this grape for well over a decade (they first produced it in 1978). Their version is not as massive or intense as some more expensive versions but still offers concentration, big fruit and more accessibility in the short term. Although the tech sheet does not discuss the oak treatment, it clearly sees time in wood and some of it is no doubt new. This wine wants red meat, red sauces and can stand up to rich sauces like BBQ. Recently I have seen this wine advertised for as little as $9 and as much as $13. It should be found in most places between $10 and $11.

Cycles Gladiator Syrah - Absolutely one of the most impressive wines in this category I have ever encountered. Inexpensive, aged in a lot of new oak (not 100%), Central Coast appellation, eye-catching label - all signs point to me not caring at all about this wine, but I am consistently impressed by the wine. The label features a nude woman seemingly flying by holding onto the handlebars of a bicycle, a poster from the Belle Epoque era advertising a bicycle, called the Cycles Gladiator. There is some Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon blended with the Syrah. Juicy, lush but not to the point of flabbiness, often a flaw of wines in this price range, the wine is all about hedonistic pleasure for the palate. A great glass of wine, it also works well with the same food as Bogle but can expand to chicken and pork due to its brighter acidity and lower tannins. $8-$10 retail.

The next two entries will offer some white wines that can offer safe haven for your taste buds when in strange environs.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Reliable Reds

We've all been there. You're travelling and you need to locate a decent bottle of wine in a tiny convenience store or grocery. Or you find yourself in a chain restaurant with the same desire, but are faced with a generic, corporate wine list. What should you do? Sure, there's always beer, but generally those options are similarly uninspired. Mixed drinks rarely go well with anything beyond snacks. So, water it is. Go ahead, nothing wrong with water, but there are wines that sometimes appear in these places that are actually worth drinking even though there are precious few of them. These are wines I will also drink willingly from time to time and in some cases have even bought by the case.

In no particular order, here are some of the reds :

La Vieille Ferme Rouge - The winery is run by the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel (my favorite Chateauneuf du Pape producer) fame. The red comes from a region east of the more famous Cotes du Rhone appellation and offers a very similar style for a lower price. The grapes allowed are the same and the wines are almost always predominantly Grenache, just like most Cotes du Rhones. Red fruits dominate, little or no oak is noticeable and there is usually a pepper note, more or less pronounced depending on vintage. A versatile wine, this will pair well with anything from chicken to steak. Heavy sauces, especially BBQ, will overwhlem this wine. The easy access screwcap closure will be a welcome relief if you're travelling and some airport screener is now the proud owner of your corkscrew. Retail cost approx. $8, imported by Vineyard Brands.

Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Cetamura - From a venerable Tuscan estate that recently converted to organic farming, comes this very well made, traditional Chianti. A small percentage of Canaiolo is added to the Sangiovese to produce their entry level wine. Canaiolo is mostly used for color but is one of the traditional grapes that is no longer needed for a wine to be labeled Chianti. Cetamura is a lovely, consistent wine with the classic Sangiovese cherry fruit and plenty of fresh, food-friendly acidity. To my recollection this wine used to spend some minimal time in old oak, but the current release apparently is aged only in stainless steel and bottle. Either way, the purity of the fruit is unburdened by wood influence and will pair with any red sauce dishes as well as hamburgers, pork chops and harder cheeses. Ignore the drawing on the new label that looks like a crude sketch from a Children of the Corn storyboard. Price varies, but expect to pay $9-$11 retail, imported by Dalla Terra.

Di Majo Norante Sangiovese - From Molise in the southern half of Italy, this wine is 100% Sangiovese. A warmer region than Tuscany helps to produced a more deeply colored and slightly bigger fruited red wine. The acidity is less pronounced and the wine is a bit softer and more crowd pleasing than the Cetamura, due at least in part to six months spent in oak. Still works with red sauces, but opens up to creamy sauces, grilled meats and is fun to drink without food. The label is distinct and memorable. St. Christopher slaying a dragon is unmistakable although I have no idea what it has to do with Sangiovese...perhaps it pairs well with grilled dragon? Find it for $8-$10, imported by Winebow.

The next post will bring three more red options and then we'll take a look at some whites.