The Curse and Mystery Of The Top 100 Wine Lists

December 5, 2019 4 comments

Lists and numbers – who doesn’t like that? We, humans, are all about lists, we like to sort things out – to-do lists, shopping lists, “best” lists, “best of the best ” lists, Top 10 lists, Top 100 lists. No area of people’s interest is immune to the lists – and of course, the world of wine is no exception – come to the end of the year, and you are guaranteed to see lists and lists of the lists, ranking wines, wineries, regions, winemakers, what have you.

I don’t know how much attention you are paying to the top wine lists. Talking about myself, I like to ponder at the Top 100 lists, especially the one produced by Wine Spectator – not because it is any better or different than the others, but simply because I had been a subscriber for a long time, and it formed more into a habit. My main interest is to see what wines can I recognize, and then to play with the data a bit – countries, prices, grapes. I’m a number junkie. It is always fun to organize numbers in a few different ways, no matter if it means anything or not, and so the Top 100 lists present a good opportunity to conduct such a “research”.

Before we delve into the numbers, let’s talk about the Mystery. What is mysterious about the top 100 wine lists? I would say most everything? How the wines are chosen? How wine #1  is decided? According to the information on the James Suckling web site, they select the top 100 wines out of the 25,000 wines tasted throughout the year. How do decide on 100 out of 25,000? Do you run a separate list of potential candidates throughout the year, or do you sit down at the end of the year and try honestly recall the most memorable wines of the year? What role the ratings play?

Here is what Wine Spectator says on the subject: “Each year, Wine Spectator editors survey the wines reviewed over the previous 12 months and select our Top 100, based on quality, value, availability and excitement”. I like the “excitement” part, this is how I decide on my top dozen wine of the year. The other two publications I studied with Top 100 lists don’t talk about their methodology, they just talk about the content of their lists.

So here are some stats we can gain from looking into the details of the Top 100 lists.

Wine Spectator:

Wine Spectator offers two lists – the regular Top 100 Wine and Top 100 Value Wines, which includes wines priced under $25 (you can find all the lists here). I didn’t spend time with the top value list, so all the numbers below are related to the Top 100 list:

  • Distribution by country: France – 23, California – 22, Italy – 21, Spain – 7, Australia and Oregon – 5 each, Chile and Portugal – 3 each, Austria, Germany, New Zealand, and Washington – 2each, Argentina, Israel, and South Africa – 1 each
  • Distribution by the wine type – 74 reds, 21 whites, 1 Rosé, and 4 Sparkling.
  • Prices – most expensive – $197, least expensive – $13. 14 wines are priced above $100, 13 wines are in the $75 – $99 range, 11 wines are in the $50 to $74 range, 27 wines are priced in the $25 – $49 range, and 35 wines are in the $13 – $25 range.
  • Ratings: the top score is 98, the lowest is 90. There is only one wine on the list with a rating of 98, 6 wines have a rating of 97. The ratings of 96, 95 and 94 are assigned to 14 wines each. 11 wines have a rating of 93, 10 wines each have ratings of 92 and 91, and 20 wines have a rating of 90.
  • Wine Spectator’s top wine of the year 2019 was 2016 Château Léoville Barton St.-Julien with a rating of 97 and priced at $98.

Wine Enthusiast:

Wine Enthusiast produces not one, but 3 Top Wine lists – Top 100 Wines, Top 100 Best Buys, and Top 100 Cellar Selections – these links will allow you to retrieve PDFs for each list. General notes on Wine Enthusiast site say that more than 24,000 wines are tasted during the year and afterwards condensed into the 3 Top Wine lists. Note that Wine Enthusiast Best Buys list covers only wines under $15. Focusing on the Top 100, I did a limited analysis, using the data already provided in the PDF file:

  • Distribution by country: California – 18, Italy – 17, France – 16, Australia, Oregon and Spain – 5 each, Argentina, Chile, Portugal and Washington – 4 each, Austria and Germany – 3 each, NY State and South Africa – 2 each, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Uruguay and Virginia – 1 each
  • Prices – most expensive – $114, least expensive – $16. Only one wine is priced above $100, the majority of the wines are less than $50 with an average price of $33.
  • Ratings: the top score is 99, the lowest is 90. There is only one wine on the list with a rating of 99, 3 wines are rated at 98, 5 wines have a rating of 97, 8 wines are rated at 96. Most of the rated wines fall in the 91-93 range (55 wines)
  • Wine Enthusiast top wine of the year 2019 was NV Nino Franco Rustico Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore with a rating of 94 and priced at $20.

James Suckling:

This one is the most exclusive Top 100 club in a number of ways. First, you need to be a subscriber to see any wine details. Second, all the wines on the Top 100 list are rated 98-100 points. This is the only stats available from the James Suckling Top 100 Wines website: “We have 41 100-point wines in the list and another 35 with 99 points. The rest of the wines scored 98 points. All the wines were produced in quantities of 300 cases or more.”

Let’s leave James Suckling Top 100 list aside and talk about Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast lists. The makeup of both lists is quite similar when it comes to the countries – California, France, and Italy represent at least half of the Top 100 wines (2/3 in case of Wine Spectator list). Where the list differ quite a bit is in the pricing – 14 $100+ wines on the Wine Spectator list versus only 1 on the Wine Enthusiast. But the biggest difference to me is the Wine #1 – Grand Cru Classé versus Prosecco. Okay, call me a snob or whatever you want, but I’m really missing the point of the Wine Enthusiast choice. To my defense, I can only say one thing – I tasted this wine. Nino Franco Rustico is a nice Prosecco, and but it is really, really far away from the memorable, exciting wine. Here you go – another case of the wine list mystery.

I also wanted to talk about the “curse” of the Top 100 wine list, for sure when it comes to the one from the Wine Spectator. As soon as the wine makes it on that list, it instantly becomes unavailable. Adding to the mystery side, it is a mystery to me why an average wine consumer puts such a value on the Top 100 list nomination. But talking about availability, are we looking at the scalping phenomenon in the works? Buy bulk and resell for a quick buck? This is annoying, and it is a real problem for the wine retailers who can’t find enough of those top wines to offer them to consumers. It also gets worse every year – a friend of mine, who has a wine store in Stamford, was able to assemble about 40 Top 100 wines to offer to his customers last year – this year he will barely make it to 20.

There you have it my friends – a deeper look into the mystery (and curse) of the Top 100 wine lists. Do you pay attention to those? What do you think of this year’s top wines? Do you see any trends? Cheers!

Daily Glass: Pizza and Wine

December 2, 2019 3 comments

What do you think of pizza and wine – a perfect combo, right? Let’s talk about it.

On Friday, kids requested pizza. I’m generally not craving pizza (unless it is Frank Pepe White Clam), but I don’t object to it too much. Especially when I have two wine samples which should work well with pizza – Prosecco and Barbera.

The world loves sparkling wines, with consumption growing consistently year over year – you can find some interesting stats here. For the last few years, Prosecco bypassed Champagne as the world’s best selling sparkling wine in terms of volume – a bottle of Champagne is at least 3-4 times as expensive as Prosecco, so in terms of revenues, Champagne is still ahead. But let’s not get hung up on numbers.

Prosecco is made from the grape called Glera (the grape itself used to be called Prosecco, but it was renamed to make Prosecco a protected name, similar to Champagne). Prosecco is made using the method called Charmat (patented in 1907), where the second fermentation is taking place in the pressure-sealed tank as opposed to the bottle in Méthode Traditionnelle. Fermenting in the tank allows to significantly reduce the cost of the sparkling wine, as the whole process is a lot less labor-intense.

In 1919, Antonio Franco founded the Cantine Franco winery in Valdobbiadene in Northern Italy. In 1966, his son Giovanni (Nino) renamed the winery into Nino Franco di Franco Giovanni and went on producing white and red wines. In 1971, Nino’s son Primo, who studied enology, began working at the winery, focusing on sparkling wines – this was a pivotal moment, converting Nino Franco into the Prosecco powerhouse it is today.

Prosecco’s success is not given – it is a result of belief, hard work, obsession, and dedication. This year marks the 30 years since Prosecco first appeared on London markets, and it had not been even that long since its introduction in the USA (1992/1993) – all largely thanks to the efforts of people such as Primo Franco and Gianluca Bisol. Think about the success of this simple sparkling wine in just 30 years – it is definitely something to be proud of.

Before I share my tasting notes for Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG (11% ABV, SRP $19.00, 100% Glera), I want to mention that there are two occasions to celebrate as it relates to this wine. One is more general – it is the 100th anniversary of the Nino Franco wine company, a great achievement in itself. The second one is directly related to the wine, and it is even more impressive – Nino Franco Prosecco Rustico became the wine #1 on the Wine Enthusiast Top 100 wines of the year 2019. Wine Enthusiast folks review tens of thousands of wines every year – to snatch the top position of the 100 most impressive wines of the year is not an easy fit and serious accomplishment.

How was the wine? Upon opening and pouring into the glass, the wine first filled the glass (I was using standard Riedel wine glass, not the flute) with a foam – not just a little “hat”, but almost a full glass of foam. The nose had very expressive aromatics of apple, peach, and guava. The palate was fresh and crisp, with more of the apple notes, tiny bubbles, and good acidity. All-around a good Prosecco, definitely more voluptuous and assertive than many. (Drinkability: 7+/8-).

Okay, now it is the Barbera time. Barbera is one of the well known Italian grapes primarily growing in Piedmont. Barbera d’Asti or Barbera del Monferrato would be a perfect accompaniment for a pizza, but the Barbera we are talking about today hails from … Lodi in California.

I never get tired of expressing my love and admiration of the Lodi wine region in California. Lodi is uniquely un-Napa in most everything – from the winemaker attitudes and low-key wineries to the focus on the Mediterranean grape varieties. Lodi is often considered to be a land of Zinfandel, but truth be told, Tempranillo, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cinsault, Carignan, Albarino, Grenache Blanc are really running the show there. And Barbera, let’s not forget Barbera.

Barbera wines are clearly outshined in Piedmont by the famous siblings, Barolo and Barbaresco, both produced out of Nebbiolo grape. I was unable to find the fresher set of data, but at the beginning of the 21st century, Barbera was the third most planted grape in Italy after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Barbera grapes are naturally high in acidity, and it is acidity which often needs to be tamed when it comes to Barbera wines. Compared with the finicky Nebbiolo, Barbera does quite well in the new areas, so over the past 30 years, it spread through Australia, Argentina, California, Israel, Texas and other places where this grape was never known before.

Starting from 1860, the land where Oak Farm Vineyards is located was simply a farm in the Lodi region of California where the cattle were raised. In 2012, Dan Panella, third-generation California farmer, replanted 60 acres of the old vineyard on the property, and this was the beginning of the modern history of the Oak Farm Vineyards. There is a wide range of wines produced at the winery starting from California staples Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel to the hardcore Italian range of Fiano, Barbera, Primitivo, and Sangiovese.

It is 2017 Oak Farm Vineyards Barbera Lodi California (15% ABV, $25, mostly Barbera with a small percentage of Petite Sirah for color and structure, 20 months in French, American, and Caucus (24% new) oak barrels) that we are talking about today. In a word, the wine was superb – dark garnet color, intense nose of cherries and tobacco, and mind-boggling concentration and interplay of flavor in every sip – cherries, tar, tobacco, roasted meat, perfect balancing acidity and 100% delicious wine. (Drinkability: 8). I would greatly drink this wine again at any time – with or without the food.

Oh, I guess I promised you some pizza. Yes, there was cheese and bacon/mushroom/onion pizzas. I have to say that prosecco was rather ambivalent to either, but Barbera worked quite well with the combination pizza.

There you have it, my friends. Italy meets California and vice versa, in many ways. But the important part is two delicious wines which you should find and experience for yourself. Cheers!

 

Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé! 2019 Edition

November 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Traditions, Traditions, Traditions.

I’m not sure how much I care about Beaujolais Nouveau at this point, but – I need to keep the traditions. I’m not talking about the tradition of the Beaujolais Nouveau, an annual celebration of a new vintage in Beaujolais – this tradition has a life of its own and surely doesn’t care if I will uphold it or not. I’m now talking about the tradition of this very blog, where I didn’t skip writing about a single Beaujolais Nouveau release since this blog started (proof is here), hence this post is unavoidable. I’m all about traditions, and 2019 will not be an exception.

Every third Thursday in November is celebrated as a Beaujolais Nouveau Day. What was the local French phenomenon for a very long time, celebrating the end of the harvest with a young and simple wine, became an international movement, largely due to the efforts of Georges Duboeuf, French negociant. In France alone there are more than 120 celebrations related to the Beaujolais Nouveau. The most famous festival, called Les Sarmentelles, is held in the town of Beaujeu, the capital of the Beaujolais region. The festival starts one day before the third Thursday and lasts for 5 days.

Beaujolais Nouveau wine has its share of controversy. Many professionals and consumers alike dismiss the Beaujolais Nouveau wine as a gimmick, simply a marketing plot to sell something which is not supposed to be sold. I wouldn’t say that I’m buying the Beaujolais Nouveau wines by the case, but they are as mysterious as any other unopened bottle, and having a tradition in place helps undecisive wine geek at least to know what he will be drinking around third Thursday every November.

Beaujolais Nouveau 2019

How were the 2019 Beaujolais Nouveau wines? Let me offer you my tasting notes:

2019 Henry Fessy Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Vieilles Vignes (13.5% ABV, $12.99)
Dark ruby color
A hint of fresh raspberries, sage, lavender, more reminiscent of a regular Beaujolais
You can clearly perceive a young wine on the palate, but it doesn’t have characteristic Nouveau grapiness – zesty raspberries, crushed rock, nice herbal component, clean acidity, medium-plus finish
8-, an excellent effort – at this point, this is simply a young wine, not “just another Nouveau”. I bet this wine will age well past recommended 5 months. It would be interesting to taste it again in 3-4 years. And if this is any indication of the quality of the 2019 vintage, this is the one to look forward to.

2019 Georges Buboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau (13% ABV, $9.99)
Garnet color
Upon opening, the nose had the characteristic Nouveau freshly crushed berry medley, but after an hour or so, it morphed into a raspberry jam, a well-made raspberry jam
Ripe raspberries, good minerality, sage, a hint of eucalyptus, good acidity, good finish
8- after an hour of breathing in the open bottle, another perfectly drinkable wine which has little in common with Beaujolais Nouveau as it used to be

Color me impressed. I say every year that I’m impressed with the quality, and that the quality of Beaujolais Nouveau keeps improving. Yet I have to say again that this was the best Beaujolais Nouveau I ever tasted. Is that the 2019 vintage? Is that just global warming? Is that winemaker’s capability to arrive at better and better grapes before the crush? I don’t know – and if you do, please share your opinion. But first and foremost – try the Beaujolais Nouveau 2019 and say if you are impressed as I am.  Cheers!

Wine Discovery Pack

November 19, 2019 Leave a comment

My relatives, a young couple, are getting into the wine. In search of what they like, which they still have to determine, they are starting the process of discovery – taking notes, making records of what they like and don’t like – something which will definitely lead them to the right path.

I wanted to help them, so I decided to create a special wine set, which I called the Discovery Pack – 6 wines which can help the beginners to identify their preferences – yes, it takes a lot more than 6 wines to figure the wine world out, but still, it is a guided start as opposed to the pure trial and error.

While working on putting together a good learning set of wines, I came up with the following criteria to decide on what wines to include:

  • The wine should be reasonably priced, so I set the limit at $20 per bottle. Yes, you can find well drinkable wines under $10 – but finding such wines is quite difficult. Yes, I could go higher, but a lot of expensive young wines are simply not drinkable, they need to age, and besides, expensive wines might not be what the young family might be excited about.
  • The wines should be mainstream wines – there should be no problems finding these wines anywhere in the US. It doesn’t make sense to offer someone an amazing bottle of wine which will be impossible to find, as the idea is to help with finding the favorites, and then being able to buy the wines again with ease.
  • The wines should be representative of their region or styles. It is easily possible to find unique and amazing wines in any price range – however Bobal, Trepat, Teroldego, or Schiava, no matter how tasty, are hard to find and always a hit or miss exercise. Once you are a bona fide wine lover, you do as you pleased, but when you are just learning, missteps might have long term consequences – once someone decides “oh, I don’t like this type of wine”, it might take a very long (if ever) time to reverse that sentiment.

Okay, so the playing field is set. Let’s see how I managed to address my own requirements.

First, I decided that it will be all red wines set. A typical wine lover’s evolution is sweet – red – white – dessert, so red is a good starting point. There is some sort of uniformity between major red grapes, at least texturally – any whites will be all over the place (think of a range of expressions of Sauvignon Blanc: Sancerre – Italy – New Zealand – California – Chile). Red wines are easier to deal with. Secondly, I wanted to offer a trip around the world – not necessarily easy with only 6 bottles, but I tried.

My first selection was the easiest for me – Bogle Vineyards Petite Sirah California ($10-$12). This wine is a solid, you-can’t-go-wrong choice in the $9.99 – $11.99 price range. The recommendation here is not the style or the region so much as the particular wine. It typically has good amount of fruit, nicely restrained and perfectly drinkable upon pulling out the cork. Always a safe choice when in doubt; will work perfectly with a casual Friday dinner or a Saturday BBQ. On a wider scale, California Petitte Sirah is a good grape to be familiar with – yes, you can always find renditions that require long aging, such as Retro or Runquist, but on the other hand, you might get lucky with Turley or Quivira.

Wine #2 is another favorite which first and foremost represents itself – Original House Wine Red Blend ($9.99). The wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and other red grapes. In the older days, the wine was designated as Columbia Valley, Washington – now it seems to be saying just “American wine” on the website, however, the back label indicates Walla Walla, Washington. In any case, at around $9.99, this is an excellent wine – supple, fruity, bold – but not overboard. You can build upon this wine as it can be an introduction into the well-made blends, and it can be also a nice introduction into the Washington wines.

Wine #3 – Las Rocas Garnacha Catalayud Spain ($15). If you are familiar with this blog, you could easily predict that Spanish wine will be on the list – but you probably were expecting to see Rioja or Ribera del Duero wine. I went with Garnacha, known outside of Spain as Grenache because, in the under $20 price range, both Rioja and Ribera del Duero are hit and miss. Yes, I can find drinkable examples of Rioja under $20, but there are so many insipid Rioja wines in that price range that it will not do anyone any good. Garnacha is a much safer choice – there is a good level of consistency in this price range. Las Rocas Garnacha is a good example, with  a core of red fruit over the medium body. Easy to drink and at around $15, nobody needs to break the bank to enjoy another Monday night. This wine is selected to be more of a representative of style, grape, and the region, so you can continue trying a variety of Garnacha wines, maybe eventually graduating with Alto Moncayo Aquilon or even Clos Erasmus.

Wine #4 – Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone France ($15). There is absolutely no way France can be left outside of such a discovery portfolio. When it comes to France, the most obvious options are Bordeaux or Burgundy, however, Burgundy just doesn’t exist in under $20 price category, and Bordeaux will be extremely inconsistent. Besides, I wouldn’t recommend Bordeaux and Burgundy to the beginner wine drinkers. However, Cote du Rhone is an entirely different story. Cote du Rhone wines, which are typically a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (so-called GSM blend) in various proportions, are easy to drink. They are soft, simple, loaded with tasty cherries and plums smothered over medium body. Saint Cosme, which is a very good producer, simply represents the region here. Delas, M. Chapoutier, Guigal, Perrin, and many others offer reliable choices in the same price range. GSM blends can be found everywhere throughout the Rhone, so after you establish your palate with Cote du Rhone wines, you can graduate to Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and then slowly embrace the Northern Rhone.

Wine #5 – Ciacci Collosorbo Rosso di Montalcino Italy ($19.99). The Discovery pack must include Italian wine, isn’t it? Choosing one Italian wine based on the 3 criteria set here is very far from easy. To stay under $20, Chianti, Salice Salentino, Montepulciano represent far better options than most other Italian regions. However, Chianti and Montepulciano can be hit and miss, and with Salice Salentino you will be limited to 1-2 choices your wine store will offer – if you are lucky. The original plan was still to go with Cecchi Chianti Classico, highly recommended by John Fodera – however, the wine didn’t make it into the stock, so I decided to go with the so-called baby Brunello. Rosso di Montalcino as a category is well approachable, offering wines which are unmistakably Italian with all of the cherry, leather, and tobacco notes – and easy to drink while young, without the need to cellar them. I might be bending the rules on this wine just a bit because while I got it at $19.99 here in Stamford, it might be a bit more expensive in many places. Well, it should be possible to find Rosso di Montalcino wines under $20, so we are okay here. And then the Rosso offers a graduation pass to the Brunello di Montalcino, and then maybe a jump to the Super Tuscans.

Wine #6 – Alamos Malbec Selección Mendoza Argentina ($16.99). There were multiple contenders for the last spot in our discovery set – Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa. Australia, Chile, and South Africa don’t offer consistency in this price range, and while New Zealand reds can be available under $20, it really doesn’t offer much of the selection. I decided to go with Malbec, as it is usually something most of the beginners can appreciate, with its soft dark fruit and vanilla notes. There is also a level of consistency associated with Argentinian Malbec, and $15 – $20 range allows for the higher quality wines such as this Alamos Malbec Selección or Trapiche Broquel.

Here you go – my 6 wines discovery set. Now, I have a question for you, wine buffs, snobs, and aficionados – what would you offer for the beginner wine drinkers as a learning introduction into the world of wines, also based on the three principals I outlined? Don’t be shy – comment away! Cheers!

 

Trader Joe’s Wines: Combining Great and Value

November 15, 2019 5 comments

I travel for business (let’s get it straight – I actually like it). One of my small personal pleasures in such travel is exploring the local wine scene if time allows. I always check for the wineries close to my location (if I have a car, sometimes, those wineries don’t even have to be close). If I can’t find wineries, I’m happy to visit local stores, especially when they come with recommendations, as during my recent visit to Texas and discovering the Spec’s wine store.

When it comes to the wine stores, I have one which stands aside. It is not really a wine store, it is a grocery store that also sells wine. I’m not trying to be mysterious here, you already saw it in the title – yes, I’m talking about Trader Joe’s stores. Trader Joe’s stores can be found pretty much everywhere in the USA, and the store which is less than a mile from my house is considered best on the East Coast (you should see the line of cars trying to enter the parking lot Saturday morning, ohh). But – Trader Joe’s in Connecticut only sell beer, so I have to look for Trader Joe’s wines elsewhere, and this is where the travel comes handy.

What so special about Trader Joe’s wines? Glad you asked, as the answer is very simple – QPR, which stands for Quality Price Ratio. While Trader Joe’s sells some wines from the producers you would easily recognize, the absolute majority of the Trader Joe’s wines are so-called “private labels”. Trader Joe’s is working with producers all around the world to find very inexpensive wines, which also happen to be really tasty. I don’t know how it is possible to have consistently good tasting wines in the $4.99 – $9.99 range, but they actually manage to do it. Those wines might not blow your socks off (some might), but the wines are solid, well made, and yes, tasty. Here you can find an account of some of my past Trader Joe’s visits to check it for yourself. – the question “how do they do it” is always paramount in these explorations.

My visit to Trader Joe’s in Reno, Nevada gave me another round of excitement and envy. Magnums of French Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine and Prosecco for … wait for it … $12.99? How do they do it? No, I didn’t taste these two but based on my prior experience with Trader Joe’s wines, I can imagine that these will be decent  wines. I can continue this “how do they do it” theme for a long time, as the prices for most of the wines are just mind-boggling. Here is a glimpse of the shelves, see it for yourself:

Obvously there is a limit to how many wines I can taste during a short trip, so here is what I do. I set myself a limit, which is practically always at $20, to get as many wines as will attract my attention. I don’t believe I was ever been able to stay within this exact range, but I usually cut it pretty close. First of all, I select the wines by the label, but then I think if I want to try a Portuguese wine or a California wine more. There is no science to my decision process, it is more of a spur of the moment – but having a price limit set helps to make it more organized.

My selection this time consisted of 2 wines from France and 2 wines from Califonia – without having any intent for it to happen this way. I saw two very attractive labels for the California wines, and then Cote du Rhone white wine for $5.99 and French Rosé for $4.99 – there is absolutely no chance those would be good, right? Yes, I blew my budget by $4 to the grand total of $24 for 4 wines – do you expect any of those wines to be any good?

Here is a graphical account of my loot:

And here are the tasting notes:

2017 Phigment Red Wine Blend California (13.5% ABV, $5.99)
Concentrated Ruby
Dark fruit, mint, coffee, a touch of cassis
Fresh crunchy berries, sweet tobacco, baking spices, soft texture, good acidity. Characteristic Lodi touch of cinnamon. Long, pleasant finish.
7+, excellent QPR.

2018 Cellier des Vignes Prestige Côtes DI Rhône AOC (13% ABV, $5.99)
Light golden
Whitestone fruit, a touch of smoke, a hint of pineapple
Clean, fresh, good acidity, a touch of golden delicious apples and white plums, medium finish
8-, excellent, good by itself, should be even better with food

2018 Fleur de Treille Rosé Vin de France (12% ABV, $4.99, 55% Cinsault, 45% Grenache)
Onion peel pink
Strawberries on the nose, nice, clean
Strawberries on the palate, good concentration, good acidity, a nice presence of fruit, nice lemon notes on the finish
8-/8, outstanding QPR, an excellent wine. Really impressive.

NV Gambler’s Flash Red Table Wine Paso Robles ( 13.9% ABV, $6.99, a blend of grapes from 2 vintages)
Dark Garnet, practically black
Serious gunflint, a touch of funk, tart cherries, sage, pleasant
Wow, dark fruit, smoke, touch of coffee, medium-plus body, sweet cherries undertones, perfect balance
8-/8, this is a lot of wine for the money! Great QPR, easy to drink, lots of pleasure, just wow
Definitely an 8 on the second day.

I don’t know how it is possible. 4 out 4 are nicely drinking wines. I would buy either one of them again in the instant – it would be perfect with or without a meal, with a friend and without a friend, these are just good wines at good prices.

Three out of four are a bit of a mystery in terms of grape composition. I would only take a guess on Gambler’s Flash to say that in my opinion, Grenache or Malbec should be a part of the blend – just a guess, don’t think I will ever know if this was correct.

But what I know for sure is that Trader Joe’s did it again – 4 wines, 4 outstanding values, and one happy wine lover.

Have you recently discovered any Trader Joe’s gems on your own? Cheers!

It Might Be Gone Already

November 13, 2019 10 comments

Oenophiles are strange creatures. We love wine and derive out of it a tremendous amount of happiness, joy, and pleasure. We are also somewhat of a masochistic type. We like to torture ourselves around our beloved beverage. We can spend a lot of time trying to select a bottle of wine for a Monday night – multiply that by 10 if we are talking even about a casual Friday night. We need to take into account everything – the mood, the weather, who are we sharing the wine with, and on, and on.

One of the biggest problems we are always trying to solve is called “is it the time”. Yes, we know that it is a gamble. There is no science to know when the wine is ready to drink. And as we always like to enjoy the wine at its peak, we can take forever to decide on that right moment. And this is where the danger lurks – instead of getting the wine at its peak, we might be facing the wine which is … gone.

There are two types of special bottles we, oenophiles, get nervous around. There are those which we are trying to age to precisely hit the bullseye, the “oh my god” moment when tasting wine at its peak. The second type are those wines which we call “special”. “Special” is personal – a single bottle which reminds us of a wonderful trip or a moment in life, a special present from a dear friend, a super-rare or a super-expensive bottle we want to hold on to for as long as possible. Sometimes, this can be one and the same bottle which hits both characteristics. For the second type of “special” bottles there is the OTBN – ”Open That Bottle Night”, an event celebrated on the last Saturday in February, invented to help people to part with those special bottles. For the bottles we are waiting to become perfect… well, it might be the same OTBN, or maybe we just need to convince ourselves that “the time is now”.

This is what we decided to do, setting the theme for our wine dinner as “It might be gone already”. Usually, we set the rules for our tastings – what wines, what regions, what price ranges, etc. But for this dinner there were no rules – whatever anyone wants to have open, whatever the reason is to believe that the wine might be past prime (or not) – everything goes.

We managed to assemble a lot more wines than we were able to drink, so many of the wonderful bottles will have to wait until the next occasion. However, we still did great, finding lots of great surprises and enjoying the program very much. Here is my account of our tasting.

We started from a very simple wine – 2007 Saint-Hilaire Brut Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling wine from the Languedoc, from the winery which claims that they were the first to make the Methodé Traditionelle wines, before Champagne ever saw a first bubble in the bottle. This is one of my most favorite sparkling wines – it is inexpensive ($12.99 or so), and tasty. But – 12 years old? That sounds like a little much for a wine like that. Nevertheless, it was perfect – still fresh, still a good amount of bubbles, a touch of yeast – a perfect start for our evening.

We continued our bubbly explorations with something of a truly next level – 1990 Dom Ruinart Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Another perfect encounter – crisp, focused, a good amount of yeast and toasted bread – an outstanding vintage Champagne without a sign of age.

Italy is better known in the world as the source of great red wines. However, Italian whites shouldn’t be ignored. Jermann makes some of the very best Italian white wines, and these wines are unquestionably a world class. Vintage Tunina is a flagship wine, made out of a field blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and a small percentage of a local sweet grape. According to the notes on the Jermann website, Vintage Tunina can age for 7–8 years, 10 in the exceptional vintages. This 2006 Jermann Vintage Tunina Venezia Giulia IGT was 13 years old, and in a word, it was superb. Bright, vibrant, whitestone fruit and a touch of honey, medium+ body – an outstanding wine.

Our next white was 2007 Château St Jean Chardonnay Reserve Sonoma County – it was not as impressive as Vintage Tunina, but still was not over the hill, with a good amount of white apple, a touch of butter, and good acidity. I never had this wine before, and understand from the people who did that the wine was starting its journey down the hill, but it was still quite enjoyable.

I was trying to convince my friends that our next wine was not ready to be opened – 2011 Antica Terra Erratica Rosé from Oregon. I had 2010 last year, and the wine was mind-blowing (ended up being wine #2 on my Top Wines list of 2018). After being ostracized – “what are you talking about, it is 8 years old Rosé ?!?!” – I angrily pulled out the cork. 2011 was equally mind-blowing to the last year’s 2010. Pungent, lip-smacking, full of smoky cranberries and herbs, medium body – delicious. I don’t know for how long this wine can age, but I would definitely love to see it with at least another 5 years of age. Oh well…

Now, we are reaching practically a culmination point of the evening – 1966 Château Leoville Poyferré St. Julien. Well, it was conditionally the culmination point – when I received this bottle 2 years ago, the capsule showed a significant amount of wine stain, which is an indication of the wine potentially slowly sipping through the cork. But – it was 1966, so that alone deserves the utmost respect.

As we expected, the wine was past its prime. It had dark brown color in the glass – a color you expect to see on a well-aged tawny port, but not on Bordeaux at any age. The wine had the tasting profile of a nice hearty stew, but again, not the Bordeaux. To be entirely honest, I enjoyed a few sips of it (my friends refused it almost instantly), but this was definitely not the wine anyone should drink.

I’m not going in the right order, but let’s talk about maybe the biggest disappointment of the evening – 2010 Yves Boyer-Martinot Meursault-Perrier. 9 years old white Burgundy should be way too young to drink. But then the Meursault wines have a known issue – Premature Oxidation, or PremOx as it is often abbreviated. Fear of PremOx was a driving factor behind the decision to open this wine. Unfortunately, the fear was justified – kind of. The wine was not oxidized – but it was literally undrinkable. It showed a little sign of life at first, and we decided to decant it – however, it didn’t help. The wine showed very tired, some stewed plums, no vibrancy of any kind. Definitely not a good surprise.

Let’s get back to the red wines. Our next wine was 1978 Barbera. The label lost practically all of its color, so I don’t know who was the producer. But the bottle had been very important memorabilia – at the age of 9, our friend Stefano was helping to bottle that exact wine, so it clearly had a special meaning. The wine was still drinkable, had good acidity and some dark fruit. Not amazing, but well drinkable.

The next two red wines aptly compensated for all the misgivings of our tasting. 1997 Shafer Firebreak Napa Valley, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, was excellent. The core of the dark fruit and espresso, firm structure, excellent balance, the wine was alive and delicious. It is a pity that this wine is not produced anymore, as Shafer replaced all the plantings of Sangiovese with the other grapes – this was definitely a delicious wine.

And maybe for the biggest surprise of the evening, let me present to you 1995 Navarro Correas Coleccion Privada Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza. What, you never heard of this wine? Me too! Until our tasting that is. When originally acquired, the wine price was something under $10. So who would expect that 24 years old simple Argentinian Cab would age so beautifully? The wine was fresh, no sign of age, tart cherries on the nose, the same tart cherries, herbs and a touch of sweet oak on the palate – the wine was going and going. A tasty, totally unexpected, surprise.

We had to finish this tasting with a dessert wine, didn’t we? 1988 Franciscan Estate Johannisberg Riesling Napa Valley, as rare and precious as you can find, as this wine is simply not produced anymore. This wine was definitely at its peak – beautiful figs, honey, and a perfect dose of acidity – an excellent finish to our great tasting.

Let’s try to summarize our tasting. Out of 11 wines, 6 can be safely designated as an “amazing experience”. Three wines were “good”. Two wines were a flap. I would take it as a very respectful, and very successful outcome – I’m sure you can think of a lot more tastings with a much lesser degree of success and enjoyment.

Here you are, my friends. Feel free to copy the idea – if you have anything reminiscent of a cellar, I’m sure you got the bottles that might benefit from being open. Open now, before it is too late. Cheers!

Want To Learn More About German Wines? Join Snooth Virtual Tasting Tonight

November 13, 2019 1 comment

Ripe Riesling Grapes, as captured in Wikipedia

Do you like German wines? I’m sure you do, even if secretly or unbeknownst to oneself, as Germany is one of the oldest producers of some of the most delicious wines in the world.

Tonight, November 13, 2019, at 8:30 PM US Eastern time, you have an opportunity to learn about or expand your wine knowledge by joining virtual tasting on Snooth, called German Wines To Be Thankful For:

http://www.snooth.com/virtual-tasting/video/german-wines-to-be-thankful-for/

You can also follow German Wines USA on Twitter and Instagram:

 

You can use the #ThankfulForGermanWines hashtag to talk about the tasting.

 

There is a lot more to German wines than just Riesling – in the tasting tonight, you will be discussing Sekt, Sylvaner, Riesling, and Spätburgunder, which is a German name for the Pinot Noir.

 

Don’t miss it!

Let’s Talk Wine Labels

November 11, 2019 Leave a comment

How are you with the wine labels?

Speaking for myself, I love wine labels a lot more that I would even admit. Everybody knows that we eat with our eyes first – this is why good restaurants go out of their way to present their food in the best possible way.

The same is true for the wines – and I’m not talking about the wine in the glass. Let’s leave aside the situation when we are looking for a specific wine. You walk into the wine store and first and foremost you notice the wine labels. I don’t know how this works for you, but speaking strictly for myself, I can’t figure out what makes wine label attractive for me. It is more of magic. Some labels have an elaborate design, and my eye simply skips them. And then there are simple, very simple labels which solicit instant reaction “oh, this is so cool”. Magic.

It appears that the effect of the wine label goes much further than an instant determination of cool/not cool and the desire to quickly grab the bottle. The wine label design also creates expectations about taste, price, quality, and lots more. Don’t take this from me. Folks at Iron Design create product labels for living. They conducted market research, which you can read about here – and summarized all the results in the form of an infographic, one of my favorite ways of presenting the information. Bunch of numbers, facts, and pictures in compact and concise form – isn’t it fun?

For what it worth, the Iron Design team was very kind letting me share the infographic in this blog, which I’m happily presenting below. And for all of you, my friends, what do you think of the impact of the wine labels on your choices and expectations?

American Pleasures

November 7, 2019 2 comments

Yes, you read it right – we will be talking about American pleasures.

But don’t worry – this is still a wine blog. Yes, we will be talking about wine. And as the title suggests, we will be talking about wines made in the USA. As for the pleasures – this is what the wine is for. The wine should give you pleasure. If it does not, I don’t know what is the point of drinking it. For sure I don’t see it for myself – if I’m not enjoying the glass of wine, I’m not drinking it. It is the pleasure we, wine lovers, are after.

Lately, I had a number of samples of American wines sent to me. Mostly California wines, to be precise. And to my big surprise, I enjoyed all of them. I’m not implying that the wines I tasted were better than I expected, hence the surprise. While I pride myself with the willingness to try any and every wine, it doesn’t mean that I equally like any and every wine – I’m rather a picky (read: snobby?) wine taster. At a typical trade tasting, my “likeness” factor is about 1 out of 10 or so. And here, wine after wine, I kept telling myself “this is good!”, and then “wow, this is good too!”. Is my palate getting cursed or just old and tired? Maybe. But, as I still trust it and as I derived pleasure from every sip of these wines, I would like to share my excitement with you, hence this post, or rather, a series of posts. Let’s go.

First, let’s talk about the old. “Old” is a very respectful word here, as we will be talking about the winery which had been around for more than 40 years in Napa Valley. Back in 1976, Ron and Diane Miller purchased 105 acres vines on in Yountville, which is now known as Miller Ranch. Two years later, they acquired 226 acres in Stags Leap District, which was the vineyard called Silverado. Initially, the grapes were sold to the other wineries, until in 1981 the winery was built and the first harvest was crushed – the was the beginning of Silverado Vineyards as we know it. Today, Silverado Vineyards comprise 6 vineyards throughout Napa Valley, all Napa Green certified, which is an established standard for sustainable farming. Silverado Vineyards wines are exported to 25 countries and have won numerous accolades at a variety of competitions – and Silverado Vineyards garnered quite a few “winery of the year” titles along the years.

Two wines I tasted from Silverado Vineyards were Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé. I like California Sauvignon Blanc with a little restraint, not overly fruity, and with a good amount of grass and acidity – Honig Sauvignon Blanc and Mara White Grass would be two of my favorite examples. California Rosé is somewhat of a new category, still scarcely available in the stores on the East Coast – this is mostly wine club or winery tasting room category at the moment. Again, for the Rosé, restraint is a key – nobody needs to replicate Provençal Rosé in California, but the wine still should be light and balanced.

Silverado Vineyards perfectly delivered on both – here are my notes:

2018 Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc Yountville Napa Valley (13.9% ABV, $25)
Straw pale
Beautiful, classic CA Sauvignon Blanc – freshly cut grass, a touch of lemon, all nicely restrained. Nice minerality.
An interesting note of salinity, lemon, lemon zest, a touch of pink grapefruit, just an undertone with some bitterness. This is a multidimensional wine, with a good amount of complexity.
8-/8, a thought-provoking wine. Great with manchego cheese and Hungarian salami.

2018 Silverado Vineyards Sangiovese Rosato Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $25, 100% Sangiovese)
Light Pink
A touch of strawberries, light and elegant
Strawberries and lemon on the palate, elegant, balanced, good textural presence, very refreshing.
8, and excellent Rosé overall, with its own character. And I have to tell you – I’m duly impressed with Californian Sangiovese, for sure when it is made into a Rosé – seems to be a complete winner here.

Another wine I want to talk about here, is definitely from the “new” camp – only 5 years ago, Oceano winery was not even an idea. The winery has a great story, which you better read on the winery website. The story has everything – the love at first sight, the encounter with the seahorse, a wine label drawn on the napkin.

Oceano wines are made from the fruit coming from Spanish Springs Vineyard in San Luis Obispo – the vineyard which is closest to the Pacific Ocean not only in the Central Coast appellation but in entire California. Cool climate helps Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to mature slowly and to accumulate great flavor. Not only Spanish Springs Vineyard provides ideal conditions for the grapes, but it is also SIP (Sustainable in Practice) Certified vineyard, which is considered a higher status than Organic due to the stringent requirements throughout the whole process of winemaking up to the point of bottling of the wine.

I had an opportunity to taste the second release of Oceano Chardonnay, and was simply blown away:

2017 Oceano Chardonnay Spanish Springs Vineyard San Luis Obispo County (13.6% ABV, $38)
Light golden
Vanilla, a hint of honey
Vanilla, a touch of butter, hint of almonds, nice golden apple and brioche, let’s not forget the delicious, freshly baked brioche – with tons of acidity on the long finish, tons and tons of acidity.
9-, outstanding rendition of the Chardonnay, worked perfectly well with a variety of foods – beef roast from Trader Joe’s, Brie, Spanish Cheeses (Manchego and San Simone) – this was totally an unexpected surprise. If you are looking for a delicious and versatile Chardonnay, this might be the wine you are looking for. It might easily be a star of your Thanksgiving wine program.

Here you are, my friends. These wines delivered lots and lots of pleasure, and these are the wines worth seeking. We are done for today, but we are very far from done seeking more wine pleasures. To be continued…

Spanish Wines: Beyond The Reds

November 3, 2019 3 comments

Let me ask you something: if you hear the words “Spanish wine”, what is the first type of wine which comes to mind – red, white or Rosé? I’m a self-admitted Spanish wine aficionado, and I can honestly tell you that my first association will be “red”, then probably Rosé, and only then white (when it comes to Spain, your wine type choices are quite wide, as you got also Cava, Jerez, Málaga – but let’s not make it too complicated).

There is a good chance that your associations were the same – Spanish wine equals Red. I certainly started my Spanish wine love embrace from the Rioja, best known for its reds with Lopez de Heredia Viña Gravonia, one of the best white wines made in Spain, being rather a curiosity than a norm. It took me several years until I heard the name Albariño and tasted what is today probably best known Spanish white wine. And then, of course, let’s not forget about the Rosé revolution which took place around the world over the last 5 years or so – Spain gladly joined the movement with wonderful Rosé, or rather, Rosado renditions of Grenache and Tempranillo rapidly showing up over the Spanish wine map.

Let’s explore a bit a Spanish non-red wine scenery – as I like to say, have wine – will travel. First stop – Rueda, the wine region located almost in the middle of the country.

Rueda is a part of the Castilla y León region in Central Spain. History of winemaking in Castilla y León goes back to the 10th/11th centuries and closely associated with the arrival of Catholic monks, who started vine cultivation and winemaking. We can say that the modern part of winemaking history in Castilla y León started in 1980 with Rueda becoming the first local winemaking region to receive the status of D.O. which stands for Designation of Origin, the quality designation in Spanish wine.

The majority of Rueda vineyards are located at an altitude of 800m (2400 FT) and higher. Rueda is known for its extreme climate conditions, where diurnal temperature shift can reach 50 degrees during the day – which is actually good for the grapes, as it helps to concentrate flavors, sugars and acidity. White grape called Verdejo is typically associated with Rueda wines, even though Sauvignon Blanc wines can also be found coming out of Rueda.

I thought it would be appropriate to give you some fun facts about Rueda, taken from Ribera and Rueda wine website: ”

  • There are 32,500 acres of vineyards in Rueda, of which 28,800 acres are Verdejo.
  • The area has 69 wineries and is cultivated by over 1,500 growers.
  • To be “Rueda Verdejo”, wines must contain at least 85 percent Verdejo.
  • Verdejo is harvested at night to allow the grapes to cool from the scorching summer heat.
  • Verdejo was almost wiped out by Phylloxera in the late 19th century, but it was revived in the 1970s.”

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to taste a few of the Rueda wines offered as part of virtual tasting at Snooth (here is the link to the video recording of this session if you are interested in learning more). The tasting covered wines of Rueda and Ribera del Duero (I only tasted wines from Rueda), and Snooth had a great wine deal offering related to the tasting, which is, unfortunately, already sold out.

We had three of the Rueda Verdejo wines in the tasting, all three were 100% Verdejo, 100% delicious, and 100% great value.

Just to give you a brief summary: Marqués de Riscal is better known as one of the oldest wineries in Rioja. However, they were also one of the first commercial wineries in Rueda, opening the winery in 1972 and being a driving force behind 1980 DO Rueda designation. While Bodegas Menade might be a new kid on the block, with winery established in 2005, the family had been in grape growing business in Rueda for 6 generations, going back to 1820. The grapes used for the Menade Verdejo come from the organically farmed vines which are 80 to 100 years old. The last Verdejo comes from one of the personal favorites – Bodegas Shaya. Shaya Habis, an oaked rendition of the Verdejo, had been my favorite Verdejo wine for a long time. While working on this post it was fascinating (or shameful, depending on your take – I had been writing about Shaya wines for many years, only now finally doing some research) to learn that Bodegas Shaya was a project of Gil family, whose El Nido (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with the addition of Monastrell) is one of the “cult”, sought-after Spanish wines. Bodegas Shaya project was started by Gil family in 2008, with the wines produced from old, low-yielding Verdejo vines.

Here are my notes for the wines we tasted:

2018 Marqués de Riscal Rueda Verdejo Rueda DO (13.5% ABV, $13)
Light golden
Touch of fresh grass, lemon, lemon zest, sage, rocks
Crisp, vibrant, lemon, a touch of gunflint, excellent minerality, medium-plus finish
8/8+, Delicious white wine – by itself or with food.

2016 Bodegas Menade Rueda Verdejo Rueda DO (13% ABV, $18)
Golden color
Great complexity, Whitestone fruit, a touch of honey, honeysuckle, interesting undertones of sapidity
Savory and sweet, minerally-forward, Whitestone fruit, crisp acidity, vibrant, fresh, medium+ finish
8-/8, should be good with food

2016 Bodegas Shaya Rueda DO (13.5% ABV, $13, 20%-30% of grapes fermented in barrels with 500 – 600 liters capacity)
Straw pale
Very unusual, dusty nose, a hint of grass and white flowers
High viscosity, roll of your tongue wine, restrained white fruit, Granny Smith apples, buttery impressions of a good balanced Chardonnay.
8+, my favorite of the 3, especially after being open for a few days.

How do you like the trip so far? Now it is time to move east to the region called Cariñena.

Winemaking in Cariñena goes back to Roman times. History of Cariñena wines includes Royal proclamations of “Cariñena wines above all”, and even the quality control instituted at the end of the 17th century, monitoring yield levels and production areas. Cariñena also managed to escape the Phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century. In 1932, Cariñena became the second D.O. in Spain (after Rioja). Here is the link for you if you want to learn more about the region.

Cariñena is best known and typically associated with Garnacha (Grenache for all outside of Spain), and it is also often considered to be the birthplace of that grape. Some of the Garnacha plantings in Cariñena exceed 100 years of age. The second important red grape in Cariñena actually shares its name with the region – it is called Cariñena, and also known locally as Mazuelo, and outside of Spain as Carignan. Other red grapes can also be found in the region – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Monastrell, Syrah, Tempranillo, Vidadillo. White wine production in Cariñena is much less than red; you can find Chardonnay, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo (Viura), Moscatel, and Parellada growing there.

At the beginning of the post, we mentioned the “Rosé revolution”. So very appropriately, I had an opportunity to taste two Cariñena Rosado wines, made out of Garnacha, and the Chardonnay coming from one of the favorite producers, Bodegas San Valero. Here are my notes:

2018 Bodegas Paniza Fábula de Paniza Garnacha Rosé Cariñena DOP (13.5% ABV)
Beautiful salmon pink
Delicate nose of tart strawberries with a touch of lemon
Crisp, clean, refreshing, tart strawberries, good minerality, a hint of cranberries
8, excellent Rosé, a perfect wine for a summer day, but will work well with food at any time.

2018 El Circo Payaso Garnacha Rosé Cariñena DOP (13% ABV, $10)
Intense pink
Wild ripe strawberries
Ripe Strawberries all the way, good acidity, lemon, medium body
7+/8-, craves food

2017 Bodegas San Valero Particular Chardonnay Cariñena DOP (12.5% ABV)
Light golden
Touch of vanilla and apple, a hint of white flowers
Crisp, clean, fresh lemon, a touch of white pepper, vanilla, a round finish.
7+/8-, definitely a delightful wine

Here you are, my friends – Spain makes delicious wines, and not all of those wines are red. And let’s not forget that those wines represent an amazing value. Do you have any favorite Spanish white wines? Cheers!

 

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