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November 29, 2006

Season's Greetings . . .

It's almost my favorite time of year again. Nope, not the holidays -- the competition season. More specifically, that would be the wine competition season. It's without a doubt my busiest time of year, but I love it. Last season I judged in three competitions and served as Director and Chief Judge at three others.

Competitions are a treasure trove from my perspective because I get to see what's new and taste many vintages before they've been released. And because I'm involved with so many competitions, I can observe a wine that has medaled consistently but has been flying under the radar.

We've just refreshed the San Diego International Wine Competition website (www.sdiwc.com) with new dates and deadlines and will have the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition (www.criticschallenge.com) changes ready for posting by next week.

These sites are a tremendous resource if you're looking for an impressive wine in a particular price range. And the results on the Critics Challenge site include comments by the judges, many of them regular contributors to Wine Review Online, such as Ed McCarthy (bottom photo), Leslie Sbrocco and Nick Passmore.

Photos by Pablo Mason

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:20 PM

The Call of the Wine Locker

I finally took the big plunge and rented a wine locker. My collection of ageworthy wines had outgrown my small cellar in the basement as well as the two refrigerated wine-storage cabinets in the garage.

I'm not sure how many other wine enthusiasts have a similar problem, but I was amazed when I visited the wine-storage facility nearest me, a place (pictured above) called Fifty Seven Degrees, and discovered that it was chock full.

I was lucky to find an empty locker large enough to meet my needs. I had been toying with the idea of a storage unit for some time, but was reluctant to part with any of my wines. There is a certain comfort in knowing you can lay your hands on any bottle you have whenever you want.

Now I have another sort of comfort, knowing that most of the wines I believe have a future are being kept at a constant temperature of 57 degrees or lower and 70 percent humidity, either in my home cellar or the off-site location.

But best of all I now have a location other than my office to receive wine samples. My fervent hope is that within a few weeks, once the word spreads, all samples will go to Fifty Seven Degrees and my garage will no longer look like a cardboard box factory, or a giant dumpster.

That would be amazing. And to think -- at the same time I also get a place to properly store my spillover collectibles. What joy!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:48 AM

November 27, 2006

America's Very Own La Chapelle

A few years back I walked up Hermitage Hill on a bitter cold January day and snapped a photo of the famous chapel at the top, La Chapelle. From the bottom of the hill, in the center of Tain-Hermitage in the heart of the Northern Rhone, the view of the Hill is impressive.

Tain-Hermitage is Syrah country, and the Syrah from the Hill is the most sought after and expensive in the world. Hermitage from a good vintage can age for decades, which is the primary reason collectors and connoisseurs prize this special wine.

New World Syrah, or Shiraz if you fancy Australian Syrah, is a different animal. Most of it is planted in warmer climates and picked riper. Some of these more voluptuous Syrahs can age equally well, but the aromas and flavors and most of all the structure bear little resemblance to Hermitage.

One exception I've recently discovered is the Columbia Winery Red Willow Vineyard Syrah, produced from hillside grapes grown in the shadows of Washington's Cascade Mountains at an elevation of 1300 feet.

Columbia Winery winemaker David Lake, a Master of Wine, urged vineyard owner Mike Sauer to plant Syrah in the mid-1980s. The vineyard already had an established reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but Sauer followed Lake's advice and planted Syrah anyway.

The 1988 vintage from Red Willow was the first commercial vintage of Syrah released in Washington, but now Syrah seems to be overtaking Cab and Merlot and looms as Washington's most promising red grape variety. It's interesting that the Red Willow Vineyard is the state's most northerly planting of Syrah.

Not coincidentally, the finest Syrah in France's Rhone Valley comes from the cooler areas at the northern end of the valley, such as Hermitage, Cornas and Cote-Rotie.

I will review the 2001 Columbia Winery Red Willow Vineyard Syrah later this week, but what struck me most when I tasted the wine a couple of days ago was the structure. Even at five years of age, the Columbia Winery Red Willow Syrah is firm on the palate, still tightly wound and drinking fairly young, though showing vibrant red fruit characteristics and a delicious hint of white pepper and woodsmoke. Still, it's a baby.

I concluded it is one of the finest New World Syrahs I've tasted. And it's only going to get better. I had the opportunity to visit Mike Sauer at his Red Willow Vineyard earlier this year, and couldn't help but notice that the similarity with Hermitage didn't end with the wine.

High atop the hill in the center of Red Willow Vineyard sits a small chapel, America's very own La Chapelle.

Photos: Top, La Chapelle atop Hermitage Hill in Tain-Hermitage; Bottom, Mike Sauer explaining soil types and sun exposure with the Red Willow Vineyard chapel in the background.

Photos by Robert Whitley

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:26 AM

November 26, 2006

Spirits of the Season I

First up in my recommended spirits for the holiday season series is the beautifully crafted Auchentoshan 18 Year Old Oloroso Sherry Matured single-malt Scotch ($100).

Auchentoshan is an unpeated Lowland malt renowned for its smoothness. Thrice distilled (the norm is twice) and aged 18 years in first- and second-fill sherry butts, this is the rare Scotch that has absolutely no bite despite going into the bottle at cask strength (55.8 percent alcohol).

What it delivers is intensity of flavor and a rounded, lush mouthfeel that will remind some of a smooth, high-end Irish whisky. Complex aromas of honey, almonds and dried fruits combined with a long, sensuous finish made the Auchentoshan 18 Year Old Sherry one of the most memorable Scotch whiskys ever to pass these lips.

Only 4800 bottles are available for the entire world.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:26 AM

November 25, 2006

Josh Wesson, Take a Bow for 'Wine Styles' Retail Concept

In a WRO blog entry (keep scrolling down) in mid-November, Robert Whitley said what a clever idea he thinks it is for a wine shop to organize its wines by their taste rather than by region or grape variety.

As he mentioned (in referring to our book, WineStyle, www.winestylebook.com), Ed McCarthy and I also think it's a great approach to wine. After all, what could be more important about a wine than its taste?

We've been using this approach -- categorizing wines according to their taste, or style -- for about two decades now, going back to when we created a course called 'A Study of Styles' at the International Wine Center in NYC.

The first wine shop to incorporate a stylistic approach to wine into its retailing concept was, we believe, Best Cellars (www.bestcellars.com), which opened in New York City some time in the 1980s. Joshua Wesson, a founder of Best Cellars, became a missionary for the idea that a wine's taste is key in purchasing a wine. Today, Best Cellars has seven stores in five states.

Posted by Mary Ewing-Mulligan at 1:58 PM

November 24, 2006

Mister Champagne Uncorks WRO Bubbly Guide!

'Tis the season to pop a cork or two of good bubbly, and we know just the person to seek out for buying advice. None other than Wine Review Online Columnist Ed McCarthhy, who wrote the book on Champagne. Literally.

Ed authored Champagne for Dummies and continues to write on the topic of Champagne and the world's many other sparkling wines. Personally I know no greater authority on bubbly. He's my go-to man when I have a bubbly question for my column or radio show.

Ed's suggestions and picks have just been posted as the WRO Featured Article (see link on the Home page) and will remain available through New Year's Day, and thereafter in the article archives.

No matter your preference in bubbly -- dry or sweet, light or full bodied -- or your budget, Ed has a wine for you and me. And I can assure you, Ed has never failed me with a bubbly selection!

Read, buy and, above all, enjoy!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:26 AM

November 23, 2006

The Postman Always Rings Twice!

Writes reader Greg Severson:

I have a question regarding decanting wine. Even though decanting is beneficial (even necessary for some wines), do you have any suggestions on how to keep the wine from getting too warm while it is decanting. I'm able to keep our wine temperature controlled, so letting the wine sit for 30 minutes before serving, and getting towards room temperature after keeping it stored correctly, seems to counter the airing of the wine.

We like the wine at the correct temperature, so that's the reason I usually don't decant, though I know I should.

 Any ideas?

Dear Greg:

There is an important difference between cellar temperature and serving temperature. You probably keep your temperature-controlled unit at or near 56 degrees. That would be an excellent temp for ageing your wines.

It is slightly too cold, however, for serving most red wines. Decanting and airing a red wine for 30 minutes or so should slowly bring the temperature closer to 66 degrees, which would be ideal for Pinot Noir or older, more delicate reds. You can let your big reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah warm up another couple of degrees.

The reason the storage temp is much lower is too prevent premature ageing and oxidation. But once you've decided to pull the cork and serve, a few minutes under warmer conditions will not harm your wine. In fact, it will develop a much more expressive bouquet as it warms.

 Writes reader Patricia Campbell:

I read your item on the Drouhin family. I am going to be in Burgundy in April and, in honor of my favorite wine, I plan to eat at the Montrachet restaurant in Puligny-Montrachet. However, I am a little worried that I might inadvertently order a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet that has been 'Americanized' (or 'Robert Parkered' as I call it). Can I assume from the column on the Drouhins that, if I order one of theirs, it will be in the classic (non-oaky) tradition?

Dear Pat:

Virtually all Puligny-Montrachet is fermented and aged in oak barrels, but the presence of wood is hardly due to either American influence or the influence of wine critic Robert Parker. This is the traditional method of vinification in the region.

Your perception that traditional Puligny-Montrachet is not overtly oaky like many American wines is most likely due to the aroma profile, which is more distinctly at the mineral aspect of the spectrum than more fruity New World Chardonnays.

The Drouhins produce an exceptional Puligny-Montrachet from the premier cru vineyard 'Folatieres.' This wine retails in the U.S. for about $60. I tasted the 2004 Folatieres during my Drouhin visit and was impressed with the wine overall, finding it to be flinty on the nose, largely driven by an intense minerality, a hint of smoke and a very light honey essence. The Folatieres also offered generous notes of pear and baked apple, with a tight, clean citrus finish.

I rated the wine 93 points.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:58 AM

November 21, 2006

Taylor Fladgate's Century of Port

The clever folks at Taylor Fladgate, one of the Port industry's top five houses, have come up with a scintillating gift package for this holiday season. They've dubbed it A Century of Port.

What you get in the handsome wooden box is four 375ML bottles of tawny Port -- a 10-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old and a 40-year-old. Add 'em up and that's 100 years of tawny, a century as it were.

Anyone who has ever passionately engaged in the debate over which tawny Ports are more rewarding -- the younger, fruitier releases or the more rare, more refined, less fruity older tawny Ports -- will positively drool over this gift, priced at a quite reasonable $225.

The time for talking is over. Open all four bottles and decide for yourself which style you prefer. Best of all, after the bottles have been opened they will keep for several months without noticeable deterioration.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:50 PM

November 19, 2006

The Man Who Turned the Screw on the Cork Industry

When I finally caught up with John Larchet last week he had just returned from Australia with a boat load of new wines. Larchet is owner of The Australian Premium Wine Collection, an import company that specializes in hand-crafted wines, some of them extremely eclectic, from boutique wineries scattered about Australia.

We sat down together and tasted a few dozen of the new releases and, as usual, one of the wines that stood out was the Grosset Riesling. Both of them actually. Grosset produces two Rieslings from the Clare Valley, the Watervale and the Polish Hill.

If you are not familiar with either, these are dry Rieslings, and for my money they are the finest in the New World. The Polish Hill may be the finest in the world, period, though Jean Meyer of Josmeyer (Alsace) might be willing to argue the point.

Grosset, pictured above, is not only a brilliant winemaker but a visionary as well. He led the charge to the screwcap wine closure in Australia, and what was once the exception is now the norm. And he demonstrated his commitment by putting his most cellar-worthy wine, the Polish Hill Riesling, under the Stelvin screwcap closure.

That the screwcap movement is gaining momentum throughout the New World (it's quite the rage in New Zealand and is becoming accepted practice here in the United States) can be attributed at least in some small measure to Grosset's passionate advocacy.

Grosset, like so many other vintners, grew weary of empty promises from the cork industry about stamping out cork taint. After careful consideration, he determined the screwcap to be the best alternative to cork for sealing a bottle of wine.

I will post reviews of both Grosset Rieslings later this week, but suffice it to say, if you doubt there are any great wines in screwcap bottles, it tells me you've never had the pleasure of a Grosset Riesling.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:38 AM

November 18, 2006

Is It Any Good? What's It Worth?

These are the eternal questions if you have your hands on a bottle of wine that is 20 years old or older. Not all wines improve with age, of course, and the ability to do so has much to do with the type and style of wine and the quality of the vintage.

What it's worth is purely speculation. That depends entirely on who the prospective buyer is, assuming there would even be any interest in the wine under consideration.

So reader Pat Mansfield writes:

I have a single bottle of 1978 Chateau Trimoulet Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classe in my cellar and am considering opening it to drink. What is the value of this bottle today and do you think it is likely to be tenable? It has been stored in ideal (quite cool) conditions for many years.

First of all, I have no idea what the value might be. Though '78 was a very good vintage, Chateau Trimoulet is not what I would consider a "collectible" Bordeaux and I doubt very much there would be tremendous interest in this wine.

If, indeed, there are Trimoulet fans out there who might attach a significant value to this older vintage, finding them would be the trick. Good luck. Establishing a value would be negotiable, i.e., how much does the other party lust after this particular bottle?

Better to just open the wine and enjoy. If the bottle has beeen stored properly -- on its side in a cool, dark place the past 25 years or so -- there is a better than even chance it will be quite good, though probably well past its peak.

One clue would be the ullage. This is the space between the bottom of the cork and the wine. If the wine level remains in the neck of the bottle, that is a promising sign and one indicator the wine could still be in good condition.

If the level has receded into the shoulder of the bottle, it could indicate problems such as oxidation and loss of flavor and color. Older wines with ullage into the shoulder often surprise us, but the odds have gone up that the integrity of the wine has been compromised.

Ullage below the shoulder? Forget about it!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:28 AM

November 17, 2006

Wine Styles, an Ideal Theme for Selecting Wine?

Literally dozens of press releases cross my desk each day and most of them find a home in the basket from which there is no return. Not that they aren't well intentioned. They are, but more often than not the idea being pitched is a reach, or it's a tip for the holidays about three weeks after I've filed the last of my (pick any holiday) columns.

Occasionally there is something of interest, meaning something I would consider sharing with readers. Such was the case this morning when a public relations firm emailed a release on a new wine shop opening in a suburb of San Diego.

It's not this one particluar wine merchant that intrigues me so much as the concept. The shop is part of a national chain, WineStyles, with 70 stores in 18 states. Wines at WineStyles are not organized in the traditional fashion, which would be by country or region.

No, someone here has been thinking outside the box, realizing that even among those who profess to love vino and drink a good deal of the stuff, some might be hard pressed to tell you what grapes are used in white Burgundy or red Rioja or any number of wines that are identified only by region.

So WineStyles organizes its wine selection by taste. Crisp whites, for example. Or bold reds. This is hardly a novel concept. My good friends Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy authored a book last year aptly titled "Wine Style" and advocated the very same themes for choosing wines.

And for any number of years there have been enlightened restaurateurs who've grouped their wine lists by wine styles. But this is a new concept, so far as I'm aware, for the retail trade -- and long overdue.

I mean, someone swings by the wine shop after work to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner with friends that night. Who has time to figure out the riddle of wine regions when they're running late or the roast in the oven is about to set off the smoke alarm?

WineStyles, indeed. I love it.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:37 AM

An All-American Thanksgiving

This from my syndicated Copley News Service column, published earlier this week:

I vividly recall my first Thanksgiving as a wine enthusiast. This was an embarrassingly long time ago. I worked in New York and took my wine-purchasing cues from those in the know. They would have been the clerks at my favorite Manhattan wine shops.

The selection was mostly French through those years. California hadn't really been discovered - outside the state's borders at any rate - and the rest of the New World was considered little more than a wasteland. Italian wines were hopeless. Spain was living in the Dark Ages. Germany was still a little sexy, but who could pronounce any of the producer names?

Bordeaux was my passion at the time, but it was a bit too bold for your average Thanksgiving Day bird. So I was stuck with Beaujolais, for the most part, and the occasional red Burgundy if I was feeling flush.

Of course, Beaujolais has long been the default Thanksgiving wine because its fruitiness is a good foil for the combination of savory and sweet that is part and parcel of a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

Using that thought as a template, this year I plan to serve only domestic wines on the big day, wines that are not only fruit driven but also possess striking character. The sheer number of options can be overwhelming, but the only thing that's really important is that you find wines that meet the criteria, deliver the character you're looking for and at the price you want to pay.

So let's start with an aperitif. The feathery, elegant 'J' Brut ($25) sparkling wine from Sonoma's Russian River Valley is a nice way to begin if the price fits your budget. Best bubbles for the bucks, however, are the Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($18). Not fond of bubbles? Gainey's 2005 Santa Ynez Valley Riesling ($13) is a beautiful white wine to kick off a dinner party.

For the main event, I always slightly over-indulge. It has been my preference in recent years to serve both white and red wines with the traditional Thanksgiving feast. This not only solves any issues guests and family might have about their own personal preferences concerning the selection of red or white, but it actually works.

Bouchaine's seriously yummy 2004 Estate Chardonnay from Carneros ($25) will be my choice of a white, but you also might want to take a look at the 2005 King Estate Pinot Gris ($15) from Oregon that has only just been released. They will work equally well, though the Chardonnay obviously packs more power and depth.

I will hold to tradition on my red wine, serving up the beautifully balanced Etude 2004 Carneros Estate Pinot Noir ($42), which should be in fine form by now. The Beckmen 2004 Purisima Mountain (Santa Barbara County) Grenache ($36) would be my non-traditional pick, and the 2004 Liberty School Syrah ($12) would be my bargain buy.

My domestic dessert wine is an old favorite, the Guenoc Port ($30) from the Guenoc Valley, which is just north of the Napa Valley. Guenoc's vintage Ports are the best in the U.S. and compare favorably to the real thing from Portugal. The current vintage, 2000, landed a Platinum Award at the 2006 Critics Challenge International Wine Comepetition.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:58 AM

November 16, 2006

Terlato Finds His Pinot Grigio Mojo

Tony Terlato has probably seen it all over his 50 years in the wine business, so when he determines that what the world really needs is another Pinot Grigio, he's probaby right.

Terlato grew up selling wine in Chicago, first at the retail level, then as a distributor and finally, and most famously, as an importer. His company, Paterno Imports, built the renowned Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio brand here in the United States.

Tony knows Pinot Grigio. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. Terlato came across a restaurant with 20 Pinot Grigios on its list, but no Santa Margherita. He discovered this trendy New York restaurant had a policy of stocking only domestic wines.

So Terlato, who by then had become a vintner himself (Chimney Rock, Rutherford Hill, Sanford, etc.), called his chief  winemaker in Napa, Doug Fletcher, and told him he wanted him to make a Pinot Grigio.

"Not any Pinot Grigio," said Terlato. "If I'm going to make it and put my name on it, I want it to be the best Pinot Grigio."

With those marching orders, Fletcher began the quest to find a source for high quality Pinot Grigio. He eventually found a vineyard.

"Doug called me and said 'Tony, I have good news and I have bad news,'" said Terlato. "I said 'Give me the good news first.' Doug said, 'I found your Pinot Grigio.' I said 'What's the bad news?'

"He said, 'It's in the Russian River Valley. We should really be planting Pinot Noir there that we can sell for $48 a bottle instead of Pinot Grigio that we can sell for $22 a bottle. Do you still want to make Pinot Grigio?'"

The answer, as so often is the case in the wine industry, is in the bottle. The 2005 Terlato Pinot Grigio (Russian River Valley) is Tony's third vintage, and each year of production he has quickly sold out all 1800 cases made.

I don't know if this is the finest Pinot Grigio produced here in the United States, but it is certainly up there. Beautifully balanced, textured and remarkably long yet fresh and delicate on the palate, the Terlato reminds me of my two favorite Italian Pinot Grigios, from Alois Lageder in Alto Adige and Livio Felluga in Friuli. It even has a bit of the mineral aspect you will find in those two wines.

I can think of no higher praise!


Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:57 AM

November 14, 2006

Home Sweet Home!

Since returning from nearly two months out of the country touring some of the wine world's hottest spots (I counted 24 separate airline flights in the month of October alone), I've been diving into my backlog of wine samples with gusto.

A few great California Cabs. Some very nice aromatic whites from all over. Most impressive, an array of superb California Pinot Noirs. And I've only just begun.

In the upcoing issue of WRO, most of which will be posted by the end of the day today or early Wednesday morning, I look at a couple of new releases from Rutz Cellars. I hadn't tasted Rutz in several vintages and don't remember being as impressed with this Russian River Valley producer.

The wines are not only stunning, they are stylistically true to origin, which is the Burgndian model, of course. I also recently tasted and subsequently reviewed a couple of new releases from Gary Farrell, whom I consider America's pre-emminent Pinot Noir guru.

And before that I waded into some very nice Calera Pinots from the 2002 vintage. All of this outstanding Pinot reminds me that until not too long ago Pinot Noir did not enjoy such a great reputation domestically, and that was reflected in the sales figures.

After the movie "Sideways", demand for Pinot Noir spiked, and so did awareness. My how times have changed, and for the better. When it comes to domestic Pinot Noir, we seem to have an embarrassment of riches.

Not in my wildest dreams...

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:27 AM

November 13, 2006

An Ode to Joyesse!

One of the great myths about Champagne, repeated ad nauseum around the holidays, is the proposition that Champagne makes a good match with sweets, particularly chocolate. It's all a lot of hooey. But not for the reason you might imagine.

When most well-meaning wine enthusiasts champion Champagne and chocolate, they are generally promoting a match involving brut or brut rose. These wines are far too dry to be served with sweets. The result will leave a sour taste in your mouth for sure.

The wine must be as sweet or sweeter than the sweet treat, or dessert, for the pairing to be successful. There is a Champagne for this sort of match -- the demi-sec.

These are lovely Champagnes, generally very soft and round on the palate, and splendid when paired with desserts that are not too sweet, such as fruit tarts.

I'm always looking for an opportunity to pop the cork on a demi-sec and found one last night when I had friends over for dinner and served poached pairs with marscapone cheese. The pears were poached in Bonterra Muscat.

I served the Mumm Champagne Joyesse demi-sec, a beautifully balanced, slightly sweet bubbly that complemented the poached pears beautifully. It was a huge hit!

What joy! What Joyesse!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:06 PM

November 12, 2006

In the Presence of 'Greatness'

I had an eerie feeling as I toured the cellars last month at New Zealand's Kumeu River Winery, just outside Auckland. I have been here before, I thought. Not this exact place in terms of brick and mortar, but an identical place spiritually.

My thoughts drifted to a similar experience less than a year earlier, when I also tasted wines from barrel at Leeuwin Estate in Margaret River, Western Australia. I remember having the same eerie feeling at Leeuwin.

I'd been there before -- in the cellars of Comtes Lafon in the village of Meursault, in Burgundy's Cote de Beaune, where the world's finest Chardonnays are made. And that is the common thread between these three extraordinary winery visits thousands of miles apart -- mind-boggling, world-class Chardonnay.

You don't come across "great" Chardonnay every day. Too much of the wine made from this noble white grape is monotonous and boring, if not downright mediocre or bad.

Outside of Burgundy you could probably count the world's truly outstanding Chardonnays on your fingers and toes. OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but in relation to the volume of Chardonnay produced, the percentage of Chardonnays that approach greatness is small.

There is little question in my mind that Kumeu River is one of them. The winery was established in 1944 as a family business and remains in the Brajkovich family to this day. Michael Brajkovich is the winemaker and was the first Kiwi to become a Master of Wine.

I don't know enough about Michael to know whether or not he is a winemaking genius on the order of a Dominique Lafon. I do know he is good enough and smart enough not to get in the way of great terroir -- or vineyard sites that deliver something magical that makes the Kumeu River Chardonnays stand head and shoulders above the others in New Zealand, even others produced where the climate and soil are considered more conducive to serious wine.

Kumeu River Chardonnay (imported by Wilson Daniels of St. Helena, CA.) has what every top-notch Chardonnay requires and what is missing from 99 percent of what's out there: superb structure. These Chardonnays have fresh, firm acidity and intense minerality along with richness, weight and depth.

This is a rare combination. When you find it you can understand why Chardonnay is held in such high esteem and why the top cru of Burgundy fetch such handsome prices.

The thoroughbred of the Kumeu River stable is the Mate's Vineyard, but the "Village" Chardonnay is none too shabby and reasonably priced at about $20.

Try it. You might even be pursuaded to burn your ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) card!


Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:11 AM

November 11, 2006

A Lesson In Vinous Geography

I always take away a few useful observations from the Combat des Vins, an annual event at San Diego's Le Fontainebleau in which I compare and contrast wines paired with a seven-course dinner prepared by Chef Fabrice Hardell.

There were 17 wines in total this year (the dinner was Thursday night). Though guests are invited to indicate a preference with each course by a show of hands, keeping score is not the focal point of the evening. That would be discovery and discussion.

As I look back at my tasting notes, three red wines -- the 2002 Louis Martini Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2001 Spring Mountain Elivette and the 2004 Parallel Cabernet Sauvignon -- give me a lesson in vinous geography.

The Martini Monte Rosso is a Cabernet from the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains, and thus closest to the ocean. The Spring Mountain is a red Bordeaux blend from the Napa side of the Mayacamas, further from the ocean and thus a bit warmer. Being on the west side of the Napa Valley, it also gets the morning sun. Finally, the Parallel is a Cabernet (barely, as Cabernet Sauvignon is a mere 75 percent of the blend) from the east side of the Napa Valley around Howell Mountain, making it the furthest from the ocean and warmer still. Its vineyards catch the afternoon sun.

These three mountain reds, from roughly the same part of the world, have many similarities. But upon close inspection, there are many differences as well.

Not surprisingly, my notes indicate the Monte Rosso most exhibits the characteristics of a genuine Bordeaux red, with a subtle herbal, peppery note on the nose, hints of cedar and blackcurrant, a medium, elegant weight and firm tannins. Stands to reason because of its cooler vineyard.

The Elivette nose was chocolately, and the structure of the wine more dense and layered, with darker fruits and slightly sweeter tannins than the Monte Rosso.

The Parallel was the richest and most textured of the three, showing intense cassis and black cherry fruit, loads of spice and an impressive elegance despite its palate weight.

Winemaking techniques and viticultural variations aside, I'm of the opinion that the biggest factor contributing to the differences in the three wines is temperature, or how far the vineyards are from the ocean.

They do have one thing in common, however. Each one is an exceptional bottle of wine.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:16 AM

November 9, 2006

What's in a Name?

BEAUNE, France - It is a short walk from the historic Hospice de Beaune in the town center to the offices of Maison Joseph Drouhin, located in a 15th Century house built over the 13th Century cellars that are a huge piece of the history of Burgundy.

The family Drouhin is nothing if not mindful of the history of Burgundy. Joseph Drouhin was born nearly 100 miles to the north, near the village of Chablis, but he chose Beaune when he established his firm as a wine negociant in 1880, eventually settling next door to the Collegiale Church Notre-Dame, a stone's throw from the cellars where the Dukes of Burgundy stored wines for the kings of France.

Robert Drouhin, the current patriarch of the Drouhin clan, lives in the house behind the office, next to the church. He is a throwback to a bygone era when a quaint notion existed that the name on the bottle meant everything in the wine business, even more than the classification of the wine or the quality of the vintage.

Navigating Burgundy's maze of village classifications and specific cru can leave even the most earnest wine enthusiast dazed and confused, but seeking out the wines of a proven house of Burgundy is tried and true.

Robert intends to keep it that way, even as he settles into a cozy retirement with wife Francoise. He toiled in the family business from 1957 until 2003, and was largely responsible for building the Drouhin reputation throughout the world, but particularly in the United States.

In these modern times when large wine conglomerates gobble up small wine companies merely to gain better position on the retail shelf, the family run wine business has become an endangered species. But Robert and Francoise can sleep easy at night, for the future of Maison Joseph Drouhin in the hands of the Drouhin family is assured.

The Drouhins behind Maison Joseph Drouhin would be Robert and Francoise's four children -- Philippe, Veronique, Laurent and Frederic -- each of whom occupies a key position in the company.

Philippe, the oldest, is responsible for the vineyards. Drouhin the negociant is also Drouhin the domaine, for its vineyard holdings in the Cote d'Or, Chablis and the Cote Chalonaise now total nearly 200 acres. Shortly after Philippe assumed control of the vineyards he pushed them into organic agriculture, and he's now closely scrutinizing the possibility of taking them bio-dynamic.

Veronique is the winemaker in the family, overseeing production at Domaine Drouhin Oregon as well as participating in tasting trials and selection at Drouhin in Burgundy.

Laurent Drouhin is the export manager and lives in the United States, Drouhin's most important market outside of France. And Frederic Drouhin, the youngest of the four children, became CEO upon Robert's retirement. Frederic received an MBA in marketing from the University of Hartford in Connecticut in 1991.

I have now had a chance to visit the entire next generation and observed their professionalism and dedication, as well as their warmth and generosity of spirit. Perhaps it is my imagination, but it seems to me that the internal balance of the family is reflected in the wines of Drouhin, from its least expensive Bourgognes to its finest and rarest grands cru.

In a world where wood chips have replaced barrels to impart the aromas of oak, where the individual nuances of entire vineyards are lost in gigantic blending tanks, where winemakers change wineries the way the rest of us change socks, where great wine names have been sold to the highest bidder, it is reassuring to know that in some corners of the wine globe there continues to be a real person with a familial interest behind the name on the bottle, and that they are protecting that name with every breath of air they take.

What's in a name? Too often nothing. Sometimes, everything.

Photos top to bottom: 1. The historic old press has been preserved. 2. A domaine marker at Burgundy's oldest named vineyard, Chambertin Clos de Beze. 3. Philippe Drouhin explaining the terroir of a Drouhin vineyard in Chablis. 4. The cellars at Maison Drouhin.

Photos by Robert Whitley

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:24 AM

November 8, 2006

Kiwis Do It Standing Up!

I had a blast judging at the 2006 International Chardonnay Challenge last month in Gisborne, New Zealand, despite the fact that most of the more than 500 entries were from either New Zealand or Australia.

Quality was very high and the team of judges very professional, but I was struck -- or maybe I should say dumbfounded -- when we started the first day of judging and all of my colleagues made their evaluations standing up.

At the three major wine competitions I run here in the United States -- the Critics Challenge, San Diego International and Monterey International -- we expect judges to take their seats!

Same for the other competitions I've judged here and in Europe. You would think that after standing for more than eight hours on a cold concrete slab (the competition is held at the Gisborne Show Grounds) you'd be dead on your feet and lose your concentration, but I found the wines so interesting and the other judges' comments so compelling I hardly noticed.

Most of the winners wouldn't mean much to American consumers, except for the winning "international" entry, which was the 2004 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay from the Napa Valley.

Judges pictured in the photo are winemaker Jeff Clarke of Pernod-Ricard New Zealand (Montana Wines) in the foreground and winemaker Kim Crawford of Kim Crawford Wines in the background. A complete list of winners can be found at www.internationalchardonnaychallenge.com.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:36 PM

November 7, 2006

Sitting Down to a Wine Feast in Beaune

BEAUNE, France -- I'm thumbing through the wine list at Le Conty, a charming bistrot with a killer cellar in the center of Beaune, the epicenter of France's Burgundy region. There are many stunning bottles to choose from, but I keep returning to the section with the demis -- or half bottles.

A demi of Bonneau du Martray's 1993 Corton-Charlemagne catches my eye. This is a 13-year-old grand cru white Burgundy, a rare wine to begin with, but even more of a rarity considering it's by the half bottle in a modest restaurant where I'm sitting on a folding chair and using paper napkins.

So I'm thinking maybe this is just dumb luck. Then I flip the page to check on the red wines in demi and spy an important wine from the Rhone Valley, the 1996 Jabloulet Hermitage 'La Chapelle.' I pinch myself once or twice just to make sure I'm not dreaming.

OK, I can do this. The Corton-Charlemagne is listed at 55 euro (about $70) and the 'La Chapelle' at 48 euro (about $60). The prices are very good given the quality and age of the wines. I can't resist; I'm in for both.

The '93 Corton-Charlemagne was impressive. The color was youthful, and on the palate the wine packed the signature Corton-Charlemagne power, firm acidity and extraordinary length. This was an absolutely remarkable white wine.

'The 1993 vintage was a lean vintage,' Frederic Drouhin, the president of Burgundy's respected Joseph Drouhin negociant firm, told me. 'The wines were not especially well received when they were young. They needed time. Our '93 Clos des Mouches (blanc) is the same.'

And come around they have. The '96 Jaboulet Hermitage 'La Chapelle' was an equally exciting revelation, although my expectations for the wine had been high to begin with. La Chapelle is one of the choicest spots on Hermitage hill and the wines are renowned for their power, elegance and longevity.

What I didn't expect was the explosion of fruit. The 'La Chapelle' delivered an intense bouquet of blueberry jam and violets. The infamous Hermitage tannins were beautifully integrated into the wine and the palate was very long, smooth and complex. This was a superb bottle of wine, and it had to be to play in the same league with the exceptional Chardonnay from Corton-Charlemagne.

You may or may not be able to replicate this tasting, but the larger point is to trust the great terroirs of the world to produce wines that will age beautifully and hold up magnificently in half bottles (wines typically age more quickly in half bottles and more slowly in large-format bottles, such as magnums, double-magnums and larger). Those with the patience to cellar such wines will be rewarded.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:10 PM

A Case of Sour Grapes!

Some of my most memorable wine experiences have involved Penfolds Grange, a world class red wine produced in Australia. If you don't know Grange, it is Shiraz and is a remarkable wine. It ages superbly, much like a fine Bordeaux, and will easily set you back a couple of hundred bucks or more if you are lucky enough to find a bottle.

So I opened a 2001 (the latest vintage) Grange with some anticipation last night, expecting to taste a wine for the ages, or at least something very, very good.

Alas, the bottle was corked. Now some folks might think a "corked" wine is a wine that has simply been opened, or had the cork pulled, as it were. Hence that quizzical look I get from flight attendants when I politely inform them a wine they've just served is corked. They look at me as though I've lost my mind.

Uh huh. Actually, a corked wine is a wine that has been infected with "cork taint." I won't bore you with all the technical stuff, but the cork industry has a huge problem because it continues to sell tainted corks to its wine industry customers, despite much wailing and gnashing of the teeth from the wine industry.

That's why you see so many "screwcaps" popping up on wine bottles these days. The wine industry is fed up, and so am I.

I have always argued that once the worldwide demand for cork slackened -- that is, when more wine producers started using screwcaps instead of cork closures on their bottles --  the "cork-taint" issue would disappear. I'm not so sure about that anymore.

Screwcaps are now the dominant wine bottle closure in Australia and New Zealand, and many California wineries have followed their lead. Yet the cork-taint issue -- despite protestations from the cork industry to the contrary -- remains.

Call me an elitist, if you will. Spoil a $10 bottle of Rioja for me and I'll probably yawn. Spoil a rare treat such as a $200 bottle of Grange, now that makes me mad!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:35 AM

November 6, 2006

Calera Pinot Noir May Be an Icon, but Patience Is Required

Not quite a year ago I had an illuminating email exchange with Josh Jensen, the owner of Calera Wine Company. Jensen also makes the wines at Calera's somewhat remote location in the mountains of California's Central Coast, about an hour south of San Francisco. Calera is famous for its Mt. Harlan Pinot Noirs, and rightly so.

Long before other California vintners had figured out this tricky grape variety, Calera was getting it right. Jensen (pictured here at his Mt. Harlan estate) saw to that. He chose the location for its limestone soils, rare in California but abundant in Burgundy, and he possessed a clear vision of how truly great Pinot Noir should taste.

I was therefore a bit surprised at my disappointment while tasting a few young Calera Pinots earlier this year. Jensen, knowing I had admired Calera's Pinots over many years, wrote to suggest that my impression of those lean, tightly structured wines might change if I would only have the patience to wait for them to come around.

He indicated five years might be the optimum, depending upon the vintage, but we all know few consumers actually buy these wines with the intention of aging them. Hence Jensen often holds back release of his Pinots to give the wines more time to evolve.

Last night Josh spoke to me again, but this time it was through his wines -- the lovely 2002 Calera Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) and the tightly wound 2002 Calera Selleck Vineyard Pinot Noir ($58).

The Reed is already beginning to blossom, fleshing out and developing more depth of aroma and length on the palate as it sheds the leaness of youth. The Selleck remains fairly tight, but already you sense this wine is finding another gear.

What I admired most about both wines was their connection to the place where the grapes were grown. Both wines were earthy on the nose, though the Reed is more precocious and expressive at this time, and there was a strong thread of minerality in each, though strongest in the Selleck.

The fruit aromas were more in the realm of red fruits -- strawberries, raspberries and cherries -- than the darker, black fruits that can sometimes be confused with aromas found in other red wines, such as Syrah.

It says a great deal about the courage of Jensen's convictions that he continues to seek these characteristics in his Pinots, bucking the trend toward riper, more voluptuous, even sweeter Pinot Noirs that are favored by many of his neighboring vintners

There is room for both.

The big difference with Calera Pinot is that it requires something of the consumer. That would be patience.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:25 PM

Ordering by the Descriptors? Thank you, no!

I'm at a Novotel hotel in London, planning to have an embarrassingly early dinner so that I can recover from the sleep I didn't have last night on the plane.  What to drink?  The limited wine list offers good diversity, and some completely acceptable wines.  What bothers me is how the wines are described. 

Some examples:

  •  Ropiteau Chablis: 'combines apple and tangerine notes beautifully'
  • Montana Pinot Noir from Marlborough: 'cranberry fruit flavors'
  • Wolf Blass Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc: 'hints of guava and passion fruit'
  • Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot from South Africa: 'rich cassis and mocha flavors'
  • Trivento Shiraz Malbec from Argentina: 'succulent berry fruits'

And so on.

Why do so many wine descriptions reduce the taste of a wine to just its aromas and flavors (and only fruity aromatics at that)?  Maybe it's because a wine's aromatic expression offers something quasi objective to say, as opposed to the more apparently subjective descriptors of body, texture, depth, concentration, and other aspects that are part of the total experience of a wine.  A wine drinker can presumably connect with those flavor descriptors and think, 'That sounds good.' But ultimately, the differences between a Marlborough Pinot Noir and a South Africa Cab-Merlot blend are far deeper than the choice between cranberry on the one hand and cassis and mocha on the other.

Accepting that this is what people do - whether I like it or not - I am nevertheless particularly distressed that in mentioning a wine's aromas and flavors, the typical thumbnail description does not mention the intensity of those aromas and flavors. 

Both a Bordeaux and a California Cabernet can have blackcurrant character, but the intensity of that fruitiness is very different.  And in that difference hangs a critical factor for determining not only whether a particular wine drinker will enjoy one wine more than the other, but also the food compatibilities of each wine.

Pondering all of this, I ended up drinking a Viña Alcorta Rioja Crianza 2003.  It was moderately flavorful, with soft tannins that give the wine a substantial but silky texture, and the wine shows good concentration and length.  It's completely ready to drink now, and it hit the spot for me.  Filled almost to the rim, my glass failed to deliver the promised 'smokey vanilla aroma.' 

As for the 'crushed fruit flavor' that the menu promised ... well, I must admit that I don't even know what that means. 

Posted by Mary Ewing-Mulligan at 9:22 AM

Winemaker Craig Williams, the Man Behind 'Insignia'

I could go on and on about the just-released 2003 Joseph Phelps Insignia (and will in a review later this week) but I'd rather pause for a moment and reflect upon the man behind the wine.

No, not Joe Phelps, though Insignia -- America's first red Meritage wine -- would not have been possible without Joe's vision and staunch backing. That and the fact that he's been a serious Bordeaux collector since before he built the Phelps winery.

Credit should go squarely where it's due, and that would be on the reliable shoulders of longtime winemaker Craig Williams. He took over from the great Walter Schug when Insignia was in its infancy and his stewardship of this iconic Napa Valley wine speaks volumes about one man's quest for perfection.

Craig Williams was never willing to rest on his accolades. He has tweaked the Insignia blend through the decades (the 2003 vintage is the 30th) in the belief it could always be better, no matter how wonderful it already was.

Phelps fans may remember that earlier vintages of Insignia had a pronounced eucalyptus note -- a la Heitz Martha's Vineyard -- until Williams gradually phased it out in an effort to achieve greater purity of fruit.

I loved the 2002 Insignia and rated it highly (97 points) here at WRO. To my palate the '03 is even better. And there's but one man to thank for that.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:22 AM

More Recommended Stemware!

Another glass producer that I would recommend is Ravenscroft, in New York City. It's a company started by a winelover named Stephen Falanga.

Ravenscroft produces an entire line of fine crystal glasses that are even less expensive than Spiegelau. They are somewhat lighter in weight than both Riedel and Spiegelau, but Mary and I use them and are quite happy with them. In fact, for our everyday tasting, we purchased a set of 24 of their inexpensive, Titanium line (the gourmet/all-purpose glass) that wholesales for $3.50 a glass.

For brochures of their entire line, including price lists, e-mail Ravenscroft at: info@ravenscroftcrystal.com. Steve can be reached via e-mail at s@winestuff.com.

Posted by Ed McCarthy at 9:21 AM

High-End Glasses for a Low-Budget Price

I burn my way through roughly 9,000 wines each year, and taste the majority of those in my home.  (Just ask the seething guys who work the recycling truck that serves my neighborhood.)  As you might guess, I also burn through a lot of glassware over time.  A certain amount of breakage comes with the territory when one drinks for a living.  Spits, I mean, spits.

So, I need to find glassware that offers the hard-to-find combination of very high performance with affordability.  In recent years, I've used Riedel "Vinum" series glasses, as well as the Spiegelau "Vino Grande" stems.  Both are good, but the Riedels are really too expensive at $18 - $20 per glass.  The Spiegelaus are priced much more reasonably at about $10, but they really aren't competitive with the Riedels in terms of quality.  They are unsatisfyingly light, and have a visible seam running along the side of the stem, which is embarrassing when you've invited the Queen over for tea and Shiraz.

Feel a Goldilocks moment coming?  Yep, I've recently found a line of glasses that is just right, hitting the happy medium between the contending lines.  The "In Vino Veritas" series from the Austrian producer "Glass & Co" is priced like Spiegelau but performs like Riedel.  The material is brilliantly clear, and the stems are perfectly seamless.  As with manually blown glasses, the bowl and stem are produced from a single piece of material rather than pieced together, resulting in greater durability.  The line includes 14 different shapes that are sized to particular wine and beverage types, and every one that I've tried performs very well at a remarkably low price.

To view the glasses, go to www.glass-co.com

An American importer located in Virginia is Select Wines, 703-631-8100.

Posted by Michael Franz at 9:19 AM

November 3, 2006

Tapas & Wine a Tough Combo in Madrid

You would think every great tapas bar in Madrid would serve fabulous Spanish wines, but then you'd be wrong and very disappointed.

The popular Cerveceria La Dolores, pictured here and just a few blocks from the Prado in central Madrid, is a case in point. Loved the food, hated the wines. Bad enough to force a confirmed wino to order a beer!

This is typical throughout Madrid, and it's a shame. Best wine selection I found in a tapas bar was the eclectic list at Taberneros, situated between the royal palace and Plaza Mayor.

Best wines I found during a four-night stopover were at the fabulous restaurant Viridiana, where I had an exceptional old Pesquera Reserva. El Rincon de Esteban, a good neighborhood restaurant close to my hotel, the Palace, offered a solid selection, but nothing too esoteric.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 3:04 PM

McCarthy Agrees with Whitley, but ...

I certainy agree with Robert Whitley (scroll down) that the 1996 Dom Perignon is clearly the best of the three DPs and will probably be regarded one day as one of the greatest Dom Pérignons ever.

But if Mr. Brown is looking to drink his Dom soon, I'd recommend the 1998, the most precocious of the three, lovely and elegant, harmonious and graceful, and drinking beautifully even now.

The full-bodied, ripe 1995 is not at its peak, but certainly more ready to drink than the austere 1996, which really needs another ten years of aging before it starts to show its stuff. The great 1990 Dom Pérignon, by the way, is perfect right now.

Posted by Ed McCarthy at 3:02 PM

Awesome Pinot from the Bottom of the World

While visiting New Zealand recently to serve as a judge at the International Chardonnay Challenge in Gisborne, I had a few free days on my hands to explore.

One of my stops, quite spontaneously, was at the Villa Maria Winery, which is well known in the United States for its pungent Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. But it wasn't the Sauvignon that set my mind afire. Nope, it was the absolutely mind-blowing single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the Awatere Valley sub-region of Marlborough.

This bottling, which sadly is not exported to the U.S. (less than 200 cases are produced), is called Taylor's Pass. No Pinot I've tasted from New Zealand has ever come so close to perfection. I tried two vintages and the 2004 was yummy beyond belief.

As it happened, I had driven over the range of mountains that separates the Awatere Valley from the rest of Marlborough the day before. The Awatere is a windswept region that slopes from the foothills of the ranges down to the sea.

Vineyard plantings there are less than 10 years old. The area was only cultivated after the wine business outgrew the rest of Marlborough.

I may not be able to lay my hands on a bottle of this fabulous nectar now that I'm back in the States, but you can bet I'll be on the lookout for other Marlborough Pinots in the future, particularly if I can trace the vineyard source to the Awatere, a new region with seemingly unlimited potential.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best Kiwi Pinot Noir is made in the Central Otago or Martinborough regions, but it's now obvious to me there is another contender in the game.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:31 AM

November 2, 2006

Choosing the 'Best' Vintage

Reader Bob Brown (shame, shame, he failed to provide his email location) poses an interesting question about three currently available vintages of the tetes de cuvee Champagne, Dom Perignon.

Brown writes: "I have been offered 1995, 1996 and 1998 Dom Perignon vintages for about the same price per bottle. Which vintage would you recommend?"

This one's a slam-dunk. The 1996 Dom Perignon is one of the greatest ever made, and is certainly chef de cave Richard Geoffroy's crowning achivement in a brilliant career at Moet. The 1995 vintage was exceptional as well, but the depth and power of the '96 Dom are clearly superior to both the '95 and '98.
It should be noted that Dom retails for approximately $120-$140 depending upon your location, though in my neck of the woods (southern California) it can be found for considerably less around the holidays, particularly at Costco.
This comparison does serve to point out the inadequacy of the "line pricing" that is used almost universally in today's wine trade. At one time a wine's price was a reflection of the vintage and the estimation by the producer of the quality in the bottle.
That pricing model was abandoned sometime in the 1980s. Now wines are priced by stature, regardless of vintage. Enthusiasm for a vintage will often drive prices higher after they've been released, but the price almost never goes down from one year to the next on classified-growth Bordeaux, A-list California Cabernets or premier and grand cru Burgundies.
'Tis a shame. Some of my shrewdest wine purchases were Bordeaux from so-called "off vintages" in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:35 PM