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December 30, 2010

Michael Franz’s Winery and Wine of the Year

Much of my wine writing during 2010 focused on France’s northern Rhône valley, first while writing that chapter for DK Publishing’s mammoth Opus Vino, and more recently while writing the region’s wine reviews for DK’s forthcoming 1,000 Great Wines for Every Day.  I adore the wines from the northern Rhône, and yet I’m conflicted about contributing even a little to their renown by writing about them.  The fact is that the appellations are so small and make so little wine (less than one tenth of the production of the southern Rhône) that once the world wakes up fully to their rarity and greatness, the party is going to be over.  For good.

To place the scarcity issue into perspective, a single vineyard like the famous To Kalon in Napa Valley is much larger than the whole appellation of Hermitage and almost identical to the entirely of Côte-Rôtie.  Once the word gets out about that, mere mortals will no longer be able to afford the wines.

Depressing as this prospect is for me, I persevere in writing about the northern Rhône for two reasons:  First, I’m aware that any renown that my writing might lend to the wines is dwarfed by that contributed by the house of E. Guigal in every single vintage.  And second, Guigal’s amazing mastery in every Rhône appellation--right down to the least glorious ones--proves that delicious wines will still be available even after Hermitage and Côte Rôtie are beyond my reach.

Headed by Marcel Guigal, this house is the most important domaine and négociant in the northern Rhône and also a principal source for southern Rhône wines such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc and Rouge, making Guigal the pivotal producer for the entire Rhône valley.  Guigal’s significance is indicated by the fact that the house vinifies more than 40% of all the wine produced in the appellations of Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, but even more impressive is Marcel Guigal’s ability to make the very best (and most expensive) wines from appellations such as these.

In recent years Guigal’s white wines have become nearly as impressive as the amazing reds, and the bottlings from formerly second-string areas like St.-Joseph have elevated the entire appellation’s reputation to unprecedented heights.  I’ve been writing about wine for long enough that I’m no longer easily over-awed, but I don’t mind admitting that I stand in awe of what is being accomplished by Marcel and Philippe Guigal, about whom I’ll be writing more here on WRO early in 2011.Wine of the Year

Wine of the Year

W. Blake Gray stole my initial choice for Wine of the Year when he cast his WRO vote for Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling 2009.  There’s no doubt in my mind that that wine stands as the single most impressive winemaking achievement in the USA during the past year when quality, quantity and value are all taken into account.

Nevertheless, Blake’s thievery caused me only a moment of hesitation, because the best wine I tasted all year was another bottling from Washington state, namely, Leonetti Cellar Walla Walla Valley Reserve 2007.

A blend of 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 11% Petit Verdot and 9% Cabernet Franc, the wine is a marvel of harmonious complexity even at this early stage in its development.  It is impressively concentrated, yet not heavy in the showboat style of “statement wines,” with very deep and persistent flavors that show both red and black fruit notes.  Intricate aromas include notes of cedar, woodsmoke and spices, and in structural terms, the symmetry of fruit, wood, acidity and tannin is, well, perfect.  I scored the wine at 98 points when tasting it in July, and if I had had sufficient time to let the wine open before completing my evaluation, it might well have earned those last two points.

Chris Figgins has taken the helm at Leonetti, but the entire family remains involved in this remarkable enterprise, which has been built from scratch since 1977 in a do-it-yourself, pay-as-you-go manner that recalls a nearly forgotten but enduringly admirable mode of American entrepreneurship.  If there’s a better wine or a better winery in the USA than this, I am unaware of it.

Posted by Michael Franz at 9:04 AM

December 29, 2010

W. Blake Gray’s Winery and Wine of the Year

 I confess, I didn't vote for Chateau Ste. Michelle's $9 Riesling when it won Wine of the Year at the Critics Challenge Wine Competition in May.  But I loved the wine, especially at that price. And since the event, I've taken notice of how widely available it is.

I had that same wine a couple weeks ago at Sea Critters, a restaurant in Passe a Grille Beach, Florida, where the staff didn't know that Viognier is a grape.  I was grateful to see Chateau Ste. Michelle on a list of big production wines chosen seemingly at random.  I could have been drinking a heavily processed, overly oaked beverage.  Instead I was drinking a genuine Riesling, with lively fruit flavors and excellent balance.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is the world's largest producer of Riesling.  It's also a great evangelist for one of the wine lover's favorite grapes.  This summer the Washington state winery hosted Riesling Rendezvous, an enormous undertaking bringing together Riesling producers from around the world.  The event allowed winemakers to compare notes, generated stories and blog items around the country, and just generally got people thinking, talking about and drinking Riesling.

I would tell you more about Chateau Ste. Michelle's operations, but quite honestly, I skipped the opportunity to tour there because I figured they would indoctrinate us anyway during the event.  But they didn't:  The winery's owners were genial and self-effacing hosts, at enormous expense, and really didn't self-promote at all.

So my Winery of the Year essay is a little short. All I can tell you is this:  Chateau Ste. Michelle is run by good people.  They make great wine at a great price, and they made 500,000 cases of it, so I could drink it at Sea Critters.  I toasted them in Florida, and I toast them now in cyberspace.

Wine of the Year:  Perrier Jouët Fleur de Champagne 2002

It's so hard to pick a single Wine of the Year.

I was tempted to go cheap and choose Big House White in the 3-liter box:  That's the wine I chose to have at Thanksgiving.  But value already played a large role in my choice of Winery of the Year.

So then I was tempted to remember some great wines I tasted abroad this year, like Israel's elegant Domaine du Castel Grand Vin 2007, or the Peter Lauer "Kern" Saar Riesling Fass 9 2009 that wowed me in Germany, or the Domaine Vaudoisey-Creusefond 1er Cru Les Epenots Pommard 1999 that made me swoon in Burgundy.

But this year, I'm thinking of availability, and I'm still remembering the tough decision we made at the Critics Challenge between a $9 Riesling and a $140 Champagne.  Sure, the former was better value: how could it not be?  And yet, which would I drink on my own birthday?

In fact, I drank the latter:  A bottle of Perrier Jouët Fleur de Champagne 2002.  I'm not sure how many wines I tasted this year:  More than 1,000 for sure, but probably less than 10,000.  In any case, when it came time to choose one bottle to have on my birthday -- and to choose the food to pair with it, rather than the other way around -- this is what I picked.

What a sensuous Champagne this is:  Austere on first opening, but expansive with air, it's yeasty and toasty and yet has a lively citrusy core.  I drank the heck out of it.  I sent a taste back to the chef and he sent out two apps and a dessert; that's how much he liked it.  And our server said he had never tasted a better sparkling wine in his life.

Generosity doesn't come naturally to me, though.  Sure, I poured the server a taste, but as he was praising it, I was thinking, "those are three less sips for me."

When you want to hold the bottle upside down over your mouth to make sure you don't miss a drop, that's a Wine of the Year.

Posted by W. Blake Gray at 9:09 AM

December 27, 2010

Paul Lukacs' Picks for 2010 Wine and Winery of the Year

 “Context” apparently became my wine watchword in 2010.  As I look back over the year trying to remember its best bottles, I keep recollecting its memorable moments instead--times rather than tastes, my experience of wines enjoyed in certain places and with certain people rather than any set of particular aromas and flavors.  Like everyone, I suppose, I had my share of uninteresting wines at fairly important moments--the flat sparkler at a wedding or the wooden Chardonnay at a banquet--but I also was lucky enough to enjoy some outstanding wines during some truly wonderful times.  Two of them stand out as my wine and winery of the year.

Wine of the Year

My wife and I spent last Thanksgiving in Paris, nestled in a small but very comfortable apartment for a week, visiting with friends some days, exploring the city by ourselves the rest of the time.  We were on a fairly tight budget, so ate in most days, buying fairly inexpensive wines from a shop down the street.  On our last evening, over a dinner with two Seattle-based friends who also were spending late November in the City of Lights, we prepared a picnic for dinner, with cheeses and pâtés and salads bought that morning at the bustling but frigid open-air Bastille market.  With it, I opened a few bottles, one of which at that moment tasted simply ethereal.  It was Couly-Dutheil Chinon “Les Graviéres” 2009, and it cost all of €12.  (Back home, I hunted for it and found it at my favorite local wine shop.  Imported by Elite Wines, it was selling for $18; I bought all they had.)  Light-bodied but full-flavored, with a finish that seemed to linger literally for minutes, it seemed the perfect wine in the perfect place.  To add to its charm, after our friends had gone home and the dishes had been washed, I finished the last drops in the glass, looking out the window at the wintry-looking rooftops.  As if by magic, it just then started to snow.

Winery of the Year

On a hot, sultry afternoon this past July, Marguerite and I met with Nik Weis, the genially serious, oh-so-focused vintner in charge of the wines at St. Urbans-Hof in Germany’s Mosel river valley.  We had been supposed to meet at a dinner in a restaurant that evening, but circumstances had conspired against that outcome, and he kindly made time to stop by the house to let us taste his wines.  It was very hot and humid--typical Baltimore conditions--but surely unusual weather for someone who lives in northern Germany.  The wines, and the winemaker, changed all that.   As strange as it may sound, tasting--no, better, experiencing--their crystalline purity, and listening to the man who took such evident pride in them, made everything seem cooler and more comfortable.  These were wines that could excite and relax you all at once.  They seemed to soar, their compelling fruit and mineral-laced flavors being light and lacy yet at the same time intense and profound.  That paradoxical character distinguishes the very best Mosel Rieslings, and it was evident in every one of these wines.  Whether dry, off-dry, or overtly sweet, they were stunning.

Posted by Paul Lukacs at 11:08 AM

December 25, 2010

Marguerite Thomas’ Wine and Winery of the Year for 2010

My choice for wine of the year 2010 is not a specific brand of wine, but a grape: Touriga Nacional.  I’m not suggesting that Touriga Nacional makes the tastiest wine in the world, or that Touriga based wines are the best I’ve tasted all year (though I have had some mighty good ones).  One of the reasons for my choice is that this little grape is proving to be a survivor in a world where indigenous species are rapidly disappearing.

Of the 10,000 or so different grape species in the world (of which some 3,000 are table grapes), it seems a pity that the wine drinking public focuses on only about six of them.  But perhaps the tide is shifting.  In Australia, for example, there is currently enormous interest in alternative or “heritage” varieties rather than the same old-same old Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.  Young and new wine drinkers everywhere are apparently seeking out less known wines, and surveys indicate that today’s consumers are expressing an interest in authenticity rather than international style.

But what particular attributes does Touriga Nacional have?  Well, for one thing, it’s easy to pronounce and to spell.  It is a wine blessed with an exuberant personality and an intensely appealing fragrance that typically evokes Earl Grey tea, citrus, and violets (I recently heard someone describe Touriga Nacional as having a “happy aroma”).

Among Touriga Nacional’s many virtues is that it is proving excellent as a stand-alone grape as well as an exceptional component in a blend.  It has long been used as one of the most prevalent blending wines in Port, to which it adds complexity above all, but also balance, and a capacity for great aging.  On its own Touriga tends to yield wines with a medium-light body and a wonderfully refreshing character.  These can be great food wines.

Lately, thanks in part to its ability to thrive in many different terroirs and climates, Touriga Nacional is popping up across the globe, from South Africa, to Virginia, from Greece to New Zealand.  In some places it is vinified on its own, but more often it is used in a blend for its potential to contribute deep color and distinctive aromas.  In Argentina it is being blended with Malbec, in Australia with Shiraz, and undoubtedly with Cabernet in California.  This remarkably versatile grape has certainly proven to be a both a charming soloist and a terrific ensemble player.

One of the poignant things about Touriga Nacional’s story is that it came close to extinction in the 1970s, a time when quantity was valued more than quality in Portuguese vineyards.  Since Touriga Nacional tends to produce less volume than many other grapes it was rapidly being ripped out and replaced by vines that produced large crops. Happily, Portuguese vintners came to their senses in the nick of time, and today Touriga Nacional is one of the country’s greatest vinous assets.  It appears in virtually every wine region in its homeland.  In the Douro it is mostly blended with other grapes to make the trendy new wines produced by the talented group of vintners known colloquially as the “Douro Boys.”  Dao may be the very best region for Touriga Nacional wines, while in Alentejo it occasionally lacks acidity (perhaps because of the ultra-hot growing conditions there).

I had the good fortune to taste a number of Touriga Nacional wines in Portugal very recently.  Among the ones I particularly liked were Churchill’s Estates 2008 (Douro), Encontro 2008 (Bairrada), Inquieto 2008 (Duoro), Quinta da Pedra Alta 2007 (Douro), and Quinta das Marias 2008 (Dao).  Some of these are available in select markets in the US.

Winery of the Year:

Etude Wines from California’s Carneros district is my winery of the year--not on account of one of its wines, but rather its alluring XO Alambic Brandy.

When it comes to brandy, Cognac holds the key to my heart and palate, but I must confess that I recently cheated on my beloved.  It all happened one night when I was introduced to Etude’s XO Alambic Brandy, which comes from an historic estate in Carneros, California.  I can’t claim that it was necessarily love at first sight, but with the first sniff I was pretty well along the path of seduction.  XO’s layered fragrance of sun-warmed rose petals, slivers of orange peel dipped in darkest chocolate, and warm roasted almonds filled me with desire.  How could I resist?  When my lips parted, a rush of flavors including juicy peaches, figs, apricots, and even Raisinets burst across my taste buds, followed by the long, long lingering thrill of exotic spices.  This XO brandy was processed in traditional alembic pot stills and hand-distilled two times.  It’s always a good thing when the object of one’s affections is both rich and well balanced, which Etude XO is--thanks to long aging in fine French oak casks.  Part of its charm and multifaceted personality is due to having been crafted from a blend of Pinot Noir, French Colombard, Chening Blanc, Palomino, Muscat and Folle Blanche grapes.  Sadly, our fling lasted only a few weeks.  The brandy is gone, leaving behind nothing but an empty bottle as a memento of our good times together.

Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 8:50 AM

December 21, 2010

Robert Whitley's Wine of the Year: 2009 Chateau Palmer Margaux

I must confess, I decided the 2010 Wine of the Year the moment I tasted it. It was late March and I was visiting Chateau Palmer in Margaux during the Bordeaux Primeurs. Barrel samples from the much-anticipated 2009 vintage were being evaluated throughout the region, and there was an air of excitement at every stop.

I was trying my best to ignore the inevitable hype. But I succumbed there on the sedate grounds of one of the greatest chateaux of Bordeaux. The 2009 Chateau Palmer Margaux was the finest Palmer I had ever tasted. The fruit was opulent. The structure was rich in tannin and powerful; the balance exquisite. I had the perfect Palmer in my glass.

This was no small concession from me, for I have followed this outstanding Bordeaux Third Growth for nearly four decades. The first Palmer I purchased was from the superb 1966 vintage. Over the years, Chateau Palmer has consistently outperformed its pedigree. There is little doubt that if the 1855 Bordeaux classification were redrawn, Palmer would move up, possibly to First Growth.

The 2009 Palmer will not be inexpensive when it is released for sale in the United States in approximately 15 months. The 2008 Chateau Palmer retails for about $150, but prices have soared on the quality of the '09 vintage. I expect the 2009 Palmer to come in at slightly under $200 a bottle, although the exchange rate could soften that price if the euro weakens over the next year or so.

Collectors are fond of Palmer because it improves with age for up to two decades or more. Cellared properly it can be a 50-year wine, a factor that enhances its attractiveness at auction.

Chateau Palmer was not without stiff competition. Any number of other 2009 Bordeaux could give it a run, as well as a number of other exceptional wines released over the course of 2010.

The best of the other contenders include the 2007 Phelps Insignia ($200), the 2008 Joseph Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru 'Les Clos' ($80), Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Camp Gros Martinenga ($85), Patz & Hall 2007 Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir ($60) and 2006 Twomey Merlot, Napa Valley ($50).

Producer of the Year

Joseph Drouhin, the Burgundy negociant, has taken a strong position in the Chablis district, investing heavily in Premier and Grand Cru vineyards and a winemaking facility.

The upshot is that while Drouhin remains best known for its wines from the Cotes de Nuits and Cotes de Beaune, it is quietly making a name for itself in Chablis. The 2008 vintage was spectacular in Chablis; and Drouhin rode the wave with a superb range of wines from Villages to Grand Cru, crowned of course by the stunning 2008 Les Clos.

Other contenders include Twomey Vineyards, with perhaps the most elegant Pinot Noirs and ageworthy Merlots in all of the United States; Nickel & Nickel for its superb range of single-vineyard wines from the Napa Valley and parts of Sonoma County; Joseph Phelps Vineyards for its sensational 2007 Insignia and Backus Cabernet Sauvignon; and Gloria Ferrer of Sonoma County for upping its game in the world of sparkling wine.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:20 AM

December 15, 2010

Holiday Libations

Robert Whitley's Creators Syndicate column for this week.

It seems like a day doesn't go by without another breathless press release proclaiming (plug in your wine of choice) the perfect wine for the holidays. One day it's Argentine Malbec, another day it's Chilean Carmenere. Or it's the occasional Sicilian Nero d'Avola, with maybe a Merlot from Lodi, Calif., to cover the domestic front.

Tis the season of blah, blah, blah. I'm sure it's all good wine if it's what you like. Personally, I drink Albarino and Gruner Veltliner year-round, no matter the occasion or the outside temp.

Still, there are wines that I most savor around the holidays, especially when there's a crackling fire and the living room is packed with friends.

On such occasions, it's always good to have a bottle of Champagne chilled. Only thing better is two bottles of Champagne chilled. That's my house rule throughout the month of December. I must not be alone, for it's a fact that nearly half of all Champagne sold in the United States is consumed between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

This would be a very expensive habit if I served vintage Champagne or the ultra-luxury tetes de cuvee Champagnes, but I reserve those wines for special occasions (anniversaries, birthdays and the like) or lavish dinners. My everyday Champagnes are the non-vintage brut Champagnes from the major Champagne houses — for those are the easiest to source and usually offer the best pricing.

Non-vintage bruts are blends of several vintages, using at least a splash of the reserves from exceptional years. My personal favorites when I can find them are Pol Roger, Charles Heidsieck Reserve, Bollinger, Laurent Perrier Rose, Deutz and Roederer. I'm also fond of Pommery and Nicolas Feuillatte. And in recent years, Mumm Cordon Rouge and Piper-Heidsieck have found their footing and would be high on anyone's holiday list, especially for those looking for a great NV bottle at a reasonable price. You will find all of these wines at retail for between $30 and $50.

While Champagne is ideal for raising a glass to toast the season, it's also a great match for the salty snacks that abound over the holidays.

When I have guests for dinner at this time of year, I almost always serve cheese or dessert.
That's when I break into my Port stocks.

There are no hard and fast rules for serving Port, but I do have my preferences. I usually serve vintage Port with cheese and tawny Port with sweets. And the older the vintage Port, the more likely I am to choose cheese that is pungent and aromatic. I have long been a fan of Fonseca Vintage Port because of its spiciness, but I'm equally comfortable with Taylor Fladgate, Quinta do Vesuvio or Dow's.

If I'm drinking a younger vintage Port or a Late Bottled Vintage, known as LBV, I try to match those with blue cheeses, which seem to tame the tannins of the younger wines. Some may argue that Vintage Port is a better match for chocolates. I don't necessarily disagree, but I simply prefer them with cheese. A bottle of more recent Vintage Port should cost somewhere between $50 and $100, with older vintages costing much more, depending upon the age and reputation of the vintage. You can find good LBV Ports for $25 or less.

When chocolate or any other sweet is served, I like to match the sweetness of a tawny Port with the dessert. The wine will always suffer if it is less sweet than the dessert being served. Tawny Ports exhibit pronounced caramel and brown spice flavors, and significantly less fruit than you will find in Vintage or LBV Port.

The older the tawny, the more spice and caramel it will show — making 20-year and 30-year-old tawnies ideal for dishes, such as creme brulee or any dessert with carmelized sugars. My two favorite 20-year-old tawnies are Graham's and Smith Woodhouse. Those will likely cost you in excess of $50. Sandeman's tawny is a bit less expensive and generally more widely available.

The beauty of both tawny and vintage Ports is that they can be enjoyed even without food. They make exceptional after-dinner sippers, though I would emphasize the word "sip" for Ports since they are in the range of 20 percent alcohol, which is significantly higher than the percentage of alcohol by volume of a table wine.

I should note that younger tawny is considerably less expensive than older tawny, and stylistically quite different. A 10-year-old tawny, for example, will exhibit more fruit character and candied fruit than a 20-year-old, with less of the brown spice element.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:13 AM

December 13, 2010

McCarthy Gives Italy a Sweep in 2010

Producer of the Year: Vietti

Vietti is my wine producer of the year.  For many years, this winery has been a leader in Piedmont’s Langhe region, for both its Barolo wines and its Barberas.  It seemed fitting to name Vietti my producer of the year in 2010, with the passing this year of Alfredo Currado, the wine genius responsible for establishing Vietti as a great winery. Alfredo died on April 30th at the age of 78, after battling Parkinson’s disease for 12 years.

A trained oenologist, Currado took over as winemaker in 1960 after the death of his father-in-law, Mario Vietti .  He immediately began innovations.  In 1961 Vietti was the first winery in the region to make a single-vineyard Barolo, from the Rocche vineyard in Currado’s home village, Castiglione Falletto.  Currado also made a single-vineyard Barbaresco Masseria that year.  Currado’s reasoning was that there are some vineyards so special that they should not be blended with the grapes from other vineyards—an idea well-established in Burgundy, but novel in traditional Piedmont at that time.  Rocche remained  Currado’s favorite Barolo vineyard his entire life. 

In 1967, Alfredo Currado revived the white variety Arneis from obscurity and near-extinction  (a few farmers were blending it with other varieties).  Now, of course, many producers in Piedmont are making an Arneis wine.

For me, one of Alfredo Currado’s most brilliant moves was establishing his home vineyard, Scarrone, as a source of great Barbera.  Up until the mid-70s, Nebbiolo (the wine grape of Barolo) had been growing in Scarrone.  Currado decided that the quicker-ripening Barbera would be more successful in Scarrone than the late-ripening Nebbiolo, and ripped up the vineyards to plant Barbera.  His neighbors thought Currado was crazy.  Who would rip out Nebbiolo to plant Barbera, thought to be a far less-noble variety—which sold as a wine for one-fourth or one-fifth that of Barolo?  Time proved Currado to be right; his Barbera Scarrone has become one of the great wines from this variety, especially Vietti’s “Vigna Vecchia” bottling, made from the oldest vines in Scarrone.

Today, Alfredo’s 41-year-old son, Luca Currado, continues making some of the best Barolos and Barberas around.  Vietti has other wines, including a very good Barbaresco and Dolcetto, but Barolo and Barbera are its stars.  For me, Vietti’s two great Barolos are its single-vineyard Rocche and the Villero Riserva, produced in superior vintages.  Vietti’s 2006 Barolo Rocche is the current vintage; it’s a powerful long-lived wine that needs another eight to ten years to mature.  The 2006 Vietti Villero Riserva has not yet been released; only small quantities of the Villero are made.

Probably because Alfredo and Luca Currado have always given Barbera the respect it deserves, not treating it as a second-class citizen, Vietti is regarded as one of the elite—if not the best—producers of Barbera.  Vietti’s two under $20 Barberas, Barbera d’Alba Tre Vigne and Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne, always sell out rather quickly.  They are made with just a touch of oak aging.  I am currently enjoying the 2007 Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne; 2008 is the current vintage.

For a truly sublime Barbera experience, try one of Vietti’s single-vineyard Barberas: 2006 Barbera d’Asti La Crena (my favorite) is currently retailing for about $45; 2006 or 2007 Barbera d’Alba Scarrone about $40 to $45; and the exquisite 2006 or 2007 Barbera d’Alba Scarrone “Vigna Vecchia” about $80 to $85. Only small quantities of the Vigna Vecchia are made.

Vietti is the only winery that owns vineyards in all eleven Barolo-producing communes.  Alfredo Currado was a firm believer in owning and controlling his own vineyards.  Fortunately for all of us Piedmontese wine lovers, Luca Currado is following in Alfredo’s footsteps admirably, making Vietti a name to look for when choosing a great Barolo or Barbera. 

Wine of the Year: Planeta 2009 Carricante

My wine of the year is brand new: Planeta’s 2009 Carricante, a white wine from the vineyards on Mount Etna, in Sicily.  In many ways, this could be Italy’s most important new wine of the year.

Mount Etna has gone through a wine revival in the past twenty years.  The very steep slopes and extremely cool climate had discouraged winemaking here in the past.  But a few pioneer winemakers gave it a go in the 1980s, and the resulting wines proved to be excellent.  The terroir is perfect for making exciting, cool-climate wines: minerally, lava-rich soil, steep slopes, and very cool temperatures.  One of the first winemakers to tackle Mt. Etna, Benanti, still produces the state-of-art Carricante, his “Pietramarina.”

Benanti is a small producer, and does not have the kind of distribution that will make Carricante or any of the other Mt. Etna wines a household word among consumers.  In fact, up until now, all of the handful of wine producers on Mt. Etna were tiny.  But Planeta is a major player in Sicilian wines, arguably the most well-known and most highly distributed of current  wine producers on the island.  Planeta has four winemaking  facilities throughout  the southern part of the island; its Mt.Etna winery, which should be completed in 2011, will be its first venture into the cool northeastern part of Sicily. Planeta and a few other large Sicilian producers who have started making wines on Mt. Etna will be able to give this region the recognition it deserves.

Planeta’s first wine made from Mt. Etna, the 2009 Carricante (about $40 retail), made from the Sciara Nuova vineyard, is a beauty: very lively, brimming with minerally flavors, with a lemony zip, it really wakes up the palate. It’s a natural pairing for seafood or with a seafood pasta dish.

The Sciara Nuova vineyard is 2, 854 feet above sea level.  At this height only a few white varieties, like Carricante, can ripen.  It is aged in stainless steel only, and the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation, to keep it fresh and lively. 

Winemaker Alessio Planeta, although very happy with his first attempt with Carricante (only 547 cases made), revealed that the vines are still young, only six years old, and that the wine will get even better as the vines age.  Seeing how much I liked his 2009 Carricante, I can’t wait for future vintages! Planeta has also planted some Reisling in the Sciara Nuova vineyard, and plans to add about ten percent of it to the Carricante wine in the future.

About 800 feet down the slope, red varieties, such as Nerello Mascalese, are growing.  This will be winemaker Alessio Planeta’s next challenge, he revealed.  We both agreed that Mt. Etna has become Sicily’s most exciting new region, one that put Sicily on the map as a major player in fine wines.

Posted by Ed McCarthy at 10:49 AM

December 7, 2010

Cool Wine Gifts for the Holidays

My inbox is full this time of year with queries from panicked holiday shoppers seeking guidance on a gift for the wine enthusiast on their list. No one wants to choose the "wrong" thing for fear, I suppose, their ignorance in matters of the vine might be exposed.

Well, the first thing I advise is to stay away from the bargain bin. Those wines may be great for holiday parties; as a symbol of your undying affection, not so much.

The second thing I tell everyone is to look beyond wine. You may ultimately settle upon a special or rare bottle of wine that befits the occasion, but true wine treasures only come at a price, often a steep price.

I usually begin my holiday shopping in the housewares department of my favorite department store. My first stop is usually at the display for wine decanters. I've never in my life met a single wine lover who had too many wine decanters.

There are practical reasons for owning a decanter. The most obvious is to aerate a young red wine and soften its tannins before serving. Older wines benefit as well, since decanting helps remove deposits of sediment that could spoil the presentation. Multiple decanters are convenient for anyone who hosts a dinner party and plans to serve more than one bottle of wine.

Over the years I've acquired decanters in all manner of shapes and sizes. Decanters can be very expensive, or not. Cut crystal decanters from Baccarat or Waterford may be gifts that will last a lifetime, but simple everyday glass decanters are most practical for those who serve wine on a nightly basis. I sometimes even decant white wines, a practice that enhances aroma.

How much should you pay for a decanter? I've spent hundreds of dollars on a single decanter, but a couple of years ago, I also found a utilitarian Riedel decanter on sale for less than $20. That's why cruising the housewares department first is always a good idea; you never know what specials you will find on sale.

Nearby, you likely will spy an assortment of stemware. When buying wine glasses for myself, I generally opt for simplicity and clean lines. You can spend wads of cash on delicate hand-blown crystal stems — as I have — or you can opt for more modest stems that can do the same job and look nice, too.

The advantage of modesty is that it cuts the expense, which is good because wine glasses sometimes break. I've lost my share over the years, and I have perhaps a half dozen incomplete "sets" of higher-end wine stems that are virtually useless for a dinner party of more than four.
Riedel has a couple of entry-level designs, which have served me well; they have turned out to be dishwasher safe, too.

While sipping in style, you can also save money if you look for off-the-beaten-path wine glass manufacturers, such as any number of brands from Czechoslovakia.

A wine aerator is another hot commodity for the wine enthusiast. They do work and take up less space than a decanter. I generally only use an aerator on young reds, though, because softening tannin is their primary function. You should be able to find a good aerator for between $30 and $40.

Finally, if I think a bottle of wine is really the only way to go, I shop with an eye open for the unusual wine. That would mean wines that are generally acquired for special occasions, or wines that arrive in an attractive package in keeping with the festive nature of the season.

If you are of a mind to splurge, luxury Champagne is the ultimate gift, for it is universally recognized as a gesture of great esteem. Dom Perignon's vintage brut in the trademark green box is both elegant and eye-catching. Perignon's brut and Nicolas Feuillatte's Palmes d'Or vintage brut (in a black velvet bag) are gifting options that will no doubt generate long-lasting fond memories. Both will retail for about $150.

Port is another gift that is always welcome because it's not something a wine lover enjoys necessarily on an everyday basis. Tawny Ports (20 years old and up) are classic wines, especially from the top houses, such as Grahams, Dow's or Smith-Woodhouse. And Vintage Port from any declared vintage is inevitably a winner. The 2003 Vintage Ports are only now beginning to open up and show their greatness. Taylor-Fladgate and Fonseca are my go-to vintage Ports, though I am sometimes driven by price, and those would be among the most expensive.

You should expect to pay between $50 and $100 for a top-notch Port, depending upon age or vintage or producer, or some combination of those three elements.

Of course, sometimes the wine enthusiast in your life may be fond of a specific wine type, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo or A-list California Cabernet Sauvignon. Whatever that preference may be, there is no need to shy away just because you lack familiarity with the wines that fit the bill.

Despite the explosion of online wine retail websites, there is still a place for the brick-and-mortar wine shop, where the staff is wine savvy and eager to help. If you are truly stumped and believe you must choose a special bottle that will absolutely be well received, do yourself a favor and visit an old-fashioned wine merchant.

They are a breed apart and could well become a valuable resource for wine insights for years to come.

To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:42 AM

December 6, 2010

The Chianti Classico Identity Crisis

Unless you are a wine journalist or someone in the Italian wine trade, you probably don't know (and may not care) that the Chianti Classico consorzio recently caved to pressure to exclude Super Tuscans from its annual tastings of soon-to-be-released vintages.

My only interest in the issue is the denial of access to wines from the region at a time when wine journalists are there in force to gather information on the latest Tuscan wines. In Montalcino and Montepulciano, similar tastings are organized for the Brunello and the Vino Nobile.

I have been to what is called the Benvenuto Brunello on a few occasions and found it useful, but would be inclined to make it a regular part of my schedule, and include stops in Montepulciano and the Chianti region, if I could make maximum use of my time and expense to taste all of the wines of those districts in one visit.

The reason I can't is because of the politics of wine in Tuscany, and the fear that openess will bring change and that change will be bad for Tuscan wine.

At the heart of the issue is the renewed debate over purity, and whether or not Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot should be allowed in the DOC and DOCG wines of the region. Opponents believe those grapes obscure the aromas, flavor characteristics and weight of the region's money grape -- Sangiovese.

There is no doubt that too much Merlot and especially Cabernet will alter the trajectory of the wines from the region. But it's also true that Merlot in particular, which ripens much earlier than Sangiovese, has enabled Chianti producers to make very good commercial wines in difficult years.

Without it, the late-ripening Sangiovese would have made light, acidic, uninteresting red wine in years when the weather presented challenges. So to me it seems that the changes to permit Merlot and Cabernet have overall been a net positive for the wines of Tuscany, and especially Chianti Classico.

The traditionalists seem to fear the possibility that the success of Super Tuscans in the world market will drive DOC and DOCG producers to skew their blends more in the direction of the Super Tuscan model, perhaps losing the distinct Sangiovese character of the traditional Tuscan wines.

And that may well happen. I say let the market determine the future of Tuscan wine. Artifical barriers, such as excluding Super Tuscan wines from the Chianti Classico tastings, are merely theatre. Chianti Classico and Brunello, if well made, will hold their own in the market place of wine.

That the proponents of traditional wines see the need to protect their identity seems to be a sign of weakness, rather than a position of strength -- or common sense.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 5:26 PM