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Columns – Michael Franz

Platinum Award Winning Wines: The 21st Annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition
Michael Franz
Jun 26, 2024

June 26, 2024: Over this past weekend, judges gathered in San Diego for the 21st running of the Critics Challenge International Wine and Spirits Competition, an unusual judging conducted entirely by professional wine reviewers who aren't involved in the buying or selling side of the wine trade. The competition was conceived by our friend the late Robert Whitley, who had the wisdom to tap the knowledge and unencumbered objectivity of his fellow wine journalists to create an unprecedented approach to large-scale wine evaluation. The wines reviewed here were the cream of the vast number of entries, all of which were tasted blind before being deemed Platinum Award winners. They were then blind tasted again to assure extraordinary quality, and are reviewed here in detail.

Ed McCarthy: An Appreciation
Michael Franz
May 15, 2024

May 15, 2024: Our friend and long-time Wine Review Online contributor Ed McCarthy passed away on May 2, which we note with sadness and in profound sympathy with his wife, Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW, who has likewise been our friend and contributor since we launched this website in August of 2005. Ed was a keenly intelligent man an insatiable thirst for learning, and also a generous person with a big heart who was always eager to share his learning with others. He and Mary were a wonderful couple who achieved a great deal as collaborators while also distinguishing themselves as individuals at the highest level of accomplishment among all the wine writers and educators in a generation-or two.

Pairing Wines & Foods? You Don't Need a Sommelier
Michael Franz
Mar 27, 2024

March 27, 2024: Sommeliers hold a higher profile right now than they have for a generation--or maybe two. Even while acknowledging that the Court of Master Sommeliers has taken a couple of major hits due to testing mis-steps and some serious abuse of power misdeeds (within the realm of "Me Too Movement" disclosures and expusions), sommeliers are still among the most widely admired authorities in the wine world today. And rightly so--in most cases. I know some Master Sommeliers who are among the most broadly knowledgeable individuals in the entire world of wine. Sommeliers are having a remarkable day in the sun, and they deserve it, but there's one down-side: Once people hear about the rise of a class of professionals who are expert in selecting the right wine for their meal, a lot of those people are going to assume that they can't do this adequately for themselves. Which is simply not true.

New Year's Resolution: Think and Drink Victoria
Michael Franz
Feb 14, 2024

Feb. 14, 2024: Even though we're into February, right now is a perfect time to join me in my resolution to devote sharp attention in the year ahead to the wines of Australia's state of Victoria. The most important reasons for this are provided by the wines themselves: They are highly varied and yet also sharply place-specific due to the many different appellations, micro-climates, and soil concentrations within Victoria. Many are very fresh in a contemporary, cool-climate style that stands in contrast to the sometimes-soupy Shiraz behemoths that were once Australian wine's calling card. Yet most of the wines deliver abundant flavor despite their freshness and verve, and the range of grape varieties that can excel somewhere in the state is truly remarkable. That's great for more adventuresome wine lovers, but those more inclined to concentrate can also take a very deep dive into the Burgundian varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and find lots of examples that can be described as 'Burgundian' with a straight face-which simply isn't true in most global locations where these grapes are grown.

Platinum Award Winners from the 2024 San Diego International Challenge
Michael Franz
Feb 1, 2024

Feb. 1, 2024: Surely you've seen wine competition medal stickers in ads or on labels or 'hang tags' on bottles in retail stores, but there's a strong chance that you've never reflected on what is required for a wine to earn one of the very top awards in a respected competition. A panel of three judges needs to agree that a wine they've tasting 'blind' (knowing only the general category) is not merely deserving of a Silver or Gold medal that corresponds to high a point score, but a Platinum award. Doing that entails sending a bottle-one they haven't yet seen-up for additional scrutiny by the Competition Director and the Chief Judge, who scrutinize the judging panel as well as the wine it deemed deserving of the highest award. Easier for the judges to just give the wine Gold, right? Yes, that's exactly right-unless the wine proves so compelling to all three judges that they elect to stick their necks out to reach a consensus on its behalf.

Wine Review Online's Ed McCarthy Shifting into Columnist Emeritus Status
Michael Franz
Jan 5, 2024

Jan. 5, 2024: It is with profound gratitude that we at WRO thank Ed McCarthy for his consistently excellent columns published every four weeks since we founded this website in August of 2005. Ed addressed a wide range of regions and wine types in an informative and appreciative manner but also with some critical bite where it was deserved. He led readers to the world's best wines and values, but just as important, explained why excellent producers were achieving excellence-and why mediocre ones were falling short.

Robert Whitley's Christmas Table & Paul Lukacs' Cognacs for the Holidays
Michael Franz
Dec 27, 2023

Dec. 27, 2023: Every year has its challenges as well as its charms, but for me and my colleagues at Wine Review Online, the recent stretch of years has been supremely challenging. We lost two dear friends worthy of the highest admiration, Robert Whitley, our Publisher and a journalist of remarkable accomplishment, and Paul Lukacs, a contributor since this site launched in 2005 and a James Beard Award-winning book author. After a period of healing, the time seems right to republish two end-of-year columns from our archives to recall Robert and Paul to your attention, and to direct your gaze toward the wise columns available for reading by simply clicking on their photos on the WRO "Home" page. We will never be the same without these two, but then again, we'll always be better for having known them.

The Right Wine(s) for Thanksgiving...Plus 2024 Chickens
Michael Franz
Nov 22, 2023

Nov. 22, 2023: I'm publishing this on the day before Thanksgiving in the USA, while millions of shoppers are dealing with the dual nightmares of jammed stores and the challenge of selecting a wine for tomorrow's feast. We Americans do this every year, so one might think it wouldn't pose much of a challenge. But it just ain't so, as you can tell from the panicked expressions on the faces of shoppers in grocery stores and wine shops if you venture out today. Vast numbers of Americans cook big meals for big groups only once each year and buy wine only occasionally. So, if you're dealing with a daunting challenge today, you might as well make it pay off for many other meals after you get through tomorrow.

Welcoming Columnist Pam Roberto to Wine Review Online
Michael Franz
Nov 1, 2023

Nov. 1, 2023: Along with my colleagues at Wine Review Online, I'm delighted to welcome Pam Roberto to our ranks as a regular columnist. I've known Pam for about eight years in our shared metropolitan area of Washington, DC, first meeting her when she participated in tastings I conducted at Capital Wine School. Although that establishment is called a 'school,' and despite the fact that what I was presiding over were technically called 'classes,' it became apparent to me immediately that Pam was my equal rather than my 'student'-if indeed I can legitimately refer to myself as her equal! Pam is an exceptionally talented taster who is very effective at identifying wines even when tasting 'blind.' More important still for our purposes, she's very adept at articulating both merits and demerits when evaluating wines, always regarding them appreciatively but never mincing words when addressing a shortcoming.

When Should I Open This Wine?
Michael Franz
Sep 20, 2023

Sept. 20, 2023: For me, the the toughest of all commonly asked consumer questions about wine is, "How Long Should I Age This Wine?" The problem isn't that this is a dumb question. On the contrary, it is a question that every novice wine-lover should ask. After all, everybody is somewhat aware that wine is unique by comparison to spirits or beer in an important respect: Wine holds the potential to develop in a positive way after we purchase it, though it can also be degraded if held too long. When we come into possession of our first few bottles of serious wine, we're put on the spot: There's no owner's manual, and the decision of when to open the bottles is thrust upon us, and we don't want to mishandle something that rightly strikes us as a rather big deal. We want to open the wine at its apogee, or at any rate to avoid misusing a bottle that was a valued gift, or a keepsake from a memorable trip, or just a conspicuously expensive purchase.

Welcoming Andrew Holod to Wine Review Online
Michael Franz
Sep 13, 2023

Sept. 13, 2023: Along with my colleagues at Wine Review Online, I'm delighted to welcome Andrew Holod to our ranks. He's starting up this week with a set of reviews, and you'll find his recommendations virtually every Wednesday going forward on the WRO 'Reviews' page. Andrew will also begin contributing columns toward the end of next month. Andrew is an American-born child of immigrants from Ukraine. He was raised in the exceptionally diverse suburbs of Washington, DC, where he was exposed to a broad range of cultures and many different foods, many of which were grown in his family's garden. University studies at Virginia Tech resulted in a BS degree in Industrial Design after extensive work with wood and plastics while also machining metal, photographing, welding, printing, and engaging in computer-aided design. Studies also included literature, the philosophy of art and 'most importantly'-as Andrew told me-wine.

Welcoming John McDermott to Wine Review Online
Michael Franz
Aug 16, 2023

Aug. 16, 2023: Along with my colleagues at Wine Review Online, I'm delighted to welcome John McDermott to our ranks. He started up last week with a set of six reviews, with a column up this week, and you'll find his recommendations virtually every Wednesday going forward on the WRO 'Reviews' page. As a columnist in our rotation, you'll see additional articles from him on a regular basis going forward. John has dedicated over a decade to the rigorous study of wine, combining both formal education and informal exploration. His wine education journey began at the Cape Wine Academy of South Africa, and more recently, under the auspices of the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET).

World's Best Budget Quaffing Wine: South African Chenin Blanc
Michael Franz
Jul 19, 2023

July 19, 2023: For better and worse, I live in Washington, D.C., where the months of July and August are akin to a prolonged steam bath. On the plus side, D.C. is also the USA's leading city in terms of per capita wine consumption, so those living here know a little bit about what to drink when temperatures soar. What's the best wine to drink during torrid summer conditions? I've already tipped my hand with the title of this column, but let me assert my answer again: Chenin Blanc from South Africa is the best choice for anyone who wants a highly consistent, thoroughly satisfying, surprisingly durable, excitingly refreshing wine that offers outstanding value and excellent versatility at the table.

An Object Lesson in the Evolution of Champagne
Michael Franz
Jul 19, 2023

July 19, 2023: My recent (and first) encounter with this Champagne provided a striking and highly enjoyable experience. The 'striking' dimension of the experience flowed from the enjoyment, because the wine is beautifully balanced and wonderfully intricate with no sugar added after disgorging (that's what Brut "Nature" means) and with no additional cellaring time after release. I always lay down low- or no-dosage Champagnes for at least a year after I buy them-often significantly longer-but this bottle was a press sample from the importer, and I cracked into it straight away to review it. That takes us back to the 'striking' effect, as this wine is an object lesson in how the Champagne region is changing in ways that aren't evident to those who only taste standard non-vintage bottlings from the big houses.

Platinum Award Winning Wines: The 20th Annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition
Michael Franz
Jun 28, 2023

June 28, 2023: ver this past weekend, judges gathered in San Diego for the 20th judging of the Critics Challenge, which was established by Robert Whitley in a series of initiatives that included the 2005 launch of Wine Review Online. Both ventures are still running strong, as the reviews of top award winners from the Challenge here will indicate, and as will become evident from a redesign of WRO that will debut soon. The wines reviewed here were the cream of a crop of nearly 1,000 entries, all of which were tasted blind before being deemed Platinum Award winners. After receiving this highest-level award, all the wines were then re-tasted, reviewed and scored either by Rich Cook, Competition Director, or Michael Franz, Chief Wine Judge. In every review that appears below, the taster and writer is identified - in keeping with WRO's longstanding practice of attributing every word of every review to a particular taster, so that you can determine whether your palate accords (or not) with our reviewers.

Bodegas Elías Mora: Excellence at Every Level from Spain's Toro Region
Michael Franz
Jun 7, 2023

June 7, 2023: Those of us who not only enjoy drinking wine but also learning about it proceed in pretty much the same way. First, we try a few wines that are not only delicious but also interesting. Second, we broaden out from our initial interest to learn about wines made from other grape varieties, or maybe learn what our 'first love' grapes taste like when grown in other locations around the world. Either way, it is natural to progress 'from the top down,' beginning with entire nations like France or Italy, then moving down to particular regions, and finally-for the more ardent learners among us-down to the level of particular producers. That's a natural progression, but the sad fact is that many wine consumers never progress to that last stage. This fact is sad because the real locus of quality in wine is at the level of producers rather than regions, much less entire countries.

Sidetracks to Great Wine: Ten Top Destinations
Michael Franz
May 3, 2023

May 3, 2023: Summer travel season is now nearly underway for most people, with the end of school on the horizon, and travel industry experts predict a boom in international travel due to pent-up demand because of Covid and overdue resumption of business travel. Regardless of whether your summer travels will include kids (from whom you might…um…desire a brief break) or boring business meetings that drive you to drink, wine lovers should be aware of a fortuitous fact: If you travel internationally, many of the world's most storied vineyards are only a few minutes away from common routes and destinations. For example, if your European travels include a stop at the aviation hub in Frankfurt, a rented car and 45 minutes of bat-out-of-hell fun on the autobahn will deliver you to one of the greatest wine estates in Germany. Or, if you can carve out a couple of hours between business meetings in Adelaide, you can be sipping Shiraz in McLaren Vale in less than an hour.

From Hinterland to Emerging Epicenter: Spain's Remarkable Bierzo Region
Michael Franz
Mar 22, 2023

March 22, 2023: I'm writing this while returning from three days of intensive tasting in Bierzo, which is also to say that I'm winding up a seven-day trip. No kidding. Bierzo is so remote that it is taking me longer to get there and back than the span I could enjoy tasting in the region, and that's timed from the East Coast of the USA to Bierzo, which is on the western side of Spain, which is among the most westerly of all European countries. To say that Bierzo is a remote wine region is indisputably true but also trivial, because Bierzo's wines are so superb that they make the journey worth the effort-regardless of the rigors involved.

Hinterland to Emerging Epicenter: Spain's Remarkable Bierzo Region
Michael Franz
Mar 22, 2023

March 22, 2023: I'm writing this while returning from three days of intensive tasting in Bierzo, which is also to say that I'm winding up a seven-day trip. No kidding. Bierzo is so remote that it is taking me longer to get there and back than the span I could enjoy tasting in the region, and that's timed from the East Coast of the USA to Bierzo, which is on the western side of Spain, which is among the most westerly of all European countries. To say that Bierzo is a remote wine region is indisputably true but also trivial, because Bierzo's wines are so superb that they make the journey worth the effort-regardless of the rigors involved.

Beyond Brut: Expand Your Champagne Horizon
Michael Franz
Mar 8, 2023

March 8, 2023: Champagne is the single most joyous of all the world's wines, and there are really only two sad things about it: Most consumers only taste Champagne toward the end of the calendar year, and most never taste examples other than standard-issue non-vintage Brut to discover the distinctively delicious wines that exist out on Champagne's stylistic margins. This column is intended to encourage you to run contrary to both of these trends.

The Superiority of Prosecco Superiore
Michael Franz
Feb 15, 2023

Feb. 15, 2023: As most wine lovers were aware, Prosecco, Italy's frothy, fun-loving sparkling wine, is booming. However, recent history in the wine trade has proved that not every "boom" is a "boon." Whenever a wine category catches commercial fire, the wine trade strains every nerve to keep up with skyrocketing demand. But just as a rocket in the boost phase torches everything beneath it, a booming wine category can incinerate the reputation of the high-quality wine that provided a foundation for the initial lift-off. That is exactly what booming--but often uninspiring--Prosecco DOC is threatening to do to the high-quality Prosecco Superiore DOCG grown on the steep hills in the Prosecco heartland around Valdobbiadene and Conegliano. Based on four intensive tasting trips to the region and many interviews with vintners there, I believe it is crucial for wine lovers to understand how the plight of Prosecco Superiore arose in the first place...so that they will be aware of why they should pony up a few more bucks for true excellence in Prosecco.

Platinum Award Winners from the San Diego International Challenge
Michael Franz
Feb 2, 2023

Feb. 2, 2023: Surely you've seen wine competition medal stickers in ads or on labels or 'hang tags' on bottles in retail stores, but there's a strong chance that you've never reflected on what is required for a wine to earn one of the very top awards in a respected competition. A panel of three judges needs to agree that a wine they've tasting 'blind' (knowing only the general category) is not merely deserving of a Silver or Gold medal that corresponds to high a point score, but a Platinum award. Doing that entails sending a bottle-one they haven't yet seen-up for additional scrutiny by the Competition Director and the Chief Judge, who scrutinize the judging panel as well as the wine it deemed deserving of the highest award. Easier for the judges to just give the wine Gold, right? Yes, that's exactly right-unless the wine proves so compelling to all three judges that they elect to stick their collective neck out on its behalf.

Wine Pairings for Classic Holiday Meals
Michael Franz
Dec 7, 2022

Dec 7, 2022: Many people I know do more cooking and entertaining in the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day than during the rest of the year combined. That adds up to a lot of stress for those who aren't regular cooks or entertainers, so the one thing I can do to help is offer some wine recommendations to go with end-of-year meals. The recommendations that follow can at least take one set of worries off your proverbial plate, and I'll offer ideas for several classic holiday meals beyond turkey. Hopefully you've already cooked and eaten your only turkey of the year at Thanksgiving and will shift to alternatives for end-of-year occasions such as Hanukkah, Christmas, or New Year's Eve and Day. However, I know some tradition-bound families revert to that damned bird yet again in December, and if you belong to one of them, at least I can help you switch up the wine!

Domus Aurea: World-Class Cabernet, Ten Minutes Away
Michael Franz
Nov 2, 2022

Nov. 2, 2022: My last overseas trip prior to the pandemic shut-down was a wine-intensive vacation to Chile. There were many highlights, and those who've never traveled to Chile from the USA should be aware that the flights are easy despite being long, as there's almost no time change involved and hence virtually no jet lag. Driving in Chile is easy, so renting a car and going your own way at your own pace is likewise far easier than some people might assume. The scenery is varied and extremely interesting, and of course the Andes are spectacular. The fact that seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere opens wonderful possibilities (for example, escape summer heat in DC and go…skiing!). And yet, even among all these highlights, and even though I'm once again traveling frequently, I remain especially attentive to a winery visit with one of my favorite producers worldwide -- which began after a 10-minute Uber ride from my hotel in Santiago.

Roero: A Leading Piedmont Region for Excellence, Variety and Value
Michael Franz
Oct 5, 2022

Oct. 5, 2022: If you are a wine lover who doesn't regularly enjoy bottles from Roero, you are missing out on some of the most delicious wines that Italy has to offer…and I mean all of Italy. There's really no shame in being unaware of Roero's wines, which haven't gained near as much commercial traction as they deserve in the USA-for reasons that can be explained clearly. However, it is definitely a shame to miss out on Roero's terrific renditions of Nebbiolo, Barbera and Arneis if you love the wines grown around Alba and the broader district of Barolo and Barbaresco. Recently I was fortunate to devote a week to tasting several hundred wines while conducting winery visits and speaking with producers, and I'm eager to communicate my findings in this first column on Roero…which won't be my last one.

The House of Elvio Cogno: Racing to the Top in Barolo
Michael Franz
Aug 24, 2022

August 24, 2022: I've been writing about wine for a long time now, and I've always been very hesitant to publish producer profiles. There's no point in profiling a winery unless the writer regards those who run it as especially admirable, but open admiration can seem antithetical to critical independence. However, I figure I wouldn't have lasted for nearly 30 years as a wine writer if readers didn't find my evaluations trustworthy, so now the time has come to occasionally single out producers whose achievements are both extraordinary and also less well known than they deserve to be. That evaluation is easily merited by the achievements of the Elvio Cogno winery in Barolo, and of Nadia Cogno and her husband Valter Fissore, who have worked tirelessly and courageously to attain elite standing in one of the world's premier wine regions.

Platinum Award Winning Wines: Critics Challenge International Wine Competition
Michael Franz
Jun 28, 2022

June 28, 2022: Over this past weekend, judges gathered in San Diego for the 19th edition of Critics Challenge, which was established by Robert Whitley in a series of initiatives that included the 2005 launch of Wine Review Online. Both ventures are still running strong, as the reviews of top award winners from the Challenge here will indicate, and as will become evident from a redesign of WRO that will debut in the near future. The wines reviewed here were the cream of a crop of more than 1,000 entries, all of which were tasted blind before being deemed Platinum Award winners.

Alto Adige Pinot Bianco: World's Most Underrated White?
Michael Franz
Jun 9, 2022

June 9, 2022: My only reservation about the title of this column is whether I should have dropped the question mark at its end. I have no doubt that Pinot Bianco (or Pinot Blanc in French, or Weissburgunder in German) ranks among the world's noble white wine varieties, even though I know this is not widely recognized. Moreover, I have no doubt that the world's broadest collection of excellent examples comes from Alto Adige, in the northernmost portion of eastern Italy. So why the question mark? Simply because the world of wine is so multi-faceted that any statement with an unqualified 'most' is inherently suspect, and those who are serious analysts of wine should always be a bit reserved. But with that acknowledged, I'm quick to emphasize that this is a criminally undervalued category-even among wine writers-and one that deserves the attention of every wine lover.

Ribera del Duero: Region in Transition at Spain's Highest Level
Michael Franz
Apr 27, 2022

Apr. 27, 2022: I have admired the wines of Ribera del Duero since I began studying wine in the latter half 1980s, and have witnessed their rise from virtual obscurity to a stature at which they are now arguably the best reds in Spain. When I was starting out, it would have been virtually impossible to mount such an argument, and for good reason: There was very little wine about which to argue, as Ribera del Duero wasn't even a legal wine appellation until 1982, and at that time, there were only 9 wineries. The total now exceeds 300 producers, and though the region is currently in a period of rapid stylistic change, the case for Ribera del Duero as Spain's best red region has become very strong indeed. The bulk of this column will be devoted to tasting notes that can direct you to some of the area's best wines and strongest values, following a compact account of how the area is developing at this time. Such an account is worthwhile because it is quite rare to see a region that is undergoing major changes even as it is challenging the premier growing areas in one of the world's most important wine producing countries.

No Complaining in Spain
Michael Franz
Mar 10, 2022

Mar 10, 2022: Life always furnishes sufficient reason to complain, I suppose, but complaining is quite unbecoming when other people are worse off. And I think it is safe to say that--for anyone spending time on a wine website--somebody is always worse off. Still, I had a rather rough arrival day in Spain today, and ate my dinner in a standard issue hotel room in front of my computer. But still, no complaining, and if you have a look at what I was able to assemble during 45 minutes in an unpromising food neighborhood, you might learn something you don't already know about Spain's amazing food culture.

Welcoming Vince Simmon to Wine Review Online
Michael Franz
Mar 2, 2022

Mar 2, 2022: Along with my colleagues at Wine Review Online, I'm delighted to welcome Vince Simmon to our ranks. He's starting up this week with a set of reviews, and you'll find his recommendations virtually every Wednesday going forward on the WRO 'Reviews' page. I've enjoyed tasting with Vince many times over the past 4+ years, mostly through Capital Wine School. I was struck almost immediately by the intensity with which he encounters wines as he tastes them, and also by the flood of impressions he's able to offer in reaction to them, based on his sharp palate and broad inventory of tasting experience. It was impossible not to notice that he seemed to be committing these impressions to writing while we were tasting, entering characters at top speed on his mobile device. When I learned that he was on his way to posting more than 11,000 reviews on Vivino-that was all I needed to know…to try to recruit him.

A Celebration of Quality: The 40th Annual San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge Platinum Award Winners
Michael Franz
Feb 4, 2022

For some time now, reviews of the top wines from this well-respected event have graced the pages of Wine Review Online, and for the judging's 40th Anniversary, we thought it appropriate to run them all together in this space so that the collection can be viewed as a set-one that gives an overall sense of the excellence an event like this can bring forward. Judges worked through well more than a thousand wines to see that the cream rose to the top, and then two of WRO's writers sought to describe the attributes characterizing the very best wines.

Breathtakingly Beautiful Barolo: 37 Fantastic Wines from the 2016 Vintage
Michael Franz
Jan 5, 2022

I started writing about wine more than 25 years ago for The Washington Post, and over this span I have seen my colleagues write again and again-breathlessly-about more than a few 'historically great' vintages. Not wishing to seem ridiculous, I've tried to avoid swooning over growing seasons that produced striking wines. This has proved to be a sound approach to critical writing about wine, preventing me from having to recant praise for a 'best ever' vintage when another, even better one subsequently came around the corner. I was once sure that 2010 would be the best year I'd live to see from my beloved Barolo district, and though I've definitely not changed my mind about the greatness of the wines made in that year, I confess to having fallen even more deeply in love with the 2016s.

Changeup: Side-Step from Champagne to Franciacorta
Michael Franz
Dec 15, 2021

At some point this holiday season, you should try a bottle of bubbly from Franciacorta, which won't be a step down from Champagne, but rather a side-step. Franciacorta is Italy's premier region for sparkling wine, and yet it remains relatively little known around the world. I can explain this, but first, I should state clearly that the best wines of the region rival the quality of the world's best sparklers from anywhere, including Champagne. Moreover, they are considerably more complex and age-worthy than Prosecco, including the top renditions of Prosecco Superiore DOCG (though this is no knock on those wines, which excel based on freshness, not aged complexity). Finally, the average quality of Franciacorta's sparklers is extraordinarily high, so it is unquestionably worthwhile for any wine lover to learn about these exceptional sparklers.

Bodegas San Román: Improving Upon Excellence
Michael Franz
Nov 16, 2021

A recent tasting of the wines from Bodegas y Vinedos San Roman provided an object lesson in the fact that even the world's best wineries can still get better, offering improved value at every price level. I was fortunate to visit this winery shortly after it was established in the late 1990s by Mariano Garcia, then best known for a long and spectacularly distinguished winemaking career at Vega Sicilia. The wines were extremely impressive from the outset, but also very powerful and oaky, and really made for the cellar rather than current consumption, with the result that relatively few tasters could fully appreciate them and buy with a view to the future. Since that time, the wines have become ever better, retaining all of their flavorful character but with even better purity and balance that lends charm to their initial impressiveness. The current releases are simply stunning.

Welcoming Christy Frank as Columnist to Wine Review Online
Michael Franz
Sep 16, 2021

It is with great pleasure that I write to welcome Christy Frank to the ranks of WRO wine columnists. As you'll learn, Christy is an outstanding writer - quick, clear, and funny, but also deeply knowledgeable. The attributes on either side of that last comma - funny and deeply knowledgeable - don't often go together. Lots and lots of serious education tends to 'beat the funny' out of many people, and those who dodge that beating often just start taking themselves too seriously to stay funny. There's no doubting the depth and extent of Christy's education, which has yielded a B.A. from Cornell, a Master of Economics in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics, and an MBA from Columbia, plus a Diploma from WSET and certification as an Advanced Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Yikes! Book learnin' is what my old friends on pipeline crews would have called all of that, but they wouldn't have been able to dismiss Christy on that score, as her education has been leavened by lots of practical experience in the wine trade.

The Scandalously Poor Performance of Affordable American Wine
Michael Franz
Aug 17, 2021

There is a scandal in the American wine industry, and it isn't what you might guess. It has nothing to do with the use of chemicals or scary additives. Nor is it about strange manipulative processes like "reverse osmosis" or "spinning cones." The scandal in American wine is that the United States produces distressingly few globally competitive wines costing $20 or less. This assertion isn't based on a mere impression on my part, but rather extremely extensive and rigorous tasting over many years, and I'd ask you to hear me out before either dismissing it or agreeing with it. And when you've heard me out, I'd be eager to hear whether you share or disagree with my assessment.

Champagne for … Thursday?
Michael Franz
Jul 13, 2021

The greatest achievement in the history of wine marketing and the biggest blunder may be one and the same: Casting Champagne as the singular wine of celebration. The achievement side of this is obvious: For any wine producing region to get the entire world to associate its product above all others with joyfulness and triumph is an awe-inspiring feat of salesmanship. Moreover, Champagne marketers have achieved an almost universal association of their product with luxury. The blundering aspect of what Champagne marketers have done during the past two centuries is nearly as obvious, but not quite. Associating Champagne with celebration and luxury causes most people, including wine lovers, to think of it as a wine that requires a special occasion, and enjoy it much less frequently as a result. That in turn has resulted in very widespread failure to appreciate Champagne's reasonable affordability as well as its status as one of the world's greatest and most versatile wines.

Tribute: Paul Lukacs Ph.D., 1956-2021
Michael Franz
Jun 22, 2021

On Tuesday, June 15, the wine world lost one of its most insightful writers, and we at Wine Review Online lost one of our founding contributors and best friends. Paul's life was marked by so many accomplishments that no brief posting in this space can do more than begin to do it justice. But begin we must, so let me start with this: He was such a modest and unassuming gentleman that most of his hundreds of friends and acquaintances in the wine world didn't know he held a Ph.D., was a beloved professor and department chair, and a national leader in academic circles - including the highest levels of Phi Beta Kappa. Likewise, many of Paul's academic colleagues were unaware that he had authored three wine books, had won James Beard, Cliquot and IACP awards for them, was arguably the world's leading authority on the history of both American wine and the overall history of wine, was a successful restaurant consultant, and had judged wine competitions all around the globe.

Middleweight Greats
Michael Franz
May 4, 2021

In any category that includes lots of different things, those falling in the middle often get overlooked, simply because they don't stand out like those situated at the extremes. For example, in the category of political opinions, the most strident views tend to get the most attention, whether they lean left or right, whereas moderate views just don't seem 'loud' enough to draw much media coverage. Similarly, in wine, the biggest wines hogged the limelight for the past two decades, though now the publicity pendulum is swinging toward counter-revolutionary wines with strikingly high acidity and notably low alcohol. Such shifts are to be expected, but still, savvy consumers should never neglect moderate middleweights: These are precisely the wines that appeal to the widest spectrum of personal taste--since people actually taste them--and also the ones that will prove most versatile at the table.

Zig When They Zag: Nebbiolo and Arneis from Roero
Michael Franz
Mar 23, 2021

Everybody who knows anything about investing knows to run contrary to the crowd: Sell when everybody else is buying and buy when they are selling. This holds equally true for wine. Chasing nothing but the hottest producers from the best vintages only makes sense if you're a Trust Fund Baby. For the rest of us who aren't oozing money but who want to drink really good wine often-not just on special occasions-it is really important to learn about regions that are over-performing in relation to their current reputation and consumer demand. Few regions in the world fit that description as well as Roero, where producers are making excellent reds from Nebbiolo and whites from Arneis within sight of both Barolo and Barbaresco, but at much lower prices.

Appreciation: Robert Whitley, 1950 - 2021
Michael Franz
Feb 16, 2021

As many readers of Wine Review Online are aware from the sad notice I posted in this web site's blog space 10 days ago, we lost Robert Whitley to a very aggressive cancer on February 3. Robert was WRO's Publisher (among many other things, as you'll see below), having partnered with me and Michael Apstein to establish and launch the site in 2005. We were confident that many tributes to Robert and recollections of him would be sent to us before long, and our confidence was well placed. Following a relatively brief account of Robert's life, we will share many of them here. This column is being published under my name simply because I compiled it, but the deeper truth is that Robert effectively wrote it himself--through his accomplishments and by etching his memory into the hearts and minds of those whose reminiscences appear below.

Mencía from Bierzo: The Latest Arrival at the Gateway to Greatness
Michael Franz
Jan 26, 2021

For many years while I was working as wine columnist for The Washington Post, I conducted a live, online question-and-answer show on the paper's website. During all of those years, the smartest question ever asked was, 'What is the best wine in the world that I've never heard of?' My answer was, 'Mencía from Bierzo.' Since then, I've been fortunate to visit many additional wine regions around the world, and to taste thousands of new wines each year. However, if I were asked the question again today, my answer would remain the same. This shows how strong Bierzo Mencía stands in my critical estimation, but I would prefer to have a new answer. If more wine lovers around the world had tried these wines in the intervening years, they'd now have attained the fame they deserve.

Soaring Sicily, Vol. Two: Remarkable Reds
Michael Franz
Nov 26, 2020

As luck would have it, I'm finishing this column and posting it on the USA's Thanksgiving Day in 2020, a year that has challenged everyone's ability to maintain thankfulness on a consistent basis. However, despite a deadly global pandemic and the related shocks to economies around the world-plus the forced separation of families and friends-I have been buoyed during this year by wine's ability to provide the excitement of discovery and the appreciation of beauty on a daily basis. And during this surpassingly difficult year, my principal source of excitement and beauty has been the astonishing island of Sicily.

Soaring Sicily, Vol. One: The Whites
Michael Franz
Oct 13, 2020

There's a saying that, "if you hang around long enough, you'll see almost everything" and that's coming true regarding wine from Sicily. When I started writing about wine for The Washington Post in 1994, most remarks about Sicilian wine were not even up to the level of jokes, seeming more often like slurs. As a case in point, I can still recall a conversation from the early 2000s in the Chianti district when a producer accused one of his neighbors of adulterating his wines by adding cheap, high alcohol juice from Sicily. He exclaimed, "I've seen the tanker trucks roll in during the night…it is a scandal…you write for the newspaper that took down Nixon…you need to write about this!" Of course, I wasn't going to do any such thing without proof, but today I can say this: That slightly unhinged guy should now be complaining if his neighbor is adding Sicilian juice to his Chianti Classicos because he'd probably be enhancing their quality.

A Wine Aesthetic for the Covid Era
Michael Franz
Sep 8, 2020

Almost everyone whom I tell about my work as a wine writer, restaurant consultant, wine educator, and wine competition judge shares a common reaction: They envy my work, and do so quite openly. However, you may be a bit surprised to learn exactly why I am most thankful for my opportunity to write about wine and work in this world, and maybe you'll find in this a new way to think about your own relation to this most amazing beverage--one that is perhaps appropriate for this particular time, when millions of are out of work and many millions more confront economic insecurity for the indefinite future.

Summer's Two Most Surprisingly Refreshing Sips
Michael Franz
Jul 14, 2020

We're now far enough into summer that you may be looking to switch things up when searching for wines suitable for sipping in hot weather. If you're a dedicated wine lover, odds are that you've already hit the usual suspects, such as Rosé from Provence, Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, dry Riesling from Germany or Australia, Assyrtiko from Greece, Grüner Veltliner from Austria, or Fiano from southern Italy. Of course, this list could be lengthened with ease, but there's a pretty reliable way to know when you've run the gamut on white wines for summer: Once you're resorting to cheap Pinot Grigio, it is time for radical change.

A Promising New Player in the Walla Walla AVA: Echolands Winery
Michael Franz
Jul 10, 2020

New wineries get established pretty regularly in the New World, but I'm much less regular about actually reading the press releases about them. Something about a new venture needs to catch my eye, or I'm entirely content to wait to taste whatever comes of it, however long the interim. In this instance, however, something caught my eye in the press release, and then the debut wine caught my fancy the next week. What caught my eye was the involvement of one of the best minds in wine…Doug Frost, MW & MS…getting ready to launch a Syrah from Walla Walla from a venture in which he is a principal.

Optimizing Wine for Summertime
Michael Franz
Jun 23, 2020

Temperature is a crucial factor in wine appreciation, yet it is a factor that is insufficiently appreciated by many consumers. Wine critics and competition judges know that any wine will taste dramatically different when tasted at different temperatures. Similarly, sommeliers and connoisseurs know that the season or even the ambient temperature in a room will affect the appeal of almost any wine--whether advantageously or adversely. Being thoroughly informed about the importance of temperature is one of the most helpful ways to pick better wines and get the most out of them, usually without spending a dime.

Insanely Delicious Pinots from…Germany
Michael Franz
Jun 9, 2020

If the current state of the world has you filled with foreboding, you could chalk up the arrival of fabulous Pinot Noir from Germany to global warming. Or, if you're trying to be upbeat about things, you could attribute this happy surprise to German craftsmanship. If you're feeling even-handed, you could credit both, which probably makes sense. But in any case, though few American wine lovers have yet to experience the wines directly, Pinot Noirs from Germany have arrived at a point quite near the peak of the global quality pyramid. I've been enjoying some of the better examples for about a decade at this point, and also taking devilish pleasure in inserting them in blind tasting classes at Capital Wine School as well as private tastings for law firms and other clients around my home in D.C. Pinots from the likes of Meyer-Näkel routinely mop the floor with top Premier Cru Burgundies when tasted sight-unseen, which is fun to witness in its own right, but not quite as fun as seeing big-shot lawyers glaze over in amazement when the wines are revealed after a vote.

Sicily: Front and Center for 2020
Michael Franz
Jan 7, 2020

My year ahead will include a major immersion in the wines of Sicily, which have improved so broadly and rapidly that this fascinating island is now a candidate for the title of world's leading vinous hotspot. An intensive tasting trip last year opened my eyes to portions of Sicily that I hadn't visited previously, while also indicating how comprehensively excellent top producers have become in crafting nuanced, individuated wines from distinct locations and grape varieties. To be sure, I've been tasting the rise of Sicilian wine for years on end, but doing so intermittently while also tasting constantly from elsewhere, so I confess that the full magnitude of Sicily's advancement has snuck up on me. However, my second visit was a week-long, on-site bath in beauty that finally triggered an epiphany for me during 2019, and I fully intend to make up for lost time this year.

Best of the Best from 2019
Michael Franz
Dec 10, 2019

I hope you feel as fortunate as I do at the end of another calendar year. After tasting more than 9,000 wines, reconnecting with dozens of friends, enjoying many wonderful meals, and flying more than 100,000 miles to see scores of beautiful vineyards, I cannot imagine how I could have been luckier than to turn wine into 'work.' The best part of all this is the sharing, and I am convinced that wine lovers are among the most generous people in the world: with their time, knowledge, hospitality, enthusiasm…and of course their bottles. There's a limit to what I can share over the internet, but here are some pointers to some of the best wine-related aspects of my 2019 that could enhance your 2020.

Visit a World Class Winery While Near DC? Yes…Linden Vineyards
Michael Franz
Nov 12, 2019

Wineries are popular places to visit, but the reasons for this aren't immediately obvious. Growing grapes and making wine are not easy tasks, but they involve a fairly small set of standard practices. Vintners around the world spend their time doing pretty much the same things in facilities that differ very little in functional terms. You could get the idea that seeing one is seeing them all, and though that is not entirely wrong, it turns out to be superficial and misleading. Along with particularities of climate and soil, the real essence that differentiates one winery from another radiates from the priorities of the proprietor. It only takes a few minutes at Linden Vineyards to sense that the place is run by a farmer. Neither a merchandiser nor an entertainer, Jim Law is first and foremost a farmer, and that's what makes Linden Vineyards such a distinctive and valuable enterprise in Fauquier County.

Northern Rhône Sweet Spot: Saint-Joseph
Michael Franz
Sep 17, 2019

Fine Syrah from France's Northern Rhône Valley is one of the world's greatest wines, but the sad fact is that not much of it is made. Appellations in the southern Rhône ranging from simple Côtes-du-Rhône up to Châteauneuf-du-Pape crank out fully 10 times as much wine, and though both have their differing strengths, wines from the north are simply more precious. Pricey too, on account of their rarity, and that is a problem that will only get worse as these marvelous wines continue to rise in fame around the world. Top releases from Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are already exceeding $400 per bottle in price, so savvy consumers are turning to other appellations in the north for great quality at lower prices. If this is what you're seeking, the best place to go is Saint-Joseph.

Rippin' Rhône: A Golden Age Buying Strategy, Vol. I
Michael Franz
Aug 20, 2019

France's Rhône Valley is on a historic tear, with excellent vintages now running back-to-back for a decade even as prices have held quite stable, unlike Burgundy and Bordeaux. That's the good news, and though there's some reason for concern about the cause lurking behind all this vinous success, it seems clear that we're in the midst of a Golden Age for lovers of Rhône reds…of whom I am emphatically one.

Utiel-Requena: Bobal and Beyond
Michael Franz
Jul 23, 2019

I'm sure you've heard the cliché by which something is said to be 'the gift that keeps on giving.' Well, that would be an apt phrase regarding Spain, which has gradually unfolded a remarkable series of delicious surprises during a remarkable renaissance that's been running for the past generation. Whether we're talking about previously obscure regions earning recognition for world-wide greatness (e.g., Priorat and Ribera del Duero) or little-known grape varieties (Albariño, Godello and Mencía) emerging as global treasures, Spain has offered one amazing debut after another since the 1990s. I've been fortunate to taste in Spain more than 20 times while chronicling this renaissance, and another trip earlier this year convinced me that Bobal from Utiel-Requena is Spain's latest impressive gift to the world of wine.

Barolo 2015, Vol. II: Communes of Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d'Alba, Novello and Serralunga d'Alba
Michael Franz
May 28, 2019

Experienced wine buyers around the world know to be wary of general hype of vintages from Europe, largely because expectations are largely determined by Bordeaux but results are not. The 2015 vintage offers a case in point. Bordeaux made big, bold wines that wowed critics, but the generally hot, dry growing season produced very mixed results in other locales. Barolo is among them, and indeed results even within the relatively compact Barolo district are highly variable. This was demonstrated conclusively during my blind tastings of hundreds of wines in the area earlier this year. For consumers, the upshot is clear: 2015 produced some spectacular examples of Barolo, but also plenty of disappointing wines, even from highly respected producers. Buy…but buy carefully.

Barolo 2015 Vol. I: Communes of La Morra, Barolo, Verduno and Roddi
Michael Franz
Apr 30, 2019

The 2015 vintage in many European appellations was all about promise or peril--or both, as turns out to be the case in Barolo. It was a hot, dry growing season in general terms, which is to say that it made big, showy wines where vineyard sites could withstand the challenges posed by heat and borderline drought. Barolo has sites that were up to those challenges. However, great wines were made from them only by vintners who were clever enough to maintain a leaf canopy preventing sunburn--and prudent enough to pick before the Nebbiolo fruit dehydrated on the vine. Barolo also has vintners who were up to those challenges, and hence there are great Barolo wines from the 2015 vintage. But, as economists warn, Buyer Beware: There are also wines that are lacking in delicate aromatics, or over-ripe in flavor, or overtly alcoholic in their aftertaste. This is a vintage for the wary and the wise, rather than the instinctive and indiscriminate.

Best of the Best from Barbaresco's 2016 Vintage
Michael Franz
Mar 5, 2019

I've got very good news to report, based on very extensive tastings of newly-released Barbaresco and Barolo wines that I conducted in Italy five weeks ago: There's a boatload of marvelously delicious Nebbiolo headed toward our shores. Barolo from 2015 is less consistent than Barbaresco from 2016, but the top Barolo releases from 2015 are terrific, and I'll be back next month with the first of two profiles of the best wines. For now, consider taking a hammer to your piggy bank in anticipation of the 2016s from Barbaresco, which are generally pure, balanced, stylish, natural-seeming wines with an effortless deliciousness built from a rare combination of depth and elegance.

Reasons for Optimism at the Close of 2018
Michael Franz
Dec 18, 2018

History will doubtlessly regard 2018 as a troubled year in many respects, but like every year in recent memory, it will go down as another great one in wine. You probably don't need me to detail the troubled aspects for you, and indeed you'd better not ask, because I could compile a pretty depressing list from my 'day job' as a professor of Political Science. But with that noted, let's pivot to the observation that wine is one dimension of human life that is becoming more intricate and beautiful and captivating before our very eyes…and palates.

Enough with the Damned Turkey: Looking Ahead to Holiday Meals
Michael Franz
Nov 24, 2018

Everyone has their own reasons for being thankful after Thanksgiving. For some, it might be Black Friday, or Cyber Monday, or…let's say this under our breath…the departure of relatives. Speaking only for myself, I'm especially thankful that I'll neither need to cook nor eat a turkey for another 364 days. That's enough to put me into a celebratory mood, so let's look ahead to the holidays coming up next month, and some great wine selections to go along with great meals for the occasions. Whereas wine writers have wallpapered the world with recommendations for Thanksgiving turkey, they've offered comparatively few suggestions for feasts devoted to other end-of-year occasions such as Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza or New Year's Eve and Day. So, here are wine recommendations for December's celebratory meals.

South Africa: Past the Thinking, and On to Drinking
Michael Franz
Oct 16, 2018

As I observed in my column here on Wine Review Online last month, 'South Africa has now clearly joined the ranks of the world's very best wine producing countries.' I detailed some of the factors explaining the industry's remarkable rise to indisputable excellence, and if you're the sort of wine lover who wants to understand the 'why' of great wine, I'd strongly encourage you to read the column. However, if you're the sort who wishes to get straight to the 'what' and start tasting for yourself, you've come to the right place in this particular column, which identifies and describes some wicked good current releases.

Recognizing the Wine World's Fastest-Rising Star, with 25 Years of Retrospect
Michael Franz
Sep 18, 2018

I began writing about wine in 1993, first for The Washington Times and then, eight months later, for The Washington Post, where I stayed for 11 years before leaving to help establish Wine Review Online. I note this with a bit of a shudder at the rapid passage of time, but hitting the 25-year mark offers an opportunity for reflection, which is always a good thing. From the outset, I've been especially interested in reporting on the world's most rapidly-rising and hence most 'newsworthy' wines and regions, even at the cost of minimizing coverage of the most 'enviable' wines. I love Bordeaux, for example, but Bordeaux makes great wine whenever the weather is good, and I'm simply keener on documenting breakthroughs than doing weather reporting. And after a quarter century of observations, including more than 100 trips to Europe and another 27 to the Southern Hemisphere, I'm certain that the most impressive breakthrough has been achieved in…South Africa.

Vinous Excellence in Switzerland
Michael Franz
Jul 23, 2018

'Wine from…Switzerland?' This is a question I've been asked countless times, both before and after my four tasting trips to Switzerland during the past 20 years. I'm very familiar with the usual follow-up questions as well, so let's get right to the main points: Swiss wines are superb, and that's true of reds as well as whites. They are painfully hard to buy in the USA--and in other export markets for that matter--simply because the Swiss drink almost everything themselves. Tasting them essentially requires traveling to the country, which may seem like a deal-breaking requirement…until one learns that Swiss wines are actually remarkably affordable within Switzerland. Admittedly, few other things seem inexpensive when one's traveling there, but they don't charge extra for looking at the gorgeous mountainous scenery, and the vineyards are among the world's most impressive and beautiful.

Prosecco Superiore DOCG: How to Think and What to Drink
Michael Franz
Jun 26, 2018

In this follow-up to my column from last month, I want to get straight to the key points: First, buying almost any bottle of Prosecco Superiore DOCG is much, much smarter than buying almost any bottle of Prosecco DOC. Second, this is because the significant trade-up in quality comes at a smaller price difference than any comparable quality increment in the entire world of wine. Third, even within the premium category of Prosecco Superiore DOCG, the trade-up from entry level wines to the 'best of the best' costs very little. Fourth, the reason behind points 1 through 3 is that very few consumers around the world know how easy it is to 'beat the game,' or how stupid it is to simply ask a retailer or restaurant server to just, 'Give me a Prosecco.'

Battle Tested Bargains from Around the World
Michael Franz
May 1, 2018

I don't know anyone who isn't constantly on the lookout for wines that are both excellent and affordable. I certainly do know people who are prepared to purchase expensive wines, but even they are bargain hunters too, so that they can enjoy wine on an everyday basis (with a fairly clean conscience) while keeping their mitts off of their best wines to let them mature. So, this column is basically directed at everyone who loves wine, and it is based on tastings since the beginning of 2018 of more than 3,500 wines priced under $25 retail, with most of those priced under $18.

Wanna Fight About Virginia?
Michael Franz
Feb 6, 2018

Some aficionados who can afford the world's great wines think making wine in a place like Virginia is…well, sort of cute. Possibly civilizing, also. They figure the rise of vineyards in the Bible Belt might dampen the disapproval of dimwitted teetotalers, just as new tasting rooms in the Rust Belt might convert some beer swilling oafs into the refined realm of wine. Once redeemed, the oafs could then perhaps be led from the vinous lowlands up to the heights of Burgundy and Napa and Bordeaux, where real wine is made. How do I respond to such attitudes? In two different ways. As a former construction worker from an immigrant family in Chicago, I respond with an upraised middle finger. As a wine writer who's been lucky to taste in Europe on more than 100 trips, plus another 25 in the Southern Hemisphere, I laugh at people who pride themselves on wine 'expertise' that has gone so stale that they're still clueless about the glories of Riesling from Michigan, or Roussanne from Texas, or Petit Verdot from Virginia.

Best of 2017…With a View to 2018
Michael Franz
Jan 9, 2018

My last column of 2017 took a retrospective look at some of the vinous highlights I observed during the year, whereas this column is based on the premise that, 'Past is Prologue,' which really rings true in the world of wine. For example, some of the most exciting wines I tasted last year were astonishing Syrah-based reds from France's Northern Rhône Valley, but they are only now becoming available for sale. So, based on observations from last year, here are some suggestions for jump-starting your wine year of 2018, with more to come in the WRO Blog space.

Best of 2017, Vol. I
Michael Franz
Dec 12, 2017

Everyone seems to have his or her favorite holiday, and for many years, mine has been New Year's Eve and Day. I love reflecting on the year in retrospect, and also thinking about what I hope to accomplish in the year ahead. I suppose that if I were a more reflective and less hyperactive person, I wouldn't need a marker day at all…but to quote Popeye, 'Iyam what Iyam,' and New Year's is my most meaningful holiday. Among its most enjoyable aspects for me is the chance to think back to the most beautiful and memorable wines of the past year, and to hazard some predictions regarding wine types and regions that will likely shine in the coming year. This column will mostly look in the rear-view mirror, with next month's looking ahead….

An Embarrassment of Riches: South Africa Vol. II
Michael Franz
Oct 17, 2017

I returned from South Africa five weeks ago, where I spent more than seven days tasting very intensively across virtually every imaginable wine category…including fortified wines. I found so many terrific wines to review that I barely scratched the surface in my column last month, so you'll find a substantial set of new reviews set below in this column. The quality of the wines included is absolutely stellar, but what is really astonishing is the value they offer. Many countries and regions are sending good wines and good values to the USA, to be sure, but right now there is no place that can match the quality-to-price ratio of what we're getting from South Africa.

Report from South Africa: Volume One
Michael Franz
Sep 19, 2017

I returned from South Africa a week ago, where I spent more than seven days tasting very intensively across virtually every imaginable wine category…including fortified wines. It was my sixth trip to taste there, and the second in the past two years. I can report that the country has finally joined the ranks of the world's truly elite winemaking countries, achieving widespread excellence across multiple grape varieties and product categories. South Africa is now producing many wines of multiple types that aren't just free of flaws, but that are stunningly good by global standards but still quite distinctive in style and reflective of their place of origin. Some writers and many consumers won't get this message because they can't believe that a country's industry could get so much better so quickly, but there's nothing we can do about that. Except buy the wines that they foolishly pass over.

Seeing Isn't Quite Believing in Priorat
Michael Franz
Aug 21, 2017

Perhaps you've heard the old saying: 'Just as great art arises from suffering artists, great wine stems from suffering vines.' Old sayings often prove true, but sometimes they turn out to be nonsense, so it's wise to subject them to examination. If you want to put this one to the test, there's no doubt that the best place to do it is in the astonishing Spanish region of Priorat.

Cairanne: The Rhône Valley's Newest Appellation
Michael Franz
Jun 27, 2017

The Rhône wines that are most reliable (though not necessarily the most expensive) come from 'AOCs,' legally delimited areas that control the grape varieties, yield levels, and geographical locations required for usage of a particular place name (or appellation). The newest of these AOCs is Cairainne, which was granted this status in 2016, and which clearly deserves it based on recent releases. This sort of thing doesn't happen all the time, and indeed, AOC status hasn't been conferred on a village since Rasteau in 2010, and before that, you'd need to go back to 2005 when Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres were added to the club. Most wine lovers will need a little time to learn to look for "Cairanne" on labels, but those who are quick on the draw will get excellent wines that are still priced very reasonably.

Re-Thinking the Southern Rhône Hierarchy
Michael Franz
May 30, 2017

Of the many impressions and conclusions that I derived from a full week of intensive tastings in France's Rhône Valley last month, the most important one is this: The relative merits of the leading appellations in the Southern Rhône have changed so dramatically during the past two decades that all of us need to reconsider our notions of how they rank in relation to one another. To be more specific, generations of wine writers and consumers have regarded Châteauneuf du Pape as running so far in front of other appellations in the area that they can be lumped together as 'Also Rans.' For a very long time, this presumption was not incorrect. But it is incorrect now, and appellations such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Lirac are currently turning out wines that are highly competitive with the more expensive wines of Châteauneuf.

Spring Cleaning: Let's Improve Wine Lists, Please…
Michael Franz
May 2, 2017

With Spring now in bloom and everything--even the air itself--suggesting fresh starts, I have a proposal: Let's push to improve restaurant wine lists in the United States. If you're a general manager in a restaurant, or a wine director, I'm talking to you. But if you're a rank-and-file customer, I'm talking to you too, because many restaurants really do respond to suggestions…and criticism. This has a lot to do with the high failure rate of restaurant businesses, but rather than focusing on the grim side of the equation, let's accentuate the positive: If you send a note or whisper in the ear of a general manager, you might really change things for the better. And holy moly…there are a lot of wine lists that could be better.

Do Vintages Still Matter?
Michael Franz
Apr 4, 2017

In one sense, it seems like 'belaboring the obvious' to claim that some years are better than others when it comes to wine. Talk to any older wine aficionado for ten minutes and--just as surely as the sun rises each morning--you'll be forced to endure an encomium regarding the greatness of the 1961 or 1982 Bordeaux. Such gushings about past glories tend to be pretty tiresome, and downright irritating if the guy (invariably, a guy) also tells you how little he paid for the wines. But still, there's a lot of truth in what's being said: The 1961 and 1982 red Bordeaux really were incomparably better than the same wines from 1960 or 1981. However, a lot has changed during the past three decades, and grape growers and winemakers are now much, much more adept than their forerunners at dealing with difficult growing seasons.

Fighting the Post-Holiday Wine Austerity Blues
Michael Franz
Feb 7, 2017

February can be pretty damned grim. The holidays are officially over, now that even Super Bowl parties are in the rear-view mirror. The gym is packed with guilt-ridden souls, and everybody knows The Tax Man is approaching. Austerity is the word of the moment…at least for those not employing profanities. To avoid slipping into utter despair, those of us who love wine look forward to a nice glass at the end of the day, but at this time of year, that glass needs to offer extremely strong value if we're to enjoy it fully. Toward that end, here are some tips for drinking well in this season without breaking the bank

Best of 2016, Part II
Michael Franz
Jan 10, 2017

As the happy occupant of the World's Best Job, I believe it is good karma to tip my hat to outstanding performances, wines and accessories that I've encountered each year. Having logged more than 70,000 air miles in 2016 and tasted over 9,000 wines, it is fair to say that I've been around the block, and here's a second set of observations concerning the best things I encountered along the way. I'll be tacking new items onto this column every day this week, so stay tuned:

Best of 2016, Volume I
Michael Franz
Dec 13, 2016

I'm well aware of the fact that I've got the World's Best Job, and I'd know that even if people didn't tell me all the time (which they do). Grateful man that I am, I believe it is good karma to tip my hat to outstanding performances that I've encountered each year, and here are some profiles that will be followed by a second set in four weeks. Having logged more than 70,000 air miles in 2016 and tasted over 9,000 wines, it is fair to say that I've been around the block, and here are some of the best things I encountered along the way.

Alsace Rieslings Strike Back
Michael Franz
Nov 15, 2016

For the first decade of my work as a wine writer, I probably devoted more columns in The Washington Post to Riesling from Alsace than any other grape from any other region. I believed then--as I do now--that Riesling is the world's greatest white wine grape variety, for a whole slew of reasons. However, the general wine consuming public never really took to Riesling, and I made it my business to tell them repeatedly that they were missing out on something fabulously delicious and food-friendly. Riesling is grown and vinified in many places around the world, but Alsace was always my go-to region, as its renditions were mostly dry, widely available, fairly priced, and terrific with all sorts of foods.

Best of Barolo 2012 Vol. I: Novello, Serralunga and La Morra
Michael Franz
Jul 26, 2016

The world of wine is marked so deeply by variations and nuances that there is almost no proposition to which everyone can agree. Virtually every assertion needs to be hedged with qualifications, exceptions and caveats. But not this one: The great Nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo and Barbaresco are in the midst of a Golden Age that has no historical precedent. Period. For at least a century leading up to 1996, very good vintages occurred only two or three years out of each decade. Since 1996, only 2002 was a downright bad year, 2003 and 2009 were just okay, but every other year has been either very good or outstanding. And now, having tasted more than 600 wines from Barolo and Barbaresco during two trips in May and June, I can report that the astonishing winning streak continues.

Heat Wave: Striking Successes from Barolo in 2011
Michael Franz
May 31, 2016

Virtually every serious taster of Nebbiolo-based wines from Piedmont praised the 2010 vintage in Barolo to the heavens. And for good reason. The growing season provided grapes that made wines of near-perfect balance and proportionality. As in Bordeaux in 2005, almost everyone made excellent wine, and those who didn't were at fault themselves…the fruit was just that good. 'Hard act to follow' is a cliché that doesn't quite do justice to the reality, and since 2011 was a hot year regarded as anti-climactic by the producers themselves even before the wines were released, I tasted hundreds of these wines a year ago figuring that they'd be a big step down from their predecessors. But I was wrong.

Ninety-Nine Bottles of Barolo
Michael Franz
May 24, 2016

You read that right. Not 'ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,' but ninety-nine bottles of Barolo. In a blind tasting starting at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, May 9, in Alba, hub of the region including northern Italy's greatest reds, Barolo and Barbaresco. On Tuesday, I shifted to Barbaresco, but the total edged up to 105. On Wednesday, back to Barolo, and up to 117 wines to taste….before noon. If you know these wines, numbers of this sort could either make you swoon with envy or cringe in fear, as these are probably the world's most punishing wines to taste when young, but certainly among the most rewarding when mature.

Best of 2015, Part I
Michael Franz
Dec 22, 2015

As the very happy occupant of the World's Best Job, it is good karma to reflect on the best performances that I've been fortunate to experience in my various wine adventures during the past year. The list that follows is definitely not complete, but nevertheless, here are some reflections on stellar successes from 2015, with more to follow four weeks from now....

Collio: Italy's Best Region for White Wines
Michael Franz
Oct 27, 2015

Italy's best region for white wines is the small but superb Collio district of Friuli. I have no doubt that others will dispute this proposition, but I'm very well prepared for the dispute, based on two relatively recent trips through the region and tastings of hundreds of wines from dozens of producers. Yes, Campania makes outstanding whites, as does Alto Adige and the area around Mount Etna in Sicily. However, Collio comes out on top when one carefully considers that its white wines show extremely high quality and strong consistency across a very broad set of grape varieties. Although Collio's producers work with a wide array of grapes, the resulting wines show a strong commonality that can only be attributed to a great terroir. They combine generous richness with energetic acidity and prominent minerality, and they are remarkably age-worthy.

A Golden Age for Wine Buyers
Michael Franz
Sep 29, 2015

Yes, the world is full of political problems from Ukraine to Syria and across central Africa, and yes, everybody wishes that economic growth was more robust than it is. Still, it is always difficult to assess the present without the benefit of hindsight, and there's a strong chance that we're failing to appreciate some current realities precisely because of our economic and political problems. Here's one to consider: There has never, ever, been such a great time to buy wine. For this we can thank a sustained period of price softening coupled with continuing improvements in production quality, plus a strong dollar and important developments enabling us to buy wines in a commercial environment that is more transparent and competitive than ever before.

Champagne for…Labor Day?
Michael Franz
Sep 1, 2015

Yes, I'm aware that the Dow Jones stock average dropped 1,000 in ten minutes last week, and yes, I'm aware that most people don't think of Labor Day as the most likely holiday for popping a bottle of Champagne. However, these facts leave me entirely undaunted in recommending that you buy a bottle of Champagne for the coming weekend, and here's why: Champagne is not an overly expensive wine (despite the long-term efforts of most of its producers to identify it as a luxury product), and Champagne is marvelously versatile and really suited to any occasion--not just New Year's Eve. If you elect to observe Labor Day with a can of beer, go for it, but responsibility for that won't rest with me.

South African Chenin Blanc: From Workhorse to Thoroughbred
Michael Franz
May 12, 2015

As we near the 10th anniversary of Wine Review Online in early August, I've been reflecting on the most important developments in the world of wine over that time span. One of them is the rapid rise of quality of wines from South Africa, and another of them is the increasing respect now accorded to the Chenin Blanc grape variety by wine aficionados and writers. To some extent, these are distinct developments, as South African wine has improved quite broadly, with different regions and varieties showing impressive development. Likewise, Chenins from France's Loire Valley and a few other quarters around the world have both caused and benefitted from the updraft in critical acclaim for Chenin. Nevertheless, the two trends definitely run in parallel, as South African Chenin has greatly benefitted both the country and the cultivar by rocketing up in quality while holding steady on price.

Rhône Valley Dynamo: Jean-Luc Colombo
Michael Franz
Mar 17, 2015

I know that I'm supposed to maintain journalistic objectivity about everything in the world of wine, but quite frankly, I'm madly in love with the wines of France's Rhône Valley. I've always been especially smitten with wines from the Northern Rhône, which are much more rare than their cousins from the south. More expensive too, on average, but surpassingly complex and elegant. Across the duration of my long-standing romance with these wines, no one has been more influential in their development than Jean-Luc Colombo, an ultra-dynamic man who has not only made many great wines of his own, but also helped boost the quality of many other producers as well.

Seven Killer Champagnes to Finish Off the Year
Michael Franz
Dec 16, 2014

I don't know more than a handful of people who don't love Champagne, yet I'm often surprised by how few people really appreciate its greatness as a wine. For my part, I think that Champagne may be the best of all wines, with great renditions offering levels of complexity and age-worthiness that top bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux can match--but rarely surpass.

Two Tactics for Wine Success on Thanksgiving
Michael Franz
Nov 18, 2014

Given the fact that you are reading a wine review website in the days leading up to America's premier feast day, the odds are overwhelming that you are responsible for bringing the wine for Thanksgiving. Maybe not all of the wine…but I bet you're on the hook for some of it. Perhaps you're very comfortable with the task, but more likely you're uneasy about it, since most Americans are inexperienced and intimidated when it comes to pairing wines and foods--even on their best day. Regardless of which camp you fall into--the confident or the quaking--I've got two tactics that can make you a wine-selecting star on the Big Day.

Keeping Spain on the Map: Aurelio Cabestrero & Grapes of Spain
Michael Franz
Oct 21, 2014

Many observant wine consumers--and all members of the trade--are aware that the wine business is phenomenally mercurial. For instance, recent years have seen the commercial fortunes of Argentina, Australia and Austria either skyrocket or plummet (or do both), and we've only addressed the 'A' entries on the worldwide list of producing countries. Moving down the list, Spain provides a particularly interesting example. After decades of chronic underperformance, a wonderful wine renaissance started in the early 1990s and lasted roughly until the 'Great Recession' in 2008. Since then, economic conditions in Spain have worsened alarmingly, and funds to promote Spanish wines seem to have dried up almost entirely. Today, the primary factor preventing Spanish wine from relapsing into obscurity is the work of a few key importers, particularly Aurelio Cabestrero.

The Great 2010 Vintage from Barolo, Volume Two
Michael Franz
Jul 29, 2014

As I noted in my previous column, the 2010 vintage wines from Barolo are the most complete and compelling group of wines that I've ever tasted from this region. Indeed, the vintage produced so many extraordinary wines that I was forced to split my recommendations, with the earlier column featuring wines from the villages of Novello, Verduno, Castiglione Falletto, and Monforte D'Alba. Amazing as those wines were, the top performers from Serralunga, Barolo and La Morra profiled here were even stronger on average, so feast your eyes on the recommendations that follow.

Importer on the Rise: Roy Cloud and Vintage '59
Michael Franz
Feb 20, 2007

It seems pretty clear to me that the most important person involved in getting you a great glass of something distinctive and compelling is the importer of artisan wines. Based on this conviction, I devote a couple of columns each year to importers doing exemplary work by connecting us to terrific wines from some corner of the world. In that vein, I'm pleased to introduce you to Roy Cloud of Vintage '59 Imports.

Reconnecting with Alsace
Michael Franz
Aug 8, 2006

Last month, when seeing the gorgeous vineyards of Alsace for the first time in six years, my first thought was, "Why the hell haven't I been here for six years?" Although I managed to travel to Alsace four times between 1992 and 2000, tasting explorations in other locales have kept me away more recently, resulting in several sorts of deprivation.

Colline Teramane: Abruzzo's Gem
Michael Franz
Jul 11, 2006

Abruzzo (also called Abruzzi) is a mountainous region on the central section of Italy's Adriatic coast. Like Sicily and Puglia, it produces a lot of ordinary wines but also a really few excellent ones. The best are whites made from Trebbiano d'Abruzzo and reds from Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and the reds from the Colline Teramane are clearly the best of the best.

Aurelio Cabestrero: Importing Great Grapes from Spain
Michael Franz
Feb 21, 2006

Very few consumers pay any attention to the small print on the back of a wine bottle. In most cases, they aren't missing much. In some instances, however, they're missing something very important when they don't notice a name associated with the line reading, "Imported by...." I'd like to propose another name for consideration in the ranks of America's most significant importers: Aurelio Cabestrero, president and owner of Grapes of Spain, Inc.