April 20, 2007
OK, maybe I wasn't surprised by the sweepstakes winners at the San Diego International Wine Competition, but there were some doozies to be found as I perused the complete list of medal winners.
I was greeted this morning with an email from Stephen at Raffaldini Winery. He was anxious to know the results (they went out snail mail on Tuesday night and will be posted on the SDIWC website later today) because tomorrow is "Pinot Grigio Release Day" at Raffaldini.
Now my first thought was who's Raffaldini? Could have been an email from northern Italy, could have been a request from Sonoma County. So I looked it up.
Two silver medals and a bronze. Not bad. One of the silvers was for a 2005 Montepulciano. This is the red grape of Abruzzi in central Italy. The other was for a 2005 Sangiovese Riserva. Sangiovese, of course, is the noble grape of Tuscany. The bronze was for a 2006 Vermentino, which is most often found in Tuscany and Sardinia.
Imagine my very pleasant surprise when I discovered the vineyards that produced these winning wines are in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Winston-Salem.
Stephen informed me the vineyards are a mere seven years old, and that they'll have one of my favorite grape varieties, Aglianico, in production soon.
Congrats all around on Raffaldini's tremendous success in an area most of us wouldn't have considered wine country. Could be that's about to change.
April 19, 2007
The highlight of just about every wine competition I've been involved with (more than 50 as either judge, chief judge or director) has been the sweepstakes judging -- the final round of tasting and voting that determines best of class or best of show awards.
The results are often surprising. So the outcome of the sweepstakes round at this year's San Diego International Wine Competition -- staged last weekend at San Diego's Westgate Hotel -- caught me a bit off-guard.
There were no surprises. That's not to say other winners couldn't have emerged, but those that did were all proven performers and caused little consternation or head-scratching as the wines were unveiled.
Winner in the sparkling category was the 2002 Gruet Winery Grand Rose Brut ($32), one of Gruet's five medals overall. Though off the beaten path, this New Mexico winery has been a world-class producer for many years.
Best white went to the 2006 Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($12), continuing the love affair Americans have with crisp, pungent Sauvignons from New Zealand's Marlborough region. The red award was taken by a 2004 Rancho Zabaco Stefani Vineyard Zinfandel ($28), which narrowly edged the 2004 Bennett Lane Maximus ($35), a Rhone/Bordeaux blend from the Napa Valley.
Vina Robles' delightful 2006 Roseum ($13) won in the rose class, and Rancho de Philo's Triple Cream Sherry ($35) was a repeat winner in the dessert category in an extremely close vote over the 1999 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port ($55).
My hat's off to the 30 wine professionals and Chief Judge Michael Franz who helped make this one of the most well-judged competitions of the more than 20 that I've directed.
Complete results will be posted soon at the San Diego International Wine Competition website.
April 18, 2007
I do agree with Robert Whitley's statement that Robert Parker has influenced quite a few Bordeaux Chateaux, such as Lafite-Rothschild, to perform better.
And for that, Parker should be commended. The other side of the so-called "Parker effect," which I and many of the British press are not in accord with, is that many Bordeaux properties, in an effort to gain high Parker ratings, are now producing over-the-top, overly extracted, over-oaked, high alcohol wines that completely obscure the elegance, balance, and finesse for which Bordeaux wines have always been renowned.
This is especially true in St. Emilion, a fact that has been pointed out many times, not only by the British press, but by wine writers in the U.S. and France as well.
Lafite-Rothschild, Latour and Leoville las Cases, to name just three superstars, have the terroir and financial resources to make great wines practically every year. Many other properties do not, and are trying to force the issue in their quest for Parker points. As a result, they no longer taste like wines from Bordeaux. The Parker effect cuts both ways.
Publisher's note: I don't disagree with any of my good friend Ed McCarthy's points. But I still believe Parker's overall impact on the wines of Bordeaux has been positive rather than negative -- Robert Whitley.
April 12, 2007
BORDEAUX, France -- The gap in performace between Chateau Lafite Rothschild and lesser growths of the Pauillac district in the 2006 vintage is striking. I should be surprised, but I'm not.
There is an obsessive dedication to the image and prestige of the grand vin, among all of the first growths, that at one time didn't exist. Where once there was acceptance and resignation toward the vagaries of nature and the subsequent impact on each vintage; today failure is not an option.
The great growths now take whatever measures are necessary to ensure the estate's flagship wine upholds the standards of the chateau, regardless of conditions on the ground during the growing season.
I'll call this the "Parker effect." As a long-time Bordeaux collector, I noticed the shift in attitude in the middle of the 1980s, or about the time that wine critic Robert Parker Jr. emerged as the most influential voice in the world on matters of wine quality.
Parker was never intimitated by the power and prestige of the famous chateaux. He held their feet to the fire and criticized the wines when appropriate. Many in the British wine press have taken cheap shots at Parker in recent years, motivated I suspect out of jealousy for his influence over an area of wine they consider their domain.
But I don't think the 2006 Lafite (97 points) would have been as good in this tricky vintage had Parker not come along when he did and weighed in with biting criticism of the medicore first gowths produced in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.
All of us who enjoy drinking good Bordeaux should be grateful for that.
Now, as for the '06 Lafite, it has yet to develop the famous Lafite cedar-pencil bouquet (which evolves over time in bottle) but the barrel samples presented at the 2006 Bordeaux primeurs show a stylish Lafite with superb structure and remarkable elegance, with beautifully integrated tannins.
Lafite's second label, Carruades de Lafite, illustrates the selection made by Lafite in this vintage. Carruades exhibits coarse tannins that will take years to resolve, tannins that could have brought the grand vin down a peg if not for careful selection.
Lafite's sister estate, Chateau Duhart-Milon (90 points), displays some of the Lafite elegance, but without the depth of the first growth.
April 10, 2007
BORDEAUX, France -- My final day of tasting Bordeaux 2006 primeurs was spent flitting from chateau to chateau in Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, with particularly useful stops at Cheval Blanc and Ausone.
The cream really does rise to the top. Cheval Blanc produced a magnificent wine in '06 (96 points) and was clearly the star of Saint-Emilion, followed closely by Angelus (95), Figeac (94), Ausone (94) and Canon La Gaffeliere (93).
These wines all exhibited firm tannins, ample fruit behind the hard exterior, and elegance. If you're looking for a sleeper that might turn up on the "futures" market at a better price than the aforementioned wines, consider La Dominique (91).
Best Pomerol I tasted (nope, I didn't even sniff the Petrus or Vieux Chateau Certan) was Gazin (94).
Overall I came away impressed with Saint-Emilion and convinced the right bank generally outperformed the left in this tricky vintage. But know this: No matter which position you take on the '06 vintage, even the best of them will require significantly more cellar time than usual.
Hence the term "classic" is being thrown out often to describe this vintage. Right.
The term "classic" should not be confused with the term "exceptional," though that is clearly what the spinmeisters would have you believe.
April 7, 2007
BORDEAUX, France -- By far my most dissapointing day at the Bordeaux primeurs was the Thursday tasting of Pauillas, St. Estephe and St. Julien at Lafon-Rochet.
I felt Pauillac was the region that was caught most obviously chasing after the high "Parker" score by manipulating its wines to achieve greater concentration in this challenging vintage. The number of unattractive wines with harsh, dry tannins clearly exceeded what I found in the other districts of Bordeaux.
Many of those who elected to simply take what nature gave produced thin wines with no mid-palate. Drinkable but not profound in any way.
One of the most disappointing wines was Lynch-Bages, which was a surprise because this Chateau has been a bellweather of consistency over the past quarter-century. I suspect something went seriously wrong at Lynch-Bages, for its sister winery, Ormes de Pez, made one of the most mediocre wines I tasted all week.
There were other surprises, such as Leoville Poyferre (91 points) outperforming Leoville Barton (88 points), and very disappointing efforts by La Lagune (79 points) and Brainaire-Ducru (80 points).
Still, as in every other region, wonderful wines were made despite the erratic weather. Those I would recommend include an outstanding Lagrange (93), de Larque (93), Grand-Puy-Ducasse (91), Lafon-Rochet (91), Lynch-Moussas (91), Beycheville (90), Citran (90), Gruaud-Larose (90) and Talbot (90).
Of course, these wines are extremely young and have many more months of evolution in barrel before they go into the bottle, so many of the scores may require an adjustment of two to three points in either direction before they arrive in the U.S. in another couple of years.
Prices on these wines are subject to much speculation, with many producers hoping for a 15 to 20 percent increase over the 2005 prices. I see resistance to that from the U.S. market and predict most of these wines will sell on "futures" for less than the 2005 vintage.
Photo: Journalists taste Pauillac, St. Estephe and St. Julien "blind" at Chateau Lafon-Rochet.
April 6, 2007
Most wine critics agree that 1996 is indeed an extraordinary vintage for Champagne. The problem is that word got out among Champagne lovers, and many of the best '96s rapidly disappeared shortly after coming on the market.
Don't even try to find a 1996 Roederer Cristal or Bollinger; they're long gone. The 1996 Charles Heidsieck was produced in such small quantities that it was sold only in France. Even 1996 Dom Pérignon, which is always produced in rather large quantities, is very difficult to find today.
Well, I have good news for all of you Champagne lovers. After 11 years of aging, the 1996 Krug is finally being released in May, along with Krug's superb blanc de blancs, the '96 Clos du Mesnil. I had the distinct honor of being the first person -- aside from the Krug family and its oenologists -- to taste the 1996 Krug with Olivier Krug Tuesday morning, and it is superb, even now! In fact, I rate it '99'; the only other Champagne I've rated 99 was the 1996 Cristal. I've given one '100', to the 1928 Krug.
The 1996 vintage is in fact very much like the legendary 1928. The late Paul Krug, grandfather of Olivier -- the current keeper of the Krug flame -- and father of Henri and Rémi Krug, was among the first to make this comparison. Olivier Krug recalls his grandfather's remarks on the occasion of the blending of Krug 1996 -- the last vintage to be blended by the three Krug generations -- Paul, Henri, Rémi, and Olivier.
'Throughout his life, my grandfather shunned exaggeration of any kind,' Olivier recalled, 'but on this occasion he looked at us and said, 'I think this may well be the next 1928.' '
Both 1928 and 1996, because of the unusual nature of the climate in those years, share similar characteristics: rich aromas, firm texture, full, ripe flavors combined with extraordinary acidity.
The usual scenario in Champagne is one or the other; for example, the 1989 and 1990 vintages in Champagne had lots of ripe flavors, but could have used more acidity, whereas the 1988 Champagnes had plenty of acidity, but were rather austere in flavor.
Only freakish, eccentric vintages can produce a 1996. The weather in the summer of '96 was one of contrasts: periods of intense heat followed by heavy rains. The harvest in September was perfect: warm, dry, sunny days, with unusually chilly nights, providing the contrast that winemakers love to see.
Richard Geoffroy, head winemaker of Dom Pérignon, told me that the only Champagne producers who did not do well in '96 were those who allowed the Pinot Noir to get too ripe; of course, he wouldn't tell me which ones.
But from my experience tasting the '96s so far, I would say that most Champagne houses made very good to superb Champagnes in this magical vintage. Who knows? In ten years, I might add another point on to the 1996 Krug!
April 5, 2007
BORDEAUX, France -- If I thought the tannins were grippy at the Graves/Pessac-Leognan tasting on Tuesday, I was in for a rude awakening when I arrived at Chateau Poujeaux on Wednesday to go through the primeurs wines of Margaux, Listrac Medoc and Medoc.
The 2006 vintage I had been hearing about bared its fangs. One insider told me that some of the vineyards in these regions took a lot of rain, and many water-bloated grapes were harvested. To fix the problem of dilution, some Chateaux bled the fermentation tanks to create more concentration in the wines.
Some vignerons have more finesse than others with this technique. Those that don't end up with overly extracted wines that pick up too much of the hard, drying tannins from the skins, stems and pips.
To be sure, there was a whole lot of clumsy winemaking going on following the Bordeaux harvest of '06, resulting in a few clunkers. Overall, however, my tasting notes of the 28 wines presented at Poujeaux are upbeat.
Most of the wines tasted had good underlying fruit, albeit struggling to shine from behind the wall of tannin. Even the best of these will require patience, for they will need several years to shed the tough outer shell and show their best.
Two proven Chateaux -- Lascombes and Kirwan -- were downright impressive. Both were beautifully perfumed and exhibited layers of fruit despite the strength of the tannins. In each case, however, the tannins were refined, as opposed to the drying tannins that were apparent in a few of the other wines. I gave each wine a score of 94 points.
I experienced very few wines with "green" tannins -- the unripe, bitter tannins that are often found in cool-climate wines. And only Chateau Desmirail earned a "vegetal" comment, which I suppose is the worst thing you can say about a Bordeaux.
Chateau Monbrison and Giscours (93 points each) were hard on the heels of my top two wines, and I also gave good marks to Cantenac Brown (92), Durfort Vivens (92), Clarke (91), Malescot Saint Exupery (91) and La Tour de By (90).
One of the tried and true inexpensive Bordeaux (in the U.S. market) that showed well was Greysac, but the hard tannins will likely disappoint fans of this wine for they are used to drinking their Greysac when it is young. Poujeaux, host of the "blind" tasting group (journalists are divided into five groups and can choose to taste blind or not), was on par with Greysac with a rating of 89 points.
Photo: Journalists tasting Margaux, Listrac-Medoc and Medoc wines at Chateau Poujeaux.
April 3, 2007
BORDEAUX, France - My initial impressions of the 2006 Bordeaux presented at this week's primeurs closely parallel those of my WRO colleague, Michael Apstein (scroll down).
I missed the first official tastings (Sauternes and Barsac) on Monday, but plunged into the young barrel samples on Tuesday with the presentation of reds and whites from Graves and Pessac-Leognan at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte.
Advance word on this vintage had been pessimistic. Weather during the vintage was a roller coaster ride for the vignerons of Bordeaux, but the better Chateaux have a strong record of grappling with the challenges of poor weather conditions since the mid-1980s.
Choosing your wines well in such vintages is crucial. I encountered a number of exceptional reds and whites (the whites are more consistent because most of the Sauvignon blanc grapes were in before the rains hit in mid-September). The good news for consumers without deep pockets is that the ample number of poor wines will restrain pricing on the better wines.
My top five reds from the first round of tastings were led by the stellar Pape Clement (95 points), followed by Smith Haut Lafitte (94), Haut Bergey (93), and Latour Martillac and La Louviere (92). The beautifully layered Pape Clement was very impressive, showing an expressive nose even at this early stage, spice, firm but sweet tannins, power and, above all, balance.
The Smith Haut Lafitte blanc (94 points) impressed me most among the whites. The Chateau's Florence Cathiard told me she believes it's better than the 2005, which is exceptional. Though quite young it already exhibits the trademark 'peach' nose of Smith Haut Lafitte blanc, extraordinary balance, and more minerality than I've noticed in a SHL blanc in years. Haut Bergey (93) also seems to be very promising, as well as the Rahoul, Carbonnieux and Bouscaut (92).
If any of the above show up on the futures market, they could very well represent some of the best value in high quality Bordeaux since 2001. Prices should begin to emerge on the 2006 futures over the next few weeks.
I should note the top two Chateaux of the region in terms of prestige -- Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion -- did not present their wines at the offical Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tastings.
Photos: The 2006 wines of Graves and Pessac-Leognan (top) were lined up for the blind tasting at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte; It was a good day for Daniel Cathiard of Smith Haut Lafitte -- the sun was shining and both of his wines showed well at the 2006 Bordeaux en primeurs.
April 2, 2007
VERONA, Italy -- We've all had Pinot Grigio that looked more like water than wine. These nearly colorless Grigios are perfectly pleasant and immensely popular, largely because they are simple, crisp and refreshing.
Nothing wrong with that. I quaff my fair share of these wines -- grill tongs in one hand, glass of vino in the other -- while barbecuing in the summer months.
Pinot Grigio, however, has a more serious side if a person is willing to explore and shell out a few extra bucks. The best of these more exceptional Pinot Grigios come from two regions in northern Italy, Alto Adige (Alois Lageder comes to mind) and Friuli, and particularly the Friuli districts of the Collio and the Colli Orientali.
The star of this region is Livio Felluga. The aging Livio is no longer involved in the winemaking, but he was a pioneer in the region after World War II and began a remarkable run of exceptional vintages that continues to this day under the direction of his four children.
Livio Felluga is perhaps most well known for its outstanding Pinot Grigios and a proprietary white blend called Terre Alte, using Pinot Bianco, Tocai Friulano and Sauvignon blanc. Each of those wines in the blend is also distinctive on its own, giving Felluga one of the greatest stables of white wines in all of Italy.
There is also a Merlot, a Refosco and a red blend of Refosco and Merlot called "Sosso." The 2003 Sosso is superb, by the way, and beautifully balanced despite the excessive heat of the vintage.
But Pinot Grigio is Livio Felluga's calling card to the world.
"It can be a serious wine," noted winemaker Abdrea Felluga, who assumed control of wine production 14 years ago. "Of course the location of the vineyards, the soil and climate, are very important, and we have very low yields, which allows us to get this kind of concentration.
"And we wait until the ideal moment before we harvest. In 2006 we got the concentration we need, but it is still very elegant."
The expressive aromatics of the Livio Felluga Pinot Grigio are unusual for this grape variety, which often tends to be austere in the nose with only faint hints of lime. The Felluga Pinot Grigio wafts out of the glass with some intensity, which is typical of all of Felluga's white wines.
Good aromatics, minerality and wonderful balance -- an unbeatable combination and one you will find in all of the Felluga wines.
And the Grigio actually has a bright straw color. Seriously.
Photo: Livio Felluga Winemaker Andrea Felluga gets a kick out of opening wines at Vinitaly.
April 1, 2007
Piazza Erbe, Verona's open-air market
Wine lovers queue up to Castello del Terriccio
The Vinitaly pavilions sprawl over several acres
Livio Fellgua winemaker Andrea Felluga and Moet & Hennessy USA's Seth Box
Roberto Pighin of Friuli's Pighin winery