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November 30, 2007

Spring Mountain's Jac Cole Headlines Whitley On Wine Radio Today

My featured guest today on the Whitley On Wine radio show will be Jac Cole, the talented winemaker from Spring Mountain Vineyards, an impressive property situated high above the floor of the Napa Valley.

Whitley On Wine radio, 2 p.m. PT, is a production of SignOnSanDiego, the website of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Jac will discuss the history and background of Spring Mountain Vineyards, which has grown to become a vast 800-acre estate in its current configuration. The modern Spring Mountain Vineyards was originally a number of distinct properties that figured prominently in the viticultural history of the Napa Valley.

Wine Review Online columnist Sarah Belk King also will pay a visit to talk about delicious and easy party dishes for the holiday season.

And, finally, a brief segment on wine storage facilities and wine bars.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:55 PM

November 29, 2007

Whitley's Wines of the Year, Including Three 100-Pointers

Choosing a wine of the year is a bit like voting for your favorite flavor at Ben & Jerry's. At the highest levels of winemaking, they're all very good.

So rather than contriving a selection process that takes into account various factors such as score, price and availability, this year I've determined to present my wines of the year in a straightforward fashion. They are, quite simply, the best wines I've tasted from the new releases of 2007, regardless of price.

I taste thousands of wines every year, most of which never result in a published recommendation. The score reflects my own personal response (think of it as an applause meter) to each wine evaluated; the tasting notes are intended to flesh out the details and reasoning behind the rating.

In 2007 I gave three wines -- the 2004 Joseph Phelps Insignia, the 2004 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2004 Joseph Drouhin 'Marquis de Laguiche' Montrachet -- a perfect score of 100 points.

If someone asked me which of the three was my top wine, I wouldn't be able to say (though I will whittle it down for Michael Franz's annual compilation of wines of the year from Wine Review Online contributors).

All three are spectacular. There is nothing more I could have asked of any of the three wines. They are brilliant examples of exceptional terroir, painstaking care in the vineyard, and skilled, precise winemaking.

Yet none of those three will be my 'producer' or 'winery' of the year. That distinction belongs to Patz & Hall, which had two wines among the 14 I rated 95 points or higher this year. Patz & Hall also placed two wines on my list of best wines $40 & under (posted yesterday).

Many of these wines came out early in the year and may no longer be available, or available only in limited quantities.

Wines of the Year

Joseph Drouhin 2004 'Marquis de Laguiche' Montrachet, Burgundy, France ($540) - The world's greatest white wine? It's quite possible. 100

Joseph Phelps 2004 Insignia, Napa Valley ($200) - California's first 'Meritage' is simply the finest red wine in America over the past decade. 100

Spottswoode 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($110) - Pure Cabernet perfection. 100

Penfolds 2002 Grange, South Australia ($240) - Australia's most important Shiraz, from a superb vintage. 97

Nickel & Nickel 2004 Suscol Ranch Merlot, Napa Valley ($55) - Move over Chateau Petrus. 97

Shafer 2003 'Hillside Select' Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($200) - The very definition of decadence. 97

Montes 2004 'Folly', Apalta Valley, Chile ($93) - One of the top five red wines produced in South America, and certainly the finest Syrah. 96

Felton Road 2005 Chardonnay, Central Otago, New Zealand ($31) - One of the three most important Chardonnays from the Southern Hemisphere (Leeuwin Estate Art Series and Kumeu River Mate's Vineyard are the others). 96

Patz & Hall 2005 Chenoweth Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($55) - Oregon Pinots have nothing on this Russian River gem. 96

Far Niente 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($120) - One of the finest Far Niente Cabs ever made. Is it possible for a $100 wine to be underrated? 95

Beaulieu Vineyards 2004 'Georges de Latour' Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($110) - The Napa Valley icon is back on track after a temporary loss of prestige. 95

Terrabianca 2003 'Campaccio Selezione', Tuscany ($68) - A dazzling Super Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. 95

Dutton Goldfield 2005 McDougall Vineyard Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($53) - The best this year from one of California's most brilliant Pinot Noir producers. 95

Patz & Hall 2005 'Zio Tony Ranch' Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($60) - Right up there with the greatest Chardonnays from Kistler, Sonoma Cutrer and Nickel & Nickel. 95

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:56 AM

November 27, 2007

40 x 40 Vision

Over the next few weeks you will no doubt see "Wine of the Year" lists ad nauseum, including right here at Wine Review Online. Our contributors, myself included, will weigh in with our many and varied thoughts on the new wines released in 2007.

Today, however, I have a different sort of list. These are my 40 best recommendations for $40 or less. Of course, with a full month of tasting left in the year, I reserve the right to add or delete as developments warrant.

This early peek into the best value wines of 2007 is for those who'd like to get a jump on their wine gifting for the holidays.

My Top 40 for $40 of Less

Foxen 2004 'Williamson-Dore Vineyard' Syrah, Santa Ynez Valley ($40) - Aren't these guys supposed to be famous for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? 94

Girard 2005 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($22) - Undoubtedly the bargain white wine of the year. 94

Nickel & Nickel 2004 'Searby Vineyard' Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($40) - Don't all $40 Chardonnays have this kind of structure, balance and elegance? Just kidding! 94

Baileyana 2005 'Grand Firepeak' Pinot Noir, Edna Valley ($38) - A big bang for the buck for Pinot Noir enthusiasts. 93

Patz & Hall 2005 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($36) - You might say misters Patz and Hall are on a roll. 93

Yarden 2003 'El Rom Vineyard' Cabernet Sauvignon, Galilee, Israel ($36) - Who knew? Certainly one of the great red wines produced in the Middle East. 93

Kumeu River 2006 Pinot Gris, New Zealand ($21) - Yep, this famous Chardonnay house has nailed the Pinot Gris, too. 93

Dow's 1992 'Colheita' Port, Portugal ($31) - Single-vintage tawny Ports like this should be getting more notice. 93

Merry Edwards 2005 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($27) - The grande dame of California Pinot Noir makes a pretty mean Sauvignon Blanc, too. 93

Sauvignon Republic 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($18) - They are Sauvignon Blanc specialists, after all. 93

Hess Collection 2004 Mountain Cuvee, Mount Veeder ($35) - Easily the most underrated of the Napa Valley 'mountain' appellations. 92

Mazzocco 2004 'Cuneo & Saini Vineyard' Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley ($24) - It's a Zinfandel 'jam' session at a great price. 92

Artesa 2003 'Elements', Napa Valley/Sonoma County ($19) - Perhaps the 'value' red wine of the year. 92

Signorello 2005 'Seta', Napa Valley ($25) - White Bordeaux-style blends haven't taken California by storm, but this one is evidence the potential is enormous. 92

Two Hands 2005 'Gnarly Dudes' Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia ($34) - A big-shouldered Barossa Valley Shiraz. 92

Flora Springs 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($30) - Who says you can't find great reds in the Napa Valley without a big bankroll? 91

Flora Springs 2006 'Barrel Fernented' Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($26) - One of California's earliest Burgundian-style Chardonnays and still going strong. 91

Jermann 2005 Pinot Grigio, Friuli, Italy ($29) - Year-in and year-out one of my favorite Pinot Grigios. 91

Morgan 2005 'Twelve Clones' Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands ($30) - Might be the most consistent winery in Monterey County. 91

B.R. Cohn 2005 'SyrCab', Sonoma Valley ($32) - These Syrah-Cabernet blends are now all the rage in California, and this one's an ace. 91

Patz & Hall 2005 'Dutton Ranch' Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($39) - Another bull's-eye. 91

Domaine Ligneres 2002 'Notre Dame' Montagne d'Alaric, Corbieres, France ($30) - There's great potential in southwestern France. 91

The Four Graces 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills ($37) - Deeper and more sensuous than the Willamette Valley Pinot, but consistent with the theme of elegance over power. 91

Marc Kreydenweiss 2005 'Kritt' Gewurztraminer, Alsace, France ($32) - For those who doubt dry Gewurztraminer is a 'serious' wine. 90

Conterno Fantino 2005 'Bricco Bastoa' Dolcetto d'Alba, Italy ($22) - Fresh, pure, lovely red-fruit character. 90

Castello Banfi 2005 Rosso di Montalcino, Italy ($22) - One of the many modern rosso's that have redefined the category in Montalcino. 90

Smith Woodhouse 10-Year Tawny Port, Portugal ($28) - Best bang for the buck in high-class tawny. 90

Murphy-Goode 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($24) - Best bang for the buck in Alexander Valley Cab. 90

Girard 2005 Petite Sirah, Napa Valley ($28) - Big-time Napa red at a very modest Napa price. 90

Ken Brown 2005 Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County ($30) - The 'Byron' man is doing just fine on his own. 90

Chateau St. Jean 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($27) - Fabulous Cab from a primarily Chardonnay house. 90

Gundlach Bundschu 2003 Merlot, Sonoma Valley ($29) - Indeed, some folks know how to do Merlot. 90

Chateau Chavelier 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain ($29) - Yummy second label from Spring Mountain is certainly no slouch. 90

Roederer Estate Brut, Anderson Valley ($24) - Not Champagne? Coulda fooled me. 90

Hartwell 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($30) - This winery's one of the real sleepers in the Napa Valley. 90

Silverado Vineyards 2005 'Miller Ranch' Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley ($18) - A style change for Silverado, and it's for the better. 90

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 2005 'Karia' Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($32) - Classy reds and classy whites, too. 90

The Four Graces 2006 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($27) - Here's a vote for delicacy and finesse over richness and power. 90

Faiveley 2004 'Domaine de la Croix' Montagny, Burgundy, France ($21) - Could be one of Burgundy's most underrated producer. 90

Coldstream Hills 2006 Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Australia ($22) - And you thought the Aussie's only knew Shiraz? Think again. 90

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:57 PM

November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Tips for Wine Novices

Statistics show that millions of Americans drink wine on just a few days each year, and Thanksgiving is a big day for these very occasional imbibers.  Over the longer term, I'd certainly like to see you enjoy wine much more frequently, but for now we need to get you through today with a positive experience.  Here are a few pointers that may help:

--If your wine glasses have been sitting in a cupboard for a month, they've surely picked up a little dust even if they don't look dusty, and some of these particles can produce undesirable aromas or flavors.  Be sure to rinse them out with hot water and dry them with a lint-free dish towel.

--If you'll be serving sparkling wine or Champagne, these glasses need to be washed differently.  As beer lovers know, soap residue kills bubbles, and whereas a flat beer is a disappointment, a flat glass of Champagne is a catastrophe.  My mantra is:  No soap, ever!  You can remove fingerprints and lipstick from the outside of glasses when perfectly inverted with a lightly soapy sponge, but never let any soap into the interior, which should only be rinsed with very hot water.  Dish towels can retain soap residues, so air-dry sparkling glasses or use paper towels.  If one of your guests thinks it is icky that you don't use soap on your sparkling wine glasses, solve the problem by striking that person from the guest list.

--If you'll be serving sparkling wine, don't put a damper on your dinner by blasting someone with the cork.  This is serious:  A Champagne cork can really do a number on your eyeball, and since the hospital emergency room will already be packed with inept turkey carvers, you'll be there for hours if you suffer a mishap when opening your bubbly by the ballistic method.  So:  Keep constant and very firm downward pressure on the cork, even when unwinding the wire cage, which will require exactly six twists.  Keep the cage on the cork, as it will enhance your grip.  Ease the cork from the bottle by grasping it firmly as you twist the base of the bottle from side to side.  A nearly inaudible result is what you want, with the faintest 'pfffffffft' showing that you know what you're doing.

--Pay attention to serving temperature!  Most Americans are guilty of serving their whites too cold and their reds too warm.  Wines pulled directly from refrigerators--much less ice buckets--are typically so cold that aromas are suppressed and flavors flattened.  Similarly, the old rule of thumb about serving reds at room temperature has led millions of people to mishandle their wine.  The rule made sense when coined by some guy in the 18th century, but only because he lived in an English manor house without central heat.  Reds lack focus and seem overly alcoholic at 72 degrees, and are much better at 62.  So, stick your reds into the fridge for 20 minutes and pull your whites out of if for 20 minutes before cracking into them.

--Don't overfill glasses when serving wine at the table.  Sparkling wines can be filled to slightly above halfway, since they look much better with that fill level, and you don't want your guests thinking you are cheap on a day when you are supposed to be celebrating bounty.  However, glasses for table wine should never be more than half full.  An overfilled glass has no open space to collect the wine's aromas, which are absolutely crucial for appreciating it fully.

--Last but not least:  When you've gone through all of this and are finally ready to wine and dine, just relax and enjoy this wonderful beverage.  It is famously difficult to get a perfect wine to harmonize with everything involved in Thanksgiving dinner, and you shouldn't be shamed if your choice isn't perfect with everything on the plate.  After all, this meal brings wine pairing experts to their knees.  And if some self-appointed expert at your table makes a nasty crack about your choice, don't dignify his (it will surely be a he) comment with a reply.  Just roll your eyes.  And know that everyone else at the table is on your side!

Posted by Michael Franz at 9:54 AM

November 21, 2007

Lukacs Versus Franz on Wines for Thanksgiving

Paul Lukacs:

I continue to prefer to open American wines on this holiday--not because they necessarily provide the best matches in and of themselves, but because context always is as important as content when choosing which wine to drink with which food on which occasion.  The context here is Thanksgiving, which is the one occasion in the entire year when many families sit down for an extended time at the dinner table.  It's our national feast.  Why not drink our wines?

Ponzi, Willamette Valley (Oregon) Pinot Gris 2006 ($17):  This is a refreshing but at the same time satisfyingly rich and full-fleshed white, with plenty of pear and sweet apple fruit flavor, and an intriguing hint of spice in the finish.  It tastes autumnal, so seems just right for late November sipping, and it has just enough stuffing to stand up to--well--the stuffing.

Red Newt Cellars, Finger Lakes (New York) Cabernet Franc 2005 ($20):  I tasted this wine this past summer when visiting the Finger Lakes, and made a mental note at the time to remember it for Thanksgiving.   Medium-bodied, it won't overwhelm the holiday fare, but has enough backbone to more than hold its own.  Very elegant, marked much more by finesse than by power, it's a red that exudes class, much like a top-notch Chinon, though without an overtly green or herbal edge.

Michael Franz:

My friend Paul Lukacs has many wonderful qualities, but also a certain dogmatic streak, and I would place his insistence on serving American wines for Thanksgiving in that category.  I always want the wine that best matches whatever I'm eating, and frankly don't give a damn what the calendar has to say about the subject.  If it is Bastille Day, and I'm eating grilled steak, I'm going to have a big, juicy Napa Cabernet, and any disapproving Francophiles can just shove off.  And if it is Thanksgiving, I'm having Riesling from Alsace and Pinot Noir from Burgundy, because those are--hands down--the best wines in the world for that meal.  Besides, if the occasion calls for giving thanks, why shouldn't I give thanks for the killer wines of Alsace and Burgundy?  Here are some selections from two of my favorite vintners:

Mader, Alsace (France) Riesling 2004 ($14, Elite Wines): Stylish, beautifully balanced, and remarkably complex for the money, this excellent wine is convincingly dry in style and yet--while light in body--is not austere but rather quite generous in flavor and depth.  Notes of green apples and citrus fruit are fresh and appealing, with nice floral aromatic accents and interesting mineral notes in the finish.  I've tasted this three times, and have been more impressed on each successive occasion.  A great aperitif, but equally promising as a partner for light finfish or Asian noodle dishes. 90

Mader, Alsace (France) Riesling Grand Cru Rosacker 2002 ($24, Elite Wines): Still available in many markets (if in quite limited quantities), this is a stunning wine from the excellent 2002 vintage in Alsace.  Gorgeous floral and mineral acccents are intertwined with deep notes of ripe apples and pears in a medium-bodied format that shows excellent interplay between fruit and acidity.  Complete and convincing. 92

Vincent Girardin, Bourgogne (Burgundy, France) 'Cuvee Saint Vincent' 2005 ($20, Vineyard Brands):  The excellence of both the vintner and the vintage show up clearly in this exemplary bottle of Bourgogne Rouge.  That may sound like damning with faint praise, since Bourgogne Rouge is a famously poor category, yet this wine is actually very tasty, with soft, delicate fruit notes recalling black cherries and nice nuances of spices and minerals.  It is appropriately light for a Pinot Noir-based wine, but not thin or watery, and proves very satisfying.  87

Vincent Girardin, Savigny-Les-Beaune 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) Les Vergelesses 2005 ($38, Vineyard Brands): A gorgeous rendering of Pinot Noir from Savigny-Les-Beaune, this is a truly exceptional wine at a very attractive price (and that would be true even if the dollar were not so weak and the 2005 reds from Burgundy so expensive).  Delicate but also notably ripe and rich, the fruit shows real depth and a soft, tender feel.  Acidity, wood and tannin are all very well balanced against the fruit, and the wine seems very symmetrical and pure. 91

Posted by Michael Franz at 12:09 PM

November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving Wine Picks from McCarthy and Apstein

[WRO Readers:  We'll be publishing Thanksgiving wine recommendations in this space each day until the holiday--sometimes posting several contributions during a single day--so stay tuned!  Ed.]

Ed McCarthy:

Traditionally, I've always chosen a red Burgundy for Thanksgiving dinner.  And I still would recommend Burgundy if my guests insisted on a red wine.  But frankly, I think that a substantial white wine really complements turkey and all the side dishes better.  If you drink only red wine, go ahead and select a Pinot Noir, red Burgundy, or Beaujolais from the recommendations of my colleagues.  But here are two of my favorite white wine choices for T-day:

Frankland Estate, Frankland River (Western Australia, Australia) Riesling Isolation Ridge 2005 ($20, Wildman): You can't go wrong with a great, minerally dry Riesling and turkey.  Rich, dry, lean-style Riesling.  The Frankland Estate, from one of the best sub-regions of the Great Southern, has lots of slatey extract, balanced with firm acidity.  Outstanding wine, and a real value.  93

Domaine Leflaive, Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru (Burgundy, France) Les Pucelles 2001 ($157, Wilson Daniels): For me, a great white Burgundy with turkey is one of the all-time great food pairings.  The 2001 Les Pucelles has rich, concentrated, flavors of ripe apple and citrus.  It has lots of power and great depth, but with the delicacy that Les Pucelles, my favorite Leflaive Premier Cru, always shows.  It is drinking beautifully now, just beginning to reach its peak.  95

Michael Apstein:

For me, poultry demands Pinot Noir-based wines.  And the most captivating expression of that grape comes from Burgundy.  So despite the uniquely American nature of the holiday, my choices for wine come from Burgundy.

Maison Louis Latour, Volnay 1er Cru (Burgundy, France) En Chevret 2005 ($45, Louis Latour USA, Inc):  Latour has hit the jackpot with this Volnay in 2005.  They have been buying grapes from a grower who owns a piece of the En Chevret vineyard only since the late 1990s and have been making better and better wine every year.  As good as their 2002 was, their 2005 is even better.  Unusually intense for Volnay, it has a gorgeous silkiness.  Concentrated fruit flavors give way to alluring leafy earthiness as it sits in the glass.  Lovely to drink now for its accessible fruit quality, the evolution in the glass indicates this is also a wine to cellar.  93

Simonnet Febvre, Cremant de Bourgogne (Burgundy, France) Rosé NV ($17, Louis Latour USA, Inc): This wine is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.  There is no better way to infuse festivity into a gathering than with the 'pop' from opening a bottle of bubbly.  The pale pink color and soft strawberry flavors will bring a smile to every guest's face.  Without a trace of sweetness, it's the softer, less fizzy nature of Cremant compared to Champagne that makes it easy to drink.  Made entirely from Pinot Noir grown in Irancey (part of Burgundy near Chablis), it has enough stuffing to go from the aperitif mode to 'I'll have another glass--or two--with the turkey.'  88

Posted by Michael Franz at 6:51 PM

November 18, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007: Musings in the Key of F

[WRO Readers:  We'll be publishing Thanksgiving wine recommendations in this space each day until the holiday--sometimes posting several contributions during a single day--so stay tuned!  Ed.]

Thanksgiving is filled with important 'F' words such as food, friends, family.  Ideally, fun will fit in somewhere as well.  Of course, many Thanksgiving traditions are set in stone since the menu is usually confined to the immutable turkey 'n trimmings, and since we can't really do much about who our relatives are.  Too frequently overlooked, however--and one of the things we can modify--is the fun part of the holiday, which tends to be overshadowed by frenzy.   And one place where a little fun might be inserted is in our wine selections.

Too often we approach Thanksgiving vinous choices with undue solemnity despite the fact that no wine is really going to shine within the gastronomic disaster of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner anyway.  (Let's acknowledge up front that there simply is no single wine that will go with dark and white turkey meat, candied yams with marshmallows, stuffing dominated by sage/oysters/ sausage or whatever, creamed onions, sweet cranberry sauce, etc.)  But instead of trying to find a wine that will be all things to all foods, I suggest choosing a wine or two that have enough well rounded flavors to go with a variety of foods, and are fruity enough to stand up to at least some of the sweet elements in the meal, as well as fresh enough to counteract the heaviness and richness of Thanksgiving dinner.

The wine can be fancy or frugal depending on one's budget and on the number of people to be served--it isn't really about price for a meal like this--but it should be a fine wine, which is to say well balanced and very tasty.  And of course it should be an unexpected delight, appropriately festive, and an unusual enough choice for it to be fun.  Dry Muscat from Alsace, Gewurztraminer from New York's Finger Lakes (Dr. Frank's for example), Viognier from Virginia, or Lagrien from Italy's Alto Adige region--any of these wines would be food-friendly and fabulous options for Thanksgiving.  Sparkling Shiraz is another fun possibility.

Domaine Carneros, Carneros (California) Pinot Meunier 2005 ($35):  Since Pinot Meunier is the third grape in Champagne (along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), it's probably not surprising that the venerable sparkling wine house Domaine Chandon vinifies some of its Meunier as a still wine.  This Pinot Meunier has some of the silkiness of its close relative Pinot Noir, but with a somewhat stronger tannic grip, it will be good with more assertive items in the Thanksgiving cornucopia.  At the same time, it is delicate enough to go with some of the lighter fare, and its sunny fruitiness may even help carry it along with the sweet potatoes.  Above all, the wine's overall charm will help everyone overlook the fact that a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is not a meal designed for serious food and wine pairing, but rather for merriment, fellowship and, of course, giving thanks.

Rumball, Coonawarra, South Australia SB 18 Sparkling Shiraz ($30,Scott Street Portfolio):  The wine is deep ruby red, creamy on the palate, and has fine bubbles.  Because of its good balance between fruit, acid, tannins and sweetness (and this wine is a tad on the sweet side), it makes a festive aperitif or even a versatile wine throughout the Thanksgiving dinner.  Sparkling Shiraz may seem a wacky choice to many serious-minded wine consumers (and certainly the wine media tend to disdain this Australian specialty) but I think it's a great Thanksgiving tipple.   Don't confuse it with Cold Duck or other sweet, insipid, lightly carbonated pale red wines, for the best Sparkling Shiraz wines can be both gutsy and elegant, and they are most often dry rather than sweet.  Because it gets its color from contact with grape skins the wine tends to have fine tannins, and it also has less acidity than many white wines.  Some Sparkling Shiraz is made by the Charmat Method (fermented in a tank), but many of the classiest ones are produced just like Champagne, a procedure that involves secondary fermentation, ageing, disgorgement etc.  A few Californian vintners are starting to make Sparkling Shiraz, but it is a true Australian wine with a long history.  According to Peter Rumball's website (www.rumball.com) it was first created in 1888 by a French winemaker (Edmund Mazure) plying his trade Down Under.   Sparkling Shiraz is a traditional Christmas beverage in Australia, where there are more than 60 different labels on the market.  They are often hard to find in the US, but with growing consumer awareness and enthusiasm more of them are showing up.  The first one I ever tasted, years ago, was made by Charles Melton, and it was a truly eye-opening, palate-thrilling, memorable experience.  Among other good choices that are available (though perhaps hard to find) in the US are Hardys, Black Chook, Fox Creek, Magella, and Peter Lehman.

Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 11:04 AM

November 17, 2007

Keep Thanksgiving Wines Simple with Pinot and Chard

The Thanksgiving feast always presents endless possibilities for the wine geek within me. Choosing the wines typically becomes an exploration into the depths of my cellar, often turning up long-forgotten bottles that have gone unnoticed for years, tucked away in some dusty corner of the basement.

I am determined to whittle down the options and keep it simple. For that is what most people do. It is what I did before I had a 'collection,' with cases of exotic wines stuffed in every nook and cranny I could find.

Those were the days! Some of my fondest Thanksgiving memories, actually. A bottle of Chalone Pinot Blanc and a bottle of Chalone Pinot Noir and I was good to go. As far as I could tell, that was the good life. And it wasn't bad.

So today's advice will be short and sweet. Keep it simple. One white and one red. If you're ever going to drink one of those rich, mouth-filling California Chardonnays, there is no better setting than Thanksgiving.

The bold aromas and flavors of roasted turkey, savory stuffing and rich sauces and gravies call for wines with good body and strong flavors. Wimpy whites need not apply!

As for a red wine, the conventional wisdom has always held that Beaujolais is the perfect 'turkey' wine. It has the fruit to tackle the myriad savory aromas of the Thanksgiving table, but not so muscular and dominating (as a Cabernet Sauvignon might be) that it would overwhelm  the delicate flavor of your roasted bird.

I prefer the first cousin of Beaujolais' Gamay grape, Pinot Noir, which can be found a bit further north in France's Burgundy region. French Burgundy's trend on the expensive side, though, and might not be the most cost effective wine selection for a holiday crowd.

Pinot Noir from California, Oregon or New Zealand can be every bit as pleasing as a top-notch red Burgundy, and at a fraction of the cost, although there are some exceptions. I long ago gave up Beaujolais on Thanksgiving in favor of Pinot Noir because of the warmth of Pinot Noir. It's soft and inviting, with charming aromas and generally more body than even the best Beaujolais.

Why, you might ask, serve both a white and a red? Because turkey - or roasted chicken or Cornish hen, for that matter - is extremely versatile and nicely complemented by either white or red wine. Not to mention the fact that in any gathering of family and friends you will find red-wine drinkers and white-wine drinkers. The 'pairing' is often of minor importance.

A few suggestions:


Patz & Hall 2004 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($36) -- Seems like Patz & Hall has re-tooled it's Chardonnay model and has backed away from the fat, overblown Chards for which it used to be famous. This Napa Valley citrusy Chard has richness, but with firm acidity and hints of minerality. 93

Flora Springs 2006 'Barrel Fermented' Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($26) - Vineyard sourcing is important for this wine. Utilizing vineyards from the cool Carneros, the southern end of the Napa Valley, and mid-valley, Flora Springs is able to craft a Chardonnay that has the heft and ripe tropical aromas that say Napa Valley without the heaviness usually associated with those elements. The cooler-climate grapes provide fresh acidity and a citrus/lemon custard aroma that balances the fatness of the pear and peach aromas from warmer areas. 91

Kumeu River 2005 'Village' Chardonnay, New Zealand ($20) - The '05 Village is beautifully structured, rich and mouth watering, and delivers complex aromas of baked apple, pear and hazelnut. The wine is aged in older oak casks to minimize the influence of the wood tannins and aromas. Beautifully executed and fairly priced. 90

Pinot Noir

Patz & Hall 2005 Chenoweth Ranch Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley ($55) - Seems like winemaker James Hall didn't get the memo. His Chenoweth Ranch Pinot Noir bucks the trend in California toward heavier, riper Pinot Noir that often tastes more like Syrah than Pinot. The only similarity between the Chenoweth Ranch Pinot and Syrah is the color. This is classic Pinot Noir, with a heady nose that inspires comparisons to Chambertin in all of its floral glory. There are high-toned red fruit aromas such as strawberry and cherry, and on the palate a deep, rich raspberry characteristic unfolds to give the wine another dimension of complexity. The structure and balance are exquisite, even in light of the 14.6 alcohol, and the tannins are fine and mature, allowing for a luxurious, silky mouthfeel and a lingering finish that is sweet and pure. 96

Baileyana 2005 'Grand Firepeak' Pinot Noir, Edna Valley ($38) - French-born winemaker Christian Roguenant is right at home with the Pinot Noir grape and has reeled off a succession of impressive and ever-improving Pinots since taking the reins at Baileyana more than a decade ago. The Grand Firepeak Cuvee is a Pinot Noir with guts, showing layers of red fruit complexity and good minerality despite ample ripeness. 93

Coldstream Hills 2006 Pinot Noir, Australia ($22) - Ever since my first visit to Australia's Yarra Valley, more than a decade ago, I've been convinced this cool region near Melbourne was destined to become another hotspot for top-class Pinot Noir, perhaps on a par with Oregon's Willamette Valley or California's Russian River. So far, however, the Yarra has been long on promise but short on delivery. Thus this fairly inexpensive '06 Pinot from Coldstream Hills is a bit of an eye-opener. It opens in the glass with a gorgeous nose of violets and spice, unfolding on the palate with generous, fleshy layers of red-fruit complexity such as blueberry and cherry, all held together with bright acidity and complemented by backnotes of savory earthiness. The tannins are fine and smooth, contributing to a silky mouthfeel that is worthy of the finest red Burgundy. And at this price, it's a Pinot lover's steal! 90

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:58 AM

November 16, 2007

Whitley On Wine Radio Today

Vintner Gary Heck will join me during the first half-hour of Whitley On Wine this afternoon to discuss Korbel down through the decades. The venerable Russian River Valley sparkling wine producer will be celebrating its 125th anniversay this year.

The show begins at 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET) and can be heard at SignOn San Diego, the online presence of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Then Wine Review Online columnist and reviewer Paul Lukacs will make an appearance at 2:30 to discuss Zinfandel. Paul, an award-winning author and also Wine Editor of Saveur Magazine, is in town to conduct a Zinfandel seminar at the San Diego Bay World of Wine and Food.

And in the final 15-minute segment, Paul Wagner, of Balzac Communications, will brief us on the results of Wednesday's demonstration of the Eisch "breathable" glass at COPIA.

I've tried the Eisch "breathable" glass and am of the opinion the concept may revolutionize the stemware industry. More than 60 wineries and numerous wine journalists attended Wednesday's demo.

If you miss today's show, it will repeat over the weekend.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:41 PM

November 13, 2007

Time to Throw Another Log on the Fire

I understand that some Port aficionados in the U.K. are said to consume an entire bottle of Port in a single day. Every day. I love the stuff, but I'm not quite in that league. There is a time and place for Port.

Most often it is in front of my fire, with a hunk of Stilton following a meal. There is something about the crackle of a log on the fire on a cold winter night that nurtures the craving for fortification. At other times I wouldn't even be tempted to indulge in this inky black, sweet libation.

During a summer visit to Portugal's Douro Valley, where authentic Port is made, I barely touched the stuff, concentrating instead on the increasingly attractive table wines of the region. But the seasons have turned and I now find myself reaching for the bottle of Graham's Six Grapes before I sink into my soft leather chair for the evening.

There are two basic types of Port (three, actually, if you count the rare white Ports that are usually made less sweet and served as an aperitif) and I have my own peculiar habit of taking bottle-aged ruby Ports - including Vintage Port - with savory cheeses, while I prefer a tawny Port with dessert.

That's just me. You might do exactly the opposite and no one would say you were wrong. My thinking is that strong cheeses mask the subtle aromas of tawny. A good ruby has the power and primary fruit to take strong food flavors head-on.

There are essentially four classes of ruby that I favor, beginning with the supple 'vintage character' Ports such as Fonseca Bin 27 and Graham's Six Grapes. These are a step up from generic ruby Ports, which generally aren't very interesting. Most vintage character Ports retail for less than $20 a bottle, and deliver a big bang for the buck. And you can open a bottle and keep it on the shelf a couple of weeks and still enjoy it.

At the next level are the vastly underrated Late Bottled Vintage Ports. These wines carry a vintage date, but typically are produced only in years when a vintage is not declared. They have neither the concentration nor the structure of a Vintage Port, but in some years they come close. They generally spend a little more time in barrel before bottling, to soften the tannins and make the wine more drinkable upon release. Dow's, Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca all make excellent LBV Ports.

The sleeper Ports are the single-quinta Ports made from the best vineyards of the great Port houses. A quinta is a farm, or vineyard property, and the top vineyards generally produce exceptional wines even in years when the overall quality is not good enough to declare a vintage.

At Graham's the top quinta is Malvedos, at Dow's it's Quinta do Bomfim, at Taylor's it's Quinta de Vargellas. All of the big Port houses have some vineyards that yield high quality nearly every year. Wines made from those properties carry a vintage designation, though they are not considered 'Vintage Port' in the classic sense.

Consumers are wise to snap up the good ones, for they are generally priced 30 to 40 percent below the price of a Vintage Port from the same house, but the quality isn't that different. I recently had a 1965 Graham's Malvedos that was absolutely gorgeous, so it's obvious to me some of these single-quinta Ports will hold up over time just as a classic Vintage Port would.

Of course, Vintage Port is the ultimate in the Port world, and justifiably so. The best will improve in the bottle for many decades, developing a stunning complexity of aromas as they age. From great years, such as 2003 or 1997, Vintage Ports from the top houses start at about $75.

There is a time and place for these wines, as well. But for the moment, I am content with my vintage character Port, a nice cheese and a roaring fire. I am ready for winter.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:29 PM