December 31, 2008
Marguerite and I had the opportunity to meet Livio Felluga this past October during a trip to northern Italy. Now 94, his step slowed by living so fully for all those years, he still exhibited the exuberance of someone whose heart overflows with love of family and home. His winery in Brazzano di Cormons, now run by his son Andrea, who served as a gracious host during our two days in Friuli, is that home -- one that Signor Livio founded over a half century ago as he helped inspire the renaissance of Friulian and indeed all Italian wine.
Livio Felluga came to Friuli from Isola d'Istria, now part of Slovenia, and then after the First World War, Grado on the Adriatic, where the family relocated. There, as a young man, he helped his father sell wine. It was in that capacity that he first visited the soft hills of Colio in Friuli, and by his own admission fell in love with them - both their sun-dappled natural beauty, and the beauty of what grew there, whether wildflowers, plums, or grapes. But then came another war, this time with military service, eight years away from home, including time in North Africa and then, as a prisoner, in Scotland. It was not until the 1950s that he returned to those hills, where he purchased land to plant vines and make wines. Over the subsequent decades, those wines played a leading role in the revitalization of the region, as the whites in particular were among the first from Italy to achieve international renown. They displayed then--and continue to display--now a delicacy and grace that seems rooted in a locale that is indeed like no other.
Andrea Felluga took us to Isola d'Istria and Grado, as well as Brazzano, enabling us to retrace the journey of his father's life. In the process, we came to share, if only vicariously, his deep sense of reverence and, yes, love for his home. We of course also drank the Felluga wines, none of which disappointed, and some of which managed to do what only truly great wines can do--suggest not just a place but a home, a terroir marked not simply by dirt and stone but also by lived life. That evocation, sensed throughout our visit and tasted most noticeably in the white 'Terre Alte' and 'Picolit,' as well as the red 'Sossó,' is why Livio Felluga is my producer of the year for 2008.
I had the good fortune to try scores of wonderful wines this past year, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind which was the very best. It was Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 1996 Champagne, enjoyed courtesy of Peter Gago, head winemaker at Penfolds in South Australia, who brought it to dinner last June, after hearing my WRO colleague and friend, Michael Franz, and I sing its praises the year before. This wine is unbelievably compelling, being simultaneously rich and lithe, substantial and delicate, honeyed and vibrant. It ranks as the finest Champagne, and one of the two or three best wines of any sort, that I have ever tasted.
December 30, 2008
There are many reasons why I am selecting Familia Zuccardi as my choice for winery of the year. It is one of the oldest of Argentina's modern wineries, having been founded in 1963 by Alberto V. Zuccardi. It is family owned and run, with the founder's son, Jose Alberto Zuccardi at the helm today (Jose's son, Sebastian, has recently joined the firm as well, and is producing some fine and innovative sparkling wines, most notably an intriguing Viognier espumante). Zuccardi is an innovative establishment, willing to experiment with a variety of different grapes including Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and other varietals not necessarily commonplace in Argentina. Zuccardi has established a small experimental winery where trials of different varietals and vinification techniques are tested.
This is definitely a winery that prides itself on thinking outside the box (how many other Argentina producers are making a late harvest Torrontes?) In a part of the world where water supply is an important issue, it has developed an irrigation system designed to use water more efficiently than the usual drip irrigation method. Kudos too for shifting many of its vineyards to organic viticulture: to date, more than 30% of the total 650 hectares (1600 acres) are certified organic. And credit as well to a philosophy that encourages the use of human rather than machine labor when possible (the winery's permanent employees number more than 450 people). Not all of the innovations, research and experiments are successful of course, but I think plenty of praise is due Zuccardi for its willingness to try and identify the best and most appropriate grapes for the region, and to strive to develop the best winemaking techniques. Indeed, better and better wines are emerging every year, most of which are distinguished by good structure and shining fruit flavors. There are three different labels: Familia Zuccardi 'Q', Santa Julia, and Vida Organica (a Whole Foods line).
Zuccardi is a notably hospitable winery. Located on the outskirts of Mendoza, it encourages visitors to come taste the wines and enjoy the restaurant. When I first visited a few years ago there was nothing more than a modest tasting room where a few snacks were served with the wines. Today this establishment is a must-see (and must taste) destination, which in addition to a top-notch restaurant, hosts regular concerts, exhibitions of local artists' work and, during the summer months, a classic Argentine asado (barbecue). The charming Familia Zuccardi restaurant, with its rustic stone walls and picture windows framing the vineyards, dishes up some of the most flavorful food to be found in these parts, including exemplary empanadas (meat, onion or cheese), as well as the best steaks I've yet been served in this meat-centric country.
As I did a mental review of all the wonderful wines I've been privileged to taste this year I came up with a few contenders that I might consider for the label of 'best wine', a couple that could qualify as 'most exciting surprises,' and even one or two 'classiest' wines of the year. But one wine that kept persistently jogging my memory--and one that fits into a category all by itself--was St. Henri Shiraz. This probably isn't the most dazzling wine I've tasted this year, or the flashiest, or the most commendable newcomer or venerable stalwart, but for my palate, this Penfolds selection may be the most evocative wine I've tasted this year.
I've encountered St. Henri a very few times in 2008, but each time--whatever the setting, whichever the vintage--I get an instant sense of comfort the moment I bring glass to nose and experience a whiff of that intense, dark, mysterious bouquet of spices and dried fruits (ginger, lavender, cherries, currants--all the finest fruitcake ingredients). When the wine hits the palate it is invariably ripe and round without being highly extracted or distractingly concentrated. St. Henri abounds with vitality, yet there is also something entirely mellow and reassuring about it, like an old friend with whom one feels instantly at ease. St. Henri does not try to impress you by being exceptionally trendy or sophisticated. In its youth it is endearingly chubby, and as it ages it becomes more ample (but always in balance) and more complex. Unlike most of its peers (i.e. other high-end Aussie reds) St. Henri does not rely on new oak for its character, having been matured in old, large vats rather than new wood. The wine is certainly an anomaly--do not think of it as Grange's little brother--but that is part of its charm.
My most recent encounter with St. Henri occurred late this past fall at a Penfolds wine dinner being held at Zinnia, a chic, new San Francisco restaurant, where the 1991 vintage was served with a confit of lamb cheeks. It was a stunning pairing, but was St. Henri really the best wine of the evening--better than the Penfolds Bin 707, better than the Grange? Certainly not. But for me, it was the friendliest wine at the table, the one that demanded less intellectual contemplation, but the one that evoked the most immediate visceral reaction. St. Henri continues to be what pops into my head when I try to conjure up the most memorable wine of 2008.
December 28, 2008
Schramsberg Vineyards, Napa Valley, California
'Best of the Year' picks are made, obviously, during the holiday season, when sparkling wine corks pop around the world. Many people don't have a lot to celebrate as this economically challenged year comes to an end, though if one beverage can put a spring in the step and a gleam in the eye, it's bubbly, in all of its manifestations -- Champagne, Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco, Cremant d'Alsace, German Sekt, U.S. sparklers, and so many others.
This year, I toast Schramsberg Vineyards and its elegant, self-effacing 'grande dame,' Jamie Davies, who died in February 2008 at age 73. Beginning in 1965, Davies and her husband, Jack (who died in 1998) were the first to produce blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs and brut rosé in California, using the traditional techniques of Champagne. Like the chicken crossing the road to prove to the possum that it could be done, Schramsberg progressed as the Champenoise observed for nearly a decade, when they established their California bubbly outposts at Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros, Mumm Napa Valley and Roederer Estate.
History and tributes are wonderful things, yet my choice of Schramsberg as producer of the year is based on what's in the bottle now. One of the Davies' three sons, Hugh, is in charge at the Calistoga winery, and across the board, his wines, all vintage-dated and made from grapes grown in cool-climate vineyards throughout the North Coast, are at once rich and elegant. They have sun-ripened California fruit aromas and flavors, along with the depth and brioche complexity of fine Champagne. Schramsberg delivers, from the sumptuous 2001 J. Schram prestige cuvée ($100) and complex, age-worthy 2001 Reserve ($100), to the refined and refreshing 2005 Blanc de Blancs ($35) and full-bodied, juicy 2005 Blanc de Noirs ($37), and to a great drink for the holidays, the lively, berry/citrus-accented 2005 Brut Rosé ($40).
These wines aren't inexpensive, yet they're worth the money, delivering Champagne-level quality and at competitive, if not better, prices.
Schramsberg's second label, Mirabelle, offers excellent value in two multi-vintage sparklers, Mirabelle Brut ($22) and Mirabelle Brut Rose ($25).
Also not to be missed is the family's J. Davies Diamond Mountain District (Napa Valley) 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), made from estate-grown grapes grown south of Calistoga. The Davies family got into the Cabernet Sauvignon game late, bottling their first vintage in 2001. In that short period of time, Hugh Davies has mastered the tricks of producing still wine to complement his bubblies, with the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon approachable and luscious, yet with plenty of backbone.
Pacific Rim Single-Vineyard Rieslings 2007 Columbia Valley, Washington
I'm cheating in picking not one but three new, single-vineyard Rieslings from Randall Grahm's Pacific Rim winery in Washington state's Columbia Valley, yet they are most impressive as a group, showing Grahm's commitment (and that of his Pacific Rim general manager/winemaker, Nicolas Quillé), to producing outstanding Riesling in Washington. Chateau Ste. Michelle and Long Shadows' Poet's Leap wineries have been doing that for some time, though having another player is good for the neighborhood and for consumers.
Pacific Rim's 'regular' Rieslings come in dry and sweet versions and are fruity, quaffable blends from multiple Columbia Valley vineyards, selling for around $8. The Solstice Vineyard in Yakima Valley and Wallula Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills sub-appellations are the sources for the new range of Pacific Rim Riesling -- one from Solstice and two from Wallula, of which one is made from biodynamically grown grapes. All are sealed with screw caps.
Pacific Rim, Yakima Valley (Washington) Solstice Vineyard Riesling 2007 ($30): This is the sweetest of the three wines, with 1.14 percent residual sugar, yet it remains dry on the palate. Stony and nutty on the nose, the wine crackles in the mouth with lime and grapefruit, with some spicy baked apple and richness on the finish. It's crisp and refreshing, clocking in at 13.5% alcohol. 89
Pacific Rim, Columbia Valley (Washington) Wallula Vineyard Riesling 2007 ($18): This wine tastes bone-dry (the residual sugar percentage is 0.9) and has an inviting honeysuckle aroma with a flash of minerality. It starts out rather austere, with earthy notes and racy citrus and white peach flavors. There's some creaminess and tropical fruit in the mid-palate, and the wine closes with mouthwatering acidity -- tart and minerally. This wine is delicious now, yet two or three more years in bottle should unleash some secondary complexity. Another plus: it has just 12.3% alcohol by volume. Note that Wallula Vineyard is in the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area, although the front label reads 'Columbia Valley.' 91
Pacific Rim, Columbia Valley (Washington) Wallula Vineyard Biodynamic Riesling 2007 ($30): Produced from a young, 145-acre, certified biodynamic plot at Wallula Vineyard, this floral, flinty Riesling has pure, focused Meyer lemon, citrus pith and white-peach fruit notes. It's dry (.76% residual sugar) though slightly plumper than the non-biodynamic wine above, and layers of flavor continue to unfold through a long finish. A pleasant leesiness adds complexity. It, too, will benefit from cellaring, for up to five years for those who like more mature Riesling. 13% alcohol. 92
December 26, 2008
My selection for 2008 Winery of the Year is Champagne Ayala, based in Aÿ, a village in the Champagne region of France. A close runner-up is the exceptional Champagne Henriot, whose 1998 Brut Souverain colleague Robert Whitley was recently swooning over in his blog on Champagne. I chose Ayala because its improvement has been so dramatic in this past year.
It might seem strange that I am selecting a Champagne house that has been around since 1860, but this is not the same Champagne firm that I remember from a couple of decades ago. That Ayala -- owned at the time by the same family that is the proprietor of the very respectable classified Bordeaux growth, Château La Lagune in the Médoc -- was foundering, a victim of neglect, caused by absentee ownership. I remember visiting Ayala in the mid-90s and being disappointed, mainly because no one seemed to be looking after this once-noble house, a founding member of the Syndicate de Grands Marques (an organization of 18 of the most prestigious firms in Champagne, now disbanded).
Shortly after my visit, Ayala disappeared from the U.S. market. Years went by, and we all forgot about the house. When I visited Champagne Bollinger in 2006, Ghislain Montgolfier, managing director of Bollinger, told me that Bollinger, also in Aÿ, had purchased Ayala. I was surprised, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Ayala. Just as Champagne Deutz greatly improved after Louis Roederer bought a controlling interest in it a decade ago, Ayala has turned around and is now in top form. This year, Ayala was re-launched on the U.S. market with a series of eight stunning Champagnes. I tasted Ayala's entire line, except its demi-sec, earlier this year, and was amazed by its general excellence. Ayala's style is rather the opposite of Bollinger -- which is known for its powerful, full-bodied Champagnes. Ayala stresses finesse and elegance, with a strong emphasis on Chardonnay, somewhat reminiscent of a neighboring Champagne firm, Billecart-Salmon. But Ayala's prices are much more reasonable than the rather expensive (these days) Billecart-Salmon: Ayala's Brut non-vintage, Brut Majeur, retails for about $38, and its top-of-the-line prestige cuvee, Cuvée Perle d'Ayala, costs about $125.
What I really like about Ayala's style is the dryness of its Champagnes: except for Rich Majeur, its demi-sec, all Ayala Champagnes have either very low dosage (added sugar/wine blend) or no dosage at all! Ayala is now producing three no-dosage Champagnes: a NV Zéro Dosage Brut Majeur (in addition to its low-dosage NV Brut); a super Cuvée Rosé Nature; and with the 2002 vintage, its prestige wine, Cuvée Perle d'Ayala, is also a Nature (French synonym for zero dosage). Ayala's three other low-dosage Champagnes are its NV Rosé Majeur, its very good 1999 Vintage Brut, and its excellent 2000 Blanc de Blancs. (Importer: Cognac One, New York).
Ayala Cuvée Rosé Nature. Many rosé Champagnes are a bit too fruity for me. I love rosés when they're really dry, such as Krug's and Bollinger's. Unfortunately, the exceptional Krug Rosé is very expensive (about $350) and Bollinger's Vintage 'La Grande Année' Rosé is about $200. This is the reason that I was delighted when Ayala introduced what might be the only zero-dosage rosé Champagne, at least on the U.S. market, its NV Cuvée Rosé Nature, which retails for about $85 to $90. It's pale salmon pink in color, totally dry, and totally delicious, with complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of wild strawberries. This Champagne stopped me in my tracks. The only reasonable response to drinking it is, 'I'll have another glass, please.' (Importer: Cognac One, New York).
December 25, 2008
'Tis the season for bling, and our Wine Review Online colleague, Patrick Comiskey, is all over the subject in the Food section of the Los Angeles Times with the article "A Champagne (or sparkling wine) for every occasion."
Patrick's suggestions run the gamut of sparkling wines, including some of my favorite Proseccos, and he artfully targets specific bubblies with specific celebratory moments.
Of course, not all occasions rise to equal levels of ecstasy, or call for the same level of exhuberance in a wine selection. So I did take note that Patrick agrees with me on one important decision -- New Year's Eve is just a Champagne kinda night!
Read the whole thing, and enjoy.
December 23, 2008
With all due respect to the many beautiful cavas, proseccos, cremants and assorted other bubblies made using the methods of the Champenoise, New Year's Eve wouldn't have quite the same pizazz -- for me -- without hearing a cork or two, or three, popping on the real thing.
That's Champagne, my beverage of choice on what typically is the most uptown night of the year. Often imitated but seldom eclipsed, Champagne offers unsurpassed sophistication -- and glitz -- in a glass.
That's the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week as I take a look at several Champagnes that impressed me over the past year, including a couple of knockout bubblies from the San Diego International and Critics Challenge wine competitions.
Of course, certain Champagnes can be quite expensive (such as the incredibly delicious Henriot 1998 Brut Millesime at $95) so I made sure to single out a couple of my affordable favorites!
December 16, 2008
Over the course of this year I've tasted my share of exceptional wines the world over. From the Adami Prosecco to the beautiful Champagnes of Henriot to the consistently brilliant Bordeaux of Canon-la-Gaffeliere to the lovely Douro Valley reds of Quinta Crasto, I could hardly go wrong.
Yet it was a relatively young (first vintage 1997) Napa Valley winery that captured my imagination and ran off with the "Wine Talk" Winery of the Year Award by a comfortable margin.
That is the subject of my Creators Syndicate "Wine Talk" column this week. Nickel & Nickel and winemaker Darice Spinelli excelled in every aspect of winemaking this year, but it was the lineup of remarkable 2005 Cabernet Sauvignons that sealed the deal.
The '05 Cabs are beautifully structured, well-balanced wines with fine tannins that speak volumes about their class and breeding. What's more, I firmly believe the Nickel & Nickel style is a better model for Napa Valley Cabernets of the future than the sweet, high octane "fatties" that are currently the darling of publications such as the Wine Spectator.
December 14, 2008
Do you think you are too bummed out by the current economic climate to drink a bottle of Champagne at the holidays this year? If so, you need to re-think your position.
Yes, I understand that the situation is pretty grim. However, in my view, there is no such thing as an acceptable holiday season without Champagne. Moreover, there is no excuse for foregoing Champagne in December as long as there remains the possibility of balancing accounts with a few nights of tuna casserole in January. I figure that tuna casserole won't kill me, whereas a holiday season without Champagne just might.
Of course, given the current climate, many of us will only get one shot at Champagne this year. So we'd better hit the mark with our one shot. Among the world's greatest wines, Champagne is the one that is as much "made" as "grown," so your best assurance of success is to start with a great producer and then pick a wine on the price tier that is appropriate to your circumstances.
If this strategy sounds sound to you, think about going with Gosset, a venerable house that is currently at the top of its game. Gosset's Champagnes are consistently wonderful, balancing a rich, deeply-flavored profile with an uncanny elegance usually found only in lighter wines.
Gosset's lineup is arrayed on four tiers, and though you can't go wrong on any of them, I'd steer you toward the second level if this will be your first foray. The entry level wine is "Brut Excellence," a non-vintage wine that is certainly well above average if not always downright thrilling. Next up is what I regard as the sweet spot in the portfolio, or what we might call the "Reserve" wines, a "Grande Réserve" and a "Grand Rosé." Then there's a vintage-dated wine, and the one you're most likely to find now would be the 1999 vintage brut. At the top are three wines in the "Célébris" line, a Blanc de Blancs, a Rosé 2003, and a Brut 1998.
If you've only got one shot at these, I'd steer you toward the Grand Rosé, which offers an especially illuminating introduction to this house's great work. Priced at $85 (but probably available for less with some effort), this may be a stretch, but you can take comfort in the knowledge that you'll be getting a wine that is very competitive with Cuvée de Prestige wines priced around $150. Although it is broad in texture and quite deep in flavor, it remains lifted and elegant, perhaps due to the fact that it is a rare rosé that is based predominantly on Chardonnay grapes. These comprise 56% of the blend, along with 35% Pinot Noir sourced from Grand Cru villages and 9% still red wine from the famed villages of Bouzy and Ambonnay. Complete and thoroughly convincing, it is beautifully packaged and even better in magnums--just in case you can get your friends to chip in for something really special.
My next column (published on WRO on Christmas Eve) will be devoted to Champagne, and I'll profile a few other exemplary houses in this space between now and the end of the year. However, you need not delay your purchase for fear that I'm saving the best for last. Other houses make Champagnes that can be as good as Gosset's, but nobody turns out wines that are consistently better.
December 10, 2008
Here at Wine Review Online headquarters we typically shy away from shameless self promotion, but sometimes the content is so compelling we just can't resist.
This week's issue is a case in point. Ed McCarthy, a regular WRO contributor and author of Wine for Dummies, takes a look at the puzzling lack of success of the so-called Cal-Ital wines of California, which have not quite captured the imagination of the American consumer.
Ed approaches the topic with an open mind and finds several Cal-Ital wines he can enthusiastically recommend, from Paso Robles and the Alexander Valley. He missed a couple of my favorites -- the Sangioveses from Orfila Vineyards and South Coast Winery, both located in southern California -- but I was thrilled to see that Ed, a true expert on Italian wines, found a number of wines to his liking.
And our Linda Murphy tackles the thorny topic of California Chardonnays worthy of cellaring. The conventional wisdom, of course, holds that California Chardonnays lack the bones to improve with age.
Linda sat down with several older vintages of Patz & Hall Chardonnay -- all the way back to 1999 -- and was pursuaded otherwise. Like Ed, she was skeptical but went in with an open mind.
And, as always, Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas have put forth several excellent pairing recommendations in Wine With.
Last but not least, we have posted more than 50 new reviews this week, heavily concentrated on California. Some big guns are in the lineup, including Merry Edwards, Dutton Goldfield, Ojai Vineyards and Patz & Hall.
Check it out. And if you haven't already signed up as a subscriber, remember a subscription to the WRO Reviews pages would make a perfect Christmas gift!
December 5, 2008
Speaking of holiday gifts (weren't we?) I just received an email from my good friend Thrace Bromberger, one of the partners in Napa's Gustavo Thrace winery.
OK, you want a cool gift for the wine geeks? Check out the WinePod at WinePod.net. We have them here at the tasting room and also offer a custom crush by Gustavo that gives you four cases of your own little wine (that is what the unit produces at a time) with your own labels, etc. You'll have to come see it and taste the wines made in it. We have a half dozen of them at the winery and Gustavo is running different 'batches,' playing with clones, did a late harvest Cab, etc. Pretty nifty little system!
I saw this clever device when I stopped by the Gustavo Thrace tasting room (in the Oxbox Center near Copia) on my last trip to Napa. I'll be in the valley next week and will make a point to swing by and taste some of the WinePod wines.
Gustavo, by the way, is the same Gustavo Brambila depicted in the movie Bottle Shock! Just in case you missed that.
December 2, 2008
Thanksgiving was so yesterday. I have seen the Christmas lights. It's time to move on!
And so I have, perusing the internet in search of holiday gifts that I know everyone in my circle would enjoy. Especially those who already have all of the wine they'll need for a lifetime; or at least enough to see them through until Spring!
I've done all of my shopping from the comfort of home, and easily found most of the items on my "hot gift" list no more than a mouse click away. That is the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week and I trust you will read the whole thing, as they say.
Many of the gifts are already treasured possessions, such as the Eisch "Cooling" crystal decanter or my Avanti dual-temp wine storage cabinet or the nifty Vinturi wine aerator. A bulging wine collection can't have too many of these necessities!
And they are necessities if you plan to enjoy your collection, as opposed to locking up all those precious wines in cold storage and admiring your handiwork from afar.
That said, always remember the greatest gift is the gift of giving!