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February 25, 2011

Value Wines for Every Day

(Robert Whitley's Creators Syndicate Wine Talk column for this week.)

Despite a recent report indicating wine consumers are beginning to return to the $20-and-above segment, the wine industry's most successful companies are clearly those that own the $15-and-under category. That hardly means most of us are doomed to a life of bad wine. Cheap is no longer synonymous with bad when it comes to wine.

Andre Lurton's Chateau BonnetImproved viticulture and winemaking technology make it possible for wineries to deliver a delicious beverage, even when produced in great volume — as companies such as global wine companies like Gallo, Bronco and Constellation do every day.

I monitor such wines on a regular basis because they are the everyday wines the majority of the world can afford. Even avid wine enthusiasts are reluctant to pull the cork on a $30 wine every night; most save their more dear (as in costly) wines for the big dinner of the week or special occasions.

Today, I will highlight a few of the producers who seem to be hitting all of the right notes in this important price category. I begin with a producer from the unlikeliest of locations for value wine: Bordeaux, France.

Andre Lurton Chateau Bonnet, Bordeaux, France — The 2007 Bordeaux AOC Rouge ($15) and 2009 Entre-Deux-Mers Blanc ($13) are both delicious and friendly, meaning they are easy to drink now and enjoyable despite their youth. Both were medal-winners at the Winemaker Challenge in January, though the Entre-Deux-Mers Blanc has long been a favorite of mine. It's the white Bordeaux that consistently over-performs in the price category.

Barefoot Bubbly, California — This brand was purchased by Gallo several years ago and has, if anything, gotten better. To great effect, Barefoot often uses nontraditional grapes for its sparkling wines. The Pinot Grigio bubbly, for example, is quite good. But none of the Barefoot Bubbly wines are bad, and all are consistent winners on the wine competition circuit. Suggested retail is $10 across the board, but I often find these wines for about $8.

Bonterra Vineyards, Mendocino, Calif. — This winery remains a mystery to me. The vineyards are organic, some biodynamic, and those are practices that usually drive prices higher. Yet Bonterra consistently produces organic Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a range of other yummy wines for $14 or less.

Bogle Vineyards, California — Over the years, I've watched Bogle excel with wines in the $9 to $11 price range. Grapes are sourced from numerous regions throughout California, so most of the wines carry the generic California appellation. That's no indicator of low quality. The Bogle Chardonnay regularly wins gold medals, even when competing against wines costing twice and sometimes as much. The 2009 Bogle Chardonnay, for example, was a gold-medal winner at the 2010 San Diego International Wine Competition. It costs $9 if you pay full retail.

Cycles Gladiator, Central Coast, California — This brand was created a few years back by the Hahn Family winery in Monterey County to replace its Rex Goliath value brand, which was sold off. Cycles Gladiator has been the beast of the $9 price category ever since. Its top wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah, but the entire lineup is stellar. And cheap!

Forest Glen, California — This brand is a star in the Bronco portfolio of value wines. The wines carry the generic California appellation and retail in the $9 to $11 range. Forest Glen won five medals at the 2010 San Diego International, including a Platinum award for its 2009 Sauvignon Blanc at $9. I have been tasting these wines since they first hit the market in the 1990s, and they've been remarkably consistent.

Hogue Cellars, Washington — I hesitate to place the Hogue wines in this context because the winery has a number of price tiers and its share of expensive wines. But the basic entry level Hogue whites retail for about $10, often less, and they are easily among the finest white wines America produces in this price range. These wines are lightly oaked, or not oaked at all, and always taste fresh, crisp and clean. The Riesling and Pinot Grigio are reliable winners.

Sutter Home, Napa Valley, California — This is the winery that invented white Zinfandel some three decades ago. It is owned by the Trinchero Family of the Napa Valley, which makes a number of superb wines under the family banner. But the Sutter Home wines are not to be taken lightly. They were a big hit at the 2010 San Diego International, winning one gold and nine silver medals with wines that cost a whole $5 retail.

Turning Leaf, California — This Gallo grand turned a few heads at the Winemaker Challenge in January when its 2009 Pinot Grigio was bestowed a Platinum award and landed in the championship round for Best of Show white wine. It didn't win, but it didn't matter. The point had been made that this was an excellent wine at $8 retail, and underscored the proposition that Turning Leaf wines represent a tasty segment of the $8-and-under category.

Woodbridge Vineyards, California — Robert Mondavi founded the Woodbridge winery long ago, but the giant Constellation wine company now owns it. Woodbridge wines are better now than ever, with juicy Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and the like retailing for about $11 a bottle in most parts of the country.

Wines of this ilk are an important part of the mix because they allow normal families that aren't prone to indulgence to place a respectable bottle of wine on the table at virtually every dinner. With wines such as these, we may yet develop a European-style wine-drinking culture — where wine is considered an essential part of the meal — here in the United States.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:55 AM

February 15, 2011

The New Languedoc

I must confess I have an affection for the wines of the Languedoc. Not the ubiquitous Vin d'Pays wines that line your grocery store shelves. Those wines could be produced anywhere, and taste like it. They aren't bad, just not unique in any way.

Map of Coteaux du LanguedocThe great wines of the Languedoc -- and there are many -- first captured my imagination while I was judging several years ago at the Concours Mondial, one of Europe's largest and most prestigous wine competitions.

This is a blind tasting. The judges know virtually nothing about the wines before them. Not the producer. Not the type of wine. Not the origin of the grapes. Nothing.

During the course of the tastings, which go on over several days, I had a run of five straight red wines that I scored at the gold medal level. I was blown away by the beauty and finesse of those wines and couldn't wait until the end of the day, when the wines judged would be revealed.

They were all from La Clape, a sub-region of the Coteaux du Languedoc. I was unfamiliar with this wine region and immediately scheduled a visit to the south of France to investigate these phenomenal wines.

La Clape, I discovered, was very popular in the United Kingdom because the quality was extremely high and the cost very low. The same was true of other districts I visited in the Languedoc, such as Saint Chinian and Pic Saint Loup.

The great winemaker Olivier Jullien of Mas Jullien.I came across the great wines of Mas Jullien. The amazing quality I found throughout the AOC regions of the Languedoc were a revelation.

The Languedoc recently revised its classifications, keeping the Vin d'Pays and the AOC designations while adding Grand Vins and Grand Crus distinctions that are intended to delineate the highest quality wines of the region.

I tasted many of these wines in their new classifications recently in New York. The video here was taken by members of the Benson Marketing Group, who organized the tasting and conducted an interview with me to elicit my impressions of the wines and the new classification system.

I hope you find it informative and useful, and entertaining, too.


Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:12 PM

February 7, 2011

Valentine's Day Requires 'Now' Wines

Robert Whitley
Creators Syndicate

After more than 20 years of wine suggestions for Valentine’s Day, it occurs to me – finally, you might say – that this occasion requires an in-the-moment wine that delivers an immediate message. The notion that you would gift a wine that requires an additional ten years in the cellar might be romantic, but not very practical.

Valentine’s Day is all about the moment, and that requires a “now” wine. That means it must be delicious on this day of all days. So the question becomes, what wines qualify?

There are certainly plenty of wines made in a lighter, fruity style meant for immediate consumption. These are typically inexpensive wines produced in bulk and sold with clever labels that are pure fantasy, such as Little Black Dress, Yellowtail or, my favorite, Red Guitar, which is really quite good.

I suspect, however, that the average wine enthusiast also wants to give a wine gift that is special as well as immediately gratifying.

That brings me to wines that sparkle, wines that are made to pair with chocolate and other sweets, and wines that are substantial but impressive when young.

If you are inclined toward wines that sparkle, know that almost no one, let alone a potential valentine, is offended by a gift of Champagne. I typically cellar my vintage Champagnes, so for immediate consumption I look to my favorite non-vintage bruts, and for occasions such as Valentine’s Day I prefer rose Champagne.

My favorites are Laurent-Perrier Brut Rose ($65) and Billecart Salmon Brut Rose ($40). I’ve never been disappointed with either of these stellar Champagne houses, and it should be noted that both specialize in rose Champagne even though they produce the full range of Champagne styles.

California also has a handful of exceptional sparkling rose producers, including my favorite, Domaine Carneros by Taittinger. The Domaine Carneros Brut Rose Cuvee de la Pompadour ($36) is perhaps the finest of this genre.  One of my favorites is J Vineyards Brut Rose ($30). Gloria Ferrer’s 2006 Brut Rose ($42) is another that is very nice for this occasion.

And if you like bubbly but want something a little quirky, the Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Acqui from Piedmont, Italy ($24) is a gem. This semi-dry bubbly exhibits bright aromas of raspberry and strawberry, with a remarkably clean finish. It is sweet enough to serve with chocolate and other desserts, but dry enough that it’s refreshing and delicious as an aperitif.

The sweet component should not be overlooked on an occasion that inspires gifts that are sweet, such as chocolate truffles. It is a common misconception that Champagne is outstanding with chocolate. Some Champagnes and sparkling wines are, but most aren’t. The drier the wine, the less likely it will complement a chocolate sweet.

That brings us to wines that are made to work with such things. Ruby and tawny Ports are the perfect foil for chocolate desserts and candies. There is no need to spend a fortune for this unique marriage, as inexpensive vintage character and young tawny Ports are more than adequate for the pairing.

Two vintage character Ports I strongly recommend are Graham’s Six Grapes ($22) and Smith Woodhouse Lodge Reserve ($15). Some bottlings of Six Grapes that I’ve enjoyed have been very close in structure and style to Late Bottled Vintage and Single Quinta Ports that I’ve tasted. These are very good Ports that seldom disappoint.

Both also make excellent 10-year-old tawnies. I’m also fond of the 10-year-old tawnies from Taylor-Fladgate, Warre’s and Sandeman. All of these 10-year-olds can be purchased for about $25. I prefer the younger tawnies with chocolates because they still have plenty of fruit. Older tawnies trend more toward the caramel aromas and are better served with aromatic, runny cheeses.

Should your taste, or your diet, steer you away from the sweeter side of Valentine’s Day, a solid California or Oregon Pinot Noir might be in your future. I suggest Pinots from California and Oregon because they are more likely to be approachable when young than red Burgundies, even those from a good vintage.

California’s Bouchaine Vineyards won a Platinum medal at the recent Winemaker Challenge with its 2007 Estate Carneros Pinot Noir ($30), a delicious Pinot that is drinkable now. And Oregon’s The Four Graces won a Gold award at the same competition with its 2008 Reserve Dundee Hills Pinot Noir ($42). Both are stunning wines. Both are dry. But both are sure to hit a sweet note on this Valentine’s Day, or any other day for that matter.

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

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:38 PM

February 1, 2011

V. Sattui Dazzles at Winemaker Challenge II

By Robert Whitley
Creators Syndicate

It comes as no surprise that the Napa Valley winery, V. Sattui, has once again emerged as a force at a major international wine competition. Sattui has long been a juggernaut on the competition circuit.

Over the final weekend of January, at the second annual Winemaker Challenge in San Diego, Sattui flexed its muscles when no fewer than four of its wines advanced to the championship round — with the 2008 V. Sattui Pilgrim Vineyard Zinfandel ($30) besting the field of more than 700 entries to win Winemaker Challenge Wine of the Year.

The Winemaker Challenge is one of the few U.S. wine competitions that utilize winemakers exclusively to evaluate its entries.

V. Sattui's other big winners included a Best of Class Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2008 Morisoli Vineyard, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($55), and Platinum awards for the 2008 Petite Sirah, North Coast ($26) and 2008 Syrah, Napa Valley ($32). V. Sattui won 18 medals overall, with two Gold awards to go with its four Platinum awards.

The Winemaker Challenge reserves Platinum recognition for the wines that advance through the judging to the championship round. This year only 40 of the 705 wines entered made it to the finals and attained Platinum status.

While V. Sattui's powerful performance might have been routine, a couple of the other winners of major awards were of the stunning variety.

Southern California's Fallbrook Winery, located 45 miles north of San Diego, prevailed in the vote for Best of Show White wine with its 2010 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc ($16). Though relatively unknown on the national scene, Fallbrook has enjoyed strong competition performance in the past, and its Sauvignon Blanc has been a consistent medal-winner, so its victory in the showdown for best white wine was hardly a fluke. In fact, Fallbrook won medals with all six wines it entered, and the 2008 Gracie Hill Vineyard Sangiovese made it to the finals and earned a Platinum award.

The Best of Show Dessert wine was the 2000 Lambouri Commandaria Legacy ($14) from Cyprus, a Sherry-style dessert wine made from the Mavro and Xinisteri grapes. The wine is not imported to the United States.

Best of Show Sparkling went to Gloria Ferrer for its Sonoma County Brut ($20). Gloria Ferrer has been on a roll in recent years, winning Best of Show sparkling awards with its Royal Cuvee, Va de Vi and Carneros Cuvee. The Sonoma County Brut is just the latest in a long line of superb bubblies from Gloria Ferrer, which must be running out of room in the trophy case after its extraordinary success at wine competitions during the past three years.

The V. Sattui Pilgrim Vineyard Zinfandel was, of course, already Best of Show Red wine when it captured the final vote for Wine of the Year.

Other notable performances:

  •   Navarro Vineyards represented Mendocino's Anderson Valley with 14 medals overall, including two Platinums (2009 Premiere Reserve Chardonnay, Anderson Valley, $19; 2009 Cuvee 128 Sauvignon Blanc, Mendocino, $18) and five Golds (2009 Pinot Noir, Mendocino, $19; 2009 Syrah, Mendocino, $25; 2009 Muscat Blanc, Anderson Valley, $19; 2009 Dry Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley, $19; 2009 Pinot Gris, Anderson Valley, $19).
  •  J. Lohr Winery of Paso Robles, Calif., took eight medals, including three Golds and two Platinums. Both Platinum winning wines went on to take Best of Class: 2007 Cuvee ST. E, Paso Robles ($50) was Best of Class red Bordeaux Blend, while 2009 Fog's Reach Pinot Noir, Arroyo Seco ($25) was Best of Class Pinot Noir. J. Lohr has been a stellar producer of value wines in the $10-$20 range, but its upper tier wines also deliver a big bang for the buck.
  • Eberle Winery, another rock solid Paso Robles producer, won 10 medals, including Gold for the 2009 Steinbeck Vineyard Syrah Rose, Paso Robles ($17) and the 2008 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($19).
  • Chateau Ste. Michelle and Domaine Ste. Michelle of Woodinville, Wash., won a combined 11 medals. Domaine Ste. Michelle, which makes the Ste. Michelle sparkling wines, won four medals, including two Platinum awards for its 2004 Luxe, Columbia Valley ($23) and its Blanc de Blancs, Columbia Valley ($13). Chateau Ste. Michelle's 2008 Canoe Ridge Estate Chardonnay, Horse Heaven Hills ($24) took Best of Class Chardonnay. All of these wines represent superb value, delivering exceptional quality at fair prices.
  • Dr. Konstantin Frank of New York's Finger Lakes region had a sensational showing with four medals, including a Platinum for the 2008 Rkatsiteli ($18). Its 2009 Gewurztraminer ($25) and 2009 Gruner Veltliner ($20) won Gold. All of the Frank wines are from the Finger Lakes appellation.
  • Gloria Ferrer won seven awards in addition to its Best of Show Sparkling, including Platinum for the 2007 Estate Chardonnay ($18). The consistently lauded 2002 Royal Cuvee Brut ($32) won a Gold award, as did the 2006 Blanc de Blancs ($24).
  • Spain was well represented by Sherry producer Gonzalez Byass, winning Gold with the Tio Pepe Fino Muy Seco Sherry ($19) and Silver with its 2006 Finca Moncloa, Vino de la Tierra de Cadiz ($35) and the Alfonso Oloroso Seco Sherry ($20).
  • Redwood Creek carried the banner for value wines, winning five medals, including two Golds, with wines that retail for $8 or less. The Gold medals went to the 2009 Pinot Noir, Frei Brothers Vineyards, California ($8) and the 2008 Zinfandel, Frei Brothers Vineyards, Lodi ($8).


Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:36 AM