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February 28, 2017

An Early Bird Release Showing the Promise of 2015 in Piedmont

The wine world is abuzz over the 2015 vintage of red wines from many appellations in Europe, including those in the Langhe District around Alba and its famous wines from Barolo and Barbaresco. 

The 2015 Barbarescos won't be released for another year, and the Barolos won't appear for two years, but the striking excellence of this Dolcetto shows that excited anticipation is entirely in order. 

The Vajra family makes terrific wines from multiple grape varieties (including Riesling!), so the growing season isn't all that's expressed in this wine.  But even when the prodigious talents of the highly talented family are taken into account, the absolutely perfect ripening of the fruit in this bottling clearly says something wonderful about the vintage.

Gorgeous notes of red berries are exceptionally pure and expressive, and though there's a streak of juicy sweetness to counterbalance Dolcetto's grippy tannins, there's nothing obvious or over-ripe about the fruit.

Rather, the overall impression is one of exceptional naturalness and perfect integration, with the latter characteristic being highly unusual for Dolcetto (which almost always displays a push-pull relationship between fruit and tannin while the wines are young, rather than the seamlessness showing here).

Dolcetto is rarely given the respect it deserves for the simple reason that its potential excellence is overshadowed by the magic that Nebbiolo can produce from the same area.  Consequently, it is often scored too low, enjoyed too infrequently, and is now in actual peril, as a warming climate in the Langhe District of Piedmont is prompting a replacement of Dolcetto with Nebbiolo (which can now be ripened consistently in less sunny sites that weren't formerly appropriate for that variety).

This wine would be a wonderful choice for poultry or dishes based on white meats, or as a sipper to go with antipasti.  If my score (of 93 Points) is off, it is off on the low side.

Although it is difficult not to think ahead by a year or two when tasting this harbinger of wonderful 2015s from Barbaresco and Barolo, this wine is totally deserving of attention in its own right by all wine lovers. 
If you've never developed a relationship with Dolcetto, this would be a great first date.
Posted by Michael Franz at 11:49 AM

February 14, 2017

A Phenomenal New Release of Penfolds “Bin 389”

Penfolds is certainly Australia’s most storied winery, and for many good reasons, both white and red.  In all senses, the biggest reason is Grange, which is without a doubt the most highly esteemed wine produced in all of the southern hemisphere.  However, for almost anyone other than rock stars and trust fund babies, Grange is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and few are fortunate or wealthy enough to taste it even once in light of its current price of $850.

Which brings us to Bin 389. 

To be exact, the formal designation for the wine is:  Penfolds, South Australia Cabernet – Shiraz “Bin 389” 2014 ($69, TWE Imports), 95 Points

I’ve tasted almost every vintage of this wine for the past 20 years, so I’ve got plenty of context for what follows.  Naturally, I didn’t taste the wines side-by-side, so I can’t say that this is the best Bin 389 ever released by Penfolds, but I can certainly say that I can’t remember a better one.

That’s important because this wine’s price has increased appreciably in recent years, whereas it was once priced fairly closely to the Bin 28 and Bin 128 bottlings of Shiraz (now at $30).  Accordingly, if you were returning to this after an interim of some years, you’d expect a lot more for you money.  And in the case of this 2014, you’d get it. 

Bin 389 has long been called Penfolds’ “Baby Grange.”  I suspect that the Penfolds winemaking team--headed by Peter Gago--might not be particularly fond of that coinage, for at least two reasons.  First, Grange is absolutely, positively unique…as anyone who has tasted the wine from any vintage will tell you.  Second, there’s an obvious injustice in referring to Bin 389 with a diminutive term such as “Baby,” though being Grange’s baby would not be such a bad fate.

Still, there’s a case to be made for the coinage, as the 2014 Bin 389 really measures up to the “second wines” of Bordeaux’s First Growth Chateaux.  Moreover, based on the fact that the current low price for the 2010 vintage of Carrauades de Lafite is $200, there’s little question that Penfolds is outperforming the “Super Seconds” with regard to value.

This is very darkly pigmented and equally impressively concentrated, with extremely deep flavors.  However, what is most impressive is that the wine is already amazingly well integrated, with perfectly proportioned, dark-toned fruit that has already absorbed almost all the overt oak notes and easily counterbalances the serious (but not coarse or astringent) tannins.  Accents of cocoa powder and light toast add interesting complexity, and the wine’s freshness is uncanny for its weight.

In sum, this is absolutely terrific.  Anyone who isn’t prepared to pony up $69 for an Australian wine is entitled to his or her opinion, however Yellow Tail skewed it might be.  For the rest of you, well…I’ll see you in the check-out line.
Posted by Michael Franz at 7:19 PM

February 9, 2017

Winemaker Challenge: Other Notable Winners

 The Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition, like most every wine competition, provides affirmation for wineries seeking to find out where their wines fit from vintage to vintage. But bragging rights aside, the results are useful for consumers confused by the sheer volume of wines in the marketplace.

Wines that are evaluated in blind tastings during such events as the Winemaker Challenge are singled out for recognition without a hint of bias, which should be reassuring to wary consumers merely looking to find a tasty wine in their price range. Judges know neither the producer nor the price of the wines being evaluated. The medals are awarded strictly on the merits of the wine itself.

In addition to the big winners, V. Sattui (winery of the year) and Castello Banfi (wine of the year), there were other commendable performances worth noting. Space doesn't not permit the naming of all of the outstanding efforts, but complete results are available at WinemakerChallenge.com. The following wineries, however, were particularly impressive.

Barefoot Cellars & Barefoot Bubbly sell more wine in the U.S. than any other brand. There's a reason for that. Across the board, the wines are delicious and inexpensive. The Barefoot Bubbly wines retail for a suggested $9.99, and the Barefoot Cellars wines for $6.99. Winemaker Jennifer Wall and her enology team are master blenders who deliver an astonishing level of consistency despite millions of cases being produced each year. At the Winemaker Challenge, the Barefoot wines captured 23 medals. The haul included one platinum medal and 10 golds.

Cakebread Cellars, a family-run winery, has been a Napa Valley powerhouse for more than three decades. Despite all of its success, it still puts its rep on the line and competes in the major wine competitions. It talks the talk and walks the walk, and at the 2017 Winemaker Challenge, it walked away with four medals of four wines entered, including three golds. And it was a successful debut for Cakebread's new red Bordeaux-style blend, Vaca. The 2013 Vaca ($67) took a gold medal with a score of 93 points.

Cala de Poeti is an Italian brand imported by Wine Insiders. In a stunning performance, it scored three platinum awards — for the 2014 Maremma Toscana DOC ($25), the 2015 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC ($30) and the 2015 Sangiovese, Puglia IGT ($30) — to become one of only three wineries to take three platinum medals. It also won two silver medals.

Domaine Carneros by Taittinger entered two wines and earned platinum for both. The 2012 Carneros Brut ($33) won a score of 95 points, and the 2013 Brut Rose ($39) won 96 points. These are both elegant sparkling wines that compare favorably to fine Champagne. They have an excellent value, and the awards tee them up nicely for Valentine's Day, a time when bubbly flows freely.

Gloria Ferrer, another Carneros sparkling wine specialist, scored three platinums, including best of show sparkling wine with its 2005 Carneros Cuvee ($75), which received 97 points. If you don't believe domestic sparkling wine can age as well as Champagne, think again. The other Gloria Ferrer platinum award-winners were the Blanc de Blancs and the Blanc de Noirs, both for $22.

Menage a Trois is a value brand that retails for $10 to $14. It scooped up 11 medals, including two platinums and three golds. But that paled somewhat in comparison to its sister brand, Sutter Home, which won 13 medals, including two platinum and four gold. The Sutter Home wines have a modest price tag of $6.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:23 PM

February 3, 2017

Winemaker Challenge: V. Sattui, Banfi Shine

 The eighth annual Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition is in the books, and the two biggest winners were the Napa Valley winery V. Sattui and Italy's Castello Banfi.

V. Sattui, a perennial star at this event, was named Winery of the Year, and Castello Banfi's brilliant Super Tuscan, Excelsus, took the honor of Wine of the Year.

V. Sattui's performance was nothing short of stunning. It entered 35 wines, 31 of which earned medals from the judging team of 19 professional winemakers. The haul included three platinum awards, 18 gold and 10 silver.

Sonoma County's Francis Ford Coppola Winery was a strong contender for winery of the year with 32 medals out of 40 entered, though there were no platinum medals and fewer gold.

V. Sattui is unique among California wineries in the sense that its wines are not distributed through normal wine marketing channels. They are available for purchase only at the winery or on its website.

Castello Banfi's Excelsus is an international blend of merlot (60 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (40 percent) grapes grown in the Tuscan district of Montalcino, a region most famous for Brunello di Montalcino made from sangiovese. Excelsus is considered one of Italy's most collectible red wines.

Complete results for the Winemaker Challenge, staged the final weekend of January, are available on the WinemakerChallenge.com.

This week's Reviews page features tasting notes from my own personal tastings of the wines awarded platinum. The scores are my own, although they sometimes coincide with the numerical ratings awarded by the judges.

It should be noted that the winemakers evaluate each wine blind, meaning they have no knowledge of the producer. The blind tasting is common at most wine competitions, the goal being to eliminate any hint of bias in the evaluations.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:37 AM

February 1, 2017

Everything Old Is New Again

Once upon a time, in quaint wine villages throughout Europe, it was only natural that villagers consumed the local wine.

It was common for a family to stroll down to the neighborhood winery and stock up for a week or more by filling jugs and other containers with wine directly from a cask or tank.  Modern conveniences, such as grocery stores or wine shops with bottled wines displayed in neat stacks, were few and far between in many rural wine regions of the world.

Much has changed since that was the reality for many living and working in wine country, but some traditions die hard. In fact, sometimes they are reborn in the most unlikely venues.

Meet Lowell Jooste of LJ Crafted Wines, an urban winery located in the La Jolla community of San Diego.  Jooste and his family are originally from South Africa, where they made highly acclaimed wines for more than 20 years.  After moving to San Diego in 2012, the urge to remain in the wine business proved too much for Jooste to resist.

He was inspired to develop a unique urban winery concept that serves up premium Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley wines from the barrel.  The wines are custom-made at a winery in Yountville, California, and the finished wines are shipped in barrels to LJ.

Customers, who are mostly locals who live in the beach community and have signed up for the LJ Crafted Wines wine club, can either sit and sip in the bright and airy wine bar or have a growler filled to take home.  The growler, made of glass and sealed with a reusable cap, is an invention of San Diego's vibrant craft beer industry that Jooste neatly adapted.

The integrity of the wine in the barrel is maintained through a proprietary device Jooste calls the "Wine Steward," for which there is a patent pending.  The Wine Steward extracts wine from the barrel without permitting air to get in, which would oxidize and likely spoil the remaining wine.

"When I was in the wine business in South Africa, so much time was spent on packaging, when my interest was in the wine," Jooste noted.

LJ Crafted Wines had been open nearly a year now, and Jooste says that he sells most of the wine to customers who fill their growler and take the wine home. I tasted a number of the LJ wines on a recent visit -- Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a stunning Petit Verdot -- and found the quality to be very high.

Jooste says his wine club is nearly full, which means he's selling most of the wines LJ produces.  The community seems to have embraced LJ's barrel-to-bottle concept.  And why wouldn't it? At another time and in another place, going to the local winery for a jug of wine was simply what you did.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 5:15 PM