Wine, grape and winery reviews and criticism as written by wine veterans
SENDING BACK A FLAWED WINE
Last night I was in an upscale Naples, FL, restaurant when a woman at the next table declared her wine flawed. The middle-aged woman, flamboyantly dressed and bedecked with costume jewelry, was accompanied by two girlfriends who were impressed with her discriminating tastes. She left no doubt who was in charge at this table.
The wine manager quickly brought another bottle and when asked by the diner, the manager said she thought the first bottle was just fine. She offered to pour the replacement wine into a decanter.
I was very intrigued by the process. Curious, I excused myself from the table and tracked down the manager behind the bar. I asked to taste the flawed wine and immediately agreed with the wine manager -- the Mollydooker shiraz -- a luscious Australian bargain -- was just fine. She shrugged off the episode and said the restaurant will write off the loss. She will take the bottle home and enjoy it herself. That's better than rotating the bottle through the restaurant's by-the-glass program -- which I once witnessed years ago when a corked wine was identified and repoured to someone else.
I complimented her for pouring the replacement wine in a decanter. First, it left a positive impression on the diners, particularly the one gloating over her perceptive catch. Second, the decanted wine showed differently and thus stood a better chance of being approved. That it was. Pretty good move, I thought.
Identifying a corked or otherwise flawed wine is easy for those of us who have stumbled across several corked wines in our past and had the luxury of getting a second opinion from other wine experts. It's not so easy for someone who has no benchmarks. Whenever I come across a flawed wine in a group tasting, I invite others to smell and taste it. Only with such experiences can a consumer detect a flawed wine with confidence.
Many years ago my wife and I shared a table with another couple who was fairly knowledgeable about wine. The gentleman ordered an Opus One and rejected it because it was corked. I did not have a chance to taste it. A second bottle was presented -- and it too was rejected for the same reason. I asked to taste this one and said I thought it was fine, but my companion was undeterred. The odds of having two flawed Opus Ones are incredibly extreme..
Now, the maitre d' and wine manager came to the table and suggested my companion find another wine. Good solution, I thought, but I was nonetheless embarrassed to be there. Hopefully, the wines were poured by the glass to other customers and nothing was lost.
A corked wine is one that has cork taint, or the presence of the chemical trichloroanisole (TCA). It is caused by a bad cork (a live product from the bark of an immature cork tree in Portugal) and can be found in both the wine's aroma and taste. These ruined wines have the skunk of a wet, moldy basement and the flavor of damp cardboard. Sometimes, a corked wine is just stripped of its flavors - those are the ones harder to detect if you aren't familiar with the wine. Sometimes the flaws of a wine blow off with decanting -- but rarely. A badly corked wine is unmistakeable and permanent.
I can tell you until I'm blue in the face what a corked wine tastes and smells like -- but words aren't good enough. If you think you have a flawed wine, save it and asked a knowledgeable retailer or wine expert for a second opinion. If your impressions are confirmed, buy a second bottle and taste them side by side.
WAITER, THERE'S ARSENIC IN MY WINE!
The New York Times recently reported on a lawsuit, filed by several California residents, that alleges high levels of arsenic in some of the most popular wines made in that state. The Wine Institute, which represents producers and growers, immediately denounced the claim.
Arsenic is found in many wines naturally, but the lawsuit alleges more may have been added during the winemaking process. Unlike other countries, this country doesn't have permissable arsenic levels. So, it seems the plaintiffs will have a hard time arguing what is a dangerous amount.
The plaintiffs say the more expensive wines don't show the high levels found in the cheap wines made by 28 wineries that are part of the lawsuit. They include wines produced by Franzia, Mogen David and Almaden. Some of the popular brands you may recognize: Glen Ellen, Menage A Trois, and Sutter Home.
Like all lawsuits, this is just a claim and hardly something to get stirred up about at this point. But it does raise a good question: if the feds are so concerned about sulfites in wine, why aren't they establish limits for arsenic?
Here's a statement from Trader Joe's:
With recent media coverage raising concerns about levels of arsenic in wine, we’d like to clarify some important points.
We will not offer any product we feel is unsafe. Ever. We have no reason to believe the wines we offer are unsafe.
Trader Joe’s is among 28 companies named in a recently filed legal complaint. 83 wine products are listed in the filing, covering a range of brands, including one varietal of Charles Shaw—White Zinfandel.
The filing alleges that plaintiffs tested certain wines and found them to contain more arsenic than the level considered safe for drinking water. The complaint does not provide any specific test results nor has plaintiffs’ counsel provided those test results to us.
CBS News has reported testing results on Charles Shaw White Zinfandel, said to contain 31 parts-per-billion of arsenic. CBS News also stated it had conducted its own testing on four wines listed in the filing and that “the arsenic levels were all considerably lower than BeverageGrades’ results,” citing a result for Charles Shaw White Zinfandel “at more than twice [the] standard.”
Out of context, this sounds alarming. We would like to provide some context for the claims.
There are no US governmental standards for arsenic in wine.
The EPA has set the limit for Total Arsenic in drinking water in the US at 10 parts-per-billion.
In Canada, the limit for Total Arsenic in wine is 100 parts-per-billion.
The International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) is a Paris-based, intergovernmental organization comprised of 45 different wine-producing countries dealing with technical and scientific aspects of viticulture and winemaking. One of the activities of OIV is the compilation of global statistics within its field. The OIV limit for Total Arsenic in wine is 200 parts-per-billion.
Again, we will not offer any product we feel is unsafe. We have had no reports of adverse reactions to Charles Shaw wines—or other wines—related to the potential presence of arsenic. We continue to have no reason to believe the wines we offer are unsafe, including Charles Shaw White Zinfandel.
MAKING GOOD WITH AN OBSURITY
I remembering discovering the tannat grape variety a number of years ago. The wine was from Madiran area of southwestern France and it was tannic as hell. That's how it got its name.
Now I see Argentine winemakers have discovered it -- but through the wizardry of winemaking they have eliminated the tannins.
Tannat is most associated with Uruguay where they like their wines bold -- tannic and acidic. No one else does and that's probably wine you have never had a wine from this country. Others, like the French, have tamed the boldness by using other grapes. Now that the consumers have latched onto softer wines, Argentina is hoping their version will catch on. Lots of luck.
We recently tried two tannats from Bodega El Porvenir from the Cafayate, Salta, region. Despite not having softening grapes in the blend, they were easy wines lacking the hallmark tannins and acidity. I can't say they were classic or traditional, but neither can I say they were boring. I was surprised to learn that tannat was first grown in northeast Argentina and exported to Uruguay and France. But until now it was largely ignored in the world wine market.
Argentina's warm and dry climate allows winemakers to achieve the ripeness this grape needs to avoid the harsh tannins. Perhaps in time they will become more of the standard for this grape.
If you can find it the El Porvenir Laborum from a single vineyard is extraordinary. Ripe, sweet tannins, dark berry fruit, a voluptuous texture and good body. It tastes good now but portends a good future in the cellar.
HONESTY IN LABELING -- CANADA SETS AN EXAMPLE
I learned the other day from Canadian friends that all wines sold there must indicate sugar level on a 1 to 5 range. Canadian wine producers, especially those who make the luxurious ice wines, certainly understand the impact of sugar on wine. But the rating -- noted not on the wine label but on a store tag -- applies equally well to imported wines.
Sugar is normally eliminated when a wine is fully fermented after being inoculated by yeast. A winemaker can leave some residual sugar by arresting the process before it is finished. This is often done with dessert wines, white zinfandel and some rieslings. Traditionally, it is hasn't been done with red wines -- until recently.
I'd be curious to see how California wine producers categorize wines like Apothetic Red (Gallo), Homefront (Murphy-Goode) and Meiomi (Belle Glos) pinot noir. These wines have considerable residual sugar, though most consumers don't know it. The sugar rounds off the wine and gives weight to the fruit. Critics are not fond of the practice, but clearly consumers with a sweet tooth are. Meiomi is one of the hottest selling wines.
I think Canada has this right. If it's important to put alcohol levels and sulphite warnings on wine labels, isn't important for calorie counters to know the sugar level too?
KNOWING YOUR WINE
I was in a great little lunch spot in Naples, FL, the other day and with enthusiasm approached a beverage bar with an array of red and white wines. I asked the attendant to identify the white wines embedded in a large bucket of ice. He offered me a "white burgundy" from Macon and I said, "I'd like something besides chardonnay."
"It's not chardonnay; it's a white burgundy," he said.
I decided not to explain that white burgundy is made from chardonnay grapes because I would be embarrassing him in front of other customers and the tone of his insistence gave me the impression he was too stubborn to listen. Off I went with a couple of glasses of sauvignon blanc and on he went to offer "white burgundy" to other unwitting customers.
The whole episode brought to mind the differences in labeling between wine regions. The French have long insisted on using the label to show their pride for their villages, i.e. Macon Village, Volnay, Nuit-st.George, Montrachet. You won't find "chardonnay" or "pinot noir" on most of these burgundies -- you are expected to know those are the two primary grapes that go into the white and red wines of the region. For the most part, Italy and Spain do the same, although there is a trend afoot to put the principal grape on the label of entry-level wines.
U.S. producers, on the other hand, put the grape on the label of most of its wines. Blends, or meritage wines, are another matter. Often times, 5 grape varieties go into these wines -- too many grapes to put on the front label.
The different philosophies between regions spells confusion for people like the guy at my local lunch spot. He was hardly a master somelier, but rather a staff person given a few pointers.
By the way, this place sold wine by the bottle at just $3 over cost. You could even buy it by the case for home. I was stunned by the choices: Chateau Montelena, Domaine Serene, Patz & Hall and other top-drawer wines. It goes to show you that even small restaurants -- in the right hands -- can have a focus on good wine. Someone knew their wines - but it wasn't the staff person pouring the white burgundy.
MORE ON LABELING
...and while I'm on a rant, what about the information that wine producers put on the back of the labeling? Honestly, it can't be a difficult decision.
I understand that by law they are obligated to tell me alcohol is bad for pregnant women and that it contains sulphites and alcohol. But I am not helped by the flowery words that describe the terrain or how the wine tastes. I am, however, appreciative of the grape varieties used to make the wine. As a wine nerd, I also like to know how the wine is made and how long it spent in oak. But, I understand that others would want to know if the wine goes best with fish or fowl.
AN INSIDE LOOK INTO THE RETAIL BUSINESS
Readers and friends often ask how the retail alcohol sales process works. They want a look behind the curtain of an industry that isn’t always transparent and is certainly wildly inconsistent. Frequent questions are: how do wine and spirits’ shops select their products? Where do retail stores buy their wines, or how are wines and spirits priced? Why are local laws incredibly variable between political jurisdictions?
Every state and political jurisdiction has the power to levy laws about the sale of alcoholic beverages for off- and on-premise sales. This practice goes back to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 when the federal government returned the rights to govern alcohol sales to local political jurisdictions, including states, counties and even individual towns. It was arguably a terrible mistake because the result was a hodgepodge of laws and regulations regarding alcohol sales that vary drastically across the United States. Some jurisdictions allow limited alcohol sales in grocery stores, others funnel all sales through government-sponsored ABC stores. In my home state of Maryland, several counties act as distributors and profit handsomely.
There are some striking anachronisms. The Jack Daniels distillery is located in a dry county in Tennessee -- one of 26 dry counties in the state. Bourbon County, Kentucky, the home of the ubiquitous Jim Beam bourbon is also a dry county. Although Maryland has fairly liberal laws pertaining to alcohol, retail off-premise alcohol sales on Sunday are prohibited in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, and individuals or companies are only allowed to have one retail license per entity. And, liquor can't be sold on Election Day or within a certain perimeter of churches.
More states follow a byzantine but vaunted three-tier system that brings profits to each tier but also raises the cost of liquor to consumers. In the three-tier system producers of alcoholic beverages (wineries, breweries and distillers) sell their products to wholesalers, who then in turn sell them to retailers for sale to the public. Some critics of this system claim that forcing retail stores to purchase their products from wholesalers limits the availability of choices to consumers. To address that concern many states have finally allowed consumers to order wine directly from the producers -- until now, those states made out-of-state shipments a felony. If you are lucky enough to reside in one of those states, you can openly participate in wine-of-the-month clubs and even ship wine home after visiting a winery.
However, the three-tier system has unwittingly blocked many wine producers from getting their product represented. Distributors simply don't have the time or desire to monkey around with small producers whose wines don't sell quickly or require a lot of maintenance. This is particularly the case with wines made in their home state (excepting California, Oregon, Washington and New York). In my home state of Maryland, it is often hard for Maryland wine producers to find a distributor to represent them. That's why giving them the ability to ship their wines directly to consumers has been a breakthrough.
On the positive side of the argument, competition among wholesalers has created an amazingly wide choice of alcoholic beverages that to stock in their stores or order for consumers. Distributors post their prices to consumers in a monthly Beverage Journal. Most retailers mark up wine, for instance, by 50 percent. Restaurant markup can be as high as 300 percent. Consumers are not allowed to subscribe to the Journal, so they don't really know how much their local store is marking up the products they sell.
An army of sales people from wholesale suppliers call on licensed retail stores every week, hoping to place their products there. Tasting their products, reading industry publications and considering requests from consumers are all used by retailers to make choices for their limited shelf space. Retailers are conscious of what will sell. A gewürztraminer, for instance, may be appealing to them but not to consumers. I've noticed a great difficulty finding Alsace wines in my community and retailers explain that they just sit on the shelf much too long.
Consumers understand that the retail wine business is there to make a profit and that making more money through sales is a selfish goal. So when a sales person leads you to a wine, is it because it's a good wine -- or because he's trying to dump the wine or because his profit margin on that bottle is higher? Some stores directly imports obscure wines that bypass the distributor and thus save money for the merchant. The sales staff is encouraged to sell these wines first because there is a higher profit margin on them. Some are good wines, but the motive to sell them is primarily profit-driven.
Buyers need to depend on the sales staff to find a wine -- the staff is mostly educated and experienced. But, caveat emptor still applies.
PUTTING TERROIR INTO CHIANTI CLASSICO -- OR CONFUSING CONSUMERS?
I had an interesting phone conversation with Gabriele Tacconi of Ruffino, one of the people behind Chianti Classico's effort to create another tier above its riserva designation. It's been a year since Gran Selezione has operated and more producers are signing on -- even though its value is questionable.
To qualify for the Gran Selezione, the wine has to be aged 30 months -- 6 months more than riserva, be made entirely of estate-grown grapes and have at least 13 percent alcohol and 80 percent sangiovese. The new tier acknowledges the region's biggest flaw -- that there isn't much to distinguish the wine from this vast 100-square-mile region. Until now, wines could be made from purchased grapes, blend with purchased grapes and rarely from a single vineyard. To make it riserva, a producer just had to take the same blend that went into his regular wine and age it another 6 months.
The problem with the Gran Selezione is that it still doesn't focus on a single vineyard and thus not so much on terroir. Tacconi says the changing terrain of Chianti Classico makes that difficult. If the classification required the grapes come from one vineyard to demonstrate terroir, the production would be small. So when you see Gran Selezione on the Ruffiono Riserva Ducale Oro, you really don't know what part of Chianti Classico it came from. And, you won't taste it. In fact, all you get is another 6 months of aging.
He says 45 percent of the wines submitted for judging in Gran Selezione are rejected but it may be because the judges don't know where the wines are coming from. A wine from one region may be characteristically light, for instance, but a judge may reject it because it doesn't have the body he's used to.
Toccani admits the classification needs further review and he thinks the region at least should be divided into three so that the consumer can distinguish a Gran Selezione made near Radda from one made near Greve, for instance.
That sounds like an improvement to me. But, better, would be a classification that mirrors what Alsace is trying to accomplish. It is proposing to add a premier category to its grand cru. With that, consumers would know that the vineyards have been judged to be of grand cru or premier quality -- much like what you get from Burgundy.
NODDING OFF WITH OPUS ONE
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg freely admitted that she had too much wine and nodded off during President Obama's State of the Union address. While I'm sure a number of teetotalers will find cause to criticize the inebriation of someone n such a lofty position, I'm more concerned about her choice in wine.
Ginsberg's admission was probably exaggerated. Her usual drink is reportedly water but she felt the pre-address dinner was fitting for a wine. And when fellow Justice Kennedy brought in Opus One, well, she couldn't refuse. The second (and third?) glass was even better. Given the moment -- and Ginsberg's age of 81 -- she should be forgiven for falling asleep. Kudos to her for laughing it off.
But Opus One? Hmmm, not my favorite wine. I have always felt Opus One hasn't lived up to its reputation -- never did. I've had an occasionally good bottle, but struggle to justify its $100-plus cost. Of course, that applies to most California wine. But I've had much better in this price category. Maybe the Supreme Court will agree to review my case.
YOU THINK WE HAVE IT BAD?
In an effort to raise profits for wineries, the Russian government is about to set a minimum price consumers will pay. Only in Russia....
According to Decanter magazine, legislation recently passed requires retailers to charge a minimum price for all still and sparkling wine. The price would be about $1.50 to $2.50 in American dollars. The idea is raise profits for wine-growers but also tackle the country's problem with counterfeit wine. Such a law was passed to curb counterfeit vodka.
Most likely, vodka now will be cheaper than wine, thus escalating that country's problems with alcoholism.
Read more at http://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/587938/russian-government-to-introduce-minimum-price-for-wine?utm_source=Eloqua&utm_medium=email&utm_content=news+alert+link+03022015&utm_campaign=Newsletter-03022015#fOVmDoGqkxizCsyw.99
USE LOCATION TO DETERMINE YOUR BEST BET FOR WINE
I was recently reading an article by Libby Kane in Business Insider about advice from a sommelier about how to find the right wine for your pocketbook. In the article, Jorn Kleinhaus, owner of The Wine Elite Sommelier Co., advises consumers to think first about the wine growing region. I thought the advice was brilliant -- maybe more obvious than I had thought to give others who often ask the question about what's a good wine for under $20.
So here's my spin on his advice.
If your budget allows prices of, say, under $15, then look to Argentina, Chile, Australia and some parts of Italy. Here you will normally find wines made from grapes you may not recognize but are nonetheless delicious. Argentina's malbecs and white torranttes are delicious. Chile makes inexpensive sauvignon blanc, carmeneres and cabernet sauvignon. Of course, Australia is known for its delicious, jammy shiraz wines.
In the $15-25 range, you can explore many of the decent wines from California and Washington state -- merlot, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon. Look for the big producers, like Kendall-Jackson, Columbia Crest, Gallo, Trinchero. New Zealand is also making good sauvignon blanc at this price. In Italy, you can buy wines from Tuscany, Umbria, and even the Piedmonte -- don't be frightened by the grape varieities. Even the Alsace region of France produces some crisp white wines in this price category.
Over $25, you can consider some of the better California wines, some of the lesser Oregon pinot noirs, good Chianti, and even the unclassified wines from Bordeaux. You are also able to afford New Zealand pinot noir, many excellent wines from southern France and the Rhone Valley. Your choices are much, much greater at this price range -- and so is the complexity and quality of the wine. Sorry, but that's my opinion.
If you are able to buy wines over, say, $50, you don't need anyone's advice. But, for those who dream, you can now step foot in France. Burgundies for instance, start at $50 and can easily exceed $100. Good French chablis starts around $50 a bottle. The best of Bordeaux -- first-, second- and even third-growths -- start about the same place. In Italy, you can consider Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino.
In short, you can narrow down your choices -- and there are so many -- by thinking first of the region, second of the grape variety you like and, third, your willingness to experiment.
THIS IS ONE SMOKING WINE
It takes a lot to get my juices going in wine. But that was the occasion the other night when my wife and I sipped a 2012 Sea Smoke Blanc de Noir sparkling wine -- a fitting kick-off on the eve of a warm-weather vacation. Not everyone is familiar with this classy pinot noir producer because it's not easy to find the wines.
Made in the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County, Sea Smoke has been around only since 1999. It didn't take them long to establish all estate-grown pinot noirs as among the best and most exclusive in California. I have craved them whenever I travel to the West Coast and occasionally when I find them on a restaurant wine list. They aren't cheap, but nowadays few quality pinot noirs are.
This sparkling wine, however, was simply incredible. It is proof that to make a good sparkling wine, you need to start with good grapes. Sea Smoke embraces biodynamics and low yields. The grapes are grown in high elevations and face south. This kind of exposure manages to produce great phenolics.
The Blanc de Noir is heavy on the palate because of the preference for pinot noir grapes. But it's hardly clumsy. Black cherry flavors and spice dominate the flavor profile, but the complexity of the wine is what makes this so outstanding. I could not put it down.
You may have a hard time finding it locally. But I recommend you get on their mailing list. You can order wines direct from the winery -- if your states allows it -- and there is no commitment on quantity or membership.
CONSUMPTION RECORDS SHIFTING
A recent market report unveiled at Vin Expo predicts that in the next four years Germany will overtake Italy as the third largest wine consuming nation. Don't worry, though, the United States will remain numero uno.
The report by market researchers The IWSR shows the shifting sands in the world wine trade that is at least a decade old. For a long time, Italy and France held the top two positions in wine consumption. Italy still holds the lead in per capita consumption -- Italians drink more per person than anyone else -- but as a nation they drink less. For many older generations, wine at the table was more popular than water -- no matter the persron's age. However, water improved over time and younger generations failed to embrace the wine tradition. Predictions are that Italy's wine consumption will sink 5 percent over the next four years.
On the other hand, Germany -- more of a beer-drinking nation -- will experience growth. Experts attribute that to their thirst for champagne. Now, there's a twist. Local sekt, the German name for sparkling wine, is popular in a ciountry that has produced more sweet riesling than any other European country.
According to the report, the U.S. will strengthen its lead over France. Consumption here is expected to rise by 5.5 percent in the next four years. In recent years U.S. consumers have shown a keen interest in trying different wines. And, wines have gained strength over other alcoholic beverages.
I'm not sure what all of this means to us, but it's nice to know the U.S. is number one .