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Wine, grape and winery reviews and criticism as written by wine veterans

UNRAVELING RESTAURANT WINE MARKUPS

Diners seem to understand the value of restaurant food. Wine, though, is another matter.

The cook in the house knows the price of boneless chicken breast is about $10 a pound in the store. So when a restaurant prices a chicken entrée at, say $32, the home chef can easily calculate the markup.

But what about wine? Does the diner know – or care – about the markup? He doesn’t know the wholesale price. And, unless the wine is something he often buys, he has no idea what the retail price is either.

The home cook is hardly going to complain about the markup on the chicken breast because someone else is slaving in the kitchen to prepare it. But diners grumble when they see the price of wine and assess the effort that goes into putting it in the glass. Unlike the chicken breast with a fancy sauce and sides, there is no difference between the same chardonnays bought in different restaurants.

Most wine you buy in a restaurant costs roughly twice as much as it cost in a retail wine store and triple what it cost the restaurant to buy the wine from a wholesaler. Given what goes into putting the wine in a glass, it’s hard for a restaurant to justify the markup out of the context of a restaurant’s broad financial statement. However, wine and liquor prices often offset losses in the kitchen.

However justifiable, the mystery of wine markups can make for a frustrating experience for a diner facing a wine list of expensive unknowns. Not only does he want to pick a wine that will complement his table’s food, but he is looking for a good value – a wine reasonably price that over-delivers in quality.

We are appalled when we see a list of trophy wines that will impress well-heeled collectors but leave nothing but embarrassingly cheap plonk for those who can’t shell out more than $50. There are plenty of inexpensive wines – many of them not largely known – that offer decent values even with a 300 percent markup, but either the staff is not knowledgeable or the restaurant doesn’t put any emphasis on wine. If that’s the case, order a cocktail and call it a night.

Restaurants try to help by offering familiar wines, such as Cakebread Chardonnay, which is often sold out and unavailable in retail stores. We checked restaurants in our community and found quite a discrepancy in pricing. Prices ranged from $72 to $88 – the chardonnay cost the restaurant $30.

Veuve-Clicquot Ponsardin champagne is popular for those celebrating an occasion and generally restaurants don’t double the price of its higher priced wines. In our community, the price of this champagne ranged from $80 to $107 – the wholesale price was $46. A $27 price difference is a significant difference for many diners.

There’s a difference between the quality of a $50 steak at a real steakhouse and a $25 steak at Applebee’s. Diners get that. But there is no difference in quality between the same wines sold at two different restaurants. We’re not condemning restaurants – just letting the buyer beware.

WINE APPS

If you care about the pricing differences of your favorite wines, check out the phone app, Corkscrew, which provides the prices of restaurant wines in your community.

Raisinable.com provides the average retail price alongside a restaurant’s price. But, so far, it includes only the New York market.

Cor.kz gives you access to a database of tasting notes accumulated by wine tasters who are a part of CellarTracker.

Vivino and Delectable offers you information about a wine by snapping a photo of the label.

Of course, using these phone apps on a dinky screen with tired eyes is another matter. 

SPANISH WINES NOT TO BE OVERLOOKED

A few decades ago Spanish wines were for the most part bargain -barrel wines that, although exhibiting ample fruit in their youth, were spoiled by sometimes unclean winemaking and a heavy hand with the oak. During the 1980s -- in an attempt to expand their export wine sales -- some Rioja winemakers cleaned up winemaking operations, adopted contemporary viticulture practices and throttled back the oak regimen.

Jesus Martinez Bujanda Jr. of Bodegas Valdemar was one of the key innovators in this departure from the past and pioneered what has become known as the new style of Rioja.                             

Bujanda, 69, is now the elder statesman for Bodegas Valdemar, and claims to be retired. Meeting with him, his daughter Ana, and son Jesus Martinez Bujanda Mora,  the two siblings chuckled at their father’s comments about his work status. Retired? Hardly.

However, they exhibited their father’s infectious enthusiasm for winemaking and innovation. Reflecting on the past, the patriarch said he ”felt God was with them 50 years ago” and that he was surprised that they could make decent, albeit traditional styled wine, due to the poor condition of the vineyards and cellars.                        

During a wine tasting dinner, Ana commented that one of her goals was to “make wine to surprise people.” As examples, she points to recently made wines bottled as a single varietal from the graciano and maturana grapes, and the debut of a white tempranillo

We were impressed with the wines we tasted, which did not include the single varietal wines, and agreed with the son that Bodegas Valdemar had achieved their “goal of soft and rounded wines.” the hallmark style of Bodegas Valdemar.

The family’s commitment to high quality wines was reinforced when Jesus Martinez Bujanda Mora said the winery sold off 70 percent of its red grape production in 2014 due to the effect of heavy rains immediately before harvest.

Following were our favorites from the tasting.                                

·         Conde de Valdemar Finca Alto Cantabria Rioja Blanco2013 ($18). This is made from 100 percent barrel fermented old vine (planted 1970) viura grapes. Bodegas Valdemar was the first winery in Rioja to introduce a barrel-fermented viura in the mid 1980s. The wine exhibited very clean elegant apple fruit flavors with a hint of spice. Close your eyes and you would guess you were tasting a well-made village white burgundy from the Macon region of France.                            

·         Conde de Valdemar Crianza Rioja 2010 ($16). The blend is 90 percent tempranillo and 10 percent mazuelo. Aged in 100 percent American oak. The mazuelo provides the acidity to this soft fruity wine with ample aromatics. A nice wine for summer barbecues.                                                

·         Conde de Valdemar Reserva Rioja 2007 ($26). Made from 90 percent tempranillo, 5 percent mazuelo and 5 percent graciano and aged in American and French oak barrels. Very soft in the mouth with dried cherry/ripe cherry nose and flavors. Just a hint of oak in the mouth. Amazingly, this wine has been in the bottle for 5 years before release.

·         Conde de Valdemar Gran Reserva Rioja 2005 ($37). Made from 85 percent tempranillo, 10 percent mazuelo and 5 percent graciano, and aged for 28 months in American and French oak barrels, this is a fine elegant wine. The elegant French oak and dried cherry nose and flavor come together in a delicious smooth pleasing package. Very good.                               

·         Inspiration Valdemar Selection Rioja 2010 ($26). More modern, this Riojaexhibited very fresh fruit flavors and spicy notes. This wine was a 2013 Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wine.

The finale however was a return to tradition with a 1991 Conde de Valdemar Gran Reserva Rioja. We expected a similar flavor profile to an aged California Cabernet sauvignon or 20 plus year old Grand Cru French Bordeaux, but this wine was true to itself. The wine was elegance personified with still abundant fruit and a good deal of complexity. 

WINE PICKS

·         Paul Mas Estate St. Hilaire 2012 ($15). A good value in the chardonnay market, this French gem from the Languedoc exudes tropical fruit flavors and a hint of vanilla and spice.

·         H/H Estates Michael Andrews Red Reserve 2010 ($38). We loved this deep and textured blend of Washington state tempranillo and graciano. Jammy plum and blackberry flavors with a healthy dose of coffee. Thick and unctuous.

·         Kendall-Jackson Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($28). Reasonably priced, this full-bodied chardonnay has a rich texture with ripe peach and mango flavors and a touch of sweet vanillin oak.

·         Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2013 ($44). Once again, Patz & Hall has produced a luxuriously rich chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. This gem is big in style with a fruit-forward personality that is hardly shy. Melon and stone-pit fruit flavors with more than a hint of oak, cinnamon and nutmeg.

·         Concrete Old Vine Zinfandel 2012 ($20). Rightly priced, this brambly, full-throttle zin can stand up to grilled foods, no matter how sweet the sauce or dense the meat. A little allspice joins the blackberry and vanilla flavors.

WHAT HAPPENED TO TANNINS?

The other day I enjoyed a glass of Vietti barolo.  It was a delicious representative of the region, but it also had significant tannins. While that may not sound unique for most of you who have a history with this giant wine, tannin has been tamed as barolo winemakers seek to make their wines more immediately enjoyable.

The barolo, though, brought home the point that, generally speaking, tannic wines have all but disappeared. Whether you find that good or bad depends on your tastes.

When I first collected wines in the early 1980s, tannins were seen as a character of quality wines. The wines may not have shown well on release, but you knew by the tannins that the best was yet to come for those patient enough to wait. Although you had to take the word of the winemaker, you were willing to wait.

However, I remember my first case of 1977 Beycheville from Bordeaux that was a disaster. First, it was a terrible vintage; second, the tannins never disappeared. And, I succumbed to the advice of a salesperson who encouraged me to buy an expensive burgundy. The tannins and green fruit never waned even as I dumped the last bottle.

But, generally, the tannic wines I bought in the 1980s and 1990s lived up to their promises.

Today's wines, however, are being made more approachable by reducing the tannins. Grapes are being picked riper and thus made with more alcohol. Lees are being stirred and malolactic fermentation is increasing to reduce acidity. These red fruit bombs, as they have become popularly known, are delicious. But will they age? 

My experience with some of these red wines is that they do not age well. Instead of a balanced with whose fruit has slowly emerged, I'm finding a ripeness that borders on raisins. If If I want raisins, I'll drink zinfandel. This is particularly true with California cabernets, syrahs and even pinot noir.

If this trend continues -- and there are signs it won't -- I won't be buying many wines to cellar. As I get older, maybe that's the good news.

 

A CLOSE LOOK AT PORTUGAL

To most Americans -- at least those who favor wine -- Portugal is the land of sweet, fortified dessert wine that evokes images of formally dressed British gentlemen sipping the potent liquid at a private club.

Reputably, port was invented by either the British or Portuguese (take your pick) to solve a transportation problem. During one of the periodic wars between England and France during the 17th century, the British were cut off from their traditional supplies of French wine, which they had grown to favor. Casting southward, the British sourced Portuguese table wines but they soon learned that the fragile wines deteriorated making the trip to England. Port, then, was fashioned by stopping the fermentation and retaining its sweetness. They added clear, unaged brandy, which stops fermentation by killing the yeast in the fermenting must. The result was a fortified (18-20 percent alcohol) sweet wine.

The addition of the brandy and residual sweetness make for a sturdy wine that could survive the trip to England and slake the thirst of the British citizenry. The British set up shop in Oporto and have dominated the port trade ever since.

Pat recently travelled to Portugal to visit some of the wine growing regions and to learn more about Portuguese wines and the proliferation of high quality red and white table wines.

The northern Douro Valley, where the grapes for port are grown, is a very difficult place to grow grapes. The steep valley walls cut by the Douro River are terraced in rocky schist soil of low fertility that in most cases defy the use of any type of mechanical equipment. Transiting the narrow switchback roads carved on the side of the Douro Valley walls can be exhilarating and terrifying all at once. After witnessing the difficult physical growing conditions and low density of vineyard plantings. It’s amazing that the prices for port aren’t in the stratosphere.                                                                                                                           

Pat's tour of the Douro Valley began in the city of Porto where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Porto is the home of most of the major port houses, where the wine is aged and stored in casks of various sizes until it is deemed ready for bottling and release. The grapes are harvested and fermented on estates in the Douro Valley, where in many cases the grapes are crushed by foot in large open stone or concrete lagares. This method prevents the grape seeds from fracturing and releasing bitterness into the fermenting must. The finished wines are then brought to Porto.

Some port brands have coalesced under a common ownership. We visited the Sogevinous Group -- owners of the Calem, Kopke, Burmester, and Barros brands -- and had a chance to taste some of their current offerings. Calem began in 1859 shipping its port to Brazil in exchange for exotic woods, some of which was fashioned into wine casks and used for Calem ports. Pat especially enjoyed the Calem 20-year-old Tawny Port ($52) which displayed some nutty chocolate notes a bold and sweeter style.

The Barros Tawny Port is known in port circles for a feminine and delicate style. This tawny port had a beautiful harmonious expression of cherry, caramel, vanilla and nut nose and flavors, and was very complete. Pat also tasted a delicious 1989 Burmester Vintage Port that was remarkably fresh, offering cherry and plum flavors with nice chocolate notes.

 While most port houses make white port, Kopke is unique for making vintage white port. White port is made from white grapes and vinified in the same manner as red port wine. The fruit expression of white port is not as expressive as the red version and can be an appropriate companion to spicy fooD.

The Kopke 10-Year-Old White Port is somewhat similar to dry sherry but exhibits more fruit and complexity. Chilled and paired with dark chocolate and almonds, it was remarkable                                        

WINE PICKS

·        Louis M. Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($34).  Old family names like Mondavi and Martini should never be forgotten in a sea of young upstarts that often are here today and gone tomorrow. Every year these pioneers stay the course, making consistently good wines at a reasonable price. This version is like the others: balanced, rich in dark fruit, true to the region and delicious.  Boring? Hardly.

·        Inman OGV Pinot Noir 2012 ($65).  Year after year we like this wine. Perhaps it is because we visited this winery or perhaps it’s because we admire the work ethic of winemaker Kathleen Inman. However biased, the quality of this exquisite pinot noir is undeniable. Bright cherry and pomegranate flavors with hints of mushrooms and sage.

·        Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2013 ($44). Once again, Patz & Hall has produced a luxuriously rich chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. This gem is big in style with a fruit-forward personality that is hardly shy. Melon and stone-pit fruit flavors with more than a hint of oak, cinnamon and nutmeg.

PINOT GRIGIO SURVIVES ITS CRITICS

With the onset of warm weather, wine enthusiasts gravitate to cool white wines – especially popular pinot grigios.

There was once a time when Santa Margharita ruled the pinot grigio category, but its lofty prices sent consumers scrambling for alternatives. And there are plenty, thanks to that producer’s popularity. Pinot grigios are popular because of their abundant fruit flavors and a ripe profile that can include some residual sugar. Often dominated by a peach or apricot character, these wines make refreshing aperitifs and can be matched with grilled chicken, salads, fruit and a variety of other simple foods.

Pinot grigio, pinot blanc and pinot gris are arguably the same grape variety. Italians are historically wedded to pinot grigio, but the French make pinot gris and pinot blanc. Pinot gris is the variety made in Washington state.

Here are some recent discoveries:

·         Bozen Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2013 ($15). Very p erfumy wine with lots of apple and peach notes and soft, full body.

·         Terlan Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2013 ($18), Grapefruit aromas and flavors abound in

 

FILTERING SULFITES OUT OF WINE

A young Chicago chemist is looking for funding for a filter that removes most sulfites from red and white wines.  Called the Ullo, the $2.50 filter is good for one bottle. 

Inventor James Kornacki has raised $185,000 so far and is looking for another $100.000 on Kickstart.

Although he's not a wine enthusiast, he knows how sulfites can ruin the drinking experience for many people. He says Ullo doesn't remove all of the sulfites but restores the wine to the natural level.

If he gets the funding, I suspect this will be the best thing in wine since the aerator. Anyone still using those?

AGING CHABLIS IS A DICEY PROPOSITION

Several years ago I tasted a 10-year old grand cru chablis and was amazed at it's quality. It wasn't maderized at all and instead maintained the same understated elegance this French chardonnay is known for.

So, I cellared a few of them anticipating the same results. Oops, that didn't happen when I popped the cork of a  2002 Faively premier cru. OK, it was asking a lot for a 13-year-old chablis from a marginal vintage to last this long. Then, I opened a 2004 Domaine William Fevre Grand Cru Les Preuses. Wow, what a difference. The 2004 held up quite nicely, but gone was the mineral notes that I enjoy so much from Chablis. 

Chablis is austere and goes so well with oysters and simply prepared fish dishes. I don't think much can be gained by expecting it to become something more.                              

WINE REVIEWS

·         Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem Cotes Du Roussillon Villages 2013 ($30). The grenache in this powerful punch of 50 percent syrah, 40 percent grenache, and 10 percent carignan really brightens the blend. Made by the famed and reliable producer Michel Chapoutier, this wine offers a raspberry nose and flavors with a hint of black pepper. Very smooth in the mouth.

·         Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2013 ($30). Made from grapes sourced from Monterey, Sonoma and San Benito Counties, this is a nice rich fruity style of California pinot noir. Cherry, sandalwood notes with soft mouthfeel, good tannins and a long finish. A real crowd pleaser.

·         Joseph Drouhin Chorey-Les Beaune 2012 ($29). This is delightful Village Burgundy at a Bourgogne price. The wine displays bright rich cherry aromas and flavors with medium acidity. Just a hint of earthiness offers some complexity and interest. Try with chicken and pork dishes. Good value from a challenging vintage.

·         Columbia Winery Composition Red Blend ($14). Using grapes from multiple vintages, this producer has developed a tasty wine even if it has little pedigree. It’s made of up mostly cabernet sauvignon with some merlot, syrah, malbec, petit verdot and other red grapes. Lots of plum and cherry flavors.

·         Il Founo di Arcanum 2010 ($30). This is an excellent super-Tuscan super-value. A blend of merlot (56 percent), cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, it surpasses the delicious factor we seek from these wines. Lots of ripe dark berry fruit.

·         Matanzas Creek Winery Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($32).  Not all sauvignon blanc is one-dimensional and this Sonoma County producer proves it year after year. You pay more – but you get so much more complexity and depth. The Bennett Valley version has powerful aromas of pear, lychee and basil. There is crisp acidity yet a roundness that comes from dash of musque clone. The producer also makes a Helena Bench sauvignon blanc ($40) that is even more delicious.