Vineyards, vineyards everywhere

Such is the landscape of Languedoc-Roussillon, from which I have just returned. It was my first, and a whirlwind, circuit of the southernmost part of this ever-more-booming French wine region.

Abbaie de Fontfroide vineyard, near Narbonne

Abbaie de Fontfroide vineyard, near Narbonne

The grapes had just been harvested the week or two before, one of the later harvests of recent memory, people told me, so what was on view to travelers like me and my trip companion Marsha as we whirred by on the well-maintained (no matter how remote and narrow) roads were the de-fruited vines, leaves turning to autumn-yellow and orange.

You read that Languedoc-Roussillon is the world’s largest wine region, with more than 700,000 acres under production, but it takes the physical experience of seeing its vineyards stretching to the horizon in all directions, across all terrains, flat and hilly, to comprehend this fact.

Such concentration of grape production is not necessarily a good thing, however, in terms of wine quality and price. The area’s historic high production of juice translated into wines that were not just thin; many were outright bad, France’s black-sheep wines. To address the downward price pressure Languedoc-Roussillon’s overproduction was exerting on European wines in general, E.U. incentives in recent years have prompted growers to rip out vines.

So the region’s wine-making practices have been changing: yields are down, the ratio of grapes to extracted juice has risen over the past decade. Younger winemakers are being drawn to the area, in some cases shunning AOC rules in order to experiment with grape varietals and production techniques.

Our circuit of the area extended up the coast from the Spanish border to Perpignan, straight north from there into Hérault, then meandering southwest through the Minervois and Corbières areas of Aude, to end in the lower reaches of Roussillon’s Pyrénées-Orientales  department. We drank a bit of white, rosé and red, and enjoyed several fabulous meals.

Stay tuned: more on my Languedoc-Roussillon experience in the days to come.

Half-price: restaurants making friends with wine drinkers

Still thinking about how restaurants show their love for wine and, therefore, wine consumers . . . .

Wine lists are an obvious expression of how much an establishment cares about wine and those who will buy it from them. Some restaurants go the extra mile by hosting dinners with winemakers and other wine-themed events.

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But nothing says I want your business more than a great deal. I happened on one recently, at the Houlihan’s at Castleton in Indianapolis. It happened to be a Tuesday, which means all bottles on their wine list, all day, are half price—which makes most of them a few dollars over retail. And if you can’t finish the bottle then and there, they’ll recork and seal it up, so you can cart it home without violating open-bottle laws while driving.

Granted, you don’t go to Houlihan’s for its stellar wine selection; but the list in Indianapolis featured were solid stand-bys in all categories. My $16 Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay was perfect for an Indian Summer evening, sitting on the patio as the sun descended in the west.

Note: Half-price Tuesdays is not a chain-wide policy; the Houlihan’s nearest me in New Jersey has no such bargains.

Yet there is a tantalizing possibility across the Hudson, at the newish Domain NYC restaurant on the upper Broadway. I happened to hear that the restaurant, which touts its organic and sustainably farmed meats, fish and produce, sells its wines for half price on Mondays and Tuesdays.

It’s a decent, international list, with the most diverse selections among the reds. The idea of paying $17 for a 2008 Domaine Devignes Chablis, $34 for a 2008 Tinto Pesquera Ribera del Duero, $87.50 for a 2006 Silver Oak Napa cab: well, I’ll be there soon.


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How to judge a restaurant’s wine list

How wine-consumer-friendly is that restaurant you’ll be dining at tonight?

BYO establishments are the pinnacle of oenophile-friendliness, but most of the time we choose a restaurant based on its food and make the best of the wine list it offers.

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Here are a few guidelines that can help you judge whether a restaurant genuinely loves wine and wants to encourage its guests to sample its selections.

1 – Is the current wine list posted online for advance perusal? While most restaurant websites now post their food menus, not so many include their wine lists. It’s a plus, though, to help you set your spending expectations, gauge markups and search out interesting bottles. Of course, if you order a wine you identified from your online research and the server tells you it’s no longer available, you’re up against my next criterion . . . .

2 – Is the list accurate and up to date? How many times have you ordered a bottle only to be informed that the wine is sold out? Or, even worse, your server presents a bottle of a different (typically younger) vintage than what is listed (although this scenario can occasionally work in your favor, if the replacement bottle would normally command a higher price). These situations depict a restaurant that’s not paying enough attention to its wine list.

3 – What does the list offer for under $100? Affordability is one aspect of consumer-friendliness, and countless restaurants make the grade by this measure. At some of my favorite go-to places, all the wines are below—and often well below—$100. Yet eye-popping (price-wise) wine lists, usually at restaurants with food prices to match, can still be appealing, as long as they include a variety of less-expensive options across categories. And three-digit bottle prices, particularly for older wines that have been in storage, may actually be reasonable, if they are comparable to or barely above retail. Which leads to the issue of markups . . . .

4 – How large are the markups over retail? Aggressive restaurant markups infuriate wine producers, especially smaller ones, who see markups as a way to discourage consumers from trying their product. Restaurants as a rule mark up their bottle prices by at least 2 and sometimes up to 3 times the average retail price, although markup percentages vary tremendously, not only across the restaurant industry but even within a wine list, with lower-end wines often priced at higher markups than more expensive bottles. Savvy diners who feel they’re being suckered if they choose a bottle that’s excessively marked up can do quick research at the table, via smartphone or tablet, or in advance for those lists that are posted online, to find the going retail rates for wines they are considering. And there are restaurants known for their low-markup policies. Landmarc in Manhattan, for one, and some identified by the WSJ’s Lettie Teague.

Diversity of offerings; unusual bottles that are difficult to find—these attributes can also distinguish great from mediocre wine lists. Any lists that stand out in your experience? I’d love to hear about them.


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In defense of the fruitbomb

Okay, I admit it: I love big, complex California Cabernets. I know that style of Cabernet Sauvignon has fallen out of fashion lately, in favor of more-austere, lower-alcohol Cabernets of Northern California’s yesteryear (pre-1990s).

I like the more-restrained Cabs as well, but in my mind the rich, fruit-laden offerings of Napa Valley will always have their place. They do, after all, accurately express Napa’s hot, sunny climate, just as many Cab-dominant Bordeaux reds reflect the comparatively cooler weather of that growing region.

Some critics may define fruitbombs as those Cabs that are not complex; what makes them objectionable is the one-note blast of excess alcohol and lack of multi-dimensional fruit on the palate.

Yes, such wines are produced and often sell for eye-popping tariffs.

But I’m defending the big Cabs that exude their terroir and the summer sun that nourished their grapes. Many such wines are made in relatively small quantities by non-marquee producers, and it’s fun to discover ones that are new (to me).

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Such as Branham Estate Wines’ Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

I found it last December, at Kahn’s Fine Wines in Indianapolis. The bin of Branham 2009 Napa Cab was displayed with a laudatory description and, although the $39.99 price was a bit more than I was planning to spend for a bottle to keep in our hotel room, it was Christmas, after all, so why not a small gift for ourselves?

Checking out at the register, we asked the store’s proprietor about this producer. Branham was unfamiliar to him as well, until winery reps had visited the store, let him try a bottle and won him over. (Kahn’s was also offering Branham’s 2010 Russian River Chardonnay, a bottle of which we added to our order, for around $23, and consumed with pleasure.)

I subsequently learned that winemaker Gary Branham, who established the business in 1994, grows—in Sonoma and Napa Counties—95% of the grapes he uses to make his wines, which also include Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Pinot Noir. But his Napa Valley Cabernet is his first-born (and perhaps favorite?), with the first vintage produced in 1999. I couldn’t find production number for 2009, but Branham made 300 cases of the 2011 Napa Valley Cab.

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I purchased another bottle of the 2009 Branham last week, again at Kahn’s while in Indianapolis. It was alongside bins for the 2008 and 2010 vintages (the latter bin was empty), although Kahn’s website no longer shows those vintages to be available.

It was as delicious as I remembered it. The dark ruby color in the glass and cherry on the nose portend the deep, full experience on the palate: some tobacco and dirt upon opening, with a lingering flavor of tart cherries as you drink through a glass. That’s a fruitbomb I can love.