The Opposite of Simple

In ranging across the world of red blends, if Ménage à Trois Midnight—a one-note wine lacking nuance—sits at one end of the spectrum, then I propose a candidate for the opposite end: Château Cabrières Côtes du Rhône Villages 2012.

51 - Chateau Cabrieres Cotes du Rhone Villages

I single out this wine because I tried it recently, and was duly impressed. But any of a wide selection of Côtes du Rhône Villages would suffice to demonstrate my point.

Côtes du Rhône Villages is a mid-point category, in terms of price and quality, in the southern portion of France’s Rhône region—a step above wines labeled simply Côtes du Rhône and below those from specific vineyards or vineyard areas (e.g., Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas). Wines in the Villages category generally offer superior power and complexity for the price (many in the $14 to $18 range).

This wine from Château Cabrières, a producer perhaps best known for its Châteauneuf-du-Pape, stayed interesting and delightful from first sniff to last sip, which in my case covered something like a 10-day period. (Oddly, the chateau’s website does not promote its Côtes du Rhône Villages bottlings.)

From the initial pour, my nose picked up chocolate while I tasted dark berries overlaid with, I swear, sausage and oregano pizza! Some ash, some earth emerged as I drunk my way happily through the bottle.

The flavors evolved continuously. If you enjoy conjuring up aroma and flavor analogues to what you’re drinking, this wine—a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah—will keep you busy. While I don’t recommend keeping a bottle open (even in the fridge, even VacuVin’d) as long as I did, I must admit that my last glass remained fresh and unoxidized.

I’ve found similar complexity in other Côtes du Rhône Villages. For two years I’ve been working down a multi-bottle stock of Domaine de l’Obrieu’s 2009 Cuvée les Antonins Visan* Côtes du Rhône Villages (*Of the 95 towns or communes in the southern Rhône eligible for the Villages designation, Visan is one of only 16 that can include their name on the label.) It’s going on six years of age—time to drink it up, the wine charts say—but I can report that, so far, the Visan’s body and distinctive flavors have yet to flag.

Round Midnight?

Yes, it’s round enough, and soft on the palate, the 2013 Ménage à Trois Midnight. But also lacking in subtlety, short on finish, and generally one-note syrupy.

50 - Menage a Trois Midnight

In other words, it’s hard to recommend this California label’s “high-end” red-blend selection for anything other than as an inexpensive party wine (and you can find better wines at lower prices even for that modest purpose).

I paid $15 at ShopRite for my bottle but would have done better to trek to Buy-Rite, which carries it for $11.

More than one respected wine-review source had waxed enthusiastic about the dark-red Midnight, touting it as a breed apart from (and a dollar or three higher than) Ménage à Trois’ standard Red Blend—so my curiosity overcame my snobbish aversion to the label and I put this wine on my to-try list

To be fair, Ménage à Trois—the brand is under the Trinchero Family Estates umbrella—meets a huge swath of market demand—for simple, goes-down-easy, not-expensive wine. And if their offerings serve as a gateway for novice oenophiles to more complex, better-made blends and varietals, hooray to Ménage à Trois.

Ménage has recently expanded its line from generic red and white blends to varietal-centric blends starting with Chardonnay and now including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc; they even make a Prosecco. Only the Cab and Merlot are priced above their blends ($12 at Buy-Rite); some day maybe I’ll try them.

Crémants redux

I’m giving a thumbs-up to French non-Champagne sparkling wines (aka Crémants). The Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne rosé ($17 at Sherry-Lehmann) was on my recent to-try list, and did not disappoint. Lovely pale-coral hue in the glass (apologies for the poor-quality photo), softly effervescent with a hint of watermelon and cream on the palate, it offers an inexpensive alternative to a rosé Champagne.

48 - Cremant glass (2)

No disrespect to Champagne—it can provide some of your most delightful tasting experiences—but at typical Champagne prices, it is routinely consigned to special occasions. (If the euro continues its swoon, however, those prices for U.S. customers will eventually—maybe as soon as late 2015—fall, a moment we await impatiently.)

In the meantime, drink more sparkling wines, more often—whether from France or anywhere else that is producing it. They pair spectacularly with many foods. And sparklers offer variety that many of us have not yet explored.

If you only stick with French Crémants, you’ll find a lot to choose from. Manhattan’s wonderful Chambers Street Wines, for instance, currently has on hand a Burgundy Crémant, Tripoz, made from 100% Chardonnay ($26) and a rosé from Jura, Bodines NV Arbois ($24), that blends Pinot Noir, Trousseau and Poulsard.

Crémants from Alsace are popular. Conjure an alsacienne Pinot Blanc or Reisling, but in bubbly form. Sherry-Lehmann carries an Albrecht Brut Blanc de Blanc from Alsace for $17. Loire winemakers are also producing sparkers.

So, aside from not commanding their price premiums, what sets Crémants apart from their Champagne cousins? Since the same méthode champegnoise is commonly employed across producers, it comes down to terroir and, usually, grape varieties. (Burgundian Crémants will more closely match the varietal blends of Champagne—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir—than those from other French appellations.) Sample a few and decide what you like.

New to me in 2015, part 1

I gravitate to the familiar as much as anyone. I reorder the South African Chardonnay that is so delicious (and affordable), pick up another bottle of that California Pinot Noir I love, and seek out a particular Provençal rosé when we’re on the cusp of summer.

But I also crave the new, or what’s new to me, anyway—whether it’s a varietal, an appellation, a producer. Trying what is unfamiliar is essential to one’s personal wine education, and thanks to today’s wine marketplace—which delivers an ever-broader selection of wines from the around the world—that education is easier than it’s ever been.

Here is my current short list of new-to-me wines I’m planning to drink over the next few weeks. What I think of them may shape the next iteration of my to-try list.

47 - Louis Bouillot Cremant de Bourgogne

  • Crémants – You can’t call them “Champagne” but they are French and sparkling . . . and so much cheaper than their exalted siblings from the Champagne region. Crémants hail from regions like Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire, and their grape composition reflects those regional origins. Right now in my cellar: a Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne rosé and Thierry Germain’s Bulles de Roche, a Loire crémant from the Saumur appellation.

47 - Thierry Germain Bulles de Roche Saumur

  • Portuguese reds –In the wine world, Portugal is more than Port, Madeira and Vinho Verde (which can be red or white—“verde” in this context connoting young, unaged). But until recent years U.S. wine consumers have had limited access to the country’s diverse offerings. Lately I’ve spotted Portuguese rosés and reds on local wine shelves and I’m curious to taste them. I’m starting with an inexpensive 2012 offering from Lavradores de Feitoria, based in Douro, the home of port but where red tables wines are now getting a foothold.

47 - Lavradores Douro

  • California reds with deceptively awful names – The Crusher and Ménage à Trois Midnight are the ones I’m seeking out. Priced in a comfortable $11 to $14 range, I’ve read and heard positive reviews of these dark red blends. The Crusher is Cabernet-dominant, while the vintage 2012 “Midnight” is a Merlot-Cab-Petite Syrah-Petite Verdot blend. The 2012 and 2013 vintages were stellar in California for reds, which could make these wines an extra-great value.

What “new” wines are in your rack?

Más Besos to Bierzo

My introduction to Bierzo, a relatively new (est. 1989) appellation in northwestern Spain, came through its white wines, made primarily from the Godello and Doña Blanca grapes. But Bierzo’s reds are easier to find in the U.S. and well worth seeking out.

Bierzo reds, like the wines of Ribera Sacra, are based on the Mencía grape—although Bierzo’s wines tend to be fuller and juicier than those of its neighboring DO to the west.

Although Mencía is an ancient grape said to have been brought to Spain from France in the Middle Ages, its vines were decimated in the phylloxera plague of the 1800s. The chance to revive Mencía vineyards along with the challenges of cultivating Bierzo’s steep, rocky terrain—and, no doubt, the lower cost of land here—seem to be attracting talented, ambitious winemakers.

45 - Petalos close-up

A leading house of Bierzo, established in 1999, is Descendientes de José Palacios, producer of an affordable star of the region, Pétalos del Bierzo. (BTW, José was the patriarch of Rioja’s Palacios Remondo winery. His “descendents,” both of whom trained in Bordeaux, are son Alvaro, a top winemaker in Spain’s Priorat appellation—L’Ermita is his signature wine, and grandson Ricardo Pérez.)

Descendientes de J. Palacios’ vineyards are in the town of Corullón, on the western edge of Bierzo, where they cultivate their vines biodynamically. They produce small quantities of several single-vineyard reds priced from approximately $55 to $175.

And then there is Pétalos, an impressive entry-level offering for the price (the 2012 is currently available at Sherry-Lehmann for $19.95). Depending on the vintage, Pétalos tends to range from 95% to 100% Mencía. The 2011 vintage earned a 92 rating from Wine Advocate; the 2009 was ranked #26 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2011.

“I love this wine!” I said aloud as I drank the 2011. It was soft and beautiful but complex on the palate, with notes of dark fruit and flowers.

The Bubbly Debrief

With Bubbly’s biggest night* behind us for another year, I’m pausing to assess the three sparklers—fittingly, all of French origin—we drank over the holidays. Here is the line-up:

44 - Gruet, L'Ermitage, Grande Dame

• Gruet Brut “Champenoise” Gold Label – This New Mexican star held center stage on Christmas Eve, paired with a meal of one fish/two ways (chilled shrimp cocktail followed by garlicky shrimp scampi)—my modest take on the traditional Seven Fishes feast. $16 at Sherry-Lehmann.
• Roederer Estate L’Hermitage Brut 2003 – To accompany an array of cheeses and charcuterie, we started the December 31 festivities with this Anderson Valley, California, offspring of venerable French Champagne house Louis Roederer. Priced around $40-$45, depending on the retailer.
• Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Brut 2004 – Saving the best for last, we popped the cork at midnight on this Veuve Clicquot classic from Champagne’s stellar 2004 vintage. A deal while it’s still in stock at Buy-Rite in Jersey City for $120.

44 - 3 corks

The Gruet family brought their Champagne-making experience with them from France to the New World in the 1980s, after discovering promising, high-altitude, inexpensive terroir around Albuquerque. Like all of their sparkling wines, the Gruet Brut is aged for a minimum of 24 months. Tasting of apple cider, it’s not a complex wine but stands up well with food. At this price point, I’ll have it again—and seek out Gruet’s other sparklers.

L’Ermitage along with L’Ermitage Rosé are the high-end lines of family-owned Roederer Estate, produced only as single-vintage cuvées. The 2003 earned high marks across the board from the usual critics: Wine Enthusiast 96, Wine & Spirits 94, Wine Spectator 93. If you can’t find this vintage, look for the 2005. My first sips were peach-infused, then a hard-candy lemon-drop flavor settled in. The minerality was just right.

44 - Roederer, Grande Dame caps

La Grande Dame was the favorite Champagne of a now-deceased friend and oenophile, but since we’d somehow never tried it, this was the obvious choice for ringing in 2015 when we spotted it in Buy-Rite’s Champagne cabinet. The 2004 is a refined Champagne, with lemon and minerals on the nose and the palate. The initial uprush of bubbles after opening was misleading, as it quickly subsided into a gentle effervescence. Wine Spectator conferred 92 points on this beauty.

These three wines span a range of price points, from everyday to special-occasion, and I can recommend landing on each one of them. Cheers!

*While New Year’s Eve is unlikely to be dethroned from its perch as the time of maximum sparkling-wine consumption, why not resolve in 2015 to drink more of it more often?

Trekking to Bierzo

If your neighborhood wine merchant features “Staff Picks” or wine critics’ recommendations, I suggest browsing those selections for new finds and, often, great values.

That’s how, from South Africa, my travels via wine led me to the Spanish realm and the 2012 Godelia White.

 41 - Godelia

Not only is the Godelia property situated in a wine region I’d not heard of—El Bierzo—the grapes were unfamiliar to me. This white is an 80%-20% blend of Godello and Doña Blanca.

El Bierzo, a small, mountainous region due east of Galicia in the country’s northwest, is apparently carving out its identity as a serious source of wine. While Godello is the signature white grape of the area, on the red side it’s Mencía—the grape of the exalted wines of Ribeira Sacra, down the road a bit west of Bierzo.

Perhaps the poor man’s Albariño, Godello-based wines can provide the fruitiness and acidity of Galicia’s higher-profile whites, at a sweeter (lower!) price. Doña Blanca (Dona Branca in Portugal) is not generally grown outside the Iberian peninsula. A thick-skinned grape, it was used to produce white Port but now is more commonly blended with other whites to make table wines.

Godelia’s winemakers describe Godello and Doña Blanca as each having strong personalities that, blended together, yield “elegance and aromatic complexity, with dominant floral and fruity notes.”

On the nose, I got a cloud of sea air and minerals. It drinks with a tang of citrus. Beautiful, and only $14 (Buy Rite)!

Godelia also produces, under their Selección label, a 100% Godello as well as several 100% Mencía wines, including a sweet rendition named Libamus.

Summer safari to South Africa

I’ve been doing a lot of vicarious traveling lately, through my local wine stores, sallying forth to explore white-varietal progeny of some lesser-explored wine-producing regions. I’m happy to recommend two recent finds from my first stop, South Africa.

To the South Africa aisle I went, in pursuit of Chenin Blanc—the wine that long dominated that country’s production, until the industry in recent decades became more cosmopolitan and began responding to global tastes for varietals like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

From the Stellenbosch, I’m loving the Simonsig 2012 Chenin Blanc (and loving the price, $12 at Jersey City’s Buy Rite).

40 - S Af Chenin blanc 

The Simonsig estate, long owned by the Malan family and currently operated by several Malan brothers, produces a wide array of varietals, red and white.

Its Chenin Blanc was the first wine brought to market by founder Frans Malan in 1968. The winery describes it as full bodied and I agree. With a nose that’s soft and earthy, the wine tastes almost smoky. On a musical scale, I’d place it in the low notes. An absolute bargain at this price.

Moving northwest from the Stellenbosch, due east of Cape Town, to Swartland in the Cape’s coastal region, I found Secateurs Chenin Blanc, made by A.A. Badenhorst Family Wines. As they say on their website, Badenhorst is “owned by the dynamic and good looking cousins Hein and Adi Badenhorst” and specializes in natural wines made in the traditional manner.

Secateurs is Badenhorst’s second-tier brand (besides Chenin Blanc, they make a Secateurs red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon-Carignan-Cinsault-Grenache and, occasionally, a rosé). Secateurs is a pruning tool, and it’s pictured on the label.

Also shown is a small jackal, on the label’s right side. What the heck? Adi explained in a conversation with Florida’s Wine Atelier that it marks the bottle’s halfway point, so “you know when you’ve drank half the bottle and it’s time to pass it on to your mate.”

 40 - Secateurs jackal (2)

The Secateurs 2013 Chenin Blanc is a wine with verve. Just this side of effervescent, it shimmers on the palate like the best, crisp Sauvignon Blancs. On the nose, it gives off a bright whiff of sea salt. Another fabulous deal, at $13 from Buy Rite—especially considering it’s won high marks from critics (e.g., 92 points from the Wine Advocate for the 2012 vintage).

I loved both wines when consumed alone, on different days, but made a point also to drink them side by side for comparison. Against Simonsig’s low notes, the Secateurs plays in the high notes. Rich versus vivid; round versus sparkly.

Try them yourself and let me know what you think!

Why you want to drink a Carignan-Grenache Noir-Syrah-Mourvèdre blend in summer

Char-grilled meat, anyone? Steak, of course, chicken too. Heck, meaty eggplant or portobellos also work. As long as there’s that crusty char—and bonus points for a sharp, spicy sauce or marinade—then you have what, in my opinion, makes a great summer-time pairing with a rustic red from southern France.

“Received wisdom” designates whites and rosés as the default warm-weather wines. But, with some foods, only earthy reds will do.

Furthermore, if you’re like me, and savoring memories and/or wishes of a past or future trip to Languedoc-Roussillon, then you’re looking to discover good values from this region in any season.

I was sharing some experiences from a recent trip to the area when I last posted here. (An unexpected death in my family followed by a period of general discombobulation knocked me off my blog-writing routine in recent months.) Since then, I continued exploring the region, viticulturally, so it’s worth giving a shout-out to a few wines I’ve especially liked.

39 - Grand Guilhem Fitou 2

Here is one: Domaine Grand Guilhem Fitou. I tried the 2008 vintage ($18 from Sherry-Lehmann), a 47% Grenache Noir-40% Carignan-10% Syrah-3% Mourvèdre blend. Its intensity could be fading, so I’d look for a later vintage next time for comparison. The wine has a sharp nose, stony and mossy, giving an impression of entering an underground cellar.

But don’t let the nose deter you. While the finish wasn’t long, on the palate the wine is at once smoky, pruney and vegetal, depending on whether and how long it is decanted.

For me, knowing something about the winemakers enhances my  appreciation of the product. Domain owners and winemakers Severine and Gilles Contrepois secured organic designation in 2004 for their 25 acres of vineyards. The property sits in Fitou, an oddly bifurcated (into two non-continuguous areas) appellation of Languedoc between Perpignan and Narbonne, near the village of Cascatel.

39 - Domaine Grand Guilhem Fitou 1

I’d love to try Grand Guilhem’s other wines (Corbières white and rosé, and three vins doux), but they’re hard to find in the U.S.

There is a solution, however: pay a visit and stay a night or two. (The Contrepois double as innkeepers, with two guesthouses and four guest rooms in the vintage-19th century main house.)

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).

34 - B for Branham 2

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.

34 - Branham bottle w cork

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.