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White Wines to Seek Out in 2017 – Part 2

Welcome to part two of White Wines to Seek out in 2017, a series intended to inspire a little adventure in your wine drinking life.  If you haven’t already, check out part one for additional suggestions.  Here we go…

Vinho Verde

imagesFrom Portugal, a place I am dying to visit one day, Vinho Verde translates to green wine; green in this case means young, as many of the wines are released just 3 to 6 months after the harvest.  Vinho Verde is both the name of the wine and the name of the region, the largest in Portugal and one where white wine is dominant.  The wines are often a blend of grapes, none of them very well-known other than Alvarinho (called Albariño in Spain) . These wines are vibrant, refreshing, low alcohol, often spritzy, and incredibly affordable.  The value proposition is hard to beat (It is very easy to find a bottle of Vinho Verde under $10!), but I am also recommending this wine because it is one of the friendliest matches for foods that can be difficult to pair with wine such as asparagus, Indian and Mexican cuisines, vinaigrette, and so on.  If you like to cook (or eat) Vinho Verde is an indispensable food companion.  Or, just crack it on a hot day by the pool.  That’s fun, too.

Try Quinta da Aveleda, a classic in the light, spritzy style that lends Vinho Verde such charm.  It should run you less than $10 and is widely available.

Orange Wine

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Warning:  I’m going into serious wine geek territory with this one.

I’m including this suggestion as much for myself as for you because Orange Wine is my blind spot; a category that I tend to avoid.  So what is Orange Wine, exactly?  In short, it is a white wine made like a red.  In typical white wine production, after the grapes are crushed the grape skins are immediately discarded leaving the juice to ferment alone.  In the case of Orange Wines, the skins are left in contact with the juice resulting in a darker color and also more weight, texture, and tannin. In reality, the color of these wines is not strictly orange, it ranges from golden to rosy to amber to copper depending on the grape variety and the length of skin contact. I’ve tasted many examples, and I’ll be honest I don’t really get them.  Some are like sour beer meets funky cider, others have flavors like smoked apricots and sandalwood. They can be quite pungent. They all have some degree of tannin that expresses itself as a dry sensation down the sides of the tongue.  To me they’ve always been more confusing than pleasurable.  However, in an effort to broaden my horizons, I resolve to turn up the volume on my curiosity when I come into contact with Orange Wines this year, to approach them with an adventurous, rather than critical, spirit.  And, I’m also going to seek out more opportunities to taste them with food, as that’s when the people I know who genuinely enjoy these wines think they really shine.

Georgia (the country, not the state) is the historic home of Orange Wines, having made them for centuries.  I recommend seeking out a Georgian bottle or two – look for a producer called Pheasant’s Tears – to get a sense of what traditional Orange Wines are like.  After that if you are still game, look to Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Spain, California, or New York for additional examples.

Muscadet

img5OK, this is the one I don’t want to tell you about because I want to keep to myself, but that I have to tell you about because it deserves to be known and you deserve to discover it. I know that you probably looked at the word Muscadet in the header and your brain jumped to Muscat or Moscato and then it jumped to sweet.  Muscadet is not sweet.  Ever.  It has nothing to do with Muscat/o.  It is the name of a region on the western edge of the Loire Valley in France. The grape variety is something few have heard of called Melon de Bourgogne.  I’m convinced that the confusion over the region’s name and lack of recognizable grape variety have kept this wine under the radar, and because of that you can find excellent bottles around $15.  Muscadet can accurately be described as crisp and fresh but that’s not all there is to it.  It’s also has a creamy/silky texture you’d typically ascribe to full-bodied wines like Chardonnay.  That’s why I love it so.  It’s a seamless marriage of opposites.  It’s everything in one modestly priced package.  If you like oysters, this is the definitive oyster wine.  If you don’t, it pairs beautifully with a wide range of foods from sushi to cheese to veggie pasta to pork barbecue.  Muscadet is versatility in a bottle.

My all-time favorite producer is Domaine de la Pépière, which makes a number of different bottlings. The entry-level is around $17.  If you can’t find it in your area, choose a bottle that is from the Sevre et Maine sub-region, which is where the best quality wines come from and is always clearly stated on the label.  Important to note:  do not drink Muscadet straight out of the fridge cold.  Temperature matters.  Take it out about 20 minutes before you pour yourself a glass or risk missing out on the true nature of this wine.

I hope you’ll try one or two of these and let me know what you think in the comments. Happy drinking!

 

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Why Is Champagne So Expensive?

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It’s Valentine’s Day.  Perhaps, like many, you’re planning on buying some bubbly to toast your sweetheart (or your singledom) tonight.  According to Bankrate.com, we’ll spend an average of $51.91 on a bottle of Champagne for Valentine’s Day this year. Given that a lot of people are prepared to spend more than $50 on a single bottle of wine for a Tuesday night, it’s obvious that we are in expensive territory.  But, why is Champagne so expensive? Before I answer, let me clarify that this discussion applies to wines labeled with the word Champagne that hail from the region of Champagne in France, not necessarily to sparkling wines from other parts of France or the rest of the world.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, there are two answers to this question:

First, the word Champagne alone is in itself a luxury brand; it’s an aspirational product, and the Champenois protect its status by pricing it accordingly.

Secondly, Champagne is arguably one of the most hands-on, labor intensive, and expensive wines in the world to produce.  The average cost of the grapes needed to make a single bottle is approximately $8.  That’s $8 per bottle in basic raw materials before adding the cost of glass, corks, labels, equipment (tanks, barrels, presses, etc.) and labor (vineyard, winery, marketing/sales) required to make and sell the wine, the winery facility in which it is made and aged, and the land upon which that building, and any vineyards the winery owns, sit.  On top of those costs, by law Champagne may not be released for sale until it has had a minimum of 15 months of aging.  This means that from the time the grapes are picked until the first day a Champagne is available for sale – at minimum – almost two years have passed with no return on investment.  And for the record, very few Champagne producers do only the bare minimum when it comes to aging.

Since we’re starting with a pretty high cost of admission, how do you get the most for your money, whether that falls into the high-end or average category?

At the High-End

Tip #1:  If you’re going to spend more than $150 on a Champagne, don’t go for the Dom.  I am asked quite frequently by customers if Dom Perignon is “worth it.”  For my money, no. Fortunate as I have been to taste Dom on many occasions in my line of work, I have always been underwhelmed by it.  If you have your heart set on  a high-end brand with a lot of cachet, spend the extra $25 – $30 bucks and buy Cristal (around $200).  Louis Roederer, the house that produces Cristal, has the largest share of organic and bio-dynamic vineyard holdings in Champagne so the quality of the fruit going into the wine is very fine.

If a big name isn’t important to you, seek out Laurent-Perrier “Grand Siècle” Brut (around $130).  While Laurent-Perrier is a well-known Champagne house, this particular wine is not produced in nearly as large quantities as are Dom Perignon and Cristal, so it’s more under-the-radar and thus less expensive.  It is an elegant Champagne that shows purity and depth as well as the chalky minerality that makes the region unique.  A classic.

For a richer take at the high-end try Krug Grand Cuvée (around $160), which is full of generous nutty, toasty, and creamy flavors.  An excellent choice to savor solo or to pair with a meal.

At $50 Give or Take

Tip #2:  One secret to finding really good Champagne well below Cristal pricing and often around $50 lies in two letters – RM. Every Champagne has a set of what looks like initials listed somewhere in tiny print, usually at the bottom of the front label.  The letters RM stand for récoltant manipulant, which translates to grower-producer, also known as grower Champagnes.  Chances are you won’t recognize any of their names or labels.  All the bottles you might recognize, like Veuve Cliquot, carry the letters NM.  NM stands for négociant manipulant.  These Champagnes are referred to as the “big houses.”  For most, the names and packages of NM Champagnes conjure up notions of luxury and class, which inspires confidence that we are getting something that is worth its high price tag. Grower Champagnes, in addition to being harder to find, offer no recognizable labels to reassure us of their worth.  That’s not because they are not as good as their NM brethren (Many are better for less money!), but because big houses have financial resources at their disposal to produce, advertise, and market on a scale that RM Champagnes do not.

If you are curious about grower Champagnes, I enthusiastically encourage you to seek them out, but I’ll be straight – your local grocery store, big box liquor store, or Costco is unlikely to carry any Champagne with RM on the label.  You’re going to have to go to a specialty shop, wine bar, or online retailer to find them.  One excellent online resource is Fat Cork, which specializes in grower Champagne and ships to about 30 states.

If you’d like names of RM or NM Champagnes to look for in your area and price range, please post in the comments or email me and I’ll be happy to offer some suggestions.

 

 

 

White Wines to Seek Out in 2017 – Part 1

fnfu6rw5_400x400Do you always order a glass of Pinot Grigio when you’re out to dinner with friends?  Do you consistently buy the same brand of Sauvignon Blanc at your local wine or grocery store because you know you like it?  If you answered yes to either of those questions, congratulations!  You are a human, a well-documented creature of habit.  For those who would like to get out of their wine rut and have a little fun exploring new varieties, here are a few wines that I suggest you seek out in 2017.

Oregon Chardonnay

You’ve probably tried Oregon Pinot Noir, which has been a darling of the red wine world for a couple of years now.  Given the amount of attention it receives and the fact that it is the most widely planted grape in Oregon, you might not realize that you have other options in the state that is home to Mt. Hood, Nike HQ, and a the world’s largest cheese factory, but in fact many other grapes are grown in Oregon and most of them are white.  I’m recommending Chardonnay for two reasons:  1) It is a grape everyone is familiar with and the one that will be the easiest to find in markets that are far from the Northwest; and 2) I feel like I’ve been tasting an Oregon Chardonnay renaissance lately.  As if winemakers finally stopped focusing all of their attention on the red darling and gave a little love to this variety, with excellent results.

The 2014 Roserock Chardonnay was easily one of my favorite surprises of the countless wines I tasted last year.  Roserock is a new label from Domaine Drouhin, which has been making wine in Willamette Valley for three decades.  If you drink California Chardonnays, you’ll find the ones from Oregon to be brighter, fresher takes on the variety and this wine is no exception.  For a bottle priced in the low $30s (not inexpensive, but in far more reasonable than the ocean of Chardonnay from California and France on offer at $50+), I enjoyed a lot of complex flavors and aromas:  Meyer lemon, pineapple, white flowers, saline – in addition to a lovely, silky texture and a long finish.  Roserock is new and 2014 was the first release.  If you have trouble finding it, try its sibling the Domaine Drouhin “Arthur” Chardonnay instead (around $30).

Pink Bubbles

If you have Champagne taste on a microbrew budget, you’re in luck because there are plenty of high-quality, reasonably priced sparkling wines made around the world these days.  Since still rosé has exploded in popularity over the last few years, I’m hoping a little of the fairy dust from that trend will rub off on sparkling rosé in 2017.  Why?  Because you’re missing out if you’re only drinking bubbles on special occasions.  And, pink bubbles are just more fun.

My pick in this category is a wine from the Penedès region of Spain, not too far from Barcelona, called Raventós i Blanc “di Nit” Rosé Conca del Riu Anoia (just ask for Raventós Rosé to simplify things).  This is a blend of three white grapes, Macabeu, Xarel-lo, and Parellada, and a small amount of one red called Monastrell from which the wine derives its pink color.  I can say from experience that I’ve shared this bottle at multiple dinners with different groups of friends and it has been a hit with all of them.  It’s a sophisticated sparkler that makes a lively aperitif or dinner companion, and it’s certified organic – and delicious (around $20).

White Bordeaux

White Bordeaux has issues.  For one, it’s overshadowed in reputation, volume, asking price, and prestige by the more famous reds of Bordeaux, and secondly because it hasn’t figured out how to sell itself.  Labels on its bottles are often nondescript and they don’t typically advertise the name of the grape variety(ies), leading many wine buyers to pass by without a second glance.  Bad for them but great for you because wines with such issues can be great values, which is exactly why white Bordeaux is on this list.  If you decide to take a chance on it, what exactly are you getting yourself into?  Sauvignon Blanc primarily, sometimes blended with a little bit of a grape called Semillon for additional weight and viscosity.  If you enjoy Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, California, or Sancerre, I encourage you to seek out a white Bordeaux or two this year and see what you think.

Because they are something of wine wallflowers, there are lots of excellent white Bordeaux options under $20, under $15, and even some very good bottles under $10. Look for the Sauvignon Blanc-driven Chateau Reynon (around $15) with its crisp, green apple-y character or, if you prefer a richer style, the 50/50 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend Chateau Chantegrive Graves (around $18), which shows stone fruit and honeysuckle. Because this is not a popular category, you may have trouble finding a lot of options in your city.  My advice:  give something in the $10 – $20 range that is recommended by your local wine shop a shot for your first go-round.

I’ve got additional, more adventurous wines to for you to seek out in 2017 in part two of this post coming soon.  If you have trouble finding any of the wines I’ve suggested in your area, please post in the comments or email me and I’ll be happy to help you with alternatives.  Cheers to new discoveries!

 

Myth: Red Wine is Better Than White

Here’s a short list of the number one wines of 2016 as ranked by four wine industry influencers – two publications, one critic, and one retailer:

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Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines: #1 -2013 Lewis Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

James Suckling’s Top 100 Wines: #1 – 2013 Opus One (Cabernet blend), Napa Valley

Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines: #1 – 2005 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 (Tempranillo blend), Rioja

Total Wine & More’s Top 20 Wines:  #1 – 2013 Mascota Vineyards Unanime (Cabernet blend), Mendoza, Argentina

It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that all of the number one wines above are red and that three of the four are Cabernets.  Lest you think that’s an anomaly of the 2016 lists, in addition to this year’s Top 100 list Wine Spectator also published the names of all its number one wines since the list began in 1988.  Here’s the quick math on the previous number ones, and (in bold italics) what these rankings lead many wine lovers to believe.  I know because I used to believe it, too.

Of the 29 Wine Spectator lists published to date, a white wine has earned the top spot only twice:  Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay in 1996 and Chateau Rieussec Sauternes (dessert wine from Bordeaux) in 2004. Which means, of course, that a red wine has held the first position on 27 of the 29 lists. Clearly, red wines are superior to whites.

A Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet blend has been granted number one status on 15 of the 29 lists, or 51% of the time.  Obviously, Cabernet is the best red.

Pinot Noir, traditionally a light to medium-bodied red wine, has been chosen as the number one wine only once.  All other reds that have topped the list – Syrah/Shiraz, Brunello, Chateauneuf-du-Papes, Vintage Port, Super Tuscan – sit very squarely in the full-bodied camp.  And, although Pinot Noir is by comparison “lighter” than all of the other reds listed, Kosta Browne, whose Pinot was the one chosen for top honors in 2011 produces the variety in a “bigger” style.  Big reds are better than lighter reds.

If you tend to believe the bold italic statements are true, I don’t blame you.  “Best of” lists, the fact that red wines command higher prices on average than whites, and a whole host of other societal and cultural cues reinforce these ideas.  But, this blog is here to rebut them.  I am here to tell you they simply aren’t true.  It’s like saying roses are better than orchids or cats are superior to dogs.  You may prefer one or the other, but preference does not equate to fact.

I realize that red wines will likely continue to dominate these types of lists and that alone will continue to influence many people’s perceptions of them as superior.  However, my hope is that there are enough of us out there who are curious to try new things, who think tasting and learning about a variety of wines is more fun than drinking the same thing all the time, who are willing to let our own sense of pleasure dictate what we drink, to change that perception.  I hope wine drinkers and the wine industry will follow the lead of last night’s Golden Globes and finally appreciate the diversity we have to choose from.  There’s so much exciting wine out there.  And most of it is a lot less red than you think.

Ready to start exploring?  Stay tuned for my next post – White Wines to Seek Out in 2017.

Nine Reasons to Drink White Wine

They say Cabernet is King, but I don’t believe them.  Here are nine reasons why you should drink more white wine.

Diversity

For the purposes of this post (and this blog), the term “white wine” includes not just your everyday Chardonnay but also rosé, orange, almost all sparkling, Sherry, Madeira, most Sake, and any dessert wine that is not red.  Basically any wine you serve chilled as you would a regular table white counts.  White wines run the gamut from crisp and fresh, to full-bodied and buttery, to off-dry, to sweet, to aromatic and floral, to nutty, and everything in between.  There’s virtually no chance that there isn’t something here for everyone to love.

Refreshment

Sometimes you just want something refreshing, whether that’s due to the time of year, the meal you’re planning, or because it’s simply what you’re craving.  When is the last time you described a Syrah (or most any red for that matter) as refreshing?  Refreshment is white wine’s wheelhouse.

Diet

Are you a vegetarian?  Pescatarian?  Vegan?  Trying to incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet?  Maybe you’re just eating less red meat lately?  If any of these is true, you’ll find far better pairing options for what you’re eating now in the white wine family.

Acidity

Speaking of pairing options, there’s a reason sommeliers love Riesling, Chenin Blanc, a multitude of Italian whites, Sauvignon Blanc, Sherry, and rosé just to name a few.  That reason is acidity.  At its very basic level, acidity makes your mouth water, which makes you want to eat.  When it comes to pairing with food, wines higher in acid allow for more versatility and more options.  They can match citrus flavors and vinaigrettes, balance the richness of creamy sauces, soups, and cheese, cleanse the palate when paired with fatty or fried foods, hold their own with high acid foods like green apples and tomatoes, and provide the best partner for things that are difficult to pair like asparagus and artichoke.  There are many high acid white wines out there, but not so many reds.

Fewer Stains

Drinking white wine means fewer wine stains on your clothes, your carpet, and your teeth.  Who isn’t in favor of that?

Reduce Headaches

For those who experience wine-induced headaches not caused by excess consumption, choosing white wine may mean enduring fewer of them.  While there are no comprehensive studies on this topic, doctors overwhelmingly agree that wine headaches are not caused by sulfites.  Sulfites, typically present at higher levels in white than in red, cause a severe asthmatic reaction in those who have sulfite allergy, but they are not believed to trigger headaches.  While there are many theories on what does, the one that seems to have the most traction in the scientific community is that wine headaches are somehow associated with tannin.  Good news for white wine drinkers as whites are far lower in tannin than reds.

Red is Still an Option

Many white wines are made from red grapes.  Rosés are the obvious example and are made from pretty much any red grape you can think of.  I’ve also tasted a number of traditional still whites made from red grapes from Oregon, California, and Germany in the last couple of years.  The most successful of these, in my opinion, were made from Pinot Noir.  It’s a great new way to experience an old favorite.  And then there’s Champagne.  Two of the three traditional Champagne grapes are red (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) but all Champagne is in the white wine family.

Because…Champagne

If you don’t drink white you can’t drink Champagne, and that would be a tragedy.

The Final Pitch

While there are unquestionably some amazing red wines out there, and I have been very lucky to taste more than a few, for me the most exciting, memorable, and astonishing wines I’ve experienced have overwhelmingly been white.  The best are rich without being weighty, light without sacrificing texture, lit from within by acidity, and anchored by a striking depth of flavor. They have a stunning, almost crystalline purity; a complexity that invites quiet discovery, like turning pages in a book.  The best whites are every complementary opposite – familiar memories and new adventures in a single sip.  They have made me a believer in the great power of subtlety. I hope they’ll make you one, too.