Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Summer Wine

Summer isn't over yet, and here is a good white wine for summer evening sipping: River'sTale from South Africa.

South Africa has dramatically beautiful wine country and a long and checkered wine history. Things are on the up-and-up lately, but it is still relatively unknown in the wine world, which makes it a good place to go treasure hunting

This wine comes from the Orange River region in the north of the Cape Province along the west coast of South Africa. Most of South Africa has a Mediterranean climate, cooler than the lattitude would suggest due to a cold Atlantic current. The climate in the Orange River area is hotter, making irrigation necessary. This is the area that produces crisp Chenin Blanc and Columbard that made South Africa seem the world's best source of bargain white wine.

River's Tale is a blend of 55% Chenin Blanc, 25% Chardonnay, and 20% Colombard. Interesting. I got crisp, clean flavors and pears and mellon. I paid only $3.95 a bottle, a great value.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Other End of the Spectrum - 1976 Lafite

I recently opened a bottle of 1976 Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Here's the story.

Many years ago, in my nascent wine enthusiast days, I bought some very good Bordeauxs. Ah, those were the days! The wines you could get for five or six dollars a bottle!

Well, I decided to splurge. I had recently gotten married, and I decided to buy a case of the best available wines from that vintage. I went to the wine store and got a case each of 1976 Lafite and Latour. I paid about thirty dolars a bottle, which was hugely expensive in those days.

Frank Schoonmaker: " Chateau Lafite - In the opinion of most impartial experts, and perhaps in the mind of the general public as well, the ne plus ultra of Claret and the greatest red wine vineyard in the world. Lafite or Lafite-Rothschild was ranked first among the First Growths in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, and has maintained its place with surprising consistency over the decades. Its special fame dates from the 17th. century, when it was the property of M. de Segur, and it was purchased in 1868 by Baron James de Rothschild."

Hugh Johnson: "Lafite ---- makes about 800 barrels if its fabulously expensive wine; a perfumed, polished, gentlemanly product."

Claude Feret: "The celebrated growth of Lafite is of remote origin and very ancient renown. It occupies the finests crests in Pauillac, a region the Latin poet Ausonius spoke of as early as the year 325 B.C. The bouquet of Lafite is very suave, and of incomparable delicacy; its savor brings together, at the same time, the taste of almonds and the scent of violets."

Once in a while, on our anniversary, I open one. This year was one of those years, so I got out my last 1976 Lafite and opened it (what am I waiting for, right?).

What was the wine like? Well, its hard to live up to that kind of hype. The wine was definitely polished and smooth. I got flavors of cherries. The tannin was all gone, so it was not a blockbuster sort of thing, something more subtle. Relatively low alcoholic content, only about 12%. It was almost ethereal ; something to savor. An interesting experience, not the type of wine you run into every day, to say the least

If you happen to have any lying around, I recommend drinking them up; they will not improve with any more age.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stealing My Thunder

A book has been published about many wines being over-priced, and how we should stop buying them because good wines are available at lower prices:

Sunday, June 29, 2008

German Wines

Most people think of beer as the characteristic German beverage, but Germany also produces some very distinctive and unique wines.

The grape is the Riesling. Other grapes are grown in Germany (e.g., Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau), but I don't recommend them.

The Riesling is a very misunderstood grape and wine. It is intended to be a desert wine; that means sweet wine, and that is where many people start to have trouble. "Desert wines" are called such because they are meant to be served with - desert!! A big, tannic, red wine just won't go with desert. We need a sweet wine, to complement the sweetness of the desert, but it's not quite that simple. Many sweet wines are flat, flabby, and awful. The sweetness can be used to cover up poor quality.

In addition to the sweetness, the wine needs balance, structure,and acidity. That is what makes them hard to produce. Examples are true port, sauternes, German riesling, and Hungarian tokay. These are some of the world's truly great wines, but they are desert wines.

In Germany, the Riesling grape reaches it's full potential and produces what some regard as the world's best white wine. Sometimes. Germay is a cold country, and in many years, the weather is such that the grapes don't ripen sufficiently, so no good wine can be produced. Unsuccessful vintages are so spectacularly unsuccessful that many times the grapes are simply discarded or sold in bulk to the producers of sekt or cheap, jug wines. But, as Hugh Johnson says, "When the sun shines and the Riesling ripens and goes on ripening far into October, the great bosomy smell of flowers and honey which it generates would be too lush without the apply emphasis of acidity. Then the Saar (a region in Germany) comes into its own. It makes sweet wines which you can never tire of. The balance and depth make you sniff and sip and sniff again".

The secret is a balance of sugar with acidity. In years when it comes out right, there is nothing else like a German riesling.

Most of the good vineyads are on hillsides beside rivers (Mosel, Saar,Ruwer, Rhein), sometimes so steep that they literally use ladders to get up into the vineyard. The soil is mostly slate. The best vineyards usually face south, where they have the greatest chance of getting enough sunlight to ripen the grapes

The quality of a German wine is detemined by the amount of natural sugar in the juice. The more, the better. There are four terms that are used to indicate this level of sweetness and quality: spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese.

Spatlese means "late harvest". This occurs in years when the weather co-operates and the grapes can be left on the vine longer than usual, making them riper and higher in sugar content. Next up the quality scale is auslese. This is a wine made from selected bunches (the ripest) of late harvest grapes. Beerenauslese means "selected berry picking"; they take the ripest individual grapes and segregate them. Very labor intensive, and very expensive. Finally, there is trockenbeerenauslese. Here, the super-ripe grapes are attacked on the vine by the botrytis mold, which has the effect of taking water out of the berries and concentrating the juice. It produces a wine that can best be described as comparable to a true Sauternes.

Since the location of the vineyard plays a large role in determining the chances of the grapes to ripen, it is important in evaluating a German wine to be able to determine exactly where the grapes were grown. The best vineyards are well established in certain wine villages. Thus, label reading is important with German wines. In general, a top German wine will indicate on the label the village and vineyard where the grapes were grown. Thus, Piesporter Goldtropchen is made from grapes grown in the Goldtropchen vineyard in the village of Piesport (much like a person from New York is a New Yorker). Berkasteler Doktor is from the Doktor vineyard in Berkastel. Zeltinger Sonnennuhr. Etc.

These German wines from top vineyards will always be very expensive. Buy one sometime to see what the excitement is all about. Then, for value, look for a generic German Riesling not from a named vineyard. It won't be as spectacular, but good inexpensive ones can be found, and that is our mission.

A final comment: I am not a fan of California Rieslings. They all seem flabby to me. Surprisingly enough, Virginia does produce some interesting Riesling wine (Jefferson Vineyards, Abingdon Vineyards).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Chianti is both a wine growing region and a style of wine (as is Bordeaux). The region is huge, stretching from Florence south to Siena in Italy. The style was formally established over a century ago by the illustrious Baron Ricasoli, sometime Prime Minister of Italy, at his castle of Brolio. As long ago as 1872, he distinguished between two forms of Chianti: a simple one for drinking young, and a more pretentious one intended for cellar aging. He allowed some of the then prevalent white grape, Malvasia, into the blend of early drinking Chianti with the red grapes of the time, Sangiovese and Canaiolo.

To make a long story short, Chianti has evolved over the years (remember those straw covered bottles?) to the point where there are now three levels of quality: Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Chainti Classico Riserva.

A wine labeled as simply Chianti can come from grapes grown anywhere in the Chianti region. It will generally be a simple but pleasant wine with lots of fruit flavors meant for early consumption. But there are lots of poor Chiantis, so one must be careful.

Chianti Classico comes from a smaller region that should produce higher quality results.

And finally, Chianti Classico Riserva is a producer's most serious wine, made from low-cropped, top-quality Sangiovese vines, aged in wood, with a life expectancy of ten years or more.

The opportunity for us is in simple Chianti. There is so much of it, prices are low, and gems can be found, especially as a summer wine.

One example is Caposaldo Chianti DOCG. It is a "brand name" owned by Kobrand Corporation. The grape blend is 75% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 5% Malvasia. So the style is a combination of the old (Sangiovese and Malvasia) and the new (Cabernet and Merlot). It has a nice cherry red color and well structured, intense flavors. I got it for $6.95 a bottle, a good value.

As a side note, the name comes from the Roman Empire's most famous race horse. Competing for an astounding 24 years and winning 1500 of over 4000 races, the horse was named Caposaldo by Emperor Nero.

If you can't find this one, experiment with some other Chiantis, but be sure it says DOCG (Denominazione Di Origine Controllata Garantita) on the label, which means that it is guaranteed to come from the Chianti region.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Falcon Ridge Syrah

This wine is from California's Central Coast region. This area is quite large, extending from the vineyards just south of San Francisco all the way down to the greater Los Angeles area. Some of the delimited regions within the Central Coast are Santa Ynez, Santa Barbera, and Paso Robles. However, a wine labeled as just "Central Coast", as this one is, would probably not come from one of the smaller delimited regions within the overall Cental Coast region that are generally considered to produce better wines, but could come from anywhere in the entire Central Coast, probably from a lesser area.

Syrah is the red wine grape of the Rhone Valley in France. It is the variety of red Hermitage and one of those used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It gives a deep-colored, slow maturing wine, high in tannin.

The particular example is excellent. It has a rich, ripe feel to it with flavors of blackberries and currants. Almost chewy.

Falcon Ridge Winery is somewhat obscure, as it apparently does not have a web site, and I could find nothing on it. But the wine speaks for itself.

It is a great value at about eight dollars a botttle. I found it at Trader Joe's.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Wisdom From The Founding Fathers

"For me, fine wine is a necessity of life."
Thomas Jefferson

"We hear of the conversion of water into wine at the marriage in Cana as of a miracle. But this conversion is, through the goodness of God, made every day before our eyes. Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."
Benjamin Franklin.