Navigating the World of Bubbles…

Do you feel special when someone hands you a glass of bubbly wine in a pretty flute?  It is festive and fun…and totally confusing when you are tasked with the job of purchasing sparkling wine for a holiday party, dinner or just because.  To make your selection easier, let us look at some sparkling wine basics to enable you to buy with a measure of confidence.

First, you are asked to buy ‘Champagne’ because that term is just like every tissue is called a ‘Kleenex.’ To cull the herd of production styles of wine, we will limit this to sparkling wine crafted by the time honored ‘traditional method’ (there is also sparkling wine made by tank method – Prosecco, for example – and others by infusing with carbonation, but, these, in my opinion, while less expensive, can be less satisfying products).

While still wine is made by vintage (whatever the growing year gives you is what goes into the bottle), sparkling wine is made by formula.  Using the traditional method of production, winemaking begins with just ripe grapes that are fermented and a base wine made from that vintage.  Each sparkling house will have many iterations of base wines (varying vintages, different vineyard sites, high vs. low elevation grown fruit, different blends, etc.) and will use these to craft their house style base wine each year.  This base wine is then put into bottles (the same bottles that the sparkling wine is later sold) along with the tirage (sugar and yeast, yeast nutrients and a clarification agent) for the secondary fermentation.  The amount of sugar added at this step depends upon the degree of effervescence required and is what creates those lovely bubbles in the glass.

The bottles are sealed with crown caps (like beer bottle caps), placed on their sides to wait for fermentation to complete, and then the winemaker chooses if the wines will age on the lees and for what length of time.  If Cava is being produced, a minimum of 9 months is required but more typical is 15 to 18 months at which point the effects of autolysis becomes detectable.  (Autolysis is the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells which adds the yeasty, bread dough, brioche, hazelnut character and a creamy texture.) The length of time depends upon the style of sparkling (fresh fruit vs. lees-aged character) but autolysis can continue for 4 to 5 years and has been known to last for 10 years.  That certainly adds to the cost of that special bottle!

After ageing on the lees, the bottles, stored on their sides, are riddled (turned toward the vertical so that the lees flocculate and eventually end up in a mass in the neck of the bottle), the necks are cooled, crown caps removed and the frozen chunks of yeast are ejected.  Dosage is added (a mixture of wine and sugar) and this step will dictate the sweetness of the final wine.  A cork, wire muzzle and metal capsule are then put in place.

As you can see, a ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine is not like buying a bottle of Pepsi or Coca Cola, products that are the same each production.  The choices made during winemaking such as varietals used, tirage, dosage, lees ageing, and additions have a direct impact on the character of the wine.

If you are looking to purchase a ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine, you might find the following choices (this is not all inclusive but representative of what you might find on your wine shop shelves or local grocer):

  • Champagne – from France and the region of Champagne made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, the Champagne varietals (Note:  you might also find ‘California Champagne’ but it’s not from France and the allowed usage of the term is the result of an oversight when a treaty was signed years ago)
  • Crémant – French sparkling wine made by the traditional method from varietals typically grown in the region of production (Alsace, Burgundy, Loire, Bordeaux, Jura, Die, Limoux, Savoie).  This can include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, etc., depending on the area
  • Cava – Spanish sparkling wine made using Macabeo, Parrallada, Xarel-lo and Chardonnay varietals
  • Sparkling Wine from USA – made in many states and from various varietals
  • Franciacorta – Italy – made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varietals
  • Cap Classique – South Africa – made from Champagne varietals, Chenin Blanc, and Pinotage
  • Sparkling Wine from Tasmania – from Australia using Champagne varietals

If you decide upon the area of Champagne (or the pretty bottle), you need to check the style.  The most notable choices:

  • NV – non vintage which is sparkling made from a few vintages and represents the style of the house
  • Vintage – 100% from the vintage and can be house style or a unique blend
  • Rosé – a blend of red and white grapes
  • Blanc de Blancs – only white grapes used
  • Blanc de Noirs – white sparkling from red fruit with a fuller body

For French Champagne, you may also see:

  • Grand Cru – all grapes are within the vineyards of Grand Cru Villages
  • Premier Cru – all grapes from within Premier Cru Villages
  • Prestige Cuvee – the producer’s top wine which can be NV or Vintage

Note:  be aware that ALL houses within these Cru Villages can call their Champagne a Grand or Premier Cru even if they are not a premium producer.  It is simply a designation which is hooked to the village of production and not a guarantee of quality.

Finally, how dry, or sweet of a sparkling wine are you looking for?  It seems that a great majority of the offerings are BRUT which means they are anywhere from zero to 12 g/L.  These will taste dry to slightly off dry but not have a lot of sweetness showing, especially if the wine has spent time on the lees.  In my experience, BRUT is what is most often purchased.  If a bit more sweetness and roundness is desired, the EXTRA BRUT category is a step up providing 12 to 17 g/L.

If you decide upon a Crémant, you will definitely reduce the cost of the bottle and open yourself up to an interesting world of sparkling wine made from different varietals, although still French.  Note that Alsace, Loire, and Burgundy are the main and the most famous regions.  I am particularly a fan of Crémant d’Loire as I enjoy the Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc present in the mix of varietals. 

While impossible to sing the virtues of all the many choices, the following are wines I recently used for a sparkling educational tasting along with food pairings:

Campo Viejo Gran Reserva Cava – Spain – Manchego Cheese, Marcona Almonds, Olives and Crusty Bread/Crackers

Champalou Brut Vouvray (Loire) Crémant – France – Gruyere, Salami, French Bread

Mumm Napa Brut Reserve Sparkling – USA – Crab and Shrimp Bisque

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley Sparkling – USA – Lobster Mac ‘n Cheese

Nicolas Feuillatte Reserve Exclusive Brut Champagne – France – Triple Cream Brie with Crostini

Martini & Rossi Asti Sparkling – Italy – Biscotti with Yogurt Covered Almonds

All of these wines are made by the Traditional Method except for the Asti which is made by the Asti Method, a variation of the tank method, which was a fun and surprising way to end the tasting with a bit of sweetness. 

So, if you feel special when someone hands you a glass of bubbly wine in a pretty flute, try exploring the vast world of bubbles.  Unless you are simply looking to add orange juice (think Prosecco) to the glass, get out there and enjoy navigating the world of bubbles! 

Natural and Organic and Clean (Wine), Oh My!

By:  Claire L. Torbeck, Certified Sommelier

Just like Dorothy and her cohorts in the Wizard of Oz, there is a lot of chatter about the virtues of these wine ‘styles.’  Are these just marketing terms to capture our discretionary wine dollars or is there real substance and value?

First, let us look at a bit of history. Once upon a time, vineyards were planted, fertilized, and protected by using manure and other animal by-products. After World War II, the focus was on growing food rather than on the production of munitions. It began the age of science in winemaking which served to give people the illusion that everything could be controlled, and perfect wines could be crafted.  That is, until the realization that using a lot of chemicals for any type of food production was not a good thing, for the health of the people or for the environment.

While the ‘natural wine movement’ began in Beaujolais around the 1950s, it was in the 1970s that the Gang of Four, took up the torch of the natural wine movement where old vines are prized, synthetic herbicides and pesticides are not used, harvest is late, grapes are sorted rigorously to remove all but the healthiest grapes, with minimal additions of sulfur dioxide (or none at all) and disdaining chaptalization.  (While all this sounds fantastic, it was also when the marketing of Nouveau Beaujolais began in an attempt to invigorate wine sales.)

By 2005, consumers’ tastes were changing, and organic products entered the marketplace.  People shopped at farmers’ markets, drank craft beer, ate heirloom tomatoes at farm-to-table restaurants and were concerned with the reports of lab created yeasts, grapes doused in weed killer and huge conglomerates being in charge of the products and produce they were eating.  The natural wine movement fit in with the urban appetite for movements that evoked a slower, more earthbound past.  ‘Natural’ wine is, in fact, very trendy today. 

So, what is natural wine? Natural wine has no ’legal’ definition and the use of the term is not managed by any regulatory body (while France has formally recognized natural wine, it is approved for a three-year trial period and the term ‘natural’ cannot be used).  For natural winemaking, the grapes must be organically or biodynamically farmed which requires following a long list of rules and paying for costly certification.  If lab created chemicals are not utilized, there is an expectation that this is natural, pure and the end-product superior. This vagueness is part of what has allowed natural wine to become a cultural phenomenon. However, the product can be cloudy, fizzy and have VA (volatile acidity) along with other off aromas due to using indigenous yeast for fermentation. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my…that seems to be part of the allure of natural wine!

Organic wine is a bit trickier.  First, farming organically is regulated, there are annual fees to be organically certified, and various regulatory bodies exist around the world.  You can farm organically and not be certified which many growers and wineries choose to do because of costs. I certainly respect those growers that are farming organically as doing so is being kind to our planet which is a noble cause.

To be ‘organic’ is not just a result of vineyard practices.  Once the grapes arrive at the winery, there are a list of accepted practices that must be followed to be considered organic.  These include:

– fermentation with indigenous yeasts as natural yeasts are part of the terroir

– no water additions to dilute the sugars which result in high alcohol wines (Note: the practice is legal in California for commercial production)

– no enzymes (commercial enzymes are commonly used to improve extraction and aromatic profile of a wine while also accelerating the winemaking process

– no additives such as tannin, coloring (Mega Purple), yeast nutrients; sulfur dioxide is not used or is used in moderation

– no filtration or fining

– malolactic fermentation happens naturally rather than the typical practice of added bacteria

 to name some of the practices.  Whew! A lot to keep up with!

So, to be clear, organic wine is made from grapes which are grown according to the principles of organic farming. Having ‘certified organic’ on a wine label only speaks to the farming.  There is no organization that guarantees or oversees the actual winemaking function (and even the French ‘certification’ only speaks to the amount of Sulphur in the wine).

Finally, the marketing concept of ‘clean’ wine (vs. ‘unclean’ wine?) is the latest addition to this stable of special wine category styles.  To name a few companies touting ‘clean’ wine: Good Clean Wine which ‘pairs with a healthy lifestyle’; the Wonderful Wine Company, which offers ‘wellness without deprivation’; and Scout and Cellar, a multi-level marketing company that boasts ‘clean-crafted wine’ with hopes to ‘disrupt the wine industry and do better for the planet.’  Wineries do not have to list ingredients on their labels. As a result, these opportunists are fearmongering, seeking to make a profit by claiming other wineries are using harmful chemicals in their production.  So why don’t wineries list ingredients?  Because winemaking is not an industrial process with a standard recipe that you can replicate every vintage.  Winemaking decisions change each vintage and it would be costly to make changes to labels every year.

According to Jamie Goode PhD, wine writer and author of wine textbooks, ‘you can’t grow grapes from Vitis vinifera without spraying eight to 14 times a year. The problem is mildew and then, at the end of the growing season, rot. One of wine’s paradoxes is that the most prized, expensive grapes come from regions prone to fungal diseaseswhich can only be treated with commercial pesticides or, for organic growers, applications of copper sulfate. It is all about the concentration,’ says Goode, adding: ‘there are strict regulations concerning their use and concerning residue levels that are permitted. Wine is one of the most regulated and safe products there is.’

‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ and ‘Clean’ (wine), Oh My!  I am off to see the Wizard to see if he can shed any light on this controversial subject!

Virtual tasting via Zoom….what’s in your glass?

With SIP and not being able to wander the wine aisles, what are you buying and what are you drinking?

Personally, I love strolling the aisles in the ‘candy store’ (AKA wine shop) and touching the merchandise. It’s frustrating not being able to do so as I do a lot of reading and I always feel as if I hit the jackpot when I stumble upon a wine I have been reading about.  It’s the thrill of a treasure hunt with an unexpected silver lining. 

By using Zoom as a way of sharing a glass of wine (or a cocktail), we have been labeling our chats as a ‘virtual wine tasting.’  That puts the pressure on me to try and choose a wine to ‘share’ that will be agreeable to a broad range of palates while not losing sight of the fact that there will not be a meal to accompany the offering.  And, oh by the way, we are really using this time to ‘catch up’ with each other and actually see a human.

I could list many producers that are crafting very nice wines, and can do so over time, but today I want to introduce you to Chateau de Saint Cosme.  This is a winery in the Southern Rhone area of France that makes many different wines from various AOPs.

Imagine…an ancient estate purchased in 1570 with grape vines already on the property.  A chateau is soon constructed over the existing cellars which contained perfectly preserved Gallo-Roman fermentation vats.  The Barruol family and their ancestors have been vignerons at the property for 14 generations.

The actual property is in Gigondas with the beautiful Dentelles de Montmirail as a backdrop.  While the vines from the property surrounding the Chateau are used for their Gigondas wine, the Chateau also produces wines from Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, St. Joseph and Châteauneuf-Du- Pape, to name just a few of their offerings.

As with many producers, the Barruol family wear many producer hats.  First, as an Estate where they grow the grapes and produce the wine.  However, they also source grapes from other growers and produce wine under the Saint Cosme (vs. the Chateau de Saint Cosme) label. 

The Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2018 is an affordable and accessible offering that hits all the ‘good quality’ targets.  While it is labeled as a Cotes du Rhone wine (which generally would mean it is a GSM blend = Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), this wine is 100% Syrah.  That is very appealing to me as generally, to get a 100% Syrah wine, you need to move up into the Northern Rhone at a much higher price point.  The grapes for this bottling were sourced from the right bank of the Rhone in the Gard area as well as the left bank in Vinsobres from a higher elevation.

The core of the wine is purple with aromas of violets, black cherry, black pepper and black olives.  It is medium plus in body with well-integrated, silky tannins and a very long finish.  I found it pleasant for quaffing but know how wonderful this wine is with lamb chops with rosemary and garlic mashed potatoes.

For you ‘score hounds’, the critic community agrees.  Robert Parker 90 points, Wine Enthusiast 91 points and James Suckling 91 points.

I purchased for $15 and have seen it priced in the $14 – 20 range.

While I have spotlighted just one offering from this Chateau and at the accessible rung of the marketing ladder, they are producing quality wines in all areas.  The point I am hoping to make = find a quality producer and try various wines across that brand.  Some will be accessible as this Cotes du Rhone, some with be in a stretch category that you might purchase only for special occasions and others you may never buy because of the price point.  However, in a good vintage year, you can often find wines from these producers that over-deliver quality at a reasonable price.  It is also fun to have a story to tell about the wine and winery.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tasting…stay safe out there!



What’s your ‘Wednesday’ wine?

People are always asking me what my favorite wine or grape varietal is.   That is an impossible question to answer when the world offers so many delicious and intriguing wines from incredibly historic places.  I enjoy drinking my way around the globe and, if the wine is sound and of good quality, tastes like the varietal(s) and is a good pairing with the food, I am happy.

However, I know people are looking for wine recommendations not an esoteric comment that makes me sound smug.  So, the following is a picture of the label of the wine we drank last night.  This is one of my favorite ‘Wednesday wines’, affordably priced (around $15), I have tasted many vintages and while I liked some vintages better than others, I have never been disappointed.

2014 Bodegas Ondarre Reserva Rioja

This wine is from the Rioja region of Spain and is a red blend of 85% Tempranillo (pronounced ‘temp-rah-nee-yo’), 10% Garnacha (Grenache) and 5% Mazuelo (Carignan which is generally grown in France).  It was aged in American and French oak barrels and, as it is a Reserva, it was aged for three years (probably in tanks with one of those years in oak).  On the palate, the wine is dry and fresh with ripe red berries, plum, dusty leather and finishes with a bit of soft vanilla spice.  The wine shows a medium to medium plus tannin structure but presents soft on the palate with just enough bright acidity and a long finish (which is surprising considering the price point).

I love Rioja wines and, while I was lucky to spend a few days in the mountain town of Laguardia in the La Rioja region of Spain, my brother-in-law, Tom Vonderbrink is my real Spanish hero.  Tom spent 40+ days on his first pilgrimage walking the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St. James.  The Bodegas Ondarre is located along ‘the way’ he walked, and the winery website pictures a pilgrim with a hiking pole walking through their vineyards.  I thought this would be a good ‘shout out’ to Tom along with a wish and a prayer that we all can get back to an adventurous life in the very near future. 

Tom, in the spirit of giving, family and friendship, I have shipped a bottle of this 2014 Bodegas Ondarre Riserva to you as a wonderful memory of your accomplishment (along with a bottle of 2016 Cune Rioja, just because).  Please enjoy and drink to all of our health and to all ‘essentials’ in this crazy world.



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While ‘sheltering in’, how about cleaning out your wine cellar?

I make the analogy of going to the wine shop like a kid going to a candy store.  I want one of everything and have a habit of buying several bottles of each so I can taste and evaluate them over time.  Now, while the cellar is organized and I use an Excel spreadsheet to categorize my treasures, there are usually some bottles that are overlooked and may still be awesome or may be past their prime.

Earlier this year, in the spirit of cleaning things out, our wine tasting group hosted a ‘Decade Party’ where we tasted all wines from the 2010 vintage.  The selections were from all around the world and ultimately from our cellar(s) so we knew they had been stored properly.  Making a list of the 2010 wines on hand, I then made pairs of similar wines (by varietal, region or by food pairing options).  With a dozen attendees, we split up the list of wines and dishes were prepared to showcase the wine(s).

As with any ‘over the hill’ wine tasting, you end up learning a lot.  Just for fun, here is the list of the wines we enjoyed:

Chateau Saint Cosme Gigondas  $55  WS 95 (corked)

Perrin Les Cornuds Vinsobres  $20  WS 91

Solaria Patrizia Cencioni Brunello di Montalcino  $45  JS 95

Linio Sassetti ‘Pertimali” Brunello di Montalcino $170 JS 100 (exceptional)

Monte Del Fra Valpolicella Classico Ripasso  $24  WS 89 (corked)

McLaren Vale Grenache Australia – Chapel Hill  $28  WS 89

Prado Enea Grand Reserva Muga Rioja  $60  JS 99 (exceptional)

Dogliani Barolo – Axidena Agricola La Fusina  $49  WE 93 (exceptional)

Robert Giraud Chateau Timberlay Bordeaux Superior  $48  WS 87

Saint-Estephe Lafon-Rochet  $69  WS 89

Pine Ridge ‘Tessitura’ Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend  $46  WS 89

Steven Kent  Merlot   $ unknown  Not Rated (corked)

Of the 12 wines, 3 were corked (fault = TCA) which is 25% of the wines tasted.  While professionals vary in opinion as to the percentage of corked bottles normally encountered, it is generally in the 3 – 8% range.  If a wine is defective due to the cork, the problem took place the moment the cork was inserted into the bottle. Our sample size with the large percentage of corked bottles is simply an outlier.  TCA does not happen with time; it immediately affects the wine.  Since the TCA presented itself from slightly corked to awful, it gave the group practice in identifying the TCA flaw and how it can vary.

There were three wines that were still in the ‘hold or ready-to-drink’ category, exhibiting classic markers for the varietal and lovely on the palate.  I have noted ‘exceptional’ by these wines.  Please note that price is not necessarily a factor in determining if a wine will last for an extended period.  The ability of a wine to age is influenced by many factors which include the grape variety, vintage, viticulture practices, acidity, tannins, wine region, winemaking style, etc.  For these 3 wines, Barolo (Italy), Brunello (Italy) and Tempranillo (Rioja, Spain), they all normally exhibit medium plus to high levels of tannins and medium plus to high levels of acidity, which in my opinion, the acidity being the ‘fountain of youth’ of wine.

Of the remaining 6 wines, some presented a bit of an ‘over the hill’ character but most were drinkable, enjoyable and a nice pairing to the accompanying dish.  This is where personal preference comes into the equation and the ability to compare, contrast and evaluate teaches you by experience about the life of a wine.  There are very few wines, in my humble opinion, that are still grand at the end of the extended period some professionals tout wine will last. 

The Perrin Les Cornuds Vinsobres from the Rhone Valley of France was a $20 purchase that still rocked 10 years later.  While the 2010 vintage was an exceptional one, the terroir of Vinsobres is particularly suitable for Syrah as it preserves the finesse which is often lost in more southern, warmer climates. It develops notes of violet, smoked meat and blackberries. Grenache is also suited to this terroir, full bodied and not heavy, with notes of chocolate, cherry and typical Garrigue aromas.  A blend of Syrah and Grenache, this was a lovely wine.

The Sainte-Estephe Lafon-Rochet, a Fourth Growth Bordeaux, at $69 was a bit of a disappointment.  It was very dark and intense in color, exhibited muted fruit, but on the palate, we encountered a gritty, chalky character that felt like the phenolics in the wine precipitating out of solution.  I have other bottles of this wine and will have to re-evaluate at another time.  This wine definitely did not rock my world.

I could continue, but it’s time for you to take a good look at your cellar and pick out wines that you believe you may have held too long.   Make a list of the vintage, country, region, producer and hopefully, that list is not too terribly long.  Make a second list of the remaining wines so you know what you still have and are wines you believe can wait a while to be consumed.  For the ‘over the hill’ wines, place them into groupings.  I would suggest:




You can then approach your tasting a couple of different ways.  Gather all like wines (varietal or country/region or vintage) and begin to taste!  For our tasting, we focused on 4 elements:

Visual – Anything floating, wine cloudy? Color correct for the varietal?

Nose – Fruit present? Fresh? Dried? Dessicated/Moldy?

Wood – Oak? What kind?    Floral – What kind?

Earth – Wet? Dried? None?

Balance – Acid, Sugar, Tannin – balanced or does one overpower?

Finish – how long? For a long finish, usually 20 to 30 seconds.

I know it would be so much more fun to do this with friends; however, take notes, take a wine each night (or every so many nights) and do your evaluation.  Taking notes will help you compare and contrast and figure out which wines you think are still good and which are over the hill.  You will learn a lot about the wines, your particular tastes as you may find you really don’t like wines from certain areas or you no longer like Zinfandel, etc., and the bonus is you will have a cleaned out cellar!  Enjoy the journey…then, on to that coat closet…

If you want to tell us about your experience in cleaning out your cellar, I invite you to share your comments with us or ask questions to help you along on your journey!



Have you heard of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux?

This organization was first conceived by a group of small estate owners in Bordeaux interested in collectively forming promotional initiatives around the world. The idea grew, the Union was formed and today, in cooperation with distributors, brokers and merchants, they host 80 events a year in over a dozen countries.  The focus is to present their latest vintage to some 50,000 or so professionals and wine lovers.  The Union consists of 134 Chateau members.

On January 24, 2020 (in San Francisco) the 2017 vintage was introduced with more than 70 chateau owners and representatives pouring their wines.  There is a ‘trade only’ tasting in the afternoon and K&L Wine Merchants hosts a ‘public tasting’ in the early evening.  This event is listed on their website and sells out each year.

While the Union de Grand Crus does not encompass all Bordeaux area wineries, it is a fantastic representation of the area and the wines produced in the vintage being showcased.  The event is organized by appellation (Graves, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Margaux, Saint-Julien, etc.) so comparison tasting is very easy.  The Union produces a comprehensive Bordeaux guide which has commentary about the appellation as well as information on the Chateau represented.  In addition, there is a smaller booklet listing the wineries by appellation for note taking.  If you love Bordeaux or want to learn more about the area, this is the event to attend.

For the 2017 vintage, the Bordeaux area experienced late spring frosts that did much damage to the vineyards as it occurred during bud break and the early growing season.  Some producers lost all crop, some half and some suffered no losses.  Such is life in the world of agriculture but it can be devastating.  2017 was a dry vintage in Bordeaux and, thankfully, 80% of the top 150 Chateau experienced a good harvest.  A number of these Chateau are in Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estephe as they border the Gironde Estuary and enjoy its warming influence.  Saint-Emilion and its satellites did not fare as well. 

The following are a few wines that I enjoyed tasting and also talking with the Chateau owners/representatives. This is a very short list and is just meant to be a teaser for the vintage:

2017 Chateau Beychevelle, Saint-Julien

2017 Chateau Giscours, Margaux

2017 Chateau Cantenac Brown, Margaux

2017 Chateau Maucaillou, Moulis

2017 Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac

2017 Chateau d/Armailhac, Pauillac

2017 Chateau Phelan Segur, Saint-Estephe

2017 Chateau Citran, Haut Medoc

2017 Chateau Talbot, Saint-Julien



How many points is that wine? What about Wine Critic’s Scores and Evaluations?

It is very helpful to rely upon the ‘paid for’ and ‘free’ critic’s advice and written evaluations when purchasing wine.  Shelf talkers tout the expert’s scores to influence what bottle(s) of wine you will ultimately purchase.  Should you believe them?

For the well-known wine raters, I have been watching their scoring and reading their reviews long enough that I have formed an opinion as to ‘how’ they score wine.  I know who always rates higher than the others or which reviewer(s) likes fruit forward, highly extracted and high alcohol wines.  Why does that matter?  Because while I can tell you the flavor profile of a varietal from various places around the world and I can look to see what the vintage and nature gave us that year, it’s helpful to read the opinion of someone that has tasted that bottle.  I can then decide if it will be what I am searching for.

Sometimes these reviews will contain an unknown nugget of information. For example, ‘while this is a Cotes du Rhone wine, it is crafted from 100% Syrah grapes.’  That’s important information as most Cotes du Rhone are made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre (referred to as a GSM) and maybe Cinsault.  Chateau de Sainte-Cosme winery is in Gigondas, which by law, to label the wine ‘Gigondas’ it must be a GSM blend with possibly some Cinsault.  So, if I had merely relied upon the Cotes du Rhone designation expecting a GSM gem, it would not meet my expectations.  Clear as mud, huh?

If the expert’s review gives a range, like 89-91 points, I am confident the wine was tasted from the barrel and prior to bottling.  Why does that matter?  Since the wine is still in the barrel, it is possible the final wine could taste somewhat different due to blending and/or filtering or completion of malolactic fermentation for example. The evaluation before bottling might not match the final product.  In that instance, it’s good to see if other critics rated the wine after bottling to get a more up-to-date snapshot.

A store like K&L Wine Merchants lists their offerings on their website which has a picture of the bottle, a list of the wine critic’s scores and commentary, general information about the grape, the country, and a description of the subregion/appellation.  In addition, if the staff was able to taste the wine, a review written by the staff member will also appear as well as the date tasted.  I find that all so very helpful and lean a bit toward purchasing when all the critic’s scores seem to align.  I take that nudge based upon my experience with judging at wine competitions.  On any panel you can have a wide range of medals considered as we evaluate each wine independently and then come together to discuss and to agree on a final award.  However, for the wines that are exceptional, the entire panel always seems to be in agreement before ever coming together for discussion.

Does the lack of a rating mean the wine is not good?  For a publication such as Wine Spectator, they indicate they review approximately 16,000 wines on an annual basis and those wines are important wines, readily available and distributed in major markets.  So, lack of a score does not mean a wine is not good.  Similarly, the lack of a medal from a wine competition also does not suggest it’s not good as wineries choose how they spend their marketing dollars and competitions do cost money to enter.

How about reviews on Apps such as Vinvino?  The creators of this site tout that their community of millions of wine lovers really know their stuff and are passionate about sharing that knowledge.  However, we do not know what their experience level is or their qualifications for judging wine.  As a worst-case scenario, the rater could really dislike French wines and be an All-American wine fruit bomb wine drinker.  And, remember, Vinvino sells wine based on these ratings.

Critic’s scores and evaluations can be very useful tools when you cannot taste a European wine or travel to Paso Robles or Lodi to visit a winery to taste before you buy.  Equally useful are Vintage Charts published annually which will give you a quick look to determine if the vintage was a blow out success or had some serious viticultural challenges.  Again, just an additional piece of information as good wine can be made in not so good vintages.

Finally, remember that the scores were assigned and evaluations penned at a frozen point in time.  The challenge is that you are not purchasing Pepsi Cola or Coors beer, for example, that is ‘finished’ when bottled or canned.  Wine is a living, breathing beverage that develops and changes over time.  That plum, for example, that tasted so fresh to Robert Parker shortly after bottling is impacted first by the aerobic conditions in the barrel and then by the reductive time in the bottle.  The various components of tannin, both from the cluster and skin as well as the barrel, phenolics, and fruit all integrate over time and hopefully for the better.  However, most wine is meant to be drunk young and fruit generally begins to lose its luster after about 6 months.  So, when reading that evaluation from November of 2017, expect that the wine you will meet in the glass may be very different.

A wine’s score(s) and evaluation(s) are great tools to help you find new treasures to enjoy but are not absolute.  Wine is more often drunk beyond its time than too early. 




2016 Domaine Grand Veneur “Champauvins” Cotes du Rhone-Villages

I had the pleasure of tasting this bottling from Alain Jaume at an event the other night, coming back around the room and sampling it twice just to make sure. 

Hailing from the Southern Rhone, this wine is a Cotes du Rhone Villages, a step up from the generic Cotes du Rhone wines. These bottlings of ‘Villages’ are frequently found here in the US as they can represent some of the best values in the market and are priced less than a Gigondas or a Chateauneuf du Pape wine.  However, as with all wines, producers do matter and Alain Jaume delivers quality.

Visually, the wine was dark ruby in color with a solid core.  On the nose, a good dose of black cherry, blackberry, lavender, and tobacco leaf with a bit of peppery spice presented. On the palate, the wine was full bodied and concentrated with good red and black fruits and that Southern Rhone garrique element…lavender, spice and sun kissed rocks.  There are tannins present with medium acidity which helps to bring all the elements together.  The finish lingers.  A very tasty wine!

This is a GSM blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre.  I found it locally at these sellers:

K&L Wine Merchants      $ 19.99

The Wine Steward       $ 25.99  (discount given on case sales)

Total Wine     $ 23.99  (discount given on purchase of 6 wines)

If you are looking for a rock-solid wine for the Holidays, this will deliver a lot of flavor and body at a modest price. 

Established in the northern part of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in the commune of Orange, the Jaume family has been dedicated to the art of wine growing since 1826. Founded by Mathieu Jaume, the Domaine is now run by the 5th and 6th generations of Jaumes: Alain Jaume & his children Christophe, Sébastien, and Hélène.



Does ‘vintage’ matter?

I thoroughly enjoyed this 2009 Tronquoy-Lalande last evening.  The wine was inky in color thanks to the addition of Petit Verdot in this St. Estephe Bordeaux blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tight at first, the nose opened up to black cherries, dark berries, tobacco with a hint of French roasted coffee and minerality.  The oak structure was present but soft and the oak was well integrated in the wine.  On the palate, it still had primary fruit flavors with good structure and soft tannins. The finish was long and all the elements described were evident in the finale.  A really good bottle of Left Bank Bordeaux!

The media touted 2009 as a great vintage just to turn around in 2010 and claim it as the better of the two.  The 2009 vintage had almost perfect weather and growing conditions producing wines that are a bit softer in tannin and more approachable in their youth.  The 2009 Tronquoy-Lalande from St. Estephe (at 10 years of age) was a good representation of the deliciousness of this vintage.  As for the 2010 vintage, the conditions were somewhat variable and although it is considered a classic vintage as well, the 2010 wines are more tannic and will take more time to soften and integrate.  I suspect some may lose their fruit before the transformation occurs.

So, does vintage matter?  Yes!  Maybe not if you are purchasing ‘Wednesday wines’ to enjoy with your pizza tonight, but certainly if you are investing your money in wines to hold for a while.  I consider ‘Wednesday wines’ to be good quality wine, ready to drink now and not intended to age.  For the cellar, I purchase classic examples of wines of good quality, not ready to drink now but to hold as these should improve with age…hopefully.

To borrow (and tweak) a line from Forrest Gump, ‘Wine is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to get.”  It’s the journey that really counts and you can be sure you will always learn something and enjoy yourself along the way!



What are you serving with your Thanksgiving fare?

For a great start with appetizers, soup and salad, I’ll serve the La Petite Marquise Crémant de Loire Brut ($12.99 from K&L Wine Merchants).  It’s a sparkling wine made like champagne, but it sits light and fresh on the palate without the yeasty taste or a big price.  It is crafted from a blend of Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc.

Going a bit out of the box, I picked up two Darcy Kent wines from Livermore after attending a Darcy Kent Vineyards pairing dinner at the Thunderbird Lodge in Lake Tahoe: a 2017 Gruner Veltliner from Rava Blackjack Vineyard in Monterey and a 2018 Victories Rose Malbec from the San Francisco Bay.  The Gruner is dry but flavorful with white peach, pepper and a bit of lime. The Malbec rose is lush as it was crafted with a slight bit of residual sugar which makes the wine creamy on the palate.  Both these wines will sparkle with the herbal flavors of the meal and the roasted butternut squash as a side.  Note: these selections are both low in alcohol as well.

For red wines, I am offering the Pardon & Fils Les Mouilles Julienas 2017 at $17.99 and the Domaine Pardon Cuvee Hugo Fleurie 2017 at $19.99, both from Total Wine.  Yes, this is Gamay from Beaujolais.  I love Gamay.  Not the market driven swill released in November which was nothing but a ploy to get rid of a lot of wine they could not otherwise sell.  The southern half of Beaujolais makes that inferior wine.  The northern half of Beaujolais has different soil, has slopes and the area has 10 ‘Cru’s’ which, in a fantastic year, can be hard to tell apart from a true Burgundy wine.  The two wines I have chosen are from Cru vineyards: Fleurie and Julienas. 

I will open the wines and explain what we have to our guests. I will encourage them to take small tastes of each wine before dinner. Then, all the bottles will go on the dinner table for them to revisit with the meal. It becomes an empowering game for our guests to be able to evaluate the wines and usually makes for some lively conversation because, of course, no one ever has an opinion!

For dessert, I will be serving a 2004 Château Tirecul la Gravière “Cuvée Chateau” Monbazillac. It’s 500 ml and it’s priced at $19.99 from K&L. It has some age on it and will be lucious with some Marscapone on top of that pumpkin pie.

Happy Thanksgiving!