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A Toast to Marilyn Image

Marilyn Monroe has a legacy of talent, pathos and passion (along with interesting taste in men). Her enduring popularity extends to a wine made in her honor: Marilyn Merlot.

“Every vintage sells out in just a few months,” said Robert Holder of Nova Wines, which makes Marilyn Merlot. “A new ‘celebrity’ wine seems to pop up every day, but there is only one Marilyn, and we’ve enjoyed years of growing demand.”

Robert and his wife Donna came up with the idea for the destined-to-be-cult wine one night in St. Helena over a bottle of homemade Merlot. One of their friends enjoying the wine suggested they call it Marilyn Merlot.

They did, initially passing around bottles casually as Christmas gifts or for use in local charity auctions.

Demand transforms hobby into thriving Nova Wines

That was in the early 1980s. Soon, the Holders realized the wine had legs and officially made Marilyn Merlot a business. They called the new venture Nova Wines and worked out an exclusive agreement with Monroe’s estate for the use of her name and a number of famous photographs.

The Holders, along with winemaker John McKay, a veteran of Hanzell, Charles Krug, Monticello and Napa Wine Co., source grapes for Marilyn Merlot from throughout the Napa Valley, including vineyards in Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford.

The wine is released every year on June 1, Monroe’s birthday. The current vintage, 2008, is, a blend of 84 percent merlot and 16 percent cabernet sauvignon from vineyards in Oakville and Yountville. It is distributed nationwide and costs $29.

For the first time ever, there will also be a Sauvignon Blonde, 2009 vintage, a 100 percent sauvignon blanc from the Yount Mill Vineyard, also available nationally for $16.

Marilyn fans are ardent supporters of the wine

While critics have given their blessings to the wines, vouching for their quality, the real frenzy comes from Monroe fans, who clamor each year to add a new label to their lineup.

The shopping area of Nova’s website,, provides a glimpse into how much past vintages can go for these days. One bottle of 1985 Marilyn Merlot, for example, is listed at $3,800. Collectors are very, very particular about the condition of the label and foil atop the cork, which has featured a pair of ruby red lips since the 1991 vintage.

Nova also makes “Norma Jeane,” a merlot released each year in November, Beaujolais-style; the 2009 is out now for a modest $10.50. A Marilyn Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) was also made from 1993 through 2002. The Holders chose instead to focus on making “Blonde de Noirs” sparkling wine. The 2001 vintage is a blend of mostly pinot noir (76 percent) with chardonnay (24 percent), sourced from Russian River Valley and Mendocino vineyards.

These bottlings feature label art derived from a single photo of Marilyn Monroe: From 1993 through 1997, the photo is a headshot; from 1998 on, it has been a classic full-body pose of the star.

And then there’s the Marilyn Velvet Collection, a magnum (1.5 liters, the equivalent of two standard bottles) Bordeaux blend draped in a red velvet box with Monroe’s racy 1953 Playboy centerfold shot. The picture — which depicts her reclining nude on red velvet — is known officially as “Pose 8,” and it’s the first time the photo has been available on a product. One bottle will set you back $200.

“We’ve seen Marilyn Merlot and its sisters appreciate in value more dramatically than other wines,” said Holder. “Twelve-bottle sets of the 1985 through 1996 vintages sell for as much as $7,500, appreciating well beyond the levels of many first-growth Bordeaux.”

Funny that Marilyn herself was once famous for saying, “I am not interested in money. I just want to be wonderful.”

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.

Photo: The Marilyn label from blonde de noirs.

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A Balanced Merlot Blend Image

An attractively priced, screw-topped proprietary red from one of New Zealand’s top producers, the 2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu hits all the right notes. Bright and balanced, with mouthfilling black fruit flavors, yet lively acidity, it’s an extremely versatile food wine. As you might expect from a merlot-dominant bordeaux-style blend, ripe plumpness comes wrapped in soft, textured tannins that check the fattiness of meat dishes, but its tartness complements those with a tomato base too. Additional spicy nuances — cedar and smoke — emerged when I sipped the final glass with a plate of hard cheeses: gruyere, Canadian cheddar, Wensleydale.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week

2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu

Price: $22
 Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
 80 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent malbec
Alcohol: 14 percent
Serve with: grilled steak, pork loin, tomato-based pastas, hard cheeses

Too often, producers of high-end, pricey wines adopt a heavy hand with their modest wines. The results can be crude, overweight cousins to their better bottles. Craggy Range specializes in expensive single vineyard vino, but this wine shows they know how to make a solid-value example too. The beauty of the Te Kahu is that it’s not overdone — just done right.

To most wine lovers, New Zealand is best known for its fresh, zingy sauvignon blancs. But the country also produces a range of stylish reds. Craggy Range, founded in 1997, sources grapes from a variety of key regions, including the Gimblett Gravels area in Hawkes Bay. This grape-growing valley, with its distinctive soil types and warm, sunny conditions tempered by cloudy mists, is known for plantings of bordeaux varieties and syrah. Craggy Range has 100 hectares (247 acres) in the region, much of it merlot.

Te Kahu means ‘the cloak’ in Te Reo Maori, a reference to the mist used to protect a mythical Maori maiden from the sun as she visited her lover. It’s hard to know what the actual mists in the valley do for the grapes. The winery thinks this wine could age for 10 years, but I’d enjoy it in its lusty prime.

Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

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A Tuscan Vertical Image

I’ll leap at any excuse for a trip to Tuscany. This time it was an invitation to a vertical tasting. As you may have realised from previous articles, I do enjoy vertical tastings because there’s something so satisfying about tasting the history of a wine and seeing its development over the years. This time the theme was Salamartano, a wine that has been made at Fattoria Montellori, the family estate of Alessandro Nieri, for the last 20 years. The very first vintage was 1992. chianti

Montellori does not really fit into the mainstream of Tuscan viticulture. It stands outside the somewhat unprepossessing town of Fucecchio in the Arno valley — an elegant 18th-century villa with formal gardens that are the passion of Eva, Alessandro’s wife. The picturesque hill town of San Miniato dominates the skyline in one direction, and in the other is the Monte Albano, which gives its name to a sub-zone of Chianti. The vineyards in the hills outside Fucecchio do not fit into any of the Chianti subzones — there was talk of the creation of Cerreto Guidi but that never came to anything — and so, in true Tuscan tradition, Nieri’s flagship wine has nothing at all to do with Chianti, or indeed Sangiovese.

The blend for Salamartano, which means Champs de Mars, or Field of Mars, is essentially Bordelais, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and later some Cabernet Franc was added. Essentially the differences stems from vintage variations. There has also been some replanting of vineyards with an improvement in viticultural  techniques, and the oenologist, an all-important figure in Tuscan viticulture, has changed. From 1992 to 2000, it was Niccolò d’Afflitto, and then Andrea Paoletti and Danny Schuster from New Zealand worked together until 2006. Luca D’Attoma had a say in 2007, and in 2008 Alessandro felt confident enough not to need an oenologist.

2010: A blend of 65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 27 percent Cabernet Franc and 8 percent Merlot. The wine is aged in barriques for 14 months and blended after the malo-lactic fermentation. Sixty percent of the barrels are new. This was a barrel sample that will be bottled in 2012. Deep young color. Quite a firm, oaky nose; quite tight with some dry cassis. And on the palate, quite oaky with firm acidity as well as tannins, and a touch of cherry spice. Still very youthful and adolescent, but with potential. 2010 was quite tricky year in Tuscany, with wetter than average weather.

2009: Deep young color. Riper sweeter nose, with some cassis fruit, and one the palate more rounded fleshier fruit. Medium weight with a youthful tannic streak. It was bottled in April 2011. 2009 was a hot year, with an early spring.

2008: This vintage was described as a classic, normal year. Young color. Quite an elegant cedary nose. And one the palate some cedary fruit was just beginning to develop. Medium weight. Quite a long elegant finish, but maybe just a hint hollow in the middle.

2007: The blend changed for this vintage, with the introduction of the first Cabernet Franc, 25 percent, with 70 percent Cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent Merlot. Deep young color. Quite a firm, youthful sturdy nose, developing some cedary notes. Quite a refreshing palate, with some cassis fruit. Medium weight. Good balance of tannins and cedary fruit. Alessandro considers that the Cabernet Franc adds some freshness to the blend, which certainly seemed the case with this vintage.

No Salamartano was made in 2006, nor for that matter in 2002 or 2000.

2004: A blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 40 percent Merlot. Deep color. Quite rich concentrated cassis nose. Again quite ripe cassis and cedary notes on the palate. Some solid tannins and a substantial mouthful of wine. Still very youthful.

2001: A normal year. This is half-and-half Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The color is beginning to develop a little. A rounded nose, with some cedary notes, but quite restrained on the palate. Initially quite a fleshy palate with quite firm tannins, that develops in the glass. Nicely balanced with a long cedary finish, and a touch of cassis. One of my favorites in the lineup.

1998: Another cooler year, with more rain than usual. The color was beginning to develop a brick rim. Some elegant cedary notes on the nose, and also on the palate, with a hint of sweet cassis. Medium weight. Nicely harmonious with a  streak of tannin and a long finish.

1997: In contrast, a hot year. And it shows. The nose is quite solid and dense, still with a touch of oak. The palate is ripe, with firm tannins and some cassis fruit. It is all quite sturdy and dense, and a touch raisiny on the finish, and fuller bodied than the 1998.

1996: Back to a cooler vintage. Some color development. A light cedary nose. And quite an elegant palate, again with notes of cedar wood, some quite firm tannins and a certain concentration of flavour. Quite an elegant finish.

1994: Described as a classic year. Hints of brick on the rim. A discreet cedarwood nose. Quite an elegantly smoky cedary palate. A lovely balance of fruit and tannins. Elegantly harmonious with a satisfying depth of flavor. Another favorite in the lineup.

1992: We tasted the very last remaining bottle. A cold year, with more rain than usual. Quite a deep color so that it looked younger than the ’94. Maturing cedary fruit on the nose. Quite discreet and elegant. And on the palate rounded mature fruit, and elegant tannins balancing a sweet cedary hint of fruit. Nicely complete and satisfying. And a grand finale to a historic tasting.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

Photo: San Miniato, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George

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Bargains in Bordeaux? Image

On a warm summer day, I am lost on the winding roads of Canon-Fronsac, an appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. When I finally turn up more than an hour late at Château Moulin-Pey-Labrie, owner Grégoire Hubau makes a few witty digs about wine critics rarely finding their way to this little-known region. We head for his cellar (hung with amusing portraits painted by an artist friend), where I taste my way through a lineup of a half dozen surprisingly delicious, savory, plush vintages from his two chateaux. Their prices? A mere $20 to $30.

His 2006 Chateau Haut Lariveau is everything merlot should be — darkly fruity, soft and round — while the 1988, 2003 and 2008 Moulin-Pey-Labrie (merlot with a dash of malbec) are bigger, richer, more concentrated. I’d happily drink all with dinner.

As we wander out to a grassy area dotted with sculptures overlooking his hillside vineyard, Hubau says, “Here in Bordeaux, you have big-business wine and pleasure wine. I want to make pleasure wine.”

That’s the story of the Other Bordeaux, a world of family-owned properties I explored for two weeks, frequently losing my way when my rental car’s GPS system failed.

Affordable choices under the radar

People moan about the prices of the region’s 40-plus investment-grade labels from famous appellations. The futures price for Château Lafite-Rothschild is now $1,650 a bottle, and it’s still in the barrel. But most ignore wines from under-the-radar spots like Canon-Fronsac, whose small châteaux produce delicious reds with elegance, balance and classic character that cost a tiny fraction of that.

Sadly, too often convinced that Bordeaux means greedy château owners making wines for billionaires, wine lovers now often bypass the region altogether, chasing value in Argentina’s Malbec. The CIVB, the Bordeaux trade organization, admits the region is losing market share in the U.S.

But my recent tour reminded me why people shouldn’t give up on the world’s largest fine wine region. Bordeaux is still the benchmark for stylish, complex cabernet and merlot, with 8,500 growers in more than 60 appellations making more than 600 million bottles. In the past decade, the best producers, aiming for quality, have embraced winemaking improvements, and warmer weather (thanks to climate change) and better vineyard practices help grapes ripen more fully. Many, like Moulin-Pey-Labrie, now farm their vineyards organically.

Wines grounded in history

Fronsac and tinier Canon-Fronsac have a long and illustrious history making ageworthy reds; Hubau tells me one of the first fans was Louis XIV. Its soil, a bedrock of limestone and chalk, are similar to more celebrated Saint-Emilion, and excellent for merlot and cabernet franc, the main grape varieties. Names to look for include Château de la Rivière, Château La Vieille Cure, Château La Fleur Cailleau.

In Lussac Saint-Emilion, one of the so-called “satellites” of Saint-Emilion, André Chatenoud of Château de Bellevue insists: “Organic is the future for Bordeaux’s small producers.” After we explore part of his acres of underground limestone caves, where World War II American GI’s carved their names, we taste his fresh, fruity white made from sauvignon gris — the 2010 tastes of minerals, citrus and pear. His 2007 Les Griottes red is a light, easy-drinking quaffer ($20) while the 2008 Château de Bellevue is elegant and structured, the not-yet-bottled 2009 super plummy and rich.

To the north, in the hilly Côtes de Bourg, dotted with medieval fort ruins and grand views over the Gironde River, I find wonderfully fruity reds at châteaux practicing biodynamic viticulture. After his family bought Chateau La Grôlet in 1997, Jean-Luc Hubert tells me as we watch dwarf goats eat vineyard weeds, “a catastrophic storm inspired me to begin.” He adds, “Now, we no longer have bad vintages.” We’re tasting barrel samples of a certain great vintage, 2009, so it’s hard to disagree; both the Classique and the more serious Tête de Cuvée are concentrated and rich, with layers of cassis and raspberry fruit.

It’s almost dark when I arrive at pretty Château Fougas, one of the appellation’s oldest properties. “Half the Côtes de Bourg is for sale, because the prices for wines are so low,” owner Jean Yves Bechet tells me over dinner. Certified organic, they turned to biodynamics in 2010.

Both their 2006 and 2008 Maldoror ($25), with aromas of violets and notes of roasted coffee and chocolate, seem bargains to me, but the 2009 ($17 as futures) is even better.

Perhaps the most fashionable Saint-Emilion satellite is Côtes de Castillon, where I catch up at Clos Puy Arnaud with owner Thierry Valette, who’s wearing Bordeaux-colored Nikes. A former saxophone player, singer and dancer, he reminds me that this appellation is part of the same limestone plateau as its famous neighbor. Politics separated the two. Valette, too, has turned to biodynamics to lift the quality of his fruity, plummy, savory merlot-cabernet franc blend.

These are just a few of my trip’s highlights. If you’ve given up Bordeaux, just try one.

Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”

Photo: A vineyard in Bourdeaux. Credit: Anyka / istockphoto

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Greece’s Treasure Trove of Indigenous Grapes Image

Gone are the days when Greek wine was synonymous with the pine resin-flavoured retsina. Today, Greece is in the process of developing its true potential. In the course of a whirlwind week in Greece with 19 other Masters of wine, we found an enormous amount to explore and discover.

Greece has over 500 indigenous grape varieties, so a day did not go past without meeting a new one. International varieties such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah have a much greater hold in the north of the country, whereas on the islands they only represent 5% of the production.

While most of the indigenous grapes will never gain international recognition, there are a few that are worth remembering, such as Moschofilero, with its lightly muscaty flavours, and Robola from Cephalonia, with delicate sappy flavours.

The terroir of Greece is largely determined by mountains and the sea, which define its dramatic landscape. The mountains, in particular, have a significant impact on rainfall, which can vary from 250 mm to 1,100 mm. The diversity of flavours is just as extraordinary, ranging from rich, full-bodied reds to sweet reds to dry, delicate whites.

We tasted some 390 wines from 92 estates, and  Alpha Estate really stood out for its excellence and innovative work. In some ways, Alpha is very typical of something that is happening all over Greece, one man with a broader vision developing his own estate.

Angelos Iatrides bought his first vineyards in 1995.  He had studied in Bordeaux and worked in Madiran, and then back in Greece he helped create Ampelooiniki, a highly successful research station and consultancy business.

Angelos Iatrides of Alpha Estate. Credit: Rosemary George

Angelos Iatrides of Alpha Estate.
Credit: Rosemary George

But Angelos really wanted to do his own thing, and with two other partners, chose a region that he felt was ripe for regeneration. This was the appellation of Amyndeon, not too far from the city of Thessaloniki. The Vitsi and Voros mountains are close by, and Bulgaria is in the near distance.  Amyndeon, which has had vineyards since 300 B.C., is quite a small appellation, with seven producers, of whom Boutari and the cooperative are the biggest. Altogether, Angelos has 65 hectares of vineyards, including four hectares of old bush vines, which were planted in 1921. The vineyards lie on a plateau, between 570 and 700 meters (1,870 to 2,296  feet) to in altitude and the soil is sandy with limestone bedrock.  The summers are so dry that irrigation is essential in August.

Angelos presented his wines with fluency and perception. As the tasting demonstrated, his methods encapsulate the best of modern Greek wine making, representing a break with the traditional and, it has to be said, the pretty primitive methods of the past. Work in the vineyard is paramount to quality and in the cellar oak aging is vital to the quality of the wines and meticulous attention is paid to detail.

Tasting notes

2009 Axia Red is 50% Syrah and 50% Xinomavro, so a blend of Greece and the international world, with 12 months aging in oak. The bordelais influence is inevitably  strong in Angelos’ winemaking. Quite a smoky peppery nose, with rounded ripe fruit, balanced by both tannin and acidity. The Syrah was planted in 1995, an experimental vineyard in conjunction with the university of Suze la Rousse in the Rhone Valley. Angelos considers that it goes well with Xinomavro, and I couldn’t disagree.

2008 Xinomavro, PDO Amyndeon,  from a single vineyard called Hedgehog

Medium colour.  Hints of aniseed on the nose. Quite firm dry fruit with a touch of sweetness on the finish, demonstrating the suggestion that Xinomavro is a cross of flavours between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir. Medium weight. 2008 was a riper vintage than 2009.

2009 Xinomavro, PDO Amynteon single vineyard Hedgehog

Quite a deep young colour. A smoky, chocolaty nose, and again with a hint of aniseed.   Some dry fruit, with the elegance of a fine Nebbiolo. Quite smoky with intriguing nuances and textured layers. A lovely glass of wine.

2006 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines

From the vineyard planted in 1921. Deep colour, showing very little age. Quite ripe chocolate notes on the nose and a supple rounded, ripe palate, with a balancing tannic streak. Good depth of flavour and finely crafted. Angelos explained that there is no risk of phylloxera as the soil is predominantly sandy.   He uses horizontal fermenters  which avoid extracting phenolics from the grape pips, and he observed that canopy management is important for ripening the grapes, saying, “You can’t just assume that with a warm climate, the grapes will ripen automatically.”

2007 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines

“Reserve” for Angelos usually implies two years aging in wood, but this was only given 12 months.  It depends on the vintage. And he uses steamed rather than toasted barrels. The colour was beginning to evolve. Rounded nose with a hint of aniseed. An elegant palate with supple tannins and  ripe perfumed fruit. A  lovely balance and a long finish.

2008 Xinomavro Reserve Old Vines

Medium colour, but not showing any age. Quite a firm dry palate, with some fruit. Still very youthful, with a certain freshness and some acidity on the finish, as well as tannin.

2006 Alpha Estate Red Blend

60% Syrah, 20% Merlot and 20% Xinomavro. Deep young colour, not showing any signs of age.  Quite a dense ripe chocolaty nose, and on the palate, ripe and rounded, with some dense fruit, youthful tannin and an edge of acidity.  Syrah provides the structure; Xinomavro the power and the aromatic complexity, and Merlot rounds out the palate.  Angelos has Syrah, “because I like it” and Merlot is the link between Syrah and Xinomavro.

2007 Alpha Estate Red Blend

Deep colour. Quite a rounded smoky nose, and on the palate rounded, dense and ripe with some firm tannins.  Youthful with plenty of potential. Yields are pretty low, with 28-35 hl/ha for red grapes and 42-45 hl/ha for whites.

2008 Alpha Estate Red Blend

The same blend Syrah, Merlot and Xinomavro. Deep colour. A certain earthy smokiness; a slightly sweet palate, with an earthy note and some cassis and a tannic streak.  Not as harmonious as the two previous vintages, but probably needs some bottle age.  One third was aged in new barrels.

2009 Utopia  95% Tannat, 5% Xinomavro. PGI Florina

It was a surprise to find Tannat in northern Greece, but there is a very simple explanation. After studying in Bordeaux, Angelos spent a vintage with Alain Brumont, at Château Montus, the leading Madiran estate, where Tannat is at its most typical. Deep young colour. The nose and palate were firm and structured, with some black fruit.  Very characteristic of the grape variety.

2006 Alpha One, PGI Florina

A pure Tannat. Angelos was evidently very impressed by his stay in Madiran.  Very deep young colour.  Smokey chocolaty nose. Quite youthful, dense and intense. Firm black fruit on the palate, with a tannic edge. Youthful with plenty of potential to develop.

And we finished our tasting with a couple of white wines:

2012 Sauvignon blanc

Angelos wrote his thesis on the aromatic profile of Sauvignon and has worked with Denis Dubordieu, one of the leading proponents  of the grape variety in Bordeaux. This wine had some lovely varietal character, with pithy notes on the nose, and mineral fruit with some texture and weight on the palate.

2012 Axia, PGI Florina Malagouzia

Light colour; quite delicate nose, with rounded fruit, acidity and balance.  Elegant with some texture, and some intriguing nuances. It was a lovely glass of wine to finish a tasting that really illustrated the enormous potential of Greece for both indigenous and international grape varieties and showed just what can be achieved with a combination of energy and talent.

Top photo: A small fortress on an islet in the city of Nafplio. Credit: Rosemary George

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Elin’s Wine Pick: 2009 Chateau Fourcas-Borie Image

The 2009 vintage in Bordeaux was hyped as yet another “vintage of the century,” and the top chateaux released prices that were astronomical. Luckily, there are also some serious bargains to be had, like this dark, soft, plush 2009 Chateau Fourcas-Borie, a wine with a personality as silky and seductive as its sexy black lace on red label.

I sampled it recently in Bordeaux at a dinner with the chateau’s owner, Bruno Borie, who’s better known as the proprietor of the great second-growth Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou in Saint-Julien.

Elin McCoy’s Wine of the Week

2009 Chateau Fourcas-Borie

Price: $24

Region: Listrac-Médoc, Bordeaux

Grapes: Merlot, Petit Verdot

Alcohol: 14%

Serve with: Roast chicken, veal stew

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More of Elin's wine picks:

» Attractive, fruit-scented 2010 Château Saintongey Vieilles Vignes

» Bargains to consider in Bordeaux

» A dry white wine to sip with friends

The Borie family bought Chateau Fourcas Dumont, in the Listrac-Médoc appellation of Bordeaux, at the end of 2008, and renamed the property Chateau Fourcas-Borie. Their first vintage was this 2009, which we sipped alongside a dish of white asparagus wrapped with salty bacon and topped with thin slices of parmesan cheese. This red was a surprisingly good match. The key to pairing wine with asparagus, says Borie, who also happens to be an excellent chef, is adding other, more wine-friendly ingredients, such as the bacon, to the preparation.

Listrac is one of the six appellations in Bordeaux’s Haut-Médoc region, and one of its least prestigious. The Borie family has a history there — Borie’s mother was born at  another estate, Chateau Ducluzeau, which has been in her family for generations.

The wines of Listrac, all red, have the reputation for being lean and dry. This area south and west of more famous Saint-Julien is fairly far from the temperature-moderating influence of the Gironde River and Borie says Listrac’s cooler climate makes it tough for Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen easily. Part of what makes this 2009 Fourcas-Borie red so appealing to drink is its high proportion of Merlot.

Merlot works well

for Chateau Fourcas-Borie

The estate’s 30-hectare (74-acre) vineyards are divided between clay and limestone soil, where Merlot does well, and gravelly soil, where Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are planted. The wine spends 12 months in barrels, less than one-third of them new and Borie makes it in a deliberately juicy, round, approachable style, aiming for a mix of sturdiness and elegance.

No, this 2009 Chateau Fourcas-Borie doesn’t have the grandeur of Borie’s 2009 Ducru-Beaucaillou, which sells for 12 times more. But it does have lovely richness and real Bordeaux character at a more than reasonable price.

Top photo: Chateau Fourcas-Borie owner Bruno Borie. Credit: Elin McCoy

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A Montepulciano Vertical Image

I love vertical tastings — they can really give you a sense of the development and progress of an estate — so I was thrilled to accept an invitation from the Marchesi de Ferrari Corradi, the owners of Boscarelli, to taste 20 years of their Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. We went from old to young to illustrate how their methods have evolved over two and a bit decades. This is a 14-hectare (35-acre) estate in the heart of Montepulciano, with a selection of new and old clones for sangiovese, planted at a density of 7,000 vines per hectare (2.5 acres).

1979 Riserva: Included some white grapes, as was traditional in Vino Nobile and Chianti at the time. Vino Nobile did not become a DOCG until the 1980 vintage. The color was quite developed with an orange rim; there were some herbal hints on the nose and the palate was long and mature and cedary, drying a little on the finish, but by no means dying. The wine was made in concrete tanks, as were the following three wines.

1983: The first vintage that Maurizio Castelli, one of Tuscany‘s pioneering oenologists, worked for Boscarelli. That too included a few white grapes. The color was quite deep, with some firm mature fruit on the nose, and the palate was beautifully elegant, with cedary fruit. Mature sangiovese for me can resemble the cedarwood notes of mature cabernet sauvignon, even if they are quite different when young. The year 1983 was a good vintage in Tuscany, as this wine illustrates. The oak aging has been similar for all but the 1979 vintage, which was aged in large Slavonic oak barrels. From 1983, they used smaller Slavonic oak barrels, from 5 hectolitres (500 liters) to 20 hectolitres (2,000 liters) in size.

1988: No white grapes here, just the traditional prugnolo, as sangiovese is called in Montepulciano. Medium color, with rounded fruit and a hint of cherries on the nose. Ripe and rounded, structured with velvety tannins, with a long, elegant finish.

1991: Medium color; quite firm cherry fruit and on the palate youthful cherry fruit. Sour but ripe cherries are the classic flavors of sangiovese. Medium weight, with a freshness and some tannins and good fruit. This was a vintage that turned out better than first expected. Natural yeasts were used up to 1991, and then they used cultured yeast until 2001, when they returned to indigenous yeast.

1995: This included some merlot, which they first planted out of curiosity, with the idea of producing a richer wine with more color and some oak aging. In 2001 they reverted back to Tuscan grape varieties alone for the basic Vino Nobile, while including 7 percent merlot and 2 percent cabernet sauvignon in their Black Label Riserva Vino Nobile with the aim of making a richer, more powerful wine. The year 1995 was a cool vintage, with a late harvest. The color is deep and young, with some firm fruit and a tannic edge to the palate. The wine was fermented in stainless steel vats, as it was also in 1997 and 1999.

1997: Again there was some merlot here, and also some cabernet sauvignon. It was a warm vintage and not an easy one. Medium color, with some sour cherry fruit on the nose. Medium weight, quite tannic with firm fruit and some cassis as well as sour cherries.

1999: Again merlot and cabernet sauvignon as well as sangiovese. Young color; medium depth. Quite a firm dry nose, a touch earthy. Quite a sturdy palate, with a hint of sweet cassis. This lacked the charm of the other wines.

2001: A good vintage, and a return to traditional grape varieties, with 2 percent to 3 percent canaiolo and 5 percent to 7 percent colorino, with the prugnolo. Fermented in 40-hectolitre (4,000-liter) French oak casks, some new and some old. And a return to indigenous yeast. The other innovation of this vintage was temperature control, beginning the fermentation with lower temperatures and using it to avoid any peaks, while letting everything happen as naturally as possible.

Medium color. Elegant cherry nose. Lovely elegant fruit on the palate with a tannic streak and satisfying backbone. Still quite youthful, but beautifully balanced, with length and elegance. Drinking beautifully but still very youthful. A lovely end to a fascinating and revealing tasting.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

Photo: The cellars at Boscarelli estate. Credit: Courtesy of Boscarelli Estate

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Bargain Wines and the Dirty Little Secret About Terroir Image

For wine drinkers, these are the worst of times and the best of times. It’s the worst because wine prices have exploded in recent years, especially when it comes to French prestige wines. The entry of wealthy Chinese into the market has pushed up the prices of those rare wines to astronomical levels. Who would have thought that Lafite would be selling for $1,500 a bottle? I fear that my tongue will never again be blessed with the wonderful experience of a Mouton or a Richebourg.

At the same time, though, it’s the best of times because the world’s wine surplus, which is driving down wine prices, is unlikely to evaporate anytime soon. In addition, the quality of bargain wines is better than ever. Not everything out there is great, but much is outstanding.

Average, run-of-the-mill wine is better than ever before thanks to several major developments in the wine world. The first is that there are now very few technical secrets in winemaking. Technology flows at Internet speed from vineyard to vineyard. There was a time when the French had a lock on the world’s knowledge of how to make great wine. But today at dozens of enology schools around the world, students are learning new and better techniques. Young winemakers now routinely work two harvests a year, thus speeding up their professional development.

Terroir? Winemaking has gone global

The biggest benefactors of all this transfer of technology are the world’s hot wine regions. They have long been able to produce massive amounts of fruit, but until recently had to accept the tradeoff of low quality. Thanks to new technology such as drip irrigation and night harvesting, regions like Mendoza, Argentina, or the Central Valley of California are producing huge harvests with better quality.

Winemaking in the past century has spread from its European roots to just about every part of the world except the North Pole and the South Pole. Wine is made in every state in the U.S. Just in the past six months, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the wines of Croatia and Colorado on their home turf. Connoisseurs looked with disdain on the wines of California until May 24, 1976, when some upstart winemakers from Napa turned the world upside down at the Paris Tasting. The Californians had simply copied French best practices and adapted them to the growing conditions nature gave them. That experience has now been repeated in many other countries.

Winemakers turning out $100 bottles or $1,000 bottles, though, have to keep preaching the myth of terroir to keep up their prices. They have to spread the belief that their grapes come from a unique spot of earth that has perfect growing conditions. The dirty little secret is that really good wine can be made in many places.

For the past four years, I have been working hard in the vineyards of bargain wines. I’ve tasted some terrible products, but they have been exceptions. The wines that average people drink on average days have improved. They may not be the wines you want to serve at a wedding or a golden anniversary, but they are perfectly fine daily wines. In the business they are known as Wednesday wines because that’s what people regularly drink on a Wednesday night at home when no one is looking. In my book “A Toast to Bargain Wines,” I listed some 400 Wednesday wines selling for less than $10 a bottle, and dozens of what I called splurge wines that go for less than $25.

Bargain wine lovers: Here’s an eye-opening blind tasting

I regularly do blind tastings with friends to help educate anyone with an open mind about undiscovered gems. I had such an event on a recent weeknight. As part of a charity auction, I had offered to do a wine tasting at my home on Block Island, R.I., which is located 12 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. After looking around my wine cellar, I decided on a tasting of Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot and picked three in each category.

The four tasters were regular wine drinkers, but not connoisseurs. They enjoy all sorts of wines, but one woman admitted that she bought more expensive wines to give as gifts than what she drank regularly. She said she drinks mostly $10 wines.

The wines fell into three categories: inexpensive, moderately priced and expensive. The three Sauvignon Blancs: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3); Clos Floridene Graves 1999 ($26); Moraga Blanc 2007 ($65). The three Merlots: Charles Shaw 2010 ($3), Château Reignac 2000 ($18); Plump Jack 2004 ($52). I had bought the Charles Shaw wines in New Jersey, so my Two Buck Chuck was Three Buck Chuck. The French-style wines were generally blends, but with a predominance of Sauvignon Blanc or Merlot.

My guests tasted both the whites and the reds before I let them know the results. In the white category, three of the four selected Charles Shaw as their favorite. Among the reds, there was a tie between Charles Shaw and Château Reignac. I was not surprised because I’ve now done similar tastings dozens of times, and the other results were similar. In a blind tasting average wine drinkers seem to prefer inexpensive wines. So why do people buy $100 or $1,000 bottles of wine? I don’t get it. Are they really just buying the label?

We then discussed the results and the implications while drinking a bottle of 2000 Vin de Constance, one my favorites dessert wines, in part because Napoleon asked for it on his deathbed. There is story in every wine bottle.

Photo: George M. Taber.  Credit: Cliff Moore

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