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
Region: Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Grape: 80 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent malbec
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.”
Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.
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You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.
Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.
In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.
Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.
Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”
In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.
In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.
Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.
Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.
Anatomy of a grape leaf
According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:
Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.
Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.
Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.
It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.
In the vineyard
Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.
Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.
Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:
Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.
This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.
This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.
This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.
This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.
Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo
For the second time in two weeks, the California wine industry is under fire. First, it was a class-action lawsuit aimed at inexpensive wines with moderately elevated levels of arsenic. Now, it’s cooties. And they’ve been spotted in the proverbial good stuff.
Cooties — formally Cutius terrebilis, a childhood condition associated with social dysfunction, formerly believed to be something people grow out of naturally by the time they are teenagers — have apparently been detected in a broad cross-section of California wines.
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Curiously, the cooties-bearing wines are not connected by their region of origin or varietal makeup, but rather by their rating on the so-called 100-point scale, popularized during the 20th century but inexplicably still finding traction in lesser-evolved pockets of the U.S. wine scene today.
Dr. Isiah B. Wright — who holds degrees in medicine, enology, viticulture, psychology and statistics — revealed his research yesterday at a news conference where he also announced he is not initiating a class-action suit. Wright explained that the presence of cooties is fortunately limited to wines that have been rated 90 points or higher, and is not as pernicious or contagious as it can be in elementary schools and summer camps.
Symptoms of cooties
Symptoms of cooties transmission from wine to humans are subtle, and mostly psychological rather than systemic. “Given that said ratings are purported to provide guidance, and in turn confidence, in the drinker, the 90-point wines are particularly risky,” Wright continued. “Exposure to too many could leave imbibers with subconscious anxiety, a creeping doubt, if you will, that their own taste in wine is merely pedestrian.”
He went on to explain that, unfortunately, 90-point wines are “about 9 cents a dozen these days,” and thanks to complicity of online and traditional retailers too lazy or too unsure of their own palates to review wines themselves, these ratings have proliferated to the point where exposure is difficult to avoid.
Of course, cooties in humans under the age of 10 are fairly easily treated; once cooties are contracted on the playground, a four-finger squeeze applied within one day by a merciful peer does the trick. In adults, Wright said he knows of two treatments: “The first thing people can do, as a prophylactic measure, is to immediately reject the usage of any wine ratings outside their original habitat, i.e., in the pages of magazines that no one actually reads anyway. This is quite easy, actually. Wine ratings derived almost exclusively by middle-aged men sampling 20 wines at a pop ‘blind’ and without a crumb of food — who would consider their advice useful in real life, where people, food and context are in play?”
The second, he explained, is even simpler: “Pour yourself some wine of the masses — a crisp dry rosé, a humble Prosecco, a refreshing sangria. Go tap a box wine, pound some Pinot Grigio or share a magnum of Merlot. And then — are you listening? — add some food. Adds 10 points to every wine, every time” — especially on April 1.
Main photo: California’s wine woes continue to mount. Credit: Copyright iStockPhoto/Avalon_Studio
The 2005 vintage in Bordeaux was superlative in so many ways. The weather was a winemaker’s dream: a benign spring gave way to a hot — but not too hot — summer, with hardly any rain. What fell, fell at the right time. That led into an autumn so deliciously mellow that vignerons could amble into the vineyards and pick perfectly ripe grapes whenever they chose. The grapes were small, intensely flavored and with thick skins.
Last month, a decade past that dream season, the 2005s shone at the “Ten Years On” tasting at the London wine merchant Bordeaux Index.
From the first tastings in spring 2006, everyone loved it. Consider what they said then:
Robert Parker, the formidable founder of The Wine Advocate and its influential 100-point wine rating system, thought it “brilliant … one of the most singular years of the past five decades.” The British heavyweights – wine critic and journalist Jancis Robinson, MW, and Decanter magazine consultant editor Steven Spurrier – were bowled over. Simon Staples, the epicurean Bordeaux director for London-based wine merchant Berry Bros and Rudd, said he was “speechless.”
“It was a truly extraordinary year,” veteran Bordeaux wine merchant Bill Blatch said in the report he publishes after every vintage. “Easy to manage, without complications, and the almost permanently fine weather ended up by providing a wine of most unusual concentration.”
Now, as then, 2005 was a very good year
In January, at the Ten Years On tasting, I found that the 2005s were simply delightful, with succulent, rich, seductive fruit, and acidity that dances on your tongue. The wines are pure, but complex. A cornucopia of blackberry, cassis and red fruit is tempered with minerality and spiciness, then high notes of parma violet and florality.
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It’s as much a pleasure to describe them as taste them. Every wine of note is underpinned by powerful tannins that give it a structure that will ensure long aging — in some cases, for decades.
There are some clumsy wines — the Merlot in Saint-Émilion was very ripe, with high alcohol and big tannins — and some wines have developed an oaky dryness that won’t sweeten. But they are few and far between.
Unless you’re very unlucky, if you pick a 2005 off the shelf, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.
A pricey caveat
The only fly in the ointment is price. Bordeaux knew it had something good, and the first generation of Asian millionaires were beginning to get a taste for fine wine, very expensive fine wine. The 2005 was the first Bordeaux vintage that launched its wines into the stratosphere of luxury goods. The top wines are very expensive. At the very top, Petrus is more than $4,000 a bottle, and the dozen top properties — Lafite, Mouton and their fellow first growths, then Cheval Blanc, Ausone and a few others — are never less than $1,500.
But that needn’t concern us. The joy of a really wonderful vintage is its consistency.
There’s an old saying: “In a great vintage, search out the lesser estates, and in a lesser vintage go for the great estates.” It’s never been truer than in 2005. You don’t need to spend three months’ wages on the great chateaux. At every level, from $30 Cru Bourgeois to the humbler Medoc fifth growths, there are some beautiful wines to be found.
If I had to choose one region in a vintage studded with gems, I’d say the wines of the little Médoc commune of Saint-Julien are most consistently lovely. Below are my top picks from 2005, for the priciest and for the best value from Bordeaux:
Two top-10 lists from Bordeaux 2005
Prices are the average per bottle, excluding tax. All wines are available widely at retail.
Top 10, Money No Object
1. Château Petrus, Pomerol, $4,986
Discreet smoky nose leading to powerful blackberry, black cherry and minty, spicy tar on the palate. Dry length releasing fresh gouts of juice. Drink 2020-2040+
2. Château Lafite Rothschild, 1st Growth, Pauillac, $1,461
The bright, lifted blackcurrant and blackberry fruit is sweet and fresh, the tannins ripe, the acidity mouthwatering, the whole complex, charming, assured. A triumph. Drink 2020 to 2040+
3. Petit Mouton, Pauillac $233
Plum skin aroma, then palate has multiple strands of juiciness through the tannins, intense and vibrant sour mash plum. Minerality and power. Drink 2018 to 2030+
4. Château Pontet Canet, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $188
Sweet and savory, bacon with plum skins, very fresh and open, discreet powerful tannins. Linear, classic, confident. Drink 2018 to 2040+
5. Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, 5th Growth, Pauillac, $135
Savory nose with minerality, pencil lead, very linear and precise, very fresh, essence of blackberry and damson, fine sophisticated length. Drink 2018 to 2035+
6. Château Léoville Las Cases, 2nd Growth, Saint-Julien, $397
Fresh, savory, bacony nose, tannins holding blackberry, cassis and coffee flavors in an iron grip; restrained, fruit releases juice, fills the palate. Very fine. Drink 2018 to 2040+
7. Château Palmer, 3rd Growth, Margaux, $383
Very dark in hue and viscous. Discreet perfumed violet nose, incredibly subtle but exotic, lovely weight, constant interplay of dryness, juice, tannins and acidity. Drink 2017 to 2040+
8. Château La Lagune, 3rd Growth, Ludon, $102
Lovely complex savory nose, bramble and truffle, crushed coffee beans, superb opulent sweetness. Palate fresh and perfumed with secondary flavors of dusty rose petals and elegant decay. Tannins dry and dissolving to juice. Drink 2017 to 2035+
9. Château-Figeac, Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé, $172
Restrained sour black fruit, fresh-picked plum and hints of sloe. Closed, brooding and tannic. A keeper. Drink 2020 to 2040+
10. Château Calon-Segur, 3rd Growth, Saint-Estèphe, $123
Nose very restrained, closed, palate with (at first) dry, austere tannins. Then classic briar fruit, tannins become silky. Very pure, arrow-straight acidity shows how this will mature. Masterful finesse. Drink 2018 to 2040+
Top 10 best value
1. Château Poujeaux, Cru Bourgeois, Moulis, $53
Violet perfume and sweet briar. On the palate damson and cedar, sour plum with cloves. Mouthwatering acidity, soft length. Drink 2015 to 2025+
2. Château du Tertre, 5th Growth, Margaux, $79
Sweet sugared damson and plum with perfume on nose. Palate very open and fresh with lovely tobacco and truffle, tannins releasing great gouts of juice. Drink 2015 to 2025+
3. Les Pagodes de Cos, Saint-Estèphe, $62
Cos d’Estournel’s second wine is often more restrained than its big brother. Lovely meaty peppery nose, hint of violet perfume on palate with herb, restrained. Drink 2018 to 2040+
4. Château Gloria, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Julien, $70
Bacon savory nose with hint of old velvet tapestry. Confident, juicy uncomplicated weight, plum and damson fruit , very nice length, good balance. Drink 2015 to 2025+
5. Château Talbot, 4th Growth, Saint-Julien, $79
Rich mineral, savory nose with great charm. Defined blackberry and coffee, discreet, old-fashioned like the chateau itself, tannins dry but dissolving to sweetness. Drink 2015 to 2030
6. Château Les-Ormes-de-Pez, Cru Bourgeois, Saint-Estèphe, $59
Fresh peppery notes on nose – very fine open juicy acid on palate, fresh, uncomplicated. Drink 2015 to 2025+
7. Château Malartic-Lagravière, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $82
Very savory beef-stock nose with ripe plum. Tannins release juice and sour-sweet plum and damson flavors. Fresh, defined, not opulent, but fine. Drink 2015 to 2025+
8. Château Langoa-Barton, 3rd Growth, Saint-Julien, $85
Fresh sugared blackberry, savory mineral undertones, open and fresh with such suave tannins and juice on the finish. Very fine length. Drink 2015 to 2025+
9. Château Potensac, Cru Bourgeois Médoc, $47
Perfumed briar and tobacco nose. Fine, fresh, mouth-watering acidity and bright cassis. Grainy grip to tannins, juicy and opulent. Drink 2015 to 2020+
10. Domaine de Chevalier, Cru Classé Pessac-Léognan, $105
Rich creamy nose, blackberry compote, truffle, licorice. Palate develops fine damson, violet perfume and fresh acidity. Delicate tannins with dry grip. Incredible quality for the price. Drink 2017 to 2030+
Main photo: Harvesting grapes at Domaine de Chevalier, an estate in the Bordeaux appellation of Pessac-Léognan, just south of the city of Bordeaux. Credit: Copyright Domaine de Chevalier
This Sonoma wine captivated with scents of gently crushed black cherries mildly seasoned with oak. Its attack was silky and the flavors echoed the wine’s alluring aromas. It was fresh and structured, though the oak gradually became more of a presence, indicating that the wine wanted cellaring.
It was the 2008 Vérité “La Joie,” an obsessively calculated blend of — here goes — 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. awarded it 99/100 points and rated the 2007 vintage 100/100. There was another perfect score for “La Joie’s” sibling, Vérité “Le Désir,” a Cabernet Franc-dominated blend. And the third wine of the Vérité trio, the Merlot-based La Muse, garnered 99/100 points.
I do not typically score wines. I write pages and pages of notes. Amid the adjectives for that 2008 Vérité “La Joie” I noted “quite European in style” and “very French.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the wines were made by a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, 64, who hails from the Lot-et-Garonne region south of Bordeaux.
The Vérité project
The Vérité project was the dreamchild of California wine icon, Jess Jackson, who died in 2011. An attorney and self-made billionaire, Jackson bought a pear orchard in 1974, planted grapes and eventually began making wine. In 1982 he created Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and gave birth to a vinous revolution: Here was a moderately priced wine that trounced the Hearty Burgundies and other jug wines.
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Jackson continued to build his empire, which at its height comprised 35 wineries in five countries. What eluded him was a great wine. Then Seillan entered the picture.
The time was 1995. Seillan was managing estates for the Bordeaux negociant Cheval Quincard, when a mutual friend arranged for Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, to visit Seillan at one of the châteaux he was directing. In 1996 Seillan visited Jackson and by 1997 the Seillans had moved to Sonoma County.
They wasted no time. Vérité debuted with the 1998 vintage. But, first, as Seillan recalls, “Jess and I explored his different estates, vineyards and properties around California and around the world. I was able to identify and develop new locations in Sonoma County that were the right place for growing very high quality grapes, and matching the terroir to the appropriate varietal and rootstock. I then was able to identify what I defined later as ‘micro-crus.’ ”
The ‘micro’ approach
Seillan has worked with micro-crus for most of his life. “Ever since my grandmother taught me about soils and gardening when I was little at my parents’ estate in Gascony, then my work across Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, in Tuscany and California. I learned to listen to the message of a particular place from the soil, climate and the vegetation, and to be able to match that to producing the right grapes in the right way.”
Seillan selects the best grapes from roughly a thousand acres of vineyards owned by Jackson to make the three versions of Vérité. The key parcels, well-exposed hillsides ranging from 578 feet to 2,457 feet, are: the Kellogg vineyard, Alexander Mountain Estate, Vérité Vale in Chalk Hill and Jackson Park.
Was the micro-approach uncommon in California? “Yes,” Seillan said. “Viticulture in California is still very young compared to France.”
In 2003, the Jacksons and the Seillans purchased the 55-acre Château Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru, and several years later, the 31-acre Château Vignot, also a St. Emilion Grand Cru. And Seillan manages the team at Jackson’s Tuscan properties.
Not surprisingly, the philosophy of micro-cru prevails, from painstaking selection of soils to persnickety parsing of grape percentages for each bottling.
A few favorites
Having tasted more than a dozen Seillan/Jackson wines recently, I had a hard job picking favorites. Nevertheless, I loved the 2010 Château Lassègue. Velvety and nuanced, it was fresh and structured, with notes of licorice blending with those of Burlat cherries. At $90 it’s not out of line for high quality Bordeaux and a lot cheaper than the 2008 Vérités ($390 a bottle). Of the three Tuscan wines, I much preferred the Chianti Classico to the two Bordeaux blends. Made from Sangiovese, the region’s traditional grape, it had a tasty story to tell on its home turf. What’s more, at $30 a bottle, it’s priced at roughly a third of the Super Tuscans.
And there’s a new, nicely priced charmer: Seillan has resuscitated vineyards planted by his mother on the Coteaux de Montestruc, facing the Pyrenees. True to form, he opted to plant Bordeaux grapes rather than those traditional to the region. The results are delectable. The 2012 Bellevue Seillan Côtes de Gascogne VdF, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, is a lip-smacking crowd-pleaser as well as a good value at $30 a bottle. Seillan’s grandma must be smiling.
Main image: Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan
As the holiday party season winds its way toward New Year’s Eve, sparkling wine or Champagne is on many shopping lists. Personally, I feel sparkling wine is ideal as a drink before, during or after a meal, but when entertaining, I round up a good selection of still wines too.
Although my husband and I frequent specialty wine shops, a weekly visit to Trader Joe’s is a routine, and we’re not alone. Checking out doesn’t take nearly as long as finding a parking space at any of the Los Angeles area Trader Joe’s stores. Part of that chain’s mantra must be, “If they really want our bargains, they’ll fight for parking spaces!”
The grocery chain was founded as Pronto Market in 1958 by Joe Coulombe, and the store’s name was later changed to Trader Joe’s. The first Trader Joe’s store opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California, and now there are more than 400 stores in 40 states. Southern California has a heavy concentration of the stores, and it’s a favorite haunt for shoppers looking for global food flavors and wines for less than $10 a bottle.
Trader Joe’s wine comes with free tastes
On a recent visit to Trader Joe’s on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, I heard a friendly “Hi” in the wine section and turned around to see my neighbor Karis.
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“I’m looking for a wine under $10,” she said. Her pick had to be kosher because she was buying it for a Hanukkah party that evening. Together we took a look at the limited selection of kosher wines, and I pointed out a 2012 Baron Herzog Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, Calif., that cost $9.99. The price was perfect.
In addition to bargain bottles, Trader Joe’s also stocks pricey brands to give people options for gift giving. “This time of the year people spend money,” said Jason, one of the managers at the La Brea store. The hot sellers are reds and sparkling and dessert wines, he said.
Pricey wines may not always be on display, though. “When people are looking for expensive wines for gifts they’ll ask one of our staff,” Jason said. The most expensive purchase at the La Brea store was Napa Valley’s 2008 BV LaTour Cabernet Sauvignon at $89. That’s a far cry from the less-than-$10 category, but customers buy these wines for parties, the manager noted.
Trader Joe’s is well known for its affordable wines, and the bottles are served at many Los Angeles parties or art openings. At the latter, don’t be surprised to find so-called Two Buck Chuck, those Charles Shaw wines that have, in fact, gone up to $2.49 (prices vary nationally) from the original price of $1.99. But the stores also have a nice lineup of pricey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines from well-known brands such as Grgich Hills, Stags’ Leap, Caymus and Whitehall Lane.
The chain has added wine-tasting counters at five of its Los Angeles and South Bay stores, as well as some other stores nationwide. I stopped by for a taste at the store at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. The counter offers three tastes of wines, and they are rotated every three to four days. One of the daily offerings will be a Trader Joe’s brand.
I found the Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve series impressive and affordable. Ranging in price from $7.99 to $14.99 a bottle, these wines are from distinct California appellations and display case production and lot numbers on the bottles.
The Grand Reserve 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted had a delicious, round mouthfeel. From Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation, the label read 999 cases produced. Others in this series include wines from various Napa Valley appellations: Zinfandel from Howell Mountain, Merlot from Spring Mountain, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros and Malbec from Sonoma’s Bennett Valley.
For less than $10 a bottle, Trader Joe’s carries a wide selection. The non-appellation designate California Pinot Noirs range from $5.99 to $7.99, and the Central Coast classified Pinots fall in the $7.99 to $14.99 category. In fact, Caretaker, a Santa Maria Valley-designate Pinot from California’s Central Coast, is an excellent buy at $9.99.
The Bordeaux Superieur lineup from labels such as Chateau Payanne and Mayne Guyon are good bets for a party, as are Malbecs from Argentina, Carmènére from Chile and California Zinfandels from Cline, Ravenswood, Bogle Old Vine and Rutz Alexander Valley.
Among the less-than-$10 category for Italian wines, you can find a good selection of Tuscan wines, such as Valpolicella Ripasso, Casa Rossa Rosso and Il Tarocco Chianti Classico. From Spain’s Rioja region, you can’t go wrong with Crianza wines (which have been aged two years, one of which must be in oak) from both Marqués De Riscal and Marqués de Cáceres.
For white wines costing less than $10, go for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Nobilo and Picton Bay, Mouton Cadet’s Sauvignon and Semillon blend, or the citrusy Picpoul de Pinet wine from Cuvée Azan in the Languedoc region in France.
And because it’s the time of the year to traditionally pop sparkling wine, why not treat yourself to a really pricey Champagne? Perhaps a Veuve Clicquot Rosé ($58.99) or Moët Chandon Imperial ($36.99)? In the mid-price range — $12.99 to $26.99 – you’ll find good California bottlings from Schramsberg, Piper Sonoma and Gloria Ferrer.
But if you’ve blown your budget on Christmas gifts and your wallet is a little thin, there’s hope. You can ring in the new year with sparklers costing less than $10, such as Michelle Brut from Columbia Valley or Trader Joe’s Reserve Brut and Blanc de Blancs.
Cheers … and safe drinking.
Main photo: One of the wines from Trader Joe’s Reserve series, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation. Credit: Mira Honeycutt
One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.
In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.
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But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.
But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.
But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.
To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.
Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.
Experiencing Monastrell at its source
During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.
As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.
Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50% Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.
Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.
Main photo: Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.
Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.
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Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.
California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.
“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”
There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.
The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”
Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.
His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.
“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.
That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”
Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.
How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.
Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.
Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs
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Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:
Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.
Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.
Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.