March 2008


We continue the chronicle of 100 wines that I learned the most from with an entry in my first wine notebook from May 16 & 17, 1983. The wine was the Grgich Hills Johannisberg Riesling 1979, Napa Valley.

Born in Croatia, Mike Grgich immigrated to the United States in 1958. He worked at the old Souverain winery, at Christian Brothers, Beaulieu Vineyard and Robert Mondavi. At Chateau Montelena, he was the maker of the Chardonnay 1973 that beat the French in the well-known and replicated Paris Tasting of 1976. Grgich Hills was founded in 1977 as a goodgrgich_01.jpg partnership between Grgich and Austin Hills, whose family sold the San Francisco-based Hills Bros. Coffee company in 1976.

Until this moment in May 1983, the Grgich Hills Johannisberg Riesling 1979 was “the best white I’ve ever drunk.” As far as I can recall, it was also my first riesling. “Excellent,” say my notes. “Beautiful golden color, full bodied. Well-balanced between the just off-dryness & the acidity.” “Balance” was a word that showed up with increasing regularity in my fledgling notes on the wines we tried in 1983. I don’t know if this occurrence was a reflection of my reading or an indication of the quality in wine that would become most important to me as the years went by, but the concept was certainly there in the beginning.

Note the price: $9.69.

If you look back at the “100 Wines: A Chronicle (2)” post from two weeks ago, you’ll notice that the wine was the Parducci Petite Sirah 1977, Mendocino County, and that the dates of its consumption were Feb. 12-14, 1983. Here’s a roster of the wines we tried between that date and May 16, with the price if recorded:

Clos du Bois “Cornell Release” Pinot Noir 1978, Alexander Valley.
Beaulieu Vineyard Beau Tour Cabernet Sauvignon 1979, Napa Valley.
Mirassou Zinfandel 1978, Monterey County.
Robert Mondavi Red 1980, California. ($4.99 for a 1.5-liter jug.)
Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages 1981. ($6.19)
Sterling Vineyards Zinfandel 1977, Napa Valley. ($7.99. This was really good; the last zinfandel that Sterling produced.)
Robert Mondavi Zinfandel 1979, Napa Valley. ($7.50)
Sandeman Late Bottled Vintage Port 1974. ($8.99)
Freixenet Cordon Negro CAVA.
Concannon Petite Sirah 1978, California. ($6.59)
August Sebastiani Country Zinfandel (non-vintage), “A Dry California Table Wine.” ($5.83 for a 1.5-liter jug.)
Croft “Distinction” Finest Tawny Porto. ($8.86)
Chanson “St. Vincent” Macon-Villages 1976. ($8.99, past its best)
Chateau Garriga Entre-Deux-Mer 1978. ($5.08, past its freshness)

See, we were trying to learn, though sometimes we just wanted a wine that went down easily.

O.K., readers, today is the last chance to vote on the 2008 American Wine Blog Awards. BiggerThanYourHead is a finalist in 2008awards-finalist3.jpg the “Best Wine Review Blog” category, and if you like what I do, if you find what I write helpful, informative and (I hope) sometimes amusing, please follow this link and cast a vote for BTYH. Take a few minutes to follow links to the blogs in other categories; the range of ambition, knowledge and individuality — as well as some boffo graphics — is awesome. Thanks for reading and thanks for your vote.

LL was out of town and I needed to get dinner together for myself, and it was one of those days when eight hours at the desk feels like 8,000 hours, and I wanted to go to the grocery store about as much as I wanted to teach a wine class in Amish country. So I determined that when I got home, I would make dinner from whatever I found. Eggs, O.K., that’s good, we’ll try an omelet. Black olives, good again. Parsley and thyme, looking better. Half a head of radicchio left from a salad, that might be fine. Ah, some nice spring onions. Some sausages in the freezer, all it takes is a few blows of a hammer and in a trice one of those suckers is thawing in the microwave.

So, I sauteed the sausage, took it out of the pan and placed it on a paper towel, added a touch of butter, dropped in the chopped onions, waited a minute and added a little minced garlic, let those turn color slightly, and then dropped in the julienne radicchio and quartered black olives. Whisked three eggs with the chopped parsley and thyme, poured the mixture into the pan over the onions and radicchio and other stuff. Let it cook for a minute, lifted the edges with a spatula so the liquidy part would flow under, another minute or two and so on, watching carefully not to overcook, and there was my dinner, set on a plate with the sausage and a piece of wheat toast. I don’t mind eating breakfast for dinner, obviously.

As I usually do when I eat dinner alone at home — though one is never actually alone in a houseful of dogs — I set fratelli_01.jpg out four or five wines to taste as I ate: a Chianti, a merlot, a syrah, maybe a cabernet. (Though a lighter pinot noir or a hearty Beaujolais is good with an omelet.) My omelet, by the way, was delicious and looked good too; the hint of bitterness from the radicchio really balanced nicely with the earthiness of the olives and the sweetness of the onions. Yum.

So I opened the Chianti and poured a little in my glass, intending to go on to the other wines. I didn’t get to them.

Now I don’t want to oversell this wine, but the Vino dei Fratelli Chianti 2006 was not only terrific with the omelet, but it was a shining example of what a Chianti should be at its suggested price, about $10. Made from 95 percent sangiovese and five percent canaiolo grapes and seeing no oak, only stainless steel, the wine is incredibly fresh and lively, bursting with spicy black currant and plum scents and flavors with hints of cranberry and blueberry; something wild is there, something not just spicy but exotic and earthy. There’s a firm acid backbone and a foundation of tannin that lends dustiness and a dense, chewy texture. Yeah, I drank it with an omelet, but at the price it’s certainly worth buying a case to go with the food that’s going to be emerging, hot and crusty, from your outdoor grill this summer. Perfect with burgers, pizza, pork chops and such. I rate the wine Very Good+ and name it a Great Bargain.

It’s imported by Quinessential, in Napa, Ca. Visit quintessentialwines.com.

The announcement was made this month that the INAO, the institute that governs the appellation controlee system of vineyards and vine-growing in France, has authorized the expansion of the areas that may legitimately call themselves part of Champagne.

You must understand: This is a HUGE BIG DEAL. This NEVER HAPPENS.

The region in north-central France where the world’s best and best-known sparkling wines are made — and which alone should be entitled to the name “champagne” — was rigorously limited to 319 villages by the INAO in 1927. This recent addition of 38 villages or communes is unprecedented. The motivation lies in the increasing demand for champagne all over the world, but especially in ist2_4426865_glass_of_champagne.jpg Russia and China, those wondrous realms of new wealth. Between 2006 and 2007, sales of champagne increased 41 percent in Russian; in five years, sales of champagne have increased in China by 30 percent. There’s not enough to go around.

The INAO tentatively addressed the problem of supply and demand in 2006 by allowing, on an experimental basis, for the grape yield per hectare (about 2.47 acres) to increase from 13,000 kilos to 15,500 kilos, though the increase is supposed to be held in grower’s tanks in reserve in the event of disease, hail, frost or bad harvests. Still, evidence both historical and contemporary shows that in many cases increasing yields in vineyards (taking into account such factors as density of vines and canopy management) can result in lower quality wine.

As “TimesOnLine,” the website of The London Times said on March 14, “Permission to make champagne is almost a license to print money,” and not only because the luxurious effervescent beverage is so much in demand. Land that was previously outside the allowed areas of Champagne may increase in value as much as 200 times. Gilles Flutet, who is in charge of demarcation at INAO, was quoted in many sources as saying: “If your vines fall on the wrong side of the divide, they will be worth 5,000 euros a hectare. On the other side they will be worth a million euros.” License to print money indeed. We understand why communes have petitioned and filed law suits for years in their attempts to join the Magic Circle of Real Champagne Farmers or at least for the chance to sell their land. The fact that new law suits are being filed by land-owners and communes not admitted in the expansion — in other words, the losers — emphasizes how serious the fiduciary aspects of the situation are.

I hate to sound cynical. Obviously the INAO has spent a great deal of time researching the quality of the soil and the character of the land in the newly permitted communes, as well as the history and traditions and micro-climates of the anointed areas. In the United States, however, we have seen too often how political and commercial is the system that grants official American Viticultural Area status to regions that seem to have no real viticultural value other than the exigencies of local geography and the influence of local growers, winemakers and legislators. It would be a miracle if the INAO were immune to similar pressure. In all the stories I have read about the decision, no one is quoted as saying, “We’re doing this for the glory of our beloved Champagne region.”

It will be 10 years before grapes and juice from the 38 communes make their slow way through the traditional champagne method into bottles and thence onto the world’s retail shelves. By then, we might not care. Go ahead, throw a few more villages into the mix. Will the Russians and Chinese be able to tell the difference?

Image from istockphoto.com.

The albariño grape might be the great white grape of Spain. It grows particularly well in Rias Baixas, a small vineyard region in Galicia, Spain’s northwestern-most province. The Atlantic Ocean, which part of Riax Baixas touches, exerts a powerful influence on the coastal vineyards. The wines tend to be delicate, deeply floral and abundantly spicy. Though some producers are experimenting with barrel aging, I think that albariño doesn’t take kindly to such treatment; oak turns the wine into some alien distortion of itself and robs it of its inherent freshness and delightful character.

I tried two wines made from albariño grapes recently, and if they’re not the best I ever tasted, they come damned close. They’re made by Adegas d’Altamira, a small family-owned property above the Atlantic with beneficial proximity to ocean breezes and altamira2.jpg excellent drainage. Some of the albariño vines on the estate are over 100 years old; the entire estate was turned over to albariño in the late 1930s. Though several generations of the Touriño family had been involved in growing grapes and making wine, the first wines with labels bearing the estate’s name were bottled only in 2004. It was about time.

The estate produces two wines, the Brandal and the Adegas d’Altimiral; both are 100 percent albariño grapes. Neither sees any oak, and neither goes through malolactic fermentation, so the wines are incredibly fresh and crisp. The differences between the wines is that the Brandal undergoes 12 hours of pre-fermentation skin maceration and rests in stainless steel tanks for six months to be clarified. Adegas d’Altimira is given 24 hours of skin fermentation, and for three months of stabilization in tank, it rests on the lees of dead yeast cells to furnish the wine with depth and complexity.

The Brandal 2006 is absolutely lovely. Scents of crushed jasmine, roasted lemon and lemon curd and dried thyme waft from the glass. As you sip the wine, it picks up hints of peach and pear and a touch of dried orange rind, while layers of limestone and chalk add a bulwark of mineral-like seriousness. The texture is that gratifying combination of scintillating liveliness and talc-like altamira.jpg softness; the finish brings in a bit of grapefruit bitterness. Brandal 2006 will make wonderful drinking through the summer, as an aperitif and with seafood appetizers or pasta dishes. The wine rates Very Good+. About $15, a Great Bargain.

If Brandal 2006 is lovely, Adegas d’Altamira 2006 is gorgeous. Take every element of Brandal ’06, intensify it and burnish it, but don’t let it be unbalanced or overbearing. Here we find suaveness, a hint of lushness tempered by a profound limestone-flinty element, a sense of energy derived from bell-like acid and the ripeness of juicy lemon, peach and pear flavors. The floral note is subdued, but the spicy aspect is more prominent. The wine, while crisp and jazzy, flows like silk over the tongue and palate. As with its less expensive cousin, the Adegas d’Altamira ’06 concludes with a bracing rinse of grapefruit and grapefruit rind. Serve with grilled fish and seafood though the end of 2008 and into 2009. Excellent. About $25.

The wines of Adegas d’Altamira are imported by Quintessential Wines in Napa, Ca. Visit quintessentialwines.com.

Friends, BiggerThanYourHead has been nominated for an American Wine Blog Award for 2008 in the “Best Wine Review Blog” 2008awards-finalist.jpg category. The competition is stiff; the other finalists are BrooklynGuy’s Wine & Food Blog; Good Wine Under $20 and 750ML, all excellent blogs that reflect highly individual views about wine, wine buying and consumption and the wine industry in general.

But I’m hoping, naturally, that you enjoy and find valuable what I do on this blog and that you’ll vote for BTYH. Go to Tom Wark’s Fermentation to vote in this and the other categories.

The purpose of the American Wine Blog Awards is to bring attention to the activities of a host of dedicated people who love wine and love writing about wine and love educating the wine-buying public, and who occasionally need the opportunity to vent their frustrations; it happens.

Thanks for your vote and for reading BTYH.

Many of the traditional grapes used to make white wine in Italy don’t take kindly to oak. Occasionally (or too frequently nowadays) one runs upon a wine that has been forced through a barrel regimen and come out like a torturous caricature of itself. You want to call Switzerland and see if somehow the Geneva Convention has been violated. The example of such a sad case is the pinot grigio mentioned below, but first take a look at a roster of completely charming, even intriguing white wines.

What’s intriguing in the bad way are the prices of several of these products. Apparently we’re seeing the reality of the dominant euro, stomping around in shiny black boots and kicking the bejesus out of the poor wimpy dollar, and the rise in the cost of oil for transportation, heating, electricity and so on. So, yeah, the first seven of these wines are terrific, but you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

These wines are Marc de Grazia Selections, imported by Vin DiVino in Chicago. Visit marcdegrazia.com.

1. The Tavignano Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2006 comes from one of Italy’s least-known regions. Marche or tavignano-verdicchio04.jpg The Marches, occupies a long stretch of the coastal calf of Italy’s boot, between Emilia-Romagna to the north and Abruzzi to the south. Verdicchio grapes produce by far the region’s best white wines — Verdiccio dei Castelli de Jesi and Verdicchio Matelica — though that white variety is overshadowed by several reds, especially Rosso Conero, which must contain at least 85 percent montepulciano grapes. In any case, Tavignano’s Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore 2006 is indeed a superior version. The wine is bright and clean and abounds with lemony accents that are spicy and a little roasted and buttery, though the wine balances this touch of lushness with brisk acid, bone-dryness, hints of slightly astringent dried herbs and, on the finish, a penetrating mineral quality. Delightful and versatile for spring and summer drinking. Very Good+. About $16.

2. If your memory of Frascati is of an innocuous and forgettable wine, this one may change your mind. The name is ancient and derives from the hill-town fewer than 20 miles southeast of Rome, the center of the province of Lazio (often called Latium in English). The grapes for Frascati are principally malvasia di candia, malvasia del Lazio and trebbiano bianco, with, for this wine, bombino, ottonese and cacchione; for those trying to join The Century Club of people who have experienced 100 grape varieties, Frascati offers you the chance to encounter some obscure examples.
Since 1981, Piero Costantini has worked to revive the reputation of Frascati. His Massarosso Frascati Superiore 2006 is dry and notably spicy; it’s a spare, crisp white wine, lithe and lively and supple. Scents and flavors of roasted lemon and lemon balm are infused with a strain of some astringent summer flower and touches of dried Mediterranean herbs. The finish offers more spice and layers of limestone. I’ll go Excellent on this one. About $16 and a Great Bargain.

3. The blend of grapes for the Palazzone Terre Vineate Orvieto Classico 2006 — Orvieto is a beautiful and fairly large hill-town in western Umbria — is 50% procanico, 25% grechetto, 15% verdello and 10% malvasia and drupeggio, the latter a local grape so palazzone-terrevineate03.jpg obscure that it doesn’t show up in Oz Clarke’s Encyclopedia of Grapes. This is as pure and intense an Orvieto as I have ever tasted and also the most suave and elegant. It’s a lovely wine, delivering elements of lemon drop and orange rind, almond blossom and camellia, baking spice, hints of dried thyme and tarragon; it’s very crisp, dry and vibrant, yet smooth and slightly steely. It would be great with grilled trout or skate in a classic sauce of brown butter and capers. Excellent. About $18.

4. We go back to The Marches for the Bisci Verdicchio di Matelica 2005, a very dry, spare and sinewy wine that’s quite stony and earthy and briery, with a powerful limestone-damp granite component, scintillating acid and a finish that pulls in lemon peel and grapefruit astringency. A bit more demanding than thoroughly enjoyable, but should be terrific with fresh oysters and mussels. Very good+ About $19.

5. Perhaps the falanghina grape will make the break-through white wines of Campania, the region that extends north, east and south of Naples. Its less frequently seen name, falanghina Greco, may indicate origins in Greece. Cantina del Taburno is a taburno-falanghina04.jpg significant association of 300 producers in the province of Benevento, which clusters around the city of that name inland and northeast of Naples. The Taburno Falanghina 2007 is a terrific example of the cantina’s craft. This is a lovely wine, seductive in its accents of jasmine and almond blossom, lemon and toasted almond and hints of dried thyme. In the mouth, the wine balances crispness and liveliness with a moderately lush texture, delicious flavors of roasted lemon, lemon balm and orange rind, all tied with a glint of limestone on the finish. A great bet for matching with grilled shrimp or mussels. Very good+ About $20.

6. The Serramarrocco Grillo del Barone 2006, from Sicily, 100% grillo grapes, is fermented and matured in old-fashioned concrete serramarrocco-ilgrillo05.jpg vats rather than stainless steel. It rated a “wow” as my first note. Shamelessly floral and spicy, the wine bursts from the glass in a welter of white flowers, dried baking spice, roasted lemon and a hint of grapefruit. “Haunting” is not a word I typically use in reviews, but this wine was strangely beguiling and intense, offering a flavor panoply of lemon in all its forms, with a touch of candied fruit, and a texture of pleasing heft and elevating powers, a combination of brisk acid and talc-like softness and a total permeation of chalk and limestone. A Great Effort. Excellent. About $26.

7. I’m sorry, but $29 is a boodle of money for any wine made from the vermentino grape, which normally produces wines that are charming and pleasant and drinkable. The Terenzuola Vermentino Fosso di Corsano 2006, from the Colli di Luna (“hills of the terenzuola-vermentinofossodicorsano05.jpg moon”) region of northwest Tuscany, is fermented in concrete vats and aged on the lees in stainless steel for six months, special treatment indeed, and the result is a wine of definite class and breeding. Made from grapes taken from vineyards 1,300 feet above sea-level, the wine is fresh and lively, lemony and spicy, with a sense of long-drawn-out acid and scintillating mineral elements, of balance and integration, that raise it above the usual product of the grape. O.K., it’s probably the best vermentino I’ve ever tasted, and I’d be happy to pay, oh, $18 for it. Excellent. About $29.

8. The Vie di Romans Dessimis Pinot Grigio 2005, Isonzo del Friuli, is a result of trying too hard in the winery to make a grape into vdr-pgdessimis02.jpg what it is not. Even pinot grigio doesn’t deserve to be turned into a ringer for an over-oaked chardonnay, which is the effect this wine had on me. Barrel-fermented and matured seven months in French barrels, the Vie di Romans Dessimis Pinot Grigio 2005 is rich and ripe, glossy and roasted and slightly buttery, massively structured, stridently spicy, quite evidently oaky and overall grotesque. Poor innocent, unsuspecting grapes! I rarely do this, but I pin an “Avoid” rating on this mutant. Which shouldn’t be difficult for you to do, since the suggested retail price is about $44.

We skip more than a year now, to Feb. 12-14, 1983. I had been parsing the pages of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine, the revised and expanded edition of 1981 and Barbara Ensrud’s The Pocket Guide to Wine, which my realparducci_01.jpg son had given to me for Father’s Day in 1982. I still have those books, among my treasures of my wine bookshelf, and looking at Barbara’s book at this moment — she won’t mind if I call her Barbara; she used to live in Oxford, Miss., and we’ve known each other for years — I see that at some time in its history, my daughter wrote the words “Louisa Wuz Here,” inside the back cover. (Louisa is now 35.) I was trying to figure things out, to understand the terms, the places, the techniques, and to further that process, I was buying two wines a week, mainly in stores in Memphis, that we would try with lunches and dinners, with the family and with friends. My son, 15 then, was allowed a half-glass of wine with dinner, so he too was participating in the learning experience.

The Parducci Petite Sirah 1977, Mendocino County, was “possibly the best wine I’ve ever drunk” and was “absolutely wonderful” according to the notes on the page partially reproduced here. “Tough, tannic, chewy, with a long finish” and “will probably be better in 3-4 years.” Notice the alcohol content: 12 percent! The wine cost $5.89.

O.K., so the notes are pretty rudimentary. I promise that they’ll get better as we progress through the months and years.

By the way, apropos of nothing except that I’ve been busy this weekend, and, I guess, that I’ve come a long way in 25 years, I posted yesterday on my website a “Featured Article” about 14 white wines from Burgundy, all from the splendid vintage of 2005. Take a look, please.

I was going to make this year’s wine-drinking mantra “All Classified Growths @ Others’ Expense,” but then Dr. Debs at goodwineunder20, in a response to a recent post of mine on this blog, utter words of such wisdom that I have to pass them along, rather then leave them buried in the comments file:

“I would love to have a drinking plan that included only wines that were enough — not more, not new, not improved, not pumped up. Just exactly right.”

All right, so top Bordeaux and Burgundy weren’t really going to be my game-plan for 2008 — how about ’09? — but the Good Doctor’s simple eloquence should have benign influence on all of us wine writers and consumers. By “just exactly right,” I venture to say that Doc means wines that reflect the grapes from which they are made; wines that reflect, as much as possible, the place where they are made; and wines that embody honesty, integrity and authenticity rather than ego, ambition and manipulation. Now, truly, what more could we ask for? Well, yes, fair prices.

You’re great, Doc. I’m covering your back.

LL had to work late last night, so I took over dinner duties and braised some baby bok choy (salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice and sprigs of thyme), roasted some potatoes and cooked salmon (fresh farm-raised steelhead) in the way we usually do it, nothing but salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon, sear it in a hot pan one minute on each side and then put the pan with the salmon in a 400-degree oven for three or four minutes. The salmon emerges slightly crusty on the outside and almost creamy inside, cooked just past rare.

Anyway, there had been a bottle of Italian white wine in the refrigerator, brought to the house by a friend — thanks, Mike! — who came to a tasting here a few months ago. Knowing nothing about the wine, not having actually looked at it carefully, I 360.jpg thought, why not? The full name of the wine is: Vidussi Podere di Spessa Ronchi di Ravez Collio Bianco 2002. (Collio lies in Italy’s northeastern region of Friuli, abutting Slovenia.) So, here’s a five-year-old white wine from Italy. Whoa, what’s this going to be like?

The name of the wine might as well add up to “fantastico!” Lord have mercy, it came from the bottle in a stream of bright medium, slightly brassy gold, and as we sat there at dinner both LL and I uttered variations on the theme: “It’s like what a wine would taste like if it were gold.” Or maybe: “It’s what gold would taste like if it were wine.”

Here’s the report: The Ronchi di Ravez Collio Biano 2002 acted like a dessert wine in the nose and a bone-dry wine in the mouth. By which I mean that the bouquet was a seductive weaving of candied orange rind, honeyed and roasted peaches, apricots and smoked almonds. In the mouth, however, it was all apple and pear, lanolin and dried herbs, dynamic acid and notes of anise and lavender. “Meadowy” was a word that came up, but not a high summer meadow brimming with flowers, no, this would be a late summer to fall meadow, one that encompasses the changing of the seasons and dry, weedy, fading floral aspects.

The blend of grapes is 45 percent ribolla gialla, 30 percent malvasia Istriana, 20 percent friulano (no longer called tocai friulano) and 5 percent picolit. The wine spends a short six months in oak, accounting for some of its firm structure and suppleness. About 1,500 cases are made. The wines of Vidussi are brought into the United States by Opici Imports, Glen Rock, N.J.

The price is about $23, a great bargain as far as I’m concerned for such a gorgeous, intriguing, complicated wine. which was, by the way, fabulous with the salmon.

On another subject, I just posted to KoeppelOnWine a page of “Refrigerator Door Wines,” eight bottles priced from $8 to $15, four white and four red. The whites are simple and direct and somewhat charming, being mainly decent quaffers for sitting around the porch or patio. The reds show more character, especially the Greg Norman Zinfandel 2005, Lake County, and the exotic Hecula 2004, from Yecla in Spain. After all, it won’t be too long before we start firing up those backyard grills and requiring some robust red wines to go with grilled meat.

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