Sat 9 Aug 2008
I was in Indianapolis last week, visiting my son, Christopher, and his wife, Sarah, and their two-month-old baby, Sebastian. Yes, the illustrious Koeppel name extends into the future. We don’t have Trader Joe’s in Memphis, nor does Tennessee allow grocery store wine sales, so the point is sort of moot down here, but one morning Sarah and Sebastian and I went to a Trader Joe’s in Indy so I could check out the wine supply. Friends around the country told me that there are larger and more complete — i.e. more wine –Trader Joe’s in major cities (oops, sorry, Indy, other major cities), but whatever the case, the wine available at this Trader Joe’s was intriguing.
First, I’ll say that I am not a fan of the famous Two-Buck Chuck. The examples I have tried have been bland and anonymous and completely lacking in either personality or character. At the usual $3 a bottle, it’s not a bargain. Come on, people, you have to have some pride.
The wines I chose, however, performed in a manner ranging from decent to remarkably good.
Trader Joe’s acquires many of its wines through regional cooperatives, that is, wineries that many small growers in a vineyard area belong to and to which they sell their grapes. There’s not a thing wrong with that; cooperatives are far more reliable than they were a generation ago. Trader Joe’s also relies on what you might call wine-packing companies, as seems to be the case with the Archeo Nero d’Avola 2006, from Sicily, well, from Sicily, yes, but bottled, according to the back-label, by VI.PE. in Soave, which is, for the geographically-impaired, a long way from Sicily. The name of the winemaker, Ruggero di Tasso, is scrawled on the front of the bottle in gold script.
How’s the wine? Damned good. We drank this bottle with hamburgers, and its deep, rugged, spicy, tarry nature made a great match. The fruit leans toward cherry-berry with a touch of blueberry jam and an element of dried flowers that grows more intense through the robust, tannic finish. I rate the wine Very Good, and it’s certainly a bargain at about $5. D’Aquino Italian Importing Co., Duarte, Cal.
Another attractive Italian red wine, and a bit cheaper, is Il Valone Primitivo 2006, from Puglia, billed on the label as “Italian Zinfandel.” The label also carried the words “Marchese de Petri,” though no connection is made with this nobleperson of the rocks. The wine is bottled by C.-Campagna Gello, PI, Italy.
How’s the wine? Rich, robust and spicy, with rollicking tannins and heaps of dusty, earthy and minerally elements buoying roasted black currant, blackberry and plum flavors. A tide of walnut shell and underbrush come up from mid-palate back, dictating use with hearty dishes and grilled red meat. Another bargain at $4.29. Imported by Americal Beverage Company Inc., San Clemente, Cal.
With pizza last weekend, we drank the Barbera d’Alba “La Loggia” 2006 from Piedmont. This was less distinctive than the other Italian reds I bought at Trader Joe’s. It drank very nicely with the pizza — tomatoes, roasted red pepper, basil, onion and slivers of speck — but even its ripe, fairly juicy black fruit flavors and its spiciness seemed more generic than varietal or regional. So this gets a Good+. About $7. Imported by Santini Fine Wines, San Lorenzo, Cal.
The best of the Italian reds was the grandly (and somewhat implausibly) named Marchesi di Montecristo Nerello del Bastardo 2002, Vino da Tavola Rosso, bottled by C.V.B.M. in Salgareda, a small town in the Treviso province of the Veneto; Salgareda is about 30 km northeast of Venice. This is an interesting point because the grapes in the Nerello del Bastardo 2002 come from — well, let me reproduce the text on the back label:
Nerello del Bastardo can only be described as a Super Piedmontese wine invented purely for fun. When winemakers in Miemonte wish to make Barolo or Barbaresco, the laws governing these wines only allow a certain quantity after aging (minimum 4 years) to be classified Barolo or Barbaresco D.O.C.G.
“I Superi” (the excess) can only be sold as table wine even though the products are practically the same. Master winemaker Marco Dal Bianco and Italian Wine Guru Simon De Giuli Botta came up with this blend of aged wines adding just a touch of something secret.
This creation is a breakthrough in winemaking. One might say this is the illegitimate child of Barolo and Barbaresco hence the name: Nerello del Bastardo meaning: The Bastard’s Nerello.
The implication is that this wine is declassified Barolo and Barbaresco, purchased by these wily negociants, shipped to Salgareda and bottled there. Surely the “Marchesi di Montecristo” thing is a joke, and if it’s not, I humbly offer a thousand apologies, Excellency. The year was not good; in 2002 Piedmont was hit hard by torrential rains and strong winds. So here, apparently, was the opportunity to buy up wines not suitable for the august levels of Barolo and Barbaresco, blend them (perhaps with a bit of syrah) and sell them to American consumers through Trader Joe’s.
The happy ending to this tale of wine globalization is that the Nerello del Bastardo 2002 is terrific. It’s truly dry and austere in its rough-hewn tannins and dusty oak, but just try to resist a bouquet of dried red and black currants laced with plums and raspberries permeated by exotic spice, orange rind and black pekoe tea. Those qualities are consistent in the mouth, where earthy black fruit flavors are layered with leather, brambles and underbrush. This needs venison or leg of lamb. Drink through 2001 or ’12. I rate the wine Very Good+ and a Great Bargain at about $7. That’s right, about $7. Imported by Santini Fine Wines, San Lorenzo, Cal.
I didn’t buy only Italian wines at Trader Joe’s; the next three are French.
Is the Pouilly-Fume 2007, from Les Caves des Perrieres, the best Pouilly-Fume you’ll ever try? No, but it’s tasty and authentically Loire Valley, a clean, fresh sauvignon blanc that offers spicy and moderately earthy citrus and lime peel scents and flavors enlivened with acid that’s almost crystalline and vibrant limestone and flint qualities. The limestone element expands through the finish and dominates it, giving the wine a one-note conclusion, but we can forgive that shortcoming in a sauvignon blanc that’s so enjoyable and fairly priced, about $12. I rate the wine Very Good. Imported by Plume Ridge Wine Negociants, Industry (I’m not kidding), Cal.
Blason de Bourgogne Cuvee Brut, a non-vintage Cremant de Bourgogne, is made by Les Caves de Bailly a well-run cooperative founded in 1971 in the tiny town of Saint-Bris-Le-Vineux, in the Yonne department. Chablis is nominally part of Burgundy, though it seems awfully far away in terms of geography, climate and presentation. This Cremant offers a delicate peachy-copper color and a bouquet of fresh and dried strawberries and raspberries. The bubbles are tiny and persistent, lending liveliness to a wine that’s already fresh and crisp. In the mouth, there’s a bit of bread dough, a hint of yeast, a touch of almond and almond blossom, all wrapped in a lovely silken texture. Winsome and irresistible. Very Good+. About $11, a Great Bargain. Plume Ridge Wine Merchants, Industry, Cal.
The last of this group was my least favorite. Made by the cooperative Les Vignerons de l’Enclave des Papes, the Valreas “Cuvee Prestige” 2006, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, would get a better rating from me if it weren’t so enveloped in dusty, gritty, walloping tannins that bury the plum and black currant flavors. A bouquet freighted with potpourri, leather, lavender and sandalwood is seductive enough, so perhaps this little wine needs a year or two to soften. On the other hand, you don’t go to Trader Joe’s and pay $6 for a wine you have to wait two years tSo, I give the wine a Good+ and we’ll hope for the best. Plume Ridge Wine Negociants.