1985 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia - a gorgeous nose of strawberry and underbrush immediately grabbed my attention. I had in my glass that magical thing, a wine you want to coddle and sniff for a long while before even sipping it. Such glorious aromatics. At last, though, I struck out to discover if it was going to be an interesting sip, to boot. Zounds. On the palate, it was even better than what its heady scents promised. Such death-defying complexity! Waves of silky, elegant fruit and earthiness, with a sudden twist of sap and bark right in the middle, and then playing out forever, until I was wide-eyed and shaking my head. Wow.
Borsao is a bully. It just beats the crap out of not only American wines selling for under ten bucks, but all to many in the $20 range too. We Californians have to stop letting these Spanish bullies push us around. Perhaps when we're less concerned with appearances than what's in the bottle we'll find our courage.
Just south of Navarra and west of Barcelona, Bodegas Borsao is in the Northwest of the province of Zaragoza, There they make a delicious red wine, Borsao Campo de Borja, which I picked up for seven bucks. This blend of 75% garnacha (grenache) and tempranillo is simply delicious. Yes, simple may be the operative word here, but there's just enough complexity to push this well balanced wine well beyond the pack in its price range. This is an outstanding everyday wine that admirably pairs with pizza or pork chops on a Wednesday night or will more than please your guests at that big party next weekend.
Yet again, a wine they have to put in a boat and transport thousands of miles trashes the local competition.
In 1964 the Beatles released Meet the Beatles in the United States, the first Ford Mustang was produced, Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater for President and the grapes for the 1964 Gran Reserva Rioja of Faustino I were harvested. They made 219,500 bottles and I drank one last night. I can’t help but be struck by history when I taste older wines. By the way, I just turned nine a month before they picked these grapes, which means I’m becoming part of history too.
To experience these wines is to touch a piece of history as no one makes wines in the same way anymore. Too much science has entered both the winery and vineyard and that’s a good thing. The great thing about an old Rioja Grand Reserva is that they were only produced from the best vintages and from the best wines, which means that you won’t find the faults you often see in older wines from lesser years and pedigrees. A wine like this lets you reach out to winemakers of the past and be touched by the way they thought.
The 64 Faustino Gran Reserva shows not a trace of cassis, raspberries, new oak or alcohol. Part of that is its age, but I’m willing to bet it never showed any of those things. Years in barrels (old) and bottle before release assured there was no baby fat on this wine when it was deemed ready for sale. The winery did the maturing for you.
The most striking thing about such wines are the aromatics. It is almost (almost) anti-climatic to taste them. The other is the finish, which is long and haunting. They are wines that invite you to think. Think about not only the way they taste and smell, but about the people and times in which they were born.
There is no such thing as great young wine. Very good, very enjoyable ones yes, but great ones no. Young wines only have the potential to be great. Drinking young wine all the time deadens the palate making it only sensitive to power and fruit. In today’s hedonistic market driven by immediate pleasures most of the greatest wines are consumed before they actually become great. It’s a terrible waste as today’s wines could be the best ever made and, in addition, never have there been so many wonderful wines designed to be drunk young. More often then not, these “lesser” wines are more pleasurable to drink in their youth than more distinguished and pricy bottles.
For every wine there is a season, connoisseurs should be able to pick the proper season to drink wines made to age. Now we give potentially great, age-worthy (age-necessary) wines points at birth and that defines them forever. It is more important how a Bordeaux or Barolo tastes at two than how it tastes at twelve. That is obviously half-ass backwards. There are wonderful wines for drinking young and grand wines that don’t achieve their regal stature for years. Trying to make those wines ready to drink upon release denies their true potential. It is silly to think that a wine can become instantly profound. Like the people that make them, few wines become become complex as adolescents.
It would be depressing to think you achieved your intellectual peak at thirteen. Why do the same thing to the world’s finest wines.
We beat the crap out of it: ship it badly, store it badly, serve it badly. I wonder why sales are not great for Sherry? While the more robust Oloroso and Sweet Sherry wines can somewhat stand up to this abuse, the delicate flower that is Fino cannot.
For practical purposes there are really only two types of Sherry, Fino and Oloroso, and everything else is a riff off of those two themes. What divides these two wines is the Flor, a film of yeast cells that is allowed to develop in the partially filled barrels. When the Flor is very thick the wine becomes Fino, while those where the Flor hardly develops at all become Oloroso. Under the thick coating of Flor the Fino is protected from oxidation, while Oloroso becomes dark brown as it is very oxidized. Fino and Oloroso are two different wines to be served in different ways. The Oloroso wines are usually thought of as meditation wines, something to sip on while reading a book and munching on almonds in front of the fire. While Fino is thought of as, well, a wine. Fino should be consumed just as you’d drink a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc with the same food and in the same situations. By the way, my glass of choice for Fino is a Champagne flute.
Fino Sherry should be served as young as possible and cold, not cool. The fact that expensive and elegant restaurants across the country, many of them with sommeliers, continue to have open bottles of warm Fino Sherry on their back bar is just incredible. I can think of no other of the world’s great wines that is so routinely mistreated by those that should know better.
Freshness is the key to enjoying Fino at its best and that means that not only do you have to look for a top producer, but for an importer willing to manage their inventory in such a way that only the freshest wine is available in the market. One company excels at this, Steve Metzler’s Classical Wines of Spain imports the great Bodegas Hidalgo Manzanilla La Gitana and goes to great lengths to insure that La Gitana is always in pristine condition. Manzanilla is a Fino Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where the wines develop a unique lightness and freshness. Along with Lustau, these are my favorite generally available Sherry wines of all types available in the United States. You are unlikely to get a Fino/Manzanilla Sherry in the United States in better condition than La Gitana. This, combined with the fact that no better example of this type of wine exists, means that if you want to understand why these are great wines this is the wine to try. If available, buy Fino/Manzanilla in half-bottles because these wines do not keep well once the bottle is opened.
Fino/Manzanilla wines are more like great dry wines than fortified wines when they are fresh. They are crisp, bright and fruity and match beautifully with seafood, sushi and savory appetizers, like the ones you see in the tapas bars of Spain. Always avoid Fino with an alcohol higher than 15.5%, which some producers do to give the wine more shelf-life, destroying the wine in the process.
This post was inspired by my Twitter (drdebs) and blogging buddy (Good Wine Under $20), who is making us jealous with her Twits as she drinks and eats her way through Spain. Her recent comment about drinking a glass of fresh Fino out of a frosted glass at a tapas bar reminded me of how great this wine can be. Drink an extra glass for me tonight Dr. Debs! I’m off to find a bottle of La Gitana. (Buy La Gitana online)
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Sometimes it’s embarrassing as an American to taste the incredible range of bargains available for under $15 from Europe and compare them to American wines at the same prices. The boring standardization of the American wine industry in this range is numbing. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different labels, but in the bottle you find only dozens of styles. As you stare at shelf-after-shelf of American cabernet, merlot or chardonnay in your local grocery store you can reliably just pick the one that’s on sale as they are all more-or-less the same wine. However, with just a little more work you can find an entire world of wine bargains that offer far more character than these homogenized industrial wines. It’s important to remember that these bargain reds should be served cool, 65°F or so, to bring out their freshness.
The red wines listed below are all under $15 and many of them are under $10. All of them were purchased in grocery stores, not fine wine shops, so it is possible to find them. Each has character, if not complexity, and best of all, they are great with food. Inexpensive American wines have become the elevator music of the wine world, wines like these are the original tunes.
- Château Bouissel, Fronton, Classic, 2003 - Southern French estates offer some of best bargains out of France. This wine is substantial without being heavy and with the structure coming from the negrette will improve for a year or two. Rich and warm with a dark color from the malbec the tannins in the finish make this perfect for rich stews. Cassoulet anyone? 50% negrette, 20% syrah, 20% cabernet franc, 10% cot (malbec) Imported by Normandie Imports
- Covey Run, Syrah, Columbia Valley, 2004 - What we have here is an American Côtes du Rhône and that’s a great idea. Ripe and juicy with a soft fruitiness that should please any merlot drinker. Don’t think, just drink and you’ll love it. At $6.99 a great bargain. Drink up fast and cool. (Buy online)
- Fattoria Laila, Rosso Piceno, 2005 - Marche wines continue to be ignored Italian treasures in America, but that keeps prices down. This blend of montepulciano and sangiovese is a classic Italian red with a firm acid backbone and warm earthy flavors over the bright black cherry fruit. This matched with my penne with lamb sausage ragù perfectly. Imported by North Berkeley Imports and Zancanella Importing. (Buy online)
- La Ferme de Gicon, Côtes du Rhône, Vignerons de Chusclan, 2006 - This is just an amazingly easy wine to gulp. Rich, zesty, fruity and alive this is a wine all about honest simple pleasure that is happy to leave complexity to the big boys. This is a buy by the case wine at under $10 that will match with any summer meal. A half-hour in the refrigerator is mandatory and during the dog days of summer I’d serve it out-and-out chilled. Imported by Cellar Door Selections (Buy online)
- Villa Pigna Briccaio, Marche IGT, 2003 - Briccaio - Here is a step up on the complexity meter as it not only offers easy drink-ability, but some real character. Showing the breed of montepulciano, from which it is entirely made, this wine combines classic Italian backbone with a generous personality. A great match for your best grilled steaks. Imported by Zancanella Imports (Buy online)
- Quinta da Espiga, Casa Santos Lima, Estremadura, 2006 - Portugal continues to pump out great wine bargains. This is a big, robust, deeply fruity wine and is a real mouthful. Those that like bigger wines will love this $8 steal. These dry Portuguese reds almost remind me a bit of what Port would taste like without the sugar.
- Bodegas Luzon, Jumilla, 2006 - 65% monastrell (mourvèdre) 35% syrah - A big lush, ripe modern-style Spanish wine that will seduce many a merlot lover with its soft richness. Another wine for steaks or chops at your next cookout. A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group
- Regaleali, Tasca d”Almerita, IGT Sicilia, Nero d’Avola, 2006 - I have always found the big players in the Sicilian wine scene, Regaleali and Corvo great values. They offered personality and typicity at a fair price. While these wines have modernized a bit over the years they have not gone down the road of becoming more like Australian wines than Italian wines taken by so many Sicilian producers. This wine has great backbone, good varietal character and, most wonderful of all, tastes like it comes from Sicily. Imported by Winebow
- Clos Roche Blanche, Cuvée Pif, Touraine, 2004 - I first tasted the 2004 back in September of 2006 and it keeps getting better and better. It’s hard to imagine a wine more lifting and filled with personality at this price. This wine is for those looking for grace and elegance in a wine. Originally I recommended drinking this cot (malbec) cabernet franc blend early, but obviously there was no hurry. Imported by Louis/Dressner (Buy Online)
- Protocolo, Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, 2005 - Usually Ordoñez selections tend towards the modern school of Spanish winemaking, but here is one with a more traditional style. Very fragrant and flashing a touch of spicy/sweet American oak its ripe red fruit flavors are held taught with just a touch of tannin. With a more classic European style and balance this is a great match for gilled lamb chops or sausages. A Jorge Ordoñez Selection Imported by The Henry Wine Group (Buy online)
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Recent wines I’ve enjoyed:
- Weiβburgunder, pur mineral, Trocken Franken, Fürst, 2006 - Pur mineral indeed. This is a razor blade of wine with electric acidity and flavors that slap your taste buds awake. Served with fresh Dungeness crab it was an amazing match. It took me three days to finish this bottle and it never changed a bit.
- Riesling, Winninger Uhlen Kabinett, Mosel Saar Ruwer, Freiherr von Heddesdorff, 2005 - Bright and refreshing and a wonderful aperitif. Clean apricot with just a hint of petrol, I enjoyed the first two glasses as an aperitif on two days after work and finished the bottle with some Thai carryout. I think it is better to drink this younger rather than cellaring it as it seems all about the fruit.
- Pinot Noir, Littorai, Sonoma Coast, 2005 - One of the best California pinot noir wines I’ve tasted. Great balance, weight and structure. One of those pinots that deftly blends both bright fruit and funk into a wine of unending interest. The finish lasts longer than you can wait to take another sip.
- Pinot Noir, Walter Hansel, Hansel Family Vineyards, Cahill Lane Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 2005 - An excellent pinot noir that had the unfortunate luck of being served next to the Littorai. However, this is an very good pinot noir that exhibits what could be called the best characteristics of a balanced California style. Rich without being jammy with an lush balance and a lingering finish.
- Syrah, Dry Creek Valley, Michel-Schlumberger, 2005 - Appropriately big, but not over the top. You won’t confuse this syrah with grape concentrate. Meaty and oaky with a firm structure and more than enough fruit to carry the alcohol. I liked this wine quite a bit as it’s so hard to find a California wine that knows how to be big with dignity.
- Nebbiolo Langhe, Serralunga d’Alba, Germano Ettore, 2005 - A real classic angular nebbiolo with tannin to spare. So many nebbiolo wines these days seem to try do disguise themselves as zinfandels these days, it’s wonderful to taste a wine like this that lets the true character of its variety sing its own song. This wine will be much, much better in two or three years, but I drank my three bottles anyway. Note to self: buy more ASAP.
- Rioja Riserva, Muga, 2003 - What’s the deal with Rioja? The overt oaky character that I would hate in most wines just seem to work in Rioja. Muga is one of the premier estates in Rioja and this wine does not disappoint. Fragrant and elegant with a sweet oaky character that slides silkily across the palate with an underlying acidity that lifts and brightens the rich oaky fruit.
- Brandy, Germain Robin, Anno Domini 2000 - I’m a long time fan of the California brandies produced by Germain Robin, but I had not heard of their 2000 Anno Domini when a bartender friend recommended I give it a try. I was stunned at the quality of this brandy, which literally blows all the big commercial Cognac houses out of the water when it comes to quality. The depth and complexity displayed by this spirit cannot be overstated. Except for a few producers, buying Cognac is a waste of money these days when there are spirits like this outstanding brandy.
I remember when it was easy to buy two of my favorite beverages, Champagne and Cognac. A few decades ago you could hardly go wrong with either no matter the brand available. They were the perfect start and finish to any evening. The big brands were the best brands and wines like Veuve Clicquot Brut and spirits like Remy Martin were liquids to be contemplated, not just quaffed. Today these labels are more suitable for cocktails than snifters or flutes and are both brands to be avoided as bad values.
I always like to have bubbly in the fridge and enjoying an effervescent glass while cooking is a nightly preference. Lately, in addition to Venegazzu Prosecco, I’ve been buying the Spanish Cava brand Cristalino in both its Brut and Brut Rose versions at $7 a bottle and in all honesty prefer them both to Veuve Clicquot Brut. Many nights I also have a weakness for adding a dollop of Campari to my nightly bubbly aperitif and the Cristalino Brut is both financially and spiritually open to this experience. While the Clicquot is equally refreshing and enjoyable with Campari, the fact that it is five times the price makes the experience at least ten times less enjoyable. Buying Clicquot is getting way up there on the list of wines to buy only if you don’t know what you’re doing.
At the end of a rich dinner, few things are more necessary than a spirit to spur the digestion. That’s as good of a rationalization as any for letting yourself enjoy the warmth and good feelings brought to you by a fine brandy. It used to be that Remy Martin V.S.O.P was the most reliable Cognac around as it was widely available, reasonably priced and of excellent quality. Unfortunately, somewhere over the last twenty years Remy V.S.O.P. devolved into a warm caramel syrup. Today there are few large Cognac producers worth their weight in the caramelized sugar product known these days as Cognac. While there are some wonderful small producers in Cognac, there is only one direction to turn for fine French brandy: Armagnac. For some reason this region has never become cool enough to push prices out of range, while simultaneously pushing down quality. Over the holidays I picked up a bottle of the 1974 Bas Armagnac, Domaine Le Basque an exceptional estate bottled spirit from Christiane & Michel Lamothe for a bit more than Remy V.S.O.P. and a bit less than the Remy X.O. and in comparison this earthy, fragrant spirit makes Remy look like industrial brandy from California.
Drinking Remy and Clicquot used to make me feel stupid if I drank too much. Now they make me feel stupid to buy them at all.
Monastrell and Mourvedré are one in the same, and like growers in southern France, the Spanish have discovered the value of their old vineyards. This chewy, but still structured wine is warm and earthy with touches of leather all packed into a concentrated rich dark red fruit package. However, unlike so many others, this wine is rich, deeply fruity and powerful, but not overblown or blowsy. I enjoyed this wine over three days, so some short term aging is fine, but probably not absolutely necessary as this is a wine wearing all of its charms up-front. It was a great match with some smoky homemade sausages from my local butcher. From 40-year-old vines.