CAL916, $11.99 2008 Glass Ridge, California Pinot Grigio:
I’m typing this on a late Wednesday in March, and decided to lead with the white wine feature because on Monday I received the 2010 New World International Wine Competition silver medal notification for this, our first ever Glass (value-is-my-middle-name) Ridge Pinot Grigio.
Why bother with California Pinot Grigio? Is it really an affirmation of Old World heritage - a labor of love for West Coast vintners and winemakers with last names that end in a vowel, or is it a blatant attempt to carve back a slice from the still-growing Italian white wine market share for the Golden State? In California’s favor, is the bulk of the Pinot Grigio consumed in the States with any thought towards its Northeast Italian origins? I suspect most is used as a cocktail, far less, for example, than when carefully paired with a Veronese seafood and rice dish. Still, “Sketches of Spain” remains a masterpiece, though Miles Davis & Gil Evans were not Spanish.
Is there anything special about Pinot Grigio, ignoring geography for a minute? Any honest wine merchant will tell you that it sells like crazy, and the subsequent cash flow generated helps support said merchant’s ability to offer more interesting and expensive wines. Pinot Grigio is partially responsible for the current shift away from oaked whites. And since when is an introductory fine white for the masses a bad thing? Wine is supposed to be a beverage of pleasure, which we jaded industry types often forget. To take this even further, as a fledgling wine bottler I was taught that we have an obligation to steer clients to Alsatian (formerly Tokay) Pinot Gris and the like from Oregon and New Zealand, “wines that Pinot Grigio wants to be when it grows up”, but elitism never pairs well with a tough economy.
Tasted table loads of affordable 2008 Pinot Grigios to unearth this wine, including more non-Italians than ever before. Shorter form is that all of the wines making the first cut confirmed the ubiquitous generic Italian white wine traits of light, clean, crisp, refreshing, with no oak. Second cut, wines exhibited some sort of pronounced white flower nose and in the mouth, melon. Some of the more complex (and pricey, it turns out) wines also displayed aromas and flavors of dates, figs and nuts. Where Old World versus New really was apparent, the Italians proved uniformly a touch lighter in body, featured mineral elements in both the nose and on the palate, and boasted fresh acidity. Californians, side-by-side comparison, possessed more body, texture and, to a wine, were a little sweeter. Ginger ale versus Coca-Cola, better with food versus satisfying alone, vibrant and exuberant versus luscious and rich. And, for my money, the best value price range California Pinot Grigio proved to be from a grower that actively cultivates his Italian-American heritage, and that’s what we bottled as the 08 Glass Ridge.
ARG039, $11.99 2008 Baudron, Mendoza Tempranillo, Argentina:
Argentine wines remain a hot commodity for a variety of reasons. The US dollar is still strong there - how many wine-producing countries can you say that about? The thriving Malbec business obviously strengthens growers and wineries, but it has also shifted US consumer perception of Argentine wines from cheap to value to world class. And has gotten Americans to look beyond just Malbec and Malbec blends to re-consider once-unjustly-overlooked Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon – this is a big beef producer of a nation, after all – and to appreciate other Argentine signature wines like Torrontes and Bonarda.
Tempranillo is still way undervalued in the US if not from one of the top regions in Spain. Even more so Tempranillo from Argentina, which flies beneath the radar. With a Merlot-like heft and supple mouth feel, vibrant, herbaceous, olive, nut, black, brown and red berry fruit flavors, the Baudron’s a perfect barbeque red or served with Mediterranean cuisine. And to seal the deal, here’s the notes from the judges at the 2010 World Wine Championships, where this wine recently earned a silver medal and best buy designation: ”Deep garnet violet color. Ripe cherry and boysenberry aromas reveal a touch of pencil shavings and roasted peppers and fennel and follow through on a round, supple entry to a dry-yet-fruity medium body with very good, intensity and balance. Finishes with a tangy oak spice kissed fade. Very tasty and food affined. (tasted on Feb-18-2010)”
ITA667, $14.99 2006 Podere Volpaio, Toscana IGT, Italy:
Don’t take this the wrong way – I love Tuscany, I’m just depressed that as a nation we’ve devolved what should be properly feted as the cradle of the Renaissance into a Food Network cliché. Marketing gurus put the word “Tuscan” on anything and everything, accuracy flushed right down the toilet – obviously they teach misuse of the word “Tuscan” as a case study in a business school somewhere…best practices: “No one knows that we brew up the sauce in Pasaic, call it Sun Kissed Tuscan and we’re golden”…I believe this Tuscan-as-an-adjective phenomenon was exacerbated by the film “Under the Tuscan Sun”. Admittedly, I was paying way too much attention to Diane Lane in her underoos to take seriously any tale of a personal journey towards fulfillment. But since 2003 I’ve received scads of requests to arrange visits to producers in the region all starting with these identical words, “we’ve rented a villa…”
You’d like to think that Americans would be more savvy equating Tuscan food and wine with art and culture - every major US city has an Italian-American region known for its restaurants that’s done a portion of this education for the masses – North Beach, Little Italy, the North End. I’m saddened that the area that birthed peerless olive oil, the architecture of Florence, Siena, and Pisa, brought us Machiavelli, the Medicis and the Uffizi may have a lower Q rating than three-quarters of the named-after-Tuscan-greats Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (I always associated Raphael with Rome, though I may be wrong.)
Toscana/Toscano IGT items, essentially the Super Tuscan and baby Super Tuscan categories, bring out the cynic in me. Originally conceived as blends of estate grown Sangiovese plus Bordeaux varietals, this late 1970’s “producer-led rebellion against the DOC and DOCG” helped put Tuscany back on the map in the eyes of many Americans, particularly certain members of the then-fledgling US wine press. In some eyes, lowly Sangiovese had come a long way. This attention also improved Chianti wines. But was this really a new expression of the area’s potential, or merely a reaction to produce wines in a more international style to fetch some of the astronomical dollars being generated by the sales of classified Bordeaux and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon pricing? Especially now that we see more and more Merlot and Syrah in the blends.
My original blind tasting notes on this April feature: “herbaceous, bit vinous red berry nose. Textbook affordable Sangiovese with less acidity than I look for (personal, not a flaw). Satisfying in the mouth, some texture, some vif, want more intensity and heft, price will play more of a role on this one”. Three things, beyond the blind tasting results sold us on the wine – this pushed our old price value relationship standards-for-baby-Super-Tuscans Canta Lupo, and Corte alle Mine Cuvee MNT right off the tasting table. Plus there is only a tiny amount of the wine available at this price point, making it a legitimate almost-too-good-to-be-true-deal. Finally, the vineyard is certified organic.
NAP952, $17.99 2005 Lakeville Cellars, Napa County Cabernet Sauvignon, California:
The final April feature is the last hurrah of an old client favorite and 2008 World Wine Championships silver medal winner, highly recommended. This gem from the magnificent 2005 vintage is at optimum drinking now, and was aged to perfection on the winery’s and our dime, rather than sitting in your cellar. The winemaking problem here, solved by the team of Hossein Namdar, Bob Goyette, Guy Davis and myself was to preserve the integrity of our original $21.99 Napa Valley Cabernet that we know we had nailed, but at noticeably less than twenty dollars per bottle price, within reason. Several hours and a zillion blend variations later we had our price point without compromising the wine quality. We sacrificed the prestigious Napa Valley appellation in favor of Napa County and a more accessible price. Here’s the judge’s notes from the 2008 World Wine Championships: “Deep ruby color. Chocolate covered cherry and currant aromas with a touch of vanilla nut fudge follow through to a smooth, fruity medium-to-full body with cola nut, ginger, and roasted pepper notes. Finishes with a bittersweet chocolate, berry, and savory tomato fade. A rewarding table wine to serve with meat and pasta dishes. (tasted on Feb-26-2008)”
And mercifully, no feeble “Waste Land” rip-off in closing.