Beaujolais Is So Much More Than Nouveau

Beaujolais-Wine-countryBeaujolais remains one of France’s classic, most celebrated wines, although its reputation has often been maligned by the ocean of Beaujolais Nouveau that inundates consumers each fall. Will the real Beaujolais please stand up?

Situated in the extreme south of Burgundy, Beaujolais is a vast region of nearly two hundred villages and communes, which are spread out on varying subsoils and are influenced by individual terroirs. Unofficially, Beaujolais forms the dividing line between northern and southern France. Straddling the un-specified equivalent of the American Mason-Dixon Line, authentic Beaujolais flows in copious quantities north to Paris and south to Lyon and beyond to the delight of many.

In spite of inherent variations in quality, which reflect the differences in soil composition, altitude, and level of production among the region’s thousands of growers, one common denominator comes to fore in Beaujolais – the Gamay grape. Gamay provides the defining character and flavor of Beaujolais, and nowhere is this more the case than in the 10 cru villages of Beaujolais – the source of the finest wines of the region. Although wines bearing a Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages AOC can provide very pleasant drinking, the ten cru villages comprise the heart of Beaujolais and offer the consumer the finest Gamay wines in the world. In addition, each of these ten townships possesses a special terroir and individual set of characteristics that make for memorable drinking.

These 10 cru villages of Beaujolais are Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Chiroubles, St. Amour, Fleurie, Regnie, Chenas, Morgon, Julienas, and Moulin-à-Vent. Although each cru has its merits and particular attributes, Morgon, Julienas, and Moulin-à-Vent are widely acknowledged to be the finest, fullest and most Burgundy-like of the wines of Beaujolais, and they enjoy an enviable reputation for ageing up to five years or more in bottle with excellent results.

Some reliable producers of excellent cru Beaujolais include Château de Pizay, Château de Saint Lager, Daniel Bouland, Georges Descombes, and Mathieu Lapierre. Like all Beaujolais, cru Beaujolais is best consumed in the company of good home cooking and served cool or even just slightly chilled. Enjoy!


Rosé is the Summer’s “Hottest” Wine

Rose WineWhen the weather turns warm, the tree frogs and cicadas begin to sing, and barbecues and backyard parties are in full-swing, it is time to pour a glass of cool rosé – the summer’s hottest wine.

Rosé has been popular in Europe for centuries and enjoys a long, illustrious history.  Nonetheless, with the exception of the low alcohol White Zinfandel craze of the 1980s, Americans have been reluctant to embrace anything pink but a high octane Cosmopolitan, until now.  Fortunately, long gone are the days when White Zinfandel is the only rosé game in town.  Today’s rosé wines emanate from many different grape varieties and come in all different flavors, shades of color, and levels of sweetness from around the world.  However, it is dry rosés from California, Spain, South Africa, and most prominently Provence in southern France that constitute this summer’s “hottest” wine.

Provence is the spiritual home of today’s dry rosé.  It is a land that elicits visions of scintillating landscapes, eye stopping vistas, and undulating fields of lavender and massive cypress as they wave in the winds that wash the countryside clean.  Provence is also the birthplace of troubadours and Provençal, the lyrical language of poetry, and the planet’s most endearing wines.  More than 140 million bottles of wine are produced annually in Provence, a region famous for its wines since the Roman era, and over 105 million bottles (75% of that entire region’s wine production) is rosé.

Many of today’s most popular domestic and imported rosé wines flow from traditional Provençal grape varietals such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and Rolle.  However, around the world, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and other varietals make fine dry rosés, too.

Provençal rosés and many of their New World counterparts are dry, delicate wines that are much more akin to white wine than red wine, as they are produced like white wines with minimal skin contact and no time in oak barrel.  After harvest, a portion of the grapes undergo a cold maceration at various temperatures and lengths of time according to the grape variety in order to preserve the wine’s delicate aroma. The remaining grapes are vinified by a direct pressing, which imparts a slight pink color from the skins of the dark grapes.  The wines are then blended and their élevage (upbringing) takes place entirely in stainless steel tanks until early February, when the young rose-colored wine is bottled for maximum freshness.  Rosés are this summer’s “hottest” wines because they are fresh, flavorful, and served cold from a variety of premium grape varieties.  In most cases, dry rosés are at their best in the first year of their life, which means looking for the current vintage or most recent release.  Enjoy!


Pinot Noir: The World’s Most Expensive Wine Need Not Break the Bank

pinot-noir-grapePinot Noir grapes are, without a doubt, one of the world’s most expensive grapes to grow, as well as one of the most difficult grapes to cultivate. Like an orchid, it requires constancy, just the right soil with a precise environment to thrive, and temperatures that are neither too cool nor too warm. More often than not, the temperamental Pinot Noir grape acts as a jealous and demanding lover. However, when the stars align, the terroir is ideal, and the winemaker possesses enough knowledge of the finicky, thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape to know when less is more in the winemaking process, Pinot Noir becomes transfigured and the wine it yields shines with a luster like no other.

Adored by connoisseurs and idolized by collectors and critics, Pinot Noir enjoys worldwide appeal. Pinot Noir’s ancestral home is France, where it is responsible for all of the great red wines of Burgundy, including Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot, and Romanée Conti – the latter being the world’s most expensive wine. For centuries, French Burgundy enjoyed the reputation as the only great Pinot Noir. However, in the past forty years, California’s Carneros, Monterey, Russian River, Santa Barbara, and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations have lured Pinot Noir lovers by fashioning world-class Pinot Noirs. Oregon’s Willamette Valley, New Zealand’s Central Otago, and most recently Chile’s cool Casablanca Valley also rank as meccas for the mercurial Pinot Noir.

Although fine Pinot Noir will never be cheap, it need not break the bank. Some exceptional affordable French Burgundies still exist, including the 2012 Domaine Jacques Girardin Clos Rousseau Premier Cru Santenay, and the 2010 and 2012 Jacques Girardin Les Feuillets Premier Cru Savigny-les-Beaune. From California, Fore Family Vineyards’ 2009 and 2010 Carneros Napa Pinot Noirs truly outperform the pack by delivering complex, age-worthy Pinot Noirs that keep on giving. Benovia, Freeman, Molnar, Paraiso, and Walt are other outstanding boutique California producers of world-class Pinot Noir, but whose wines cost a fraction of most Premier and Grand Cru French Burgundies.

bethel-heights-aeolian-pinot-noir-2012-bottleWalt’s La Brisa and Blue Jay offerings are especially worth seeking out. Oregon’s Willamette Valley holds another treasure trove of outstanding Pinot Noirs. Bethel Heights 2012 Aeolian Estate Eola Amity Hills Pinot Noir is just the most recent success from this pioneering Willamette Valley family estate. And from lands “down under,” few can match Josef Chromy in Tasmania or Rockburn in New Zealand’s Central Otago in fashioning outstanding Pinot Noir. Enjoy!


Rioja: Home to Spain’s Best Red Wine Bargains

TempranilloRioja’s Minister of Tourism describes Rioja as, “a land of history, light and color, vines and wheat, and above all, people for whom friendship is the greatest possible treasure.”  Rioja is indeed a special land, etched by history and endowed by a special wine which shares the region’s name. Spanish Rioja wine is as warm, friendly, and distinctive as the people who inhabit this unique land halfway between Spain’s capital and the towering Pyrenees Mountains.  Rioja is also the most approachable and recognized name in great Spanish wine and the home of Spain’s best red wine bargains.

Vineyards have always influenced the history and character of the people in the Rioja.  Long before France became a bastion of fine wine, the Romans had settled in Iberia and pushed inland from the Mediterranean to the headwaters of the Ebro River and its tiny tributary, Rio Oja, from which Rioja derives its name.  In Rioja, the Romans found ideal conditions for the cultivation of exceptional Spanish grape varietals, like the Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Graciano, and Garnacha (Grenache) grape varieties that today constitute red Rioja.  Given its long history for continuously producing fine red wines, Rioja not surprisingly received Spain’s first Denominación de Origen (D.O.) in 1933.

It is Rioja’s unique blend of red grapes, coupled with an often lavish hiatus in small, mostly American oak barrels, that produces a warm, truly dry, but richly fruity red wine of great finesse and perfume that can appear nearly immortal in great vintages.  Although a few names in Rioja carry hefty price tags, the vast majority of red Rioja comes from 132,000 acres and three distinct zones (Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, and Rioja Baja). These wines sell for far less than wines of comparable quality from elsewhere, making red Rioja one of the planet’s greatest red wine bargains.

Red Rioja comes in four basic styles: Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva.  The amount of oak barrel aging, coupled with time in the bottle before release, determines the designation. These styles begin with Joven, which receives little or no time in oak barrels, and culminates with Gran Reserva, which matures in barrels for two or more years and cannot be sold before its fifth birthday.

The best bargains in Rioja are among the Joven, Crianza, and Reserva designations.  Some wonderful bargains in red Rioja include the 2014 Martinez Corta Ceps Antiguas Selección Privada, an exuberant Joven Rioja from old vines, the 2012 Bodegas Montaña Crianza, a smooth, aged Rioja that drinks like a fine Reserva, and the 2008 Valenciso Rioja Reserva, Decanter magazine’s Wine of the Year.

As a well-lauded Reserva, the 2008 Valenciso Rioja Reserva sells for considerably more than Joven or Crianza offerings, yet it still constitutes a bargain vis à vis French and Italian wines of comparable quality.  Other wonderful red Rioja producers to look for are Amézola de la Mora, La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza, and Luis Canas, among others.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape: France’s Greatest Appellation

Châteauneuf-du-PapeChâteauneuf-du-Pape sits astride the swift-moving Rhône River in the sun-drenched heart of Provence, known as the Vaucluse.  Blessed with a dry Mediterranean climate ideal for the cultivation of vines and the production of wine, this picturesque wine region fashions a vast array of the world’s greatest red wines, thanks in large part to the proliferation of old-vine Grenache.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape championed France’s Appellation Control and was the first wine region in the world to garner Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) status in 1936.  Châteauneuf-du-Pape became the model for the entire French system of Appellation Control and nearly all other subsequent attempts to guarantee the authenticity of wine and improve the wine of individual wine regions worldwide.  Quality and integrity have long been the hallmarks of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which led Robert Parker, Jr. and other wine critics to dub Châteauneuf-du-Pape France’s greatest appellation.

Great wine almost always begins with healthy old vines, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape possesses some of the oldest vines in France. The average age of the vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is in excess of 40 years, by far the oldest of any major appellation in France, and many of those vines are actually more than 100 years old.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape VineyardIn addition, the entire production of this great wine is hand harvested.  Moreover, there is the region’s fabulous terroir – large, flat stones known as galets roulés that mingle with decomposed gravel.  These remnants of Alpine glaciers, which once covered southern France, form Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s glacial till. This sacred till provides excellent drainage and imparts subtle nuances of flavor to the appellation’s outstanding wines. Many consumers are surprised that both red and white wines emanate from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, and that red Châteauneuf-du-Pape may contain up to thirteen legal grape varieties!

Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Muscardin, Counoise, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Roussanne, Terret Noir, Picardan, and Vaccarese are all legal grape varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and a case can be made that there are actually fourteen legal grape varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as Grenache comes in both red and white varieties.  Although many fine white Châteauneuf-du-Papes now proliferate in the market, red wine still reigns supreme in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, both in terms of quality and quantity.

Hundreds of proprietors fashion red Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the appellation’s more than 8,000 acres, much of it world class.  Some of the most consistent producers of top-notch red Châteauneuf-du-Pape include Château Beaucastel, Domaine Vieux Lazaret, Guigal, and Domaine du Grand Tinel. The latter’s regular estate bottling and luxury Cuvée Establet offerings constitute two of the greatest values in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.