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!

Salud!
Don

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.

Salud!
Don

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.

Salud!
Don

California’s Best-Kept Wine Secrets

From Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel, California’s Napa and Sonoma counties continue to fashion outstanding California wines, but these prized areas are far from the only games in town. Many of California’s most compelling wines now flow from two little-known American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) tucked into the hills of Santa Barbara County: the delightfully named Ballard Canyon and Happy Canyon. Together, these small AVAs are producing compelling Syrahs and Cabernet Sauvignons that outperform many of the better known and more expensive red wines from Napa and Sonoma.

Ballard Canyon - StolpmanBallard Canyon

Ballard Canyon enjoys its own distinctive AVA within Santa Barbara County, thanks to pioneers Tom, Judy, and Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards, Tom Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards, and several other like-minded individuals who recognized the unique climate and terroir of Ballard Canyon decades ago and pioneered its planting.

Ballard Canyon enjoys cool maritime influences from the Santa Rita Hills to the west and warmer temperatures from Happy Canyon to the east. With wind, soil, and climate all conducive to the production of great Syrah, Ballard Canyon has become a premier source for exceptional Syrah.

Possessing the finesse and complex aromatic profiles of the finest Syrah from France’s Rhône Valley, as well as the beautiful fruit and physiologically ripe tannins that make California’s red wines so appealing, Ballard Canyon truly shines with Syrah, so much so that Ballard Canyon is becoming synonymous with great Syrah throughout the world. What Napa Valley is to great Cabernet Sauvignon, Ballard Canyon now is to Syrah.

Happy CanyonHappy Canyon

Happy Canyon is emerging as one of California’s most exciting wine regions for the production of Bordeaux varietals. It is one of the smallest and least traveled viticultural areas of California, yet in spite of its diminutive size, Happy Canyon and its splendid hillside vineyards are making big names for themselves among savvy Cabernet drinkers.

Located at the far end of the Santa Ynez Valley, in the easternmost part of Santa Barbara County, Happy Canyon and its pastoral surroundings first gained renown for their premier orchards and sprawling cattle and horse ranches. It wasn’t until 1996 that vineyards first emerged on Happy Canyon’s bucolic hillsides. However, it didn’t take long to realize the canyon’s viticultural potential; with only a handful of vineyards and a tiny production, Happy Canyon gained its own official American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation in 2009.

Happy Canyon enjoys the warmest climate in Santa Barbara County, and the AVA’s unique microclimate and magnesium-rich, serpentine-laced soils provide ideal growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon and other high quality Bordeaux varietals – all of which are making cri
tics and wine lovers swoon.

Westerly and parent producer Crown Point Vineyards are two of the most compelling ventures in Happy Canyon. As one would expect, with a growing reputation for outstanding wines and only eight vineyards and three bona fide wineries to its name, Happy Canyon’s hand-crafted wines are highly allocated. Perhaps, the secret is already out?

Salud!
Don

The Best Red Wines of Bordeaux

Cars_GirondeFor most red wine drinkers, Bordeaux aficionados included, the best red wines of Bordeaux are not, and will likely never be, the region’s illustrious First Growths, Grand Cru Classés, and other classified or press-deified garagiste wines of miniscule production. Many wine lovers know the best red wines of Bordeaux will be the finest red wines they can afford from the world’s most renowned wine region, but let’s face it: only a small handful of billionaires can afford to fork over thousands of dollars for a single bottle of a fine vintage of Château Margaux, Petrus, or Haut-Brion, and fewer still will wait until these sanctified reds are truly ready to be enjoyed to the fullest.  So, what can red Bordeaux lovers do to slake their thirst for fine red Bordeaux?

Bordeaux, France, is the largest fine wine producing region in the world – a viticultural paradise jam-packed with small, family-owned châteaux and affordable red wine treasures.  This is particularly true in excellent vintages produced in 2010 and 2012.  Consequently, some of Bordeaux’s best bargains and most pleasing, ready-to-drink red wines can be found among Bordeaux Petits Châteaux, many of which bear just a Bordeaux Supérieur classification.

These are not the “big” names of Bordeaux, nor are any of these châteaux’s wines household words. However, select Petits Châteaux, such as the 2010 Château Barreyre and 2010 Château Laronde Desormes, constitute some of the best bargains in all Bordeaux and are ready to enjoy now. These are tasty, beautiful reds that over-deliver in every way.

For even more bang for the buck, the elegant, silky smooth 2012 Château Saint André Corbin St. Georges St.Emilion is downright irresistible now and much more inviting than many of the wines from its St. Emilion neighbors, most of which cost two to three times the price.  Another tasty, affordable gem is the 2012 Château Ducasse Graves, a sophisticated red Bordeaux that demonstrates why Graves, the oldest wine-producing area in Bordeaux, continues to enjoy the favor of critics and consumers alike.

The keys to finding the best red Bordeaux are the track record of a given château and the quality of the vintage.  Presently, the 2010 and 2012 vintages are the ones to look for, while we await the best red Bordeaux wines from the outstanding 2014 and 2015 vintages.

Salud!
Don