World Class Club Notes

"Benchmark (mostly red) examples of the world's greatest wines!" $69.99/month

Current and Past Club Notes



April 2018

2013 GIANFRANCO ALESSANDRIA – Barolo, Piedmont, Italy

For under forty bucks (utilizing your wine club discount, of course) you are accessing a wine genre which – like France’s sought-for and dearly paid-for Burgundies – often costs a bit more. You’re welcome!

Barolo is the name of a wine region – or “neighborhood,” if you will. It’s right next door to Barbaresco. Both of these happen in Italy’s northwestern sector called “Piemonte” which is anglicized to “Piedmont”. Barolo and Barbaresco are THE world’s best growing regions for the Nebbiolo grape. I was discussing this paradox just the other day with peers in the industry. They were wondering if I’d tasted any truly great California Nebbiolos. I replied that a couple or a few were commendable attempts, but none ever got anywhere close to what happens in those two ‘hoods of Piemonte. Cabernet Sauvignon has great interpretations the world over along with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. – But Nebbiolo remains the specialty, the proprietary forte of King Barolo and Queen Barbaresco.

The available information on the making of this 100% Nebbiolo from Barolo is woefully incomplete. For this wine buyer, though, that’s a refreshing positive. Wineries are often too “slick” with all they have to say – drowning out (sometimes compensating for) the message of the actual wine. For once you and I must rely entirely on our senses and a few extra clues.

Clues first: The importer for this wine is little rather than corporately big, making for a website eternally under construction (I appreciate this) and an emphasis on locating similarly little, presumably more honest, Italian wine producers. I have tasted a LOT of this Richmond, California-based importer’s finds and can declare them very good small-production gems. So, your wine finder is a good one, and to this I’ll add Clue #2: Look at the label. Traditional, not flashy. BAROLO, essentially and basically said.

Now apply your senses: The color is appropriate to Nebbiolo’s delicate orange-red. If you ever see purple Nebbiolo cry “Fraud!” and demand a refund. The scent is spot-on for the type: Uber-fragrant with raw leather and brawny tropical fruit. Maybe your descriptors are different but one thing’s for sure: Barolo’s perfume makes the wine lover wordy! The mouth: Frustrating - wonderfully - with fruit and intrusive tannins. Without those tannins we are without Barolo. Without great food – braised or roasted – we are without the right scene to accommodate and honor this, the King of Nebbiolo!!

For the King of Nebbiolo you could easily pay more, believe me:

Gondoliers . . . in OAKLAND??
2015 CAPRILI – Rosso di Montalcino – Tuscany, Italy

Do your relationship a favor: Make a reservation for a uniquely fun experience of local culture. Upon Oakland’s Lake Merritt there float authentic gondolas crafted in Venice, Italy. Angelino Sadri, owner of Gondola Servizio, is your host. Either he or one of his staff will guide you and yours about this urban sanctuary . . . and there’s a good chance you’ll suddenly be serenaded along the way. Have a glass of wine while you’re at it.

“Gondoliers in Oakland?” Yes. I promise. “So what the hell does that have to do with this wine?”

It has to do with Angelino. When you know all you do and do all you can as a salesperson in the wine biz – especially the competitive and often-underappreciated FOREIGN wine biz – you might also diversify. Aside from his prowess with a rudder, Angelino has faithfully represented a portfolio of Italian wines over the years. We see him only sporadically, but we know with every occasional visit he’ll pour us Italian wines as authentic as his Venetian-built boats.

This offering from Caprili reflects a recent resurrection of our dealings with Angelino. It’s a home run, perfectly representing southern Tuscany’s famous Montalcino region. It hails from the great vintage of 2015. It is 100% Sangiovese which saw a short nap in oversized barrels before bottling. It could be called “Brunello di Montalcino” except for its more brief barrel sojourn and the producer’s preference to represent these younger vines as mere “Rosso”. It is an idyllic expression of Sangiovese truth declaring redness in a lithe yet sappy way, with energetic, food-loving pizazz. My gondola-riding friends: This kicks ass, discreetly, and perfectly.

A connection to Angelino’s other gig:

(… and as a founder of the Lake Merritt Rowing Club, I’m sure my Dad would enjoy what his old boathouse now accommodates: Angelino’s gondolas and Lake Chalet Restaurant, blessed with a terrific view)

March 2018

Classicism from Bolgheri?
2015 LE MACCHIOLE – Bolgheri Rosso, Tuscany, Italy

You might have it in your head that because coastal Bolgheri is a more novel, newly-planted area well west of Tuscany’s more historic areas of Chianti, Montepulciano, and Montalcino it is bound to make a more enriched, modern-style wine. Isn’t the idea of the “Super Tuscan,” originally conceived here, meant to indulge the international palate greedy for something richer than Sangiovese? Isn’t that why these wines more often employ Bordeaux varieties?

Actually, I’ve found nearly every so-called “Super Tuscan” that’s entered my lips to be quite faithful to the Italian and Tuscan wine ideas of balance and structure and refinement. They are rarely “fruit bombs” but more often coinciding statements of fruit ripeness and restraint. That happens here in this Bolgheri blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. A seamless, medium-bodied wine awaits you, in spite of ingredients often aspiring to something more massive.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate awarded this 91+ points noting its “crispness of fruit” and “exotic spice aromas that are mild and subtle.” Wine Spectator weighs in with a 92 and respects Le Macchiole’s firmness, “… but the tannins are coated in flesh and the finish offers spice and mineral accents.” James Suckling is the most enthusiastic with his 95 point rating and the exclamation: “A rich and layered red with plum and currants. Full body, plenty of ripe fruit and lots of flavor at the finish."

Here is Tuscan class in your glass; nothing more and nothing less!!

Fresh, Fully-Ripe Bordeaux
2015 CHATEAU LANESSAN – Haut-Medoc, Bordeaux, France

2015 is the first truly successful Bordeaux vintage since 2010. It may lack the prodigiousness of that former year – time will tell – but it also, mercifully, lacks the “green-ness” often frustrating our hunt for good Bordeaux from 2011, 2012, and 2013. 2014, alternatively, had a somewhat better track record for classically-styled reds, but nothing has matched 2015’s fully ripe quality in quite a while.

We have already brought you a great example of this from the Right Bank, the Chateau Maltus. That wine was darker and deeper than this Chateau Lanessan from the other side of the Gironde. Here is the “classical style,” which might be enjoyed now but can certainly soften and develop with five to ten years of aging. It is made from 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, and 7% Cabernet Franc, all grown in a vineyard next to more famous Chateaux Gruaud Larose and Beychevelle. Dropping great names besides lesser-known ones such as Lanessan is meant to lend credibility to the wary, and while we’re at it let’s mention Robert Parker’s 92 point rating and James Suckling’s 93 with the remarks, “Impressive ripe blackberry and darker plum fruits with notes of earth and warm stones. The palate has a supple, even-paced and fresh fruited heart of red cherry and plum fruits. Smooth tannins flow long. Try from 2021.”

Famous names and accolades aside, here is The Wine Steward’s endorsement:

2015 Bordeaux will come in many shades and sizes, but all will be successful. Some are more ready to drink than others, but YOU should be ready to grab them as they appear for they’ll not remain long. We were offered this by an importer who grabbed a mere 30 cases for his California market. I spoke for seven cases as soon as I saw his e-mail. Two hours later came an apology to those who’d replied too late: “2015 Lanessan is gone!” That’s your cue, folks!

February 2018

92 points, 95 points, 93 points, 94 points . . .
2014 THORN CLARKE ‘William Randell’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON – Eden Valley, Australia

A wine without critical acclaim can still be a great wine. Conversely, a score-endowed wine can fail – due to either mis-appraisal or – more commonly - not suiting a particular receiver’s style preference. My ‘94 points’ may be no more than an ‘89’ to you, and vice versa. Aware of these two truths, The Wine Steward’s opinion of ratings is thus: Critical reviews are not the all-defining end of story for any wine, but for many consumers they are useful and TWS can look better by mentioning them when they happen. If our own positive impression has you remaining on the fence, perhaps an added “kick” by another industry pro will have you jumping over to the side of The Convinced.

Australian wine is not every California consumer’s cup of tea at present. The category had its day in our market, but as rapidly as its star rose it dramatically fell and flamed out. Palate fatigue might have been one cause; the tongue soon tires of too much of a good thing, an effect often ascribed to Australian wine. – But the industry hurt itself by constantly providing a cheaper and cheaper product, lower and lower in quality. A general, unimpressed impression of Aussie wine became established. Down Under could stay there, for all we cared.

We’re not here to resurrect a region’s image. That’s THEIR job. However, pointing out wine greatness when we identify it is our mandate, as well as providing BREADTH, so let’s do that right here.

Thorn Clarke is a Barossa-based producer with vineyards in the sub-regions of Barossa Valley (where Shiraz is king) and adjacent Eden Valley. This wine comes from the latter, slightly higher and cooler place. The lower temperature yields fruit with higher acidity. Eden Valley Rieslings are real zingers, and we carry a Thorn Clarke rendition. This feature of higher acidity lends refreshment to the reds when drunk young. Note the effect of ‘William Randell’ if you’re drinking it now: In spite of its ‘bigness’ there is a fresh, cooling effect in the scent and flavors. This Eden Valley attribute also provides durability. Wherever in the world they’re grown, higher-acid varietals will always last longer, outlasting their counterparts from warmer climes.

Let’s set aside the accolades for ‘William Randel’ (an ancestor of the winery family) and assess for ourselves – but naturally, I’ll put words in your mouth!
Pulled from your cellar and freshly uncorked, the cooler temperatures and lack of evolution will show you spearmint-laced fudge or – if you’re openminded about this – mint chip ice cream. Air it out and let it warm up a few degrees and you begin to sense nori, Worchestershire, cassis, and dry-aged beef. The mouth also broadens with air, temperature, and time. What began as a lean and precise red slowly relaxes to something more rich and mellow, albeit still well-structured with rugged tannins. A sense of hickory smoke provides a favorable memory.

This wine is not shy. It is decidedly New World in style. That said, it declares its louder, modern message with definition, remembering to stick to its script. That, for me, provides World Class quality within the Australian wine context, points or no points!

Really gorgeous
2015 Psi – Ribera del Duero, Spain

There is Pingus from Ribera del Duero, often rating 100 points by the various writers. Right now it’s going for $919 on Then there is “Flor de Pingus,” its little brother selling for a mere $89 - with ratings galore. And then, by the same folks, the same Tempranillo grape, and the same Ribera del Duero region, there is Psi.

These wines are the brainchild of Danish oenologist Peter Sisseck who embraced Spain’s Ribera del Duero region in 1995 with the launch of flagship Pingus. From a wine place with huge potential but many stuck-in-the-mud mentalities comes this wine achievement frequently declared “perfect”. It’s happened elsewhere; an outside perspective more clearly recognizing greatness in a place sometimes locally taken for granted. Sometimes an extra pair of eyes provides a fresher, more objective and productive view!

Psi is a more recently-established Sisseck project, seeking to keep older stands of Ribera del Duero vines intact. Growers with a tons-per-acre perspective often need a little coaxing when their older vines begin to produce less. The impulse to rip out and replant to more productive young vines is strong but Peter, recognizing old vine fruit quality, compensates the farmer for his smaller crop. Thus: Psi, which also protects the very rare Garnacha parcels of Ribera del Duero. Unlike Pingus and Flor, Psi employs 90% Tempranillo and about 10% Garnacha; a relatively unheard-of RdD blend.

The result is beautiful. This isnt entirely out of its shell but we can already anticipate its full glory. Vintage 2015 also contributes; there is not a reputable European red that’s not better in this weather-blessed year.

You can drink this now for its primary qualities, hold it for two years for full bloom, or see what happens to beautifully-built Psi in the long run. I vote for Phase II. Ratings? 94 point from James Suckling, and a great score from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate is sure to follow.

January 2018

What it is and What it ain’t

You’ll not find this down the street - or anywhere else in California. The Wine Steward has a special relationship with importer Kysela, Per et Fils, who sources nice wines from no fewer than thirteen different countries. Fran Kysela’s operation is based in Virginia so many of his smaller-production finds never have a chance of getting out here. Why are you seeing this one? TWS is firmly in Fran’s “loop”. He’s enabled my visiting the wine regions of France and Spain – twice to each – as well as Argentina and Portugal. I also attend the vast, annual “Mondovino” event held at his warehouse. I’ll go once again six weeks from now to gather as much data as I can while hopefully maintaining my wine legs. I thank Fran for this exposure with orders of our fave wines tasted abroad or in Virginia. These thank you’s in turn yield the reciprocation of “inside scoop,” the “Pssst, hey buddy!” word on the arrival of more special, smaller-batch wines. Here’s one of those, something we’d never heard of until Fran’s rep brought it to our attention.

Syrah wears several different hats depending on source. Warmer climates push it to jamminess. Cooler ones evoke pepper, smoke, and cured meats. Mineral-laden soils confer their own effects. . . . Bringing us to South African Syrah: What is its particular message? For a blanket / general definition I’ll have to admit: I’m not sure. My exposure to the South African Syrah genre remains low and there’s a reason for that. Many of the reds we see from there are weird with a “band-aid-y” smell and flavor. I’m not just talking about South Africa’s mis-applied pride and joy Pinotage varietal. ALL the reds can exhibit this wacky chemical element. What does it? That’s another mystery, but I’ve learned that some South African wines completely avoid the issue. In fact, there are awesome bottles made there but the California market barely knows this and therefore doesn’t support their making the trip.

What we DO know: Trizanne was harvested from three vineyards in Elim, each from a different clone, on soils varying from shale, gravel and decomposed granite also known as Koffieklip. Minimal intervention was used during the winemaking process. After de-stemming, wine fermented in open-top containers and benefitted from daily punch-downs. The wine then spent 11 months in old 225L French oak and was bottled in January 2016. To my own nose and mouth: Smoke, meat, pepper, leather, and tangy black cherry fruit all happen on a soft and broad palate. This fragrant and round red is best shown in a Pinot Noir glass. For most of you it’s a comfy cocktail wine that’s even better with food . . . and you know what I’m going to say now: LAMB.

I know what I’M having!

And now for something completely different . . .
2014 VATAN Tinta de Toro – Toro, Spain

Elegance was the Trizanne Syrah’s theme and here comes its counterpoint of power; a wine we’ve sold for three vintages and are finally “clubbing”. VATAN, however, DOES employ some elegance of its own.

The Tempranillo-emphasizing region of Toro is less discussed than nearby Ribera del Duero and farther flung Rioja. However, it is easily as old in viticulture and history as the others. I have personal fondness for Toro’s underdog status and love to exploit it, especially having seen the place twice with a wine importer and once with a daughter. The wine region has the ancient town of Toro in its center, with enough sites and flavors to warrant at least an evening’s stay-over should you be “rental car-ing” your way through northern Spain.

VATAN is a great example of what this wine region does. It comes from 100+ year-old, own-rooted vines which struggle in poor soils to produce a small, intensely-flavored crop of Tinta de Toro (the local Tempranillo clone). These elements along with a hot/cold continental climate all contribute to achieve some of the most alcoholically potent reds of Spain. Historically, these Strong-Like-Bull Tempranillos were more rustically raw in their delivery. While Toro wines will always be inherently “big,” certain of its makers now achieve examples with a bit more modern polish and class and that’s what happens here. A not unusual 15.5% alcohol furnishes impressive heft but the tannins effectively frame this. Served at a cooler cellar temperature the heat is moderated and the black fruits, purple flowers, and dark chocolate soothe and indulge. The wine can be drunk young by enjoyers of decanted bold reds, but it will be wonderful for years to come - at least ten - and mellow in the meantime.

If you ever go to Toro stay at old Hotel Juan II (requesting a view of the Duero River below and / or the adjacent Colegiata), make a reservation at their traditional Castellano Los Bocoyes restaurant, and enjoy a bottle of powerful Toro Tinto with a roast leg of lamb, the traditional local pairing. THEN you’ll get it!!

93 Points Wine Spectator. We expect Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate to make a similar assessment.

December 2017

For lovers of development
2010 PODERE CIONA ‘Le Diacce’ – Gaiole in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy

Here’s a red I tasted three months ago at lunch with our mutual friend Tom Kelly. This representative of Small Vineyards was showing me nearly twenty wines in all. Some of these were picked for our recent holiday “walk-around” tasting. Other higher-end beauties landed on a menu for the first-ever smaller-group pre-holiday-event tasting. That sneak preview, which admitted just a few customers, showed the likes of Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone Riserva, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. THIS wine was a consideration but Tom was already showing me too many good things; I’d have to put it in your club instead. Here is a seven-year-old, ready-to-love wine that smells and tastes undeniably “Tuscan,” yet that region’s primary grape Sangiovese isn’t even referenced. Instead, this wine is 100% Merlot.

A sense of “beef” entices the nose and encourages a cookbook perusal. Cedar and dried cherries also play. The palate is positively PRIME for right-now indulgence. The fleshy-ness of well-aged Merlot is nicely framed with acidity. Something braised or roasted, i.e. slow cooked, wants to happen with this fully-relaxed wine where mellowed development and completely available flavors are saying, “Mangia!”

Also from Friend Tom . . .
2014 MARCHETTI ‘Villa Bonomi’ – Conero Riserva, Marche, Italy

Admission: The 2010 Tuscan red described above isn’t necessarily the wine you open for a mixed group of wine palates / appreciation levels. It’s for those of you who understand and appreciate “Phase II” European reds, who cook for your wines, and who swirl and sniff and sip and discuss.

THIS 100% Montepulciano on the other hand should win over even the tentative / reluctant sipper more attuned to California’s provision of youthful fruit and sweet tannins. That’s the magic of Montepulciano; one of those Italian grapes that emphasize color, black fruits, and walnut-y astringency. This is an effect very different from that of Sangiovese which declares not purple-ness but redness, and delivers that with streamlined acidity – not with Cabernet-like tannins. When Montepulciano (the grape, not the place) is in full effect it’s not too different from Cabernet Sauvignon in impact. Oh, it may be a little more linear based on its Old World source. It may not have quite the same flavors. - But I’ll bet a Cab guy would “get” it. Invite one over for a test (and do up a ribeye as enticement!).

November 2017

Barolo Truth
2012 GIANFRANCO ALESSANDRIA – Barolo, Piemonte, Italia

We only rarely bring you this undisputedly world class wine type due to its typically higher price; Barolo just doesn’t fit into the budget - usually. In this instance, we promised to also represent this wine on our WineBar menu and that was all the persuasion the importer needed for a nice price concession. Now, for the first time in quite a while, we bring you Barolo.

Barolo is not a grape, but the name of a sub-region of Piemonte in Northwest Italy. Barolo and next door neighbor Barbaresco are both renowned for their renditions of the Nebbiolo grape. The former is often called the “King of Nebbiolo” for its more majestically durable qualities, while more affable Barbaresco holds the title of “Queen”. Despite many attempts – some of them respectable - Nebbiolo has a hard time behaving anywhere near as “regally” from anywhere else.

Let’s try “The King” together: Pour this into a Pinot Noir-style glass and first note the color. Reflect on the fact that one of the world’s greatest wines is anything but dark and opaque. Rather, we are witnessing a very translucent, reddish / orange-ish hue. That, my friends, is honest-to-goodness Barolo in your glass. These days, certain market-paranoid producers are doing all they can to “color-up” Nebbiolo. Let them. I’d rather appreciate this more delicate appearance as a marker for authenticity.

The scent is the real “tell”. When you first uncork your bottle you’ll be rather impolitely greeted with a gruff nose of concrete dust. I am about 30 minutes into smelling my own glass, and now cherries and strawberries plus wisps of tobacco and potpourri are now more endearingly inviting me to my first sip. Yes, Barolo needs either time or air or both!

On the palate this wine is graceful with syrupy fruit then intense with tannins in the finish. That’s Barolo for you! You have two solutions at your disposal: Age this Barolo for a while or eat some Osso Bucco. The tannins will soften and resolve with either application. I vote for the second of the two!

This is Cabernet Franc from Argentina
2015 BRESSIA ‘Monteagrelo’ CABERNET FRANC – Mendoza, Argentina

I’ve visited Argentina’s famous Mendoza wine region but once, yet I think I gleaned enough from that one week to bring you the salient points.

This is the only place in the world where viticulture begins at 3,000 feet above sea level and heads up from there. This higher exposure to the sun is believed to be one the area’s assets; grapes here ripen differently and – to the Argentine’s mind – better. Certainly, the average deeper color of Mendoza Malbecs and the like can be attributed to this unique situation.

Argentina is how most of us learned about this grape variety. Possibly originating in Bordeaux and counted as one of the five primary Bordeaux varieties, Malbec actually plays only a minor role there these days. Further south in Cahors it plays the starring role, occasionally inviting Merlot to the cuvée. Cahors Malbecs feature challenging tannins only a southern French, cassoulet-chomping native would appreciate (the rest of us wine lovers give it a college try). Argentine’s more affable, New World translation of the grape is the reason why so many know and love Malbec these days.

This is not Malbec:
The varietal for which Argentina’s wine scene is so famous is not represented here. We’re giving Malbec a break to show you another Bordeaux-derived varietal which, for me, has achieved at least “darkhorse status” down there. I have found a lot to admire from Argentine Cab Francs, and we’ve carried no fewer than four vintages of Bressia’s (we like this small winery and its family, shown above). This wine along with my other faves provide New World “fruit love” and soothing, rich textures while still retaining just a bit of Cabernet Franc’s more eccentric qualities of brush and red peppercorn. It is as exotically fragrant as any Franc I’ve had, but doesn’t scare off the tentative taster. We’re all happy!

If our World Class Club more often challenges you with Barolo tannins and Northern Rhone eccentricity, here’s our rare olive branch of accommodation . . . And it’s a slam dunk for . . .

October 2017

Elegant rusticity – or the other way around?
2014 DOMAINE ANNE GROS + JEAN-PAUL TOLLOT ‘La 8’ GRENACHE – Cotes du Brian, France

Burgundy’s vaunted sub-region of Vosne-Romanee is the home of the Gros Freres domaine, from which emerge some of the world’s most elegant Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Anne Gros more recently has applied her appreciation for gracefulness and delicacy to a very different French region somewhat unused to such attention: Minervois, in France’s southwest. Here she and partner Jean-Paul Tollot work with the place-appropriate varieties of Carignan, Cinsault, and Grenache. The wines of Minervois are known for their rustic brawn, a very un-Burgundy trait, but the Burgundy perspective confers a bit more balance and refinement to this producer’s examples.

Here is 100% Grenache aged entirely without the use of oak barrels. We often identify this variety as “The Burgundy of the South” for its charming fragrance, pretty fruit flavors, and delicacy of impact on the palate. Encourage that idea by pouring this into a Pinot Noir-style wine glass and put your nose to work. Upon opening this wine your first whiff may be the most questionable; the wine must have a bit of reduction swirled out of it. That unusual smell is a sign of the careful winemaker’s prevention of too much air contact before bottling. Reduction can make for a more durable wine, and a little airing out will eliminate that protective aspect and fruit will be revealed. After your thoughtful swirling you’re sure to find a wealth of spice, smoke, sweet leather, tobacco, and jammy strawberry fruit. The palate is lush with more of the same, and there’s a finish of gutsy structure requesting a little more cellar time or a food preparation.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate noticed this wine with a 91 point rating and the remarks:
Readers looking for a Burgundian expression of Grenache need look no further than the 2014 IGP Pays d’Herault La Grenache 8. Completely destemmed and aged in tank, it’s purple/blue color is followed by searing minerality, licorice, crushed flowers and lavender, and this beauty continues to open up nicely with time in the glass. Mouth-filling, very young and almost tasting like a barrel sample, it has savory tannin and a clean, focused finish. It should be better in a year and drink well through 2024.

We’re pleased to bring you this unusually Burgundian Southern French wine experience!

Toro, somewhat tamed . . .
2010 FINCA SOBREÑO ‘Seleccion Especial’ – Toro, Spain

Here is 100% Tempranillo aged for 14 months in French and American oak. Those facts could represent a wine from more famous Ribera del Duero or Rioja, but we’re taking you instead to lesser-known Toro. Like Ribera del Duero, this place straddles the Duero River, but closer to Portugal where the that waterway is re-named “Douro” and eventually spills into the Atlantic just past the famous Porto vineyards.

Toro’s weather is a little more extreme than that of its more famous Spanish Tempranillo counterparts, with hotter days inducing a higher alcohol and a more huskily-fruited rendition of the grape. The name “Toro” (“Bull”) is a good fit for most of the product of the realm. Not unlike our own Paso Robles region, the local winemaking challenge is not to enhance but to harness and restrain that rambunctious fruit down to a drinkable level. Few Toro producers succeeded with this historically, but more recently a handful of wineries are managing to tame the bull. Among these is Finca Sobreño.

Also coaxing this particular wine to a more soothed state is the passage of time; we’re fortunate to be able to access a version over half a decade old. What certainly was once a more youthfully purple and tannic wine now represents itself with a deep dark cherry red color. The nose is powerful yet elegant; refined and stylish with ripe berry fruit and spicy complexity with scents of clove, sandalwood, vanilla, and chocolate. The mouth is muscular yet – once again - elegantly silky smooth, showing fruit preserves, blackberry jam, and chocolate truffle. The mouth is concentrated and rich but not sweet. The length: Significant. Beautiful.

Wine Spectator and Vinous both applaud with 91 point ratings, but my interest in this wine and its place is otherwise and more meaningful: I have had the pleasure of visiting this remote wine town three times. While not huge, Toro is steeped in history which includes an important battle helping to establish Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign. If you can get to this place less than two hours northwest of Madrid let me know you’re going. We’ll attempt to get you set up at Finca Sobreño!

September 2017

For Rich D. – and the rest of you.
2012 PASSETI ‘Tenutarossa’ – Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Italy

Here is our millionth lesson on the name “Montepulciano.”

In one part of Italy “Montepulciano” is a wine region. This “Montepulciano” lies within Tuscany, not far from Montalcino, and the Sangiovese grape plays the starring role in the wines. In another part of Italy, well away from Tuscany, “Montepulciano” is a GRAPE. “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo” refers to that grape as made in Abruzzo near the Adriatic Sea.

The two could not be more unalike.

This is the latter; the GRAPE “Montepulciano”. Like all Italian reds, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is designed to make you hungry and to be resolved by a great meal. That’s the Italian wine culture, don’cha know? MOST Italian reds make you hungry with their zesty acidity. Montepulciano does it another way, with another effect of “resistance”: Tannins.

We’ve come to the conclusion that while Italy has better-known wines than Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, THIS resonates with many of our customers more familiar with tannins than acids as a backbone for their reds. Consider Napa Valley or Washington State Cabernet: Tannins! Nice chewy tannins invoking a visit to the grill with a big, sloppy-fat ribeye! So, I’m just telling you: You’re supposed to like this!!!

Give it some time, some air, some food, a stock-up-with-more purchase . . .
2014 COLLAZZI – Toscana, Italy

Some of the best wines grown in the Chianti region are not Sangiovese-based. In fact, some totally omit Tuscany’s most famous grape yet still somehow retain that oh-so-Italian quality of generous restraint – or restraining generosity – with a sense of iron and dust and just the right amount of food-loving grip. Those we must call “Super Tuscans,” though that’s not an administered or enforced term. A Super Tuscan might be $20 or $400, but it’s always from Tuscany along with one reason or another why it can’t be called something more legislated (“Thank goodness!” cries the freedom lover).

Here is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc, 21% Merlot, and 4% Petit Verdot as grown just a few miles south of Florence itself. The wine is young, but with some airing out you’ll realize, “Did I open this too soon? Should I just go back to The Wine Steward for six more bottles?”

Now you’re thinkin’!! Why wouldn’t you want to witness the unwinding of this great and ageworthy bottle via at least six different experiences over the next ten years – especially at this nice price????

This is meant to cost more, but you equip us with buying power and we thank you for that.

August 2017

Great winemaker(s). Awesome vintage. Age it a bit.
2015 DOMAINE de la MORDORÉE ‘La Reine de Bois’ – Lirac, Rhone Valley, France

We put before you one of the greatest works of the Southern Rhone. Domaine de la Mordorée was founded in 1986 by brothers Christophe and Fabrice Delorme. Their winery is located in Lirac, across the Rhone River and twenty kilometers from the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Mordorée produces beautiful whites, pinks, and reds from both sides of the river and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate has long recognized their work with very generous scores. Obtaining Mordorée in California always requires a determined treasure hunt.

I have twice visited Christophe (on the right in the photo) and Fabrice (left) at their Lirac facility, but my third visit featured only Fabrice as host. Two years ago Christophe suddenly died of a heart attack (he and I were both 52 that year), a startling blow to all who knew the thoughtful and charismatic vigneron. This very wine was hanging from its vines when this happened.

Mordorée carries on with more solemnly-affable Fabrice at the helm. Its Chateauneuf-du-Pape offerings often costing over $100 continue to garner rave reviews, as do the pink Tavels and the two quality levels of Lirac. Their less expensive Lirac named ‘La Dame Rousse’ (these are all local wild bird names, by the way) can be found for under $30. This ‘La Reine des Bois’ is the durable Lirac flagship.

2015 is the greatest Rhone Valley vintage since 2010. It may even transcend 2010, but only time will tell. Wines like this Lirac are such tightly-packed bundles of fruit and tannins that patience or long decanting is required to expose all their virtues. Yes, understand that this wine is “great” for what it is, and greater for what it will become. I propose a toast to the memory of Christophe Delorme and to the endurance of his brother Fabrice, two of the Rhone’s greatest caretakers.

When wine is delicious ENOUGH . . .
2011 ANDREW THOMAS SHIRAZ – Hunter Valley, Australia

My impression – and probably that of most of you – is that Australian reds can be too much of a good thing. The Shirazes and GSMs we typically taste don’t know when to stop, with their flamboyant fruit joined by that oh-so-signature Aussie “mentholyptus” fragrance. The Popular Palate, once dazzled by this jammy exuberance, has become a bit jaded by it all. We at TWS recognized a shift away from the Down Under section of our store and can only conclude this wine place was giving you MORE than you wanted.

And so we bring you this, a truly fine wine which captures the ripe beauty of Down Under Shiraz - and knows when to stop.

The menthol scent is there (would this appear “Australian” otherwise??) but evasive. Roasted herbs, cured meat, and chunky cherry fruit happens, too. Perhaps its six years of age has settled it down, allowing the “savories” onstage. The palate is more elegant than bombastic; not shy of fruit but careful with its allocation. The finish is crisp and refreshing – not cloying – and encourages a good plate of protein as a foil.

We rarely provide you with Australian reds for the aforementioned reasons, but are proud to bring you THIS. As a well-meaning Aussie might declare, “This is class shit!”

July 2017

The Real Deal
2014 BASTIDE CISELETTE – Bandol, France

The wine place Bandol overlooks the Mediterranean and plays host to – particularly – the Mourvèdre grape. It is that grape’s most fervent exponent, inspiring pretenders like Yours Truly to attempt a knock-off (Domaine des Plus-de-Vie is our local interpretation).

Perhaps you have come to embrace Bandol via the Domaine Tempier or Gros Noré productions brought to us by iconic importer Kermit Lynch. If so, you have taken an important, open-minded step into a wine realm where grumpy tannins and a more “chunky” form of fruit are the prevalent qualities. Bandol is not wine for the faint of heart, for it is in itself so full of Mediterranean “heart”; rustically endearing like some older, suspendered paysan with strong, gnarled hands and a leathery face that readily cracks a grin.

Yes, Bandol Rouge is an compelling collision between sun-drenched, Provencal ripeness and soil-derived gutsiness, for which you must prepare your palate and – most certainly – a great meal. This 80% Mourvèdre / 20% Grenache which saw only neutral, large format barrels (“foudre”) speaks with a gruff yet disarmingly Provençal voice of clay, raspberries, oregano, chocolate, and a shiny citric feature. That last ambivalent descriptor heralds Bandol’s vitality and durability. For many of its fans, wines like these can be held for more than a decade. That old paysan would insist on doing so, even if it’s for his kids to drink at his memorial.

Yours Truly recommends an alternative observation of the different eras this wine has to offer: One bottle per year (at the very least) with pork, lamb, or steak done over a wood fire. Grapevine cuttings are the classic fuel, if you can beg some off some old farmer!

Top producer. Top vintage. Greatness rolls downhill.
2015 DOMAINE GEORGES VERNAY ‘Sainte-Agathe’ – Cotes du Rhone, France

Last month we brought you a Gigondas, a Grenache-based red from the southern Rhone. That village name connotes nearly as much prestige as its neighbor Chateauneuf-du-Pape, as many of you know. “Cotes du Rhone” would typically be the lower-priced, less regarded wine in the company of those two “AOC” aristocrats. How is it, then, that we dare to submit a Cotes du Rhone costing MORE than last month’s Gigondas? Read on.

The Rhone Valley is actually represented by two very different sections. The Southern Rhone, home of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, etc., is Grenache Country, where Syrah and Mourvédre pitch in to make warm-hearted, red-fruited and garrigue-y wines. The undulating topography accommodates a lot of vineyard acreage. A tractor can work here, saving man hours. The Northern Rhone is a more distinct river gorge where far less land is available for planting, and the maintenance of the vines is a real pain in the ass. Its most famous sub-regions are Hermitage, Cornas, St. Joseph, and Cote Rotie; expensive and – to many wine geeks – worth the price. Up here Grenache and Mourvèdre are banished. Syrah has exclusivity, expressing itself with intense color, ethereal scents, complex flavors, and elegant textures rivaled only by the Red Burgundies grown farther north.

Now, “Cotes du Rhone” can come from the South OR the North, but most of what we see and sell is good, inexpensive southern stuffe. You drink it with pizza and burgers, and neighbors for whom you don’t reveal your more pricey bottles.

Much rarer northern Cotes du Rhone costs more because of the limited acreage and difficulty in farming, but compensates with “nearly Cote Rotie” exoticness. Cote Rotie and its northern high-rent peers will rarely if ever appear in your World Class Club pack due to budget constraints, but THIS rare and beautiful example of Northern Cotes du Rhone squeezes in. The 100% Syrah product of one of the area’s greatest producers, ‘Sainte-Agathe’ comes from vines just above Condrieu, a little northern Rhone neighborhood famous for Viognier. Besides making gorgeous Cote Rote, Domaine Georges Vernay is a Condrieu specialist (the winery itself resides there). We have a mere six bottles of that amazing trophy white heading our way, and we can discuss financing to assist your acquisition. - But in the meantime rejoice and revel in the fragrant glory of this beautiful Syrah from the greatest vintage in many years. Admire that deep color. Repeatedly take in the rich perfume of black olives, blue fruit compote, herbs, and graphite. Feel the meaty textures and savor the sappy fruit and cured meat flavors. . . . And, if it is on your list of permitted edibles, indulge in grilled lamb with this alongside. There is nothing quite like Northern Rhone Syrah, whether it be Cote Rotie, Cornas, or more humbly-appended “Cotes du Rhone”!

June 2017

Top wine of a small producer. Great Vintage. Hardly comes to California!
2015 CHATEAU MALTUS – Lalande de Pomerol, Bordeaux, France

I’m pleased to be able to bring this to you, the top wine of Chateau des Landes. I tasted ‘Maltus’ at the producer’s dinner table in January and immediately spoke for it. The quick decision was necessary: All Bordeaux 2015’s, even from satellite regions like Lalande de Pomerol, will be more delicious and sought for than any vintage since 2010. THIS wine, made from 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, is represented by only 440 cases, none of which make it to California. It was only by virtue of being on the Kysela Pere et Fils wine trip that I’d even heard of and tasted it, and could request a rare dispensation from that importer’s Winchester, Virginia warehouse.

This wine is young, but made in a style and from a vintage which indulge with dark fruit even if you get the bottle open sooner than later. The soils of its Lalande de Pomerol source are based on gravel and clay, along with the presence of iron oxide which some might sense in the feel of this wine. Winemaker / Proprietor Nicolas Lassagne matched the pedigree of his newly-acquired plot with quality new French oak barrels from the Limousin and Allier forests, in which the wine spent 18 months. To these investments he added the extra effort of getting the wine to barrel before fermentation was finished. This is an important step in modern Bordeaux winemaking. Fermentation is the only time the wine is generating a bit of heat. Introducing a slightly warmer wine to oak is thought to help with color and oak flavor integration. You shouldn’t perceive more woodiness because of this; you should admire a darker tint and taste a wine whose fruit is in better agreement with the delicate nuance of vanilla. Yet another labor intensive exercise was also applied. Note the photo above: The special barrels for Maltus were placed on rollers so they could be spun periodically, re-introducing the settled lees to the entire wine. This, too, is a texture enhancement, and a technique practiced by several of Nicolas’ garagiste peers. One further “enhancement” is expected of YOU. Whether you drink this sooner or later, have a look at what Nicolas is making us for lunch (in the other pic). Go thou, and do likewise!

I want to sell you a lot of this important value, and intentionally overbought to accommodate your cellaring a bit of it. We have a nice excess amount at this time, and another ten six-packs arrive from Virginia a little later this year. Get yours!

Modest vintage? Conservative producer? It’s all good!
2014 DOMAINE le CLOS des CAZAUX ‘La Tour Sarrasine’ – Gigondas, Rhone Valley, France

Here, friends, is wine you can drink. – At least it’s wine I can drink and I’m willing to share! Unlike the incoming 2015’s, the 2014 Rhones show more restraint with respect to the rich kirshy-ness one might want from rock star Rhones. This is no rock star. This is REAL. I’ve had to be a little more picky in selecting 2014’s for our store, but I find the step back in alcoholic sappiness a relief for once. I can DRINK this stuff!

Clos des Cazaux is another producer we visited on our January trip, one with which I was previously unfamiliar, and I was glad for the introduction. Other winery visits that same day had us tasting darker, richer, more modern Rhones, but Cazaux connoted tradition. A perfect complement to Vintage 2014’s reserved style is this producer’s more laid back and patient winemaking way. Jean-Michel Vache actually does his work in Vacqueyras, just adjacent to Gigondas where he also owns plots. New oak barrels are nowhere to be found at his place; this wine saw nothing but stainless steel and concrete vats on its way to the bottle. Jean-Michel would rather express the virtues of his vines which are quite old and sustainably (virtually organically) grown. They and the less intrusive winemaking are the reason why you can drink this seemingly conservative wine for up to ten years.

Never fear: We will bring you the big ‘15’s. You will revel in their riper fruit and more heady richness. In the meantime, let’s hear it for a more classical message from the Southern Rhone, where dried herbes, pepper, dust, and a more modest level of fruit all agree to get along for many a year!

May 2017

Smell it and KNOW!
2014 CHATEAU CAPBERN – Saint-Estephe, Bordeaux, France

I commit a lot of wordspace to calling red Bordeaux an ultimate winter wine. Its more serious provision of sturdy fruit along with a certain severity of structure better accommodates gloomy weather and the rich fare we cook up to warm our tummies.

Why, then, are we giving you such a sturdy, braised short rib-preferring red now that the sun’s out and the tomato vines finally know it’s time to party? Because the importer ran out of this, mid-order. Three cases have rested in the back room awaiting the next boat with the needed supplementation. NOW we have enough of this nice value to show you.

- And, regardless of season, it’s kick-ass Bordeaux so let’s just be grateful!

Here is 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot from Bordeaux’s Left Bank, which means you’re getting the more durable type of Bordeaux. The critics say to allow this to loosen up over the next 3-4 years. I say that depends on your tolerance of tannins, because I rather like a Bordeaux that’s a little too young versus one which sat around a little too long. “Damn, we should have uncorked this sooner!” is rarely heard at my table.

Bordeaux is such a vintage-sensitive wine region. The last time everyone was happy with nearly all of its output was 2010. 2011, 2012, and 2013 all had issues and we had to cherry-pick like crazy to keep good Bordeaux on our shelf. While a big, fruit-forward, and much-anticipated 2015 supply of Bordeaux awaits us, I’m happy to be finding some perfectly-proportioned and traditionally–flavored 2014’s. I believe we’ll be admiring ’14 with the provision of a little more hindsight as a perfectly “classical” vintage.

2013 CASARENA MALBEC – Naoki’s Vineyard, Agrelo, Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina

We, the American Argentine Malbec-Admiring People (those who spend more than 8.99 for the stuff) are ready to embrace the next era of this wine type – I hope. Yes, it’s up to YOU to approve or disapprove of a style thoughtful producers would like to show you; less black and bombastic and more elegant in texture and complex in scent and flavor. Here is such a Malbec. Those anticipating a more deliberate application of new oak will frown. Others, hoping for a higher incidence of black fruit richness will wonder. Considerate World Class Wine Club members will pause and reflect – and perhaps ALSO consider the validation of the wine critics. More and more of those are supporting such wines with accolades previously reserved for wines delivering more New World bombast.

The fact is, of all the Bordeaux grape varieties Malbec is the least adept at carrying the weight of modern, “more is more” winemaking where riper fruit and newer barrels are utilized for a trophy wine effect of thickness and richness. Nope, Malbec will always have a certain savory, nearly-green tanginess that simply doesn’t jive with that treatment. “Let Malbec be Malbec” is the theme more recently heard from the more careful, lower-production makers, and the winemaking has adjusted to accommodate.

Here is a wine emphasizing the LIVELINESS inherent in the grape. It is FRESH and ENERGETIC and I’m CAPITALIZING many of my WORDS to DRIVE this point HOME!! Think of how many more great meals would accompany such a vibrant experience. Finally, those heavy meat dishes aren’t matched by a wine of similar weight and ponderosity; they’re relieved. Now, the liveliness happening here is borne not only of less-heavy-handed winemaking but of its source as well. Its makers have planted these young vines on some of the only limestone discovered in the Agrelo neighborhood of Mendoza. Limestone, my friends, will always make a wine that’s more exciting to the palate, as great White Burgundy endlessly demonstrates.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate awards this 91 points, noting that the next vintage of this very young project will demonstrate more depth. We’ll keep an eye out for that, but in the meantime please appreciate the levity accompanying the rich flavors happening here; a very “New Malbec” thing for Argentina!

April 2017

Grab this vintage!
2010 TERRABIANCA ‘Piano del Cipresso’ – Toscana, Italy

We would urge you to try this now WITH PROTEIN even though it’s still in need of a year or two to fully soften and bloom. Why drink a wine that’s not quite all it will be? Because NOW is when you can get MORE. LATER it will be GONE. Get it? We think this is just your FIRST bottle of Cipresso; you’ll know when you appropriately have it at table.

Yes, this 100% Sangiovese will go the way of all those 2010 Brunellos which have come and rapidly gone based on acclaim. All that is 2010 and Tuscan is transcendent, and we were pleasantly surprised to still be able to access this wine from a great year. “Cipresso” is 100% Sangiovese grown mostly on the original Terrabianca Estate north of Siena and south of Florence. Doesn’t that mean it should be called “Chianti” or “Chianti Reserva”? Normally, but the wine also sources a little Sangiovese from the producer’s Maremma holding, still within Tuscany but west of Chianti proper and thereby disqualifying the moniker.

A year in oversized French Oak barrels calmed the wine a bit, but when you feel it in your mouth you’ll have to “come to grips” with its significant tannins. This 2010 is still a baby, but hard to resist when you smell its appealingly-rustic dusty cherries and iron, and savor the juicy mid-palate of ripe cherries and chocolate.

Bistecca Fiorentina would be a classic accompaniment, but a good ol’ ribeye will also do the trick!

We do this a lot
2013 Poliziano – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy

Your wine club budget accommodates many wines we call “World Class.” Others go un-shown because of their prohibitive prices. Chateauneuf-du-Pape can only rarely squeeze in, while its neighbors Gigondas and Vacqueyras qualify more often. – And so it is in southern Tuscany where one famous Sangiovese, Brunello di Montalcino, has been hyped out of the club range. Our solution: Head next door to another hill town, Montepulciano, for THEIR very worthy version of the varietal. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano has frequently occurred in your club not only for its goodness; its more modest price point also works.

What’s the difference between Brunello and Vino Nobile? I’d sum it up with one word: Nerve. Brunello is typically a little more full-bodied while Sangiovese as declared by Vino Nobile is more vibrant and zesty with zingy cherries and raspberries; even a sense of grapefruit when you’re sniffing “blind”. Certainly, the soil differences contribute to this but there’s a variation in recipe to be considered as well. Brunello is typically done with the “Sangiovese Grosso” clone and must be 100% varietal, while the wine in your glass today represents the Prugnolo Gentile clone of the grape and some blending is permitted.

This Poliziano is composed of 85% Prugnolo Gentile, with the remainder committed to local varieties Canaiolo and Colorino along with international star Merlot. Normal-sized barrels – mostly used – and oversized casks were both employed for a 14-16 month nap before bottling. Sniffed and tasted alongside the Cipresso described above, one can sense the higher level of “energy” in this wine. Part of that is attributable to its relative youth; this wine is three years younger than the other. The other factor, no doubt, is the inherent “zest” of Vino Nobile, a quality which equips this for cellaring up to a decade!

March 2017

Shiraz synonymously
2010 CLARENDON HILLS SYRAH – Brookman Vineyard, Clarendon, Austrailia

Here is a wine meant to cost quite a bit more than what we’re asking. For industry reasons with which we’ll not bore you, we are bringing you one of our favorite Australian producers at a very nice price.

Clarendon Hills is a cut above and a style apart from most of the higher-end Shiraz from Down Under, suggested even by the producer’s preference for the name “Syrah”. Roman Bratasiuk – and now his sons – render dark and sumptuous red wine expressions, but ending the Clarendon Hills definition there is to miss a key point: Roman’s winemaking premise is European. Certainly, the warmth of this Australian region will produce alcoholic power, but a great awareness of and fondness for Burgundy and the Rhone wines invokes intrigue and durability. These Clarendon wines say more and last longer.

Over the years Robert Parker himself would taste the Clarendon line-ups. As a group, they were among his most highly-rated wines. I submit that per his palate this wine would receive a 94 point rating or higher. However, someone else does the Aussie reviewing for Wine Advocate these days. Her very good rating of 91 for this beauty is too stingy by my read, but her description is thoughtful:

“Deep garnet-purple in color, the 2010 Brookman Vineyard Syrah displays notes of licorice, peppered salami and mocha over black plums and blackberry compote. Full-bodied, fruit forward and concentrated in the mouth, it has medium to firm levels of silky tannins and balanced acid to hold through the long finish. Drink it now to 2019.”

Parker would have given this more years of drinkability, and so would I. Right now we have some 2006 Clarendon on our shelves that’s drinking beautifully. If you uncork this sooner than later, please give it the benefit of air and a Pinot Noir-style glass. Note how it tastes upon opening, then an hour later, the next day, and so on. It will grow in smoothness and complexity, and provide voluptuosity the whole time!

Southern Italy’s Most Significant Red Grape?
2012 Re MANFREDI - Aglianico del Vulture, Basilicata, Italy

Many a wine writer has proclaimed Aglianico as the equal of Piemonte’s Nebbiolo and Tuscany’s Sangiovese in terms of its complexity and potential for aging. The wine you have before you justifies the notion, so long as users are judicious. Bold foods, decanting, and / or cellaring will be necessary for a proper view of Re Manfredi . . . along with an Old World wine-appreciative perspective.
Some wines deliver brainless appeasement; soft on the tongue and big with recognizable ripe fruit. Others, like this Aglianico from a volcano's leavings in Basilicata, Italy, deliver the challenge of thoughtful intrigue. I first saw this label a few years ago when someone renting one of our temperature-controlled lockers gave me a 15-year-old example from his personal stash. It indignantly bellowed with grumpy, curmudgeonly angst. It upset me - in a good way. It demanded my respect with unembarrassed Old-World-ness. It made me want to eat a leg - or an arm or a wing. We're providing this younger version of Re Manfredi to our World Class club and bought a little extra for the thoughtful wine world at large. I dare you to confront it – properly!

February 2017

The Old and the New
2011 PROTOS RESERVA – Ribera del Duero, Spain

The photo above conveniently suggests two attitudes of Spain, the modern and the classical. This is the town of Peñafiel in the Ribera del Duero wine region. The iconic boat-shaped castle on the hilltop dates back to the days of the Reconquista and is fully restored; within it is a museum for wine. Below the castle: The latest, very modern home of Protos. It’s a deceiving look; if you’d seen their original digs you’d understand why this winery called by the Greek name for “first” makes very traditionally-styled Ribera del Duero: Protos is a pioneer; old-school.

Here is 100% Tempranillo aged in 80% French and 20% American oak barrels for 18 months. As I’ve noted many times before, Ribera del Duero and Rioja are Spain’s greatest, most famous Tempranillo places. Rioja, classically rendered and aged, brings you a suave and mellow red wine experience some folks equate to French Burgundy. Conversely, Ribera del Duero is the “Bordeaux of Spain” supplying a darker and bigger wine.

On our WineBar today we’re showing a lineup of five Spanish Tempranillos. The final taste comes from Ribera del Duero in the form of Tamaral Reserva, a wine we brought your club some months ago. I’m trying it right next to the Protos. Tamaral’s label is simple and shiny; modern and abrupt. The wine itself is big and endearingly fruit-forward. The packaging for Protos is alternatively classical and the wine follows the idea with a little more earthiness in the nose and drying structure on the palate. Two years ago I attended a party happening no more than a half mile down the road from Protos. Ribera del Duero wine was free-flowing, and working perfectly with Spain’s favorite Tempranillo mate, grilled lamb. We hope you’ll try this classical wine within that classical pairing!

About the price: Wine Spectator calls this a $50 wine. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate says “$45”. We are kicking it with something far better for you.

World Class Northwest!
2013 BETZ ‘Besoleil’ – Columbia Valley, Washington State

For World Class Club members wondering why a domestic wine has landed in their bag we offer no apology; only an explanation. For The Wine Steward, “World Class” happens wherever thoughtfulness, distinctiveness, and a certain, higher quality level coincide – locally or internationally (with an EMPHASIS on international!). Our Red Collector Club captures the Cabernet-oriented, Napa-style wines, so where do we put a very deserving, fragrant and deftly-crafted Rhone-style Washington State beauty? We put it before the thoughtful and open-minded members of YOUR club with – again – no apologies, and expecting very little outcry!

Here is a silky and sensuous blend of 49% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 16% Cinsault, 9% Mourvèdre, and 6% Counoise. The nose brings you smoke, dried herbs, and framboise (raspberry liqueur). The palate is lush and broad, conveying mocha and cherry pastry. The styling is classy, resisting the more definitive Washington State wine tendency of over-the-top-ness.

We don’t depend on ratings for our selections, but it’s fun when one of the major critics in the industry aligns with our own opinion:

Robert Parkers Wine Advocate: “92 POINTS. It's an elegant, medium to full-bodied, Provencal-styled effort that has lots of sweet red and black fruits, garrigue and hints of cured meats. It's a total charmer that will have 10-12 years of overall longevity.”

January 2017

Impress your friends . . .
2014 ALAYA TIERRA – Almansa, Spain

Yes, this comes from Europe. Yes, it’s got the “intrigue factor” of being made entirely of Garnacha Tintorera, otherwise known as Alicante Bouschet, one of the world’s only red grapes with red flesh and juice. But is it classical? Far from it, when “classical” is weighed by notions of lower alcohol, higher acidity, and a lower fruit-forwardness. Nope: This, my friends, is a WHOPPER.

But is it “World Class” and thereby worthy of your club? By all means, based on other just-as-valid criteria. Alaya Tierra is the flagship wine of Atalaya from Spain’s “Moorish” southeast region of Almansa. One of the world’s only strongholds for the Grenache / Petit Bouschet cross Alicante Bouschet (Garnacha Tintorera), this particular rendering hails from the region’s higher elevations where limestone soils add energy to wines which – in this very hot place – would otherwise be awkwardly fat.

Because not only the skins but also the juice of the grape at play are red in color, the resulting wine is incredibly colored. The flavors are intense with damson plum, mulberry, and morello cherry fruit along with a sweet earthiness of fresh tobacco. The textures are undeniably voluptuous.

I know most of you, and understand why you’re in this particular club. To you preferers of the Classical: Save the Burgundy and Bordeaux and Vino Nobile we’ve supplied for your thoughtful, smaller circle of geeky wine friends. When your California wine-loving guests invade for dinner, open THIS.

We Snagged Some!
2012 ABADIA RETUERTA ‘Selección Especial’ – Sardon del Duero, Spain

A wine we’ve long admired and have provided before has landed once again on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, as noted above (only the trip to the west coast makes our price a tiny bit higher than advertised). We are in total agreement with their assessment: This is a delicious, relatively affordable world class wine The Wine Steward should always try to keep in stock!

Sardon del Duero is directly adjacent to Spain’s famous Ribera del Duero region. Abadia Retuerta, being one of those wineries thinking outside the box of current wine legislation, appreciates the satellite situation which allows more winemaking freedom. This blend of 75% Tempranillo and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon accommodates the sexy, palate-polishing addition of 10% Syrah only because they choose to NOT be included in the more famous area. Just before New Year’s we showed over a dozen World Class wines to a select group of clients and included a bottle of Abadia Retuerta’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was amazing, yet would not have existed as Ribera del Duero. This winery sacrifices regional notoriety for a more heroically defiant “We’ll do what we believe in” winemaking way.

A red-black color invites the nose to exult in a heady fragrance of framboise, tobacco, sweet plums, coffee beans, and freshly-unwrapped dark chocolate. The plush and well-framed mouthfeel carries dark cherries and blood orange tanginess and graphite tannins.

I was not raised as a lamb eater, coming to love it only later. Having turned that corner of preference I’ve happily discovered how easy it is to quickly render those triangle-shaped shoulder chops on the grill with little more than olive oil, black pepper, and coarse salt as a treatment. Tasting this beautiful red at 11 a.m. for note-writing purposes, I have that accompaniment in mind for tonight and the rest of this bottle!

December 2016

You’re not seeing double . . .
2012 il FAUNO di ARCANUM – Tuscany, Italy

We shoot forward seven vintages to bring you yet another ‘Arcanum’ but one month later. While we’ve adequately advocated for this wine which seems to satisfy perennially, why provide the newest bottling so soon? Why subject you to another non-Sangiovese blend of 48% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Petit Verdot right after its delicious, mellowed-out library experience?

Here’s why:

Wine Spectator just placed this new release on its Top 100 list at the 19th position. Sensation ensued, a buying frenzy commenced, and our savvy rep told us to speak asap for our two-case allocation or miss out.

We replied, “Il Fauno has seen support from TWS and its customers long enough to deserve more. Can you please grant us enough for our World Class Club?”

(Pause) “Yes, barely, if you take it NOW!”

. . . And so you have the youthful flip-side of last month’s older il Fauno Arcanum before you. Delicious now, it will gain complexity over the next year or so. We all now know how it ages; I’d advise some patience.

Wine Spectator’s review:

“93 points: A polished, flavorful red, boasting floral, black currant, raspberry and spice flavors. Firm yet harmonious, with the fine aftertaste lingering with fruit, iron, tobacco and tea elements. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Drink now through 2024.”

An relenting curmudgeon
2009 VIGNETI del VULTURE ‘Piano del Cerro’ – Aglianico del Vulture

Some years ago those in the know began declaring Aglianico to be Southern Italy’s up-and-coming equal to Piemonte’s Nebbiolo and Tuscany’s Sangiovese. At its best, it was implied, this grape could answer the intrigue and complexity and cellarworthiness of great Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino. That said, its message of rustic, gnarly fruit and formidable tannins is completely different; you cannot entirely compare apples to pears to oranges!

Your two most famous and durable and complex examples of Aglianico? Campagnia’s Taurasi and Basilicata’s Aglianico del Vulture. This is the latter, from 70-80 year-old vines grown on the ancient volcano of Mount Vulture. While some say you can’t perceive the soil from which a wine is derived, I insist that you can when you’re talking about older vines working in granite, limestone, slate, flint or volcanic product such as the dirt of Vulture. Come on, just smell this and tell me a cinder cone isn’t in the neighborhood!

Dramatic – nearly frightening - with its grumpy tirade of scowling cherries and almost Carmenere-like hedge-trimming-ness, this wine surprises you with a generous syrup once it lands on your palate. That is wonderfully developed Aglianico happening, tamed by time (and two long years in new French oak). The tarry tannins persist, but now they’re comfortably wrapped in warm blankets of saucy black fruit.

If ever there was a wine for winter fare – be it a big chunk of meat, rich mushrooms, or ripe cheeses – this is it!

November 2016

Let’s get “Library” yet again . . .
2005 il FAUNO di ARCANUM – Tuscany, Italy

While we didn’t mean to do this so regularly, several recent submissions to your club have been older wines. I’ve already spoken to the more mellowed-out effect befitting this colder and (hopefully) damper time of year and the requisite table fare, so this time I’ll comment on what this wine proves.

We have shown younger versions of il Fauno to your club at least twice, perhaps three times. While Wine Spectator and Robert Parker report on only a few vintages, all the ratings have been 90 points or above. Every time we have featured it the price has been very fair considering an ample delivery of character and power. With the provision of this 2005, il Fauno’s reputation is firmly established. NOW we know how the wine can age. You are savoring an 11-year-old wine costing less than thirty dollars after wine club discount. You are admiring a very healthily-colored, beefily-scented, and significantly-structured blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. With at least two other vintage experiences in the databases of longtime club members, let’s just say it: Il Fauno is one of the world’s great wine values.

Enjoy with a pork tenderloin, roasted on the bone and topped with a cherry-plum fruit sauce.

Happy Thanksgiving!
2012 CHATEAU de CHASSAGNE-MONTRACHET ROUGE – Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France

Burgundy, both red and white, represents one of the wine world’s most expensive categories. That is, you have to pay a lot for greatness. The hefty rates are borne of demand, economy of scale (most producers own or access smaller amounts of fruit from here or there), and some recent weather-related crop depletions.

But like great Champagne, there’s nothing like Burgundy. This is Pinot Noir which needn’t be alcoholically “big” to impress, if you’re the contemplative kind of wine lover spending at least as much time sniffing as sipping. – And so we must bring it to our thoughtful World Class Club members from time to time.

This particular Burgundy is delicious yet more accessibly-priced for several reasons. The Bader-Mimeur Family, having operated in Burgundy since the 1700’s, owns or manages larger amounts of land than many producers, easing the economy of scale pressure a bit. Additionally, this is a selection from Importer Charles Neal who operates here in the Bay Area. Unlike many other European wines we access, his wines travel from Europe non-stop, sans East Coast toll-charging middlemen. I also respect Charles’ lower overhead / lower margin rates. Everything he brings us is a very fair deal. Then there’s the “take all” price he recently proposed: Seeing just seven cases of this left in his warehouse, Charles offered us a better price opportunity on the whole lot. We bit. You win.

Finally, there’s the matter of this being Chassagne-Montrachet ROUGE. This particular appellation is better known for its Chardonnays, and the Pinots from here often feature under-the-radar value in comparison.

It is 10:30 a.m. and nothing could be more fragrant or tastier at this hour than the fruit tart expression of this juicy, mineral-driven Pinot in my mouth. If the wine makes it to dinner time (doubtful) it will meet up with some King Salmon,- and next Thursday roast turkey will be its accomplice!

October 2016

Properly Mellowed Bordeaux – Once More
2006 CHATEAU La CABANNE – Pomerol, France

Last month we brought you a nicely-aged 2007 Bordeaux from a less-prestigious area. This month we show you another from one of the two Right Bank premium sub-regions, Pomerol. The arrival of this wine is perfectly timed, as today we expect to see the Bay Area’s first significant dumping of rain. Such weather dramatically adjusts my appetite in a particular direction, and I’m not the only one so affected. I was a supermarket produce manager for several years and repeatedly noted the phenomenon with respect to my customers’ buying habits. On warm days with the sun beating down my lettuce and tomato sections needed constant tending. On gloomier, grey days my sales of potatoes, onions, and other root vegetables would take off and the lettuce was largely forgotten.

While I made similar recommendations last month, this wine experience provokes repetition. Aged Bordeaux, with its relaxed and comfy mellowed-out way, is wonderful with slow-cooked meats, whether braised or roasted. That, of course, is what many of us inherently choose to eat on rainy Fall / Winter evenings, and a visit to my old produce haunt equips the chef with mushrooms and root veggies as delicious accessories.

This is 92% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc (the two stars of the Left Bank) from the land of Chateaux Petrus and Hosanna grown in gravelly-clay. The 2006 Bordeaux vintage always struck me as an under-sung year, with preceding, highly-hyped 2005 stealing the thunder. I think this lovely wine is a good lesson to the wine lover that there are good things – and sometimes better values – to be found outside the limelight.
For my romantically-inclined sense of wine, aged bottles like this transcend flavor descriptors such as tobacco, plum, and leather and can actually exude an attitude of nostalgic warmth. For my rain-adjusted mood, I’m drinking the perfect red.

Saucy Stuffe!
2009 TAMARAL RESERVA – Ribera del Duero, Spain

There could hardly be a more appropriate alter-ego to the 2006 Bordeaux described above. While no youngster either - at seven years of age - this 100% Tempranillo exudes a very different effect of irresistible hedonism to the eye with densely opaque maroon-ness and to the nose with a nearly-hickory sense of sauciness. On the palate there is depth of fruit weight, amply laced with the dark caramel of oak. Then there’s the structure: Tempranillo, especially as grown in Ribera del Duero, can be both tannic and acidic. While most wine varieties startle the palate with just one of these effects, Spain’s noble grape can challenge your mouth with a double whammy of effects.

Anticipating this daunting combination of sauce and grip, we prescribe a hearty dose of quality lamb. In Spain there are two main treatments of that meat and both are delightful replies to a wine such as Tamaral. Young lamb, with nothing more than salt applied, can be quickly grilled yet effectively catch the cooking smoke to better complement the tobacco in this wine. Alternatively, a lamb shank might be slow roasted to provide a more melt-in-your-mouth effect. If this doesn’t sound quite correct I apologize before insisting that lamb’s richness contributes by “lubricating”. When a big wine’s tannins and/or acids strip your tongue of its protective coating, you restore it via protein. All this is worthless to vegetarians, to whom I apologize and recommend a hearty wild mushroom dish!

If all goes as planned your club may be seeing THREE different Ribera del Dueros over the coming months and one, remarkably, will be white!

September 2016

Properly Mellowed Bordeaux
2007 CHATEAU MARTET ‘Reserve de Famille’ – Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux, France

This rare look back happens courtesy of Louis de Coninck, proprietor / winemaker of southeast Napa’s Beaucanon Estate. The family of this Frenchman / California Winegrower has been making wine in Bordeaux for nearly 300 years, which Louis imports to us.

Sainte-Foy is part of Bordeaux’s larger Entre-deux-Mers subregion, named for its position between the two significant rivers Dordogne and Garonne. This is Merlot Country. Cabernet Sauvignon, hero of the Left Bank, happens here only occasionally.

I’m very happy with the development that’s happened here, an effect you normally have to achieve with your own patient cellaring. The color of the wine has moved from youthful dark red to a more earthy crimson. The nose declares spice and dried flowers and plum plus a more mysterious effect of aged beef. The palate feel is supple; fully relaxed. A fruit and earth duet confirm a “Phase II” wine.

Don’t save this “ready for primetime wine” overlong. Drink it this Fall or Winter with braised meats, and savor the development afforded us by someone else’s patient cellaring!

Grab those 2010’s!
2010 LA CHAPELLE de MEYNEY – Saint-Estèphe, Bordeaux, France

Unlike the Entre-deux-Mer wine described above, this hails from Bordeaux’s Left Bank where the soils are more gravelly, better-accommodating Cabernet. Here is the second wine of Chateau Meyney which boasts as neighbors 2nd growth Chateau Montrose and 3rd growth Calon Segur. It is made of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon and 44% Merlot and saw a sixteen-month sojourn in French oak.

Most importantly, perhaps: This is a 2010. There is hardly a Bordeaux from this vintage that can’t be admired for its intense darkness of color, potent ripeness of fruit, and bracing tannic structure. While Bordeaux’s 2009s impressed us with those first two qualities, ’10 trumps ’09 with that latter, more age-worthy aspect. The high acclaim for 2010 Bordeaux was predictably matched by higher prices for its bottles, so finding a second wine from a very good estate with renowned neighbors is a savvy solution.

This 2010 boasts a deep fragrance of cassis, licorice, and black fruits. It has great impact on the palate for its reasonable price; all of the anticipated blackberry, licorice, and creosote aspects are amply delivered. This wine should age nicely for another ten years or more.

August 2016

You’ve probably never heard of this …
2014 DOMAINE LOMBARD ‘Grand Chêne’ – Brézème, Somewhere in the Rhone Valley, France

I’m grateful to whoever drew the map shown above. It’s one of few that identifies little-known Cotes du Rhone appellation Brézème. We have carried but one other red from here in our nearly-seventeen years: Eric Texier’s, the only other example I’ve ever seen.
We have shown you enough Northern and Southern Rhones over the years for you to recall the main difference between the two. In the warmer south such places as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Rasteau produce reds based on the Grenache grape, with Syrah and Mourvèdre (sometimes others) playing supporting roles. Now hop on your scooter and point it toward Lyon. In the northern part of the southern Rhone you begin to see blends where Syrah’s percentage matches that of Grenache, or overtakes it. Heading farther north past a very visible nuclear power plant in Grignan-les-Adhemar the vineyards abruptly end and for many kilometers the Rhone River is flanked by other crops and a scattering of big box stores. Finally, you reach the Northern Rhone places of Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and the like. You’ve achieved Syrah Country, where that grape is the exclusive player in the red wines (though certain whites may be added to these in certain neighborhoods).

But wait, we passed Brézème! Easily missed, this wine place on the Rhone’s east bank and back a few kilometers had dwindled to but one hectare (a little over two acres) of grapevines a few decades back. It has rebounded since then but remains tiny compared with other Rhone sub-regions.

So, are we in the northern part of the Southern Rhone or the southern part of the Northern Rhone? If the grape involved in this bottle gets to say, we are in the north: This is 100% SYRAH, most closely resembling Crozes-Hermitage in style, size, and price. Its nose is exotic with saddle leather, dried apricot, tamarind, blood orange, wet tobacco, and cured meat. The mouth weight reminds us that Northern Rhones can be modestly “Burgundian” in stature, but the payback happens with CHARACTER. Rustic intrigue is the message of this eccentric, tiny-appellation rarity. Wish not for more richness in this 12.5% alcohol wine. Rather, appreciate its refreshing rebuttal to decadent food such as grilled lamb chops.

Beautiful Tradition . . .
2012 PAITIN ‘Serra’ – Barbaresco, Piemonte, Italy

This month I’m asking our staff to try all 12 wine club wines blind. Arranged on the kitchen counter are brown bags hiding their vinted contents, with the idea being that tasting objectively can further train the palate. I can’t ask you to do the same. You’re reading right here that you have a Barbaresco, rendered from the Nebbiolo grape, so your expectations are already at work; subjectivity is now at play.

- But let’s pretend you don’t know that. Pour this into a Pinot Noir-style glass for analysis and put the bottle away. Note the color – or lack of it. Look through this thinly-tinted wine with a white piece of paper beneath: What’s striking is the paleness of hue and the orange-brown brick-redness. This is no Cabernet or Petite Sirah, that’s for certain! Now close your eyes and after a bit of swirling put your nose to work: A sultry, dusty perfume of heated strawberries, white smoke, raw beef, and dried flowers fascinates (I hope) your senses. I have been practicing this for two minutes now, and am ready for a sip:
Silky textures carrying juicy oranges and dried rose petals are followed by abrupt tannins, and my aggrieved tongue is now convinced of what its processing: Here is Piemontese Nebbiolo from the Barbaresco sub-region, in its unashamed traditional form. While other producers (Gaja and La Spinetta, most famously) steer their Barbareschi toward a popularly endearing, modern message of darker and more comfortable fruit, THIS honors the original model. THIS excites the purists (frankly, I love both styles!).

Like German Riesling, Northern Rhone Syrah, and Red Burgundy, Nebbiolo such as this is an “arrival wine,” a drink not fully understood by the rookie. The biggest mistake that wine taster can make is the too-early dismissal of a great wine type. We admonish the tentative and unsure: Keep wondering why veteran wine lovers hold a special place for such varieties and regions, no matter how unsettling your own early experiences of those wines may be. With open-mindedness kept in play, you will re-taste that formerly-misunderstood Barolo or Barbaresco and have your “Ah HA!” moment. A bell sounds, and from behind storm clouds of doubt the sun of enlightenment emerges. A choir of angels proclaims your triumph, as your credit card recoils in fear of your new, more expensive awareness.

We are immensely pleased to bring you this classic at a very decent price for the type and quality. Honor it with braised short ribs or ossabucco.

P.S. I have been typing these notes for fifteen minutes now. In the meantime, this wine has softened dramatically. We are now very good friends.

Wine Spectator Magazine awards this 92 points:

“A bright, juicy red, exhibiting cherry, raspberry, licorice, spice and floral flavors. Becomes more tannic, lingering on the moderately long finish. Decant now or cellar for two to three years. Best from 2018 through 2030. 1,000 cases made.”

July 2016

Priorat gets Class
2012 MAS DOIX ‘Salanques’ – Priorat, Spain

The photographic “triptych” above was captured just two weeks ago and essentially represents the special wine before you. On the left you see vines struggling to survive, but they’ve managed to do so for many decades. Age, along with depriving soils, makes for tiny yet expressive fruit yields. This wine utilizes old vines contributing but a pound of grapes each. Two of those hardworking plants were necessary to provide each of you with one bottle.

Middle Frame: A close-up of an exposed face of “Licorella” slate, the prevailing mineral here. There is very little in the way of actual “dirt” in this Priorat region an hour-and-a-half’s drive (and a world away) from Barcelona. Shy-bearing slate is all the poor farmer gets.

Finally, the photo on the right introduces you to Valenti Llagostera whose family has toiled in these unforgiving parts (specifically, Poboleda in northeast Priorat) for over a century. We include him in our triptych for more than his enthusiasm and amiable way. Valenti’s attention to detail invokes a Priorat wine with more elegance than most. Folks, this is a pretty hot, sun-blasted place with a propensity for conferring cowboy-style alcoholic ruggedness on its blends of Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignan). Valenti’s watchful eye and appreciation for restraint reigns in Priorat’s more rambunctious tendencies. Yes, this Priorat betrays its source with airy scents of sundrenched slate but the style is more refined than many I’ve had and rejected on your behalf. That’s Valenti at work, and because of its restraint ‘Salanques’ (65% Garnacha and 35% Cariñena, though some tech sheets betray a small Syrah addition) has the potential to last longer than most. Valenti shared a magnum of the 2007 Salanques over lunch and it was beautiful, fresh and exuberant, untouched by age except in softening.

This is a very special little region in Spain where no wine is inexpensive. The formidable farming prevents that - no tractors can traverse Priorat and you already read about the barely-producing, margin-defying vines. However, the wines are distinctive. Heat, slate, and – in this case – proprietary precaution add up to something not duplicated anywhere else.

Wine Spectator awards Valenti’s 2012 ‘Salanques’ 93 points saying:

“Fresh and focused, this firm red delivers bright cherry and wild berry fruit, with floral, citrus and mineral notes. Harmonious to the point of seeming simple, but the elegance masks impressive depth and intensity. Exhibits power with grace.”

Savor this hard-won wine now or later.

Carignan Plays Again . . .
2010 CANTINA SANTADI ‘Shardana’ – Valli di Porto Pinot, Sardegna, Italy

We say too little about Carignano (regional synonyms “Cariñena,” “Carignan,” and “Mazuelo”), a vital player throughout what I call the “Mediterranean Wine Crescent” encompassing famous regions such as Priorat, Montsant, Corbieres, Languedoc-Roussillon, Southern Rhone, and here in Sardegna/Sardinia off Italy’s west coast below France’s Corsica.

Rarely playing a solo role, Carignan is especially felt in Priorat (as in the ‘Salanques’ described above) because Grenache is often the only other player in the blends. Grenache dependably sings the high notes: Strawberries, cherries, and flowers. Carignan’s part? The bass notes; contributing dark color, gutsy earthiness, and bittersweet dark chocolate. Carignan on its own can be downright “grimy” in aspect but as a part of the sum its contribution lays a solid foundation.

“Shardana” was the ancient seafarer’s name for the natives of Sardinia, and this wine by that name represents a partnership between Importer Neil Empson and Villa Santadi, who emphasizes wines from the southern part of the island. Their best known whites come from the Vermentino grape. Another variety important here is Cannonau, Sardegna’s Grenache clone. This wine is Carignano-dominant (much of itcoming from pre-phylloxera century-old vines) with a little graceful polish courtesy of a 15% Syrah visit. 12 months in French Oak also soothed this savage Carignano beast – to a point; the nose exhibits a gruff wildness, an attitude echoed in the earthy tannins on the palate. – But dark fruit and chocolate add an effect of sumptuousness. This is an important wine with a real regional and varietal voice; complex and very foodworthy. This 2010 has yet to be rated by the critics we follow, but its predecessor received 93 points from Parker’s Wine Advocate. We feel this 2010 deserves some accolades, too!

June 2016

2011 CARPINETO Riserva – Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy

Here is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo Nero, aged for two years in oversized, previously-used Slovenian oak casks. Just importantly, it comes from the southern Tuscan region of Montepulciano.

With those facts in place, let’s now resolve some confusion – and cause some.

Depending on your experience of Italy and its wine, you may know “Montepulciano” as a completely different wine. That’s because the “Montelpulciano” GRAPE happens elsewhere; especially in the Marche and Abruzzo regions on Italy’s eastern side along the Adriatic. THAT wine is darker in color; a nearly-black, compact lesson in walnut skin tannins. As mentioned above, we are tasting the Tuscan PLACE called Montepulciano here, where the predominant grape is Sangiovese and the challenge to your palate is less tannic, more acidic. “Montepulciano” the grape and “Montepulciano” the wine place could not be more unalike. Got it?

Now, let’s get blurry. Italy is a very old wine country, but a fairly new one politically. Formerly divided up in many mini-kingdoms, a myriad of cultures coincided on this long, narrow band of land. Each affected cuisine, language, fashion, and – of course – wine. Finally unified as of the mid-1800’s, the newly intact nation still features significant regional variations. The Sangiovese grape itself indicates this, with different names and clones and many a proud, local claim for whom has the best examples. Grown not far from the hill town of Montepulciano, Montalcino’s “Sangiovese Grosso” makes the Brunello wines. Montepulciano’s clone of Sangiovese is different: “Prugnolo Gentile.” Whether the latter is within the clonal jurisdiction of the other is the subject of much chatter which I find wearying and – after a while – unnecessary. I would rather leave it to this: The two wines are different. Sangiovese from Montalcino (Brunello, that is) tends to be more brawny than this more sleek and vibrant Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. We expect heft from the former, zest from the latter. Unashamed to be but medium-bodied, this Carpineto compensates with character. Its 2010 predecessor (provided to your club in late 2014) received a 93 point rating from Wine Spectator and subsequently appeared on that publication’s famous “Top 100” list. This 2011 has now received the same score with the notes:

“A rich, powerful style, this evokes black cherry, black currant, plum, leather and tar flavors. Balanced and ready to enjoy, with lingering accents of spice and tobacco. Drink now through 2023.”

“Rich”? “Powerful”? Are they referring to Vino Nobile di Montepulciano? Yes, if character and not body is the reference. As for Carpineto’s best use, wild boar is the ideal. Lacking that, a thick smoked pork chop would certainly do just fine!

He did it again . . .
2015 De MORGENZON RESERVE XXXXXX XXXXX (The best grape in the world) – Stellenbosch, South Africa

This is a rare but perfectly legal (we wrote the rules) provision of a white wine. World Class Club members are typically amenable to the idea that wine beauty happens in more than one color.

A great fellow wine mind, Jeremy, showed this to me in a vendor appointment just last week. Unlike the rest of his line-up he poured it unrevealed and used a Burgundy glass. This was less about stumping the chump, more about objectivity. I knew his game - or most of it: His glass choice and the mystery wine’s obvious resemblance to Meursault or Chassagne-Montrachet meant to have me guessing outside of Burgundy’s Chardonnay places. I observed that Burgundy-like Chardonnay, with its graceful take on that oft-overmade grape, sometimes happens elsewhere. Kumeu River in New Zealand, Luca in Argentina, and certain conservatively rendered Santa Maria Chardonnays came to mind. Here was a wine suggesting any and all of those with a nose bringing lively crème fraiche richness and poached pear and apple crate lift. The message in the mouth, however, was a departure, with more baking spice than I’d expect. I’d hit a dead end.

Finally, Jeremy relieved me of my quandary. Here was 100% Chenin Blanc from the only place in the world where “The best grape in the world” can consistently, sometimes brilliantly succeed – other than its Loire Valley regions of Vouvray, Saumur, Savennieres, and Montlouis-sur-Loire. South Africa makes many an affordable Chenin quaffer, and sometimes aspires to this level of gorgeousness. Note that within the layers of fruit generosity there persists a lean-ness of tongue-bracing lemonicity. This acidic feature is what makes great Chenin one of the world’s few age-able whites. I once tasted a 1947 Chenin Blanc in Saumur, uncorked within sixty yards of its moldy crypt deep within a moist chalk cave. It was more than just alive. It was fresh, dynamic, shiny. Naturally, few Chenin Blancs (few wines of ANY variety) have this propensity, but the wine before you will provide very good things over at least ten years’ time.

“The best grape in the world?” That occurs on every Wine Steward WineBar menu whenever Chenin Blanc is in the mix. I proclaim this knowing there’s no such thing, and to assert my way past its jug wine stigma: Chenin is truly A great grape of the wine world. A perusal of the ratings given to this particular maker’s Chenin Blanc efforts suggests the wine critics are on my side!