Weissenkirchen Gruner Veltliner Smaragd 2020 Wachau, Austria

Ah! German and Austrian wine labels! So complicated and difficult to translate that all the extra detail leaves the average wine buyer, ironically, knowing nothing.

Gruner – at some point I’ll manage an umlaut on WordPress – is known for 3 things: tropical fruits, high acidity, white pepper and (sometimes) fennel/dill aromas. It can be mistaken for NZ Sauvignon Blanc (makes sense given the climate) and is generally fuller/rounder than the Riesling grown in the vineyard down the road. Some sommeliers love it, it’s hip or it’s not – but I never buy the stuff.

First, some fun (to me) translation/etymology.

Weissenkirchen = white church
Smaragd = a quality designation that oddly refers to an emerald-colored lizard (think how similar ‘smaragd’ is to esmerelda, Spanish for emerald) that basks on the warmest, upper terraces. Smaragd wines are from superior sites, have higher alcohol levels etc.
Wachau = a region in Austria, and not a very big one, that follows the Danube River. It looks very Mosel-ish in terms of terraced vineyards hugging curves in the river, though isn’t as dramatic. And from my little I’ve read, Riesling tends to get the premier hillside sites, whereas Gruner has to do with loess [that was a darn good pun].

The Weissenkirchen with Danube beyond.

So my first surprise was how golden colored this wine was. It looked like an aged Riesling! Straight from the wine fridge the aromas were muted, and when I tasted it, I worried that it had prematurely oxidized (despite being under screwcap). But as the wine warmed and opened up, the pineapple came on strong (the white pepper and fennel never showed up). The back label described the wine as “discretely spicy.” As in, so discrete, I didn’t notice it.

This wine felt quite heavy in the mouth, especially for a white wine. And no surprise, it’s 13% ABV, at the high end for whites.

An enjoyable wine, to be sure. Would I buy it again? No. I think I need to get involved in some feather play (Federspiel) first.

Clos de los Siete – 2018

I’m like Leonardo di Caprio in reverse. I only drink old wines.

It’s not because I’m a wine snob. It’s because I’ve built up a big collection and it needs to be drunk. It’s also because it’s wildly interesting to get a better feel for what happens to wine as it ages.

However, I’ve decided to take the WSET Level 2 course, and most of the varietal descriptions, and most of the wines we’ll be tasting as part of the course are going to be young. So I figured it was a good idea to remind myself what young wines taste like!

So I made a Total Wine run and picked up a bottle of everything I haven’t tried before or haven’t tasted in a long time: Fiano, Verdicchio, Pinotage, Gruner Veltliner etc. And as I was racing through the aisles, I saw Clos de los Siete on special. Michel Rolland + Mendoza + Bordeaux blend + Malbec. I knew it was going to be rich and lush.

I followed the WSET’s “SAT” method (Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine) and started familiarizing myself with the steps and the vocabulary. But that’s too boring! This was a very dark ruby wine with black fruit and oak that erupted out of the glass. I smelled cedar and smoke, and by the second sniff couldn’t get grilled ribs out of my head.

I expected my mouth to be coated with tannins, but they were ridiculously smooth and ripe. ‘Creamy’ one critic wrote, and that’s spot on. With the vanilla-ish flavors from the oak, it was like a black plum creamsicle.

I didn’t tell my wife what she was drinking. “Gosh, that’s rich!” she exclaimed, and asked for the glass again.

By WSET standards, I’d consider this a “very good” wine 🙂 A bit Napa Valley-cartoonish, but certainly very enjoyable.

2013 Bila-Haut ‘Occultem Lapidem’ by M. Chapoutier

This wine brings back memories. Great memories.

Indigo Restaurant, Soi Convent, Bangkok

There is a lovely French restaurant on Soi Convent in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s name is Indigo, but I’ve also heard it called the second French Embassy because the place is always packed with Frenchies – a sure sign of (at least relative) authenticity.

You walk down Convent and then turn left down an alley just before hitting Silom Road. The alley smells, the concrete is cracked and heaved, and a rat or two often scuttles away. It’s the last place you’d expect a French restaurant, which is why I loved taking guests and clients there. Then you step into a delightful courtyard filled with arching palms and twinkling lights, you hear the hubbub of happy diners and smell sizzling steak frites and you can’t help but smile.

I’ve eaten at Indigo 50 times, and had a glass or bottle of wine there at least 100 times. It’s no hyperbole to say that it’s one of my favorite places on earth. And on many of those occasions, this was the wine I chose: Michel Chapoutier’s Bila-Haut ‘Occultem Lapidem.’ It’s a very affordable GSM (well actually, SGC!) blend from Roussilon. And it’s delicious, a baby CdP full of amazing berry flavors.

I bought two cases of the 2013 Bila-Haut before I left Thailand. They came from a US retailer and were shipped to my storage locker in Portland. I wasn’t sure how long the wine would last, but Robert Parker gave the 2013 a 97 and said it could last for 10-15 years.

Unfortunately, it looks like he was wrong. I’ve tried several of the bottles over the last few years and they all taste a bit faded. The delicious fruit and chocolate/licorice aromas have receded into the background. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

Nonetheless, I’m smiling as I’m drinking it. Such amazing memories.

Tua Rita “Giusto di Notri” 2006

Whenever I uncork a wine this old, I feel a mixture of excitement and dread. Did I wait too long?

It’s a terrible feeling to pour a bottle of wine that you know WAS good, and have it taste blah or even bad. You finish the bottle anyway, of course, hoping until the last sip that something magical is going to happen. But it rarely does.

Thankfully this was nothing like that!!! While I was pouring the bottle, brambly fruit and licorice aromas leapt out of the decanter. The wine was still very dark in color; not at all red around the edges. Encouraged, I took a little sip and swooned: this is was what great, old wines can taste like!

Giusto di Notri is a very famous (and fairly expensive) Bordeaux blend from cult winery Tua Rita. It tends to get scores of 96+ from the major wine critics. But it’s Giusto’s big sister, Redigaffi – a 100% Merlot bottled “Super Tuscan” style as an IGT wine – that gets more of the attention. A bottle of Redigaffi costs around $300; a bottle of Giusto, $100.

Here’s what Robert Parker had to say (in 2009!) about the 2006 Giusto di Notri.

“The estate’s 2006 Giusto di Notri is another weighty, powerful offering bursting with tons of primary fruit. Sweet herbs, cassis and graphite swirl around in the glass, adding further complexity. Like the other wines in this line-up, the Giusto di Notri needs time to reach the full range of its potential, but it is awfully impressive even at this early stage. Anticipated maturity: 2014-2026.”

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate

Parker certainly got this one right. Here we are in the middle of Giusto’s “best drinking” window and it tasted amazing: no longer “powerful”, but instead velvety smooth. Even my wife (who isn’t always a fan of older wines) immediately said “Yum!”

Novellum – Value from the Sunny Side of France

My “Great Wine Values” tastings continue with a Chardonnay from the south of France, specifically the Languedoc-Rousillon region.

This 2017 Novellum Chardonnay cost $12.99 on Wine.Com. It got a 92 score from Jeb Dunnuck (a breakaway critic from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate). That means that the Novellum’s price-per-point is an insanely low $0.14!

When I drink whites from Languedoc-Rousillon, roses from Bandol or whatever from Provence, I’m expecting sun-in-a-glass. Other than that, wine-making styles vary wildly.

Boom! When I swirled this in the glass, I smelled candied pineapple and papaya before I even brought it near my mouth! In terms of flavor, it was very ‘sunny’ – tropical fruits, very limited oak impact, and good acidity with a touch of sweetness.

A Long Way from Burgundy

My wife liked it – though she told me it didn’t taste like a Chardonnay to her at all. “Certainly not a French Chardonnay.”

She thought it was a Riesling! And I can understand why – there was a surprising aromatic quality to the nose that made me think there was some Viognier or Marsanne added to the Chardonnay.

Later, I was chuffed to discover that I was kind of correct: 80% of the Chardonnay was aged in tanks on Viognier lees.

I’m not such a huge fan of this style, to be honest. I like the limited oak, I like the fruit but overall I don’t think I could drink four glasses of this. I don’t think I will include this one in the upcoming WineKnow tasting event. But you might love it! Different strokes for different folks!

WineKnow Facts:

  • The large wine regions of Languedoc-Rousillon and Provence are (in terms of location) very similar. The Rhone River flows into the Mediterranean near Arles, which is bang in the middle of France’s coastline. Just remember Two Ls: Languedoc-Rousillon is to the “Left” (i.e., to the west of Arles and the Rhone, stretching towards Spain) while Provence is to the east of Arles, stretching towards Italy.
  • Vines in the Languedoc get MUCH more sun than in Bordeaux or Burgundy. So you’d expect a Languedoc (or Provencal) Chardonnay to taste a lot ‘sunnier’ down than classic white Burgundy (Chardonnay). And they do. They are generally fruitier, less acidic and less complicated.
  • Languedoc (and further west, Rousillon) is a great area for value wines in France. The reds tend to be GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) blends like in the Rhone Valley, while the whites are a mix of aromatic Rhone varieties like Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne or international crowd-pleasers like Chardonnay.
  • Stylistically, these wines are all over the place. Some are overtly copying the “New World” model of super-plush or heavily-oaked wines. Others are as restrained as they can be given the climate. You just have to try them until you find a few you like. Good news is, they’re cheap!

Icario Rosso Toscana – Value Vino

With this $15 Tuscan red blend, I’ve initiated the research program for our upcoming 7th WineKnow event on the “World’s Greatest Wine Values.”

The UK’s premier wine magazine, Decanter, awarded this wine a stunning 93 point score. (In fact, they gave it a 18.5 score – out of 20 – but most wine retailers just multiply that score by five to make it comparable to everyone else’s 100-point scale.)

With a 93-point Score, Icario is Flying Pretty Close to the Tuscan Sun!

That means that this wine cost $0.16 per point – one of the lowest prices-per-point I’ve seen. In other words, this wine offers incredible value compared to other high-scoring wines.

Decanter wrote that the Icario boasts a “classic Sangiovese nose of red cherries and earthy notes. Rich and juicy mouth-feel, with velvety tannins and fresh acidity.”

I agree. It’s easy, true to its appellation, balanced and delicious! This one is definitely going into the next WineKnow lineup!

Tonight I happened to make spaghetti with marinara sauce and crumbled Italian-style sausage, which just cried out for a local wine like this.

BTW: I much prefer Decanter’s easy-to-understand reviews compared to the often ridiculous comparisons (Meyer Lemon? Damson Plum?) and fanciful allusions (a sighing odalisque?) in US wine mags.

WineKnow Facts:

  • This is an IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wine from Toscana that is a blend of 70% Sangiovese, 20% Teroldego and 10% Merlot.
  • In Italy, the quality pyramid goes DOCG –> DOC –> IGT.
  • With so much Sangiovese, why isn’t it labeled Chianti? They could charge a lot more money, right?
  • One reason is the Merlot. By regulation, this ‘foreign’ grape is not allowed in Chianti wines.
  • Another reason is likely the location or locations where the grapes were sourced. If they were all sourced from Chianti Classico or any of the famous sub-regions, they would shout this out on the label.
  • Instead, this is likely a blend that includes grapes grown in non-Chianti areas of Tuscany. (I later learned that the winery is based in Montepulciano, and also produces Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Rosso di Montepulciano! The modern winery looks like a great place to visit!)
  • In any cases, the inclusions of the Merlot means that they couldn’t label the wine as Chianti Classico even if ALL the grapes were grown in the Chianti Classico region!

Malbec – Been a Long Time

Gosh. When was the last time I drank a Malbec?

Other than a few bottles of Achaval Ferrer, I don’t have any Malbecs in my collection. I never buy Malbec at wine stores, and I don’t see it frequently on wine lists by the glass.

You’d think that I abhor Malbecs, but I actually quite enjoy them!

I’m guessing that there are two reasons for this. First, I don’t eat a lot of beef anymore because my wife doesn’t think it’s healthy. (I love it nonetheless! So I sneak out for a steak from time to time.) Second, because like Aussie Shiraz, mass-market Malbecs can feel pretty formulaic.

So I decided to give Clos d’Argentine’s 2014 Winemarker’s Selection Malbec Reserva. The wine got a 91 from Wine Enthusiast and costs around $15 (I think).

Of course the wine is very dark. I smelled more oak than fruit on the nose, together with an unpleasant aroma of wet cigarette butt that once my brain latched on to I just couldn’t shake. I decided to let the wine sit for a bit, and I’m glad I did.

I am constantly reminded of the importance of letting wine breathe – even for wines that are just five years old like this. During the ‘waking up’ process, nasty smells that have been bouncing around in the bottle waft away, the sometimes vinegar-like acidity fades, primary aromas get into the glass and my overall enjoyment of the wine surges. 

After an hour, the cigarette butt smell was gone, replaced by much preferable dark cherry and tobacco aromas. Still not as fruity as I would like, however, and even a bit sour! Acidity was good though the tannins were hardly noticeable.   

While the ‘breathing’ certainly helped, I wasn’t a big fan of this wine. It felt unbalanced (too much wood) and not enough core, ripe fruit. 

WineKnow Facts:

  • While Malbec is Argentina’s iconic red wine, the grape is indubitably French. In Cahors, it’s known as Cot. (In a wonderful boomerang, Cahors wines are making something of a comeback thanks to Malbec’s global fame!)
  • That said, Argentine Malbec tastes quite different from Cot from Cahors. Much of this comes down to climate and wine-making approaches. But the grapes themselves have different attributes – likely because the original Cot cuttings came to South American in the 1800s, well before the phylloxera epidemic in Europe. Even French winemakers admit (well, some of them do) that the original Cots (now making Malbec in Argentina) are superior for more serious wines.
  • Classic Malbec characteristics: very dark purple, brambly (even gamey) dark fruit, high alcohol, medium-high acidity and medium tannins. Maybe some chocolaty goodness or smokiness on the finish. Wines tend to be big but ‘smooth.’
  • The most comparable grapes to Malbec would be Syrah and Merlot – at least in my mind.

What is a ‘Value’ Wine?

My quest to explore little-known wine countries and regions is motivated both by wanderlust and miserliness. I love finding excellent, cheap wines. That doesn’t mean that I’m hitting the Jacob’s Creek or the Hogue. But it does mean that I’m unlikely to spend US$80 on a Paso Robles GSM when I know that I can get the real thing from a storied producer in the Rhone Valley for cheaper.

Knowledge is the key here. That’s why I call my events “WineKnow.” American and other wine producers take advantage of both our lack of knowledge and our susceptibility of luxury-brand marketing.

Last night, I went through the back pages of the latest issue of Wine Enthusiast. Just for fun, I set up a spreadsheet that tracked the price per rating point.

For wines that scored 93-95, the range of the price per point was $0.34 (Obsidian Ridge Cab Sauv) to $3.11 (Stag’s Leap Cab Sauv). For wines that scored 89-92, the range of the price per point was $0.16 (J. Lohr South Ridge Syrah) to $1.30 (Bouchard Aine Le Porusot.)

A few thoughts on this:

  • Unlike a dollar, a “point” is a subjective score by a single person on a single wine at a single point in time. That means that point scores cannot be directly compared.
  • Even at the same magazine, wines are rated by different people who have different specialties. The Oregon Pinot taster has a different scale than the the Burgundy Pinot taster.
  • Land prices and marketing costs are a huge part of the total retail cost of a wine. Land in Mendocino is a lot cheaper than it is in Napa. In contrast, land prices for old multi-generation wine families across Europe isn’t even part of the cost base.
  • People are willing to pay more per point for reds than whites, and will pay more per point for global celebrities like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay than less know wines like Tannat or Assyrtiko.
  • In my head, a 100-point wine is more than just 2% better than a 98-point wine. I think most people would agree that their minds process point scores this way.
  • Still, I found the price per point measurement both simple and instructive – which is all you really want from a statistic.
  • You have to realize that massive producers with industrial wine-making facilities have the ability to produce wines with a lot lower price per point. But these will tend to be less complex, homogeneous wines.

I’m going to continue tracking this, with plans to host a WineKnow event on “Value Wines” early in 2020. How you measure wine value? What are your favorite value wines?

Jolly Green Giant – Vinho Verde

For our 6th WineKnow event on the wines of Portugal, I wanted to get people excited about Vinho Verde – those cheap ($8-15), fresh, low-alcohol, almost transparent, off-dry and slightly sparkling wines from the north.

I’m all about matching wine with MOOD. And a chilled bottle of fruity, barely bubbling Vinho Verde pairs perfectly with scorching day at la playa (ahem, a praia). Plus, with alcohol levels that range from 9-11%, these wines aren’t gonna knock you out.

Unfortunately, Vinho Verde (Green Wine) is a terrible name for a wine region. Everyone guesses that the wine is made from green-skinned grapes or grapes that are a bit unripe. In fact, the ‘green’ in the name just means that the wines are ‘young’ (released within a few months of the crush).

I mean, can you imagine telling your girlfriend that you’ve got a romantic weekend of wine-tasting in Red Wine?

The Vinho Verde region is basically the Portuguese province of Minho, which stretches north of the Douro River (which flows into the Atlantic at Porto) and the frontier with Spanish Galicia. The climate, landscapes, grapes and wines of Vinho Verde and Galicia are similar. Both look a lot more like the area around Seattle than Sevilla.

Most Vinho Verde whites are blends, and several dozen grapes are allowed in the blend, most of which you will have never had before. The best of them are Alvarinho (yes, the same as Albarino), Louriero, Arinto, Avesso and Trajadura.

The label makes it pretty clear what this wine is all about!

Unfortunately, lax labeling means that it is almost impossible to ascertain whether the bottle you’re buying has a classic profile (slightly sparkling, slightly sweet) or is bone-dry and still! There is a lot of innovation happening across the large Vinho Verde region and the information on the wines hasn’t kept up.

So I did the needful and bought a half-dozen Vinho Verdes to try.

The Praia was fruity, petillant and delightful. Tasted a bit like a fruity Prosecco but with less bubbles.

A bit more ‘serious’ than the Praia

The Aveleda was a bit drier with similar bubbles.

The Blanka was my favorite: very lightly sparkling (as in, it wasn’t obviously sparkling when I poured it), fruity but not cloying.

“Branco” on the label tells you it’s a blend of white grapes

In the end, I selected the Fifth Empire “Destino” bottling for the WineKnow event. It didn’t even have Vinho Verde on the front label because they wanted people to focus on the blend of Alvarinho and Loureiro.

Since Vinho Verde wines are so cheap, I’d suggest you do the same thing: buy 4-6 different bottles and see which flavor/sparkle profile you like best. Then buy a case and store them in a cold fridge for your next beach day.

This Port Erupts: Quinta do Vesuvio

Not so long ago, I used to fly Singapore Airlines Business Class on my long-haul flights from Singapore to Australia, Europe or North America. You really get spoiled on SQ: the comfortable seats, the extensive entertainment offerings, the excellent food and – of course – the beautiful stewardesses in their body-hugging sarong kebaya.

My first taste of port was on an SQ flight. At the end of a meal, they usually offered a glass of port, a selection of cheeses, plump grapes, chocolates and raisins. I came to love the warming richness of port, which seemed designed for fleece pajamas, snowy nights, wood-burning stoves and Rip Van Winkel-style slumber.

You don’t drink much port in Asia for the same reason you don’t eat many stews or roasts or fettuccine Alfredo. It’s too damned hot! Western ‘comfort food’ tastes terrible in the sweaty tropics.

So it was with great anticipation that I popped open a bottle of the 2007 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port.

My cousin (who was named after me even though he will never admit it) told me that he’d only had port once – as part of a big night out with Cuban cigars.

His girlfriend doesn’t drink red wines; she was ready to head home. But I could tell that the Vesuvio was hitting Scott’s tastebuds like a pyroclastic flow.

“Whoa….” is the best wine descriptor ever.

I tasted this wine over the next three nights. I was curious what impact the oxygen would have on this 20 year-old wine. In truth, I couldn’t really notice a big difference. After three days, it still tasted amazing.

I bought a RIDICULOUS AMOUNT of 2011 Vintage Port as soon as I read early reviews about this benchmark vintage. I cannot wait to experience some of these wines! But as any wine expert will tell you, Vintage Port is some of the longest-lived wines in the world. So look out for my blog post 20 years from now!