Extraordinary Flaccianello

At its peak, my wine collection exceeded 4,000 bottles. For a decade, I’d been reading and researching, hunting down and buying wines from all over the world. These bottles all got sent to Portland Wine Storage, where they sat…and sat…and sat. It wasn’t affordable (import duties) or logistically feasible (dodgy transport/storage) to get these wines out to where we were living in Asia, so I just kept making ‘deposits’ without any ‘withdrawals.’

Now that we’re back in the USA, I’ve been a lot more active: selling cases of wine via Hart Davis Hart and drinking a fair amount too. I always make sure that I take a couple of bottles of the best stuff for me to try. That’s why most the ‘cases’ I sell through HDH are 9 or 10-bottle lots!

My Reward After a Hard Day’s Work

Having finished two days of moving boxes around at Portland Wine Storage, I thought it would be nice to share a famous bottle with Joe and the guys. I chose the Fontodi Flaccianello Della Pieve 2010. This wine regularly features in Wine Spectator’s Top 100, and one of the years was #1. The 2010 bottling earned 97 WE / 97 WA / 94 WS.

Here’s what WE had to say: “The 2010 Flaccianello della Pieve will take your breath away. This is a seriously beautiful Sangiovese-based wine with the kind of intensity and aromatic purity you only experience every 1,000 wines or so…The temptation to drink it now is huge, but those still young tannins definitely need a few more years to unwind. Anticipated maturity: 2015-2035.”

I poured it through an aerator into a decanter and did my best to accelerate what shouldn’t be accelerated. As I taste more and more of my 8 to 10-year old wines, I’m learning that 1-2 hours decanting is often the difference between disappointment and elation.

The wine tasted extraordinary: great dribbling handfuls of fruit that ranged from red to black, lush tannins, lively acidity and a long finish that tasted of licorice and tobacco. 100% Sangiovese. I don’t typically think of myself as a Sangiovese super-fan. Maybe I was just drinking the wrong stuff! Joe told me that he would only have one glass (still on the clock) but it took little coercion for him to have a second.

I’ve got two bottles left (selling the other nine.) One is going to be enjoyed this week with my wife. I love sharing the most extraordinary bottles with her. The next will disappear during my writing retreat next month (I’m 90% done with my first book!)

Picpoul de Pinet

Sure, it’s exciting to try a famous wine: a “cult” cab from Napa or a first growth from Bordeaux.

But I find it a lot more thrilling to taste a grape I’ve never tried before, especially when I have zero knowledge about the sort of wines it makes. When we traveled in Georgia (a sovereign nation in the Caucausus hehe), virtually ALL of the grapes were unknown to me. In Italy, each province had local grapes we’d never heard or seen before.

So this was my first Picpoul de Pinet – a white from southern France. (That’s about all I knew.) What would it taste like? Would it be aromatic? More like Chardonnay or more like Sauvignon Blanc or more like a Viognier?

Pic-a-boo! Who are you?

COLOR: Light yellow (NOT almost clear like a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio)

SMELL: Pear and lemon fruit, no obvious oak, no strong floral aromas

BODY: Medium-bodied with a very smooth feel

ACIDITY: Medium-high. Higher than a Chardonnay but lower than a Sauvignon Blanc.

FLAVORS: Tart lemon, a bit of pear/melon but with a savory bitterness/dryness at the end that was very unusual.

Did I enjoy it? Yes! (Although I think a decent percentage of people would find the bitter finish unpleasant.)

What would it taste great with? Seafood, I’d say. This is an oyster wine for sure.

What did it remind me of? A bit of Verdelho. A bit of unwooded Chardonnay.

WINEKNOW FACTS:

  • So Picpoul de Pinet is actually an AREA, and the grape is Picpoul.
  • Pinet is a small AOC (Defined Area) in Provence between Montpelier and Beziers
  • The Picpoul grape is a late-ripening variety; so it needs good, long summers
  • Picpoul translates as “lip stinger” for its acidity! (I still don’t find it as acidic as SB)
  • A Decanter magazine blog said this was a perfect seafood wine and compared it to Muscadet (from the Loire Valley) although I find Muscadet has more of a perception of sweetness than this Picpoul does
  • This wine is CHEAP! (usually around $10) and comes in a long-necked green bottle with a cool, cruciform logo embossed on the neck
  • Going to the coast? Seafood barbecue? This wine would kill it and you’d get respect for bringing something different.
  • I SHOULD HAVE HAD THIS IN MY “SUMMER WHITES” TASTING!

Hacienda Monasterio 2010 Riserva

To celebrate the resurrection of my wine fridge, I pulled a chair into the garage, set a wine glass atop a saw horse and opened this lovely bottle from the Ribera del Duero.

Enjoyed in my “man cave” while reading Real Simple.

I should have decanted it. Just look at the residue atop the label! But I couldn’t wait. I’m a big believed in “matching wine with mood” and my mood was exultant and thirsty.

The wine was a deep, deep purple. Almost black. With just a slight halo of red at the edge of the glass. The opacity surprised me for a Tempranillo.

For a wine that had slumbered for nearly a decade, the molecules escaping out of the glass smelled emphatically like blackberry pie and jasmine.

Acidity was also still lively. My only complaint – and a small grouse it is – is that my tongue and nose would have liked a bit more fruit to balance the tannins, acidity and oak.

WineKnow Facts:

  • The Ribera del Duero region is in northern Spain, a few hours’ drive due north from Madrid. Valladolid is the biggest city in the area.
  • Red wines from the RdD are made with “Tinto Fino” (the local name for Tempranillo).
  • Tempranillo wines are usually dark red, or garnet. Its usual aroma & flavor profile includes cherry, plum, tobacco, leather and cedar – rather like a Chianti.
  • I learned online that this particular wine was 80% Tempranillo and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon – so that explains the color and the darker-tasting fruits.
  • This wine was also aged for 20 months in French oak – which explains the oakiness that gave me a bit of “pie crust” and cedar action.
  • Peter Sisseck was the consultant winemaker for this wine – and he has a reputation for producing big wines that critics like Robert Parker love. He’s also directly involved in Dominio de Pingus, one of the top winemakers in Spain.

NZ SB: So Familiar, So Delicious

I thrive on variety. I’m obsessed with new experiences. I want to visit all the countries on Earth (at 115 now) I want to be conversant in all the major languages (at 6 now). So when it comes to wine, it’s no surprise that I prefer to try something new to something I’ve had before. The world of wine is huge, after all.

This bottle of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, was a gift bottle from our 4th “WineKnow” tasting. I wouldn’t have bought this bottle myself. Not because it isn’t excellent, but because I’ve had it so, so many times. When we lived in Australia, our go-to Sauvignon Blancs from NZ were Kim Crawford, Montana (Brancott), Nautilus and the now ubiquitous Cloudy Bay.

Was there a hole in the bottle? It sure got empty fast!

I sighed after swallowing the first gulp of the Kim Crawford SB. Like Proust’s famous madeleines, this wine whooshed me back in time. Vivid as yesterday, I remember sitting on our daybed in the sunroom on Yanko Ave, looking at the waves crashing on Bronte Beach and guzzling one or two NZ SBs while we read travel magazines and planned our 2.5-year round-the-world trip.

Everybody who loves wine knows the New Zealand “style” of SB: rasping acidity, tropical and citrus fruit flavors (unmistakable passion fruit and pineapple) at one end and thirst-slaking “green” flavors (cut grass, bell pepper, lime zest, and yes, cat pee) at the other end. So successful has this NZ SB flavor profile become that many of the “New World” winemakers strive to emulate it.

As a result, if I served a wine “beginner” a glass of good Sancerre and only told them that it was Sauvignon Blanc, I bet a lot of them would be disappointed. “I’ve had a lot better,” I could imagine them saying, recalling tropical abundance and tingling acidity.

Back to the Kim Crawford. My wife had a glass, and I had two. We both loved it. The next afternoon, I had two more glasses and it still tasted delicious. Considering the very affordable price (around $20) I must remember that in my quest for the “new”, it’s important sometimes to reach backward and refresh memories with a bottle of an old favorite.

Can OR Pinot Noir Age? Yup!

My wine collection is part investment, part experiment.

I want to understand HOW wines age by tasting them AS they age.

For more than a decade, I bought wine online (from big retailers or direct from the wineries) and stored them at a facility in Portland, Oregon. For years and years and years, I only made deposits – never withdrawals. Why? Because I was living in Asia. Shipment costs, questionable storage/transport and import tariffs on alcohol all made unfeasible for me to taste these wines I’d been buying.

In late 2018, I moved back to the USA (after 20 years in Asia!) and immediately started the experiment. I’ve got a LOT of Oregon Pinot Noir’s from 2008 and up. Do they age well? Or does the more fruit-forward style doom them to mediocrity with the passage of time?

Based on my experience so far, I can say the following with confidence: the best OR Pinot Noirs taste phenomenal, even a decade later. First, I tried two 2008 pinots side by side: the Beaux Freres Vineyard and an Archery Summit. Both are critically acclaimed wineries but the BF was my BFF. Later, when I briefly discussed my experiment with Roland Solles (winemaker at Argyle and ROCO), he smiled knowingly. (I’ve got some old ROCO somewhere in the pile of boxes so I can’t wait to see how Mr. Solles’ wines fared!)

Today, I’m trying the 2012 Walter Scott Cuvee Ruth from the Willamette Valley (13.6% ABV). Still medium purple in color, the wine smells fresh – crushed cherries and that telltale mustiness and earthiness of aged Pinot Noir. In the mouth, it feels light, with a tantalizing acidity. I bought 4 bottles of this upon release at US$30/bottle.

It’s very enjoyable. The length is provided by the cherries and the tongue-tingle. Considering the price and its age, it tastes fantastic.

My Wine Fridge’s Lazarus Act

I bought my Vinotemp, 150-bottle wine cabinet secondhand, for the ridiculously low price of US$300. The previous owner warned me that the WineMate refrigeration unit was starting to have some issues, but it was fall 2018 and I figured that the fridge would have no trouble keeping my wine at an acceptable temperature through fall and winter.

In fact, it had no trouble through spring. The weather in California has been so crappy (cold and wet) this year 2018/2019, that my unit was never really tested until late June. That’s when the temps inside the cabinet started climbing into the high 60s and the alarm bells literally started ringing.

I called Vinotemp and they told me that Mr. Appliance was their service provider in Orange County. So I called Mr. Appliance and set up a house call for the following week.

With the “box” gone, my precious wine is warming up…

Their representative arrived on time and got straight to work. He took out the “box” (the refrigeration unit), opened it up and said “Gosh, this looks in really good shape! No sign of Freon leakage, no major corrosion on the pipes, evaporator and condensers look good. Based on that, my guess is that the compressor is the problem.” He ran a quick diagnostic and said “Yup, you’ve got a bad compressor.”

What happened next astounded me. Instead of trying to sell me on: 1) a full “box” replacement, or 2) expensive replacement parts direct from WineMate, he instead told me about other options that would deliver the same performance at a much, much lower price. And then he called around to a few parts suppliers and managed to find exactly what I needed.

For a total cost of <US$700, this man is going to take my “box”, install the new parts this afternoon, test it overnight on a similar wine cabinet and then deliver and install the refurbished “box” at my house. He told me that he was very confident that this would extend the life of my wine fridge by 10+ years.

This means I’m going to have an essentially “new” Vinotemp wine fridge for a total cost of US$1000. If I had to replace the whole thing it would cost >US$3000 new. I am so relieved. I’m so pumped!

WineKnow Tips:

  • Wine fridges are important – especially if you are storing expensive bottles. Heat, light and humidity kill wine.
  • But wine fridges are also ridiculously expensive: the margin these companies are making on them are ludicrous. Think about it: you can buy an actual fridge/freezer (which goes MUCH colder than a wine fridge) for a few hundred dollars.
  • The wine fridge folks get you to spend thousands of dollars by telling you: 1) that you’ll be sorry if you don’t, and 2) that the cost of the fridge over ten years is nothing compared to the cost of your precious bottles.
  • My advice is to look online for secondhand fridges. People are always selling them, either because they’re moving house and can’t be bothered, or because they’ve got so much wine now that they need to buy a bigger wine fridge.

WineKnow Tasting #4: GSM – The Southern Rhone & Beyond

We hosted our fourth “WineKnow” tasting event at our house in Laguna Beach last Saturday. About 35 people joined us on a beautiful evening! (We charge $35 per person and that just covers 10 wines X 3 bottles each + some money for groceries (we make homemade pizzas and gougeres and always have lots of cheeses and cold cuts available).

While the overarching goal was to have fun, get a bit drunk and enjoy conversations with friends old and new, there were two educational goals:

1) To understand why winemakers blend different grapes, such as the “GSM” blend pioneered in France’s southern Rhone Valley, and

2) To understand the price/quality hierarchy in the southern Rhone Valley

One-third of the way through the tasting, and it’s all smiles already!

In order to understand why the “GSM” blend works, we started by tasting three, single-variety wines. A “G” (Grenache = Garnacha) from Spain; an “S” (Syrah = Shiraz) from the Northern Rhone and an “M” (Mourvedre = Monastrell = Mataro) from Spain.

The Grenache (usually 60%+ of Southern Rhone red blends) delivers plush, red fruit. The Syrah darkens the blend and adds blackberries, a certain meatiness/smokiness/pepper and tannins. The Mourvedre (usually the smallest % of the three) is extremely dark and tannic. Together, the three grapes deliver a balanced wine that tastes complex and can age extremely well. I was hoping to create my own GSM by pouring these three wines together but all the bottles were empty!

10 “Curriculum” wines + 3 “Guest” wines

Next, we learned about the Rhone wine quality pyramid. Cotes du Rhone –> Cotes du Rhone Villages –> Cotes du Rhone Crus –> Chateauneuf du Papes/Gigondas/Vacqueyras. We tasted an easy and delicious Cotes du Rhone from E. Guigal at an excellent price (US$11 at Costco!). Next, we jumped up the pyramid a few levels to an E. Guigal Chateauneuf du Papes from a not great year (2013). But it still tasted great! (A reminder that good winemakers can produce good wines even in “bad” vintages.) Finally, we tasted a Gigondas from Chateau St. Cosme.

Preaching to the Choir

We finished the evening with three GSMs from abroad: two from the Barossa Valley in Australia and one from Paso Robles in the USA. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take these last three out of the wine fridge, so they were too cold to enjoy fully. That said, everyone was pretty lit at that stage so no one minded.

One of our first-timers to these WineKnow events told me “This is the best wine-tasting I’ve ever done! I can’t believe how much I’ve learned.” Stop it! I’m blushing.

Lovely Ladies…but wait, is that WATER?

I’ll post more of my detailed notes for this tasting later, as well as the specific list of wines we tasted. WineKnow #5 is either going to be “The Killer B’s of Italy” (Barolo + Brunello) or “The Wild Wines of Portugal.”

Be a WineKnow

I didn’t know anything about wine. How could I? My parents were teetotalers, and underage kids drank cheap beer, not snooty wine.

After college, my first job was at an investment bank in Chicago. That’s when my lack of wine knowledge (WineKnow) began to irritate me. If I went on a date, I felt hopeless when I scanned the restaurant wine list and made my selection based on price. At a client event, the sommeliers took advantage of my ignorance by steering me towards overpriced wines.

Preaching to the WineKnows at our “Summer Whites” Tasting

So I started reading. A lot. Zraly’s “Windows on the World” wine course, MacNeil’s “Wine Bible,” Decanter and Wine Spectator magazines and so much more.

I also started drinking. A lot. I found the pace of wine drinking enjoyable (not too drunk too fast, not too sober too long). I found the myriad styles of wine exciting. But most importantly, I discovered that understanding wine wasn’t that hard.

All that reading and drinking has transformed me into a “wine expert.” I’m not a Master of Wine or Certified Sommelier. I haven’t taken any tests. But I have tasted thousands of wines, toured dozens of wine regions and geeked-out like crazy.

I’m here to offer you shortcuts. To teach you a few little things that vastly expand your comfort in the wine world. My mantra is simple:

“Making better-informed and more adventurous wine buyers and drinkers.”

Rombauer 2015 Carneros Chardonnay

What a treat when a “mystery bottle” is actually kinda famous!

I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy this, so it must have been a gift bottle brought during our first WineKnow Chardonnay tasting.

This is a highly-respected producer. But I’m not much of a fan of Californian Chardonnays. Even the wines that retailers tell me have a light touch on the oak aging taste like butter bombs to me. Even the unoaked Calfornia Chardonnays still taste vanilla/butterscotch rich due to malolactic fermentation and high grape ripeness.

OK, so this wine was good. I’d even say it was great – for the style. It had been so long since I’d drunk a CA Chardy that I didn’t mind the flavor profile. And admittedly, this bottle had a lot less overt oakiness then so many of the other ones.

WINEKNOW FACTS:

  • There is nothing inherently oaky or buttery about Chardonnay grapes.
  • All that oak, butter, vanilla and butterscotch comes from winemaker decisions, chiefly: 1) how much new (especially American) oak the wine ages in, and 2) whether the second, malolactic fermentation was done
  • I keep reading in wine magazines that Californian winemakers have turned away from the rich, buttery styles but I don’t know what they are talking about. It’s still almost impossible to find an unoaked Chardonnay that tastes anything like Chablis
  • Any CA Chardy you buy from a supermarket will almost certainly be in this style: rich (high alcohol), oaky, buttery. Think about some of the names! Buttercream, Butter etc.

Podere La Villa – Giacomo Toscana IGT (2014)

I drank this wine on my 46th birthday (January 31, if you’d like to send a bottle next year!) Unfortunately, my enjoyment of this delicious Italian Merlot was spoiled by a trip to the emergency room. Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled into a patch of poison oak while hiking. It took a month for me to be able to walk normally!

This is a 100% Merlot from Tuscany crafted by the daughter and son-in-law of the late, great Giacomo Taschis, Ilaria. He died in 2016, not long after this wine from his daughter was released. Only 1,900 bottles of this wine were produced (their Merlot acreage isn’t that big) and I got a CASE!

Giacomo was an oenologist who became known as “The Father of Super-Tuscans” and for having kick-started the quality renaissance in Italian wine in the 1960s and 1970s. Some say he brought French style and techniques to antiquated Italian winemaking.

He worked with Piero Antinori and helped develop Sassicaia, Tignanello, and Solaia.┬áHe later helped in both Sicily (Donnafugata) and in Sardinia. Basically, this guy “dragged Italian wine kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” as Jancis Robinson wrote.
Decanter’s “Man of the Year” in 2012

Giacomo Toscana IGT Podere La Villa 2015 (750ML) zoom

*** My tasting notes

Lovely. Dark purple, nose of blackberry and cedar. Medium-heavy in the mouth, the alcohol levels were in the middle of the range for Merlots at 14.5%. Plush black fruits. Going to love tasting the remaining bottles over the next few years!

WINEKNOW FACTS:

  • Most Europe labels its wines by region. Within that region, only certain grapes are allowed. So Tuscany is mostly about Sangiovese – BY LAW.
  • The “Super Tuscans” are massively popular Italian wines made from international grape varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah) and often blended with Sangiovese.
  • Since they’re not following the rules, these winemakers are forced to indicate their wine as IGT (Italian for ‘typical of this region’) which doesn’t sound very high-end at all.
  • But no matter. Wines like Tignanello and Sassicaia are global superstars.