Wines from Tavel represent more sturdy and concentrated versions of rosé. Rosés from Provence are considered by many to be archetypal for lighter, more elegant styles of rosé, but certainly do not hold a monopoly on dry rosé production. I am a steadfast supporter of clean rosé styles, but a recent bottle of Tavel reminde me of the splendidness of subtly richer styles of the stuff.
Tavel is an appellation for dry rosés located in the southern Rhône Valley. If you are acquainted with the dry reds of the southern Rhône, you will likely recognize them as sturdy and concentrated, typified by ripe flavors. Tavel Rosés are similar for the ways they contrast Provencal rosés in both color and taste. Grenache and Cinsault are the two principal varieties used to make rosés in Tavel, each of which maintains a reputation for producing wines of great power and weight. This may be a bit of a generalization, but in my experience a shopper examining a bottle of Grenache in a store should look elsewhere if she desires a restrained wine.
The 2015 Domaine des Muretins rosé is a quality example of what the region has to offer. While some critics bemoan the occasional bloated price points for these wines, this bottle seems to average right around the $20 marker. (The Twisted Vine retails this bottle for $19.99.) This particular wine is a relatively new venture for the producer, but doesn’t show any infantile faults or growing pains. With just the right balance of red fruit flavors and acidity, this is a quality bottle that should be enjoyable from now until the end of the holiday season.
It is exciting to be a fan of wine during spring. Not only do we get to witness an onslaught of new rosé wines (as noted in a previous post), but we also get the chance to explore different possibilities for enjoying different wines at different times of the day and with different foods. Those of us living in Southern California should consider ourselves supremely lucky to soak up sunny weather that is more or less predictable. Spring wines don’t seem to just pair well with lighter food items, but also with our pleasant weather and the company we gather around to appreciate it.
I recently took a trip to Washington State. I set up my “home base” on Bainbridge Island with a couple of friends, and we did what we could to enjoy the slower-paced island life on Bainbridge, while also taking the 30-minute ferry to Seattle to enjoy a more turbulent yet gastronomically impressive environment. We marveled at the contrasts, but also appreciated those establishments that could strike balance between catering to liveliness and also charming patrons with appreciation for more slow and methodical dining experiences. You know you are experiencing a good meal when you notice yourself slipping back into your chair and taking a deep breath. For me, this action usually indicates a subtle out-of-body experience where I am able to appreciate my own appreciation for food, drink, and the invigorating dialogues that emerge from food experiences. I was struck with a number of insights about food culture during my time visiting the northwest.
First, bottle price is not the sole correlate for a positive experience. Rest assured that I spent more than a few cents on bottles of wine (retail and in restaurant) during my time away, but the most expensive bottle was not necessarily the most enjoyable. My friends and I splurged on bottles of aged Bordeaux and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, all of which were memorable. But when I think back on our experiences, I’m not willing to admit that these expensive bottles were totally a cut above the moderately priced bottles of Muscadet we ordered with shellfish lunches. An “objective” wine critic may object to such a claim, but I’m all finished with objectivity as a way of approaching wine. Food and wine are aspects of our subjective consciousness, and we should embrace them for the ways they enhance our lives when we allow ourselves to seek out the indulgences. Was our bottle of 2006 Haut-Bage Liberal technically a better wine than the 2015 Cognettes Muscadet? Perhaps it is. But we ordered the Muscadet after a long walk, and we were hot. And we got to appreciate this bottle with sublimely delicious shellfish, which arrived at our table just as the acidity in the Muscadet caused our mouths to salivate past the point of comfort. If I were to venture off on this trip again next week, I’m not so sure I would buy the Bordeaux again. It was expensive, and I’m not all that wealthy. But the Muscadet was very reasonably priced and it was brilliant with the food we ordered. I’ll take that experience every day of the week (though I’ll be looking for a different pant waist size shortly thereafter).
I have also come to believe that we consumers should pay attention to food and wine pairings, but should not verge into any sort of dogmatism. This adage seems especially appropriate during spring, when we should be embracing all the fresh, clean, and budget-friendly wines we can get our hands on. For example the bottles of Muscadet, Provence rosé, and Chablis I’ve been purchasing have not maxed out my credit card, but have dazzled me with their versatility with a wide range of different edible fares. Of course, being in defense of a more tempered approach to pairing wine with food does not mean that we should not be paying attention to the exciting ways the two may interact. One of the most profoundly delicious and compelling pairings on my trip was a 2006 German Spätlese Riesling with chicken liver pâté. The opulence of the pâté was such a wonderful fit for the rich flavors of the wine, but balanced by the Riesling’s sustained acidity (one of the many reasons to adore Riesling). And this was one example of the ways a wine can be just “right” for a particular food item, I don’t recognize it as being the only pairing that I might have written about now that I am back home.
These are just two insights that struck me over the course of my trip and now, during periods of reflection. Of course, the overarching lesson is to collect wines that will make you happy, and that will enhance this wonderful season. Thankfully, finding bottles that meet this specification will not break the bank, and will enhance just about any meal… especially around lunchtime.
This past month we welcomed some guests into our shop for a class on rosé wines. Presenting a rosé tasting is beginning to be a springtime tradition for us at The Twisted Vine, which doesn’t seem to displease any of us who get to interact with attendees and sample the wines for ourselves.
I never really fall out of love with rosés, but each spring (the season during which most rosé producers unveil their newest releases) I am reminded of all the many reasons why it is one of my favorite wine “genres.” Our most recent class was no exception to the rule, as we tasted our ways through a flight of five delicious yet markedly different rosé wines.
Flavor concentration was one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the wines we tasted. While some of the rosés could be described as “delicate” or “easy-drinking,” other bottles maintained flavors that were far more concentrated, indicating more developed grape ripeness or prolonged maceration during the vinification process. Juice to skin contact for rosé production is never really as lengthy a process as it is for traditional red wines, but some rosé producers will leave the skins in contact with the juice for longer periods, in order to make the fruit flavors more concentrated and to add a degree of “weight” based on increased tannin and anthocyanin levels. As the person leading the tasting, I was both intrigued and thrilled to note how many different guests preferred so many different wines. One wine caused one person to grin from ear to ear, whereas that same wine just as easily caused another to grimace. As I mentioned, finding out that someone doesn’t care for something you like just means there will be more bottles available for you to buy.
Some of the most frequently asked questions during the tasting had to do with food pairings for rosé wines. “What’s the best pairing?” is the sort of question a number of guests asked while we were walking around and gauging reactions to the different wines. Unlike some sommeliers or other personalities in the wine world, I rarely feel comfortable pinpointing any single dish that is THE archetypal pair for any wine. I concede that there are some wines that seem to clash with certain foods (e.g. a deep, tannic red with sushi), but I try to avoid dogmatic presumptions on food and wine pairing options whenever possible. When it comes to rosé, the fresh red and stone fruit flavors and marked acid levels seem like they would complement a whole host of springtime meals. More importantly to me, however, is the idea that rosé seems to be the sort of drink you can sip on routinely, even in the absence of food. While I agree with a writer like Eric Asimov when he claims that wine is ideally consumed alongside food, I am perfectly content drinking most rosés without any intended or accidental food pairing options. The stuff just tastes good all the time.
Just like our class last year, this class reassured me of my desire to stockpile my personal cellar with bottles of rosé. While many of these bottles will be hued differently and come from regions all over the world, I can almost guarantee that each bottle will refresh me and remind me that it is spring. Oh, what a wonderful season!
One of the qualities I respect in sommeliers, wine journalists, and other persons in the trade is the ability to comment on the quality of a wine that does not fit within their own preferences. For example, I appreciate some opulent and rich styles of Chardonnay, but that list is a rather short one. I get a big kick out of wines from Meursault, one of the famed areas in Burgundy for a richer style of Chardonnay. But even within this category, the wines I appreciate are those that strike a balance between richness, acidity, and minerality. Unlike many persons with whom I chat about wines, I don’t maintain a personal taste or attachment to richer styles of Chardonnay that rely on new oak flavors and creamy textures. However, that does not mean I don’t put forward to constantly taste these wines to pinpoint the “good ones.”
Sbragia is one of the good ones. Ed Sbragia (founder) garnered fame and acclaim for the work he did as vintner for Beringer. Today, Sbragia Family Vineyards, located deep in Silverado road off Highway 101 in Sonoma, is the source of red and white wines that represent the pinnacle of rich and opulent California styles. I am most familiar with Sbragia’s various bottlings of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, though they also do some fine work with Zinfandel, in its trademark full California style.
The 2012 Sbragia “Home Ranch” Chardonnay is an excellent representation of the producer’s general style. The wine maintains significant palate weight, creamy texture (indicative of full malolactic fermentation), and features extremely ripe and tasty green and tropical fruit flavors. Apricot and Pineapple stand out, alongside a marked honeyed flavor. Some of the flavor profiles I’ve read online mentioned marmalade as a distinctive flavor, which seems pretty spot on. It doesn’t seem difficult to find these styles of New World Chardonnay in local wine shops, but it does seem more rare to find one at an attractive price point. We sell the bottle for $19.99, which is a great price for a wine of this caliber.
So, while I do get excited about finding regions and specific bottles that work for my own tastes, I also find joy in being able to refer consumers to wines they love, which I might never buy for myself. I suppose it’s all in an effort to become the most helpful wine professional I can be, who never feels inclined to tell someone they are misinformed for liking or buying a certain wine. But do us all a favor and don’t buy a bottle of…
It’s easy to snicker or even roll your eyes at Moscato these days. Particularly here in the U.S., Moscato is a term that has become somewhat divisive. For sure, it is the safe word to use when you don’t know precisely what you want, but you know that you want something sweet. For others, it is a term that, at worst, signals the demise of wine culture, or at best, identifies someone as a person who probably does not feel too comfortable at your dinner table.
As someone who has spent the previous four years immersed in all sorts of different wines through professional and personal activities, I’ve been privileged to experience wines that many might not come across. I don’t state this to be pompous or to communicate a sense of superiority, but simply to illustrate my positioning with respect to this topic. I taste a fair number of special and expensive wines. You might think that I maintain a disdain for Moscato, similar to others with similar experiences. If you think this, you are wrong. I adore Moscato. It’s my dirty wine secret.
I routinely ask others in the “wine know” about their wine secrets. I am interested in getting to know some of the tastes and tendencies that are maintained despite degrees of assimilation into elitist wine culture. I know some sommeliers who will forever maintain an admiration of Bud Light, or some similar mass-market beer. Although these persons may never believe Bud Light to be on par with some of their favorite wines when it comes to issues of quality, they will never give up on the stuff based on the crisp and refreshing characteristics that makes drinking them an exercise in relaxation. I heard somewhere that Master Sommelier Fred Dame adores a medium-priced California Sauvignon Blanc with lunch. Considering the bottles to which Dame has regular access, this comes as a somewhat startling fact.
But this is also a refreshing fact (pun regretfully intended). Learning that such renowned and credentialed professionals maintain such habits has helped me to identify how I want to be as a wine professional. More than anything, I desire to be informed, yet always humble. The ability and willingness to laugh at myself and to not take myself too seriously is one of my primary obsessions.
And so, I confess an affinity for Moscato, albeit with some notable caveats. First, I like it semi-sparkling. I am now more than tolerant of residual sugar in the wines I drink, but usually only when there is sufficient acidity to achieve the all-important “balance” criterion. For this reason, I tend to prefer Moscato from Italy, which generally offers the “fizz” to make the wine delightfully refreshing. In the absence of such a texture, the wine’s sugar content might make it cloying, which I have never found to be an attractive characteristic. Moscato d’Asti is the obvious choice, though many from the nearby province of Pavia offer similar, if not indistinguishable, characteristics. Second (and I don’t consider this to be flippant), the bottles need to be of reasonably good quality. Of course, we should desire to mostly drink wines that are well made, but there are some categories of wine in which some of the really bad examples are really that bad. Moscato is one such category. Unfortunately, the preponderance of poor Moscato, particularly in the U.S. market, appears to have labeled the category with an overgeneralized negative connotation. Frankly, I find this unfair.
Even though I might not reach for a bottle of Moscato routinely over other wines, there are certain contexts in which it is hard to beat. Those of you who like to take in a wine “shooter” to start your hangover vacation days might find a glass of fizzy Moscato to be just the sort of refreshing beverage that can lead you into that first cup of coffee. In more conventional senses, a fine Moscato is very satisfying when paired with fresh fruits, or a non-chocolate dessert. I recently paired a Moscato d’Asti with homemade trifle, which proved to be a delectable end to the “official” dinner and a worthy precursor to the scotch that followed.
Admitting an appreciation for Moscato does not imply that I seek it out routinely as an alternative to other wines. No iteration of Moscato stands the chance to be one of my “desert island” wines, nor will it be featured at every tasting I lead or dinner I attend. But it does have its place. If anything, I encourage you to find a place for Moscato in your wine consumption routine. Storing away a couple bottles in your cellar certainly won’t make you the envy of the block (or the bar), but it might just give you an option for a refreshing drink or impressive pairing when the right occasion comes along.
A couple of weeks ago we put on a wine class that focused on the white wines of Alsace. Many class attendees had only limited experiences drinking Alsatian white wines, with some of them being nearly completely unfamiliar. Overall, the wines from the class were very well received, which led me to think about how “seasonally appropriate” these wines really are.
Alsace is considered a “wine geek” category these days, and for good reason. The critic and journalist James Suckling recently published an article on his personal site detailing profiles of what he believes to be the 100 best Alsatian wines currently on the market. Many of the bottles featured on Suckling’s list are relatively unavailable to many consumers, due to such factors as price or unavailability to our local markets. However, just because we won’t be able to taste some of the more noteworthy bottles on Suckling’s list does not necessarily mean that we cannot gain a decent amount of exposure (or expertise) on what makes Alsatian wines both unique and enjoyable.
Alsace is a region located in NorthEastern France that straddles the German border. The region has a lengthy history of switching back and forth between French and German control. Visitors certainly notice a decent amount of Germanic influence despite its current identification as “property” of France. The Vosges Mountains to the immediate west of the long slivered wine producing areas are the most impactful geological determinant of Alsatian wines, causing what many wine writers refer to as a “rain shadow” effect. Because of protection from the Vosges, Alsatian vineyards are routinely exposed to elevated temperatures and prolonged sunlight that are uncharacteristic of many French wine regions. These qualities have profound impact on the resultant wines.
Alsatian wines are characteristically white (with the noteworthy exception of Pinot Noir) and are notoriously dry. “Notorious” may seem an odd descriptor until one considers the almost off-putting nature of the dryness of these wines to unaware of unsuspecting consumers. Make no mistake, these wines are dry and generally extremely full-bodied. As references previously, this quality makes wines from Alsace quite different from other wines made in other parts of the world from similar or identical grape varieties.
A host of popular white grape varieties are used to make these distinct wines. Four grape varieties (Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer) are known as “noble” grape varieties. These are the varieties that are informally considered to be some of the most historic in the region, and also those which take up most planting space in Alsace’s grand cru vineyards. Other grapes work to produce some other delicious wines in the region, including Pinot Blanc (used often as the base for a traditional-method sparkling wine called Crémant d’Alsace) and Sylvaner. Unlike most other French wines regions that are subject to AOP regulations, Alsatian wines tend to feature the grape variety expressed prominently on a bottle’s front label. This quality alone should help vintners connect with New World consumers more than their counterparts in other EU wine regions.
Alsatian wines also have a “time sensitive” quality this time of year based on how well they seem to be suited to many of the cuisines we indulge in during the final months of each year. As a general rule, I recommend lighter red wines or “weightier” whites to serve alongside some of the heavier or more rich fare we tend to consume around Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays (should you choose to celebrate these particular holidays). Any Thanksgiving table filled with turkey, stuffing, Alsatian white wines and softer reds (e.g. Cruz Beaujolais or a more elegant Pinot Noir) is bound to be one where I’ll attempt to reserve a seat.
Don’t forget about Alsatian white wines when you’re embarking for your holiday booze shopping this year. These bottles are extraordinarily “food friendly,” especially when consuming dishes that are slightly to moderately more rich and heavy than those to which you are ordinarily accustomed. Drink up, folks!
The world is booming with more and more individuals who want to learn a bit more about wine. Some of these persons even aspire to be in the wine trade, which is to say that they desire to make their living wages through working with a product that has provided them with a great deal of stimulation. Many appear to drastically over-romanticize what it means to work as a “wine professional,” but that is a subject for a different essay. This post aims to discuss what it means to be a good wine “citizen”
Serious professional interest in wine appears to have risen significantly in recent years, as has the interest of persons who wish to not necessarily work in the wine trade, but who wish to establish it as a more-than-casual hobby. What does it take to accomplish these goals? Some conventional (albeit slightly vague) responses are a good palate and knowledge about winemaking and wine styles. The question then becomes, how do we come to possess these things?
Even I can’t be sure of what it means to have a “good palate,” but I will assume it refers to someone who possesses a talent for pinpointing particular flavors “present” in a glass of wine, as well as someone who can offer up a detailed description of the wine and some information about the region from where it comes, as well as some of the vinification methods used to produce it. A quality taster should be able to provide some substantive comments on these issues regardless of whether he or she had a hand in crafting the wine. The “nature vs. nurture” debate is ongoing with respect to many issues in our world, the wine world not being excluded. Though I have heard some express opinions that truly talented tasters possess some physiological capabilities that classify them as objectively more talented than others with respect to tasting, I can’t bring myself to believe that these “innate” abilities outweigh the benefits of informed practice. In this case, practice refers to tasting a lot of different wines, all with an open mind.
Knowledge is also openly advertised as a requirement for being into wine. As is the case with many subjects, possessing some knowledge about the wines you drink can do little else but provide you with some useful context through which to experience the wines you drink, and if it is your goal, to evaluate them. Although knowledge pertaining to the wines we drink seems to be a beneficial characteristic to possess, I also feel that we have allowed ourselves to become misguided as to just the sort of knowledge you should acquire in order to be content with where you are situated as a wine enthusiast. Some of you may have watched a film like Somm and observed that one has not yet entered a world of real wine interest unless he or she has compiled a respectable stack of flashcards, detailing general and specific information about the world’s wine regions, important (and not-so-consequential) grape varieties, and similar esoteric items. Of course, this is not meant to belittle the interest and discipline it takes to be successful in a professional credential program such as the Institute of Masters of Wine or the Court of Master Sommeliers. These programs produce some of the world’s leading vinous experts, and the work they do to train themselves for their positions within the professional world of wine should be applauded.
But what about us? How are we supposed to navigate the world of wine in order to fulfill our goals? As someone who occasionally writes and lectures on wine, how am I to approach the subject? What about my grandmother, who enjoys her mass-produced California Sauvignon Blanc in a glass filled with ice? Should she feel obligated to purchase the latest edition of the Oxford Companion? Surely, you should approach wine however you see fit. If you wish to be a wine professional, it will not be difficult for you to strategize a study regiment that one day may allow you to perform successfully on a certification exam from one of the previously mentioned organizations. But if you desire, rather, to be casual yet informed about wine, perhaps some other tactics might work for you. If this describes you, perhaps you should think of yourself as I think about myself: a wine citizen.
Being a wine citizen means being cognizant of what you are reading. More specifically, think about the utility of what you are reading with respect to your goals. I used to spend the majority of my time “in” wine reading study guides and compendium entries produced by the Guild of Sommeliers, and supplemented these queries by seeking out individual entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine. In-depth exploration of these materials was all in effort to achieve some sort of professional certification. However, when my aims became directed elsewhere, I shifted my attentions to other works, but still kept focus on the world of wine. As wine became more a hobby than a career aspiration, I stopped logging in to the Guild of Sommeliers website on a daily basis, and instead began buying magazines and collections of personal narrative essays about wine and wine drinking. I started out with magazines like The Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, but lately have shifted over to Decanter, the content in which aligns more closely with my tastes.
Although the sort of information you encounter in a trade publication might be a bit less technical and less useful for exam study compared to what you might find in more technical materials, I have realized that regularly reading these materials allows one to be involved in contemporary conversations. Rather than study a particular region with almost religious fanaticism in order to answer a potential exam question, good magazines allow you to enter a world of discovery of new trends and insights related to the world of wine. One of my latest wine fascinations is with dry Australian Rieslings from Clare Valley and Eden Valley. I’m not so sure I would have been drawn to these styles if I had read about them in an encyclopedia entry, compared to the ways their appeals were described so vividly in an article in last month’s Decanter.
The next step to being a good wine citizen is to taste with an open mind. As someone who has spent the better part of the past five years in the wine trade, I have learned a thing or two about the sorts of wines I enjoy and those I do not. The wines I enjoy drinking at this moment scantly resemble those I enjoyed drinking when I first began developing an interest in wine. I’ve been lucky. Lucky with respect to the programs in which I found myself that allowed me to taste an assortment of different wines that stretched the stylistic gamut. I take pride in having developed affections for certain wines (and a distaste for others) through a process marked by a willingness to try anything that comes my way.
Finally, being a good wine citizen means having open and honest conversations with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to engage in thirty minute conversations about the latest appellation you discovered, but it does mean you should be willing to discuss the wines you like and don’t like with others, and be open to the reasons they enjoy what they do. In my experience, you just never know when someone might turn you on to a stellar wine you might not have discovered on your own.
It’s difficult to peg down all of the reasons why consumers are in love with Pinot Noir these days. Surely, the grape provides many reasons for persons to enjoy it. I don’t much like to be on any sort of bandwagon with wine trends, but I can’t find a way to find much wrong with fine pinot. Of course, discussions have abounded over the course of the last few years regarding the harmful effects of a particular motion picture on the California wine landscape. Anyone who is familiar with the film Sideways surely has been privy to some of the issues pertaining to the film’s impacts on the wine trade in California, principally those dealing with sharply decreasing consumer satisfaction with Merlot in favor of skyrocketing enthusiasm for Pinot Noir. There are many persons in the wine trade who believe that what this film actually did was turn consumers off of very good merlot, while increasing the demand for pinot noir to the point that vintners began planting the grape in places where it had little potential, if for no reason other than to produce enough wine to satisfy the increased demand. Framed in this context, I suppose one could find some fault in Pinot Noir.
But as a grape capable of producing truly enthralling wines, Pinot Noir is near the top of the heap. Of course, the grape sees a number of different permutations throughout the world of wine, with many regions producing staggeringly different examples of the grape. Anyone who has even moderately explored the world of Pinot Noir from different regions will have seen to some extent the staggering diversity of these wines. The differences between different styles of Pinot Noir certainly have potential for nuanced discussion, but it does not seem completely impractical to differentiate these wines based on the style of fruit they exhibit. A region such as California’s Russian River Valley will most likely produce bottles that tend toward riper fruit notes, especially when compared to many of the Pinot I have tasted from areas of Germany, for example, which offer some of the lightest and elegant fruit profiles I have tasted in the category. Hell, I can think of one or two rosés I’ve tasted that rival some German Pinots in terms of fruit concentration.
While I do value the opinions of those who desire their Pinot to be relatively thick, jammy and full-bodied, I can’t help but be all the more fascinated with Pinots that err on the side of restraint. I do not necessary mean that I desire for these wines to show underripe fruit to the point of being brutally astringent, but I do find this type of fruit character to be more welcoming, especially toward the beginning of a meal. Frankly, if I want to be beaten senselessly by a wine, I’ll seek out the grape varieties that have reputations for doing so. I also think it’s worth mentioning that I do still admire non-fruit notes in these wines. Certainly vintners should be inclined to remove overtly vegetal notes that might signal unripeness, but this should not devalue the attractiveness of spice flavors or flavors of bramble and twig. (These flavor descriptors might seem quite odd in theory, but I promise that they contribute well to the right wines.) When it comes to Pinot Noir, I will gladly sacrifice what many affectionately call a “fruit bomb” in favor of a wine that tastes a bit more like fresh fruits, with a few non-fruit flavors mixed in.
I should conclude by stating that the wines I am describing are not just to be found in a region like Burgundy. Although one is sure to find some of the world’s best Pinot Noir of this style in this region, anyone remotely familiar with the wine landscape as it is currently laid out will know that these wines are well out of most individuals’ price ranges, and likely will not be “ready” to consume for years (or perhaps even decades) after purchase. For those individuals who do enjoy reasonably ripened fruit flavors, you will be pleased to learn that there are more than a few producers who make wines of this style that also demonstrate some of the restraint that is praised in this column. One California producer that comes to mind is La Follette, which could very well represent the best quality-price ratio I have encountered in a long time in this category. When it comes to Oregon, which many consider to be the mecca of vine Pinot Noir in the United States, Adelsheim and Bergstrom (featured in the image above) are two producers who craft some exquisite wines.
The wine world often seems marked by very crude divisions. False dichotomies exist in nearly every walk of life, but the world of wine discussions seems filled with them. Some consumers like subtlety, whereas others prefer power. Some consumers want (over) ripe fruit flavors dominating their wines, whereas others prefer bottles that taste of fresh fruits, very often appreciating when the fruit flavors play subservient roles to vegetal, “earthy,” or otherwise non-fruit aromas and flavors. In full disclosure, my palate (these days) trends more toward the latter category. However, I make conscious effort to appreciate wines that belong to the other camp. Some wines are so clearly produced in a style contrasted with my own tastes that all I can do is try to appreciate them for how well they express that particular style. Enjoyment on my part is sometimes not in the cards for those selections. But then there are those wines that breach the gap; those that very effectively capture the power of a New World Cabernet with the subtlety and terroir-driven character that makes a wine like Chablis completely unique. I’m not sure I know of a wine region that stands the chance of appealing to both types of consumers as well as Spain’s Priorat.
I will not engage in an exhaustive overview of Priorat’s history and other characteristics about the region, largely because I assume that most of the persons reading this piece own or have access to at least one wine reference material where they can access more information than they ever care to know about the region. However, I do feel it necessary to address a few of the major topographical and climactic factors that make this region (and the wines produced there) unique and wonderful. I will also address trends in grape varieties and winemaking practices that impact the resultant wine styles.
One of the most significant characteristics of the landscape is the predominant soil found in the region. The soil is known as licorella, which the Oxford Companion to Wine describes as “poor, stony soils derived from the underlying slate and quartz.” There is a bit of contention amongst persons in the wine trade regarding the science behind the actual influence of soil on the resultant wines. Whatever the actual influence is, there should be little denial that the red wines of Priorat are quite unique. The wines taste almost infused with stony, rocky characteristics. Some critics call this earthiness, where others use the term minerality. Regardless of what term you decide to use, there is a distinct non-fruit element present in these bottles to complement the intense, high-quality fruit flavors. In a world where we tend to acknowledge complexity and balance as some of the most desired attributes in wines, these flavors really help to make this region a success story.
Perhaps some of the complexity comes from the intriguing blend of grape varieties that are used for the blends. Some of the more traditional Spanish varieties like Garnacha and Carignan are present in ample quantities, but Priorat wines also generally involve many French varieties that gained notoriety elsewhere in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two of the most common French grapes involved in the blends, no doubt adding to much of the power and concentrated flavors that are characteristic of these wines. When you combine these historic French varieties with those whose homes are in the vineyards of Spain, the potential exists for some very intriguing blends. And perhaps the final garnish on the plate is the typical aging regiment in French oak barrels. Such a practice is much more characteristic in other prominent wine regions than those of Spain. Rioja, Spain’s only other DOC appellation, is known for subjecting its wine to aging in American oak barrels, rather than French.
Priorat is important because it has the potential to appease starkly different types of consumers. The wines represent the confluence of Napa reds and more non-fruit dominant wines. It is very likely that you will encounter a collector of Napa Valley Cabernet who doesn’t care to consume even the finest Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, or vice versa. However, I’m not so sure that you’re just as likely to find an honest party on either side who could claim a dissatisfaction with Priorat reds. Most of the bottles worth drinking are not cheap, but in my experience, few wines work as well as focal points for a protein-centric meal.
We often get customers who ask how to know if a bottle of wine will be good. Short of popping open the bottle and tasting it, there are numerous clues you can spot on a label that will clue you into a wine’s style. For most wines made in “New World” regions (e.g. United States, Chile, Australia, New Zealand), you will very often see grape varieties featured prominently on a label. This can often be “hit and miss,” as individual grape varieties take on completely different identities under the guise of different winemakers. You can also learn about style from familiarizing yourself with the typical styles of a particular region, but it takes a great deal of tasting experience to become truly familiar with what a wine from a particular area is “supposed” to taste like. What might be another way to tell if you will enjoy a wine based on what is on the label?
Learning about importers can be a great way to become confident in a particular bottle of wine. This is somewhat akin to learning about a producer’s style, but that style might not translate so predictably to that producer’s entire range of products. In my experience, matching your preference to those of an importer can be a wonderful way to discover new wines that you enjoy on a consistent basis.
Jorge Ordoñez is an extremely reliable importer for a certain style of Spanish wine. Geared generally to a New World palate, these bottles forego any semblance of subtlety for rich, opulent flavors. There is no shortage of alcohol in these wines, often sourced from grapes harvested in very warm and arid conditions in Spain’s flatland.
The wines of Alto Moncayo typify the general style imported by Jorge Ordoñez. The bottle featured above is called Veraton, a wine produced from grapes grown on thirty to fifty year old Garnacha vines. According to Alto Moncayo’s website, the wine is aged in barrel for sixteen months. This is a liberal amount of time in barrel, but not an aging regiment that is uncommon for a wine of this style. The tasting notes displayed on the producer’s online profile describe flavors that are typical of this type of wine, generally displaying more ripe black fruits and tertiary flavors of balsamic and chocolate. Our tasting notes run along these same lines. Veraton is impressive in the ways it displays concentrated quality fruit notes alongside some ripe tannins and appropriate oak flavors. Whether this is style appeals to you is a topic for another discussion. What is likely is that the name Jorge Ordoñez on a label for a Spanish red wine will almost certainly taste similarly to this bottle.
There are many ways to go about making an informed prediction about what a wine tastes like. While the surefire way to know is to pop the cork and try it for yourself, we don’t all have the extra spending money to do this all the time. I encourage you to make an effort to align your palate with that of a particular importer. By following that person or group’s portfolio of products, I think you will discover a reasonably reliable method of finding wines that you will very likely enjoy.