THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT…hard to resist that old line when Casillero del Diablo opens the door with a name that translates to: “The Devil’s Cellar”. The name derives from an old Chilean legend about the owner of a great wine cellar who kept the help from sampling his best bottles by telling them that the devil resided deep in the cellar with his finest wines.
The Devil be damned–this is a delightful wine. Made by the venerable Chilean house of Concha y Toro–it’s just hard to find more consistent quality at house wine prices–and that goes for all the varietals of this label. Party wine, house wine, everyday-quaffer–whatever you want to call it–this is a devilishly tasty drop–and such a deal: 11.00
Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016
Wow! Copper & Thief is a crazy-tasty little drop (at 17% ABV, it’s more than a “little drop”). The 2014 vintage is a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Here is the kicker–that lush blend of juice is aged for three months in used bourbon barrels. The result is “Dark & Jammy”, just like it says on the label. I’m thinking this is the sort of bottle you bring out when there is a chill in the air and a fire in the fireplace. Perfect with a hearty meal or just for sipping after dinner. BTW, as many folks know, “cooper” refers to the skilled craftsmen who make the all-important oak barrels. And “thief” refers to a long-stemmed tube used by wine makers to extract (“steal”) a little sample by dipping into the barrel. 25.00
Cooper & Thief Red Wine Blend, 2014
2016 Kaiken Terroir Series Torrontes is a shining reminder of why Torrontes is Argentina’s flagship white. Do yourself a favor and swap that white you have been drinking and see what you’ve been missing. Rich, floral, and textured, Torrontes plays well with all sorts of dishes. 16.00
2015 Kaiken Malbec Ultra showcases Argentina’s classic red. Dark fruit flavors and aromas are wrapped around soft tannins in Kaikens Malbec Ultra. Even people who might not normally be red wine drinkers will be seduced by the lush flavors of Ultra. 25.00
2016 Kaiken Sauvignon Blanc & 2015 Kaiken Malbec Ultra
2017 Montes Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc…2017, doesn’t get much fresher than that. It’s easy to imagine the Sauvigon Blanc grapes that went into this wine–bursting with citrus flavor and pungent with peach and orange blossom aromas–hanging on the vine. 16.00
2014 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with 10% Merlot–just enough to balance out the robust Cabernet at the heart of this classy little Chilean. Tons of flavor and such a deal. It’s hard to touch a California Cab with this kind of character for this kind of money: 25.00
Montes Spring Harvest Sauvignon Blanc & Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon
Montes Wines–Fresh from Chile
Compare activated “Chill Check” indicators in bottom right and left side of label.
The 2016 vintage of Mauta Sauvignon Blanc is another in a long line of consistently tasty drops from Kiwi Land. The 2016 bottling is lush with tropical fruit aromas/flavors–AND sports a cool new “thermal label” showing when the bottle has chilled to the optimum temp (45-46F).
Look for the snowflake on the bottom right corner of the label to turn blue. The Maori Ta Moko symbol (a tradition Maori facial tattoo design) also changes to a darker blue when the bottle is properly chilled…very cool indeed.
Matua Sauvignon Blanc with new “Chill Check” label
Outlot–I know, strange name. Turns out that it refers to a parcel of land outside an incorporated area. And this is important how?
The Outlot wines come for a special area outside the Sonoma city of Healdsburg that was saved from developers–the “Outlot” area now produces some of the region’s finest grapes.
Outlot is new to the market but looks poised to make its mark, judging from the wines I sampled: 2016 Outlot Sauvignon Blanc (19.00), 2015 Outlot Chardonnay (22.00), and 2014 Outlot Cabernet Sauvigon (25.00). In each case, true varietal character jumped right out of the glass. Elegant magnolia art labels complete the classy new drops.
Outlot Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, & Cabernet Sauvignon
Chances are pretty good that a lot of people have never heard of Languedoc, but most people have heard of the South of France—and that is exactly where the one-time province of Languedoc is located. Bounded by the Rhone River in the East and Spain in the West, Languedoc swings as far South as the Mediterranean.
I was in Languedoc to explore its vast wine country–but what began as a wine tour ended up including rustic villages, medieval abbeys, and storied chateaus, all of them a world away from the hustle and glamour of Paris.
Getting to Languedoc from Paris is half the fun: it’s about a day’s drive or less than half that by train through rolling green French countryside. But I was on a schedule: vineyards to visit, wine tastings to attend—so I opted for a quick flight south to the coastal city of Montpellier–a good jumping off point for my final destination: the provincial city of Pezenas.
Located in the heart of Languedoc, Montpellier, is home to three universities and is one of France’s fast growing cities. Not hard to see why, with the Mediterranean right in their front yard. The Mediterranean comes with some heavenly perks: endless days of blue skies, palm trees, bouganvilla, and boatloads (literally) of seafood. We passed miles of salt water lagoons filled with oyster farms as we drove along the coast before heading inland toward Pezenas.
The forty miles to Pezenas took us through tree-lined country roads, rambling villages, and vineyards—everywhere—vineyards. In fact, if there is one enduring image of Languedoc, it is of vines. Some of the vineyards seemed to go on forever, others were just a few rows, wedged into the corner of a crossroads. No wonder Languedoc produces a third of France’s wine—and has for centuries.
As we approached Pezenas, wine coop buildings and farm implement companies began to pop up between the vines and plaster-clad stone houses pushed right up against the road. Historic Pezenas was home to internationally famous seventeenth century playwright and actor Moliere. Reminders of him are everywhere: Brasserie Moliere, Hotel Moliere, Moliere statues in the park.
Pezenas is not big and bawdy like Marseille, or high-tech like Toulouse. The town is more country mouse than city mouse and it has the comfortable lived-in feel of the people who call it home. Home for me was La Garrigae Distillerie de Pézenas—and even if your French is as bad a mine, you can probably guess that yes, the hotel was once a distillery. Not that you would notice today with the spacious rooms (some with terraces) and quiet open courtyards.
Wine people from around the world had come to Pezenas for what was a week-long celebration of Languedoc wine and an opportunity for producers to open their vineyards–and their wines. In my experience, winemakers tend to have a well developed hospitality gene, but the wine producers of Languedoc really made us feel as if their home was our home.
We tasted dozens of wines every day. And when I say tasted, I mean sipped, and spat. Sounds a bit rude (and a waste of good wine), but that’s how it’s done in the trade—and it’s the only to keep your head on straight what with three course lunches and full-scale buffets in the evening (with more wine). Seems indulgent—and it was. But there was a method to the madness.
We were in Languedoc to taste wines with the very people who grew the grapes and produced the wine. We tasted in cellars, in vineyards, in an 11th century abbey, in a chateau built before the French Revolution, and at a mountainside picnic over-looking vineyards in the valley below. All the while, we heard stories about the land: the struggles with the vines; learning to match soil, terrain, and grape; the years when it rained too much—or not enough.Producers plant varietals best suited to their unique locations but overall, red varietals such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvdre and Cinsault tend to dominate, and they are typically blended or used to make Languedoc’s extremely popular rosé.
Whites such as Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay, Marsanne, and Picquepoul feature in the coastal areas. Sparkling wine makers from the Limoux appellation in the West of Languedoc just smile when they mention that their ancestors were making Blanquette and Cremant (regional sparkling wines) a century before the monks in Champagne. Mon Dieu!
Languedoc, South of France
Chateau near Limoux, Western Languedoc
Magnums, Vintage Red, Chateau de L’Engarran, Languedoc
Wine producers are farmers first, and there is nothing like bouncing around a vineyard with them in a dusty pickup to be reminded of that fact. Growers talk about their vines (some of them generations old) like the living things they are, and you are reminded that wine is just the end result of all their hard work.
Languedoc is rightfully proud of its wine heritage. Greeks and Romans were growing grapes in the region over two thousand years ago. It’s not uncommon for growers to discover ancient shards of pottery or even complete clay amphorae (wine vessels) in local soil. Over centuries, the wines of Languedoc became prized for their quality.
Then came the Industrial Revolution and something new: a middle class. Languedoc responded to the huge demand by producing ever more wine–eventually trading quality for quantity. Nice for the thirsty masses in Paris– not so nice for Languedoc’s historic reputation.
But times changed, and with them, peoples’ tastes. The public began to expect more than generic plonk (vin de table) from big coops. That expectation opened the door for small growers to start making their own wines—wines (many of them organic) with tradition and quality.
A sort of wine renaissance came over Languedoc. Today it is a treasure chest of regional varietals produced in authentic style by wine makers with an abiding passion for their land.
Steve Prati, Franklin-based wine consultant
Hahn means “rooster” in German–but it might also mean value and quality. The Hahn Family wine line up begins with the Hahn label with the stylized image of a rooster. To me, the label has always been one of those go-to wines that you know you can count on to deliver and the 2016 vintage is no different. Sourced from their vineyards in Monterey County and the Central Coast, Hahn delivers some serious bang for the buck. 14.00
Hahn Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are sourced from the Arroyo Secco and Santa Lucia Highland AVAs in Monterey County. The GSM (Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) also includes some San Benito, Contra Costa, and Paso Robles fruit from the Central Coast. 14.00
London Wine Scene
Wine is probably not the first thing that comes to mind as being a part of England’s wonderful culture and history. But on a recent trip to London, my wife and I discovered a vibrant food and wine scene without even trying. Restaurants, pubs, and bottle shops all offered an eclectic choice of wines—many of them at very reasonable prices.
Some features of the London wine scene that caught our eye:
American wines show up pretty much everywhere, but they do not dominate wine lists, or store shelves. As you might expect, EU country wines were the main focus along with a fair few labels from the southern hemisphere—especially South America and South Africa.
The variety of varietals on most wine lists is impressive. Instead of offering three or four options from a handful of varietals as we often see in the States, wine lists in the UK often include a dozen or more varietals. It isn’t unusual to see viognier, tempranillo, carignan, rioja blanco, viura, picpoul de pinet–in addition to a range of rosés and sparkling wines–in short, the sort of wines Americans might expect to see in a wine shop rather than a pub.
In restaurants and pubs, wine lists tend to use descriptive headings to group wines by character, rather than varietal. So one group of red wines might be listed under the heading “Rich and Spicy” and another lot of reds might be described as “Ripe and Rounded.” We like the system; it helps diners find their comfort zone without sorting through endless wine jargon.
Wines by the glass in the UK are offered in precisely measured metric portions equal to about four, six, and eight ounce pours. Markups above retail in the places we visited were usually around one hundred percent–whereas in the US it is often closer to two or three hundred percent. Adjusting for portion size, exchange rate, and taxes, wine in the UK is a pretty good deal.
Maybe it was because it was summer, but ice buckets full of spumante were a common sight in pubs, beer gardens, and restaurants. The affordable, relatively low alcohol Italian sparkler is a perfect match for the lively social scene in London. Surprising as it may seem, England has developed its own sparkling wine industry with some impressive bubblies produced in the chalky soils of Sussex and Kent in the South of the country. Perfect for toasting our time in merry old England.
English Wines, Jeroboams Wine Shop, London
Nyetimber sparkling rosé from West Sussex. Gusbourne Estate wines from Appledore, Kent—both in the South of England. English sparkling wines retail for about £40-45 (tax included), or about $50-60. About par for French Champagne. Photo: Steve Prati
Grenache, It’s Everywhere
In Italy, it’s called cannonau, in Spain, it’s garnacha, in the USA, grenache.
Whatever you call it, this little grape plays a big role on the world’s wine stage.
Easily identified by its candied fruit character, grenache brings on strawberry, black cherry, and raspberry flavors.
Often used for blending, the characteristics of grenache tend to vary according to the environment in which it is grown. Spain’s hot climate leads to high levels of sugar and alcohol—resulting in a full-bodied wine with spice. In France’s cooler Rhone region grenache shows less alcohol and more herbal qualities. Here in the States our grenache tends to be fruit forward, with floral aromas.
Although grenache sometimes shows up in some very pricey bottles, excellent examples of this little grape with all the names can often be found at bargain prices.
How about a little tour of the wine world today: six bottles, six countries—four continents.
Let’s start in cool, maritime Marlborough, New Zealand, home of pioneering Kiwi wine producer, Brancott Estate. Flight Song–one of Brancott’s newest labels—is an early-harvest pinot grigio. Early-harvest grapes translate into naturally lower sugar content, which in turn means fewer calories and lower alcohol content than standard pinot grigio. Makes for a nice summer sipper.
Jacob’s Creek Winery, in neighboring Australia, seems a world away from New Zealand. Located in hot, dry South Australia, Jacob’s Creek focuses on big rich reds such as their new Double Barrel Shiraz. As the label implies, the shiraz is first matured in traditional oak and then finished in used Scotch whiskey barrels. The result is a complex and layered wine swirling with flavor.
Still in the Southern Hemisphere, Trivento Winery showcases Argentina’s signature white grape: torrontes. Blended with a bit of pinot grigio for some zing, their White Orchid torrontes, with its floral aromas and tropical fruit characteristics, makes for a nice change of pace from chardonnay and is the perfect name for this exotic beauty.
Closer to home—in Paso Robles, Calfornia–Justin Vineyards & Winery, recently released their 2015 Justin cabernet sauvignon. 2015 was a challenging year for California grape growers and wine makers but Justin worked its magic to produce another fine vintage. Quality fruit, careful handling (hand-picked/sorted fruit) and fourteen months in American oak brings home a classic California cab—without a hefty price tag.
And then there’s France, where wine master Michel Chapoutier has released his latest Bila-Haut Rosé. Sourcing fruit (grenache, cinsault, and syrah) from the historic wine region of Languedoc in the South of France, Chapoutier uses stainless steel tanks for fermentation—allowing the fruit to speak for itself, without the influence of oak. The Bila-Haut label–with its signature Braille label—delivers consistent quality at affordable prices.
Just over the border in Italy, legendary Tuscan wine producer Gabbiano, has been producing wine since the 12th Century (they also make wonderful olive oil.) I’m guessing that the wine makers from centuries ago would be impressed with the quality of Gabbiano’s new Tuscan red: Dark Night—a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and sangiovese. Dense with red fruit, spice, and chocolate, Dark Knight bridges the gap between ancient Tuscan winemaking traditions and modern know-how.
Brancott Estate 2015 Flight Song Pinot Grigio, $15.00
Trivento 2016 White Orchid Torrontes, $12.00
Bila-Haut 2015 Rosé, $15.00
Gabbiano 2015 Dark Night, $17.00
Jacob’s Creek (Second Vintage) Double Barrel Shiraz, $25.00
Justin 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, $25.00