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
Wines of Summer
The words “summer” and “chilled bottle of wine” belong together—in fact, it may be a law somewhere. Here is a list of fun, refreshing, and affordable summer-sippers for the ice bucket.
Casal Garcia’s Vinho Verde wines pretty much define summer wines. If Vinho Verde wines were any fresher, they’d still be on the vine. They are bottled early and meant to be drunk young.
Originating in the cool, green, Vinho Verde region of northwestern Portugal, Casal Garcia is best known for its brisk, slightly spritzy, bone-dry white. But don’t forget Casal Garcia’s mouth-watering rosé with its dry strawberry accents. The relatively low alcohol content of both wines makes them attractive lunch companions.
Casillero del Diablo is a well-known brand out of Chile with the kind of quality you would expect in a first rate house wine. My favorite labels (check out the new bottle design) for summer are their zippy, aromatic sauvignon blanc and their lush, 100 percent shiraz-based rosé. They don’t call these wines “tasty little devils” for nothing.
Kono Sauvignon Blanc comes from Marlborough, on the north island of New Zealand. Kono is not the grapefruit bomb that some Kiwi sauvignon blanc can be, but it does have has plenty of fresh citrus acidity and the acidity is tempered with just enough residual sugar to create an elegant balance. Drink Kono lightly chilled so the aromas and flavors are not frozen in the bottle.
Le Vignes de Bila-Haut Rosé (What? Another rosé? Yes, this is rosé season after all…) comes to us from the south of France, where some say that rosé production has eclipsed that of white wine. A blend of grenache and syrah, Bila-Haut shows crisp mineralty, citrus character, and a finish worthy of nice pinot noir.
Fontana Candida Frascati comes from the town of Frascati, just east of Rome, where it has been made since ancient times. A blend of several white grapes, Fontana Candida Frascati is dry, but lush, and there is something about its texture that makes the palate come alive. Frascati is an ideal party wine.
Lunetta Prosecco is simply fun to drink. It’s bubbly, light, affordable, and it’s fairly low in alcohol. In the north of Italy where it originates, it is drunk to celebrate the everyday pleasures of life. Lunetta (“Little Moon”) exudes aromas of peach and apple and then sparkles on the palate with bright fruit character. Just the thing to toast summer.
Steve Prati, Franklin-based wine consultant
Casal Garcia Vinho Verde, Light, clean, bone-dry, slightly spritzy $11.00
Casal Garcia rosé, Mouthwatering–dry strawberry and watermelon $11.00
Casillero del Diablo sauvignon blanc, 2015 Aromatic, zippy acidity, solid finish $11.00
Casillero del Diablo Rosé, 2015 Shiraz-based, dry raspberry/blackberry flavors $11.00
Kono Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 Nicely balanced with fresh citrus acidity $15.00
Bila-Haut Rosé, 2015 Grenache/syrah blend , crisp minerality, citrus character $15.00
Fontana Candida Frascati, Italian white blend—dry, lush, textured, and lively $10.00
Lunetta Prosecco, NV Sparkler, relatively low alcohol, light, clean fruit $13.00
Pezenas, in the heart of Languedoc
Languedoc, South of France
Limoux appelation in Languedoc
Chardonnay Vineyard, Limoux, France
On a recent trip to France, I fell in love with what might be called the Cinderella of French wine regions–Languedoc. While other areas such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and Rhone get a lot of attention and glory, Languedoc has done the heavy lifting—producing fully a third of France’s wine.
Languedoc sprawls across the south of France from Spain in the West to Provence in the East, and bellies-up against the Mediterranean on the South. Arguably, France’s oldest wine region, ancient Greeks and Romans planted vineyards in Lnaguedoc and its wines came to be prized by kings and queens, princes, and popes.
So if Languedoc has been so consequential to French wine, why has it been so late in gaining our attention on this side of the pond? (And it has been getting our attention–with about a two hundred percent increase in imports over the last five years.) The answer lies buried in history.
With the industrialization of Europe in the late 19th century and the rise of a middle class, demand for wine increased enormously. And because of the ideal growing conditions in Languedoc, growers ramped up production to cope with demand—essentially trading quality for quantity by shifting over to making bulk wine (vin de table). Nice for the thirsty masses in Paris but not so much for Languedoc’s historic reputation for great wine.
A hundred years later times have changed—and with it, peoples’ tastes. The public began to expect more than generic plonk from big coops, and that expectation opened the door for small growers to start making their own wines—wines with tradition and quality. A sort of wine renaissance came over Languedoc, and today it is a treasure chest of regional varietals produced in authentic style.
Red varietals like grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, and carignan dominate and they are generally blended in some combination. The same reds are used to produce roses. France produces about a quarter of the world’s rose. Languedoc accounts for a third of that.
Whites include grenache blanc, marsanne, roussanne, piquepoul, and vermentino. The crisp acidity of many Languedoc whites make them ideal matches for the wonderful local seafood—especially the oysters and mussels lining the nearby coast. And as for sparkling wines, Languedoc was making bubbly a hundred years before the monks in Champagne—Mon Dieu!
Languedoc is still a Cinderella appellation—but today she has transformed herself into the belle of the ball.
It’s time to get out the patio furniture, fire up the grill–maybe pack a picnic lunch. Somewhere in there is an excuse to open a nice bottle of wine—perhaps one from my “spring-sampler” case:
Domaine du Tariquet 2015, is a light, dry white blend from the southwest of France whose clean, crisp citrus tang is perfect for oysters, shellfish, sushi, or just by itself on a sunny afternoon. If you like pinot grigio you’ll be right at home. It’s a bargain, too. $10
Speaking of pinot grigio, Swanson Vineyard 2016 San Benito Pinot Grigio from California shows an enticing balance between fruit and acidity. Complex and laden with flavor, even the Italians would have to say Swanson Pinot Grigio is bellissima. $21
My wife says I get a little carried away with sauvignon blanc as summer approaches—but there are so many tasty drops out there, and they are so diverse in character:
2016 Justin Sauvignon Blanc from California piles on textured citrus, tropical fruit, and herbal notes. $16
2015 Geyser Peak Winery’s River Ranches Sauvignon Blanc is sourced from premium Russian River Valley fruit and great fruit makes great wine. $22
New Zealand’s Hay Maker 2015 Sauvignon Blanc surprised me with its rich varietal character and restrained acidity. Easy drinking. $12
2015 Mud House Sauvignon Blanc–another Kiwi—shows distinctive the aromas and flavors of the Marlborough region: passionfruit, lemongrass, and grapefruit. $17
Shifting gears radically, 2015 St. Urbans-Hof Wiltinger “Alte Reben” Kabinett Riesling from Germany’s upper Rhine, displays luscious fruit and a bit of residual sugar—in nice contrast to its high acidity. Great food wine. $18
2015 Rutherford Ranch Chardonnay, Napa Valley: Napa’s 2015 grape harvest was smaller than normal but the grapes made up for it by being bigger in flavor. $24.
Newly released Balletto 2016 Rose of pinot noir comes across clean, dry, and nicely balanced–a great match for all sorts of summer dishes. $18
The latest vintage of Chile’s Conch y Toro’s 2014 Gran Reserva Serie Riberas Malbec illustrates the consistent quality of the Serie Riberas label. Lush fruit over smooth tannins. I’m thinkin’ BBQ. $17
Great merlots like 2013 Swanson Vineyards Merlot deserve attention. Blended with a bit of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, Swanson explodes with flavor and just keeps giving. $32
2010 Lassegue Saint-Emilion Grand Cru is a Bordeaux-blend—heavy on the merlot—with a richness and finesse that makes you understand why premium wines command respect. $75
Tennessean Wine Column, April, 2017
Just has a taste of some killer Dry Creek Valley zins: Pedroncelli 2014 Mother Clone (18.00), Fritz Winery 2013 Estate Zinfandel (25.00), and Comstock 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel (36.00). Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley is home to some of California’s classic zins.
Comstock 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zin & 2013 Fritz Winery Estate Zin
Okay, so they tweaked the new Plungerhead label a little. It’s still playfully goofy. I’ve always liked the fact that the Plungerhead people don’t take themselves too seriously. But what I like most is that they take their wine seriously. Lots of great Lodi fruit packed into their wines. 2015 Plungerhead Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Old Vine Zin pack a lot of bang for the buck (about fourteen). Jump in–have fun.
Plungerhead 2015 Petite Sirah, Cab, and Old Vine Zin
Leese-Fitch Sauvignon Blanc, 2016
Leese-Fitch is one of those labels that provides consistent quality and value. No frills or exotic claims–just honest varietal character at an honest price. Throw in the twist-off cap and you’ve got yourself a nice everyday drinking wine–something you can buy a case of for a party without breaking the bank. Check these out:
Leese-Fitch Sauvignon Blanc, 2016–tropical and citrus flavors balanced with easy-drinking acidity. 12.00
Leese-Fitch Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015–majority cab with small amounts of other red varietals to express a combination of mellow red fruit flavors intertwined with coffee and cocoa–smooth. 12.00
Leese-Fitch Firehouse Red Wine, 2015--S blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot, Mourvedre, and Tempranillo–Works together to bring home lots of rich, dark fruit flavors. Says BBQ to me. 12.00
Leese-Fitch Cabernet Sauvignon & Leese-Fitch Firehouse Red Wine, 2015
Kettmeir Muller Thurgau, Pinot Blanc & Pinot Grigio
Kettmeir wines come from the Alto Adige DOC on northern border of Italy. Alto Adige is so far north it butts up against Switzerland and Austria. Nestled in its Alpine climate, the region produces wines quite unlike any other part of Italy. The cool mountain weather and brilliant sunshine combine to make ideal growing conditions for white. I was delighted to get my hands on three samples of these wonderfully unique wines:
Kettmeir Pinot Bianco, 2015–my wife and opened this bottle with friends of ours–people who know and love wine.The response was immediate: “Where did you get this??” Aromatic, crisp apple flavors and brilliant acidity—on a Looong finish. Perfect for seafood or cheese. 22.00
Kettmeir Muller Thurgau, 2015–now here is a varietal we don’t see much of around these parts and more’s the pity. Intense aromas and flavors of the grape are maintained through stainless production. If you crave a clean, crisp–but rich dry white, this is your baby. Compare it to a Gruner Veltliner or high altitude Sauvignon Blanc–but with its own magic. 22.00
Kettmeir Pinot Grigio, 2015–I admit, it takes a special kind of Pinot Grigio to get me interested–and Kettmeir’s is one of them. Surprisingly full-bodied for a Pinot Grigio, Kettmeir carries through with sustained aroma and flavor. If you only drink one Pinot Grigio this summer, consider this one. 22.00
Kettmeir Muller Thurgau, Pinot Blanco, and Pinot Grigio
Smith & Hook Proprietary Red, 2015
Smith & Hook Proprietary Red Blend, 2015, from Hahn Winery, made a name for itself a long time ago as a star on the Central Coast. Wine maker Paul Clifton’s blend of Merlot, Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet Sauvignon comes together like a symphony of flavors. Smith & Hook is a good reminder that the Central Coast is a serious player–and the price is right. 25.00
Smith & Hook Proprietary Red, 2015
For me, the 2015 vintage of Two Range Red Blend had a hard act to follow. The 2014 vintage was one of my favorite red blends of last year. Well, 2015 is another stand-out–smooth as velvet and loaded with dark fruit. Named for two mountain ranges in Napa, it is a blend of Petite Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon, If you love a rich Napa cab, but don’t want to spend big bucks, take a shot at Two Range and be prepared to be surprised. 25.00
2015 Two Range Red Blend, Napa Valley