Interview with Sommelier Ken Freeman of Italic Restaurant in Austin, Texas

 

Me: Your list is almost all Italian save a few Champagnes, what are some of the challenges you face with an all Italian wine list? Are people more or less willing to explore?

Ken: Yeah 4 Champagnes, other than that all Italian. Just about everything is a challenge, but in the best way. The main thing is that it’s all about the guest. How do we translate, convey, talk about the meanings of Italian wine to people who have no idea what that is? Don’t know grape varieties, don’t know places outside of Tuscany. Maybe Piedmont….they might have been to Sicily but still don’t know what Etna Rosso is. People when they go to Italy typically don’t experience much of the wine culture.

Me: It’s more travel….

Ken: Yeah, I would say 99% of our guests are unfamiliar with Italian wine, and I think part of that has to do with us being in Texas. Though I am glad to be in Austin. The restaurant scenes in Dallas and Houston haven’t done much to push Italy foreword from a beverage standpoint, and that’s really what we are trying to do at Italic, to be the flagship for Italian wine in Texas.

Me: I find that with Italian wine, people are often really willing to try things. The fact that it’s so complex and hard to understand kind of works to its advantage, particularly if the list is only Italian. Do you think that if you had a more international list, that people would still mostly order Italian wine, given the cuisine is Italian?

Ken: No.

Me: You don’t?

Ken: I absolutely do not think so. I think tomorrow, if I wanted to change to an American wine list, I would sell more expensive bottles and I would sell more of them.  The challenge that we are accepting, is something that is of our own volition. If we wanted to just make the most money possible that we could make, we would switch to more of a world wine list.

Me: So, for you it’s more about really representing Italy?

Ken: Absolutely. I mean with Craig (Master Sommelier and Beverage Director) falling in love with wine when he was in Italy and Drew (Executive Chef/Owner) falling in love with Italy and cooking in general while he was there, and me really discovering my love for wine with Italian wine. I think we all really have the heart and willingness to bear that burden. And I think someone needs to do that, because no one else is really doing it in this neck of the woods.

Me: No one is doing it as well that I’ve seen.

Ken: Yeah I mean you have like Barbutto in New York and some awesome restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, but no one really here in Texas that I know of.

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Me: The service is always fantastic at Italic; how do you go about training your staff?

Ken: The key to talking about wine and making guests feel comfortable is informing your staff. The biggest piece of the puzzle we tried to conquer coming out of the gate, was how to get our staff excited and on board. Because they didn’t know what Italian wine is either, right? Teaching them flavor profiles and giving them things to talk about that are similar to what they are likely to be asked for. Talking about Cabernet and what that means in Italian wine, or what to recommend a guest asking for Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, hell Zinfandel even, these are the major wines of the world that people are familiar with and ask for. We educate on a daily basis. We’re always talking about how we talk about wine. For instance, our focus this week is salesmanship. Every server needs to know exactly what’s in the dish, if it’s a complex dish or a simple dish it’s important to know exactly what’s in the food. But if you go up to a table and explain exactly every element in a dish, it’s not going to sound that good. So how do we break that down, and how do we talk about it?  Our servers know that Sangiovese is going to have notes of tart red fruit, leather and clay, and herbs….

Me: Because you guys list everything by Grape variety, first, right?

Ken: Right! Yes, and that’s back to the guest again. How do we make a menu legible to a guest? If we put COS 2013 Cerasuolo de Vittoria – $56. No one’s gonna buy that. They don’t know what that means, they don’t know where it’s from and they don’t know who’s making it, they might know it’s from 2013…. But…. other than that they don’t know much so we always list varietals first, and that gives people something to latch on to. If you look at our list we have Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon blanc, we actually have a section on our menu right now called “Familiar and Awesome” for people to easily recognize them. A lot of what we do for beverage demands a little bit of curiosity from the guest, and a lot of trust, and that’s something that we need to develop with the staff on our end.

Me: That’s one of my favorite things about Italic. My wife and I love to go there, we brought my Mother there when she was in town. There’s something for just about everyone, even if you don’t know much about Italian wine, it’s easy to navigate. If you’re a Chardonnay drinker, you’ve got Chardonnay, if you want a Pinot Grigio, you guys have great examples… But if you want to go off the beaten path, there are knowledgeable people there to help you get where you want to be, at a price that’s very attractive.

Ken: Yeah!

Me: What regions in Italy are you really excited about? Where’s your passion?

Ken: Well we do a featured producer every month on the wine list, and that might co-inside with a visit from a winemaker or grower. To provide a cool perspective on a style or provide historical context.

Me: Yeah because you guys did Vietti awhile back right?

Ken: Yeah! We did Vietti……Scavino…..but I have some really exciting plans to do Mastroberardino…..

Me: Ooh Taurasi!!

Ken: Taurasi, and some Pompeii ruin wine you’ve never had…. great white wine too though. Greco di Tufo, Falanghina, Campania is so important to the history and culture of Italian wine and not that many people touch it. Right now, though we are serving some wines from Meroi, a fantastic father and son team from Friuli.

Me: I remember you poured the Merlot for me blind, and I had no idea it was Merlot, but it had a distinctive Italian nose and palate, just a delicious wine.

Ken: That’s what’s great about that wine, it’s Italian first, and Merlot second.

Me: But great Merlot, and really high quality.

Ken: Exactly. Getting to put that together and establish events to market the restaurant is a very fun challenge for me. So, Friuli is always a big part of us, like if you go to our indigenous ancient white section we have around 20 selections from Friuli. Another region that I’m really excited about is Lessona from Alto Piemonte. Gattinara and Ghemme are historical ones we always learn about, but farther beyond that Lessona and these other subregions are making really beautiful wines. The cool thing about that region, is that everyone is going to be on the same page. Like we are all going to make throwback traditional styles of Nebbiolo and we are going to hold them for a long time before release. Like the current release is often 2008-2010, they are holding on to their wines longer than Brunello even.

Me: And often at a much better price point than Brunello, Barolo or Barbaresco.

Ken: Definitely and they are much more dynamic wines, I mean we’re talking high elevation Nebbiolo so you’re getting all of the tar and roses and tree bark and intense fruit, but in a Pinot Noir-style dress. They just have so much going on and they age so well.

Me: So, say I’m headed to Italic tonight, what is the best food and wine pairing on the menu currently?

Ken: So, I’ll say, we did develop a menu around Meroi when we got excited about them and we’ve kept some of those items from that menu and my favorite is the Duck dish. Parsnip puree, blackberry mostarda and cabbage that is sautéed in the duck fat. Paired with the Meroi Nestri, a cool blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Refosco. Highly tannic and highly acidic, with black pepper and rhubarb tones that really play well with the chocolatey-cocoa tones of the Merlot in that blend. That pairing with our duck is magic.

If I could also steal a second to talk about one more dish, we have a duck pappardelle on our menu right now which uses all the parts of the duck so like the kidney, liver and such with some Calabrian chile for a bit of heat, and fried casteveltrano olives. The red heat of the chiles combined with the richness of the duck pappardelle and the amazing smell of the fried casteveltrano olives aroma is one of the most challenging things I’ve come across in a long time. So, I think of Serra Della Contessa, Benanti’s single vineyard “cru” Etna Rosso made from Nerello Mascalese. That beautiful pure red fruit with that peppery quality, the soft green notes and flowers just excites you, and keeps making you want to go back for more.

Me: You are competing in TEXSOM again this year, what are you most worried about?

Ken: Third times a charm! (laughs) I did well at service for the advanced exam so I feel pretty good about that, and I’ve been tasting consistently. So honestly, I feel like theory would be what I’m most worried about. Just because there is so much to know, and that was the only part of my advanced exam I didn’t pass.

Me: Where do you see Italian wine heading in the next 20 years? What will people be drinking?

Ken: Sicily. I mean it’s kind of having its heyday, but I don’t think it’s topped out yet.

Me: Oh really? Why?

Ken: I don’t think so because I think we will see more people gravitate towards that as we continue to see interest in Burgundy increase. There are so many similarities based on the cru the site and the producer, as well as the weight and freshness for such a fair price, it’s hard to look the other way. I mean even if you come off Etna, you have a substantial number of producers from Occhipinti to Cos and they aren’t even on the mountain and they are making great wines as you know, whites and reds.

The other area is the Alto Piemonte. I think where Sicily is now, in the next ten years the Alto Piemonte will be getting there.

Me: And those wines are phenomenal.

Ken: Yeah, they’re unbelievable.

Me: But I don’t think that Valtellina is going to have the ability to garner such an enthusiastic and passionate following as something like Sicily, because it is so small and the wines and region are so specific. Whereas Sicily is really experimenting what they are going to hang their hat on, I mean they have numerous varieties that are intriguing and cerebral and delicious, and not really expensive. I mean Occhipinti’s Frappato is still coming in around $40-$50 retail.

Ken: Yeah and you are also purchasing like the top stuff, I mean $40 for the top wines? C’mon! That’s incredible value for money!

Me: Well thanks a lot I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and I guess I’ll see you at Texsom!

Ken: Yeah maybe we’ll talk again after! Cheers!

Not So Grape Expectations

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By the time I arrived at 2900 Speedway in Austin, my partner in vinous crime was feverishly cleaning his apartment, attempting as we all do to appear squeaky in the face of impending company. He was disheveled, though enthusiastic about our pursuits for the day. After all, with the TEXSOM competition looming less than 2 weeks away, he has a lot to do. And I have committed to helping my friend prepare in a meaningful and sadistic way.

I don’t really knock when I arrive and for the first time in a while it seems I’ve caught him a smidge by surprise. I was 15 minutes early. Our last preparation session witnessed us hammering away diligently at note cards focused on that exalted region of regions: Bordeaux. In this session it came to light that mi amigo was really passionate about Sociando Mallet, which he hadn’t tasted yet. He would later divulge that the reason for this was precisely because it wasn’t a classified estate but a lone wolf, perched watchfully high atop the Medoc, above St. Estephe (His favorite Bordeaux appellation to date) and at the avulsion of the Gironde from the Atlantic ocean.

I tucked this nugget of insight into my mind. The following week we received the first of some of the 2014 vintage Bordeaux at the shop, which had me working what seemed like hours on end prying gilded treasures from splintered oak boxes. My shop truly has a world class selection of Bordeaux, and our company was built upon it. In between my shelf shuffling and rounds of bottle and case Tetris, I spotted 3 lonely bottles of 2006 Sociando Mallet at the beginning of our Medoc/Moulis/Listrac section. I decided a quick break was in order. Looking over what we had, my collegues’ voice echoed in my head, passionately ringing and intense. I had to get a bottle for us to try together, as we had made plans the following week for an all day review session, followed by dinner and libation.

But which vintage? That was the true test of mettle. We had 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. The 2009 and 2010 were both out, while I do love those vintages in Bordeaux, (2009 being my favorite actually) they were reported to be impossibly tannic at the moment. 2011’s and 2012’s have been drinking nicely lately, especially 2nd labels, but I really relished the thought of getting a bottle with a bit more age, because most Bordeaux loves a good 10 years to get acquainted with itself, and reveal it’s true layers becoming conversational and lubricating the intellect.

2006 it is. Thus I revealed it upon arriving, lovingly placed in a wine cradle with a fresh, crispy serviette underneath. Framed as if on exhibition. My friends’ eyes widened and he became jubilant and gave me an aggressive hug. He was excited, his wine list is all Italian save a few Champagnes, and in my opinion the best in the state. But this does prevent him from playing around with Bordeaux all that often. But first, work had to be done.

After an exhausting 8-hour study session of us beating each other’s brains to a level of fatigue redolent of a full day of heavy landscaping, and a walk to refresh the mind and spirit, we sat down and opened both the Ramonet and the Sociando Mallet.

Now the confluence of meat and potatoes: Expectations.

When I drink Bordeaux or Burgundy, I have a high level of expectation. And that night proved vehemently just how dangerous expectations can be. Both wines deserved their own glass. First, the Ramonet.

Here’s what I wrote down upon opening:

2013 Domaine Ramonet Chassagne Montrachet Rouge – $55

Very bright and lifted nose of fresh bing cherries, fennel pollen, rose petals with a powerfully mineral thread pulling all the elements into harmony. Lively and dancing on the palate, the acidity vibrates like a wind chime and the tannins are silky and soft. An impressive effort given difficult vintage. Fine and pure.

Expectations met, and exceeded. The bottle was in great shape.

Now, the Sociando Mallet upon opening:

2006 Sociando Mallet -$44

55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc

Very savory and earthy nose. Hot sauce, roasted green pepper, a touch of oak. Green green and more green. Very lean style, missing fruit and weight on the mid palate though there is an element of dried berries which is attractive. Coarse tannins and a bit flattened out on the finish. Needs air. 

I was disappointed at first. The alcohol coming in at a slim 12.5%, I began to wonder if the grapes had trouble ripening, or if simply this was the style. Either way, we decided to pour a glass of Ramonet, drink cheerfully while preparing dinner, and let the Sociando breathe.

Whilst cooking dinner we would occasionally come back and sniff the Sociando and came to the conclusion over and over again that it was indeed changing quite a bit. Dinner almost completed, I sat down to nail in a final opinion on the Sociando Mallet.

2006 Sociando Mallet -$44

55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc

11 years on this wine has an extremely savory nose. Dried tobacco, currants, cherry and peppered hot sauce with an element of canned peas. Very vegetal. Attractively fresh palate with coarse tannins and refreshing acidity, finish is medium long and whispers elements of finely fresh sawn cedar and sweet spice. Good wine, but not for everyone, make sure you enjoy earth bombs, there is some fruit here, but it’s not your typical Medoc wine. Hitting a good stride.

It was glaringly apparent that I had misjudged this wine upon opening.

Initially I had rated the Ramonet higher. But interestingly, it hadn’t changed at all in the glass. It smelled and tasted identical to when we first opened it. Pure, fine, delicious and elegant red burgundy with none of the perils and pitfalls of a dirty cellar. Though it was a tad one dimensional.

The Sociando however, was like a completely different animal. Transforming before my eyes from a harsh and angry Rhino, to a sleek and seductive leopard.  Full of charm and allure, it was a very unique style. Not what I expect when I purchase a wine from the Medoc, but it had so much character, and obviously was a stack above most other petit chateau, really earning it’s spot as one of the top non-classified estates in the Medoc.

My friend pointed out that while we both initially liked the Ramonet, by the end of the evening we had a lot more to say about the Sociando-Mallet, and had hardly talked about the Ramonet at all. This drove the point home.

We are going to have expectations, it’s unavoidable. They will color your opinions and hopefully your experiences to greener, more well informed pastures. But don’t let them close your mind. Remain inquisitive and observant, and you will derive so much more pleasure from wine than taking a sip and immediately passing judgement. Spend time with a wine, someone worked for an entire year for that to end up in your glass, give it time to argue, and listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bottle Spotlight: 2012 Qupe Syrah – Santa Barbara, California

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A lone ranger, or a Rhone Ranger? Bob Lindquist of Qupe has become synonymous with Syrah, and with bottles like this it’s easy to see why. After tasting so many disappointing examples of over-extracted, lavish oak bomb Syrahs from California, it’s a breath of fresh air to imbibe something as mouth-wateringly scrumptious as the 2012 Qupe Santa Barbara Syrah.

98% Syrah and a meager 2% Grenache sourced primarily from the famous Bien Nacido vineyard, as well as Sawyer Lindquist vineyard. Organic and biodynamic farming. This is the first vintage of this bottling, prior to the 2012 vintage, Bien Nacido and Sawyer Lindquist were single vineyard wines.

This bottle seriously delivers on all promises at it’s very attractive $25 retail price tag. It’s everything great Syrah should be: Smoky, spicy and peppery with fresh violets, dried lavender, sage, and gobs of sun-kissed black and blueberries. An impressive thread of graphite and crushed stones runs seamlessly through a long and refreshing finish.  It’s hitting a powerful stride in quality drinking right now, but should keep well for several years in the cellar. Superb.

I love Sherry, but I understand why you may not

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Sherry. Few beverages are so commonly misunderstood. It’s still worth it to wrap your head around the complex system of classification that makes sherry what it is.

I love Sherry. I can’t think of another wine that takes more work to make, that ends up across the pond at a more reasonable price than sherry. And yet, for all it’s complexity and nuance, Sherry sales are still on the decline.  I find dry Sherry delicious. But most people don’t. There is a common thread among those who really get into wine that you do get bitten by the sherry bug at least once. From there you begin what I can only describe as a long and desperate plea, trying to win people over to Sherry’s charms. I feel it’s my responsibility as a beverage professional to try and spread the gospel of sherry, before this amazing beverage becomes lost to the ages.

Sherry’s challenges:

1) It doesn’t have the “delicious factor”.

Sherry is a challenging beverage for most people. While it’s flavors are complex and it’s aromatics powerful, it misses the mark for most folks on sheer deliciousness. 

2) If you haven’t tried sherry before, it almost certainly won’t taste like what you expect.

Sherry has multiple styles, which range from bone dry all the way to painfully sweet. This is the first hurdle people encounter when attempting to even purchase a sherry.  Because of this lack of delivering on expectations, most people just write it off.

3) It’s really freaking confusing

The way sherry is classified makes for some very confusing terms and the deeper you go, the more rabbit trails are laid out before you. Tread carefully when learning of sherry, it’s so easy to get lost along the way. 

Sherry’s Strengths:

1) It’s cheap.

Truly great sherry can be had across most of the styles for between $10-15 USD. While getting the best of the best will definitely run you a couple hundred dollars, you can still try the different styles and find something you like and it won’t destroy your pocketbook.

2) It goes with almost everything.

Sherry truly does perform magic at the table. Particularly the dryer styles. And since there are so many different styles to choose from, I’ve found it often intriguing and delicious to serve only sherry during multiple course meals. The more powerful  and oxidized styles are great with richer dishes. 

3) It’s incredibly unique

No other beverage in the world tastes quite like sherry. It’s the benchmark, so much to the point that in the trade often we describe other oxidative styles of wine as “sherry like”. It has developed over a very long period of time to become an iconic wine of the world.

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Sherry is made from 3 grapes: Palomino, Moscatel, Pedro Ximenez

Dry styles are typically made from Palomino, while Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez can more typically be found in sweeter expressions.

Sherry hails from the region of Jerez, in the province of Cadiz in south-western Spain. In this extraordinarily hot and dry climate, the chalk white and moisture retentive Albariza soils are extremely important. After a strong rain, an ensuing blast of hot sunlight “bakes” the soil into a hard, impenetrable top layer a few inches thick. This layer combined with the light-reflective quality of the soil, keeps the root system of the vines cool, and prevents undue heat stress to the vines. A truly remarkable and unique terroir.

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Photo: Albariza soils in Jerez

Another interesting thing about sherry is that the vast majority of it is made from multiple vintages blended together. Much like in champagne this technique helps to create consistency of flavor and is part of sherry’s extraordinary character. While I could get into the Solera System – (barrel aging system for sherry), I’m looking to keep this somewhat short and sweet, so I’ll save that for another article.

DRY SHERRY

In an attempt to make this easier, it’s important to note that dry sherry styles can first be split into two categories: biologically aged, and oxidatively aged.

Biologically aged = Aged under Flor

Flor – a living, breathing, and dying yeast that under just the right conditions will develop as a soft white film on top of the wine in barrel, effectively protecting it from oxygen. 

These wines are produced from the primera yema, or “first press” of grapes and fortified to 15.5 percent before aging:

Fino – light, dry, delicate and floral. The perfect accompaniment to fish and shellfish dishes.

Manzanilla – also light, similar in style to Sherry, but must by law be aged in the seaside town of San Lucar de Barrameda

Amontillado – while amontillado begins it’s life as fino typically, for whatever reason the flor either dies off or doesn’t completely form, this gives Amontillado a bit of oxidation but also has  the character of being aged under flor. Amontillado is more nutty and has stronger caramel and toffee notes. It is fortified to 17-18% alcohol and so is a bit more full bodied than fino or manzanilla

Palo Cortado – a rare and ambiguous wine in that the only legal definition of a Palo Cortado is that it must have the aromatics of an amontillado, with the flavor and palate richness of an oloroso

Oxidatively Aged = Not aged under flor

Produced from the segunda yema or “second pressing” of the grapes. The base wines are richer and more textured to begin with.

Oloroso – nutty caramel flavors with dried yellow fruits and spices. Very complex and intense palate

Sweeter Styles:

Cream sherry- can be broken up into Pale/Medium/Cream sherry styles. These are Oloroso wines sweetened with naturally sweet Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel wines.

Pedro Ximenez – intensely sweet, Pedro Ximenez sherry or “PX” as it sometimes goes by is made by either picking the grapes extremely ripe, or by drying them out in the sun. The resulting style is so sweet and viscous it almost resembles dark maple syrup or molasses. It has flavors of figs, raisins, dried plums with lots of spice and oak character. Make sure you have something to eat with this stuff. Fantastic with chocolate.

Moscatel – made from one of the great ancient grapes of the world: muscat de alexandria, the naturally sweet sherry style of Moscatel. Also intensely sweet much like Pedro Ximenez the moscatel variety produces powerful floral and honey aromatics. 

Sherry will always have it’s advocates, and I will be one of them. I will spend my life serving it to unsuspecting guests, and watching their elated, or crest-fallen expressions after tasting it. I will be traveling to Jerez at least once to get a better grasp on this remarkable beverage I so heartily enjoy. But I don’t expect everyone to love it as much as I do. It is my wish and hope however, that at the very least everyone give sherry a chance. It deserves our attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 obscure grape varieties worth your time and money

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You know them, you love them. Or at least you’ve heard of them:

Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, Malbec

White: Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Now this is admittedly a short list. But these are easily some of the biggest sellers on the American market today. And even if you don’t know much about wine, you’ve probably heard of these titans, and tried a few. They are mainstream, the old stand-by, or the familiar old friend that you never seem to tire of.

Then there are those that are maybe just a bit more on the outskirts, but people who are into wine certainly know them. And they definitely have serious market presence. They can be harder to find if you are used to drinking american wine because some of them aren’t necessarily labeled by grape variety. It takes a bit of work and discovery but if you don’t know how to find them, just ask the guy at your local wine shop or sommelier if you are in a restaurant. If you are just getting into wine, you should branch out next here:

Red: Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah, Gamay

White: Viognier, Gruner Veltliner, Torrontes, Chenin Blanc, Gewurtztraminer

Now that we’ve covered some of the mainstays and even ventured out into the cold pond a little, it’s time to thrust ourselves into the unknown. The following grapes are some of my favorites as of late from my own exploration. I love trying new things, and the discovery of not just a new wine, but a whole new category of wines is still one of my greatest thrills in the wine trade. It keeps me going, energized and thirsty.

1. MOURVEDRE

Likely of Spanish descent given it’s presumed genetic links to Graciano, a blending grape used in Rioja. Mourvedre as it is known in France also goes by Monastrell (Spain) and Mataro (Australia). Although it is typically seen as a blending partner to Grenache and Syrah in the famous wines of the Southern Rhone, it can also be found as a dominant grape in the wines of Bandol in Provence. Bandol Rouge must be at least 50% Mourvedre, and often times is quite a bit more than that. They are full-bodied, rich and earthy with sappy black fruits, leather, fresh game, and loads of wild herbs. A powerful thread of fresh garden soil runs through these wines. A couple of notable producers are Domaine Tempier, and Domaine de la Garenne.

In Jumilla in Spain, the Mourvedre grape undergoes a chameleon-like change in profile once it gets into the bottle. Far from the earthy and dank expressions found in France, these wines tend toward massive chunky fruit which seems liqueur-like on the palate.  Jumilla red wines must be 85% Monastrell. Most approaching 15% alcohol, they truly are hedonistic wines that when done well can deliver lots of pleasure. Particularly for lovers of California or Australian wines. Lots of pure delicious blackberry and blueberry flavors, with an attractive element of game and herbs wafting around in the back.

2. TANNAT

To be or Tannat to be?

Tannat is an interesting and globe-trotting little red grape variety which can be found historically in Madiran in southwestern France, and also oddly enough in Uruguay where it is the national grape.

As the name suggests, most wines made from the Tannat grape are highly tannic. Of the two countries in which it thrives, this characteristic is most pronounced in France. Wines of Madiran must be 60% Tannat and are extraordinarily age-worthy. At a tasting last year I had a 1987 Montus Madiran in the company of a few other southern France giants: Mas de Daumas Gassac, and Chateau Simone. The wine performed beautifully and had evolved in exotic and refined fashion. It trampled the other two wines displaying rich aromas of ripe black olives, loads of black pepper, and fresh blackberries. It really reminded me of top flight Cote-Rotie with age. Simply a splendid wine. More youthful versions have a ripe attack, more upfront fruit but still loads of complexity and should be decanted if opening them within the first 5 years. The champion of Madiran is Alain Brumont, and his top wines are Chateau Bouscasse and Montus.

Over in Uruguay, it’s a different story. I actually tasted a Tannat from Uruguay only yesterday, and it was the wine that inspired this post. Having mainly come from the perspective of French Tannat, I was intrigued but not particularly excited to taste it (I was tasting it next to AltaGracia). The nose alone sold me. Extremely intense and endearing perfume of red licorice and wild currants, dripping with rose-water and honey, with a touch of clove. On the palate it was fruity, fresh and vibrant. I was completely taken aback. It was so different from what I had become accustomed to from Tannat. Highly pleasurable, and far less expensive. The bottle was 2014 Garzon Tannat. If you can find it, go buy it, it’s delicious, though it likely won’t age well, it’s meant to be consumed young.

3. GRIGNOLINO

Native to Italy in the Piemonte region the red wines from Grignolino are typically light in color just a few shades darker than most rose wines. What is interesting about Grignolino is that while it does have very delicate strawberry and wild cherry aromas, the palate is quite firm and a has enough structure and perfectly pitched acidity to hold up to even very rich dishes. As such I love pairing Grignolino with mellow – slow roasted lamb dishes, pizza, or bolognese. This is one of the wines I always feel is fun as a contrast food and wine pairing, more so than a weight match. Though it is excellent with salads as well, its herbal tinges mingling happily with the brininess of olives or the peppery voices of arugula or bitter greens. Seek out the Grignolino from Marchesi Incisa Della Rocchetta.

Another interesting little story about Grignolino is that it can be found right here in America as well, by none other than famous Napa Cabernet Producer Heitz Cellars. Heitz has been producing Grignolino since the 60’s and while obviously more new world and fruity in style, it’s still a beautiful wine and very delicious.

4. ASSYRTIKO

A very distinctive white grape variety hailing from the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea. Grown in volcanic soil, Assyrtiko loves the warm Mediterranean climate and is produced using a very unique vine training system. The vines are grown very close to the ground in a basket-like shape, with the new growth happening inside the cavity. The aim is two fold: protect the grapes from the fierce heat of the sun, and shelter them from the violent and vicious wind that whips around the flat, rocky vineyards.

Grece

The dry climate and lack of any form of consistent rainfall gives Assyrtiko lots of concentration and character. The wines are brisk, clean and intensely mineral while performing effortlessly at the table. Wines made from Assyrtiko are quite like good quality Chablis. They are friendly to a variety of dishes, have a powerful wet stone and chalky core, and enough textural breadth on the palate that they can hold your interest. For producers Boutari is usually easiest to find, but it’s well worth it to seek out the efforts of Domaine Sigalas, and Koutsoyannopoulos.

5. FRAPPATO

Another native islander, the juicy and cunningly fresh red wines of Frappato have become particularly hot as of late in restaurants. Their charm, wildness and lack of restraint wrapped around a frame of elegance hit a unique spot alone, or with simple pasta dishes and pizza. Frappato’s home is the island of Sicily and grape characteristically has very small berries and thick skins. The wines are typically light and aromatically explosive with peppered strawberry, balsamic vinegar, fresh game and spices. Sometimes blended with the slightly better known Nero d’Avola grapes in Cerasuolo di Vittoria, wines made solely from Frappato are delicious young, though can age for a few years and still be quite delicious. The wines typically have a touch of volatile acidity, which lifts the aromatics out of the glass, not too much, just enough, balance is the key with these wines.

At this point in time there are two producers really spearheading the effort, and working diligently and passionately to see what this awesome grape can do: COS and Arianna Occhipinti. The wines of COS came first and were made by 3 sicilian friends, one of whom being Arianna Occhipinti’s uncle Giusto. The COS Frappato is much easier to find on a regular basis and is delicious. But if you can get your hands on some, there is nothing quite like Arianna Occhipinti’s Il Frappato bottling. A touch more polished than COS but no less honest, the Il Frappato is hands down one of my favorite wines and really pushed me into being more curious about Italy as a whole. In a country where grapes have the same names as some towns, with thousands of indigenous varieties and an increasingly convoluted appellation system; Arianna Occhipinti’s wines are a shining beacon of hope. And time will surely see this talented young winemaker rewarded for her efforts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Value in Bordeaux

Second Wines

An enduring source of frustration for me is that I, like so many other people, simply cannot afford many of my favorite wines. I love Bordeaux. I would drink classified growths from Saint Julien down to Margaux every day if I could. I would come home every night to a dollop of Pomerol, Grand Cru Classe A St. Emilion, or top flight Pessac Leognan wines if I had the means.

But I can’t.

Top flight Bordeaux has become so maddeningly, obtusely expensive that most people can’t afford to drink them even once a year. And there is no sign of that changing anytime soon.

But it should be stated that while the purpose of this writing is to examine value from what is typically thought of as an expensive place, “value” as it pertains to wine is relative to the company in which it’s kept. And even expensive bottles can be considered “good values” when compared with other bottles at similar or much higher prices which are not performing. As for this article, we will be focusing on “value” as seen from the point on wines which most people can enjoy regularly. Regularly meaning once a week, or even daily.

The question then becomes, can I find value in Bordeaux? Is there such a thing and how difficult is it to find? The answers to these questions require at least a basic understanding of how Bordeaux is structured price-wise. So let’s take a look:

Bordeaux_v05_Legend (1)

In the Medoc:

In 1855 the wines of the Medoc were “classified” in 1st – 5th growth fashion. While it is generally accepted that this classification is full of flaws given that it is over 150 years later, what it does provide is a historical lens through which to view the rich history and often aristocratic, exalted status of these wines. If you can afford them, or know a generous person who can and wants to share.

The more expensive classified growths are from the major communes:

Saint Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, and Margaux

1st Growths = big bucks, word is out on these wines and there is no value here anymore. Though seriously, these wines have pedigree for a reason, they really are wonderful, but don’t expect to have them often unless you make a decidedly healthy living, and can afford to blow $600-$1500 on a bottle.

2nd Growths = also very expensive, but more manageable for special occasions. And some of these properties in great vintages perform like 1st growths. For instance, tasting the 1982 Mouton Rothschild (a 1st Growth Pauillac) and the 1982 Gruaud Larose (2nd Growth of St. Julien) side by side, I felt mesmerized by both wines on equal footing. Though they were very different. Current market range anywhere from $60-$300 per bottle.

3rd-5th Growths = a minefield. Make sure you know your vintages. Typically expensive as well, but most can be had fairly regularly with a few notable exceptions such as Chateau Palmer (3rd growth of Margaux), Chateau Pontet-Canet (Fifth Growth of Pauillac),  Lynch Bages (5th Growth of Pauillac), and Chateau Calon Segur (3rd Growth St. Estephe). In my opinion all of these chateau perform admirably and could easily compete in verbal fencing with chateau well above their station. Many people consider Chateau Palmer to be of first growth quality.  This group has a somewhat wider price spectrum ranging from $35-$400. Oddly enough, it is here that it is possible to find good values in off vintages. Though they are still too pricey to be considered daily or even weekly wines for most people.

There are a few expensive wines of Moulis-en-Medoc, Listrac-en-Medoc, and Haut-Medoc, but it is here that you will find great value price point Bordeaux. Particularly in Haut-Medoc, as it encompasses many of the more pedestal-worthy communes. Often Petit Chateau in the Haut Medoc will have vineyards adjacent to, or abutting vineyards of classified growths, and sometimes will be made using de-classified fruit from these estates. It takes some digging, but great bottles can be had in the $15-$20 range, particularly in good years. And with the ’14s, ’15s, and ’16s causing some serious excitement, this is a good time to start looking around here.

The right bank:

Pomerol = Fantastic wines with very distinctive character. The problem, there isn’t much made. The result: they are expensive. Expect $50 per bottle for entry level Pomerol, ranging to thousands for the best estates like Chateau Petrus or Chateau Lafleur. Not much value.

St. Emilion = Ok, now we are talking value! While it’s true that St. Emilion produces some extremely extravagant and expensive wines like Cheval Blanc, and Ausone, the appellation also produces some knockout values that show true Bordeaux character. Many priced below $20 per bottle.

Fronsac/Canon Fronsac  = Another really great source for below $20 bottles. I’ve found the wines of Fronsac and Canon Fronsac to be particularly charming and rustic, while really conveying the spirit of Bordeaux. Great wines at great prices from this region.

Cotes du Bourg/Blaye = These wines offer extreme value. Typically under $12 per bottle, it’s hard be too harsh on these wines even though they often lack fruit after only a few years in bottle. In great vintages like 2009, after a few years I’ve had many wonderful bottles of wines from Bourg that I didn’t feel the least bit bad about opening. Great daily Bordeaux.

In the south:

Pessac/Leognan = A very wide range of prices here. On par with St. Emilion. The only 1st growth that isn’t in the Medoc is located here, Chateau Haut Brion. But if you don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine, Pessac Leognan still holds fantastic options in the $20-$30 range. It’s also an excellent source for mineral-tinged white blends from Sauvignon blanc and semillon, the best and most classic examples see a touch of well integrated french oak.

Graves = Fantastic values here under $20. Sweet spot are wines between 5-10 years old. Savory and earthy, in good vintages like those listed above the red and white wines of graves can deliver lots of pleasure and classic Bordeaux flavors and aromas.

Entre-Deux-Mers – a huge, and vast region right below where the Gironde splits. Awesome, steely, bright and crisp whites from Sauvignon Blanc. Often these bottles are priced at $12 and below, a respectable daily drinker if you like clean and light whites.

Sauternes = Luscious, ripe and profound sweet wines ranging from hundreds or even thousands of dollars for Chateau d’Yquem, all the way down to as low as $15 for a half bottle of Lions de Sudiraut. A great option to drink dessert. Definitely values to be found.

Loupiac = Like it’s big brother Sauternes, Loupiac wines are sweet and luscious in style, but are a bit more simple and less thrilling than Sauternes. But prices are very reasonable. Oftentimes below $15 for a half bottle.

Once you have the basic understanding of how the wines are laid out, you can regularly find great bottles at fair prices in Bordeaux that you can drink on the regular. For instance, I may not be able to drink classified growth Pauillac every night, but I can, many times find Haut-Medoc wines at $20 and below that are delicious and won’t cost an arm and a leg. If you love the style, it’s worth your time to look for the values in Bordeaux, of which there are many. It does take a bit of work, but Bordeaux will reward you well for your efforts, and you’ll be surprised at how much fun bargain hunting can be in one of the worlds most famous wine regions.

 

 

 

Pomerol: Aging with grace

Pomerol

Recently I had the privilege of tasting through some excellent, well cellared Pomerols from a host of different vintages. At a locale that had very special and significant meaning indeed, but more on that in a minute…

Even though I taste lots of wine throughout the course of my week, this tasting threw into sharp light the fact that even people with fairly extensive, curated cellars do not drink Pomerol all that often. There just isn’t much of it. To put into context the whole of Bordeaux produces around 75 million cases of wine annually. Pomerol’s share of that? Around 350 thousand cases per year. The Napa Valley in California, considered a small region in contrast to it’s massive influence in the industry, is about 30 miles long from Mt. St. Helena down to Carneros and averaging 5 miles wide. It also produces millions of cases per year. Pomerol, is about 3 X 4 kilometers. On the whole, Pomerol is a pretty small place.

For those of you not familiar, Pomerol is located in Bordeaux, on the “right bank” of the Dordogne river, adjacent to and almost surrounding the town of Libourne. The wines are typically made predominantly from Merlot, with Cabernet Franc being the most common blending partner, though 5 Bordeaux varietals are authorized. Pomerol AOP is a red wine only appellation, and doesn’t produce white wine, rose, or sparkling. Soils are dominated by clay, with the “best vineyards” known to come from the special “blue-clay over sand” sections of the Pomerol plateau. And many of the worlds most expensive, sought after wines are made from grapes grown here.

Naturally when presented with the chance to taste a slew of wines from magnificent producers, I was salivating and couldn’t contain my excitement. We met at a great little bistro here in Austin, Chez Nous. It’s a charming, unpretentious place and was the perfect environment to really dig into these exalted right bank wines.  Opened in 1982, by three friends from Paris, Chez Nous has become an Austin staple and a place to comfort and catch up with old friends over a fine meal. The fact that Chez Nous opened in 1982 made our tasting of the 1982 Le Bon Pasteur very special indeed. And Proprietor Madame Sybil-Reinhardt Regimbeau was a gracious and warm host. I remember she did enjoy the 82.

We tasted a total of 16 wines in 4 flights of 4. The wines are described in the context of a comparison and relation to each other. It’s worth mentioning that all of these wines were absolutely stunning if considered on their own merit from a market perspective. Below are the wines tasted with my thoughts and notes on each of them, wines with a * left a definitive impression:

Flight #1 The 90’s

1995 Chateau Certan de May

Very savory nose, tobacco, Louisiana hot sauce, and tomato. Smoky, very earthy and spicy, showing autumn leaves, potting soil, and clay. Not much fruit to speak of, but you don’t miss it. Wonderful soft palate. Silky texture and excellent finish.

*1997 Chateau L’Evangile

The nose is explosive and intense with cocoa powder, black cherry, leather and a touch of green pepper wandering around in the back. Palate is remarkable, fresh, lively and vibrant. Impossibly good considering the vintage. Iconic.

1999 La Fleur Petrus

Wet clay, blackberries and licorice nose. Dense but elegant in the mouth, cocoa is dominating a wonderful and expansive mid-palate. Finishes taut and mineral.

1999 Chateau La Conseillante

Easily the most floral nose of the bunch, wet roses and forest floor. Slight mushroom tinges. Palate has great freshness like the L’Evangile, lots of dried black fruit on the mid palate, finishes with earth and forest floor. Leanest wine of the group.

Flight #2  The Warmer Years

1989 Chateau Le Gay

Ripe sappy nose full of chewy black fruit. Liqueur-like in it’s darkness, reminds me of boysenberry syrup. Palate is full of sweet dark fruit, cocoa and truffles. Finish is lengthy and even.

*2000 Chateau Latour a’ Pomerol

Opaque, dark ink in the glass with very high staining. Suggesting we are in for a palate-puncher here. Nose is very high intensity and expressive, but there are definitely some other layers to be coaxed from the petals of this rose. Palate is dense and opulent. Turbocharged, gorgeously structured and full of flavor. A Standout!

* 1990 Vieux Chateau Certan

A more delicate and less intense nose. Lifted, floral and fresh with red and purple garden flowers, a bit of game, and scrubby underbrush, akin to cedar. Palate is so fresh and young still, suggesting this wine should age very well. Elegant style compared to the others. Less showy and without question a gorgeous wine.

2003 Vieux Chateau Certan

Interesting nose, doesn’t really speak of Pomerol like the others. Showing very new world, which makes sense considering the blisteringly hot 2003 vintage and the fact that this wine is mostly Cabernet Franc, around 90%. I found this wine to be just a hair awkward because it was so atypical, however, the quality in the winemaking can not be denied. They pulled it off, overall the wine had great palate presence and lush well defined aromas.

Flight # 3 Le Bon Pasteur: a new producer I’d never had

2005 Clos L’Eglise

Gorgeously ripe and “New World” nose, the youth of the 2005’s cannot be understated. The nose is wild and rambunctious, a touch hot. On the palate very tight, not giving up much, but rock solid and with a grainy tannic structure, should smooth out over the years. A baby, but a beautiful one. 

*2005 Chateau Le Bon Pasteur

Intense nose of minerals and vitamins framed by graphite and inorganic earth. Sappy and ripe in the mouth, dense and mouth-filling texture with a finish that goes on and on. Another stunner from 2005. This wine is fantastic now, but boy would I love to taste it in 10 years.

1990 Chateau Le Bon Pasteur

Interesting. Tense and obtuse nose with a definitive pine resin aroma. Very high toned and again, quite mineral driven. Fresh palate, definitely a food wine, bright acidity, minty and red fruited. Great wine.

*** 1982 Chateau Le Bon Pasteur

Dark and opaque still in the glass, after 35 years that’s nothing short of astonishing. The nose is expressive and rife with truffle, cocoa, top soil, autumn leaves, rotten flowers, dust old leather, fresh blackberry and plums, ferns and wild mushrooms. It just keeps giving you descriptors, you don’t need to search for them. The palate is impressive in it’s completeness, with a balance that is easy to describe. The fruit, earth, acid, tannin and alcohol are all on exactly the same wavelength of intensity, nothing at all sticks out, and it’s about as perfect a wine as I’ve ever tasted. Hands down the top wine of the tasting.

Flight #4 Across 40 Years Chateau Clinet

1970 Chateau Clinet

Moderately intense nose of dried red fruit and Louisiana hot sauce, dried sage, green bell pepper, peppercorns and wild herbs. Easy to see the difference in wine making style here, very herbaceous and earthy. Slightly tired for me, but highly pleasurable. Honestly, how often do we drink wines of this age?

1995 Chateau Clinet

Nose is great and expressive, leather and truffle, barnyard air. Sweet dark fruit on the mid-palate, and finishing with graphite and clay. Interesting wine, holds the attention of the intellect.

*2000 Chateau Clinet

Brambly, jammy nose of wild berry thicket, underbrush, raspberry liqueur and mushrooms. Brilliant, balanced structure with a fresh vibrant finish. 2000’s are my favorite vintage. This one in particular is on the long, slow ascent to it’s peak. It’s drinking great! Iconic Pomerol!

2010 Chateau Clinet

Fruit forward nose, not together yet, wild and not tamable at the moment. Very dense, chewy explosive tannin which stick out and lord over all other elements in the wine. Lots of character though, once it settles down it will be amazing, the quality is definitely evident. 

Overall, I definitely gained a new appreciation for the wines of Pomerol. And what stuck out and impressed me the most was the diversity across different vintages and producers. How do you take your pleasure? Do you like dense, opulent, chewy wines? Pomerol has them. Do you like light, lifted and floral wines? Pomerol has those too. Do you forgo chunky fruit for secondary tones of leather and fresh game? Pomerol has you covered. Admittedly I’d had a few bottles here and there, and came to put Pomerol in a box. A box of massive, dark fruited and tannic wines that I realize now was far too small for a such unique and expressive place. I therefore, must apologize. I am sorry Pomerol. I hope I can make it up to you. I’m behind you now and forever, I get it. It is this humble wine professional’s opinion that a cellar well stocked with the wines of Pomerol would be quite a wonderful and engaging thing, providing perspective and something to look forward to for any wine lover.