Thursday, July 24, 2014


We have written about Merlot often here at the blogspot beginning three years ago on July 14th of 2011.  Just like last week's Grenache post, this one is a refresher for me before tonight's class on the subject.  So here's a thumbnail sketch of Merlot.

Origins: There appears to be nothing definitive here so Bordeaux may be the default birthplace of Merlot just as we learned about Sauvignon Blanc a couple weeks ago.  The first written Merlot reference was in Bordeaux in 1784.  Ampelographers in modern times using DNA tools have determined the grape to be the offspring of Cabernet Franc and a little known ornamental grapevine from Britton, France.  Some Merlot DNA is shared with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Carmenere, which just makes finding origins even more difficult.

History: Merlot has always been a blending grape in Bordeaux and elsewhere although at different times in recorded history it has been more highly regarded than at other times.  Within Bordeaux that highly regarded Merlot has always been in the Gironde River right bank vineyards.  Merlot is not noteworthy in Spain but has performed well historically in Friuli, Italy and in recent times, Tuscany.  Because of its current popularity, Merlot is planted everywhere around the world but notably, France probably has two thirds of the world's plantings!

Popularity:  Merlot plantings are increasing everywhere but it hasn't always been a smooth ride.  The huge American wine market often dictates production everywhere and in the 1980's when our culture was first embracing these things, Merlot was the soft red wine to which wine newbies gravitated.  In the early '90s the 60 Minutes "French Paradox" program, which asserted health benefits related to red wine consumption, further accelerated Merlot sales.  Then in 2004 the film, "Sideways", adversely impacted Merlot sales by touting Pinot Noir at Merlot's expense.

Name:  Merlot is a large, thin-skinned, dark blue, loosely bunched grape that possibly acquired its name from the similarly colored "Merle" French blackbird which feeds on the grape in vineyards.  In the local Occitan dialect the bird is pronounced "merlau".  Merlot's popularity everywhere has always been speculated to be related to its easy pronounciation.

Profile/Food Affinity:  Merlot does better in cooler venues than warmer ones.  In warmer climes the flavor profile is a simple strawberry/raspberry; in cooler venues it becomes more complex with plum and dark fruits.  The lighter version would be Pinot Noir-like as a lighter meal complement while the more complex version would be a steak wine.

The Blend:  Historically Merlot works with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  Merlot is viewed as an "insurance policy" since it ripens earlier than other grapes, staggering winery demands, and being available in case another type disappoints.  Merlot always softens other types in a blend and contributes texture (fleshiness) as much as flavor. 

Chateau Petrus:  This is the most expensive wine in the world at $2,000/btl and is usually 90% Merlot with Cabernet Franc making up most of the rest of the blend.  The property is located in Pomerol which is on the right bank of the Gironde River in Bordeaux.

Old World/New World: All Bordeaux red wines feature Merlot grapes that are harvested earlier for a higher acid food-friendliness.  The new world Merlots harvest late for ripe fruit flavors.  Old world is no more than medium bodied and moderate in alcohol, showing some vegetal notes in the profile along with fresh restrained raspberry/strawberry fruit flavors.  New world or "International style" is ripe fruit, inky purple color, full bodied, high alcohol, plum and blackberry accented, with lush velvety tannins.

Please  join us Thursday for the class and then come back Friday when Liz Diehl of Georgia Crown offers tastes of the historic wines of Chalone Vineyards of California and fine examples of Argentine Malbec.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bodegas Aragonesas Aragus and CAAE

Difficult title but we'll try to explain it all to you.

At last Friday's weekly tasting, the hit of the evening was an inexpensive Spanish red called Aragus.  The attractively designed wine label yielded little printed information about the product but did include the website on the back label and if you go there you learn Aragus is made by Bodegas Aragonesas of Campo de Borja, Spain.  The winery, importer, and local distributor are all well known here at the store and I probably could have deduced the source of the wine without going through the website.  I only have a half dozen other wines from the same place in the store and three of the six wines on the tasting table for Friday were from there!

At the website we also learned the wine is a Garnacha-based blend which includes Tempranillo, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The vineyards are at 1,500 ft about sea level and include fruit from fifty year old Garnacha vines.  The characterization of this wine in print says it's a fleshy balance of ripe red fruit, spice, and minerality.  Our Friday night crowd loved it.

Along with the ornate label graphics, Aragus proudly prints it organic bonafides.  "Wine made with organic grapes" appears on both the front and back labels. The certification stamp is presented lower on the back label along with the legally required "contains sulfites" admission.  Finally, "certified organic by CAAE" appears in the lower right hand corner and that's what we'll examine with the balance of this report.

Spain first ventured into organic viticulture in 1988, three years before the EU legislated its organic program.  Forty percent of all Spanish wines are believed to be organically farmed while only 12% are labelled as certified organic and that is because of the premium a producer must pay for that certification.  One has to wonder if our $12.99 Aragus would be a ten dollar bottle if not certified organic.  Most standard requirements for organic certification include the following four amongst others.

1.  An annual inspection of farming practices, physical premises, and transportation vehicles.
2.  Documentation of recent farm history to include soil and water tests.
3.  An annual comprehensive plan for the coming year.
4.  Daily record keeping covering all activities relating to the wine business.

Certification also includes a fee usually between $500 and $2000 depending on type of business and size and scope.  Changes in supply lines and building modifications are just a couple of changes that could factor into the expense column. 

Join us this Thursday for our next installment of our continuing wine varietal class series.  This time we'll look at Merlot.  On Friday Liz Diehl of Georgia Crown Distributing presents Faust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Chalone Chardonnay from California along with several high end Malbecs (including a Rose) from Argentina.  Join us for that one if you want a real special experience. 

And for gosh sakes, become a follower of this here blog!

Thursday, July 17, 2014


This is a spur of the moment post.  We blogged about Grenache on August 24th of last year.  Before that on the 4th of June we wrote aboout Roses and on May 20th of last year we wrote about Climate Change.  All of these posts deal with the Grenache wine grape and its application to different subjects.  Tonight we have a Grenache tasting here at the store so my selfish purpose now is to refresh my memory about the subject, and for your benefit, here are three reasons why the Grenache wine grape may be relevant to you.

1.  Even though we never hear about it in the "fine" wine context, Grenache makes some of the finest wines in the world.  Ampelographers assert that Spain may be the original home of the grape and the finest example there now is Priorat where 100 year old "Garnacha" vines produce a wine akin in its complexity to Amarone of Italy.  Intrinisically Grenache is strawberries and raspberries but in Priorat add black currents, black olives, coffee, honey, leather, black/white pepper, spices, roasted nuts, figs, and more!  Get the picture? 

In the typical French Rhone blend, figure on many of the same attributes but muted in that indelibly French subdued and nuanced style.  Chateauneuf du Pape is the crowning example where Grenache makes up 80% of the blend.  Then in Tavel, Grenache constitutes 100% of the finest rose in the world.

Anecdotally, the great red wine of Sardinia is Cannonau which is one  of fifty-seven current names for Grenache around the world and Cannonau just may be the oldest existing version of the grape!

2.  While Grenache isn't huge in Portugal and isn't in Portuguese Port at all, other world vineyards use it for that purpose exclusively.  Banyuls in the French Rhone has historically made a fortified dessert wine with Grenache as its base.  Australia has done it for a couple hundred years and California, for most of the twentieth century.  The reason for this application has to do with its long growing season in the vineyard resulting in fully ripe berries with high sugar levels which, of course, translates into high alcohol wine.  Its full bodied fruitiness and high yields don't hurt either.

This kind of a wine grape is utilitarian in blending as a rule.  For instance in the standard Rhone or GSM blend, Grenache is the fruity bodied middle of the wine to Syrah's spice and color and Mourvedre's structure and elegance.  In California the players may differ but the role for Grenache is pretty much the same.

3.  So what is the future for a grape like this?  Actually, the sky is the limit.  Grenache thrives in climates inhospitable to most grapes.  Today Grenache vines populate southern France and Spain, Australia, and the San Joaquin Valley in California, all areas expected to be impacted by climate change.  One reason for Grenache's prevalence in the world today goes back to the nineteenth century Phylloxera epidemic which required European grapevines to be grafted onto American disease-resistant rootstocks.  Grenache was a grafting winner.

Today it is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world and while it tolerates many venues, it actually prefers the hotter climes.  The woody and bushy Grenache vine is also tolerant of strong winds.  It is now being planted in the Middle East and Central and South America.

Join us here tomorrow beginning at 5pm when Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage presents an excessively fine array of Spanish reds including several Garnachas along with whites from Chile, Germany, and Wahington State.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sicilian Pinot Grigio

About four or five years ago we officially became a Pinot Grigio store when Chardonnay sales were eclipsed for the first time by the lighter simpler thirst quencher.  As might be expected it's particularly in the summertime when pinot clearly outsells the other and then when the temperature drops in the fall, Chardonnay picks up again.  In recent months two of our most popular pinots have been Villa Pozzi and Barone Montalto, both inexpensive examples sourced from Sicily.  Since the lion's share of pinot comes from the opposite end of the country in Veneto, I found it curious that these two were such hits with our locals, giving me reason enough to research this a bit.

Truth be told, I really don't taste Pinot Grigio critically.  I assume the wine is going to be light and simple, a "less is more" kind of thing in 90 degree temperatures and these two are both made in that style but perhaps with a noticeable difference.  They are both fresh, crisp, and lemony in their appeal with a nuanced fruit compote (sans the spices) in the middle before finishing with a honeyed, floral, nutty component.  In other words, this style of pinot seems more inviting at the beginning and more satisfying at the finish than most on the market.  It really is perfect for the season and kudos to my customer base for discovering this model. 

So how does Sicily create such a charmer?  Both wines come from the Marsala region of northwestern Sicily, which by the way, is a hilly, rocky island.  The hillside pinot vineyards offer the kind of difficult circumstances which grape vines love and the sea breezes not only cool the Mediterranean temperatures but refresh the fruit at the same time.  There was a time when I would have questioned this kind of speculative theory about why things can develop the way they do, but now I have become convinced.  I wouldn't be surprised if such grapes retain a level of salinity from the sea breezes further contributing to the appeal.

This Friday starting at 5pm join us for a tasting of high end Spanish reds and more as Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage presents his serious array of red dinner wines along with fine examples of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chardonnay for the season.  On Friday the 25th David Hobbs of Prime Wines presents the fine fare of Ole Imports again featuring Spanish wines.  On August 8th Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock sets out several Italians and Californians for our consideration.  Please join us for all of these events.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Revolution in Tuscany, Part 1

In the past three weeks we have featured five Super Tuscan reds at our weekly tastings.  The wines ranged in price from $20 to $45 and all have been fine examples of what we have become accustomed to in Tuscan centerpiece wine.  If I was to say we have become spoiled by such production, I would have to blush because that's still understating the case for Tuscan greatness.  In short, nowhere will you find wine of that character and quality at those prices.

Here's some history for you: In 1963 Italy codified its wine appellation system thereby inscribing in stone what kinds of wine may be produced in Tuscany and elsewhere.  Chianti, of course, is the most famous wine of the region (and the country!) but sales had been flagging for some time because of the historic restrictions on the grape composition as codified in 1963.  We have written about this situation previously here at the blogspot, but in short, Chianti could be no more than 70% Sangiovese with Canaiolo, Malvasia, Trebbiano, and other local varieties in supporting roles.  White wine was to make up 10% to 30% of the total blend.  Moreover, since the wine was intended to be consumed young, no small oak barrel (barrique) aging was allowed.  The result was a Chianti that had a short shelf life sometimes spoiling on store shelves and diminishing sales worldwide.

A mention probably should be made here about Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, two Sangiovese-based Tuscan reds that have historically always been superior to Chianti. Within Tuscany today there are thirty-five DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) level wines and nine DOCGs (denominazione di origine controllata e garantita), the very highest quality level by Italian wine law.  So there has never been any shortage of fine wine being produced in Tuscany.  It's just that Chianti producers were restricted.

In 1974 Chianti producer Antinori released its revolutionary 1971 vintage "Tignanello" to a thoroughly unprepared public.  The DOC laws in place at the time had immortalized the mediocre Chianti on store shelves, forcing Tignanello into the Vino da Tavola category, the lowest quality level by Italian law.  And it sold for $50 or so per bottle at the time!  Another giant in the new super premium category, Sassacaia, made by Tenuta San Guido, had its first release in 1968 but was never marketed beyond the boundaries of its own property before the success of Tignanello.  Other Super Tuscans were soon to follow from several producers furthering the humiliation of the governing authorities.  Eventually in order to save face, the government created the IGT (indicazione geographica tipica) category in 1992 for Super Tuscans, which was still lower than DOC but qualitatively separate from Vino da Tavola.  The term, "Super Tuscan", by the way, was coined in the early eighties.

This Thursday, July 10th at 7pm, we will begin a series of classes to examine wines by their grape type.  Our first class is Sauvignon Blanc.  Then on Friday the 11th between 5 and 8pm, Allen Rogers of Atlanta Beverage joins us for a presentation of Spanish wines from Rioja Alta along with a tasting of the current vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon from the historic Veedercrest Napa Estate.  On Friday the 18th Dmitry Paladino of Ultimate Wines joins us with a lineup yet to be determined.

Revolution in Tuscany, Part 2

We defined what Chianti was forty years ago in the previous segment.  So what we really need to do now is define what a Super Tuscan wine actually is.  In the 1970s it was a Sangiovese-based red wine which incorporated the legally disallowed international varieties; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; into a blend that was big, rich, and modern and immediately competitive with the finest wines in the world. 

Because this industry is never static, today a Super Tuscan may be one of four wine types: It may be 100% Sangiovese, completing a trend from the early twentieth century of increasing the percentage of Sangiovese in Tuscan reds.  It may be a blend of Sangiovese with the international varieties like in the '70s.  It may also be a Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, or a 100% varietal of either.  In other words, it's pretty much wide open as to what a Super Tuscan is today!

So what is a Chianti today?  Today Chianti is minimally 80% Sangiovese (up to 100%) with the rest being local and international varieties.  In other words, Chianti is now what a Super Tuscan was a couple generations ago.  And that, folks, is what constitutes a revolution.  The outside agitators have now donned the mantle of normalcy and it's their template that is out there for a future generation to rebel against.  So organically has this process evolved that most Chianti producers now make a Super Tuscan red blend as if it were just their reserve wine.

So why have Super Tuscans at all if the boundary has been so blurred?  First of all, the Merlot or Cabernet-based models still fall outside of the Chianti definition.  Secondly, that freedom to experiment with other varieties allows the flexibility to improve a blend and the Toscana IGT category allows for that.  Thirdly, the Super Tuscan category has accrued a certain prestige over the decades.  And fourthly, there is more latitude for marketing on a Super Tuscan wine label as opposed to the staid Chianti label.

Please join us for the class on Thursday, the weekly event on Friday, and the Dmitry Paladino tasting on the 18th.  And for gosh sakes become a follower of this here blog!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Bodegas Taron

At our weekly event on Friday July 11th between 5 and 8pm, Allen Rogers of Atlanta Beverage presents the wines of Bodegas Taron of Rioja Alta, Spain.  The wines are priced very moderately ($10-$20) yet like most Spanish wines, they taste like they should be much more expensive.  Spain has this unbeatable combination of old vines and old viniculture to team with new world investment in technology along with the right people in charge to get the product out to those of us who appreciate it.

Refreshingly, they also know how to do a winery website.  All of the following is taken from, which lays out information as crisply and cleanly and with as little pretense as possible.  One small problem for me though: Bodegas Taron is a cooperative venture using vineyards in four different towns in Rioja Alta which I would have liked to learn more about, but I guess that's just me since there was no further information to be had there.

At the event on the 11th we will be tasting five of the seven wines Taron makes.  Apparently Atlanta Beverage chose not to carry the top of the line red, Cepas Centenarius, made from one hundred year old Tempranillo vines.  The Crianza will be bypassed also because, according to Allen, it paled beside the others.  So now that you know about the ones that got away, here are the five to be tasted:

1.  2012 Blanco - Made from 60 year old Viura (Macabeo) vines from the four contributing Rioja Alta vineyards.  The wine is cold fermented after a slight maceration to preserve freshness.

2.  2012 Rosado - 50% Viura, 40% Garnacha, and 10% Tempranillo.  Pale pink salmon in color, light with ripe fruit and floral components, macerated and fermented in cold steel vats.

3.  2012 Tempranillo - 100% Tempranillo grapes from unspecified thirty year old vineyards.  Aromas are of wild red berries, black cherry color, good acidity with smooth astringency, fresh mouthfeel with a long finish.  (Does this sound like a $10 wine?)

All of the red wine descriptions use similar wording to describe their viniculture: "careful checks on ripening are made in the vineyard when phenol content and aromatic potential are at their peak for harvesting" and then later in the winery, hand harvesting is implied as "de-stemming" is emphasized for each wine.  All of which speaks to quality in production.

4.  2009 Taron4M - 95% Tempranillo and 5% Mazuelo sourced from low yielding vines in the four vineyards, cold maceration three days before fermentation in stainless steel followed by malolactic fermentation, four months in American oak with lees stirring.  Deep cherry color, aromatically intense ripe red berry fruit, sweet soft tannins with toasted American oak.

5.  2005 Taron Reserva - 90% Tempranillo and 10% Mazuelo.  Cold maceration for 2-3 days followed by a seven day fermentation for 15-18 days total in the vat including malolactic.  Then two years in new American oak before fourteen months of cellaring.  Ruby red color, meaty, full, intense with an elegant finish and long serene aftertaste.

Join us for the tasting on Friday the 11th which will also include the current vintage from the historic Veedercrest Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  Then on Friday the 18th Dimitry Paladino of Ultimate Distributors joins us with a fair sampling of his wares. 

By the way, on Thursday July 10th we have scheduled a class/tasting on Sauvignon Blanc.  Please contact us for that one if you are interested.

This Friday, the 4th of July,  we will be open and tasting two whites and four reds including Veramonte Chilean Red Blend, Chakana Argentine Malbec, Ruffino "Modus" Super Tuscan, and Bocelli "In Canto" Italian Cabernet Sauvignon.  Please join us for the tasting between 5 and 8pm.