Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Websites, Segura Viudas, and Lovatti

A while back I commented that so many winery websites were little more than puff pieces to promote their product. I think I said the more successful ones were akin to a welcome mat for visitors. Among my critical issues about winery websites, I find a high production glossy veneer with shallowness and superficiality toward their product with accompanying annoyingly loud pop music, to be about the worst. As I see it, foreign language barriers are my problem if I can't understand them.

By contrast I feel like I am learning from an adult at the great Spanish Cava website, www.seguraviudasusa.com. Check it out. It is so well done I would feel like a really lousy thief if I borrowed information from them because they set it forth so well. "Great wine is born in the vineyard. Each grape type is suited to the soil, altitude, and microclimate within the estate and it is all estate fruit using only the first pressings for this fine Cava. The wine is a golden straw color with a finely integrated mousse. Long aging on the lees lends notes of pastry and butter with a balance of fruit and acidity resolving into a refreshingly dry finish." So I'm a thief. You know even if all of that were just creative writing, it's still so well done I'm salivating.

Cava is Spanish Sparkling Wine and Segura Viudas is truly something special, which speaks to another website criticism of mine. So often the product in the bottle doesn't live up to the verbiage in print. Segura Viudas does. The Brut NV is a blend of 50% Macabeo (see June 25th blog), 40% Parellada, and 10% Xarel-lo. The Segura Viudas Heredad is a blend of Parellada, offering subtlety and elegance, and Xarel-lo, offering backbone, body and acidity. Brut NV is an $11.99 retail; Heredad, $19.99. This is holiday fare, people. Pick some up now for Thanksgiving and serve it before, during, or after the meal...or all three!

Our "Meteor" award winner from the previous blog was Lovatti Brolo Val Sorda 2010, a charming red from the Lake Garda region of north-central Italy. At their website I learned that Brolo is a blend of 50% Merlot and 50% Sangiovese from the Veneto region with characteristicly fragrant, intense berry aromas and velvety, harmonious berry flavors wrapped within its medium body format. The "Meteor" goes to the wine that sells out the quickest at our Friday tastings and with a description like that you can see why. Yummm. Then the website goes on to say Brolo goes with most any meal and I want to throttle someone. Pasta, yes. Appetisers, I think so. But steak? Come on.

Websites, sheesh!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Envelope Please

Our Friday tasting this week showed us that a charming crowd pleasing Sauvignon Blanc, Torreon de Paredes from Chile, and a shockingly well made Spanish Tempranillo, Fuentenarro from Ribero del Duero, could lead the way sales-wise in a crowded field of contenders. I thought this was one of the best tastings we have had both in quality and price and I think our winners earned their accolades. Torreon is a slightly off-dry cocktail wine and Fuentenarro is fine red meat dinner wine. Each retail for $10.99. Our runners up include Perry Creek El Dorado Merlot and Tupun Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva.

New to the store this week is our "Hall of Fame" lineup of tasting winners from the past month. By letting the wine tasting attendees speak to their choices in this way, I think I am offering the obvious, a "People's Choice" award. People vote with their wallets, right, and everyone in a cross sectional tasting group can't all be wrong. So...the envelope please.

Best Buy red wine award winner: Auka Argentine Syrah 2007 $9.99. Mouth filling red meat dinner wine.

Best Buy white award winner: La Playa Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $9.99. Citrusy seafood white.

"The Meteor" winner, awarded to the fastest wine to sell out in an evening: Lovatti Brolo Val Sorda 2010 $11.99. Light Italian red with unique fruit flavors. Food affinity, of course, pasta.

"Just for Fun" winners: Estampa Argentine Viognier/Chardonnay 2009 $12.99. Off-dry cocktail wine suitable for picnic fare. Auka Argentine Torrontes 2009 $9.99. Ditto Estampa.

Best Example of Type white winner: Cave Saint Verny Le Chardonnay, Cotes d'Auvergne France 2010 $13.99.

Best Example of Type red winner: Sicoris Spanish Red Blend Costers del Segre 2009 $15.99.

"The Jaw Dropper" white: Waterstone Napa Valley Pinot Grigio 2010 $19.99. Just an out-of-the-blue simple surprise.

Jaw Dropper red: Waterstone Carneros Pinot Noir 2008 $26.99. Two hours after opening, unbelievably rich red with exponentially improved complexity.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Cotes d'Auvergne III/VDQS

Saint Verny (Le)Chardonnay from Cotes d'Auvergne was our tasting winner from two weeks ago while the (Le)Pinot Noir from Saint Verny came in second in popularity based on sales that same weekend. While the ancient history and culture of the area documented here in the past week remains accurate, recent history in d'Auvergne has changed considerably.

In 2006 in response to the crisis in the French wine industry, Bernard Pomel authored the "Pomel Report" to the government urging a simplification of French wine law to facilitate commercial sales. At that time sales were so poor producers were converting Bordeaux into industrial alcohol to maintain pricing and a revenue stream for the producers. International competition from the new world had caused the dropoff in sales so the theory was to de-cryptify the label language on French wines to encourage international sales.

The fundamental change in law was to eliminate the VDQS quality level in French Wine Law. For most of the twentieth century there have been four quality levels in France. "Appellation Controlee" (AOC), the top quality level, guarantees government recognition that the product in the bottle must be from a distinct delimited region with the established grape varieties of that region made in a manner consistent with traditional practices of that region. VDQS (Delimited Wine of Superior Quality) was the second quality level and also maintained much of the same "certitudes" of AOC, just not guaranteeing the same quality level. "Vin de Pay" is the third level and it allowed for higher yields and a larger regional character for those wines. The fourth level is Vin de Table which is a catchall term for no regional restrictions and wines with no place name other than France.

With the ending of the VDQS category, all VDQS wines could apply for AOC status and gradually they have. Cotes d'Auvergne is now an AOC and may establish their own style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as their "brand" without the encumbrance of historic models, ie., Gamay no longer must be included in the blend. Chardonnay, never highly regarded in the region, has now been elevated as a commercial priority and the quality has coorespondingly improved.

Here is what I really like. Along with the thrust to improve and elevate d'Auvergne Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, there is a project concurrently to study 15 ancient grape varieties from the area to determine if they have commercial potential for the future. A discovery from the past is always welcome.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cotes d'Auvergne II

I spent so much time talking about the history, geography, and culture of Cotes d'Auvergne last time, I forgot to talk about the wine! When you come across the oldest inhabited region of France with a geological history like this one it is easy to digress. The wine in question, by the way, is Le Pinot Noir and Le Chardonnay from the large co-op, Cave Saint Verny, located just south of Clermont-Ferrand in the middle of d'Auvergne. Clermont-Ferrand is the home of industrial giant, Michelin and its associated industries that have taken over the middle of the valley basin. The vineyards are now all situated on the slopes of the surrounding mountains. The soil as stated before is a complex array of minerality allowing for good drainage from the sloped plantings making the current situation optimal for the limited modern wine industry there.

While d'Auvergne is on the same parallel as Cotes Rotie and St. Emilion, Rhone and Bordeaux grapes do not do well at this higher altitude which explains why d'Auvergne in its 19th century heyday was only known for ordinary quality production. The climate of d'Auvergne, being northern continental and affected by north Atlantic weather patterns, allows for the popular varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to be ideal choices for viniculture there.

The third grape allowed in d'Auvergne is Gamay and it comes in two varieties. There is of course the Gamay of Beaujolais in southern Burgundy but also in d'Auvergne is an ancient clone of Gamay native to the region. 90% of the wine production from d'Auvergne is red wine and by law all reds from d'Auvergne must be at least 50% Gamay so how "Le Pinot Noir" became so named is beyond me. The 10% of white wine production in d'Auvergne is entirely Chardonnay.

There are five premier vineyard regions that encircle Clermont-Ferrand and Saint Verny draws from three of them: Madargues to the north and Corent and Boudes to the south. The five premier regions produce half of the wine of d'Auvergne and Saint Verny is one of one hundred sixty-five wine concerns operating there. The Saint Verny wine cooperative was established in 1950 and d'Auvergne received its VDQS rating one year later. VDQS is the medium quality rating in French Wine Law. The top rating, AOC, is expected to be awarded to d'Auvergne this year.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cotes d'Auvergne

Last Friday our "best of show" overall was the "Le Chardonnay" from Cave Saint Verny in the Cotes d'Auvergne, which lies in the geographical center of France. Our best red of the evening was "Le Pinot Noir" from the same people. I had been informed that d'Auvergne was just outside of Burgundy, offering Burgundy varietals at a fraction of the prized AOC price. These two were a $14 retail and exhibited to a lesser extent the finesse of their Burgundy counterparts.

Cotes d'Auvergne has been called the "lost wine region of France" by wine writer Richard Kelley because of a convergence of twentieth century developments that effectively took it off the map for a century. In 1885 d'Auvergne ranked third in wine production behind Herault and Aude in the Languedoc and ahead of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the elite appellations of France. As you may recall the phylloxera epidemic hit France at that time followed at the turn of the century by blights of mildew, frost, rain, and drought, all before the devastation of the two World Wars. As we have already stated with regard to Spain, viniculture does not automatically spring back from disruptions, moreover as a commercial business, tastes do change and the wines from the 1880's don't necessarily translate into 20th century tastes.

The "lost region" also refers to d'Auvergne's geographical isolation and here is where things really get interesting. Richard Kelley is a chronicler of the Loire Valley wine industry and the Loire River actually begins in d'Auvergne in a natural basin created 12-20 million years ago by the most volatile volcanic activity in Europe. That volcanic activity resulted in natural barriers to invaders but also created a natural inhibition in the ethos of the people to outside cultural influences. The people of d'Auvergne historically were untrusting of outsiders, primitive in culture, and frugal due to endemic poverty.

The intense volcanic activity of 20 million years ago proved beneficial in ways we in the wine industry recognize in retrospect. Today d'Auvergne in the Limagne basin has soil composed of alluvial deposits of cinders, lava, and ash. The slopes of the mountainsides where most of the vines are now planted have a bedrock of alkaline basalt (weathered lava) which is rich in minerals and a topsoil of granite and argile-calcaire. Because of what volcanic eruption is, the basin is mottled with different soils throughout depending on what deposits were spewed in whichever direction. Along with the mountains themselves, hills and plateaus were formed by lava flows over the base surface composed of limestone and clay.

Viniculture is first chronicled after the Roman invasion around 50bc and was most likely started by monks. It really never took hold though until the eighteenth century due to the success of vegetable farming in that fertile valley and the ancillary success of the cuisine of d'Auvergne that found its way to large city restaurants around France. The locally trained chefs of d'Auvergne who left the area for career positions were known to return home for retirement.

The d'Auvergne wine industry was "lost" in the twentieth century for another reason. The Michelin tire company made Clermont-Ferrand in the middle of d'Auvergne its home and the entire region became a commercial/industrial center. Gone today is the expansive wine monoculture of the nineteenth century. Gone is the historic food culture of the region. Today there is industry and suburban sprawl and, if France is like this country, hardly a glance over the shoulder at what once was.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wine Tastings II

Last night we tasted the lineup from Waterstone of Napa Valley. I had talked up this line for a week in emails, phone calls, facebook, and here in the blog. The turnout was good and the wines sold acceptably well. The best seller understandably was the Cabernet; the weakest, surprisingly was the Chardonnay. All others sold equally well including the "Study in Blue" red blend ($45/btl) which clearly delivered on its promise of superiority.

Here's what surprised me. I had tasted these wines a week earlier and had determined that the Merlot and Syrah were the best outside of "Study". Last night I thought the Cabernet and Pinot Noir were clearly better than the other reds. What gives? One difference from a week ago was the length of time the bottles had been open. A week ago the wines had been open for 24 hours by the time they came to me. Last night we opened them all at five o'clock and I tasted the Pinot at seven o'clock. The reds are all stylistically "tight" and need time to open up. Apparently 24 hours was a good amount of time for some of them.

By the way, we decanted "Study" at five o'clock anticipating the time element and it was luscious.

This paragraph is now being written 24 hours after pulling the corks last night and as luck would have it a customer asked to taste the wines. "Study" and the Pinot were consumed last night (burp) but the Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet all are showing better now than last night. The Syrah and Merlot actually taste like I remembered them from one week prior. These wines are very good in a fleshy/gamey sort of way once they have been open long enough.

The two whites were also quite tasty with the Pinot Gris being a showstopper with its long winey oily flavors. The Chardonnay was just fine with no flaws and may have just been overshadowed by its spectacular predecessor or maybe it was just Chardonnnay fatigue among the tasters.

For another look at the subject of winetasting go to the August 6th blog.

Friday October 7th we will be tasting some combination of French and California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs with a couple other types thrown into the mix. Please join us here at the store. Cite this blog and get 10% off your purchase that night.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wine Tastings

Last night we had a more or less typical wine tasting here at the store. The most popular white wine of the evening was Alta Luna Pinot Grigio, a restaurant offering from the giant co-op, Cavit of Trentino, Italy. The most popular red was Auka Argentine Syrah, a decent example of type at the popular $9.99 price point. Both wines tripled the sales of their nearest competitor on the table.

Why was this typical? The short answer is, "I don't know...it just is." Last week it was Don Ramon Spanish Red Blend. The previous week it was Lovatti Val Sorda Italian Red. The week before that it was Sicoris Spanish Red. Is there a common thread at work here?

Price is a reality at work here. All of the above wines are in the $10-15 range. Last night the Gascon Reserve Malbec did well at an over $20 tag and the week before both California Cabs over $20 sold well also. I think if I was a mathematician I could create a formula for predicting sales of wines at a tasting based on price. But I digress...and I'm most certainly not a mathematician. I cut cheese for a living.

What about the fact that our Pinot Grigio winner last night was from the giant wine conglomerate, Cavit. That certainly indicates sales predictability through market surveys and the fact it was a "restaurant only" item where mass exposure is guaranteed before it is offered to retailers means this wine is intended to be mass marketed ultimately. Its poll-tested, right?

Well, yes but. Certainly Sicoris and Lovatti from weeks past weren't mass marketed and Auka Syrah is a minor player. They were all just very good wines at popular prices. Maybe that's it. The mathematical equation is individual and it comes down to "bang for your buck" value. I can live with that.

You didn't ask but the worst tasting we ever had here was a Pinot Noir tasting where all of the wines were ordinary and actually all tasted the same and everyone who came was a cabernet lover. I wanted to dissolve into the wallpaper. The worst wine tasting I ever attended was held at a major hotel banquet room in Atlanta by Diageo, one of the world's largest players. Every table lining the room was manned by the equivalent of a carney barker hawking whatever wine was on the table before him. The wines were all fine, as in decent product suitable for most any purposes. What wasn't fine was that while the wines were different varietals from five different continents, they all tasted remarkably the same!

I guess having a clear winner, some also-rans, and a stinker or two here ain't so bad.

Put this on your calendar. Tuesday evening from 5-7pm, Rene Bosque of RMB Associates will be here at the store tasting out the wines of Waterstone of Napa Valley California. In recent weeks we have tasted a half dozen similarly priced California varietals here. These are better. All will be "best of show" quality. Be here most definitely for this one.