“The best wine is that which tastes good to thine own palette.”  … Pliny the Elder.

Respecting that all palates are personal, I don’t have wine “rules,” though I admit to having “preferences”.  One of them is to generally avoid domestically produced red wines priced under $15. (And yes, there are some exceptions.  And good whites are available under $15, but those again are whites. And bargains can be found in “old world” red wines). That aside, and with my personal preference stated, when I saw this bottle of (2014) “Angel’s Landing Napa” Cabernet Sauvignon for sale retailing at $11.99, I was cautious.  With Napa Cabernet Sauvignon grapes averaging $5,930 per ton in 2014, one should be cautious approaching a bottle priced at $12.

Angel’s Landing is “vinted and bottled” by Great Domains & Estates, neither name being attached to a vineyard.  “Vinted and bottled” is not the same as “Estate bottled.” Then again, there are several well-known wineries that source their grapes, have legions of passionate admirers, and consistently are awarded high ratings. (It does behoove one to keep an open mind).  But “Vinted and bottled” is also not the same as “Produced and bottled by.” Nor is it the same as “Made and bottled by.”  Depending on how one understands the term, it may mean that as little as 10% of the wine was fermented at the winery, or even that the name on the label is not connected to the production of the wine in any way.   

Angel’s Landing is a label represented by the Mendocino Wine Company which represents many brands.  Call it “grey” or “white” labeling, I’ll even concede in advance that the issue essentially comes down to what’s inside the bottle. Yet with such “white labeling”, it’s difficult to learn about that.  And for those who want to confirm why their senses are telling them what they think they are, it’s this lack of transparency that is troubling.  One cannot get the tech specs.  Is the wine blended with other varieties?  (Wines labeled a varietal in the U.S. may contain up to 25% other grapes). What’s the residual sugar?  How was the wine made?  Who actually made it? How much oak, what type, how long was it aged?   Most wines so labeled don’t have web sites and seldom are professionally reviewed.  Information develops knowledge and appreciation and – most important - understanding.  And for some of us, that’s essential to a good experience.   

In this case, the fruit is indeed Napa, mostly from the Yountville area vineyards known for Chateau Montelena.  In fact, Grgich Hills‘ Mike Grgich (formally of Chateau Montelena) was responsible for bringing Chateau Montelena to the world’s stage in the Paris Wine trials of 1976.  Dominus, Domaine Chandon, Charles Krug and others also are in Yountville. Its pedigree is established.   But appellation alone does not guarantee anything other than locale. And Yountville is not identified on the label.  …………….. And the back label refers only to “Napa County.”

So regarding Angel’s Landing, I think I need to respect Pliny the Elder’s foresight.  The wine is deep purple in the glass. The nose, for me, is all blackberry jam with some crème de cassis and a hint of black licorice.  The mouthfeel is liquid silk. While Cabernet Sauvignon is noted for tannins, I found them so rounded, with almost no grip, that I resented not being able to access more information. The palate revealed a reduction of blackberry sauce with blackberry preserves dominating the back taste. Upfront was some Christmas spice.  A note of green pepper is common in Cabernet Sauvignon, but I often miss that as I did again with Angels Landing. Others report sage and iodine (I did not). Another described the wine as masculine.  Though not comfortable today with such terms, I’d describe it as more feminine because I found the wine somewhat sweet and, as I said, the tannins were so soft as to be almost nonexistent.

For the price, I’d have to say this Cab offers value if you’re looking for an easy drinking red wine that’s likely to be a crowd pleaser.  I later discovered its ARP is actually $22 (the price of $11.99 having been a “close out” sale price).  For my palate, I found the wine somewhat sweet. But for those finding Cabernet Sauvignon generally too tannic, too dry, this could be the bottle they’ve been waiting for.

……………. Jim 

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“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” …… Audre Lorde

Achaval-Ferrer doesn’t seem particularly Irish, but it certainly helped me elevate my St. Patrick’s Day meal of asparagus soup (it’s green - such is expected) and the not-so-really Irish Corned Beef & Cabbage traditional plate with the aid of their (2012) “Quimera” Bordeaux Blend from Mendoza Argentina. It’s 24% Cabernet Franc, 16% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot and 50% Malbec. Each of these grapes is allowed in Bordeaux blends, though seldom are all used. And while France is the original home of Malbec, Argentina has since become the area of choice among consumers worldwide. 

I enjoy both styles, but there’s no denying the finished wines are different.  Think Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, or Syrah and Shiraz.  Same grapes, but different wines.  Malbec from France (sometimes called Cot or Auxxerois there) generally has more structure and firmer tannins. Within the terroir of Argentina however, the grape yields a wine that is softer, more velvety and fruit forward.  Quimera is a Bordeaux blend for those with a bent toward “new world” character, but who still appreciate “old world” essence.  The wine offers a slightly fruit forward profile but without being jammy. It also accomplishes this without being aggressively dry or tannic.  A nice and balanced mid-point.

Deep purple in the glass, the nose offers cassis, green pepper (from the Cabernet Sauvignon), and notes of mixed dark berries in bitter chocolate. Silky in the mouth, but with just enough grip to be pleasant, the wine offers a hint of rosemary with layers of blue and blackberry with some black pepper spice and red cherry that announces itself as you slurp air through the wine. I’ve tasted and written about Achaval Ferrer wines before and remain impressed throughout their line. From entry to top label, Achaval Ferrer produces value at each price point, making wines that can be enjoyed for special occasions or everyday enjoyment. A 2012 ”Finca Altamira” (my favorite) is a single-vineyard Malbec by Achaval Ferrer and retails for about $115.  But they also produce a 2015 Malbec (rated 91 points by Robert Parker) and available retail for just $24.99.

Check out the photo of the bottle’s back label.  Any winery that provides such detailed information on the back label, instead of marketing foo-foo, is obviously very dedicated and proud of what they put inside the bottle.  The Cabernet Franc and Merlot are from their vineyards in Tupungato at an elevation of 3445 - 3600 feet.  Cabernet Sauvignon (old vine) is from the Medano vineyards (2400 – 2625 feet) and the Malbec and Petit Verdot from Medrano and the Lujan de Cuyo (3150 – 3400 feet).  Good sun but with cooling breezes and occasional cloud cover allow for slowly ripening fruit with delicious ratios of acid to sugar.  Malbec, in particular, can produce a wine that is flabby and under structured when vines are given too much sun.    

Grapes were hand harvested from March 7 to March 21, 2012 and yields were restricted to 1.3 tons per acre.  Put in terms that we can all appreciate, it takes two vines to produce enough juice for one bottle of Quimera.  In a nod to “old world” winemaking, Quimera is fermented in cement tanks (with pump overs for maximum extraction).  Aging is 12 months with 60% in one year French oak and the balance in new French barrel.

Quimerais $34.99.  It earned 92 points from Wine Spectator, 90 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Vinous, and 17.5 (out of 20) from Decanter.  It’s always reassuring to know that one’s impression is shared by others considered experts in the field.  But for me, the decision was easy. One taste and I recognized that this was a classy but classic Bordeaux.


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ALC:                             14.5%
pH:                                  3.7
(Total) Acidity:               6.71 g/L
Brix at Harvest                        25
Vine Training:             Vertical shoot positioning, 1.7 – 1.8 meters high (5.57 – 5.9 feet)
Winemakers:               Santiago Achaval; and Roberto Cipresso
Production:                  7,212 cases

The wine is ageable but enjoyable now and is not fined or filtered.  It is recommended you decant the wine one hour prior to se


“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” ….. Benjamin Franklin

I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to best use Ben’s quote and found it in the wines of Sardinia. More specifically, in the wines of wine giant Sella and Mosca located on the northwest coast of the island in the province of Alghero and near the town of the 
same name. The island (Sardinia) is about 125 miles off the coast of Italy at its nearest point. Historically, it was ruled by Cathage before being governed by ancient Rome and subsequently the Byzantines, Arabs and Catalans. Historically, culturally, geographically for sure --- and even linguistically --- Sardinia maintains a somewhat separate identity from Italy, despite it being both governed and subsidized on occasion by Italy. It has ancient grapes, but viticulture has never been its’ principal focus. Conditions for grape growing, in certain areas, are certainly excellent.  But the island has a tradition of grazing sheep and agriculture has been its preoccupation.

The island’s history of winemaking, while going back centuries, involved mostly the production of sweet wines (two fortified) and the production of wine to be shipped to Italy and used in blending Chianti.  Locals were quite happy with the quality of wine locally produced; so much in fact that little was exported.  Even today, many of their dry and sweet liquoroso wines, their Moscatos, Malvasias and Vernaccia di Oristano are unavailable here. While DOCs were eventually established, little was seriously done even then to match varietals to their best terroirs.  In fact, two of the island’s most popular varietals have been extended to include the entire island. And even within established DOCs, yields are allowed to be generous and many producers simply opt for labeling their wines IGT, thus eliminating the bureaucratic hoop jumping that DOC status doesn’t seem to confer on the world’s stage for wines of this area anyway.  Be honest, when you’re thinking Italian wine, how often do you think – to look specifically – for Sardinia?

Tasting 3 Cabs Against
Strachetti Skirt Steak
But everywhere, in every time and circumstance, there have always been people with a belief in the long-term benefit of their thought. In the noble study of viticulture and viniculture, my palate (and that of others much better recognized) has recognized Sella and Mosca as one such group not just having vision, but having success in achieving it.  Sella and Mosca celebrated its centennial in 1999 so they’ve been at it for a while. Long enough to know the island’s terroirs and what grapes best grow where. They make premium wines from estate grown grapes including both native and international varieties. And when I think of indigenous varieties, that’s what makes, for me, Franklin’s comment so appropriate. Were it not so, how else could you explain the countless varieties of grapes growing naturally across the globe that if left even unworked would become fermented on their own?

I was able to taste several of the wines of Sella and Mosca recently. Several impressed me. Some left me in awe. Here are my picks:

Terre Bianche Torbato di Alghero DOC 2014. SRP $20.99. 100% Torbato (white wine, NW Coast). Stainless fermentation twenty days, 30% of the juice aged four months in 2 and 3 year old oak. A most unusual nose. Reminded me of a “Dreamsicle”. Some sour lemon and dust that recedes with air to allow orange and pear to come forward.  Vines from soil that is heavily comprised from millennia of marine deposits and rich in chalk on the island’s coast.  Crisp on the palate, mineral driven with white floral notes and citrus, pear and apple. This is a complex and unusual taste experience finishing also with some salinity. Sella and Mosca committed to this indigenous grape of Sardinia and theirs is the only 100% Torbato wine commercially available. The grape is believed, by some, to have been brought to Sardinia from Spain when the island was part of the Aragon kingdom, but no scientific evidence yet exists to establish that.  Either way, in an interesting twist of history, the grape was widely cultivated in Roussillon (where it was known as Tourbat) but was almost abandoned until healthy plant material was imported in the 1980s from --------- Sardinia!

Terre Rare Carignano del Suicis DOC 2012. SRP $14.99. (100% Carignano from the SW Sardinian coast). Manually harvested grapes of bush trained old vines grown in sandy soil. Fermented in stainless for 10 – 15 days. Malolactic fermentation after alcoholic fermentation, then aged three years in French barriques with additional bottle aging.  Silky on the palate. A rich and deep wine that lightens as fruit develops. Nose offers dried herbs and cocoa powder with cocoa on the end palate with red cherry and plum in a long finish accented by white pepper.  A lot of wine for a little money. Awarded 92 points by Wine Enthusiast and ranked #1 “Best Buy” of 2015. Interesting note: vines are still grown here on their original root stock. Known as Carignan elsewhere.

Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva DOC 2012. SRP $16.99. 100% Cannonau. (Island appellation. Sardegna is Italian for Sardenia). Stainless fermentation 15 days. Aged 2 years in large Slovenian oak barrels with several months additional bottle aging.  An unbelievable value at this price and tasting much higher than the suggested retail price. Aromatics so balanced, they’re hard to differentiate, but very pleasing overall. Lots of red fruit – cherry and plum – on the palate. Ripe strawberry with a note of violet. Full, round and a generally pleasing taste profile in a medium bodied wine that is a crowd pleaser, but pleasing to the wine geek also. As with Torbato, there are some who believe this grape also has its roots in Spain where it is known as Garnacha, but – as with Torbato – this is unproven. Regardless, rather than let the varietal’s name confuse you, it’s good to know it also perhaps by the better associated name. Locally, Cannonau seems to be considered an elixir for long life.  In the region where it is most cultivated, there is an unusually high percentage of centenarians. Having tasted this wine, I’m willing to accept that the clean air, healthy food and lifestyle of natural exercise has nothing to do with it.

Marchese di Villamarina Alghero DOC 2010. SRP $64.99. Stop everything!  100% Cabernet Sauvignon….. from Sardinia?  Yes, I know, and so do you, about this varietal being used in Super Tuscans, but Sardinia? Well, yes. And this label (Marchese di Villamarina) is well esteemed worldwide among knowledgeable aficionados of well-made wine with a bent toward Cabernet Sauvignon.  Produced only in the top vintages, the 2010 was elegant with floral notes. Fermented for 2 weeks in stainless -preserving fruit - it then matures 18 months in small French oak casks, followed by another year in large neutral barrels followed by still another 18 months in bottle. Notes of cedar wood, black currant and leather intertwined with dark fruit in a polished and elegant wine. The 2009 Marchese di Villamarina Alghero DOC was deeper and with more balsamic in the nose. The 1999 Marchese di Villamarina Alghero DOC was simply the finest Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted in memory. Jim Croce sang about “Time in the Bottle” and this 1999 with its ripe but not jammy fruit could just as well have inspired him.  Simply unbelievable! More tobacco and leather with red and black fruit. Soft and balanced.

The Wine Mizer Sharing a Laugh with
Giovanni Pinna (L), Cellar Manager
of Sella & Mosca
I found it interesting, happily so, that there was little price differentiation in the Marchese di Villamarina Alghero DOC vintages. But without knowing the storage conditions of a retailer, it’s always best to be cautious when buying older wines.  Across the board, I was impressed too with prices for these wines.  I’ve enjoyed Cabernet Sauvignons from many areas and from premier producers across the globe. I found Sella and Mosca’s very competitive in quality while being priced more budget friendly.  Many of the vines in their Alghero vineyards exceed 50 years of age. Cabernet Sauvignon arrived in Sardinia in the late 1880s when Sella and Mosca started its nursery business producing rooted vine cuttings to rebuild the vineyards of Europe destroyed by phylloxera.  As I said, they have history. The winery itself has been awarded Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri (three glasses) award, Italy’s highest honor, for 12 of the last 15 vintages. Wines honored with a Tre Bicchieri award are generally recognized in Italy and internationally as Italy’s best.  

So lift a glass and make a toast to Ben. And if you happen to fill it with Sella& Mosca’s Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva DOC, you could be adding years to your life.

………………… Jim

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“People like wine with bubbles. It makes the wine come alive.” …. Rick Anderson

Sparkling wine is a large and generic classification of wine that includes wines made from different mandated grapes and in different methods.  So Cremant which is not Champagne is sparkling wine.  So too is Cava and Sekt, as is also sparkling wine whether labeled methode traditionalle or Charmat or Metodo Classico or methode ancestrale.  And there’s more, but what all sparkling wines have in common is a significant amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in the wine until opened, the carbon dioxide then producing fizziness.

Even narrowing it down to just Prosecco is not a “final answer” because that area too has been further delineated. Named a DOC in 1969, the Coneglano Valdobbiadene (KOH-neh-L’YEE’AH-noh, VAHL-dohb-BEE’AH-deh-ne) was promoted to a DOCG in 2009 in the province of Treviso in Veneto (about 30 miles north of Venice in northeastern Italy). It is one of two DOGC areas of production for Prosecco, the other being the smaller Asolo DOGC near the town of Asolo.  The first written reference to Prosecco dates back to 1772. Prosecco has history. And demand for sparkling wines has been growing rapidly in the United States with Prosecco driving the demand. Global sales have been increasing by double-digit percentages since 1998.  It helps, then, to know these classifications and their differences.

Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG represents 
Italy’s highest quality in the Prosecco category. In a move to simplify things, producers from Valdobbiadene have recently tended to skip the mention of “Coneglano” on their front label calling their wine more simply “Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore.”  Be assured, it’s the same thing. Prosecco Superiore DOCG comprises 15 hillside towns with numerous small vineyards and takes in 183 wineries. Most Prosecco wine produced will not be identified as Superiore. The Coneglano Valdobbiadene is a smaller area within the expanded “Prosecco Zone” and there vines are grown not on low-lying plains covering the 20,000 hectares (about 49,421 acres) of the expanded zone, but are grown in the smaller and steep hillside area totaling only 6,586 hectares (16,274 acres).  There are other requirements too, regarding “bars of pressure.”  But let me just say that I’ve tasted both wines (Superiore and not) and while both were delicious, you will be able to appreciate the difference on your palate.

It is this area (the DOCG) , after all, that is home to Prosecco; its birthplace. The region benefits from (mostly) stony soils, cooling Adriatic breezes and a moderate climate. The key distinction then is not the grapes used (Glera), but where the grapes are grown. So popular was this Prosecco touristy lubricant that, in 2008, the production area was enlarged to encompass other provinces. The name of the grape was changed to “Glera” (its ancient name) and in 2009, Italy registered “Prosecco” as a protected denomination of origin, barring any other region or country from using the “Prosecco” name.  Coneglano Valdobbiadene situated in the hills between the two towns of Coneglano and Valdobbiadene is the classic zone for Prosecco and thus was elevated to DOGC.  So “Prosecco,” like “Champagne,” is now a protected name.

So yes, there is a difference.  The sunny slopes have a unique micro climate that benefits grape ripening. The high altitudes assure freshness even in the hottest vintages. Constant breezes keep the vines healthy and it is in this environment that many vines are very old, making for concentrated fruit. And to make it even better identified, a system of crus has been introduced into the Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOGC known as Rive. This acknowledgement recognizes the different terroirs of the 43 communes throughout the DOGC.  The name of the Rive is allowed to appear on the label provided yield is below 13 tonnes per hectare (.446 per acre).  Those from the Cru of Cartizze on the steep hills of San Pietro di Barbozza, Santo Stefano and Saccol in the commune of Valdobbiadene, for example, are highly prized. While this, and yes there is more, may seem exhaustive, if you’re familiar with France’s AOC regulations, you should already appreciate the similarity.

Vineyards on the hilly area requires hand picking. Even vine pruning cannot be mechanized because the steep incline cannot be accessed by machine.  But hand harvesting assures better selection. And the steep incline of these hills, with their southern exposure, also assures good water drainage during abundant spring and summer rains.

Prosecco can be Brut (RS of 0-12 g/l), Extra Dry (12-17 g/l) or Dry (17-31g/l) with Brut now being most popular. And it can be Spumante (meaning sparkling) or Frizzante (meaning fizzy) or Tranquillo (meaning still). Spumante may be sub-classified also as Brut, Extra Dry or Dry. And Superiore refers only to Spumante. There are even vintage Proseccos, though it’s unlikely you will find them here. But all Prosecco must be made with a minimum of 85% native Glera grape. 15% may come from indigenous Verdiso, Bianchetta, Perera or Glera Lunga or the international varietals of Chardonnay or Pinot (Bianco, Grigio or Nero).

Unlike Champagne, Prosecco is usually produced using the Charmat method. Usually. There is a “Col Fondo” which is re-fermented in the bottle, but not disgorged, leaving the wine on its lees (like “pet nat”). But, as a rule, Prosecco’s second fermentation is in tank. Yes, it is a less expensive method. And no, it is NOT an inferior technique. In fact, it’s ingenious - for this grape of this terroir. Prosecco is all about freshness, about the fruit.  If you’re committed to a sparkling wine that has pronounced autolytic character, perhaps stick to Champagne (or try a Rive or Col Fondo Prosecco. But for me, there is nothing better than boating on calm water under blue skies with a snack of chilled but previously grilled shrimp, crudité and a glass of Prosecco.  It’s a celebration of freshness and joyous carefree days.

Writing a blog for an international audience is difficult. For some (hopefully not too many) this has gone into too much detail while others will ask why I’ve left so much out.  Let me simplify:  All things green are not grass. All things Prosecco are not DOCG. Look for the DOCG strip on the bottle. It will appear on the neck. Look for the name Conegliano and/or Valdobbiadene. Then look for the term “Superiore” after Prosecco.
Getting ready to taste several wines

Recently, I tasted several wines from this DOCG.  One absolutely blew me away. 100% Glera, it was Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG Brut Rive de Collato 2015 from Borgoluce from vines grown on glacial soil of marl and sandstone. Delicate and elegant. Seashell on the nose, hints of wisteria and acacia. A little autolytic.   Others I tasted offered notes of wet sand, peach, almond, lemon grass and aromas of oyster shell, with clean acidic finishes, or sweet to dry with floral notes, from sour to bright and zesty. But whatever the wine, there was a sense of place to these sparkling wines. A uniqueness my palate understood as excellent…. as “best of class.”  Even better: I understand the latest vintage is expected to be just as good.

…………… Jim

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“Wine is like many of the fine experiences in life which take time and experience to extract their full pleasure and meaning.”    ― Douglas Preston, Crimson Shore

Quick. Don’t blink. Name a wine grape associated with Sicily.  If you said Nero d’Avola, we should share a glass sometime because that has typically been the grape of my thought as well when thinking of Sicilian red wine, and why not?  Wine made from this grape offers deep color, satisfying body and sweet-cherry fruit contrasted with some earthiness, a quality of tartness and generous tannins. And we’re not the only ones to so enjoy it. In Sicily, it’s their most consumed and planted red varietal.  What could possibly be wrong?

Well, unless you’re from Sicily or have traveled extensively throughout the island, you may be unaware that many people refer to Sicily (in wine terms) as being a “continent” instead of an island.  It is Italy’s largest region, 1000 square miles larger than Tuscany.  It’s super productive, being surpassed only by Veneto. And in terroir and terrain, it’s extremely varied.  Mount Etna offers elevation and, of course, volcanic soil and congealed magma in an alpine climate. Near the coast, sea breezes cool the area which inland can be boiling hot warmed by winds from Africa, though at higher elevations diurnal differences are helpful cooling grapes grown at high altitude.      

So what could possibly be wrong?  Sicily’s rich history of viticulture, the popularity of Nero d’Avola there, the influx of Sicilian immigrants to the U.S. and the wine’s eminent compatibility with red sauced dishes (themselves popularized and accepted here) made the wine popular in the U.S.  And with Nero d’Avola being Sicily’s most planted grape throughout many differing terroirs, emphasis turned to volume over quality in order to meet demand.  Unlike the large D.O. areas of Spain (Rioja for example), and the well-known region of Bordeaux, Sicily’s DOCs are not uber recognized. Nero d”Avola became Nero d’Avola from wherever in Sicily.  Blend that reality with the emphasis on quantity over quality and you have a situation similar to that of other varietals that waxed and waned.

The turning point came in the late 1980s when Planeta and Regeleali wineries chose to become innovators by matching local soil types to both native Sicilian wine varietals and international grapes. Planeta now has wineries throughout different areas in Sicily so as to take full advantage of being able to vinify grapes soon after being picked from the best terroirs. I had an opportunity to meet with Alessio Planeta, chief winemaker of Planeta and taste several of his wines.  In that experience, I enjoyed tasting another indigenous Sicilian grape, as old as winemaking history, and yet new to me. It’s impact upon Nero d’Avola when blended was amazing, as it was when vinified alone.  Here are my takes on the tasting.

Frappato, DOC Vittoria 2015. SRP $22.00. From Planeta’s 
Wines at the ready for tasting
Dorilli Winery in the Vittoria DOC (mid-point between SE and S-central Sicily on the coast) where it grows best in Vittoria’s flat, red sandy soil. Cherry and strawberry on the nose. Reminded me of a young Gamay, though less rustic.  Could serve slightly chilled. Silky texture.  Light tannins. Tart notes that recede and then reappear on the palate make this wine fun and easy drinking. Fresh and floral with aromatics of rose and citrus. Some balsamic on the palate. Nice acidity makes it food friendly.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2014.  
You may, as I did, find
various vintages at your local
SRP $24.00.  The only DOCG in Sicily and where Planeta houses their Dorilli winery in the heart of the production area near the Dorilli River.  60% Nero d’Avola and 40% Frappato, The Nero d’Avola darkens the blend and aroma and adds body. Nose of light cherry. Medium bodied. Black cherries and strawberries from the Frappato.

Dorilli Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG 2014.  SRP 33.00.  Same varietals. Same vintage. Same winery in the same area. But this wine is from selected vines and the blend changes to 70% Nero d’Avola and only 30% Frappato. Grapes undergo 21 days maceration (instead of 14) on the skins.  More focused, somewhat dressier and more complex. The nose incorporates cocoa overlaid above the red cherry, strawberry – emphasis on the cherry. Cerasuolo means “cherry like,” after all. Cerasuolo di Vittoria had been a DOC since 1973 but was promoted to DOGC in 2005 acknowledging that these wines were indeed a showcase for Sicily. Planeta has consistently demonstrated the potential quality of this wine style, from vines grown in red, sandy and limestone soil as opposed to others in this large delineated area composed mostly of clay. 

Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG 2007. SRP $24.00.  60% Nero d’Avola, 40% Frappato – as in the 2014. These blends are ageable and tasting this bottle demonstrated that fact. Earthy and figgy on the nose, then fading to allow the fruit on the palate to come forward: red berries, strawberry, a hint of ginger. Complex for a wine at this price point.

Wines tabled for re-tasting. Always
a good idea,
Nocera Sicilia DOC 2015. (To be available soon). Another indigenous grape, Nocera grows only in Sicily’s northern (Messina) area. The grape can be very sweet when ripe without dropping acid, making it ideal for growing in areas of scorching heat.  Thanks to its thick-skinned berries, it has prominent tannins and can make ageable, structured wines with some weight.  This sampling was 100% Nocera, 100% different and 100% enjoyable. Medium bodied, dark fruit flavors, leather and spice. Intense aroma of black cherry with some kirsch.  Tannins well managed. Planeta hand harvests and then further selects grapes at sorting tables in the winery.

Nero d’Avola Nocera Sicilia DOC 2014.  SRP $26.00.  The Nero d’Avola adds cherry and complexity to the blend which matures 4 months in third and fourth use barrique.  Starting out ripe and rounded, it builds some grip.  From the La Baronia Winery  on Capo Milazzo.   
We moved on to tasting unblended Nero d’Avola DOC starting with the 2012 and moving back through 2011 and 2010. All are produced in Planeta’s Bounivini Winery in Noto (southeastern Sicily).  All are 100% Nero d’Avola, but there are minor differences in both maceration and maturation, so they are noted.  

Noto Nero d’Avola DOC 2012.  SRP $26.00.  Aroma of chocolate covered plums. Faint earth that recedes into red fruit that carries into taste. Slight volatile acidity, but not obstructive. 24 days maceration on the skins/aging 10 months in second and third use oak.

Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2011. SRP $45.00.  As above, but more earthy on the nose. Some volatile acidity, but not obstructive. 21 days maturation, 14 months aging using second and third use oak.

Santa Cecilia Noto DOC 2010. SRP $45.00. Grab it, grab
Alessio Planeta (L) and the Wine Mizer
several if you can find it. Seamless fruit integration with subtle and balanced aromatics. No volatile acidity. This is polished wine from a very good vintage from a very good winery working with a classic grape. Everything you’ve already read here and elsewhere about Nero d’Avola but on a higher level.
We finished tasting over lunch with a vertical tasting of Planeta’s Santa Cecilia Nero d’Avola. This label (Santa Cecilia) is what to look for if you want to know what Nero d’Avola is capable of achieving at bargain price points. The vintages tasted were:

2011: A youngster: still bright with plum, berries, wild strawberry, citrus and a note of carob. Balanced and elegant with a rounded finish. 94 points Wine Enthusiast, 90 Wine Spectator. With an ARP of $24.

2007:  A little earthy and herby with garigue, ripe blackberry, plum and dark cherry. Wine Enthusiast 92 points. ARP about $31.

2005:  Wild cherries and red berries, plump but balanced with seamless  fruit. Restrained and elegant with contrasting herb notes, expresso and dark chocolate. 91 points Wine Enthusiast. ARP $39 – if you can find it. Worth the hunt.

Conditions in Sicily are so favorable to viticulture, so long as respect is given to matching local conditions to the specific varietal, that “almost organic” farming is assured. Planeta, a leader in doing this has also been active in working with the “SOStain” project that certifies sustainable winegrowing, and in working with the Italian Ministry of the Environment to study ways of reducing water usage and wineries’ carbon footprints.  

None of this, though laudable and important, does anything toward helping consumers become more familiar with Sicily’s DOCs.  Keeping current in the changing world of wine (Spain is even now considering changes to their system of delineated designations) can be a time consuming effort.  A simple approach, at least regarding Nero d’Avola as a varietal or in a blend could be as simple as looking for the word Planeta on the label.

………………. Jim

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“Grapes are the most noble and challenging of fruits.”
Malcolm Dunn, Head Gardener to the 7th Viscount Powerscourt, c 1867       

Called Cot in much of western France including the Loire Valley, and known as Auxerrois in Cahors (southwestern France and the spiritual home of Malbec), it was known as Pressac in the Libournais (near Saint-Émilion and Pomerol) and widely used as a blending grape in Bordeaux.  But it was Argentina that brought this grape forefront to the world’s stage so that it is now universally known as Malbec. It is Argentina’s most widely planted black grape taking up more than 76,500 acres across the country, about 70% of which is planted within the province of Mendoza.

But Mendoza is a huge province, with elevations ranging topside at 22,831 feet down to the semi-flat lands of the east. Lowlands have very hot summers and warm nights in the north with evenings being cooler in the south.  Diurnal swings can be as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas of Mendoza.  Proximate rivers and their tributaries (there are several) affect growing conditions as does the vineyards’ altitude.  And although Malbec was brought to Argentina in 1868, it wasn’t until recently that producers matched grapes to local growing conditions.

Achaval-Ferrer and Alta Vista led in pioneering single vineyard Malbec; Malbec that displays a single vineyard’s unique typicity. In fact, such became the core philosophy, along with minimalist intervention, of Achaval-Ferrer production.  Emphasizing single-vineyard production within Mendoza is risky business. The province is known for hailstorms and entire crops can be lost in a day. A fearsome hot, dry wind (known as the “zondra”) while keeping vines dry and well aerated, is also capable of destroying crops upon flowering. For this reason, it is common in the province to produce unblended Malbec from several vineyards.

Bottles at the sampling table
Comparing two and making
Achaval-Ferrer, founded in 1998, has had multiple wines listed on Wine Spectator’s “TOP 100” list. It is Argentina’s first ever recipient of Decanter’s “5-Star Award” and for three consecutive years was Wine Enthusiast’s “Winery of the Year.” More important, to me at least, is the winery’s consistent history of high scores. Looking back ten years, no Malbec has been rated under 90, with most averaging in the mid-90s. What’s that quote again?  “The best predictor of what someone will do is what they have done.”?  Well, understandably, when I was invited to a tasting of Achaval-Ferrer wines, I eagerly accepted. Here’s the take on my favorites:

Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza Malbec 2014 (SRP $24.99). 100% Malbec sourced from vineyards throughout Mendoza. Robert Parker was impressed enough to award this wine 91 points, and I was impressed too. Careful vineyard management and low yields with very little intervention (more on this later) and selecting the best grapes results in a wine tasting higher than priced. My first impression? “Smooth.”  Tannins are wrapped in silk and glide across the palate with notes of black and red cherry, raspberry and violet.  The presentation of this wine is both aromatic and on the palate with delicious fruit that is balanced and not jammy. Rich mouthfeel but with enough minerality and acidity to leave a clean and long finish. If this is “entry level” no wonder Achaval-Ferrer is referred to as “Argentina’s 1st Growth.”

Achaval-Ferrer Finca Bella Vista 2011 (SRP $140).  Wine Enthusiast awarded it 92 points. I would have awarded more.  Suckling gave it a 98. Parker came in with 95 and Tanzer a 94. 100% single-vineyard (Perdriel) Malbec within the Lujan de Cuyo in the upper Mendoza valley at an elevation of 3,200 feet. This is Mendoza’s most traditional quality region. In fact, it is known locally (along with Maipu) as Primera Zona (first zone).  100 year old vines. This is one of two Achaval-Ferrer Malbecs you want to taste if you want to experience how wondrous Malbec is capable of being, or if you want to give a special gift to anyone who thinks they know Malbec.  Full-bodied and with a luscious mouthfeel, this wine is decadent in its depth.  The finish is voluptuous and long, preceded by seductive aromas of blackberry, licorice and violet that carry into the taste along with a note of graphite adding to some dust on the palate.  The aroma is subtly overlaid with a hint of mocha. Concentrated but elegant, it’s Malbec but at a different level.  There’s an interplay of minerality and acidity to fruit and freshness that is a joy to the palate and commands continued sips to understand. Dense and concentrated, yet smooth and silky and with freshness, there is a tension to this wine that mystifies and intrigues.

Achaval-Ferrer Finca Altamira 2012 (SRP $150).  Another single-vineyard wine (La Consulta) within the Valle de Uco (Uco Valley) of Mendoza. Valle de Uco is Argentina’s rising star. Cooler weather, very poor soils with good drainage and a continuous breeze make for healthy vines with low yields – those used for this wine being grown at an elevation of 3,444 feet. Old vines producing concentrated fruit, it was hard to accept, at first taste, that this was 100% Malbec.  Rich and medium ruby in the glass, the nose was more reserved than Bella Vista with notes of blackberry and black cherry. Its rich flavor of cassis had me question if this was a Bordeaux blend!  A seamless composition with feminine floral notes balanced against masculine expresso and a hint of leather contrasted against black plum fruit. Balsamic, licorice, dark chocolate. Complex, elegant, graceful.  I really didn’t know Malbec could be this good. Wine Advocate awarded it 98 points / 95 from Wine Spectator and a Wow factor from me that made tasting this wine a memory to last a lifetime.

The alluvial and sandy stony soil of Mendoza, the hot and dry wind of zonda blowing down from the west, protection and isolation created by the Andes and the lack of abundant rainfall (but with enough water from rivers to irrigate as needed) lend natural conditions to growing healthy vines. Pesticide and spraying for disease is little needed. So while Malbec may have been born in France, it found a home in Argentina. And America (Argentina’s top purchaser of the varietal) seems to prefer it. In fairness, the Malbec of Argentina may be a different clone from that of Cahors. It has smaller, tighter bunches and smaller berries.

But what you do – or don’t do - with the grape is important too. Achaval-Ferrer’s vines are ungrafted and old and grown at high elevation in excellent terroir.  Low yields produce concentrated and vibrant fruit from berries already smaller than their cousins in France.  Achaval-Ferrer uses no enzymes, adds no sugar (chaptalization) and no corrections are made by adding acid. There is no fining, no filtering. What there is, is New World fruit expressive of terroir and New World innovation but married respectfully to Old World acid-driven, elegant, structured and balanced wines that are so eager to be enjoyed with food.

Achaval-Ferrer makes several other wines. I sampled also a
Manuel Louzada (R) and the Wine
100% Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend  (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) labeled “Quimera” and suggestively priced at $24.99 and $34.99 respectively. Regarding Suggested Retail Price (SRP), let me mention that looking online for Bella Vista and Altamira, I noticed that prices varied significantly and lower than the SRP stated– nearer the $100 mark.

I sat next to Manuel Louzada, head of global winemaking for Achaval-Ferrer, and we talked awhile about his wines. I commented that I have enjoyed Malbec for some years more than the average age of persons in the room and that I found his wines particularly special; mysterious and seductive.  I light heartedly but sincerely mentioned that his wines were something like a beautiful woman appearing in lingerie instead of being nude.  There was a mystery to these wines.  Not everything was obvious. Well, I am an old man, and hopefully that didn’t come out too old and dirty. He laughed, and I think he understood.  In either event, I followed up with referring to him as “The Michelangelo of Malbec.”  I meant both those comments though you won’t find either being used in any wine study course.  As Malcolm Dunn said “Grapes are the most noble and challenging of fruits” and Manuel and his team at Achaval-Ferrer have indeed mastered the challenge. Perhaps that last comment says it best.

……………… Jim

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If you want to start an argument in the wine world – and believe me, it’s not hard to do – all you have to do is mention the word terroir.”  …. Eric Asimov

And so we continue with the issue of terroir.

I was enjoying a glass of Cabernet Franc when my imaginary friend stopped by.  Polite as I raised to be, I asked if he would like to have one too. He declined, saying Cabernet Franc was not his wine of choice. Too soft, too light, too thin he said. He preferred a wine of more structure and with more grip, like Cabernet Sauvignon. I found that interesting, because it was Cabernet Franc (along with Sauvignon Blanc) that gave birth to Cabernet Sauvignon, but never mind.  I didn’t mention it. I poured him a glass of wine away from the table and asked him to taste it. I didn’t disclose it was Cabernet Franc. 100% unblended, pure Cabernet Franc. Dark and foreboding in the glass.  Serious stuff. I’m not being facetious.  This wine is dense, silky, rich and deep.  But I had promises to keep.  I needed to finish this exercise in terroir.  If ever, there was a good opportunity to do so, this Cabernet Franc from Raats Family Vineyards would allow me to do so.

Raats Family Vineyards are in the Stellenbosch District, south-western South Africa, about 25 miles east of Cape Town.   The Atlantic Ocean is west, Walker Bay south. Although soil types vary within the district, and the district is divided into sub-regions (called wards), the overall climate is Mediterranean. Summers can be hot with abundant sunshine. Generalizations, however, are dangerous. Many producers vinify fruit from vineyards throughout the area. Further north, summers are just slightly warmer than Bordeaux. Prominent mountain ranges run throughout Stellenbosch, offering` a range of altitudes, aspects and soil. The mountains also help channel wind through the vineyards providing respite from the morning’s hot sun.

That Stellenbosch produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (Syrah) is an indication of the District’s overall warm conditions. That it also produces Chenin Blanc (called “Steen” locally) is an indication of the area’s diverse growing conditions.  But whether you compare the Chenin Blanc or the Cabernet Franc of South Africa to that of France’s Loire Valley, you’re certain to taste the difference.  Which style you prefer is not important (to me).  What is important is that you know of it and what contributes to each style’s uniqueness.

As with all wineries that come to mind, Raats offers several labels within the same varietal. Pictured here is their entry label (a 2011) retailing at $33.99. One sip and you know something different is going on in your glass. Viscous, dark fruit overlaid with a layer of dark chocolate. First impression: black cherry, lots of cassis, some dried herb.  This is somewhat like, more than a passing relationship to – Cabernet Sauvignon. Now you understand how Cabernet Franc was the parentage of Cabernet Sauvignon and where the latter inherited some of its characteristic from the former.   

All of Raats’ Cabernet Franc is grown within Stellenbosch, all of it upon the decomposed dolomite granite soil of mountain foothills.  Wine produced from these vines offer good acidity and minerality. The wine has body like a Cabernet Sauvignon and some grip, yet interestingly smooth tannins – a nice balancing act.  Black cherry and plum, a note of tobacco.  If this is Cabernet Franc (it is), it is unlike any other you have had (assuming you don’t regularly enjoy it already).  Whether this varietal grown under these conditions is better than, for example, the Cabernet Franc of California or Washington State or New York or France’s Loire Valley isn’t even the question. Tasting the differences is the answer.  The question is which style do you prefer?  However you answer, you’re right.

………………………. Jim

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Varietal:                      Cabernet Franc 100%
Soil:                             Decomposed dolomite granite
Age of Vines:               18 – 25 years (as of 2011 Harvest)
                                    Trellised, No Irrigation
Ageing Potential:        7 – 10 Years with good conditions
Vineyard blocks are hand-picked. Hand sorted three times in the cellar, crushed and cold-soaked on the skins for 5 days, basket pressed and allowed malolactic fermentation in steel. Aged 18 months in (25% new, 25 second, 25 third and 25% fourth) French Vicard and Mercury oak barrels. Not fined and not filtered.
ALC:                             14%
Acidity:                         6.0 g/l
Ph (at Harvest)              3.45

RATINGS:                   92 Robert Parker
                                     90 Wine Spectator
                                     90 Wine Enthusiast               


Bernard Baudry CHINON Les Granges 2015 Cabernet Franc

If you want to start an argument in the wine world – and believe me, it’s not hard to do – all you have to do is mention the word terroir.”  …. Eric Asimov

December 4 is Cabernet Franc Day.  I’m sure the fourth of December also marks occasions for myriad reasons to celebrate, purchase and make many enterprises more wealthy, but this being a wine blog, let’s just focus on Cabernet Franc today.  Let’s focus too on the reason for this blog: it is not necessarily to review my favorite wines or even favorite styles of wine. Sometimes that’s difficult for me to remember because we all have our preferences and, well… we tend to prefer what we prefer. But while my palate is trained, it is not universal.  You may find favor in wines I do not. So one way for me to respect that and still serve a purpose is to occasionally focus on terroir – the combined effects of climate, elevation, slope soil, exposure and other elements that make for a variety growing in one region resulting in different tasting wine of the same variety but grown in a different region.

In the U.S. where we label wines by their variety, that’s sometimes hard for some to appreciate.  But think of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa vs. Sonoma Valley or Washington State. Cooler climate makes for wine less fruit forward. Taste (side-by-side) similarly priced Cabernet Sauvignon of the same vintage but from these different regions and you’ll be tasting terroir.

Cabernet Franc is not regarded as a “noble” variety (defined as being widely planted in most of the major wine producing regions).  But Cabernet Franc, along with Sauvignon Blanc, is parent to Cabernet Sauvignon, which is considered “noble” (as is parent Sauvignon Blanc). Somehow, Cabernet Franc got left out. But where would the blends of Bordeaux be without it? Bordeaux, of course, is in France where Cabernet Franc is grown significantly in the Medoc, Graves and St-Emilion.  But it’s in the Loire Valley that Cabernet Franc can attain the ethereal qualities many aficionados desire.  And because terroir is so important in France, it’s not just anywhere in the Loire Valley. Cabernet Franc from the Loire is known under the labels Chinon, Bourgueil and St.-Nicholas-de-Bourgueil. Each of these is a small appellation within the larger appellation of Touraine. And the Touraine is one of four sub-regions within the Loire Valley. Get the idea?  The French are serious about terroir.

Naming wine as they (the French) do by a sub-appellation wherein the grapes are grown is one reason many Americans don’t associate Cabernet Franc with, for example, Chinon. That’s too bad, because as I said, coming from the Loire Valley it is an area for that grape that many oenophiles consider the best sourcing of that variety. Chinon also is the most readily available of the three.  You might think also that involved with all that French fussiness, Chinon would be expensive. It’s not.  This Bernard Baudry (2015) has an ARP (w/o tax or shipping) of $15 U.S. 

But before I get into this particular Chinon (Cabernet Franc) let me mention just a little about the area. Touraine is about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of the Atlantic Ocean; close enough to benefit somewhat from the moderating effects of the ocean and gain early warming spring temperatures and relief from summers of draught in the more continental climate to the east. But overall, the Loire exists on the lowest baseline of where such grapes can ripen.  More easily stated, it is a cool, northern climate. When the grapes get enough sunlight and warmth, wines produced are elegant in their finesse and subtlety.  In good years, wines of Chinon entice with raspberry, violet and briary spice, but in poor years they can be thin.  In good years, wines are fresh and crisp yet lightly layered in fruit; fragrant with light tannins and high acidity. Light, zesty and refreshing, they are appreciated precisely because they are not fleshy and full bodied.  But if the weather is too cool or rainy, grapes will not sufficiently ripen and the wine will be thin, even herbaceous and harsh. This can happen also if elevage (maturation, the time between fermentation and bottling is too short). But that is technique, not weather related.

Bernard Baudry is regarded world-wide for his wine making role in the Loire having rose to prominence making focused, textured Chinon. He started the winery in 1975 with just 2.5 hectares (6.18 acers). He developed this into a 25-hectare (61.8 acer) estate out of family parcels and purchased land. His son Matthieu, who has worked with him since 2000, is now the head winemaker. Matthiew had experience also in New Zealand and California. His style exemplifies fruit picked at perfect ripeness levels, vinfied using state of the art modern technology married to ancient tradition. Read that to mean modern, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks and cement tank aging.

The soil there is gravel and sandy. The wine is unblended, 100% Cabernet Franc. Vines, at 27 to 30 years old as of the 2015 vintage, are considered young. 
Vines are terraced along the riverbed benefiting from reflected sun and heat retained in the soil’s gravel. Baudry produces several labels of Chinon with “Les Granges” being the entry label. By intention, this is young, fresh wine, and I suppose you could accurately say it’s a “thirst quencher.” But using that term alone is insufficient.

This is a wine that rewards your attention to it and your effort to dissect its aromas of brandied tart cherry, violet and rose petal. In the glass: a mixture of tart cherry that develops smoky and dusty notes of violet, dark rose, earthy notes and dried herbs. This is “peoples’ wine,” but elevated tastefully to be a companion to roast chicken, charcuterie, grilled lamb, beef stew and simple foods and cheese.   

Domaine Baudry has operated organically for decades and since its inception has believed in minimal intervention both in the vineyard and the winery. In 2013, because of inquiries from consumers, the winery completed the process of becoming certified as organic. You may not be able to taste the difference in organic and non-organic wines, but this Master Gardner believes organic is a good choice when possible.  And he’s suggesting that, regardless of organic or not, you taste the terroirs of Cabernet Franc.  Join me on a short expedition that should resolve the argument Eric Asimov referred to. In a few days, I’ll post again about a Cabernet Franc from another country you may not associate with this varietal.  Different? You bet! Better? That’s for your palate to decide. And that’s the whole point of this exercise.

……………….. Jim
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