“The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love, like being enlivened with champagne.”  .... Samuel Johnson

It’s just my hunch, but I’m betting that we consume less “Champagne” per capita in the U.S. than most European countries. And here’s my second hunch: I’m also guessing that most of us first chill the “Champagne,” then open it right out of the fridge,  giggle at the pop of the cork and then most of us pour it into a glass and – while it’s still foaming – lift the glass and make a toast.  We view champagne as befitting special occasions. That’s what we've been told and what we have been sold. But I don’t think we much like it. Not really. And that’s too bad.

And here’s my last hunch: the reason we don’t like it is because of the chilling-popping-pouring-drinking scenario. Whether it’s Champagne, sparking wine, Cava or Cremant d’Alsace, bubbly is wine. And there are enough styles within that family of bubblies to make them much more enjoyable if we just treat them as such.

First, most bubblies are kept too cold. That’s OK. If it wasn't, your refrigerator would not be a safe place to store your food. But sparkling wine really is best appreciated at 45 (F) degrees, much warmer than your refrigerator setting.  So just take the wine out and let it sit a while. Second, open the bottle (aside from not using a corkscrew) as your would other fine wine – be it true Champagne, or a sparkling wine from any country made in the traditional method such as Crement d’ Alsace, or labeled as Metodo Classico from Italy. By that, I mean let it breathe a while.  Doing this will allow the aroma and flavors to develop. Use an appropriate glass (I prefer the flute) but then allow the wine to sit in the glass.  Enjoy the color.  Look at the bubbles (mousse), and allow them to settle a bit before consuming. The mousse provides a texture and that’s enjoyable. But all that aggressive fizzing when it’s first poured into the glass interferes with TASTING the wine.

Some time ago, I was invited to participate in tasting four sparkling wines from France’s Alsace region. Since Alsace is not within the boundaries of the region of Champagne, these bubblies cannot properly be labeled Champagne, so they are referred to as Cremant d’Alsace (roughly “sparkling wine of Alsace”).  Credit goes to France for practicing what they preach. And bargains go to everyone because these wines are traditionally made (twice fermented) and offer excellence in taste but also terrific value price wise.

The four Cremants I tasted were:
1.       Lucien Albrecht Cremant d’Alsace Blanc de Blanc Brut, imported by Pasternak Wine Imports
2.       Gustave Lorentz Cremant d’Alsace Brut, imported by Quintessential
3.       Dopff & Irion Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rose
4.       Charles Baur Cremant d’Alsce Brut Rose, imported by Grape News Importing

The first thing I noticed was that, for each wine, the corks removed easily and produced only a soft “pop” – a sign of quality.  Lucien Albrecht is a blend of 80% Pinot Auxerrois (a cross of Gouais Blanc & Pinot Noir), 10% Pinot Blanc and 10% Chardonnay. In the glass, it is beautiful and classic with its pale straw color.  The nose offers yeasty, fresh baked bread and is floral and elegant. The mousse (bubbles) are small – another sign of quality – and the mouthfeel is silky and glycerol.  There was taste of crisp apple and a hint of almond with honeydew melon in the back taste as the wine warmed. The finish was elegant, the mouthfeel creamy. I enjoyed immensely the wine’s toasty, autolytic character. O.K., full disclosure here: I’m a “sucker” for Blanc de Blancs, but at retail prices between $16 and $23, this sparkling wine tastes much higher than it is priced.

On to Gustave Lorentz.  The wine is a blend of 33% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Blanc and 33% Pinot Noir. As with the other Cremants d’Alsace, it is made according to the “Method Champenoise” (traditional method with the second fermentation in bottle). Aging is done “sur lattes” with daily bottle rotation in order for the yeast deposit to accumulate in the neck of the bottle for disgorgement. As with all “Methode Champenoise,” that’s a lot of work and one wonders how it can be retailed for a SRP of $25. But who am I to argue?  The wine offers a seductive floral nose and a chalky whisper of minerality. It presents a citrusy taste of lemon-lime which I hadn’t expected but enjoyed and a bright finish that softened somewhat yet remained crisp with citrus.

The color of Dopff & Irion was pale rose-amber and absolutely beautiful in the glass. Wisps of strawberry were present in the clean and very light nose of this 100% Pinot Noir wine. The mousse was exceptionally long lasting and brought tastes of faint strawberry and white chocolate to the palette. The finish offered candied strawberry and the mid palette was (for me) a touch sweet which would be a plus for those preferring something less austere than a Blanc de Blanc Brut.  Since that isn’t me, I swirled the wine (heretically, I know) in the glass and preferred the result of that toning down the perceived sweetness.

Charles Baur, also 100% Pinot Noir, it finished the tasting and although I lean to the Chardonnays, I found this wine captivating and was taken in by its layers of flavor. At an ARP of $18, I was also taken in by its thriftiness. The wine is a pale, muted pink in the glass. Though its floral noise is touted, I wasn’t able to appreciate it until the wine got some air. Fortunately, it was last in the tasting and as things progressed, that’s exactly what developed.  Its nose was enticing. I tasted tart rose petal and bitter orange and, as the wine aired even more, strawberry.  Layers of flavor indeed!  The taste sits on the mid palette and develop a long finish.  A great summertime party wine. 

 Cremant d’Alsace offers great quality and value and enough variety to suit most every taste.  They are wonderful with a variety of foods offering cleansing and crisp finishes as they do. If your experience with “sparkling wine” has been of the “popping-pouring-drinking” scenario, I’m not surprised you limit (if you do) that experience to celebrations. May I suggest you celebrate instead the joie de vin  (joy of wine)? Take your time; sip, savor and enjoy!

…………………. Jim
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“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.”   …. John Keats

When I became of legal age to buy wine in my home state, much of Western AND Eastern Europe had long since been making wine; almost since dirt had been invented. California was mostly agricultural, growing prunes, almonds, apricots and other products.  Prohibition had its negative consequence on many of the early Italy-to-California wine pioneers who abandoned their craft and turned to dairy farming and cheese making.  That changed with the judgment of Paris in 1976, but even so, distribution of fine California wine was limited to the point of being scarce in many areas of the U.S.

Drinking fine wine then meant French.  Italy, Spain and so many other countries were producing excellent table wine, but it was generally not being sent to the U.S. instead being consumed locally.  But France?  Yes, French wines were to be had and they were commonly available at even small neighborhood liquor stores.  French wine, blended so expertly and made in an “old world” style was both unique and a hallmark of fine wine.  And so it was “the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Best in that wondrous Premier Crus Bordeauxs of complexity and depth; stellar wines like Lafite-Rothschild and Mouton-Rothschild could be had for $20 and less.  One could vicariously explore the bounty of the Medoc, Graves, Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and Sauternes Barsac with just a budget conscious pocketbook and learn the differences terroir made before the word itself became jargon.

It was the worst of times because we all know what happened since. Once accustomed to what many consider still the best of wine, prices rose so dramatically that the price of a Premiere Cru exceeded that of middle-income mortgage payments.  Devoted and now accustomed to the art of French blending, the average consumer – scared away by prices announced in the media – now did without. There were some vintages so outstanding that excellent wine could still be had inexpensively.  And wine from Chateaus producing delicious Bordeaux Superieur in those years could still be enjoyed inexpensively, but these things took some knowledge beyond casual interest.  Once tasted, being denied can be cruel indeed.  And waiting five years for the next great vintage morphed into simply not waiting and, for many, going elsewhere.  It became the worst of times because that reference point, the knowledge base of what is left bank, what is right bank began to erode from the group consciousness.

The family of Barons de Rothschild has owned vineyards
in Bordeaux for five generations.  In addition to the wines issued from their world renowned vineyards, Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) has been elaborating a range of wines which are easy and pleasant to drink and are called “Reserves.”  I had the opportunity to taste this wine recently and found it not just enjoyable but capable of inducing hints   of wines enjoyed from those days past.  While made for more immediate drinking, the “Reserves” are made in a style similar to the Chateau wine and hint toward classic elegance and a respect for tradition.

Lafite Reserve Speciale is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) and Merlot (40%) from properties in the Pauillac appellation.  And the 2010 vintage for this area was rated a 90/100 by Wine Spectator. In the glass, the wine presents medium garnet and a nose of classic Bordeaux in a balancing act so appreciable in French wine:  hints of earth and dark fruit, faint scents of dried flowers. The wine is medium bodied.  Oak is present but not intrusive. Its fruit carries to the finish, but is well balanced so that the whole is better than its individual components (cinnamon, vanilla. mocha, blackberry, cedar, leather, forest).  Its tannins are smooth but build slightly in the back taste which made for an excellent and clean finish.   

While not the prestigious and famed wine of the Chateau, Lafite Reserve Speciale Pauillac 2010 benefits from the knowledge of the Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite) teams who take their skills to the task of making affordable wine with a respect for tradition. Rothschild Reserves offer this more casual drinking wine style also as “Reserve Medoc,” “Bordeaux Rouge,” and “Bordeaux Blanc.”  Each label offers the opportunity to appreciate the uniqueness of its area (terroir) and an opportunity to get some practical experience with the term “old world” style wine and, in that process, to learn why so many people who love wine love Bordeaux wine so much.

My price search revealed wildly different prices, so much than even a realistic ARP was difficult to establish. Ranging from less than $25 to a high of $55, I found it commonly available at $42. Shop carefully and enjoy two bottles.

……………………. Jim
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After de-stemming and crushing, the plots are vinified separately with fermentation and maceration between 3 to 4 weeks. The wine is aged (40% barrel) for 12 months and fined with egg whites.

Alc:                        13%
Residual Sugar  0.2 g/L
pH                          3.69 g/L
Acidity:                3.49 g/L
Bottled:               November 2011
Importer:            Pasternak Wine Imports

* 2010 sample provided by publicist for review.


“Great wine makes wonders and is itself one.”  … Edward Steinberg

I’ve been a fan of Kenwood for decades. The vineyard has a history of producing wine that offers an excellent ratio of price to quality. Whether it’s their white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc (about $11) or Pinot Gris (about ($16) that are multiple “Oyster Award” winners, or their entry label reds, their wines offer taste and value.  And like other “wineries within a winery,” Kenwood offers various label options in which both quality and price rise. They do this through various series called “Vintage”, “Sonoma”, “Reserve”, “Jack London” and “Artist”, the latter offering Cabernet Sauvignon only.

I recently tasted Kenwood’s 2010 “Artist Series” which is a blend of 96% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Merlot.  No Petit Verdot, no Cabernet Franc, this a wine for lovers of Cabernet Sauvignon. But it’s gotten so (for me) that I don’t know who that includes anymore.  All too often, I find many “new world” Cabernet Sauvignons somewhat one dimensional. Yes tannin. Yes cassis.  But lacking in balance and depth: too jammy, all black fruit, it becomes a wine that pushes forward one characteristic at the expense of all others.  Gone is the subtly, complexity and depth; the ménage of flavor that intrigues and entices.   

A taste of the 2010 “Artist Series” however, entices and intrigues (as have other years of the series I have tasted). Deep purple in the glass, it offers a nose of blueberry and cedar that carries into the taste with cassis and black cherry.  A fellow taster described the spice as that in “mincemeat pie.”  I tasted allspice and a hint of cinnamon. I think we said the same thing though I liked his description better.  The mouth feel is rich and silky to the extent of being luxurious. The fruit is super ripe, but not jammy. Flavors are deep with dark fruit balanced subtly against tannins that are reserved but developed in the back taste.  This is a wine that both pushes and pulls. It has dense, deep flavors, but none of which dominate the senses to the exclusion of other characteristics.  Its depth and balance are so intertwined they make it a wine that is challenging to describe but that is its beauty.  It’s a complicated wine but one that is so easy to appreciate if you don‘t have to write about it. 
Enjoy with grass fed beef for a symbiotic experience

Fruit for this wine is sourced 55% from Sonoma Valley, 41% Alexander Valley and 4% (the Merlot) from Dry Creek Valley, allowing the winemaker to adapt percentages as needed so as to develop the wine’s best expression.   After more than two years of barrel aging, the winemakers taste the individual vineyard lots and select barrel by barrel the most flavorful wines to make up the “Artist Series” blend. Aptly named, the “Artist Series” reflects the art of winemaking.   Care in the making of this wine is evidenced by its juice aging for 26 months in French oak with the wine, after bottling, benefiting from an additional 18 months of bottle aging before release. With all this care and nurturing,  the 2010 “Artist Series” is drinkable now though it will continue to develop better over the next ten years with proper cellaring.

At $75, this is not a bottle you will be drinking daily, though once tasted,
My decorator suggested I put some art in the living room
so I displayed a 2007 "Artist Series"
you would wish you could. This is an experience, however, you should not miss and will provide you with more experience per dollar than many pricier cabs grown on vines in other counties of even pricier real estate. Value is evident after tasting.

………………. Jim
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Alc.:                       14.5%
Acidity /pH:       6.51 / 3.50
Production:        1,494 cases
Bottled:               May, 2013
Released:            October 1, 2014

Kenwood Vineyards
9592 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood, CA. 95452
Tel: 707-833-5891

* The “Oyster Award” is presented annually through the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition.  The ten best West Coast wines that go with oysters on the half shell are awarded.

** 2010 sample provided by publicist for review.

Gran Passione Veneto Rosso 2012

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

If one of your life’s passions includes finding new wines, “new” grapes, or wines that taste higher than they are priced, I recommend Gran Passione (Grand Passion) Veneto (the region in Italy where it’s made) Rosso (red).  This delicious red is 60% Merlot and 40% Corvina, the latter and sometimes its sub-variety Corvinone, is the grape used in making Amarone wine.  Generally, people that love Amarone don’t so much love its price, though they understand the expense involved in the process of making it. Valpolicella Ripasso has come to be known as “Baby Amarone.”  Ripassos may re-use some grape skin, offer some similarities to Amarone, and cost much less, usually in the $20 area. 

Now comes Gran Passione. Not an Amarone. Not a Valpolicella, and a “simple” IGT wine as opposed to being classified DOGC or DOC.  And then there’s the price issue: It’s widely available at about $13.U.S., severely limiting its “snob” appeal. That’s good for people who are looking for delicious wine, instead of trying to impress someone with how much they spent on a bottle.

Grapes for Gran Passione are grown in selected areas in Veneto (around Venice) from vines planted on rich alluvial soils. Harvesting occurs in October, allowing grapes to develop full ripeness.  Selected bunch stems are cut ten days before harvest and the grapes become partially desiccated before crushing, concentrating their flavor and sugar. This technique, known as apppasimento, is the same as used in making Amarone.  Skins are left in the must for extended periods, extracting flavor and contributing to the wine’s rich purple color. Subsequent aging adds complexity and balanced notes of spice and vanilla.

With just an initial hint of sweetness from residual sugar, Gran Passione is dry but with soft tannins and balanced against perfect acidity. The nose, for me, immediately offered blueberry and the taste rewarded a jammy version of the same.  Given more time to air, the wine developed dried cherry, raisin and chocolaty plum, all in a rich mouth feel.  Vacuum sealed, it was absolutely delicious the next day; preserving its fruit without becoming flabby, it maintained a clean, quenching finish.   

To be fair, it does not have the complexity of a true Amarone, nor does a (fill in here the name of any varietal).  Wine, as Pliny the Elder said, is a matter of personal taste after all. But few people can enjoy drinking Amaraone on a daily basis or even frequently. Gran Passione is a crowd pleaser – not just because it should have wide appeal and acceptance – but because it is so well priced it can be enjoyed as an everyday table wine. Pair it with hard, mature cheeses, spicy red sauced pasta and lasagna, grilled meat or sausage and peppers and it will elevate your food.

Cin Cin!
…………….. Jim

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Produced by Casa Vinicola Botter
Imported by Winesellers Ltd., Niles IL
Alc: 14%


“People of balance age as gracefully as wines of balance.”  John Jordan, Jordan Vineyard Winery

Wine begins with the grape. If you enjoy wine, you must first appreciate the grape.  Put another way: If you love wine, if you consider yourself somewhat a student of wine with an open mind toward learning, you must be open to new tastes, and new tastes mean tasting wine from different grapes.  A grape, perhaps, you are not familiar with is Sagrantino.

The bottle I enjoyed was from Scacciadiavoli, a 2004. Don’t think at ten years of age, such wines are past their prime.  Sagrantino is a wine grape among the highest in polyphenols, chemical compounds which include tannic acid. Tannin is found in grape skins, seeds and stems and allows for the wine to smooth out so uniquely and so deliciously but over time.

The grape is very thick skinned (lots of tannin) and it’s fortunate to be so because it took much abuse in the early 1970s, a time at which many farmers considered ripping out Sagrantino and replanting with varieties assumed to be more sellable.  Thanks to a collective of Umbrian farmers (see map) with a persistent dedication and belief, Sagrantino not only survived, it prospered.   Its loss would have been historical. References to Montefalco date back to the 11th century.  Pliny the Elder referred to the area, although we don’t know that Sagrantino was then planted.
We do know that Sagrantino is grown only in the small, hill top area of Montefalco in Umbria, Italy. And genetic testing on Sagrantino has not discovered analogies with other grape varieties.  In 1992, Sagrantino di Montefalco was awarded DOGC (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origen) status. Its loss would have been historic.

Wine labeled as Montefalco Sagrantino is available as dry (secco) or sweet (passito).  These are powerful wines with the dry having an alcohol requirement of at least 13%, and the sweet at 14.5% (Scacciadiavoli’s came in at 14.5% despite being dry). There is also a Bianco, made from another grape entirely (Grechetto) and subject for another discussion. And to avoid confusion, be aware there is also a Montefalco Rosso, a blend primarily of Sangiovese, often 70%, with as little as 10%-15% Sagrantino. While delicious in their own way, tasting these wines will not give you the benefit of appreciating the wondrously unique quality of the Sagrantino grape. The photo here shows a bottle of the dry (secco) and it is that which enraptured me at first taste. While powerful, this is a wine of great balance.

In the glass, the wine shows as very dark garnet.  Open, sniff and enjoy aroma of blackberry, but don’t drink. Chances are this wine is older than some things you own, even if you recently purchased the bottle. In addition to being 100% Sagrantino, the wine may only be released after 30 months’ aging (of which 12 must be in wood barrel).  Aging, in fact, may be even longer. Decant gently or allow it to breathe for a few hours. You will be rewarded with tastes of plum, blackberry, and cinnamon. I enjoyed a hint of licorice that developed into anise in the finish. Another taster detected hints of pork fat, which I did not. The wine has great depth, the nose is deep, and the finish long – everything about this wine is enjoyable.
Despite the grapes natural tannic qualities, the long aging requirement for Montefalco Sagrantino result in those tannins being tamed. You can enjoy the wine shortly after purchase. But allowing it more rest in the bottle in a cool dark area will improve the wine even more, allowing it to become smoother and more velvety in the mouth.  Some of these wines can be cellared 20 years. As with any varietal, style is influenced by vinification. Scacciadiavoli (pictured) and Pericaia tend to be lighter (for me) and more elegant.  Capria and Tabarini produce wines more robust. Both styles are eminently enjoyable.

Enjoy Sagrantino at 64F with grilled meats and dark sauces or game meat and strong (hard) cheeses.  With Easter here, you will find this wine an excellent accompaniment to lamb. Sagrantino is Montefalco’s gift to the world and at $30-$40 ARP, Montelfaco  is being generous.

Cin Cin!
……………….. Jim

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Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino
Scacciadiavolo di Pambuffetti
Montefalco, Italy
Imported by: Selected Estates of Europe, Mamaronek, NY 10543



As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”   Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Roses are red
Violets are blue.
If you say you don’t like any chardonnay
I frankly just don’t understand you.

Chardonnay is first a grape.  It is used in making some of the world’s most sought after Champaign. And Champagne is wine although it tastes nothing like that which members of the “ABC” (“Anything But Chardonnay”) club usually associate with chardonnay. This same chardonnay grape is used also in producing white Burgundy wines such as the famous Chassagne-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet.  In the most northern part of Burgundy, about 100 miles southeast of Paris, chardonnay is all that is grown in Chablis. No one familiar with French wine would compare a Montrachet to a Chablis despite that they are both made from the chardonnay grape as is also Pouilly-Fuisse – another taste entirely and also made from chardonnay.
Mussels in white wine sauce, crusty
baguette and Chablis make fiends.

Some here, in the U.S., find French wine labels confusing because wine is labeled by region instead of by grape.  But the confusion can just as easily be attached to our simple labels, for all chardonnay is not the same. There are styles of vinification that impact the finished product. Whether the juice is fermented in wood, or aged in wood (not the same thing), whether both or neither is used, whether malolactic fermentation is employed or prevented, whether the juice is left to rest on its spent yeast cells (sur lie); all these decisions in various combinations will produce different wines from the same grape.  And we haven’t yet gotten to the terroir of where the grapes are farmed.   

So doing a little homework rewards you with finding the style of wine you enjoy.  And with Chardonnay, the amount of homework doesn't need to be burdensome.  If you became a self enrolled member of the ABC club because you found Chardonnay over the top with toasty-oaky flavor, try a Chablis such as Thomas Pico’s, owner of Domaine Pattes Loup.  France recognizes that grapes grown in different areas (soil, climate, sun, moisture and more) produce wines of different character.  And Chablis (at the cool, northern end of Burgundy) makes for wines of briny minerality and acidity that clean the palette rather than paint it.

Pico is attracting international attention and independently blazing forward by looking to the past.  Against the wishes of his father, he instituted a program of strict yield control and a move to organic/biodynamic  viticulture. He hand harvests and hand sorts the best grapes and employs no fining or filtration before bottling. His blended Chablis gains texture by being partially fermented, with lees stirring, in concrete (30% – 40%) with the balance in stainless steel for
acidic crispness.  He uses indigenous yeasts. The juice is pressed with minimal sulfuring.

His vineyards, with vines over 55 years old, are planted with numerous clones (allowing for a varied crop and the creativity that having such allows)  on steep hillsides in cool, northern Chablis (the most northern part of Burgundy about 100 miles southeast of Paris). The vineyards of Chablis are actually closer to Champagne than they are to the rest of Burgundy. The location itself requires a long growing season, allowing complex yet subtle flavors to develop within the grapes, while preserving freshness. In fact, conditions within Pico’s cellar are kept cold allowing for slow settling during a 14 - 16 month elevage (the time between fermentation and bottling).

Poached salmon over arugula and sliced fennel.
Sauvignon Blanc is tasty. But you may want to
pair it with a Chablis.
The result of this effort is a Chablis (Chardonnay) that is artful in its subtle expression of fruit against a backbone of austere minerality and snappy acidity. Palest gold in the glass, it’s ripe, but not heavy. Not present is the oaky, vanilla and butter (warm climate Chardonnay) that members of the “ABC” club perhaps object to (the ones I've met never actually were specific about the reason for their dislike).  Even the wine’s nose is light, expressing the chalky soil of its origin. It offers a chalky, orange-lemon with emphasis on the lemon. While dry and brisk, it gives steely tastes toward green apple, lemon and chamomile. A perfect companion to fish and oysters, it serves well also cutting the richness of heavy white sauces.

Uncork something different.

Wine Advocate awarded 93 points to Thomas Pico's 2010 vintage and 90 points to its 2011. International Wine Cellar awarded the 2011 vintage 91 points and Vinous (by Antonio Galloni) awarded it 91.  High praise for a wine (“Chablis”) that due to it being made as so much generic plop domestically in the 1970s had that poor image transferred to the genuine article in Chablis.

Summer is coming. Your meals will likely be lighter and require different wines; often lighter, crisper and refreshing.  All three elements are in this one bottle. And at an ARP of $17, it comes with value included.  

………….. Jim

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Domaine Pattes Loup
Thomas Pico

Imported by Cream Wine Company, Chicago 


“To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.” …. Clifton Fadiman

A long, long, time ago, in a (country*) far, far away, wine was being made.  Homer’s Iliad describes the honey sweet black wine brought by ship from the Thracian city of Ismarus to their camp outside of Troy. In fact, the earliest traces of cultured vines within what is now Bulgaria go back 3000 years and possibly much more. Fast forward to 1980. Bulgaria is the second largest wine producer. There are 25 varieties of red and white wine grapes registered as trademarks of origin from designated geographic regions.  But after the fall of communism, wine production declined.

Happily, production is again hearty and healthy. Castra Rubra, producer of “Via Diagonalis,” began in 2004 and has 16 wines in its portfolio. Growing in their vineyards are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Sauvignon Gris. The vineyards are in Southern Bulgaria, in the Thracian Plain (a designated region) in the
province of Harmanli that enjoys hot, dry summers and more than 3000 hours of sunshine. Myriad soil types, (rich, sandy, sandy-loam, clay-limestone) but all with good drainage, allow for vines to be grown in areas best suited for them, the whole of the region itself protected by the Balkan Mountains.  These conditions, blended together as they are create a unique terroir and character to Castra Rubra’s wines. But in the case of Via Diagonalis, it is the use of two indigenous Bulgarian grapes that contribute to making this wine, and others of Bulgaria, a unique tasting experience.

Via Diagonalis is a red blend: 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Rubin and 5% Mavrud. The judicious use of these last two grapes is what makes Via Diagonalis so different from other red blends you've tried. Rubin is a crossing of Nebbiolo and Syrah, created in Bulgaria in 1944. It offers aromas and taste of cherry, black cherry, and raspberry and Syrah’s contribution of pepper and crushed violet. Barrel aged, it will accumulate notes of vanilla and a smoky flavor.  Mavrud, its low-yielding and late ripening counterpoint, is thick skinned with coordinating high tannin. Its stewed fruit character on the palette gives the wine a glycerol mouth feel and some spicy character. Some people pick up herbal notes. Together these grapes make for a wine that can be aged well due to excellent tannin/acidity. 

As varietals, these grapes make for powerful wines that some may find too unusual for their palette to readily acclimatize to.  But as blending grapes, they offer an unusual and delightful wine tasting experience. Several vineyards in Bulgaria have reduced their plantings of these grapes in favor of planting more of the classics (Cabinet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot et al) which I think is unwise. As in the culinary arts, fusion is fun. But abandonment of established classics just leaves a void in good taste.

Fresh out of the bottle at a tasting, I found the tannins off putting, but the wine so unusually tempting and promising I bought several bottles to taste later. (About $17 a bottle).  It was a good decision. If you do not decant this wine, I recommend leaving it uncorked for about three hours in order to have it open up and soften.  In the glass, it is a very dark garnet with a distinct nose of blackberry jam and with that note carrying prominently into the initial taste.  Following that rush of fruit, more delicate notes of vanilla, soft spice and a compote of black fruit play on the upper front palette and nose. Hints of leather compliment the juicy finish accented with violet.

In addition to liking this wine for what it is, I appreciate it also for its utility as a “safe, crowd-pleasing” wine. Opening numerous different wines, remembering who prefers which, pouring ---  these tasks distract from the continuity of group discussions in informal gatherings. Unlike more structured dinner parties in which you may want to serve different wines with the different courses, conversation is best served during informal get togethers with a commonly served wine being self poured. And Via Diagonalis is serious enough for committed red wine drinkers of most any ilk to enjoy, yet fruity enough to appeal to newer red wine drinkers and even white wine aficionados.    

Food Friendly, Via Diagonalis Goes
With Many Dishes
It’s also food friendly on many levels and goes well with grilled meats, barbecue, red-sauced pasta dishes and more. I enjoyed Via Diagonalis recently with a dish of whole wheat pasta shells, diced peppers, garlic and onion mixed with slices of Italian sausage dressed in a sauce of aglio e olio, the wine’s fruitiness being a nice contrast to the garlic in the sauce.

The more wines I write about, the fewer I find myself getting excited over. Indeed, the only thing I find distressing about Via Diagonalis is the difficulty experienced in finding it available. Popular in the U.K. and Europe, it has limited availability here. Hopefully that will change.  Distributed by Vinprom Distributing LLC, I learned that it is stocked by House Red Bar in Forest Park, IL. A Google search (“Buy Diagonalis wine”) yielded few results, all outside the U.S.  "Bulgarian Wine Direct” is on facebook and offers direct on-line sales. I have no experience with them. On that note, let me say I have no connection to anyone mentioned here.  Over time, I've simply become more sensitive to wines being reviewed without information being provided regarding their availability. So I’ll be providing information on where less-available wines ARE available in the future.

…………….. Jim

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* “Galaxy” was used in the opening of the movie “Star Wars”.  While Via Diagonalis is somewhat difficult to track down, fortunately you need not be a Jedi Knight to obtain it.

Alc:                         14%
BRIX                      24%
Total Acdity            5.8
Ph                           3.66
Aging                     12 Months, 50% New French Oak Barrels
Grapes Were Hand Picked

Vinification: Cold maceration at 10 degrees C (50F) for 8 days. Spontaneous alcoholic fermentation in inox (stainless) container at  27 degrees C (80.6F). Post fermentation infusion. Spontaneous malolactic in new French barrels.

Chateau PEY LA TOUR 2010

“Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.” …..  John Keats

With prices for some bottles of French Bordeaux getting so much press as their prices crest a thousand dollars plus per bottle, is it any wonder many Americans avoid those aisles in the wine shops?  Even those who may ask for a Cote du Rhone (nothing wrong with that) have taken to American red-blends (nothing wrong there either). But for those who have never tasted Bordeaux, quelle dommage!  Having enjoyed French Bordeaux in 1969-1972, I could scoop up Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Mouton Rothschild, Margaux and Petrus for less than the price of some premium cigars today.

Quelle dommage indeed!  French blending is different. Blame it on terroir. Blame it on old world style. Blame it on French oak if that makes you feel better, but while you may debate whether this aspect or that is better, no wine lover can deny that it is different. And, as the French say, vive la difference because it is the many differences in wine grapes and wine making and soil and climate and so many other things that make tasting wine so enjoyable.

So while Premiers Crus are now priced out of reality for most people (I am “most people”), you can still enjoy Bordeaux wine that offers a taste of this uniqueness and at a value price that is shockingly friendly.  If you agree that $13 to $16 is shockingly friendly, please read on.  Chateau Pey La Tour is a Bordeaux Superieur from the Aquitance region (see map) about halfway between Bordeaux (the town) and St. Emillon.  The Dourthe family, with a wine history dating back to 1840, bought Pey La Tour in 1990. But even in 1929, Roger and Andre Dourthe (4th generation) were focusing on terroir and quality improvement.     

Without getting into the tiresome debate on the value of point ratings, the fact that James Suckling gives this wine 88 points and Wine Enthusiast awards it 85/100 demonstrates that this wine has drawn attention.  Now add that Chateau Pey La Tour has an average retail price of $15 and that you get to experience (perhaps for the first time) what a Bordeaux blend is and you have real value in the taste and the experience.

The Chateau’s soil is clay-sand on a limestone base with small gravel as seen throughout Bordeaux.  My nose detected a slight bent toward new world style with fruit being slightly forward and sweet (but not over ripe).  Still, the wine was balanced, typically French, with no bullying notes.  A blend of 8% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Cabernet-Franc (blend percentages may change each year), I enjoyed tastes of plum, raspberry, violet, some blueberry and a hint of earthy forest floor with herbs.  The finish is pleasingly dry and a nice contrast to the seemingly sweet beginning.  Tannins are smooth and the wine is easy drinking, eminently enjoyable and, at $15, comes without “buyer’s remorse.” 

Pey La Tour carries the “Bordeaux AOC” designation. While that is the lowest ranked classification a wine can be awarded and still enjoy vin de Bordeaux status, it has no pretentions toward being a Premiers Cru, nor does it come with the pretentious price of one. What it does purport to be is affordable, premium Bordeaux wine; something that has become a rarity the last forty years. Speaking of forty years, Chateau Pey La Tour is not a wine to cellar for that long (as are some). Nor would this wine improve much over time. Nonetheless, it should hold well to 2016 and it would be interesting to enjoy a few bottles over the years and see how they develop.

…………………  Jim
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