Wine Hotline Hits the Road: Ribera del Duero

A small group from Binny’s visited Spain’s Ribera del Duero. Bill Newton reports from the road:

 

Ribera del Duero

 

Spain’s Ribera del Duero is beautiful and rustic. On one hand, the region is home to world-class wine producers such as Vega Sicilia, Pingus and Pesquera. On the other hand, nobody acted surprised when a herd of sheep blocked traffic to cross the road.

 

The guys at Vega Sicilia don’t leave room for surprises. They want complete control over every aspect of their wine making process, including making and toasting all of the barrels used at the winery at their own on-site cooperage. Coopers everywhere char the insides of their barrels, determining the flavors that barrels instill in the wines they hold (just like with spirits, or even beer).

 

Toasting Barrels

Continue reading

Wine Hotline Hits the Road: Napa

 

Outside of a few small areas in Bordeaux, Napa is making the greatest cabernet sauvignon on the planet. We recently visited some of the greatest wineries in the country. For more info on some of our favorite wines from the region, check out the current edition of The Wine Hotline. We snapped these pics on our journey down Route 29 and the Silverado Trail.

 

Continue reading

How Good Is 2009 Bordeaux?

We will find the answer to the above question soon as three of us from Binny’s leave for Bordeaux on Saturday and taste the new 2009 barrel samples. 2009 is already being reported as being a very good year for Bordeaux, but as the first reports are coming out of Bordeaux, the hype is starting to grow. James Suckling of Wine Spectator said that 2009 Chateau Ausone smells like perfume on the neck of the most beautiful woman on earth. Wine critics love their metaphors.

 

Why all the fuss about wines that will not hit the shelves until 2012? Bordeaux sells wine as futures to consumers in advance of the wines’ release. The attraction to wine lovers is that in a great vintage you can reserve your wine and hopefully get it at the lowest possible price, as the wines are often more expensive when they hit the shelves. Here is how the system works.

 

About this time every year, Bordeaux invites members of the wine trade to visit and taste their most recent vintage, still aging in barrels. Wine critics such as Suckling and Robert Parker attend, as well as retailers and other interested parties. The Chateau base their prices on the quality of the wine, interest from retailers and consumers, and the scores from critics, mainly Robert Parker. When you hear statements coming out of Bordeaux like the texture makes you want to cry. It touches your soul. (again from Suckling), it is likely the price of the top wines will be fairly high.

 

So, is buying futures for you? It can be a great experience. I bought futures from Binny’s for 2000 vintage Bordeaux, and was able to get wines from that vintage I would not be able to afford today. If you like Bordeaux, and buy what you can afford, 2009 could be a good vintage to go this route. In recent very good Bordeaux vintages, speculators have bought the wines on futures as an investment, to sell the wines later. In todays economy, this is not something I would recommend. Buy what you would like to drink with family and friends.

 

When I get back from Bordeaux I will post my impressions on the overall vintage. Later in the spring, as we release wines for purchase, I will post notes and point out wines that I think are stars of the vintage, as well as value wines that will not cost a fortune. In the meantime, go ahead and grill a steak, pop a nice bottle of Bordeaux, and check back for updates on what may be the next great vintage of Bordeaux.

2009 Bordeaux-Pauillac and St Julien

Two of the most successful appellations of 2009 were Pauillac and St Julien. Both regions made wines of great balance with the potential for longevity, yet the generous fruit and soft tannins made them very approachable. As you will see below, many of the estates with great terroir stepped up and hit a home run in 2009.

 

 

Pauillac

 

Pauillac is one of the great wine growing regions in the world, with some of the finest Cabernet based wines to be found anywhere. This is home to first growths Latour, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild, which due to their great quality and popularity among collectors, have become among the most expensive wines in the world. Recently, Lafite has become the most coveted first growth in the Asian markets, which has caused this wine to rise in price even beyond that of Latour.

 

If paying $400.00+ is more than you feel comfortable spending, fear not. There are plenty of wines from this region that you can purchase for a fraction of this price. Although they may not possess quite the splendor or longevity as the first growths, they are certainly great Cabs that can age and show the great style that is Pauillac from Bordeaux. Here is a rundown on the 2009′s I thought tasted particularly promising.

 

Top wines: Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Pichon Lalande- Lafite was my favorite first growth this year, a beautiful wine with power and grace. Latour is a very masculine wine that will take many years to fully evolve, but even at this early stage showed wonderful fruit. Mouton was somewhere between these two styles, showing its usual flair….it is almost always more flashy than Lafite and Latour. 2009 was a great year for Pichon Lalande, showing a great core of fruit and green olive flavors, but also silky and long. If you like the style of this wine, it could easily move ahead of Mouton in this vintage.

 

Best of the rest: Pichon Baron, Clerc Milon, Duhart Milon, Grand Puy Lacoste, Batailley, Forts de Latour, Lynch Bages, Carruades de Lafite, Haut Batailley, Haut Bages Liberal. Pichon Baron was an excellent wine, racy and classy, that may end up as one of the top wines in the appellation. Clerc Milon was full bodied and lush, with much in common with Mouton. Duhart Milon had a mouthful of wonderful, bright fruit, and will be an excellent wine as long as the alcohol settles down a bit, which I think it will. My biggest surprise was Batailley, which is always a solid wine, but seems to be something special in this vintage.

 

 

St Julien

 

For both relative value and quality, St Julien is the sweet spot for many Bordeaux lovers. This appellation sits just south of Pauillac and shares much in the way of terroir as its more prestigious neighbor. With the exception of the top few wines, there are usually deals to be found from this appellation, and 2009 should be no exception.

 

Top Wines: Ducru Beaucaillou, Leoville Las Cases- For my taste, Ducru was the greatest wine in St Julien in 2009. The wine had pure fruit and great freshness with fine tannin and will age gracefully for decades. If you collect Leoville Las Cases, this is a great example of this wine, but it will take a long time to come around. Most of the other recommended St Juliens will be ready to drink sooner, as well as much less expensive.

 

Best of the rest: Leoville Barton, Leoville Poyferre, Langoa Barton, Gruaud Larose, Gloria, Croix de Beaucaillou, Beychevelle, Lagrange, Talbot, Saint Pierre- Langoa Barton had a very nice vintage, with wonderful fruit in a modern style I really liked. Gruaud Larose, excellent in an old school style, should age very well. Lagrange was good but very tight and hard to taste right now….should turn out quite well. My biggest surprise was Gloria. Often a good value this was a very fine, medium/full bodied wine with dark fruit and a hint of vanilla. 60% Cabernet, 40% Merlot.

2009 Bordeaux-Overview and St Estephe

After spending five days in Bordeaux and tasting over 200 wines from the 2009 vintage, it is clear that this is a great vintage for Bordeaux. Several Chateaux have wines in barrel that will become legendary, while others have made wines that are the greatest produced by their Chateau. There is no shortage of wonderful wines from every appellation and price range, and comparisons are being made to great vintages such as 1982 and 1990. Still, caution is necessary, as not all wines are great, and there are stylistic differences among wines, even within the same appellation.

 

A quick look at the weather will help explain the style of the vintage. April and May were wet and often stormy, with flowering taking place rapidly in early June. From mid June through August there was a remarkable amount of sunshine and little rain, which enabled the grapes to ripen slowly to full maturity. Ideal weather continued into September as warm days were followed by cool nights. This weather cycle produced concentrated wines without the over-ripeness of 2003 or the sometimes fierce tannins of 2005. Instead, most wines are bursting with bright red fruit flavors and fine tannins. The left bank wines, especially, were pure and fresh. Most estates picked their Merlot in late September and Cabernet in early October.

 

Despite the wonderful growing conditions, not everyone made great wine. In a few cases, if the Cabernet was picked too early, the wines were a bit green or had hollow mid-palates. Far more common, however, were wines in St Emilion that seem a bit over extracted. It will be interesting to see if they settle down in the bottle, because it was a great year for Merlot. It seems some right bank estates may have waited too long to pick their Merlot, and the wines seem to lack freshness and are a bit over blown. For this reason, I found the left bank to be far more consistent, although many right bank estates made outstanding wines.

 

The hype surrounding this vintage is growing, and many people at the Chateaux told us that there were more visitors tasting the wines than in any other year. When we went to Chateau Margaux we were told that there were going to be 700 visitors coming to taste their wine….that day alone! There is a great deal if interest in this vintage from around the world, and prices for the top wines could be very high. The Chateaux will probably begin to announce pricing near the end of the month.

 

In this report I will go through the styles of the wines from the various appellations, as well as list some of my favorite wines. Not all wines I mention here will be offered from Binny’s on futures, as availability and pricing will play a part in what we carry. In late Spring/early Summer we will begin to post our 2009 futures offerings on Binnys.com, and I will post my impressions on the Binny’s Blog for those wines that I tasted. If you like Bordeaux, this is a vintage that is worth the effort to do a bit of homework and consider buying some wines on futures. My ‘top wines’ and ‘best of the rest’ are listed in order of preference, although all are wines I would be thrilled to own.

 

 

St Estephe

 

This was a great vintage for this northern Medoc appellation. There was plenty of time for the Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen fully, and while St Estephe is known for often hard, tannic wines, especially young, these wines were surprisingly approachable. Very good to great wines were made across the board, with many estates putting in their finest effort in years. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to taste Calon Segur, which would have been on this list somewhere.

 

Top Wines: Cos D’Estournel, Montrose- By far the best of the St Estephe’s we tried, the better wine is completely dependant on your stylistic preference. Cos was a big, modern style, in-your-face wine while Montrose was full bodied and brooding in a more old-world, traditional style. Both wines are fantastic, and both will last for decades. The Cos tasted expensive, and it will be.

 

Best of the rest: Pagodes de Cos, Meyney, Haut Marbuzet, Le Crock, Ormes De Pez, Phelan Segur, Lafon Rochet, Dame de Montrose.- Pagodes de Cos is the second wine of Cos D’Estournel, and is a huge mouthful of wine for a second label. Le Crock is now owned by the excellent St Julien estate Leoville Poyferre, and and General Manager Didier Cuvelier said it was the best wine this St Estephe estate has produced. The biggest surprise was Chateau Meyney, which made the best wine they have produced since the late 80′s.

2009 Bordeaux-Margaux and Pessac Leognan

One of the most variable appellations in Bordeaux is Margaux. Great Margaux is supple and lush, but also has the structure to age well. The problem with Margaux is that the top wines are quite expensive, and all too often the other Chateaux make mediocre wines even in very good vintages. Happily in 2009, this is not the case, as many estates made beautiful wines.

 

 

Margaux

 

Many people visiting Bordeaux wanted to compare the 2009 vintage to 2005, the last great vintage in Bordeaux. Emmanuel Cruse, Managing Director of Chateau D’Issan, did not really agree with the comparison. According to Cruse, the 2009′s have the most density since the wines of 2005, however, the 2009′s are more yielding and approachable at this stage than the 2005′s. This fact made tasting the 2009 Bordeaux barrel samples, and those of Margaux in particular, quite enjoyable.

 

Although there were a few duds, I loved most of the wines I tasted from Margaux. Most wines from Margaux are a fairly even blend between Cabernet and Merlot, and this seemed to fit the bill for 2009. The wines benefited from the structure of the Cabernet as well as the ripe, lush Merlot vintage, without the over ripe, over-the-top quality of some of the right bank wines.

 

Top wines: Palmer, Margaux. Often in top vintages, there is debate about the finest Margaux between first growth Chateau Margaux and third growth Chateau Palmer. This year, both wines are superb, but I will give a slight edge to Palmer, at least for now. The Palmer was already delicious, with berry, cherry and a hint of vanilla. Chateau Margaux was packed and structured, a wonderful wine in the making.

 

The best of the rest: Malescot Saint-Exupery, D’Issan, Giscours, Rausan Segla, Cantenac Brown, Prieure Lichine, Brane Cantenac, Kirwan, Du Tertre, Pavillon Rouge, Alter Ego Palmer, Ferriere, Blason D’Issan, Dauzac. A long list, and good news for consumers, because while none will be cheap, some should at least be affordable. Malescot is modern and exotic, and is getting huge reviews from critics. D’Issan is beautiful and polished, the essence of the Margaux appellation. Giscours and Rausan Segla are wines for the long haul, approachable but with so much potential. Du Tertre is easy going, and should be quite tasty at a fairly young age. My biggest surprise was Cantenac Brown, a hit and miss Chateau that made an outstanding wine in 2009.

 

 

Pessac Leognan

 

I did not get to taste as many wines from this area as I would have liked, but what we missed in quantity we made up for in quality. I missed tasting two top wines in Pape Clement and Smith Haut Lafite, but I have little doubt Wine Spectator and Robert Parker will rate them highly.

 

Top wines: Haut Brion, Haut Bailly, La Mission Haut Brion, Carmes Haut Brion. First growth Haut Brion is as great as one would expect in a superb vintage, deep and brooding, with a hint of oak , mineral and dark fruit on the nose. Haut Bailly is pure and classy, an estate that has recently been making great wines. La Mission Haut Brion has caused a bit of a stir with its 14.7% alcohol, high for Bordeaux, but I did not think the wine was alcoholic or hot. Carmes Haut Brion is a beautiful little estate in the city of Bordeaux near Haut Brion. The wine was excellent, tasting of crushed red fruit and sweet, fine tannins.

 

The best of the rest: Le Clarence De Haut Brion, La Chapelle De La Mission Haut Brion, Picque Caillou. Both second wines of Haut Brion and La Mission were very good, especially Le Clarence, which was a bit like Haut Brion without the power. Picque is a very nice value wine that well represents the style of Pessac Leognan in 2009.

Wine Trip Part I-Santa Barbara

   Crouching awkwardly on the windward rail, I began sliding slowly under the wire guard rail and was becoming fairly certain I was either going to blow out a knee or simply fall into the ocean. I had not asked to be rail meat in a yacht race off the coast of Santa Barbara, and my current distress was happening as we were turning around a large buoy at a pivotal point in the race. Perched on top of the buoy were several seals, and they were making quite a racket as we passed.I imagine they were laughing. As I tried to shift my position to get more comfortable, I slipped farther, and my foot plunged into the water.

   Three of us from Binny’s, Jeff, Bob, and myself, were sent to California recently to attend Hospice du Rhone, an annual tasting of Rhone style wines from France, Australia, Spain and the U.S. The event takes place in Paso Robles and is a great chance to get caught up with California Syrah, Grenache, and other Rhone blends and varietals. We went out a couple days early in order to try some wines from other Central Coast wineries. Our adventure began in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara is a wonderful place to visit. If you like miles of clean beaches on the ocean, wonderful restaurants, great authentic Mexican food, and an increasingly large number of local wine tasting rooms, Santa Barbara is not to be missed. We arrived early Wednesday afternoon, and headed to Kunin’s new tasting room. They make very nice Syrah and Viognier and are a must stop on any wine lovers trip to Santa Barbara.

   After Kunin, we headed to Jaffurs. They have been on a roll making outstanding wines over the last few years. This winery, a favorite of the magazine Wine Spectator, makes great Syrah, Petite Sirah and Grenache. On this particular trip I was impressed with the Grenache, which was bright and lively but not over the top. Jaffurs is probably my number one stop when in Santa Barbara, but there are many other choices such as Santa Barbara Winery, Westerly, and a local favorite called Kalyra. Its a fun town to explore, the people are friendly, and if you ask the locals questions you can get great tips on places to visit.

   After our visit to Jaffurs, Bob said that a winemaker friend of his had invited us on a ‘boat ride. Sure, great, that sounds like fun!

   I managed to regain my balance, pull my foot out of the water, and generally untangle myself. As we pulled into shore, it was starting to get dark, nearing the end of a long travel day. The yacht pulling in next to us had a baby seal sitting on the back of their boat, catching the last few rays of sun. Only in Santa Barbara.

   We were invited inside for a beer, but it was time for us to hop in our rent a car (a very clunky Dodge Avenger) and head north to wine country.

Coming soon-Wine trip Part 2- A Night in Buelton.

Don’t Forget 2008 Bordeaux

With all the hype surrounding the 2009 and 2010 futures campaigns, you may be surprised to hear that there are some very good new release Bordeaux arriving in stores right now. The 2008′s are now hitting the shelves, and while no one is calling it the vintage of the century, it is a very good year, with prices considerably lower than the more hyped 2009 and 2010.

 

I recently tasted the 2008 Chateau Poujeaux from Moulis in Bordeaux, and it was excellent. The wine was soft and lush, but also had good structure. It is a wine you could drink now with a lamb chop or steak off the grill, or put aside for five years and enjoy the additional complexity some age would lend to this wine. Poujeaux is almost an even split between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with a bit of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot thrown in. It is available at Binny’s for $29.99.

 

La Tour Carnet from Haut Medoc is another 08 Bordeaux we got in recently. Some of our stores got these in half bottles, which I love, so I picked one up to go with burgers. This wine got 91 points from Parker, and I can see why. It had a solid core of black cherry, with a nice finish but firm tannins. This wine needs a bit of time, but with a couple years it is going to smooth out and be an amazing wine. This goes for $18.99 for a half bottle and $35.99 for a regular size 750ML.

 

There are many other 2008′s available, including Brane Cantenac, Cantenac Brown and Lascombes from Margaux. In addition, more 2008′s will be arriving throughout the summer and fall. 2008 is a classic Bordeaux vintage with reasonable prices. Don’t miss it!

Are Domestic Syrah Styles Too Extreme?

 From the mid 90′s through the first part of this decade, Australian wine was all the rage, increasing in sales more than any other wine import in almost all categories. It was fueled in large part by value brands such as Yellow Tail, but expanded to include higher price points, mainly due to the huge popularity of Shiraz and Shiraz blends. As their popularity increased, the wines became bigger, thicker, more powerful and intense. Big, extreme wines tend to stand out in tastings, and often receive high ratings from wine critics. Then, a few years ago, Robert Parker gave Mollydooker Carnival of Love 99 points and Enchanted Path 96 points. The wines were so in demand stores had to take waiting lists for the wines, and Australia was on its way to taking over the wine world.

   But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Slowly at first, but then increasingly a backlash started against these fruit bombs. Among the complaints were that the wines were too alcoholic and lacked freshness, were one dimensional, out of balance and did not go with food. Certainly all Australian wines are not like this, but with Mollydooker as the poster boy for big, over-extracted wines, Australian wine sales plummeted. So what happens when you are losing your market share and even cutesy names like Laughing Magpie and Blue Eyed Boy don’t help? Well, I guess you are left with “look what happens when you shake my wine!”

   At the recent Hospice du Rhone tasting in Paso Robles three of us from Binny’s were able to taste many California Syrah and Syrah blends. For the sake of argument, lets devide these wines into three styles.

Syrahs that were old world in style, medium bodied, with good balance and complexity. Qupe’s lineup of wines seemed a good example of this style.

Syrah that was powerful and new world in style, but not over the top. These wines, while big, still had nuance and style, and would go with a hearty meal. I would include Foxen, Beckmen and Stolpman in this category.

Wines that are extremely powerful, thick and alcoholic, lack freshness and would not go well with food. Many of these wines are very popular right now, they stand out in tastings and tend to get high marks from wine critics. In California, they call them rock stars.

   A winery that seems to be a rock star in the making is Booker, and we visited them while we were in California. The wines were definitely fun to try, and we bought a bottle of 2006 Alchemist (85% Syrah/15% Cab) to bring to dinner that night . It is listed at 15.5% alcohol, rather high for wine. At dinner we opened the Alchemist, and also ordered a 2004 Rhone that would retail for about half the price. We all ordered a beef dish, and sat down with the French Rhone (this one was mainly syrah) and the California Syrah. As tasty and fun as the Booker was at the winery, for me it just didn’t work with the meal. The wine seemed heavy and monolithic, as opposed to the Rhone, which was nicely balanced and complemented our dinner.

  To be fair, not everyone at the dinner had my problem with the Booker, and wine and taste is always subjective. There is plenty of California syrah in every style to go around, and on the whole the overall quality is excellent. Consumers should also know that there is more quality California Syrah under $30.00 than Napa Cab or Sonoma Pinot Noir. This trend should continue as long as winemakers remember wine is made to be drunk, not to win wine tasting contests.

Are you Ready for a Smack-Down?

A new day has dawned, peace and love are in the air, and all is right with the world. Everywhere, that is, except for Binnys in Lake Zurich, where Pinot Noir from around the world are gathering for a take no prisoners, last wine standing Smack-Down! Thursday night, April 16th the fine wine world will erupt in conflict that will pit country versus country and quite possibly a civil war to find a victor. For those willing to bear witness to this event, here is an overview of the competitors.

 

Continue reading