Willakenzie’s Estate Chardonnay is a top-notch, New World-style Oregon white
Oregon is best known for pinot noir; chardonnay has traditionally been an afterthought. In fact, pinot gris has been the state’s main white wine for years.
That approach, though, has been changing. One reason, according to a long-term Oregon winemaker: High-end chardonnay has a bigger market than high-end pinot gris – depending, of course, on quality.
Which is where WillaKenzie’s Estate Chardonnay ($72, sample, 13%) comes in, even with the hefty price tag. This Oregon white is an impressive New World-style chardonnay that shows that Oregon producers can do for chardonnay what they’ve done with pinot noir.
In this, the Willakenzie estate chardonnay isn’t too ripe or too oaky, as might be expected from a similar California product. Look for green apple fruit and some lemon zest, more minerality than I expected in a New World charrdonnay, and even some brioche and yeastiness for those of you who want noticeable oak. The wine should become rounder and more full as it ages; it’s ready now, but will likely be that much better with a couple of more years in the bottle.
Reviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the fourth Friday of each month. This month, bring on the residual sugar!
• Be Human Merlot 2018 ($17, sample, 14.5%): Slightly sweet Washington red, with lots of fake chocolate and fake cherry. Somehow, one review described this as a dry, cheap wine. Sigh.
• Carmel Road Chardonnay 2019 ($15, sample, 13.%): A California white that is about as typical a $15 supermarket wine as you’ll find: Pleasant and a touch sweet, the kind of wine that will leave you wondering what you saw in it after you finish the bottle.
• Brancott Flight Song Pinot Grigio 2019 ($12, purchased, 9%): This New Zealand white gives new meaning to the term post-modern. It’s a riesling-style pinot grigio, so it’s sweet – and its selling point is that it’s lower in calories than “regular” pinot grigio. Not so much gross as just annoying. Imported by Pernod Ricard USA
• Mulderbosch Cabernet Franc 2017 ($39, sample, 13%): South Africa’s Mulderbosch has found a way to add sweetness to a pricey red wine. Who knew? Otherwise, it’s a sort of New World cabernet franc, which means less graphite and more red fruit, and not much else. Imported by Third Leaf Wines
New Year’s sparkling wine 2020 recommendations, because value and quality matter
Once again, the blog focuses on value and quality for New Year’s sparkling wine 2020. Consider these wines for toasting, dinners, or just because you’re in the mood for bubbly. Also handy: The blog’s annual wine gift guidelines and the sparkling wine primer.
• Dutcher Crossing Blanc de Blancs 2016 ($45, sample, 12%): California sparkler is top-notch and, given bubbly prices, a fair value. Look for crisp, green apple-y fruit, with some brioche in the background to remind you this is a high-class wine. Very tight bubbles. Highly recommended.
• Bouvet Brut NV ($12, purchased, 12%): This French sparkler from the Loire does not taste like Champagne. Does it taste like quality bubbly, with tight bubbles,a zingy mouth feel. and lemon apple fruit? Yep. Would that all sparkling wine at this price was this well made. Highly recommended. Imported by Kobrand
• Empire Estate Blanc de Blancs NV ($19, sample, 11.9%): Price may be a problem, but this New York riesling sparkler, made with the charmat method, is quality wine — soft bubbles, some green apple fruit, decent minerality, and a long finish.
• Casteller Cava NV ($12, purchased, 11.5%): This Spanish bubbly is among the few remaining great cheap Spanish sparkling wines, which have been devastated by consolidation and premiumization. Apple and pear fruit, tight bubbles, and a marvelous wine all around. Highly recommended. Imported by Ole & Obrigado
Quality white Burgundy for less than $40? Meet the Michel Sarrazin et Fils Les Grognots
Regular visitors know that white Burgundy, France’s high-end version of chardonnay, is the Wine Curmudgeon’s guilty pleasure. But I get to drink even less of it these days, what with the Trump wine tariff and continually rising prices for all Burgundy. Which is why I was so excited to see the Michel Sarrazin et Fils Les Grognots.
The Big Guy bought a sale bottle of the Michel Sarrazin et Fils Les Grognots 2018 ($32, purchased, 13%) as a Thanksgiving gift, for which I was most grateful. It was all I had hoped for: top-notch white Burgundy, which includes o ak so delicately used that it’s difficult to describe. You know it’s there, but you don’t worry about where it is.
This is a more fresh and fruit-forward white Burgundy than others. Hence, it’s ready to drink now, but should also improve over the next three or four years, as the fruit moves to the background. Look for lemon zest, almost ripe pear fruit, some white pepper, and quite a stony finish.
Highly recommended; even at its normal price, this is what passes for bargain white Burgundy these days. This is holiday wine, perfect with roast turkey. Imported by North Berkeley Imports
• Joe Roberts’ “Wine Taster’s Guide” ($14.99, Rockridge Press) is neither pretentious nor expensive — which is why it’s on this list. Joe, who I’ve known almost since I started the blog, is passionate about the failings of post-modern wine writing, and especially that we buy wine we may not like because the process is so intimidating.
• The Benziger de Coelo Quintus Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($68, sample, 14.1%) is a gorgeous, structured — albeit not especially subtle — Sonoma Coast pinot noir. It’s full of dark fruit, maybe even some tea, and the soft tannins that used to be common in California pinot. Not quite sure how I got a sample, but very glad I did. Highly recommended.
• The Wine Curmudgeon has a drawer full of wine-stained tablecloths, mostly from dripping wine bottles. Hence, the marble wine coaster ($19.95), which not only would have saved many of my tablecloths but looks good, too.
• Ice wine is one of the great joys of the wine world, but is increasingly difficult to find and increasingly expensive. And it wasn’t easily available or cheap to begin with. So when a winemaker reader tipped me to the Kiona Vineyards Chenin Blanc Ice Wine 2018 ($50/375 ml bottle, sample, 9%), I asked for a sample — something I rarely do. And I was not disappointed. This is ice wine in all its glory — lusciously sweet, but balanced, with pineapple and tropical fruit and refreshing crispness. Highly recommended.
The 2017 is typical of the producer’s style: An earthiness that I like and that is almost Old World; restrained berry fruit, so not quite brambly but not California, either; and refined tannins. The latter are noticeable, but don’t get in the way and are not easy to do with pinot noir. Too many wines, even at this price, either forgo the tannins entirely or boost them so it seems like they sould be in cabernet sauvignon.
Highly recommended, and more than a fair value. This is on its way to being quite complex, and should be even more interesting in a couple of years. Yes, Thanksgiving wine, but a red wine for any occasion that calls for something well-made and a step up.
Can’t afford to buy one of the world’s great wines? Then lump it
This is the second of two parts looking at the conundrum that is wine pricing today – we’re awash in cheap, often crummy wine, while the prices of the world’s great wines are at all-time highs. Today, part II: How we got to the point where no one but the ultra-rich can afford the world’s great wines. Part I: The grape glut, and what it means for consumers.
The problem with expensive wine prices is not that they are expensive or that wine snobs are eager and willing to pay them. We’ve always had both. Rather, it’s that never before in the history of wine has pricing and snobbery been institutionalized, legitimized, and even admired. We’re at a point where people buy the world’s great wines not to drink them, but to keep them in a vault and watch them appreciate in value, using their acquisitions to prove their superiority to the rest of us.
On the other hand, the price of decent everyday wine, despite premiumization and inflation, is probably about where it was when I started the blog in 2007. I could buy Domaine Tariquet for $10 then, and it’s more or less $10 today.
And what better way to leverage that privilege than with Liv-Ex, the stock market for wine? Buy a bottle, put it away, and watch it appreciate in value. Who cares if it spoils or goes off? The point is not to drink it, but to use it to amass even more wealth. And, since the supply of fine wine is limited, the more it’s in demand, the higher the price will go. And, as Eric Asimov pointed out in last week’s New York Times, demand is increasing thanks to all that wealth.
How sad is that? Great wine reduced to a share of stock.
The irony, of course, is that legitimate stock markets serve an economic purpose, to help companies raise capital. Amassing wealth is a benefit, and not a stock market’s reason for being (as it is with Liv-Ex). The other irony? Liv-Ex is a lousy way to amass wealth. Its Fine Wine 50 index has increased 26 percent in five years, or about what an ex-sportswriter who writes about wine could do with a mediocre mutual fund. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, on the other hand, has increased about twice that much.
So why does this matter to the rest of us? Shouldn’t we happy with our Tariquet and leave it at that? Let the snobs waste their money. And don’t we have more important things to worry about, like the increasing disparity of wealth?
Yes, obscenely expensive wine prices are a result of the disparity, not a cause. But know two things: First, that these prices work their way down to the bottom, so every $1,000 bottle of Harlan ends up raising all prices. The Mulderbosch rose, a pleasant enough wine, now has a suggested retail price of $17 for no good reason at all, save rising prices elsewhere. In fact, that’s the sham of premiumization — we’re paying more money for the same quality wine and not a better bottle.
Second, and more important, can you imagine a world where only the most wealthy are allowed to look at great art and to read great books? You’re not rich enough for Picasso or Rembrandt or Shakespeare or Jane Austen, so lump it.