I don’t know that I’ve ever had an unpleasant wine from Benziger Family Winery, dating to the time when its sauvignon blanc (which is no longer made) was a regular in the $10 Hall of Fame. Benziger is a pioneer in organic and sustainable wines, and remains a family business — which is saying something in California these days. More importantly, the family makes quality wines, and especially in the $15 to $25 range where so much of what California produces is chain wine made to get a certain score.
The Signaterra ($50, sample) highlights what Benziger does so well. It’s a red blend that is true to its terroir and to the varietal character of the cabernet sauvignon and merlot used to make it. It’s still a young wine, and will improve with age. But you can drink it now, for the tannins, acid and alcohol are already in balance. It’s full of dark and cherryish flavors, but it will probably get darker and less fruity as it gets older.
This is a fancy dinner wine, the sort of thing one serves when the in-laws come over or the boss is angling for an invitation. It’s a red meat wine as well, prime rib and the like.
Want to see how wine changes over time, taking into account things like vintage difference and consumer preferences, and especially how the big wine companies see consumer preference?
Then taste the Dancing Bull ($9, purchased), which is one of the most popular wines among visitors to the blog. In my review of the 2007 vintage, I wrote that it wasn’t “quite as spicy or brambly” as it was when the wine debuted a decade ago, but that it was still more or less a traditional zinfandel. The current vintage has changed even more. It still has some zinfandel character, with pepper on the nose and spice at the back, but there is a huge dollop of sweet red fruit in the middle that wasn’t there in the 2007 or when I first tasted it.
Which is where consumer preference — or what companies like E&J Gallo, which makes Dancing Bull, see as consumer preference — comes in. One of the big changes in U.S. grocery store wine over the past several years is, for lack of a better term, the addition of sweet fruit. It’s not that the wines are sweet, and the Dancing Bull is bone dry. Rather, it’s what Eric Asimov of the New York Times describes as not the “actual sugar in the wine, but also (more often) of the impression of sweetness. This impression can be provided by dominant fruit flavors and high concentrations of glycerol, a product of fermentation that is heavy, oily and slightly sweet.” And, he writes, California zinfandel exactly fits that description.
Gallo’s market research, apparently, has determined that consumers want that sweet fruit in their wine. So the company makes the wine that way, and the Dancing Bull is the result. Is this good or bad? Neither. As the Wine Curmudgeon has said many times, good and bad doesn’t apply to wine. It’s what each person wants to drink.
Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month. This month, an all California lineup:
? Bota Box Malbec 2009 ($18 for a 3-liter box, sample): Wine for people who aren't all that fussy about what their wine tastes like. Lots of sweet blackberry fruit without much tannin or acid.
? Raymond Merlot Reserve 2007 ($23, sample): A fair bit of merlot character, which means it's not as fruity as other California merlots at this price and even (dare I say?) a little more subtle. A step up from the $15 merlots that so many people drink.
? Fess Parker Syrah 2007 ($24, sample): Big, huge syrah with traditional bacon fat aroma, lots of rich, black fruit and 14.9 percent alcohol. If you like this style of wine, you'll love this wine.
? Freemark Abbey Viognier 2009 ($27, sample): I didn't think there was any way I would appreciate this, given that it was oaked and had 14.5 percent alcohol. But it was mostly in balance, with apricot fruit and peach pit finish.
Here is why the Wine Curmudgeon loves wine. I was cutting through the wine department at my local Whole Foods, on my way to somewhere else, when I saw the La Clotiere on display. The label was unimpressive, it was stacked with a bunch of other $10 wines, and there was absolutely no reason to stop and look at it.
So of course I did, and the result was a Wine of the Week and an almost certain new member of the $10 Hall of Fame. Highly recommended, though availability may be a problem if there are no Whole Foods in your area.
This is cheap wine as it should be — professionally made, balanced, and with low alcohol. It comes from the Loire region of France and is made with gamay, which is not as odd as it sounds (though we don't see many of those wines in this country). But it has very little to do with $10 gamay from Beaujolais, where the wines are often very fruity, don't have much in the way of tannins, and are much simpler than this.
The La Clotiere ($9, purchased) is a surprisingly un-simple wine. There is red fruit in the front, a bit of a middle, and a mineral-like finish common to red wines from the Loire. I chilled it, because that's what I do with $10 Beaujolais, but that made the wine worse. Serve this at room temperature with any simple, middle-of-the-week dinner, and it would also be perfect for French Bistro night (steak frites, anyone?)
That's the conclusion of Dan Berger, the pre-eminent wine critic and author. U.S. producers, particularly in California and particularly with red wine, are dumbing down the way their wine tastes. "Will you find varietal character in most wines? No, not any more," he wrote in his weekly newspaper column. Instead, "The result, over the past 20 years or so, has been a lot blander wine than I have ever seen, not to mention more alcoholic and less likely to go with food."
This is the same conclusion the Wine Curmudgeon reached when putting together the 2011 Hall of Fame. Too many wines, particularly if they were from California and particularly if they were red, were flabby and dull. So I called Berger (tasting, right), told him what I had found, and asked him what was going on.
"The joke used to be, among people who didn't like red wine, is that they didn't like red wine because it all tasted the same," says Berger. "Now, it's not a joke. They're right."
After the jump, why this is happening and what consumers can do about it:
The Wine Curmudgeon's feelings about expensive California cabernet sauvignon are well known: Over-oaked, over-extracted, over-ripe and over-priced.
And then I tasted the Chalk Hill ($50, sample) and marvelled again at what talented winemakers can do with quality grapes. It's certainly Sonoma County wine, with black fruit and moderate (for Sonoma, anyway) 14.5 percent alcohol.
But there was an angularity to it that was quite appealing, some edges and rough spots that one normally doesn't find in these kinds of lush, ripe wines. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was an herbal character, which is a mark of red Bordeaux. But even the impression of herbal is more than one gets in most wines of this style.
Very nicely done, and even a value as these things go. It would make a fine gift for The Holiday that Must not be Named, or as the center piece for a classic red wine dinner.
Reviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.
? Bin 36 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($16, sample): A good example of what can be done to make affordable California cabernet in the style of Avalon and 337. This is rich and fruit forward, and though there isn’t much more than that, it also isn’t as simple as something like the many popular grocery store cabernets.
? Simonnet-Febvre Chablis 2008 ($20, sample) This French white had lots of acid, but also quite fruity (green apples?) for a Chablis. Though $20 is probably too much to spend on it, it was still quite nice to drink.
? Ch teau Moncontour Vouvray Brut NV ($18, sample): Would that someone in Texas (hint, hint) made bubbly of this quality. This French sparkling wine is made from chenin blanc, and has lots of acid balanced by sweet apple fruit at the back.
? Rodney Strong Pinot Noir 2009 ($18, sample): Another excellent effort from Rodney Strong — varietally correct, with cherry fruit, an almost cola-like aroma, some earthiness and pinot tannins. Given the silly prices for pinot noir, a decent value.