The Wine Curmudgeon tries, if nothng else, to be fair. I spend a lot of time not only tasting wine, but re-tasting it. Was my initial impression correct? Am I being too hard on a particular wine? Is the wine better than I thought it was?
Which is why this review is here. Big House Red, for those of you who haven't had to read this before, was perhaps the finest line of cheap wine in the United States. Then, in one of those things that happens and that I never seem to be able to accept (bands breaking up, ballplayers being traded), Big House owner Randall Grahm sold the label in 2006 to The Wine Group. The wine hasn't been the same since.
Or has it? I've tasted most of the vintages since the sale, and they seemed lacking — missing something that they had when Grahm made them. But other people, including George Taber in "A Toast to Bargain Wines," don't feel that way, and Big House gets generally good reviews. So I decided to taste the wine one more time. More, after the jump:
One of the difficulties with deciphering French wine is a label that looks like this one. It's old-fashioned, with nary a hint about what's in the bottle. And what is a Chinon?
Even wine types who are moderately familiar with France are likely to be confused, because Chinon is just not that well known. It's a red wine region in a part of France, the Loire, that is known for white wine if it's known at all. So when someone sees this bottle in a store, it's not surprising if they walk past.
Which would be a mistake. The Riviere ($8, purchased) is fabulous cheap wine, and raises the question yet again of why we don't see this kind of effort from California more often. The Rivere, made with cabernet franc, is a simple wine, but not insulting like so many of its West Coast brethren. Look for some red fruit, maybe a hint of violet, some sweet tannins, a little pepper, and enough acid to balance that odd combination. The wine, also, is not green or unripe in any way, which is often the case for cheap cabernet franc.
It's red meat wine, but also easy enough if you want to drink it on its own. Highly recommended and almost certain to make the 2012 $10 Hall of Fame.
Buy this book. "A Toast to Bargain Wines" may not be everything you need to know about cheap wine, but it's close enough. George Taber, the author of several acclaimed wine books, including the legendary "Judgment of Paris," has nailed cheap wine in a way few others have — or have cared to.
This is not the sort of wine that shows up on the blog much, since it's a little pricey and not necessarily easy to find. And, in fact, my tasting notes are not as complete as they should be, since I didn't expect to write about it.
But the more I thought about it, and as distressed as I have been with far too many of the wines that I've tasted this fall, I thought this German white wine worth a review. The Becker pinot blanc ($20, sample) is wine that is not just well made, but made honestly and with passion. It's the antidote for all of the cynical, market-driven wines that I've had to taste, and it was a pleasure to drink.
Becker is one of Germany's best regarded modern producers, and its pinot noirs are compared with some of the best in France. The pinot blanc (or, as Germans call it, Wei erBurgunder) may not get those kind of raves, but it certainly deserves its own. It's a lush wine that somehow combines rich fruit (apricot, candied lemon) with the crispness and minerality typical of German wine. At 12 1/2 percent alcohol, it's dry, but fruity enough to give the impression of sweetness for those leery of wines that are too acidic.
Chill this, and drink it on its own or with almost any holiday dinner. It would go especially well at Thanksgiving, and the sweet wine drikers at the table should be both stunned and pleased that they're enjoying a dry wine so much.
The recession continues to provide us with terrific wine values, of which the Pillar Box White is the lastest example. The wine is made by Australia's Henry's Drive, best known for its Pillar Box red blend and various shirazes favored by the Wine Magazines. Henry's Drive, before the Australian wine glut, was quirky enough to appeal to people like me but not so quirky as to alienate the establishment. And if the wines were a couple of bucks too expensive, no one seemed to care.
The list price for the Pillar Box white (purchased) is $14, which means it should show up at varous retailers in the U.S. for $12 or so. In which case it would be a fair value, if not a great one. So how much did I pay for it? Eight bucks. Not bad, huh? Someone, apparently, had a lot of wine to move.
And I got a lot for my $8. The white is a blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and a Portuguese grape called verdelho, which the Aussies have had some success with. It needs food, since it's more than a little puckery from the sauvignon blanc. Still, having said that, the grapefruit wasn't unpleasant, and there was even a little oiliness, which helped balance the acid. Chill the Pillar Box and grill some shrimp or chicken breasts marinated in garlic and olive oil to go with it, and you should be more than happy.
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:
? Stag's Leap Merlot 2004 ($35, sample): Cleaning out the wine cellar, and found this gorgeous, beautiful wine. Tastes like Napa, with deep, luscious black fruit, but with other qualities that make for a wonderful wine, including a long chalky finish and a full, rich middle.
? Flat Creek Estate Pinot Grigio 2010 ($18, purchased): Texas white wine that sits between tonic Italian pinot grigio (has more lemon) and fruit forward Oregon pinot gris. There was something odd in the back that bothered me, but may not bother anyone else. And it would be a better value at $14 or $15.
? De Bortoli Sauvignon Blanc Emeri NV ($11, sample): Very odd, but intriguing, Australian bubbly made with sauvignon blanc. Sweet tropical fruit but not as much citrus as one would expect. Less tight and bubbly than cava, but not as soft as some Italian sparklers. Keep in mind for the holidays.
Tortoise Creek wines have always been a favorite on the blog, almost making it into the $10 Hall of Fame one year. The problem with the wines has never been their quality, but availability. A couple of years ago, I met Mel Master, the Englishman behind the label, and we spent most of the discussion lamenting how difficult it was to find his wines. And, in one of those ironies that proves the point, this wine was shelved with the red Burgundies at the store where I found it, almost guaranteeing no one would buy it.
Master makes French wine, using grapes from the Languedoc in the south of France. Quality can often be uneven from that part of the country, but Master's wines are always varietally correct and delicious. In this, the Les Oliviers ($12, purchased) may be his finest achievement. It is the closest thing to traditional pinot noir the Wine Curmudgeon has found for under $20 in years.
This is a simple wine and will never been confused with $50 red Burgundy. But that's one of its advantages. It means the Les Oliviers doesn't have any silliness — no jammy fruit, no extra tannins, no bonus alcohol. It tastes like French pinot noir should taste: light, low in alcohol (13 percent), with easy tannins and some blackberry fruit, though not nearly as much as comparably priced California wines. Most importantly, it had some earthiness, which has long gone missing in pinot at this price. Or, frankly, at French pinot at twice the price.
Serve this on its own (even slightly chilled) or with almost any food that calls for a lighter red wine. Highly recommended.