Forget scores: The Jean Vesselle Brut Reserve is amazingly wonderful Champagne
The Jean Vesselle Brut Reserve, as delicious and as well made a Champagne as I’ve had in years, shows once again why scores are useless. Its average on CellarTracker (the blog’s unofficial wine inventory software) is 88 points, or about what a quality bottle of $10 wine would get.
This is an exquisite bottle of Champagne, sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. It has layers and layers of flavor, including some of the yeasty creaminess that most high-end bubbly drinkers require of Champagne. But it’s so much more than than: A completely unexpected burst of crisp, wonderfully ripe red apple fruit followed by an almost spicy finish and tiny, tight bubbles popping to the top of the glass. In this, it’s bone dry and certainly not your grandfather’s Champagne, and I’m almost certain that accounts for the crummy scores.
Highly recommended, and as enjoyable with food (eggs at brunch, certainly, but also roast chicken) as it is for celebrations. Which is how I drank it – honoring my long-time pal and colleague James MacFayden, who is returning to his native Britain after more than two decades in the U..S. James will be much missed – not only for his fine palate, but for his bounty of Monty Python references.
The 2017 vintage of the Melini Chianti is as different as it is unexpected
Something odd is going on the current vintage of the Melini Chianti, an almost always dependable $6 red wine. Either the wine is genuinely softer and fruitier, or someone dumped many bags of sugar into the barrels.
The Wine Curmudgeon prefers to think it’s the former. If there is added sugar in a cheap wine as venerable as the Melini Chianti ($6, purchased, 13%), then it’s time to go back to sports writing. And who wants to do that?
Because this Italian red, made with sangiovese from the Chianti region of Tuscany, is much rounder and less sour than it has been for years, with a sort of sweet cherry fruit and a kind of forest floor finish where it didn’t have much of a finish at all before. It’s about as far from the simple, tight-cornered, and tart cherry Melini as possible.
It still mostly tastes like Chianti, but more of a New World version. Again, I don’t know that this is a bad thing as much as it is unexpected. And the Melini still pairs with the usual sorts of red sauces, takeout pizza, and the like.
So chalk the change up to a vintage difference, and hope for the best next time.
Michigan wine 2019: Another regional wine state that offers quality – and even value
One of Drink Local Wine’s great regrets was that we were never able to do Michigan wine. The state had some of the best regional wine in the country, and its efforts have only improved since then.
I know this because I was lucky enough to get Michigan wine samples last fall, and the quality was consistent and impressive. Wine is made throughout the state, but the best known region is along the northwestern Lake Michigan shore, centered around Traverse City. That means weather is a challenge every year, and cold, snow, and ice have wreaked havoc with any number of vintages. Riesling is its trademark grape, but some cold climate reds are also outstanding.
The following wines were the best I tasted – all were samples. Availability may be limited in other parts of the country.
• Chateau Grand Traverse Dry Resling 2017 ($14, 12%): One of regional wine’s biggest challenges is producing affordable products, but this long-time Michigan producer has done just that. It’s a little tight, but reflects Michigan’s style and terror — almost stone fruit instead of citrus; a crisp, steely finish; and an appealing and pleasing riesling softness. Highly recommended.
• Mari Vineyards Gamay Noir 2017 ($26, 13%): This red is a trifle pricey, but impeccably made and just as delicious. Again, a terroir-driven wine that is less fruity (tart cherry, perhaps?) and more noticeably spicy than a Beaujolais from France, which is also made with gamay. This vintage is sold out, but if the 2018 is anything close to the 2017, it’s a must buy.
• 2 Lads Cabernet Franc 2016 ($35, 13.5%): This is an intriguing approach to cabernet franc, a red grape that does well in many regional states and is best known as the red from the Loire in France. It doesn’t have the pencil lead that marks some Loire wines, and it’s not as fruity as a west coast label. Instead, it features blackberry fruit and baking spice, plus an almost zesty mouth feel. It’s well made and top quality, but the price is a problem.
• Chateau Chantal Proprietor’s Reserve Trio 2016 ($27, 13.5%): Excellent example of what Michigan can do with a red blend. It’s brisk and spicy with well-developed berry fruit. There’s an appealingly lean structure, save for a bit of ashy heaviness on the back and a touch too much oak.
• Hawthorne Vineyards Rose 2016 ($12, 13.2%): A dry pink wine that is heavier than I prefer, but still well made and rose-like — dark raspberry and strawberry fruit. And, again, an affordable price.
• Peninsula Cellars Late Harvest Riesling 2016 ($19, 8.5%): This white dessert wine is just so close to being the kind that wins double gold medals and best in shows. It’s sweet – think honey and ripe peaches – balanced by an almost fresh orange juice acidity. That’s where it falls just a smidge short, since a little more acidity would balance the sweetness. But it’s still a delicious wine and well worth the price.
The McManis viognier is $10 Hall of Fame quality – a reminder that California can produce great cheap wine
California viognier is infamous for being heavy, overoaked, and too alcoholic, lacking grace and subtlety. So how does the McManis viognier taste completely different – and for just $10?
Because the McManis family still cares about making great cheap wine. Others may have gone over to the dark side, but the McManis viognier ($10, purchased, 13.5%) remains a symbol of what California once was – quality wine at a fair price.
The 2016 viognier remains fresh and interesting, with ripe, juicy apricot fruit, an almost oily mouth feel, and a stone fruit pit finish. In this, it’s classic New World viognier, a little less overwhelming than its French cousins from the Rhone, but still heavy enough that it’s a food wine.
I drank it with a cornbread tamale pie made with chicken and tomatillo sauce, and I couldn’t have asked for a better pairing. It would also work with roast chicken (and add some dried apricots) or any post-modern salad with fresh stone fruit.
Highly recommended, and the year’s first candidate for the 2020 Cheap Wine of the Year. The 2017 is the current vintage, but there is plenty of 2016 on store shelves.
The Hedges La Haute Cuvee is top-notch Washington state cabernet sauvignon
Hedges Family Estate has been part of the good fight for quality wine, transparency, and fair value for years. Its $13 CMS red and whites are well made and almost always worth buying, and the Wine Curmudgeon enjoys tasting its more expensive wines, like the Hedges La Haute Cuvee whenever I get a chance.
Hence, my anticipation when I opened the Hedges La Haute Cuvee ($50, sample, 13.5%). It’s Washington state caberent sauvignon that speaks to terroir and the difference between the state’s Red Mountain appellation and those in California and France. It’s not as rich and opulent as a Napa Valley caberent, nor as taut and firm as a great red Bordeaux. It’s different – and that’s the joy, for all wine is not supposed to taste the same.
Look for lots of black fruit (blackberry?), though aging has mellowed the fruit’s power a bit; some baking spices (cinnamon?) and even a intimation of cocoa; beautifully soft and integrated tannins, and a fine balance. One key to this wine: aging in older oak, to complement the fruit instead of overwhelming it. This is a wine that has aged magnificently, and should continue to do so for at least another five to seven years.
Pair this with red meat (I drank it with homemade mushroom and pecan sausage), and enjoy what Washington state has learned about making top-notch red wine.
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.
• Palma Real Verdejo 2017 ($10, purchased, 12%): This Spanish white blend is a Total Wine private label that tastes like it’s supposed to — tart and lemony, simple but not stupid. It looks to be some sort of knockoff of the Marques de Cacera verdejo, but is better made and more enjoyable. Highly recommended.
• Provinco Bianco Grande Alberone 2017 ($9, purchased, 13%): This Italian white blend, which includes chardonnay, is more Aldi private label plonk. There is little varietal character, save for some chardonnay mouthfeel. Otherwise, it’s thin and bitter.
• Weingut Berger Grüner Veltliner 2017 ($12/1 liter, purchased, 12%): Yet another Wine Curmudgeon attempt to understand why so many wine hipsters recommend gruner veltliner, an Austrian white. As my pal Jim Serroka said, and he doesn’t pay much attention to wine, “it’s thin and watery.” Look for a little citrus fruit and not much else.
• Familia Bastida Tempranillo 2016 ($10, purchased, 13.5%): Another top-quality Total Wine private label – a Spanish tempranillo that is varietally correct with soft cherry fruit, a hint of spice, not too much oak, and all surprisingly integrated.
Two Italian wines from a Big Wine company, but only one of them tastes like it came from Italy
This is where we are in the wine business in 2019 – two Italian wines from the same Big Wine company, one of which is varietally correct, terroir-driven, and a pleasure to drink, while the other tastes like it was put together by a marketing company and is about as Italian as a pair of panty hose. Why does anyone think this will advance the cause of wine?
The insolia white wine ($14, sample, 12.5%), made by Zonin1821’s Feudo Principi di Butera subsidiary in Sicily, is Big Wine done right. The insolia grape is native to Sicily, and it’s not necessarily easy to work with. But the Butera is all should be – tart green apple fruit, lots of spice and almond, an almost stony finish and even some green herbs. It’s Hall of Fame quality, a white wine that is neither chardonnay nor sauvignon blanc and a reminder of how much value Sicilian wines can deliver. This is seafood wine – risotto with shrimp, perhaps?
Which brings us to the panty hose. The second wine is a sauvignon blanc from Zonin1821’s Ca Bolani in northern Italy’s Fruili region. Italian sauvignon blanc has long taken a back seat to pinot grigio, which probably explains why the Ca Bolani ($14, sample, 12.5%) tastes the way it does. Or, as a friend said when she drank it, “Why did you open this wine? You know I don’t like New Zealand sauvignon blanc.”
Which is exactly what it tastes likes – big, huge smacking gobs of grapefruit. It’s a well made wine, and there is even a little something trying to peek out from behind the grapefruit. And $14 isn’t a bad price. But none of that really matters, since it raises a larger question: Why would I want to buy Italian sauvignon blanc that tastes like it came from New Zealand? Isn’t that what New Zealand sauvignon blanc is for? Shouldn’t Italian wine taste like it came from Italy?
Apparently not. These days, the goal seems to be to make all wine taste the same, so it will be easier to market. Because Big Wine. Hopefully, no one at Butera will realize this and turn the insolia into Paso Robles chardonnay. Because then I would have another reason to worry about the future of the wine business.