The Wine Curmudgeon regularly gets emails offering samples from less well-known parts of the world; my reply, always, is that if the wine isn’t for sale in the U.S., it doesn’t do me much good to review it. So imagine my surprise when the Pajzos Furmint, a Hungarian wine, was at a Dallas retailer.
Hungarian wine still isn’t widely available here, even though the country’s producers have been trying to re-establish their industry for 30 years. I’ll taste it every once in a while while judging a competition, usually a dessert wine, and something called Bulls Blood may be on a bottom store shelf, dusty and abandoned.
But a dry white table wine made with the country’s trademark furmint grape? Almost never, which is where the Pajzos Furmint ($10, purchased, 13%) comes in. I bought it not because I thought it would be worth drinking, but because it was supposed to be a dry table wine made with furmint. That’s a big deal if you do what I do, and sometimes, it’s worth suffering for your art.
But I didn’t suffer. The Pajzos Furmint, from the Tokaji region (a rocky, hilly speck in the Hungarian northeast near Ukraine) was everything a great cheap white wine should be: clean, fresh, and varietally correct. It had spice (white pepper?), apricot fruit, and even some nuttiness (almonds?). Missing was any harshness, unripe fruit, or lingering sweetness that wines from less known regions often have.
Highly recommended, and a candidate for the 2017 $10 Hall of Fame. This is a wine for spring salads or sipping on a pleasant afternoon as the temperatures get warmer.
What do I say when I find yet another tremendous value from Spain brought into the U.S from Ole Imports? Not much, other than to be grateful that the Flaco Tempranillo, a red wine, is as well made and as well priced as it is.
The Flaco Tempranillo ($9, purchased, 13%) is not as tart as I would have hoped, but then it’s not from Rioja, where that’s part of the wine’s character. Instead, it’s from the region around Madrid in the middle of the country, where a decade or more of winemaking improvements have turned wine that was barely drinkable into something consistent, commercial, and interesting.
The Flaco Tempranillo is just one more example of that winemaking revolution. It’s more even throughout, and there are fewer elements to balance than in a similarly priced Rioja — call it a terroir difference, and who thought we would ever write that about a wine from Madrid? Look for enough cherry fruit to be recognizable, soft tannins, and a bit of herb floating in and out. It’s an exceptionally well done wine, let alone for the price, and the French could learn a thing or two about how to make quality wine for $10 from tasting this.
Is any wine worth $100 a bottle? That’s the question the Wine Curmudgeon has been agonizing over since I started this wine thing all those years ago, and I still don’t know that I have an answer. But I do know how much fun it was to taste the Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2011 ($100, sample, 13%) to try to find the answer.
The Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc is a beautiful wine, a white Bordeaux that takes what most of us know about that blend and says, “Close your eyes, taste this, and don’t say anything quite yet.” There is so much going on, so many layers of flavor — lemon, honey, almonds, spring flowers, peaches, minerality — that I don’t even know where to start to describe it. It’s also very young; the layers overlap and nudge each other, each vying for attention. Eventually — two years? three? four ? — they’ll start to blend, and the wine will be that much more impressive.
Finally, a word about oak. Regular visitors here know how I feel, that oak should be part of the wine and not its reason for being. Also, white Bordeaux, given that it’s made with sauvignon blanc, is difficult to oak well. The Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc turns all of that on its head, and the oak is another layer that adds quality, flavor, and complexity — and it too, will eventually blend into the whole.
Highly recommended, and a wonderful gift for anyone who loves and cares about wine. And if you do taste it, let me know if it answers the $100 question.
These days, Concannon Vineyard is just another part of multi-billion dollar The Wine Group and its wine is mostly ordinary grocery store stuff. A couple of decades ago, though, Concannon made some of world’s best petite sirah, a red grape that is little known and perhaps even less respected. I was lucky enough to have a taste of those days when I had dinner with an old Concannon petite sirah.
My pal John Bratcher brought the wine, the 1997 reserve petite sirah; I made sausage parmigiana with my mom’s red sauce; and Lynne Kleinpeter added her keen palate and quick wit.
The Concannon petite sirah, which cost just $25 when it was released in 2001, did not disappoint. That this wine, made in the supposedly less prestigious Livermore Valley from what is supposed to be a lesser grape, aged for almost 20 years with such grace speaks to how silly we are when we assume that something not anointed by the Winestream Media isn’t worth drinking.
The wine’s color was just starting to brown and the cork didn’t come out cleanly. Other than that and a bit of sediment, this was a wine that had aged exquisitely — soft but still delicious dark plum fruit, a hint of spice and earth, supple tannins, and a balance and integration that you can only hope for when a wine ages this long. We took our time with it, making sure it lasted the entire dinner. This was not an experience to be rushed.
John told us that the Concannon family, whom he had worked with, made reserve from a vineyard so old that the grape juice was actually dark and powerful enough to use as ink. This partly explains why the wine aged so well, but it’s also a testament to the Concannons, who wanted to make a wine that would, literally, stand the test of time. Which it did.
Sadly, this Concannon petite sirah isn’t available unless you know someone who was smart enough to save a bottle. And, ordinarily, I don’t write about wine that you can’t buy. But this was such a moment in my wine drinking life that I wanted to share it. My only regret? That this post is the only way most of you will get to taste it.
Photo courtesy of Splash, using a Creative Commons license
Big Wine’s increasing domination of the marketplace brings with it the idea that brands don’t matter the way they used to. If a brand doesn’t perform the way its owner thinks it should, it gets dumped or sold or ignored, and Kenwood is a prime example. It started as an independent, was bought by the same $100 million company that owns Korbel sparkling wine, and then sold to the $9 billion Pernod Ricard conglomerate a couple of years ago.
Along the way, and especially after Korbel bought it, quality suffered. Production was almost doubled and what had been a decent grocery store brand became the kind of wine I write cranky things about. Fortunately, Pernod Richard saw something that Korbel didn’t, and this vintage of the Kenwood sauvignon blanc ($12, sample, 13.5%) shows progress toward returning the brand to cheap wine quality.
The Kenwood sauvignon blanc tastes like it should, which I didn’t expect. Look for California grassiness, some citrus and tropical fruit, and a finish that is almost unpleasant but that ends so quickly that it doesn’t get in the way. Hopefully, more improvement will follow, and Kenwood will once again become the kind of wine you can buy in a grocery store without a second thought. It should also be around $10 in most supermarkets, another bonus.
One sign, though, that Big Wine will always be Big Wine: The back label suggests pairing the Kenwood sauvignon blanc with “spring roasted vegetable salad and herb-roasted fish.” My question? If I’m buying $10 wine in the grocery store, will I roast vegetables or fish (and especially fish)? I realize those pairings are there to give a cheap wine an upmarket cache, but do they really think they’re fooling anyone?
The Wine Curmudgeon grew up when French wine ruled the world, and I have watched with sadness as the French — and especially in Bordeaux — have done everything they can to teach the world to ignore French wine. It’s not just that so much Bordeaux is overpriced and underwhelming, but that the Bordelais are in such denial about it. We just need a new marketing company!
That’s why I was so excited last week, during a Bordeaux tasting in Dallas organized by the Spec’s retail chain, to find a handful of $15 to $20 wines that were worth buying. Granted, that’s still more than I wish they cost, and those at the $20 end were pushing the price/value barrier, but it’s a start. That’s because the couple of times I mentioned price to producers at the event, they looked at me as if I was crazy. They truly don’t understand that they have priced themselves out of the reach of almost all U.S. wine drinkers, and I guess no one noticed that only 9 of the 60 or wines at the tasting cost less than $30.
The best affordable wine at the event, and perhaps the best under $20 red Bordeaux I have tasted in years, was the 2011 Chateau Ampelia ($17, sample, 13.5%), made by from the seventh generation Despagne winemaking family. It’s a blend of 95 percent merlot and five percent cabernet franc, and tastes not only like it’s worth that much money, but is honest in its approach. That means it doesn’t tart up the fruit to appeal to U.S. drinkers, so that the merlot tastes like merlot, the cabernet franc adds a little heft, and it’s not a too fruity malbec. Look for red fruit, a bit of spice, and a wine that will age for a couple of more years. Highly recommended.
Also worth trying: the Chateau Croix Mouton ($17, sample, 13.5%), not quite as impressive as the Ampelia, but with ripe fruit and French style; and the Chateau Puygueraud ($20, sample, 14%), an old standby with fresh fruit and an almost herbal aroma — would that it cost a couple of bucks less.
Finally, to be fair, the quality of almost all the wines was tremendous, Bordeaux as it should be — incredible fruit, top-notch winemaking, and everything that is wonderful about French wine. The 2011 Chateau Clinet was earthy, peppery, deep, and full, all I could have hoped for. That it costs $90 was the only problem.
This was going to be a glowing post about the wine program at Blue Apron, the home delivery service that supplies recipes and ingredients for home cooks who want to try something more adventurous than Wednesday night meatloaf. When Blue Apron wine debuted last fall, giving its customers the opportunity to buy wine paired for its recipes, I thought: “Finally. Someone in the food business understands wine.”
Which turned out to be as far from the truth as possible. The six Blue Apron wines that I tasted (all samples) were poorly made, rarely varietally correct, mostly old and worn out, and apparently came from a bulk house whose website seems more excited about label design than wine quality. Adding to the aggravation: I emailed Blue Apron requesting an interview in October, and was told to submit my questions in writing because its executives didn’t do interviews. I’m still waiting for the answers to my questions; maybe they didn’t want to tell me what I found out by tasting the wine (and I hope that the conscientious PR woman who sent the samples doesn’t get fired, because none of this is her fault).
How depressing was my Blue Apron wine experience? The best tasting wine was a South African pinotage, and one rarely gets to say that about pinotage. Besides, if you’re trying to teach foodies about wine, why would you send them pinotage, a grape that is difficult to make into quality wine and isn’t widely available? The pinot noir, labeled Hilliard Bruce but vinted and bottled at the bulk company, was bland and faded. A Lodi vermentino tasted as much like the Italian grape as a crayon does, and a California sauvignon blanc was green, stemmy, and bitter with almost no sauvignon blanc fruit. The less said about the Spanish monastrell and California chardonnay the better.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that Blue Apron wine has nothing to do with wine and everything with what marketers call adding value to the product. For an extra $65.99 a month, they’ll send you six “incredible” bottles that will “complement your upcoming Blue Apron meals.” In this, the company is giving its customers something they wouldn’t or couldn’t do on their own. If most Blue Apron customers subscribe because they love food and cooking, they’re less likely to know what incredible tastes like or how wine complements a meal. So six bottles (even 500-ml ones, about two-thirds of normal) for $10 each? Sign me up.
Which means Blue Apron wine is about selling Blue Apron and very little about teaching anyone about wine. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I really wanted to believe Blue Apron wine was the real thing. Even a curmudgeon has hopes.
Finally, to anyone who has subscribed to Blue Apron wine and wonders if all wine tastes like this, no, it doesn’t. The next time you want to pair your Blue Apron Lebanese Arayes (filled pitas), buy a $10 Bogle sauvingon blanc instead of the recommended Blue Apron sauvignon blanc. The Bogle tastes like real wine, and you get an extra couple of glasses for the same price.