Why you need to try this Brazilian wine before (or after) the Olympics

Brazil produces a ton of wine, most of it in the temperate south with its four seasons. The fact that Brazil makes wine at all is something that most people in this country probably don’t realize, given how Chile and Argentina, with their marketing muscle, dominate South American imports and sales. I can’t recall being queried about my interest in wines from Brazil -- until this summer with the obvious Olympics tie-in.

You’re not going to find many (or any) bottles from Brazil in your local wine store or in restaurants, unless, of course, they’re serving Brazilian food. I can see that changing, however, if more of them knew about wines like Lidio Carraro’s 2014 “Agnus” Tannat.

Carraro, which, like many Brazilian wineries was founded by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, notes that tannat is Brazil’s “emblematic” red grape, as it is in neighboring Uruguay. The variety was transplanted years ago from southwest France (think Madiran), producing tamer, less tannic wines across the ocean, much as malbec, also from France (think Cahors), does in Argentina. Did you know that tannat actually means "tannin"?

Carraro’s tannat, which Wine-Searcher lists at seven retailers and is priced, astonishingly, from just under $11 to $13, is a bright and fruit-forward wine marked by smooth tannins, good balancing acidity and minerals (the grapes are grown in granitic soil), all of which enhance a blackberry-blueberry core accented by coffee bean and cocoa notes. Alcohol is a reasonable 13.5 percent. There’s a lot to enjoy here for not much money. Sounds almost medal-worthy, wouldn't you say? (Imported by Winebow, Inc., New York; received as a press sample). 


Beating the heat with these refreshing whites from France's little-known Quincy

It’s mid-August, and with the heat and humidity truly stifling here in New York, I have no use for wines that aren’t fresh and light (while still interesting, of course). Among whites, sauvignon blancs immediately come to mind. For the “interesting” component, my mind -- and palate -- naturally veer toward France’s Loire Valley.

The Loire is sauvignon blanc country, unparalleled in its quality and range of perspectives on the grape, from the racy and relatively uncomplicated wines of the large Touraine appellation, to the complex and celebrated offerings from Sancerre and its neighbor Pouilly Fumé.

Somewhere in between are the wines of Quincy, a storybook village in the upper Loire that lives in the shadow of its
more famous neighbors like Sancerre. I remember thinking the first time I was there that lunch didn’t get much better than a hunk of the local chèvre, a baguette and a bottle of Quincy (although the young woman I was with may have had at least something to do with it).

If Quincy (pronounced can-SEE)  is not a great sauvignon appellation, it is very good, and the prices reflect its less rarefied place in the pecking order. That said, I was reminded on tasting several samples sent to me this summer just how satisfying the wines can be.

Take Domaine Mardon’s 2014 Quincy “Tres Vielles Vignes,” listed online for $15 to $20. Apricot, orange and lime notes are softened by a subtle creamy overlay that also gives it richness. A steely minerality keeps it sharply focused. This mineral component, by the way, is what defines good sauvignon and other Loire wines, both white and red.

Another standout is Domaine Sylvain Bailly’s 2015 Quincy “Beaucharme,” fresh and zingy, light and complex with citrus, herb and subtle vanilla notes. It’s about $16 and available here. The stated alcohol level of both wines is a relatively modest 13 percent.


From Atlantic Spain, a fresh white wine shows off its lovely fruit

As I write this on a warm, early autumn day, I am reminded that many fruits on the farm stands are at their peak: the last of the peaches are being scooped up as the apples and pears take their place; there may still be some berries around.

What made me think of this was a gorgeous white wine I am tasting from the Rias Baixas region of Galicia in northwest Spain -- the 2014 Abadia de San Campio Albarino from Bodegas Terras Gauda.

I have tasted this wine many times before. Never has it been this delicious, suggesting that 2014 must have been one heck of a vintage in Rias Baixas. Albarino is the region's most important grape and is in its glory in this $19 bottling, bursting with ripe tropical fruit and rich lemon tastes, fresh and lively with great balance between fruit and acidity.

I also detected a touch of brine, evoking the Atlantic orientation of Rias Baixas. In fact, I want to drink this wine with fish -- all kinds of simply prepared fish (but no rich sauces, please) and shellfish. Smoked salmon also comes to mind.

It's wonderful as well on its own,  a sophisticated and crowd-pleasing white whose alcohol is a lean 12 percent. Made without oak. My kind of wine, all around.

Imported by Avenu Brands, Baltimore, Maryland. Received as a press sample.



Anaba’s Winning 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

California chardonnay is often a difficult proposition for me. So much oak, so much alcohol, so little balance. That is, of course, a big generalization, but after so much criticism of the style, it’s remarkable how many California chardonnays are still made in that clumsy, overbearing style.

One that is not is Anaba’s 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, a subtle and beautifully balanced wine that is also an excellent value at $28. There is opulent fruit here, to be sure, evoking apple with an orange punctuation mark. There are floral and vanilla notes as well along with subtle touches of caramel and butterschotch from judicious oak treatment.

This is medium-bodied chardonnay with alcohol listed at 13.9 percent. And that medium-ness, so to speak, is part of what makes it stand out. It’s “easy” to drink in the sense that it invites you back to sip and savor it it again. Enticiing and complex, a wine that other California producers  might do well to taste -- and contemplate. Received as a press sample.


For fresh white wine bargains, head to France's Gascony

The Gascony region in France’s southwest is most famous for Armagnac, but the grapes used in the brandy are also used in some excellent fresh white wines that offer real value.

One of my favorites is Domaine du Tariquet’s Cotes de Gascogne “Classic,” and the newly released 2014 vintage is one of the best I’ve tasted. This $8 blend of ugni blanc, colombard, sauvignon blanc and gros manseng is light and fruity with tastes of white peach, exotic fruit and citrus, mainly orange, with honey and a touch of minerality along the edges. There is good complexity here at a bargain price, and the wine is easy to drink with alcohol at just 12 percent. It’s great on its own and will match well with simple fish and shellfish.

Equally impressive is Domaine du Tariquet’s 2014 Chenin Blanc-Chardonnay, a winning $11 blend that’s 75 percent chenin and 25 percent chardonnay. Again, there’s good minerality here, and the chardonnay gives it a little richness. Apple, lemon, orange and tropical fruit notes are followed by a touch of cream on the finish. Alcohol in this one is also 12 percent and the wine is made without oak. It’s a satisfying alternative to much more expensive wines from the Loire Valley and Burgundy. For chicken, fish and everyday quaffing.

While these are quintessentially summer wines, they’re the kind of refreshing whites I like to start off with just about every day of the year. Imported by Robert Kacher Selections, New York. Received as press samples.


In an endless winter, wines that will transport you to summer

As I write this, it’s about to drop down to two degrees again here in New York, hardly the kind of weather that brings on thoughts of refreshing summer wines. But as part of my own strategy for coping with this brutal blast of winter we’ve been enduring for weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve been tasting. They're not a substitute for a warm beach, but they've taken some of the chill out of my mind, at least, and given me a jump on some exciting new releases to be enjoyed in the months ahead.

From New Zealand, Mud House’s 2014 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($12) immediately got me in the spirit of spring. This is classic Kiwi sauvignon with delicious grapefruit and gooseberry notes, vibrant acidity and a touch of cream on the long finish. It’s notable as well for its roundness -- there’s nothing strident, as New Zealand sauvignons can sometimes be. Alcohol is 13 percent. Imported by Accolade Wines North America, Napa, California.
I have often said that rosés can and should be drunk through the year, a point reinforced by the first two rosés I’ve tasted this year. They represent two very different styles and both are memorable.

From France’s Loire Valley, Saget La Perrière’s 2014 La Petite Perrière Rosé ($14) is as refreshing a rosé as you’ll find, It is made from 100 percent pinot noir, an under-appreciated Loire variety. I was struck immediately by a liveliness produced by its bright acidity, just the right quality to counteract a deep-winter funk. With its light salmon color its tastes evoke ripe cherry and strawberry with some lemon, orange and a touch of cream on the finish. Alcohol is 12 percent.

In a slightly fuller style, the 2014 Los Vascos Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé ($14) is notable for its minerality that punctuates concentrated strawberry and raspberry notes. There’s a refreshing citrusy finish on this one as well. Alcohol is 13.5 percent. Los Vascos is produced in Chile’s Colchagua Valley and is owned by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). Both rosés will be available this spring and are imported by Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, New York. All three wines were received as samples for review.


Sips: A nice crisp pinot noir from New Zealand

Let’s face it: good under-$20 pinot noir with real varietal character, complexity and balance is hard to find. From New Zealand, Nobilo’s 2013 Icon Pinot Noir from Marlborough solves the problem. This widely available wine has an average price of $19 on Wine Searcher, with many retailers listing it for a good deal less. It has notes of black cherry, plum, blueberry and a typical and pleasing New Zealand pinot earthiness. Nicely integrated oak and refreshing acidity complete the picture.  It matched well with sliced London broil and will pair with lots of other dishes, from salmon to pork chops to roast turkey. An excellent choice for the Thanksgiving table. Try serving it slightly chilled.


A wine made when Nixon was President reminds us how sexy 'old' can be

As a critic, I get to taste many hundreds of wines each year and sometimes get invited to events, many of them involving wine regions, wineries or importers presenting their latest releases. Sometimes the wines are memorable and I write about them; sometimes not.

One of the more unusual experiences of this kind came not long ago when I was invited to stop by Morrell & Co., the well-known New York retailer and wine bar just across the street from my  office in Rockefeller Center. The occasion was an updating of the store and bar and a chance to taste a few wines. There was a rosé from Provence, a red Bordeaux and a California chardonnay. Good wines, but hardly the stuff of which memories are made.

Fortunately, there were more wines to taste. There, on the counter, sat three very large bottles that towered over the others around them. Each was a Barolo, the famous wine from the region of the same name in Piedmont in northern Italy. Not only that, they were from the 1970s -- a ‘79, a ‘76 and a ‘70 to be precise. They represented an unusual chance to go back in time.
Wine is all about connections -- to those with whom we enjoy it and, for me, connections to wines themselves and their histories. The most interesting and vital of these old Barolos was the 1970, which was clearly a very good vintage for Barolo.

To put the year it in context, Richard Nixon was president, the Beatles broke up and the computer floppy disk was introduced, all of them relegated to history long ago. In Barolo, on the other hand, Giacomo Borgogno would make a wine that would remain vibrant for decades to come, the 1970 Barolo Riserva “Antichi Vigneti Propri.’
The nebbiolo grape attains its greatest expression in Barolo and the wine is made for aging, gradually losing the strongly tannic character of its youth and evolving, in the best vintages, into a transcendent experience in which fruit and wood and sense of place become one.
As I stood at the counter, David Johnson, Yung Leung and Jura Almeida carefully poured small quantities of wine from the big bottle, which held 3.78 liters and would cost more than $500 today, into a decanter for aeration. Then they poured a half an inch or so into our glasses. The color was light brick red; the aromas conveyed red fruit, roses and cedar.

This is the kind of wine that makes you want to talk about it with anyone around you, and I found myself doing just that – describing how it was still very much alive after all these years, with vibrant acidity, still-firm tannins and beautiful fruit.

With each small glass I found myself focusing on something different: in one glass an emphasis on the secondary tastes of leather, meat and beef bouillon cube; in another hints of raspberry, blueberry and a long, mineral-driven finish.

We all had the sense on this evening that we were tasting something unique, something that could not be replicated. I found myself transported back to another era, thinking of the images and the history of the time, and in my glass, enjoying something old that was still very much alive.