Sips: From organic grapes, Di Giovanna’s charming $11 ‘Gerbino’ red wine from Sicily

After three days of holiday entertaining, a simple pasta sauce and a (hopefully) decent, inexpensive red wine were on tap for our dinner the other night. The pasta would be based on some of the Sicilian red tomatoes I picked in late summer and early fall, then skinned,  seeded and placed in Ziploc bags for freezing so that we might  enjoy them at this time of year and early into the new year. Believe it or not, freezing retains a remarkable amount of the tomatoes’ original taste; you simply thaw them and simmer them until most of the excess liquid that results from freezing is cooked off. Then, in another skillet, sauté some chopped garlic in olive oil, add the tomatoes and, in this rendition, a fistful of chopped fresh basil and oregano. The result: a summer reprise in late December.

As for the wine, I came across one at my neighborhood wine store that I hoped would fit the bill: Di Giovanna’s 2009 “Gerbino,” an $11 Sicilian rosso, or red wine, made from a blend of organic nero d’avola and “other international varieties,” according to Di Giovanna’s website, hence its IGT designation. With a little aeration, the ruby-red wine, named for one of Di Giovanna’s vineyards, opened up beautifully, revealing charming cherry and blueberry fruit, good acidity and a fine tannic structure that supported its lengthy finish. It was simply delightful, particularly on its own; alas, it was fairly mismatched with my tomato sauce, which overpowered its delicate fruit. It would have been better with chicken or pork or even a seared steak. In any event, I was grateful to find a very affordable new red wine that was a pleasure to drink. Alcohol is 14 percent. Imported by Montecastelli Selections, New York.


Sips: From the Loire Valley, rolling the dice and winning with Domaine de la Chaise’s Touraine

Among the joys in this line of work are the elements of surprise and discovery – taking chances on new wines and seeing what they bring. Sometimes, of course, there is disappointment, as with a simple ‘09 Beaujolais I bought last night. It was imported by a company I respect, which is often a first line of defense when it comes to quality. Alas, the wine was dull and uninspired. Didn’t the folks in the wine shop taste it before buying it? Unfortunately, there are stores whose owners don’t even bother.

But I’m happy to report that I had a far different experience recently with another wine from another store on which I rolled the dice. I often like to begin the evening with a crisp white as I cook dinner and unwind. There were several Loire Valley sauvignon blancs in the cooler – a Sancerre priced in the high $20s, a Quincy in the high teens, and then a Touraine offered at $14. Touraine, you’ll recall, is a very large area and broad appellation in the Loire where both sauvignon and chenin blanc are grown, along with a variety of red grapes.

It turned out that Domaine de la Chaise’s 2010 Touraine is as good a sauvignon as you’ll find at this price from the Loire Valley or elsewhere. Its elegance and superb fruit come across in the first sip with tastes of pear, lime and orange, a little vanilla and subtle herb, spice and mineral notes. Its overall complexity and signature Loire style make the wine a superb value and a top contender for fish and shellfish, simple chicken dishes and as a pleasing aperitif. It would do well in a blind tasting with more famous and expensive Loire sauvignons. A typical case discount will make it even more of a bargain. Imported by Gabriella Importers, Bohemia, New York.


Swirls: An appeal for some restraint and self-editing in wine social media

It is a fact of life in the online wine world: just about everyone who makes or markets or writes about wine these days promotes their efforts via social media, especially Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. I use all three at times to make readers aware of stories on this website, especially Twitter, whose robust wine community I enjoy being part of, at least for the most part.

I qualify my enthusiasm because the so-called Twitterverse is also a repository for over-the-top self-promotion that is repetitious, annoying and downright boring. I am hardly the firsttwitter_t_logo  to suggest that one should strive for an approach that balances self-promotion and the sharing of wine information and observations (as well as non-wine musings) that both wine followers and a broader audience might find interesting and useful. I readily admit that I am still looking for the right balance in my own Tweeting, although I think I’m moving toward it.

Some examples of balance: while Howard G. Goldberg (@howardggoldberg) flags us on his Sunday wine pieces in The New York Times, he also wonders, as he did on Twitter yesterday, “how many man-in-the-street consumers, finding ‘tightly wound’ in a wine review in a newspaper, understand what it means.” It’s an interesting point that invites discussion and self-reflection. Likewise, Tom Wark (@tomcwark), author of the widely read Fermentation wine blog, balances plugs for his own posts with simple questions, without links, such as: “Are any of the Republican candidates for President better for the wine industry?” or “If all wines tasted exactly as they do now—but contained no alcohol—would you drink as much as you do?”

By contrast, for another writer I follow on Twitter, hardly a day goes by when there isn’t another Tweet with another link about another review of this writer’s latest book. How many times must followers be subjected to this? Twenty, 50, 100? We get the point. Not to mention link after link to the writer’s articles and radio appearances and speaking engagements. Isn’t there  anything worth saying that’s not about this writer’s clearly booming business? (In case you’re wondering, I’m not going to mention this person by name because snarkiness is something else for which I have low tolerance.)

Beyond out-of-control self-promotion, there is the wide and largely useless practice of thanking one’s followers for following them or for re-tweeting their tweets. While this may make those being thanked feel good, think of the hundreds, or thousands or tens of thousands of followers for whom these Tweets have absolutely no relevance. I feel a little like the late Any Rooney in saying all this, but does anyone really disagree?

Back when newspapers, magazines and TV and radio broadcasts were the only media for news and information, there was something known as “limited space.” Reporters and  writers, as I learned, had to decide how to fit what they needed to say into the space or time allotted. Cyberspace has changed all that.

Another saying among journalists is that everyone needs an editor. In this era of unlimited digital space and endless self-promotion, a little self-editing is really what’s in order.


Swirls: A call for a little humility in the wine world after shopper drops $85K on 5 bottles and auctioneer announces $6.5 million holiday ‘gift guide’

Before having some second thoughts, I began this story as one more gee-whiz  item from the increasingly crazy world of wine sales. Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t found many wine bargains in recent years at duty-free shops in France. But then again, I’m not shopping at the level of a certain buyer who recently purchased five bottles of French wine for – take a deep breath now --  $85,000. The sale took place at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport and was announced – trumpeted, really -- by the airport operator, which identified the buyer only as “an Asian,” according to AFP. What did he buy? Click here to find out, and then let me know if you think the shopper got his money’s worth buying these “duty-free” wines.

I was going to leave the story at that, an odd tidbit from the eccentric world of wine. But then I started thinking about it:  imagine, spending $85,000 on five bottles of wine. I couldn’t help but wonder how this buyer might have spent the money, or even part of it, on something else, perhaps something that might have made a difference somewhere in the world. I thought of the buyer, sitting in a first-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle, waiting for his plane home to Hong Kong or Shanghai or Singapore. I also thought of people waiting to fly to Lahore, or Kinshasa or Delhi, places where $85,000 could have a real and immediate impact on the lives of ordinary people.

I don’t begrudge anyone the right to spend money as they see fit. But in these still challenging economic times, when so many are having such a hard time, should we be flaunting such excess so shamelesslacker 2y? That was going to be it for this story  until I received a press release this morning from Acker Merrall &  Condit, the wine merchant and auction house. It made the story about the wine buyer in Paris seem like small potatoes. The release announced a “Twelve Days of Christmas” gift guide aimed at “the world’s most passionate wine lovers.” Twelve wine packages, all of them featuring rare bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, starting at a $29,000 and going up to $2,070,000 for “the one gift to end them all.” The packages add up to a total of $6,458,000.

“We’ve had an amazing year,” John Kapon, Acker Merrall’s CEO, says in the release. “With estimated sales in 2011 in excess of $110 million, we will be the first wine auction house in history to breach the hundred million mark.” The holiday sale, he says, is “to celebrate Christmas and the close of the year.” And with it, he proclaims, “we’re going to deliver astonishing delight to wine lovers worldwide.” Perhaps he forgot that the vast majority of wine lovers worldwide are looking for a good bottle at perhaps $10 to $15.

The issue here is not that wine merchants – Acker Merrall, the Paris duty-free shop or countless others -- are selling wines at these prices or that buyers are willing to scoop them up. So-called fine wine, after all, is increasingly seen as a good investment, one that can compete with real estate or gold or stocks and bonds. It is the gushing manner in which these sales are being announced that  gives me pause. Wine is all about elegance and grace and lends itself to a little contemplation. As we count our blessings at this time of year, those qualities are worth remembering.


Sips: From Spain, a memorable white wine from the year the Berlin Wall came down -- R. López de Heredia’s Viña Tondonia Reserva

Perhaps no producer makes the case for aging white wine better than R. López de Heredia, the famed Rioja traditionalist whose wines are typically aged for a decade or more, including years in oak barrels, before release. I got to experience one of these Lopez wine unique wines again last week at dinner with friends at a New York restaurant. All of us ordered fish – sea bass, skate and sea scallops -- and I wanted a  fairly robust white wine that would hold up to the panoply of sauces and reductions. The sommelier suggested a Spanish chardonnay-viura blend, but right above it on the wine list I noticed López de Heredia’s 1989 Viña Tondonia Reserva. Yes, 1989. This 22-year-old white wine – Tondonia is the name of the vineyard -- was a deep golden color but still had a wonderfully fresh aroma that also suggested the slight oxidation that occurs with such age and that is an intriguing hallmark of López de Heredia’s white wines.

The blend in this vintage was 90 percent viura, the main white variety of Rioja, and 10 percent malvasia, and I was struck by the wine’s still-vibrant acidity, which confirmed my instinct that it would be a superb match for our food. Then, as it warmed up and opened up a bit, the complexity emerged – pear, some butterscotch, subtle raspberry and cherry notes followed by orange and cedar on the back end. A bit sherry-like? Yes, but with fruit that was still fresh and vibrant even though it was harvested the year the Berlin Wall came down. While it appears that the 1989 vintage is no longer available at retail, wine-searcher.com lists a number of mid-1990s vintages in the $40 range. Viña Tondonia is a unique and memorable wine to sip slowly and contemplate from a producer that teaches us the value of tradition.


Sips: Beyond Champagne, Bubbly from Alsace -- Lucien Albrecht’s Blanc de Blancs

In these persistently challenging economic times, Champagne may be prohibitive or seem extravagant this holiday season. Fortunately, there is no shortage of moderately priced sparkling wines from which to choose. Do they offer the cachet or  unmistakable elegance of good Champagne? Not quite. But they can indeed provide a pleasing and festive experience at much  more affordable prices.  I’ll be sampling a number of them in coming weeks, but one early standout is from France’s Alsace region, Lucien Albrecht’s Crémant d’Alsace Brut Blanc de Blancs. In Champagne, of course, blanc de blancs refers to wines made entirely from chardonnay. Albrecht’s blanc de blancs, by contrast is is from pinot blanc, one of Alsace’s signature varieties, which is highly successful in this crisp yet fruity wine. With its fine bubbles and aromas and tastes that suggest green apple, herbs and freshly baked bread, enjoy it with a variety of hors d’oeuvres, sushi and fish dishes. The suggested price is $20. Imported by Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, New York. Received as a press sample.


Swirls: My proposal for Starbucks wine, Chinese Lafite counterfeits, weighing in on wine bottles

SWIRL: Let’s face it. Finding a casual and convenient place for a quick glass of wine or beer can sometimes be a challenge. So Starbucks is expanding its reach into alcoholic beverages with plans to offer them in seven stores in the Chicago area by the end of next year, the Chicago Tribune reports. Beer and wine are Starbucks-logo1-295x300 currently served at five stores in the Seattle area and one in Portland, Ore. No doubt, the big commercial wine brands are already setting their sites on these re-imagined Starbucks stores. But consider this: how cool would it be if Starbucks were to take a refreshingly un-corporate approach to its wine offerings? Instead of some  marketing committee in Seattle deciding on the wines based on lobbying from the big wine companies, why not offer a sampling of artisanal or lesser-known wines from around the world that changes each week? How about a grüner veltliner from Austria, a cru Beaujolais, or a sparkling Crémant from the Loire Valley with an emphasis on organic and biodynamic growing? Might take a little training of the staff but I have a hunch that many Starbucks customers might be open to a little adventure and smaller-production, sustainable offerings when it comes to wine.

SWIRL: It’s not surprising to hear that in Bordeaux-crazed China, counterfeit bottles of Château Lafite are making the  lafiterounds.  China Digital Times reports that “curiously, China appears to consume far more of the top foreign wines than it actually imports, with counterfeiting rising alongside the legitimate trade. Empty Château Lafite bottles are salvaged from restaurants to be illicitly refilled, and rumours speak of a floating wine factory hidden aboard a cargo ship.” Here’s the full story.

SWIRL: We’ve all received them, those extra-heavy bottles intended to signal a wine’s stature and status, meant to distinguish, say, a reserve wine from a regular bottling. But in this eco-conscious era in the wine industry and beyond, are these bottle behemoths really necessary? Paul Gregutt in the Seattle Times thinks not, and I agree. He cites the growing use of the heavy bottles among wineries in Oregon, a state that, paradoxically, has often led the way on environmental concerns. This story is long overdue.


Sips: Bordeaux for the 99 percent

Although Bordeaux churns out oceans of wine, most of the headlines go to the top grand crus that sell for prices that require membership in the one-percent club or in China’s new elite with its insatiable thirst for the wines (China is now Bordeaux’s biggest importer by volume). 

But beyond the storied names, Bordeaux doesn’t get much buzz these days in the United States. You hardly ever hear young people talk about Timberlay2it,  which is regrettable given that Bordeaux can be among the best sources in the world for very good red wines under $20 and even under $15. I gained a new appreciation of this when I toured the region extensively a few years ago.

One category currently being promoted in this country is the wines simply called Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur, the region’s two broadest appellations, in contrast to wines that come from smaller, famed appellations such as Margaux or Saint-Emilion, which command much higher prices. While “Bordeaux” suggests a generic quality that is unfortunately the case with many of the wines, some rise well above that status, particularly those bottled as Bordeaux Supérieur, which may come from older vines and are required to have at least one year of aging in oak.

For example, Château Timberlay’s 2009 Bordeaux Supérieur illustrates the pleasures of young Bordeaux. Although the wine has the potential to age well for three or four years, it is drinking beautifully right now, showing quite opulent fruit and a tannic structure that California imitators can only dream of at a suggested price of $11 for an estate-bottled wine of this quality.

The blend is 7o percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent cabernet franc. The wine was an excellent match with lamb chops grilled in our fireplace, showing blackberry, black currant, raspberry and fig notes and a touch of chocolate. There’s lots of complexity here for the money.

Another standout is Château de Parenchère’s 2008 Bordeaux Supérieur from an estate on the eastern edge of Bordeaux near the Dordogne. Again, what jumped out was a tannic firmness that is a hallmark of Bordeaux, even at the lower end. This one is a blend of 80 percent merlot and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon with a blackberry core and some cedar, cocoa and herbal notes. At $13, it’s another excellent value with good fruit, good structure and the potential to age nicely over the next couple of years. Want further proof of value in inexpensive Bordeaux? Put together a mixed case of reds in the $10 to $20 range. I’m sure you’ll find a few that stand out. Wines received as press samples.