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This page last updated
Wed, Jun 9, 2004

FEATURED WINES
(with recommended music)

All the wines reviewed on these pages are recommended for being interesting, attractive, drinkable, and maybe even a little unusual. In almost all cases they are either readily affordable or easily available, hopefully both.

Much thought is given to each wine's recommended musical accompaniment... Then again, feel free to substitute your own alternative. It's a way to have fun while indulging our great taste(s).

For a full list of iJamming! wine reviews, please visit the Wine Home Page.

AZIANO
CHIANTI CLASSICO, 2001
TUSCANY, ITALY, $10

By now, every wine drinker should know that Chianti has left behind its reputation for plonk poured from straw-covered fiaschi – the starter wine for a million Brits in the local Italian immigrants' Trattoria - and is behind some of the most sublime reds in the world. But now we know not to avoid it, how do we know what to buy? What's the difference, for example, between Chianti Rufina and Ruffino Chianti? What's the difference between Chianti, Chianti Classico, and Chianti Classico Riserva? How much of a factor does price play in all this? And what's in a bottle of Chianti anyway?

Working backwards: Chianti will always be predominantly Sangiovese, a grape that's yet to achieve greatness anywhere but in its native Tuscany. Part of Chianti's former bad reputation was down to the (legal) blending of white grapes into the mix. The laws have now changed and if anything, there's probably a small amount of noble red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah in there instead.

Price varies enormously. Chianti Classico Riserva can be some of the best wine in Italy, but they can be expensive, and you need to hoard them away to fully appreciate them. In the lowest price range, wine simply marked Chianti can come from a wide swathe of vineyards all across middle Tuscany, and unless you know your producers, picking one up can be like playing the lottery.

So, if you're not a betting person, look for wines marked Chianti Classico. This does not mean they're the oenophile's equivalent of Classic Rock, but that they hail from an area, in the heart of eight different Chianti regions, officially known as Classico. I recently bought a bottle of Aziano, the highly regarded Ruffino company's everyday Chianti Classico, for just over $10. And this one is a classic Chianti: 100% Sangiovese aged in the traditional manner - spending a few months in large old oak casks, as opposed to the new barrels that impart such heavy oak flavors in other wines.

The Aziano offered typical Sangiovese aromas of black cherries and dried herbs, as well as the grape's usual bitter attack and bright acidity, all of which can be an initial shock to a palate weaned on smooth merlots or rich Côtes du Rhônes. But Italian wines are designed for enjoyment with food, and Sangiovese is a particularly good accompaniment to traditional Italian tomato sauces. (The acidity of the wine cancels out that of the sauce, and vice versa.) Alongside a cheese and broccoli lasagna laden in marinara – the type of dish most wine aficionados would run a mile from – the Aziano was an absolute delight, its simplicity complementing rather than competing with the food. A classic Trattoria experience.

Left in the bottle 24 hours, the wine gained in complexity: there were now some orange rind aromas, more pronounced dried herbs (sage and oregano), and the zesty black cherries seemed ready to emerge from the bottle in their skins. Tannins that had surprised me with their vigor on first taste had disappeared already (indicating that this is not a wine to age too long), but the acidity remained bright and cheerful. A tasty, tangy red wine, it was pleasant enough on this second night for solo drinking and as an accompaniment to some artisanal cheese.

All this for just $10. And in a disappointing vintage too. Proof again that those producers (in any region) who make some of the most illustrious, expensive wines, can often be relied on to make the best everyday wines too.

Which brings us to the first question. Rufina is among the best of the eight different Chianti regions. Ruffino is among the top producers in another of those eight regions, Chianti Classico. In fact, Ruffino's gold-labeled Riserva Ducale is a benchmark Chianti Classico known all over the world. At $30-40 a bottle though, why bother unless you plan to store it long enough to make sense? The same company's Aziano is a perfect entry point into both the world of Chianti and Sangiovese.

MUSIC?: Wine can be confusing stuff. Which is why you want to remember the words "Chianti Classico" when you're impressing a date down at either the local Italian restaurant, or in the wine bar. It's the perfect streetwise wine. Which it makes the perfect drink while listening to The Streets' new album, A Grand Don't Come For Free.

FORIS VINEYARDS GEWÜRZTRAMINER ROGUE VALLEY, OREGON, 2001, $12
WITNESS TREE PINOT BLANC 2002, WILLIAMETTE VALLEY, OREGON, $15

Two Oregon takes on an Alsace tradition: note the tall, thin bottles.

Oregon has proven itself as a State worth watching for the quality of its Pinot Noir - a grape traditionally associated with Burgundy, but one that also has long-standing roots in Alsace, the north-eastern French region which exhibits a German influence in its wine labeling and bottling. (Alsace has periodically been occupied by Germany; the book Wine And War tells how some of the area's producers battled against their occupiers during World War II.) So it comes as no surprise that Oregon winemakers should have started focusing on Pinot Noir's white-skinned relatives and Alsatian neighbors, like Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer. It was a shock, however, to taste two such Oregon white wines recently and find them so high in alcohol. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson write in The World Atlas Of Wine that "Alsace makes Germanic wine in the French way." In that case it can fairly be said that "Oregon makes Alsace wine in the Californian style."

Admittedly, one of the producers in question, Foris Vineyards, is based in the Rogue Valley, only just above the Californian border, so it's not a great shock that this highly reputed winery's Gewürztraminer should weigh in at 13.8% alcohol. What counts is that they found a balance. The aromatic nose of apple and pear is quite piercing and highly attuned, the palate hits with the orange blossom flavor that's particular to the Gewürztraminer grape, but with less of the grape's typical spiciness such as can sometimes overwhelms. There's some mineral to this wine, a sensation of fresh forest stream too, and while it has a little of the heavyweight oiliness at the back of the palate that makes Gewürztraminer an acquired taste, it's not so overpowering as to deter the casual drinker. At $12, it's more than fairly priced, too.

The Witness Tree Pinot Blanc 2002 from the Williamette Valley may be harder to find, given that it's from a minute one-acre vineyard. But allowing that I bought it for around $15 in Brooklyn, it's certainly not exclusive either in its distribution or its pricing. Pinot Blanc has a reputation as a pleasantly innocuous wine, an every day quaffer found most frequently in Alsace, Germany and Austria. Quite how Witness Tree got 14.5% alcohol - a higher body count than most Châteauneuf du Papes - out of such a relatively mild-mannered grape is almost beyond me. With that kind of punch, we expect serious weight and flavor from the wine, and that's what we get: a nose that erupts with tropical flavors (pineapple and peach) as often found in Californian Chardonnays, along with some melon, pear and grapefruit. Healthy acidity helps balance the big fat body and the finish has an almost fizzy kick. It's obviously a heavyweight – you don't want to be sipping this white wine as a lunchtime aperitif unless you plan on taking the afternoon off – but the rich intensity of its fruit and its equitable distribution of flavors keeps everything in check. Just about. It's an intriguing wine, though it has almost nothing in common with its Alsatian ancestors. If you see it around, take it on a date. Just don't forget who's boss.

MUSIC: If "Oregon makes Alsace wine in the Californian style," then French-born, Detroit-raised retro chanteuse Denise James could be said to "make European music in the Californian style." Or something like that. Either way, her summery new album It's Not Enough To Love is the ideal date music to accompany these white wines.

DOMAINE ROGER PERRIN
CHÂTEAUNEUF DU PAPE 2001
RHÔNE, FRANCE, $30

Any casual visitor to iJamming! will quickly learn that the southern Rhône is my favorite wine region. That's why I've posted one extensive feature about Côtes du Rhône reds, another about Côtes du Rhône-Villages reds, one on the whites of the southern Rhône and yet another on the region's rosés . Why, Rhône-friendly readers might wonder, have I not yet waxed lyrical about the Southern Rhône's undisputed champion, the world-renowned wines from Châteauneuf du Pape?

Well, the original intent was to post other features working my way up the remaining southern Rhône appellations – Lirac, Vacqueryas and Gigondas – before reaching the pinnacle of Châteauneuf du Pape. Time, I now realize, will prevent this project being completed soon, and so while I strongly recommend each of those three Appellations as a wonderful graduation up the Rhône wine scale, I'm going to jump ahead and recommend one of the "big boys."

For time is not just against me in completing my tasting tour, but also against you and your buying power. The southern Rhône enjoyed four superlative vintages from 1998 through to 2001, but storms of a Biblical nature hit the vineyards at harvest time in 2002, drowning many Châteauneuf du Pape vineyards under two foot of rain just as the vignerons would normally start picking their grapes. A number of producers have 'declassified' their wine down to generic Cotes du Rhones; those who've produced a Châteauneuf du Pape are hardly shouting about it from the rooftop.

The scorching summer of 2003 might appear to provide some recompense, but it also served to reduce the crop quite substantially. This in turn will push prices up further from a region that's already seen increased attention and price increases thanks to these four consecutive great vintages. American consumers can then add in the ongoing fall of the dollar against the Euro, and acknowledged that they may simply be priced out of the 2003 Châteauneuf du Papes.

Fortunately, the 2001s have only recently started hitting the shelves, and there's no shortage of good 2000s out there too. 2001 was a near-enough perfect vintage in Châteauneuf du Pape, whereby the best wines, as always, will improve for ten-thirty years, though many are approachable upon release. But the 2000s are considered more 'forward', so don't feel shy about choosing a bottle from that vintage and opening it tonight. The basic bottling from Domaine Roger Perrin, at around $30, may seem more expensive than most of us would pay for anything less than a special occasion, but by the standards of Bordeaux and Burgundy, this most sublime of wine regions remains affordable. Besides, Châteauneuf du Pape is a special wine. Here are a few reasons:


1) The guidelines established back in 1923 for the wines of Châteauneuf du Pape proved so successful that they became the foundation for the whole of the French Appellation Contrôlée system.

2) The wines of Châteauneuf du Pape have the highest minimum alcohol content (12.5%) of any wines in France.

3) Flying saucers are forbidden by local law from landing in the vineyards. (Seriously!)

4) Many of the vines are planted in fields full of huge glacial boulders (galets roulés) which, while back-breaking for the farmers and seemingly incompatible with fruit-growing, serve to absorb the Provençal heat during the day and reflect it back on the vines in the evening hours. This terroir is unique to Châteauneuf du Pape.

5) The wines come in embossed bottles that emphasise their status as heavy-weights.

6) The red wines (there is some high quality white, no rosé) have the highest number of different grapes permitted in the blend of any wine anywhere – some thirteen in all.


Only three wineries use all thirteen grapes, and Domaine Roger Perrin is not among them. Perrin's blend is more consistent with that of most Châteauneuf du Pape estates – a predominance (70-75%) of strong, sweet, spicy, aromatic Grenache, some Syrah (10-15%) for meaty backbone, a little Mourvèdre (6-8%) for earthiness and further ageing potential, and a smattering of Cinsault, Clairette, Counoise and Vaccarese to round out a blend unique to the Estate. The average age of these vines is some 60 years old, ideal for concentration of flavor.

Largely because of the unusual blends, a good Châteauneuf du Pape can be difficult wines to describe, and I tend to associate them with their colour. Think lavender, think violets, think a cross between blood red and black night with feminine pink adding its sensuality. In other words, think purple. The Perrin is a big wine, no doubt about it (though its 14.5% alcohol is not unusual for the vintage), but good Châteauneuf du Pape wine-makers are experts at wrapping their power-house Grenache inside a velvet glove.

The Perrin wine sings loud and clear with its pronounced Provençal aromas (a blend of herbs and olives and grapes unique to the region), sweet Grenache fruit (the usual plums and dark cherries, though you'll also encounter more dried fruit flavors like fig and currant in a big wine like this), and earthy intensity (Châteauneuf du Papes often have a 'barnyard'/'leather saddle' aroma); it hits the palate with a perfect balance of muscle and finesse, offers up chewy tannins and a strong, vibrant peppery finish. Cellar it for a decade and it will turn into something else entirely – a smoother, more sensuous wines full of secondary flavors – or drink it now and raise the roof.

The wines of Roger Perrin (not to be confused with the Perrin brothers of Châteauneuf du Pape's most esteemed estate, Château Beaucastel) tend to be filtered and fined, reducing the chance of sediment in the bottle; this places the Domaine in the 'modern' camp frowned upon by the Village's many 'traditionalists'. But Perrin doesn't drown the wine in oak, as is increasingly becoming the tendency on the assumption that this suits 'New World' tastes. Given this balance between old and new, allowing that the wine is priced sensibly for the Appellation, and that quality wise it falls somewhere between the easy-going attractiveness of the most inexpensive Châteauneuf du Papes and the age-worthy intensity of the more expensive Reserve bottlings, the Domaine Roger Perrin is an ideal introduction to what I consider the ideal wine region.

MUSIC? This is a special wine, to be saved for the best of musical occasions. And it's a classic wine in all sense of the word, offering immediate pleasure upon release but clearly built to last. Try it with the newly re-released Echo And The Bunnymen back catalogue.


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