(with suggested music)
|Here's how it works. . .I've been involved in music all my life; as I've matured, I've gotten more into wine, finding that it pushes exactly the same 'obsessive' buttons. Given that I have my own web site, why not write about wine as well as music? Even better, why not link the two - recommend an appropriate bottle of wine to go with an interesting new album, and vice versa? While the cross-referencing is presented in good humour, the reviews stand seriously on their own; these wine recommendations are skewed towards varietal-variety and value-for-money, which means learning as we drink, without breaking the bank. Most bottles were purchased in the USA but should be available worldwide.
To see if I've written about a particular wine or grape, use the search engine at left.
Previous wine reviews and music recommendations can be found at:-
FEATURED WINES 1FEATURED WINES 2FEATURED WINES 3
FEATURED WINES 4FEATURED WINES 5 (LAST OF THE SUMMER ROSÊS )
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MINERVOIS, FRANCE, 2001
You don't need to be a connoiseur to know that the vast Languedoc region of south-west France has some of the best values in the whole wine-drinking world. But you might want to note make note of the Minervois appelation within the Languedoc, which produces many four-star wines at bargain basement prices. Château d'Oupia typifies the region's renaissance: these ancient vineyards were inherited by the now 60-something Andre Iche, who initially sold his output to local négociants until outsiders convinced him that they were good enough to be bottled on their own. While his red wines have become renowned, his whites are still gaining a reputation - which for me, is all the more reason to try them.
Predominantly Marsanne and Roussanne, with some Viognier in there too, this blend of classic Rhône grapes is not a gold medal winner, but for the price, it's a steal. Floral without being too perfumed, it's a medium- to full-bodied, honeyed, textured wine with a decent kick up front and a lengthy finish at the back. It's just big enough in flavor that you might want to hold it for a meal, but at less than the price of your most average industrial monstrosity, you can drink it how and when you want - and without regret. Yet another reminder that true, traditional, honest wine need not come at a premium.
MUSIC? A simple but solid, crowd-pleasing blend of classic grapes, Château d'Oupia is an ideal accompaniment to a mix of simple but crowd-pleasing blend of solid techno. Try it with Carl Cox's Mixed Live, 2nd Session.
|CARTLIDGE & BROWNE
CALIFORNIA CHARDONNAY 2000
Inexpensive Californian Chardonnay provides point of entry for the vast majority of American-based wine drinkers. Speaking from experience, I know there's nothing wrong with that process. It's just that after a while, especially as you come to drink other, more subtle wines, you realize that the 'butter' and 'vanilla' notes you associate with Californian Chardonnay have little to do with the actual grape, and everything to do with the wine's oak treatment. And you long for wine that puts fruit first.
Look at it from the producers' point of view. The juggernauts of the California wine industry need to ensure consistent taste across almost impossibly mass bottlings (Kendall Jackson is up to 3,000,000 cases a year of its so-called Vintners Reserve!). They achieve it by fermenting their sourced grapes in one lot of oak barrels and then ageing them for months longer in another set. You, the wine drinker, get something recognizable, and it has its attractions, but it's an industrial product, like a Pepsi-produced soft drink with alcohol instead of caffeine. Drink a handful of great burgundies or other white wines that let the fruit sing rather than bludgeon it with an oak barrel, and you'll understand why I've run this web site for two years before featuring a Californian Chardonnay.
But as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tony Cartlidge and Glenn Browne. They may sound like a couple of upper-crust English lawyers, but they're hardly elitist. Since 1982, they and their wine maker Paul Moser have been producing hundreds of thousands of cases of chardonnay, merlot, zinfandel and syrah a year, and despite all the acclaim from critics and customers alike, still keep the price to a uniform ten dollars a bottle.
The Chardonnay is their flagship wine. Interestingly, it goes through a similar process as the aforementioned 'industrial' wines. The grapes hail from several counties (hence the generic California on the label, rather than Napa or Sonoma or even Central Coast) and while most are fermented in oak and aged a further five months in barrels, a solid 30% of the grapes escape all oak treatment. Most of the wine goes through malo-lactic fermentation, but that's a conversation for another day.
So what distinguishes Cartlidge & Browne's chardonnay from the competition? It's the taste, stupid. (For which we credit the winemaker's prowess and his bosses' ethics.) The 2000 Vintage emits strong notes of orange, lemon and lime (the 'citrus' group) but also some delightful tropical flavors peach and papaya along with the familiar chardonnay qualities of baked apple and pear. The butter and vanilla components are self-evident, but they follow, rather than obscure, the fruit. And that's what separates industrial style wine from artisan wine.
Let's not get carried away. There are plenty other high-end, low-price, mass-produced wines out there in the world that are better value. But compared to the generic, clunky, oaky Californian chardonnay that dominates the $10-$15 price range, Cartlidge & Browne are unbeatable. Try and find a bottle next time your hosts ask you to pick up some Kendall Jackson; they may just switch brands.
MUSIC? Classically Californian, perennially reliable, and a benchmark for quality and value over quantity and profit, the Cartlidge & Browne Chardonnay needs equally dependable, egalitarian, regionally flavored music. The Last DJ by Tom Petty is the perfect match.
|MCWILLIAMS MOUNT PLEASANT
Museum Elizabeth Semillon 1990
Hunter Valley, Australia, $15 Australian.
When we visited the Hunter Valley over the Millennium, I made a bee-line for this winery and its famous aged Semillons. A common grape in white Bordeaux, and a popular aperitif white wine on its own in Australia too, certain Semillons of the Hunter Valley offer rare ageing potential, up to thirty years in a great vintage. What's more, the wineries that specialize in age-worthy Semillon (Tyrell's being the other famed Hunter Valley producer) usually hold onto some of them in a good vintage, releasing them as bottle-'Aged' or 'Museum' wines up to ten years later, to ensure that they're enjoyed near their peak. And they don't even charge you for doing so. This wine cost us just ten U.S. Greenbacks at the cellar door.
We finally opened the Mount Pleasant Elizabeth 1990 this past summer, 2002. It was a brilliant golden color in the glass, quite unlike any white wine you'd normally expect for the price, with the burnt toast smell that is supposedly typical of the bottled grape when mature like this. (Rather unappealingly, my wife suggested it smelled of an 'ashtray,' but what can I say? Sauvignon blanc is likened to cats pee, and I love that wine too!) On the palate, it managed to balance a still youthful lemon-lime zesty-ness with a honeyed, nutty toastiness, an elegant viscosity and a touch of sweetness. It doesn't have the layered finesses of a great Burgundy, but then we're talking a fraction of the price - and for a wine that still apparently had a decade of growth left in it. We made sure to set it up alongside a meal of suitable flavors: rich seafood (such as a lobster ravioli) comes highly recommended, though I made do with mushroom ravioli in a home-made saffron sauce. Such was the wine's flavor that the bottle lasted two nights, and even better, at only 10.5% alcohol, we could savor every drop without feeling inebriated.
The catch? Aged Semillons are hard to find outside their native Hunter Valley. But at a price that beats out most of the everyday Australian tipples, this is the best value white wine obscurity you could ask for.
MUSIC? For such an unusual old wine only recently packaged and sold, it makes sense to listen to a recently-released, equally eclectic retrospective. Preferably something relatively relaxing. New Order's Back To Mine sounds perfect.
COAST RANGE 2000
SONOMA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, USA
Ridge Wine's Paul Draper has frequently been called the greatest wine maker in America, and if you think that means he makes expensive Californian Cabernet, you're right: his Santa Cruz Monte Bello is every bit as hard on the wallet as it is difficult to find in the stores (and equally impressive on the palate). But as Draper himself has said, after 30 years in the same job, I came to Ridge because of Monte Bello [Cabernet] and once I arrived here I discovered Zinfandel.
Ridge bottles a number of terroir-specific Zinfandels, of which the Geyserville is the built-to-last benchmark, and the Lytton Springs, which sells for the same price ($25-$30) is more readily approachable. A big Rhône fan, Ridge also bottles Grenache, Syrah and an illustrious Mataro (Mourvèdre), as well as several late-harvest (port-like) zins, and some Chardonnay.
The mark of truly great wine makers, however, is in the quality of their lowest-priced bottling, and Ridge's entry-level Coast Range is proof that Draper never short-changes his customers. Re-introduced in 1997 after several years off the shelves, the Coast Range blends several grapes from Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley Russian River Valley), but is always dominated by those regions' indigenous specialty: zinfandel.
The 2000 Coast Range breaks down as follows: 52% Zinfandel, 21% Carignane, 9% Petite Sirah, 6% Sangiovese, 6% Mataro (Mourvèdre),6% Grenache. My last experience of a Californian Carignane was that it tasted just like Zinfandel anyway, so it's no surprise that tangy, spicy boysenberry-fruit flavors dominate this deep dark red wine. The fizz of the wine on the tongue may come as a shock, but such acidity is another characteristic of zin (sangiovese too), especially in a year like 2000 when the grapes struggled to fully ripen. The upside to this is that the 2000 Coast Range is an eminently "lively
quaffing wine" to crib from the copious label notes that are a mark of all Ridge bottles. (You can learn much about wine-making techniques from reading the Ridge labels, though sadly its web site is notoriously erratic.)
There's some tannin here, which means you don't need to rush it once you've bought or opened it, though the Coast Range is not a candidate for cellaring. The alcohol content is sensible given the climate and the grapes (14.3%) and the blend allows all kinds of food combinations. We opened this with a mushroom-eggplant (aubergine)/olive pasta with goat cheese sauce; the acidity of the wine complimented the cheese, the zin spice matched the olives, and the earthy flavors of the Mataro and Petite Syrah enhanced similar qualities in the vegetables. (The sweetness of the Grenache then helped round it all out.)
At close to $20, the Coast Range is more than most of us want to pay for a table wine. But there's the point: Ridge's everyday "quaffer" is most people's idea of a special occasion, and given Draper's habit of altering his blends according to vineyard results, you know you're in for the best possible wine regardless of the vintage.
Ridge wines are made in sufficient quantity to reach British shelves. And at sensible prices: last year I saw the Geyserville and Lytton Springs at an Adnams Warehouse for the exact same price I'd pay in the States. For those Europeans curious as to the fuss about zinfandel and Californian "field-style" blends, you could do so much worse than start your education here. The same applies to Americans keen to improve their palate at a sensible price.
MUSIC? A wine this fresh, fruity and funky, but with plenty of balls too, deserves equally cheeky but quality - music. Fuzz Townshend's your man.
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